Naming names at the Cheltenham Science Festival

I didn’t get the grant to attend the Cheltenham Science Festival (though I was runner-up, thanks UCL). As a result, everything I currently write is entirely unbiased and paid for by myself.

I attended several events today:
1. The Web and Us
2. Conversation without Words
3. Stand-up maths
It should have been four events, because there was a follow-up to Conversation Without Words of a tango lesson (as an exemplar of conversation without words) but we were fortunate enough to find a buyer for a tickets.
Right, report back. My name is now on this blog, so I have to be willing to stand by what I say.
The Science of the Web didn’t say much that I didn’t know, but it reframed my knowledge. This is never a bad thing. My quote of the week (and possibly the month) was provided by Aleks Krotoski quoting Melvin’s Kranzberg’s first law of technology “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.”.This was in response to a question of mine (self-aggrandisement is not good, nor is it bad, nor is it neutral) about the fact that the web was designed and created by a specific sub-section of the human population and how does the virtual society it supports mirror that social group. The panel for this discussion (the aforementioned Aleks, Uta Frith, Nigel Shadbolt, Bill Thompson and facilitated by Wendy Hall) was extremely (a) intelligent and (b) optimistic. Having read “The Social Life of Information” I’m not sure that I’m as optimistic as they were. I would like to name-check Bonnie Nardi, but I have a horrible feeling that many of my concerns are based on family experience, and after listening to Aleks Krotoski talking about the identifiable behaviours of your online anonymous persona, I don’t want to admit to anything. Any where.
The sceond talk I went to was on conversation without words. This talk embarrassed me so much that I emailed one of the headlined participants with my criticisms. It was so bad that I’m not even going to say who that was – you can look it up if you really want to know.
The final session of the night was Matt Parker’s Stand-Up Maths. I’ve seen him before, and he was just as entertaining this time as he was the previous times (which for sad, geeky people like me, quite a lot). My only regret is that I’m not quite sure if I learnt anything from the experience, and let’s face it, people like me only fully value experience if they can come back and wow you with what they’ve learnt. anyway, it’s late, and having not gone to Botany of Gin lecture, I have been doing my best to make up the shortfall here. I think that I now need to turn my main (and tastebuds) to Bombay sapphire and leave the blog for another day.

The value of big data versus confirmaton bias

The first thing is a massive Yaaayyyy! And possibly Hurrah, hurray, hurrah. We have released. Doctor’s surgeries all across the land are getting their beautifully designed boxes, or their download invitations, and installing OUR software on their systems. Ian and Mr Grumpy are busy de-bugging as fast as they can, ready to release an update straight away, but marketing and sales are hap hap happy. Gavin and David are cheerful for the first time in weeks.

Obviously one of the things that sells the software is the way you can analyse your data. So you can see hours of work and rotas in pretty little patterns. In theory it will even calculate the nurses and doctors rotas for you. You can connect it to your appointments system and see who works hardest and spends the most of prescriptions and so on and so forth et cetera et cetera et cetera. GandD’s cunning plan is to allow people to register their data (anonymously) and see how it compares with other people’s data

The question is then what do you do with the data. As I’ve mentioned earlier, quite frequently, there are people who change their mind because of information, and people who don’t. This may be for two reasons. One is that well-known problem (or achievement) of human psychology; that we prefer information that backs up the position that we hold. We look for facts that support our viewpoint, rather than facts that will disprove it. This is why the null hypothesis is such a fabulous idea and is more common in myth than in reality.

The other problem is that the data may be useless. Firstly, it may be data rather than information. Information is data which has been judged, and it takes a human to judge (or, of course, an omniscient deity). Given humanity’s penchant for partial information and prejudice, we would often prefer to pass our judgement elsewhere. Secondly, it may be useless if one can take no action based upon it. What is the use of information that cannot be used?

So maybe, it’s best to hide data. Leave it in its data buckets in the garage, unmined and ignored. After all, all that unused data will only clutter up the minds and computers of the people who have to look at it. It will distract them from the decisions that they wish to take.

Perhaps I should introduce the concept of small data. Instead of “just-in-time” information, “just enough” information. Let the rest of it sit around if people want to go fossicking through it because they have an idea, but otherwise, don’t encourage them to mess about with it. Concentrate on the things they want to do, such as where to go for lunch and how many times you can read the same detective story with a different title.

Shintaido is weird

OK, how may of you have ever even heard of Shintaido? None of you? Yup, that seems about normal. If you want to find out more about it, google is obviously your friend – or if not your friend, at least your tolerated acquaintance who you can’t not invite to events of importance. You can find out about Shintaido by reading up on shintaido,co,uk or even

Why I am mentioning a little-known, barely practised non-martial art on what is supposed to be a blog about user experience? Well, I went to the fortieth birthday celebrations of Shintaido in Great Britain this weekend, and realised that I hadn’t written much about experience.

We talk about experience as if it was all the same thing. There is the sensory experience – visual response, haptic feedback, aural stimulation etc. etc. but we don’t really use experience in the old way, in the sense of getting of wisdom. We don’t talk about the experienced user as the concomitant of user experience. Someone with experience might be someone who knows better than to pursue a path to the end. The experienced user might now when it is best not to bother. When we talk about dealing with the elderly, we are willing to consider their motor skills, their eyesight, or their cultural background, but we don’t value the experience that may help them make the decision not to do what we are asking of them.

Shintaido is about changing your experience of life. It’s not an easy thing today, you don’t particularly get transferable skills from it; although there are moments of pleasure, they are embedded in moments of severe embarrassment and occasional pain. You may make friends, but you may also meet people who you like and then never see again. In other words, it is like life, compressed into a weekend. You hope it has a purpose, but there isn’t an obvious one. In that, it is unlike most other pastimes.

If we are offering users experience, is it something they want to have? Often what we are offering is to make the drive to the supermarket or pleasurable, or faster. We talk about peak experiences as things that you can guarantee, without giving due consideration to the fact that people might arrive at the waterfall in tears, or with cancer, or too busy kissing to look at the view.

I honour the fact that most user experience professionals want to help people live their life. After a weekend of struggling with Shintaido, I would like to occasionally find a way of helping people make sure their life is worth living.

Test plan, or the joys of hindsight

We have now reached the exciting stage of pre-release procrastination known as testing. This is, of course, a vital and money-saving period, full of return on investment and this and that.

There are several ways to test:

1. The developer tests their own code. They don’t want to break it, so they treat it the way that it is supposed to be treated, much like a museum curator unpacking the latest Ming vase on loan from China, with extreme diplomatic and personal repercussions if anything goes wrong.

2. The customers test. This stage can follow immediately after 1. The customer attempts to do all the strange things that they used to do with the previous software, and immediately breaks the new version. In doing so, they may also lose their own work, ideally something that took several months to achieve and which they did not back up before upgrading.

3. The software is tested before release, according to a pre-arranged test plan. This plan usually consists of going through all the things that broke it before (using examples provided by customers), plus checking that any new functionality does what it is supposed to. The problems with pre-release testing are that the examples of failure may have been provided years ago, and that part of the code is as solid as a rock, so you are tempted to skip – always forgetting that code may have been re-factored, and, like the river chewing its way under wharves, large chunks may collapse into the spaces that have been newly undermined.
The other problem is that when you are testing new functionality, you need to know what it is supposed to do. And quite often you discover that there are large chunks of let us charitably call it “undefined behaviour”. Ie, the developers made it up on the fly because they couldn’t get a sensible decision out of anyone else, did not document it, and have forgotten what they did. For best effects, you need several developers who have all implemented the undefined behaviour slightly differently in different areas of the software, but sometimes you can achieve quite good effects with one developer, working on different bits of code with long intervals in between, so they have plenty of opportunity to forget what they did last time.

I have spent today working through the test plan. It has been an exciting and rewarding experience. Obviously we have loads of dummy data in files so that we can automate the tests as much as possibly, feed it in automatically, write out the log, but for various bits of interface testing, we have to sit there and run the test by hand and see what happens.

And as always, I discover that it has been tested that it behaves correctly if someone puts in the correct information, but not if someone puts in the wrong information.

All I can do here, is offer you the joy of on the matter of dirty data. Yes, you happy folk out there, people can be malicious, or merrely drunk, or just lost. Be prepared.

So I have filled out all the little boxes in the spreadsheet and logged several more bugs.

Personally, I think it’s all to do with the user experience. Much like watching people have forty-seven cats put down their trousers – they do it so that you, dear reader, do not have to.

100 things not to do before you die

I am so tired of living in a culture where everything appears to be about grabbing as much as possible. It feels as if we are being encouraged to act all the time, that any action is better than no action, and the idea that goodness might be expressed in refraining from action is just seen as weird. So, in the spirit of Zen Buddhism, I will suggest some things not to do before you die.

Don’t try and get a tan. It’s much more relaxing to read inside. If you want to sleep, why do it in public?

Don’t wear a bikini. It’s not a great look, even for men, and the bits come off when you dive in.

Don’t get wound up by your boss. They’re going to die too. Maybe with more money, but it doesn’t  save you.

Don’t watch any of the amazing, highly-recommended TV series. Wait until they come out on box set and then don’t buy them.

Don’t put up shelves in your house. You’ll only put stuff on them.

Don’t write lists of things to do, or not to do. You end up padding them out with rubbish,

This is an obvious substitute for actually writing up anything about the software release. Jiri currently has three half-empty bottles of Diet Coke underneath his desk. This is not a good sign. Mr Grumpy has decided to sell his house and move into a caravan in his sister’s drive. I’m not sure if he actually means this or not. He claims that it is the only way he can get away from the badgers that are building a sett in his garden. GandD are spending most of their days closeted in the conference room. Can you in fact be closeted in a conference room? Caballing in the conference room? Anyhow, they are busy, either having meetings with each other or with a set of lovely lovely doctors who are very enthusiastic about the possibilities of Jeremy Hunt and the NHS reforms and how our software could do just they wanted if only they tweaked it a bit. I have a terrible feeling that this won’t be a case of feature creep but a case of explosion in the feature factory and there will be a massive recruitment drive shortly, swiftly followed by a massive redundancy drive. But hey, I’m cynical.

I’m still trying to work out how to stop Gavin coding. Well, not how to stop him, just how to lock him out of other people’s work. There was a very bad scene a couple of days ago when Ian discovered that some of the stuff that he had checked into the code management system had been checked out by Gavin and horrible things had been done to it. Basically it wasn’t a case of his ewe lamb being taken, it was more it being taken, dyed pink, dismembered, and then returned attached to the back half of a leprous rabbit.

I think I will draw a veil over the coffee room conversation.

Time and attention

We are limited by the time and attention available to perform tasks. As the old saying goes, you can have X that is good, fast and cheap, but you can only choose two out of the three.

In the real world, you don’t even get the choice of fast very often. Some things just take the time they take. If they can be delivered quickly it’s because you have a lot of skilled people giving it their full attention for a short space of time. If they’re not skilled, it doesn’t matter how many people you put on the job, they will a. waste their own time and b. waste each other’s time.

In fact, I started this post last week, but I have been giving it neither time nor attention, so it’s sitting exactly where it was. I’ve been removing dandelions from the back garden now that the sun is out.

You will now claim that there is a third point to the triangle, which consists of rsources. I’d agree with that. Good tools can make an enormous amount of difference, but they do this – no, I wanted to say, either by reducing time or by focussing attention, but actually I can’t quite do that. Of course, they make the job easier, or sometimes you just can’t do the job without them, you can’t make bricks without straw (well, you can now – I assume that saying goes back to the days when the bricks would fall apart if they were only made of mud – can I be bothered to look it up? No, there’s google out there, I’m not that interested. It’s not a vital reference. I’ll just not bother, and, as it were, leave it as an exercise for the reader).

Anyway when designing interfaces, the two things that you need to think about most are time and attention. Do you have the user’s attention? More important, do you need to have the user’s attention? The user is going to be sparing with those two resources, she doesn’t want to waste them, you only have a limited amount of either, and somebody else’s crap interface that wastes your time and makes unnecessary demands on your concentration is the last thing you need.

So in appreciation of you having got down to the bottom of this post, I’ll give you a free joke.

Where does a general keep his armies?
Up his sleevies.

I never said it would be a good joke.

Blogging Easter

Let’s tick off the Easter rituals carried out:
1. Member of the household in bed with flu? Check.
2. Feeling sick after eating too much chocolate? Check.
3. Brisk walk in icy wind while strange dog inspects your groin? Check
4. Loud and entirely justified row in which I am totally, completely and utterly in the right at all times (apart from an occasional fact)? Check.
5. Bottle of champagne chilling for celebration that does not, in fact, occur? Check.
6. Search of internet for exciting event to take part in over bank holiday weekend which ends up as a serious gogglefest of 1960’s St Trinians films? Check

OK, I admit the last one isn’t quite traditional. They were actually quite entertaining. I could possibly have gone for the Carry On… series to drop down a notch in the non-blockbuster black and white left-field arthouse option. Or the relentless replay of incredibly bad Hollywood blockbusters aimed at five year olds. Or climbed up through the arthouse credibility stakes by claiming to have watched the entire Studio Ghibli season. Mock not, I lost the family copy of Spirited Away before my daughter hit her teen years and may never be forgiven. As far as I am concerned, a video/DVD/bitstream shelf that does not include Some Like It Hot, Casablanca, Die Welle, M, The Battleship Potemkin and the original Wicker Man is the mark of a family that is not giving enough cultural attention to its children. Before you know it they’ll be skipping the Suzuki violin practice, forgetting whether Pride and Prejudice was written before or after Northanger Abbey, and omitting hashtags on twitter.

Anyway, I am proud to feel that I have done my duty. Easter baking took place – with the traditional drop of the cinnamon jar lid into the mixture, thus enabling all products to have a deeply intense cinnamon flavour. Easter egg trails took place. Suffice it to say that I wish they could have more unexpected anagram solutions than either “Happy Easter” or “Easter Egg”. We spent some time trying to convince the children that there was a small but real possibility it might be Faster Dog, but they didn’t believe us.

Next year I plan a complete set of clues leading to a small soft-boiled egg lurking in a handwoven nest. Disappointment should be rife.

Affective interaction: why feelings matter

Obviously feelings matter to people, there is at least one case study that shows that if you cannot feel emotions, you cannot make decisions, because you have no way of deciding what matters. But why do feelings matter to computers? Or rather, to how computers communicate with people or people communicate with computers?

It’s easy to think of people monitoring your feelings as frightening. For example, there’s one discussion of what would happen if the computer interpreted your voice, so you’d have to say “good morning” to your computer every morning, and your computer would thereby gather a stack of data about your speech and be able to respond to your emotions. Yes, this all does sound a little like the extremely irritating lift in hitch-hikers guide to the galaxy. And in fact, one of my favourite bits of research on computers and emotion is that people prefer talking to a grumpy, irritable computer than to a smooth ingratiating one. There’s a possibility that this is due to the person attempting to get the computer to be less grumpy. In other words, “Go Marvin!, we really do love you”.

But where computers responding to emotion is already important is in hospitals. Robots are used to take people around, and they need to recognise from people’s movements and expressions how important it is to get out of their way. We like that. Well, I do anyway. That’s robots avoiding us when we’re in a hurry. That’s the automated check-out at the supermarket noticing when it is being outrageously irritating and shutting up. That is the ATM that argues with you.

I think there is scope for developing a computer version of a teenager. That you could practice being irritated with and when it kept arguing back to it you could “SWITCH IT OFF”. Smugly.

The joys of failing tests

Did I mention that we had the opportunity of a massive contract if we could set up the interfaces between the system that is currently in use by a group of practices and our amazing easy-to-use fabulously intuitive (or not) new system?

Well, what has happened is that justintimeJack has been pulled off his bit of the development work so he can concentrate on working out all the interface code. JustintimeJack is going skiing next week. He’s very excited about it. Every time I pass his computer I see that he is checking the current snowfall in France. Oh I am so so sorry Jack, it’s snowboarding not skiing. You are sliding down an icy and cold slope on one bit of laminated fibreglass, not two (yes, I know it’s not fibreglass, I am merely giving all your cold-weather sports pedants the opportunity for a brief moment of superiority as you get a photo taken of yourself drinking marshmallows soaked in cocoa in your hot tub).

I, with my well-known talent for knowing what the user wants to do, am writing the test plan. I like test plans.

What does this one involve?

This one involves creating a massive number of spreadsheet records, containing every possible combination of hours and rates and holiday and part-timeiness and whether they’re a partner or not, and whether they’re claiming civil partnership adoption allowance and so on and so on and so on.
And running them through Jack’s conversion algorithm to see if they all come out in the right place with the right rates on them.

And then adding the record where it fails to bugzilla along with a description of how I managed to make it break THIS time, and assigning it to jitJack along with one of the highly-amusing states that the developers put on a bug.

These can be summarised as follows:
Not a bug
Can’t be arsed
Can’t recreate
Duplicate of xxxx
Only if they pay us more money
If we have time

And of course, all the ones that people spend all the time on are the ones they find interesting and the deal-breakers, where smoke is emerging from Ian’s nostrils as yet again Nick explains why he did three of the “if we have time” bugs rather than the dull but crucial one.

And I get re-sent endless copies of can’t recreate – often with a “which version were you running it under” or “where’s the file”

to which my replies nearly always “the latest” and “It’s attached”.

Anyway, my skills at describing exactly what went wrong this time are going up by leaps and bounds. Let us celebrate. We nearly managed to complete a whole import export and re-import data cycle. Doesn’t that sound fun?

Why can’t life be more like the movies?

So why isn’t life more like the movies?

On film, boring moments are skipped. This period before a release would be covered in a few shots: Ian in earnest confabulation with Mr Grumpy, Justintime Jack throwing a juggling ball up and down, Gareth swigging coffee as he types , Jiri’s head resting on his desk. And that would be it. Perhaps a minute of screen time encapsulating the last desperate push towards the release.

In the perfect world, I would already be on the next project. I’d be out there in the world, researching, discovering, designing, exploring. My 3B pencil would be glancing swiftly over drafts in my sketchbook, which could be converted to mock-ups in balsamiq or Axure or…

But that’s a film fantasy, right up there with happy marriages ever after. Instead I’m testing testing testing. Let’s face it, a usability consultant is a wonderful thing, but even more wonderful is someone who will sit and write a test plan. And then carry it out.