Chocolate's arms race

Once upon a time it was enough to state whether the chocolate was Milk or Dark. Then you needed to state the cocoa content, then where it came from.

But that's no longer enough. Now to be taken seriously you need micro details and infographics to prove you know your stuff. 

I'm pretty geekish about many things but this encouragement to embrace the geek feels too fake. 

All that said this chocolate from the Danish company Summerbird is darn good. 





Ethnography and big data

Neat article on the positioning of Big Data and Ethnography over at Ethnography Matters (Big Data needs Thick Data).

"Thick Data: ethnographic approaches that uncover the meaning behind Big Data visualization and analysis."
I've been thinking a lot about this lately, especially in my world where I advocate design and ethnographic research methods to help with the creation of data analysis products. As a 'user experience' person I know the value of deeply understanding the people who use or could use a product. Ethnographic research brings so much colour and context to the user and helps elicit real empathy for those people - you simply can't draw that out of cold metrics and statistics.

The author talks about how big companies:

"... need Thick Data because it gives something that Big Data explicitly does not—inspiration. The act of collecting and analyzing stories produces insights."
For me this is a very interesting point. In the data viz world we talk about the power of storytelling all the time. It has become a much hyped phrase which spans many approaches from the bad old days of 'reports' to powerpoints and infographics and even live data exploration with 'on the fly insight'. Storytelling is fundamental to ethnography it's at the very core of the discipline. I think the interesting thing here is how the two areas can blend together, insights and data 'facts' supported by real world observations, stories and above all humanity. This combination can create truly compelling arguments where the individual is used to express the humanity of the group (the aggregation, the data point). It gives us characters to connect with and relate to, it's very hard to get that with a number alone. Of course this can slip into journalistic and media tendencies where the 'data' can be polluted and the insight skewed by the emotional engagement of the viewer, especially when the story is crafted by a 'savvy operator', but so too can the data. I hope that with the development of the right framework and research approaches there should be a way to tie the two spaces together. A way that leverages the credibility of the scientific aspects and maintains our connection with the human. This combination of human feelings with the data can help people grasp the meaning and potential impact of their decisions. The great work in data storytelling by Hans Rosling and data visualisation in general by Edward Tufte is helping these areas come together. The raw measurement alone (no matter how statistically significant) isn't enough, even the beautifully crafted visualisation doesn't do the trick. It's the story about what this means, what possibilities this opens up and what impact it has that makes the real difference and has the real power.

It's good to see the debate begin to moved on from the early polarizing arguments where quantitative approaches crashed into  qualitative. Where sample size was the only debate. The idea of combining the deep and human nature of ethnography with Big Data and essentially behavioural economics opens up some amazing opportunities for products and their design. It's a great time to be designing for people.



A few months on Squarespace

I was really disappointed when Twitter bought, then shut down Posterous. It was a great service and was the one blogging platform where the service and technology didn't get in the way. Posting by email was soooo easy and worked perfectly. I simply wrote an email and nothing got in my way, no badly written web client, no flakey and convoluted media uploader or file manager. It even understood the urls I used and did it's best to go and get the content and embed it. After years blogging false starts I'd found a way to create and share stuff which wasn't a chore and didn't impede me from the start. I loved the autopost features as they let me syndicate and promote my content on other more difficult to work with platforms. This meant I could still keep other blogs running without abandoning them. Admittedly if you did have to do anything more than post it got tricky and had the obligatory awful web based posting tool, but hey I never needed it.

When they announced it would be shut down I was gutted, but then Twitter had bought them. Maybe they would create an even easier, even better tool to take over - 'medium' was being talked about and sounded cool. But they didn't give us it, only the select few. So I went on the hunt for a new platform. I fired up my old Wordpress server, updated then tried to get email posting to work. Not good, not good at all. Ditched it again. Tried a few others including Blogger as I hoped I'd find a free service but in the end realised I needed to get a paid service for what I wanted to do. I know, 'why not Tumblr', and yes it is great but it just doesn't do the sort of things I want.

Eventually I found First off it looks great, not just the themes and templates but the actual service. It feels like a well crafted UI, designed by people who care about their software, take pride in it. It's very much aimed at creatives, designers and makers and it shows in the details. There's an understanding of content layout and page design built in and it's pretty easy to get to grips with.

So after these first few months what's the verdict? In general it's everything I hoped, and if I ever get around to signing up for the developer edition I'm sure it's a hell of a lot more. However it does have it's oddities and issues. Here are a few:

  • Accessing already used files and media can be a pain in the butt and seems impossible from some places. Like adding an image to be used to represent a post. Even when you have images in the post it makes you upload a specific one or 'find' one by pasting in a URL. Annoying.
  • If you have a low res screen (vertically) the dialogues can become pretty difficult to use. I often have to 'shrink' the browser content to get to the buttons when on my MacMini and TV set up.
  • The drag on drop content editor is nice, especially with the column and row approach but doesn't play well when it comes to scrolling. So I can be cumbersome to rearrange page if it's fairly long.  
  • Sometimes you get into semi modal dialogue hell, again especially of small screens.
  • Posting via email is not so great but there is an iPhone App that does the job. This could do with a few more features such as posting to Twitter in the same way as with the web service.  
  • Autoposting is not really 'auto', you have to go in and turn on the places to post to for each post. 

OK. that's the moaning bit done and despite those points I'm beginning to really love using Squarespace. 

  • I love how elegant it is, it looks and feels great a really modern and clean tool.
  • The full window post editor is really nice and is better than most of the others I've used., feels like real content, not just some horrible web form input box.
  • Dragging and dropping images from the desktop works really well and as yet hasn't forced me to navigate away from the page (which happens all the time with Confluence).
  • You can set the focus position for an image, so when it's used in different shaped containers it centres on a good spot. 
  • Mixing up your content is easy and looks good - unfortunately it seems that it's 1 blog template for all blogs (out of the box) so you get stuck with the same sidebar across all of them. 


But it's the little things that win you over the most. Here's an image of the 3 states of the 'like' button. Not sure if this is a theme thing or a squarespace thing, but it's wonderful. When you rollover the heart throbs, when you click it floods animated hearts out from it. Kitsch yes but also delightful. Go ahead and try it out by 'liking' this post (and I don't mean on FB).


Apple Lion - scrolling


So I installed Lion last night and played with it for about 30 mins and I was quite surprised about how I responded.

On install they warn you about the scrolling, this is pretty meaningless as most people would struggle to describe what their normal behaviour is. It's a case of thanks for the heads-up, then doing it 'wrong' for a while anyway. Being a longtime tablet, trackpad and iOS user it wasn't as jarring as I had expected, and soon it felt quite natural. However, if I'd have been using a mouse it would have been awful, especially with the wheel. I think it's the relationship with the pointer. Once you stop paying attention to the pointer then the new scrolling makes sense. The hidden then revealed on interaction scrollbars help this, but don't help in any other way. The problems start as soon as you have to select something. The paradigm gets broken as you are now navigating and watching the cursor and trying to pickup or click on one object to effect another, rather than simply making a gesture. It's this attention shift between focussing on the content and focussing on the UI to manipulate the content that causes all the issues. What was really hellish was switching between Lion and Leopard, then the scrolling really hurt.

I'm not too keen on the rest of the 'chrome' reduction. Hiding the scroll bars means there's no hint of how much is missing. Things just get clipped and there's suggestion that the panels content continues below the cut. Also there is no affordance on window edges and panel divides, even the little resize corner drag hint is gone. Aesthetically its ok, pretty clean and sharp (the chrome reduction has helped here). However the address book looks like something from a 90's CDROM game, reminded me of Myst. 

All that said I actually think this is the first brave tentative steps towards a dechromed UIless UI that is more simple and natural to use. There's a lot of the iPad natural interaction thinking in it, but you have to buy into Lion and give yourself over to it. You can change the scrolling in the system prefs, but then you get the strange sense that maybe scrolling has been wrong all along . Unfortunately neither me nor the desktop environment seems quite ready to abandon all the strange and painfully internalised behaviours the OS manufacturers have inflicted on us over the last 30 years.

My 2 cents, (and that's why Apple is making a fortune).



I've now installed Lion on my Mac Mini. This machine does not have a trackpad or decent mouse just an old wired single buttom Mac mouse. Lion adapted to this, surfacing the scrollbars as the swipe gestures would not be available.


Original post ................................................................................


OK so Lion is out, I haven't upgraded yet (will give it a while), buy saw this on Wired: 

"My head started hurting after the first hour of using Mac OS X Lion. Two words: inverted scrolling. 
That’s correct — Lion’s default scrolling behavior is to scroll down when you swipe up on your multitouch mouse, and to scroll up when you swipe down, just like you would on an iPad." 

They've changed the scroll direction. Wow, I so want to see how that feels. In theory it makes good sense but it's the sort of interaction that is habitual and will be hard for existing users to change. However for those coming from iOS it may well feel much better and by now there are more iOS devices out there that MacBooks with Snow Leopard. It will be interesting to see how this plays out...

When UX goes bad - Ford fumbles the UX and user rankings tumble.

Will Ford learn that software isn't manufactured?
by Alan Cooper on July 18, 2011 |            Comments (4)

Ford Motor Company has just convincingly demonstrated that being an excellent industrial manufacturer doesn’t automatically mean that you are an excellent maker of digital technology. Despite Ford’s improvements in manufacturing quality, their overall ratings fell precipitously this year due solely to the poor software interaction on their dashboards. A recent article in the New York Times discusses Ford’s plummeting fall in user rankings this year, focusing the blame on their new touch screen interface.

Ford Display


The legendary Alan Cooper on Ford's UX disaster reported in the NY Times. (here: