Ambivalent web design


Lately, it seems that I have come full-circle and am designing websites for small organisations which is, in part, how I began thinking about HCI, nearly 20 years ago. So, with all that experience, I am astonished to find that I have been making the same mistakes I used to make way back when. This leads to what I call ambivalent web design.

Ambivalent web design is when you are excited about creating a cool website to showcase your clients’ products and services as well as your skills as a designer. However, because you are unfocused, you keep changing your mind and then because it’s not looking as good as it could, you promise to deliver more to get it up to resemble the beautiful thing you now have in your mind. This can lead to you feeling annoyed at yourself and then resentful because the whole project is taking longer than it should for less money than the effort you are putting in.

In order to avoid ambivalent web design it is important to remember the following:

Don’t let casual interactions influence your work

You may have picked up the contract incidentally. Perhaps, it began with a conversation on the school playground, or you got a vague email from someone, but that doesn’t mean that you should behave in a casual, vague manner. Be professional. Organise yourself a plan of action and set clear milestones.

If you are not ready, say so. Explain to your potential client that right now is not a good time, and begin at a later date. Give the client a list of everything you might need, and get them to pick out sites they like so that you both have a clear idea of what you are aiming for during the design process.

Be realistic about your clients’ input

In general, clients who want you to design a website are not interested in website design. They don’t care about WordPress, nor have they desire to tinker with colour schemes, graphics, html and css. That is your job. If they wanted to spend time tinkering then they would go to download the software and do it themselves.

Consequently, it is important to be realistic about what they will do to maintain the solution that you give them, once you have been through the design process together.
Some questions that you need to discuss with the client:

  • Who will maintain the site?
  • Will they be able to do the necessary updates?
  • Will they be able to add to the website?


  • Will the website be static until the next time it gets an overhaul?

Know your limits

With a content management system or blogging tool, such as WordPress, all things are possible. And that is great. However, things take time, especially if you need to go away and learn new stuff in order to fulfill your clients’ desires.

It is ok to say that you don’t know how to do something, and that it will just take more time and money to find the right solution. Bear in mind though, this is a tricky route, and potentially one way to resentment and ambivalence. So, you have a choice:

      Don’t attempt to do the extras.


      Deliver a first solution (Stage One). Do some research and then calculate how much time and money it will take to do the extras. Then go ahead (Stage Two).

Have a price structure

You may have promised mates-rates, but you still need to calculate exactly how long it will take you to deliver what you have promised. One way of doing this is to have a price/time structure which you can show to clients so that together you have a focused way of discussing the work to be done.

You can structure your pricing according to time e.g, £X per day, or by output, e.g., six pages= 6 x £Z. And so on: personalised graphics will be £X, and some stock photos discounted down to £Y. A bit of social media will cost this, a little seo will cost that. In this way, the client can see exactly what they are spending their money on.

Have fun

Creating websites is a great way to spend your days, but, if you find yourself gritting your teeth during every project and feeling ambivalent, then perhaps it’s time to dust off your guitar and get back to busking.

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Social media security: Sharing is caring?

social media pic

Recently, YouTube prankster Jack Vale searched the closest posts on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to his current location and introduced himself to the people behind them.

The resulting video is really interesting. Most of the people were amazed that a random stranger knew so much about them and one man even felt threatened enough to say he would call the police. Yet, all of the information Vale had ‘on’ this man had been put into the public domain by the man himself.

The dicotomy of people wanting to keep their personal life personal whilst posting it all online shows that we are still on a learning curve when it comes to sharing via social media.

In the past users may have been posting and inadvertently geotagging their location, but as Wikipedia says, enough celebrities have been mobbed at a specific location after posting online and, ebay sellers have had stuff nicked whilst on holiday, to make even the most security unconscious user turn off the location tagging on their smartphones.

When I lectured IT Security, I would use Jose J Gonzalez’s example of teenagers not practising safe sex as analogy for users compromising system security. Everyone wants to practice safe interaction but when the moment arrives, circumstances, time pressures, and the thought that others are getting on down without worrying too much about the consequences, causes safe practice deviation.

The teenage sex comparison was useful when we were worried about users inadvertently breaching security systems. Nowadays the worry is more about users themselves becoming the target of a security breach. What is a useful analogy for that?

I have given many a lecture saying don’t share your address, your phone number, date of birth, place of birth, mother’s maiden name, favourite pet, first job, etc., all things that are asked by systems and are used to create user accounts online. This information is often used to hack accounts and in a worst case scenario, identity theft. But today, in the brave new world of social media this advice seems quite quaint. A quick Google+ about and how much of this info is revealed?

The problem with social media is that we are sharing and caring with our friends who know all this information already, so why not have it online? Facebook is always telling me that I won’t forget another birthday if I use the relevant app and let others know when I was born too. Great! It only gets a little weird when complete strangers come up to you in the street and wish you ‘Happy Birthday’.

We are human, we want to be heard, we want to bear witness, we want to share. I know. When my daughter was born with kidney failure and it was super difficult for a very long time, I kept a blog to explain things to friends and family, and to myself. One day she might not thank me for the overshare. But hopefully, she will acknowledge that I stopped well before I typed: ‘Today, J got her first bra.’
And also, before each post, I thought carefully about an older girl reading her history online. I vetoed some media coverage of her which to me was insensitive. My imagined perception of her comfort with what was shared was more important to me that day than the help someone might have gotten from reading that article about her. Who knows though? As someone growing up in a social media world perhaps she won’t feel about privacy in the same way I do. I have blogged before that information is power but it only becomes powerful when you wield it. And you might ask why would anyone? And how could they use certain information? If people know things about you, so what?

When I had breast cancer, a few of my friends said: ‘Oh Ruth, why don’t you keep a blog about breast cancer?’. But, I didn’t want to share. I didn’t want anyone thinking about my breasts. I didn’t even want to think about my breasts. Even now typing ‘my breasts’ makes me blush (my breasts, my breasts, my breasts). But at the same time, reading other peoples’ blogs on breast cancer helped me in so many ways. Their sharing was caring. Some of those people were so candid and funny, they brightened my dark days. Did they overshare? I don’t think so, they shared what I wasn’t willing to, but that wasn’t oversharing, to me that was bravery.

The boundaries online are as fuzzy as they are in real life, except, as I have blogged before, in real life we know exactly who our audience is, and online it is hard to know to whom we speak and even more difficult, is being conscious of what exactly we are putting out there, if we are not at least a littlebit tech savvy.

The psychological acceptability that has traditionally accompanied system design, especially in IT security, which involves good usability, feedback, system transparency, and a sense that users are responsible for what they do, seems to be intentionally blurred on social media.

In an article on from 2010 Mark Zuckenberg is described as ‘Dr Evil’ for encouraging the thinking that privacy is an old fashioned concept. It mentions too that the Facebook privacy settings change all the time so that users have a hard time keeping information private. In contrast, Zuckenberg’s quotes on, make him sound completely naive and just idiotically ignorant of the need for user safety and security.

Knowing ourselves what to keep private can be a hard call and can change from day to day. However, not empowering the user to take personal responsibility for feeling safe and secure (the base level in the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) is irresponsible. Social media moguls have a duty to make this really easy for everyone so that when a user presses that post button, they know what they have posted and who is reading it.

Until that happens, Jack Vale has definitely got me thinking about what I share on Facebook, and I have changed a few settings so that I feel more comfortable.

Sharing is caring, definitely. But, in the heat of the moment, a deep breath and a little bit of safety compliance never did anyone any harm.

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Yoga Lessons: Life on the edge


This is me doing paschimottanasana, or seated forward bend, which according to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika is this most excellent of all asanas… makes the breath flow through the Sushumna, stimulates the gastric fire, makes the loins lean and removes all the diseases of men.

I have practised yoga for many years, but have only recently been able to reach forward to my toes and place my head on my knees. This achievement made me realise that my approach to yoga and life are linked, and by changing the way I did yoga, I have changed the way I approach life, and along the way I learnt a couple of lessons.

Even if you know it all, there is always something new to learn

I bought Paul Grilley’s book Yin Yoga because I had had a lot of surgery and no longer had the strength to do the poses I would normally do. I had a choice: I could either do this passive style of yoga or not do yoga at all.

As it turned out, it was the best decision I ever made. Yin yoga stretches the connective tissues of the hips, pelvis, and lower spine, all areas of me which were always tight and stiff, and so even though I thought I was choosing an easy option, I was doing nothing of the sort. Yin yoga has given me the flexibility and core strength to resume the practice of those yang (or energetic) poses I didn’t think I would be able to do anymore.

Practising the impossible makes it possible

One of the first suggested sequences in the Grilley’ book had paschimottanasana or caterpillar pose as yin yoga calls it. Before adopting a yin-style, I would only ever do this pose for a few seconds, because I couldn’t do it, and because I couldn’t do it, I didn’t like doing it. So, I didn’t do it well and never long enough to improve.

Yin yoga recommends holding each asana for 3-5 minutes, so once I started holding caterpillar pose for three minutes in each session I had the time to improve, which is how the changes began.

Three minutes might not seem like a long time but I started in January last year and by about April I was no longer unhappy sitting in the pose. And by the end of August I looked forward to the way I felt sitting in this asana. My loins are definitely leaner and my pelvis and spine are no longer stiff.

Listen to yourself

At first, I could barely reach my knees, and I hated doing something at which I was rubbish. I had to force myself to sit on the floor legs out for three minutes, and some days I was really twitchy and other days, really bored. After a couple of months of sitting with my legs out and leaning the tiniest bit forward, I stopped judging myself.

It was no longer a case of thinking I was rubbish and couldn’t do something. Instead, I became genuinely interested in the pose and how my body felt. Yoga is not a competitive sport – although it has felt like that in some classes I have attended. Some days I would bend my knees so I could stretch my back further. Other days I would stretch out my legs so that my calves got a work out. Eventually, I became supple enough to do both.

Once I realised that it wasn’t a question of achieving a specific pose, it was about feeling better and enjoying the moment, I relaxed and stopped fearing the discomfort I might feel if I went too far. Finally, I reached forward to my edge.

The edge is the place in a yoga pose where one step more can mean serious discomfort. You literally move out of your comfort zone and encourage your tissues to stretch that little bit further. It is where I learnt to listen to myself and to pay attention to how I felt on any given day. So when I didn’t feel like going to the edge, I did exactly as my body told me to, and I did not criticise myself or override myself. I knew there would be another day to practice.

On the days when I did go to the edge, it was there that time took on a stretchy quality, which is one of the magical gifts of yoga. Sometimes three minutes whizzed by and other times three minutes felt like an eternity. Time does disappear and I have experienced first hand the description given in the Yoga Tattva Upanishad: He who practices … for three hours daily conquers time.

No one can know you, as well as you can know yourself

I have had a lot of teachers. Most of them said not to force yourself, which is good advice. But other teachers have told me that there are poses a person can’t do because of their body shape or age. This is something I started to believe, even though I have seen with my own eyes that this is not true.

Yoga will get you there, as yoga teacher Barbara Currie used to say when she was on TV. I now know that there is where you feel more relaxed in your own body and open to learning about yourself and life. Another brilliant example of someone who has not listened advice which could limit her is Tao Porchon-Lynch. She became a yoga teacher at 75-years-old, and at 95 is still going strong.

I have loved yoga since I was eight-years old when I came across a pile of yoga magazines which had been given to my dad. The pictures were really interesting and it was easy to get into the poses.

I attended my first yoga class at the ripe old age of 14 with my mum. I loved the teacher too. She wore a lot of make-up and heavy perfume, and looked fantastic, and was one of the best teachers I ever had. Sometimes her 80-year-old mum would come and amaze us all with poses I couldn’t do even though I had done a lot of gymnastics. These experiences left me with the belief that nothing is impossible – a fabulous gift to give a young woman.

Over the years and courses, even a British Wheel of Yoga teaching course, this belief slowly eroded. Thankfully in this last year, I have started to believe again that all things are possible, because of yin yoga and sitting in caterpillar pose. And now I know for sure that I have only scratched the service.

Yoga is an amazing comforter in an uncertain world. As B K S Iyengar says:

Yoga teaches us to cure what need not be endured and endure what cannot be cured.

A fabulous gift, indeed.

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Is there anybody out there? (Or why do I blog?)


I like to blog.

But, I wonder: Shouldn’t I be Tweeting, Facebooking, YouTubing more than I do?

Every time I spruce up this site, I ponder the advantages of Tumblr, Pinterest, and whatever else is new. And each time, I overthink it, until I confirm that this blog is best for what I want to do.  I want to write about human-computer interaction and all of its various incarnations, at length.  Although, this week I want to add cartoons to all my blogs, which thanks to Bitstrips is going to be a lot easier than the time I wanted to do it in Flash.

It can take a while for me to clearly organise my thoughts for a blog.  But that’s ok. Ideas take time to form, and you can’t always articulate what you want to say.  And, so I am not surprised that  twitlonger and vine are proving to be very popular.  Sometimes, you need more than 140 characters and a picture (or vine video) can be worth a thousand words.

Often in the middle of a blog as I am typing away, I wonder why I am doing it and who is going to read it.  And then much later on, I see why I wrote something and why someone would want to read it. Or, at the very least I see why I wanted to record that idea.

My most popular post on here which someone, somewhere, reads everyday, is about Facebook, which I wrote it in December 2007.  I believe, but can’t say for sure, since Google is no longer sharing keyword searches, that it gets looked at everyday because it talks about Facebook, has an old Facebook screenshot, and talks about Stalkers (the stalking type – not us).  Or, it could be because Google has changed its algorithms to serve up webpages based on users’ previous search histories.  Will this damage the long tail?  Will it start to look like that of a  Manx cat? Only time will tell if this is a good or bad idea.

Apart from Facebook, I am not usually an early adopter, and as someone who has made a career out of lecturing and consulting to others about human-computer interaction, I used to be embarrassed about that.  And, get mocked because my phone was rubbish!

Back then though, the early adopter’s phone might have had the latest video conferencing app on it, but what was the point if the adopter was the only one?  You can’t have a video conference by yourself.

[Actually, you can.  At EPFL in the 1990s the video conferencing technology we played with, was so slow that we could run up from one end of the lab to the other in the time the signal was being transmitted, and see ourselves on screen and talk to ourselves. Like Gollum in The Two Towers.]

Technology is often a status  symbol until it hits a critical mass and becomes pervasive. And some technology never hits that tipping point.  I accidently early adopted my LG 3D camera phone the day it came out  (my old phone didn’t work any more and I was waiting for a call on my sim).   I have rarely used the 3D camera, because the results are ridiculous!  Though, I did enjoy temporary mover and shaker status for five minutes and got to impress a couple of people.

I have not seen many 3D photos outside my phone and yet,  3D movies are very popular. Us Stalkers went to see Frozen last week in 2D because my girls said that it’s a bit of a faff to wear glasses and I felt a bit queasy  the last time I watched a whole 3D movie (Tangled).

But the main thing our trip to the cinema shows me that, we are humans and we don’t change that much.  We want to communicate.  We want to be seen and heard and valued.  We want to be entertained and we want to entertain.  We have the same needs we did when we lived in the Iron Ages, and our top status symbol was a Crannog.

And ultimately that is why I will continue blogging about human-computer interaction. We are living in a really exciting time technologically and yet our motivations are the same.  What shared experiences will we create with all of these apps?

I am going to start a series of blogs based on my old HCI lecture notes and put them up all online.

Please let me know if you would like the cartoon format.

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Web design and the science of communication


A collaborative medium, a place where we all meet and read and write.
Tim Berners-Lee

Today, we have the technology to design websites that do justice to Berners-Lee’s vision without getting bogged down in code and pixels. Web design is communication and there is a science to communicating well. (Which is not the same as science communication, that’s another blog altogether.)

Beautiful content: What’s the story?

At heart, humans are storytellers and a website is a place to shape a narrative, tell a story, and create an experience. Fictional journalism and creative non-fiction exist because we have long recognised the power of a story to move us and influence our behaviour. Charles Dickens would read out parts of his novels to the wealthy as entertainment whilst raising money for Gt Ormond St Hospital for Sick Children.

But, Napoleon Bonaparte was right when he said a picture is worth a thousand words.
The Illustrated London News was created in 1842 and had 60,000 subscribers in that year alone, after someone realised that newspapers sold more copies when they had pictures in them, especially ones which showed a face or place.

Moreover when we can change our focus and present data visually or, we rearrange museum artefacts according to an alternative plan, we create new insight. Investigating the patterns of our world can further our understanding of anything we choose to focus on.

Hitler might not have invaded Russia if he had taken a close look at the Minard Map showing how Napoleon’s invasion went badly wrong. Nowadays, Minard would have produced a computer simulation, or BBC drama to convince Hitler that he was not invincible.

User experience: Finding your tribe

Once we have a story to tell. We have to find the right audience. It is no good telling a medical tale of blood and gore to an audience who wants to know when the next My Little Pony conference takes place. The golden rule of user-centred design for websites is: Know your user.

One way is to create case studies of users, and user profiles, so that when we design our My Little Pony community website we know that Lucia, a 25-year-old male who works as an electrician and lives in a duplex in Pasadena is typical of our audience. Thinking of Lucia makes the design more specific and relevant to his user group.

We can also learn about our users, the main factor in our design process, through the field of cognitive science. We need to understand user motivation. What makes a user happy? We need to manage user perceptions and responses to fulfill user desires. We need them to join in and love what we do.

Another way is to just ask the user, with focus groups, and questionnaires, which is less exciting but just as useful. Whilst we are there we could even give them a card sort, so that they can tell us where they expect to find information and facilitate our content strategy.

Content strategy = Digital publishing + information architecture + editorial process

Content strategy has a Gestalt feel to it, like website design itself, which leads to the sum above becoming more than its parts. Information architecture may say where content lives. Content strategy says when content lives, and editorial process is more than just spell checking.

Questions to ask:

  • Does the website need to have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • Can a user ask and know: Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?
  • Is the content better presented by the no-function in structure principle? (Pinterest anyone?)
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Do we wish to grow our audience?
  • What type of search engine optimization is best for attracting visitors?
  • Do we wish to analyse the market online to check we are reaching our segment?
  • Which content-management system is best for us?
  • Are we web standards compliant?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

These questions can be used to analyse content gaps and plug them so that the user is getting what he or she needs and feed that back into beautiful content, before running headlong into our social media campaign.

Social media: Sharing and caring

During Oprah Winfrey’s 25-year TV series, she created a community. Her message was: You are not alone. Oprah knows that we all want to feel that we matter. We want to be included a community and to be heard in conversation. We want to feel connected, so that we can be open and participate in life with others.

At its best, social media offers this, but all those Instagram selfies and tweets about what you had for breakfast can make even the nosiest among us ask: What is the point of twitter?

Oprah and her network OWN reach out to its audience via social media and networking and give us all a masterclass in how these tools should be used.

Evaluation: Is it working?

How do you know your web site is working? The cultural probe of course. This is when you give your user a way to give feedback whilst going about his or her daily business, in the form of a diary, in order to capture user context. Other ways of evaluation include the usability laboratory with questionnaires and exercises, or click capture software or business style web analytics.

Each method has its own pros and cons, but is ultimately useful.

Humans are fascinating creatures and will always find new and interesting ways of using whatever you create either by necessity or by not understanding what the designer intended in the first place. This is known as serendipitous design which in itself is another exciting field which needs to be communicated – scientifically, of course.

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