Love the machine, don’t rage against it

Humans C4 courtesy of The Guardian

Humans C4 pic courtesy of The Guardian

The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet. – William Gibson

I was glued to the telly during the Channel 4 series Humans which is set in our present day but with a fictional history of robotics. In this alternate present, robots, who are known commonly as synths, have advanced to the point that they look, walk and talk like humans.

However, they have replaced many humans in the workforce causing high unemployment, protests, and rioting. (They have their own twitter hashtag #WAP – We are people). Smart and computer-savvy teenager Matilda rebels at school because if the synths do all the jobs what is the point of her working hard to try and get one?

But, it is not all bad, synths do all the chores around the house. How fabulous is that? Looking on the tie-in Persona Synthetics website, I could get Sally the synth to do childcare, cooking, and personal training.

What a shame household-synths are just fiction, even hoovering robots, which do exist and look very cool, wouldn’t do much to alleviate the repetitive household tasks of cooking and cleaning. Alas, I just don’t see a robot coming onto the marketplace anytime soon to keep my home running efficiently. Nor, do I see them taking over the world and turning me into a battery.

Derek Thompson in Atlantic magazine is not so sure. He thinks it won’t be long before technological advances have made such an impact on our society that there are no jobs for people.

In his article A world without work, he says that robots are everywhere: Operating theatres, fast-food counters, checkout screens, and in the sky flying as drones. Currently in the US, manufacturing is on a cyclical upturn so we can’t really see where else robots may be stealing jobs until recession hits, which is when employers turn to technology to cut costs. The effects of replacing humans may not be seen until the next recession, or the recession after that. But in the meantime Thompson says Airbnb has cut hotel jobs and Google’s self drive car threatens the most common American job of all – driving.

As humans, we adapt very quickly. Ask yourself: Would I trust a car without a driver? I trust the DLR and that doesn’t have one. What about black cabs? Would I miss the friendly banter of a London cabbie? I think I’d manage.

And, research has shown that even areas in which we imagine robots wouldn’t be as useful, such as in the field of psychology, people are very happy.  This is because they believe that robots don’t judge them like humans naturally do.

Sociologist Sherry Turkle took robots into old people’s homes and found it heart wrenching to witness one woman talk to an emo-seal about the loss of her daughter. However, I have to agree with Genevieve Tran’s comment below Turkle’s Ted talk 

The elderly person confiding in an electronic emo-seal is no different from a person praying to a god, who may or may not be there, or talking to a pet that definitely doesn’t have a grasp of life or death, but can give comfort by its presence.

And that is the point of  inventing anything: to give comfort and to make life more comfortable for humans.

Making life better

Since the beginning of recorded time, humans have always created things or artefacts to make life easier and/or better. For example:

These solutions probably created lots of new jobs such as butchers, engineers, drivers, night soil collectors, jobs which still exist today.  Ghanaian night soil collectors I am sure would welcome robots and technology to help solve their sanitation crisis and worry less about being replaced or robots taking over.

The fear of humans being replaced by computers

Joel Lee is worried too and has written a blog post to reassure himself that humans will always be needed in the creative arts, professional sports, healthcare and medicine, education, quality assurance, politics and law.

Poor Joel! The comments below his blog say that computers can do these things already. I haven’t checked all the links but they sound reasonable enough: Computers create art. An IBM mainframe is working with doctors to diagnose cancer, betters than doctors do. And neural networks are reasoning up a storm in many areas. As for sports, I remember when Chris Coleman was manager at Fulham FC and was asked why his team had no one English in it one Saturday. He answered by saying that he would put out a team of aliens if it allowed him to win a game. So, I am sure he would definitely been open to a team of robots.

Technology creates  jobs too

Technology may take away jobs but there are new jobs which could not be done without a computer: biomedical scientistsquantitative analysts, anyone working with big data: big data engineers are in fields from manufacturing right through to food production and hospitality along with big data architects who structure the big data, to name but a few.

However, these are highly skilled jobs in which you have to be skilled at the domain and skilled in computing. So, for example in hematology in biomedical engineering you have to know everything about blood and a lot about computing.

But, never fear there are loads more jobs with varying skill sets which didn’t exist before computers such as: twitter feed manager, video game designer, website manager, usability consultant.

I guess if machines got clever enough they could do these too. A quick google round the Internet shows me that a lot of people are upset about the idea that computers may one day do away with all jobs.  But really, if we are so advanced why do so many boring jobs still exist today? And why are new boring jobs springing up all the time?

Humans do jobs computers should do

In one of writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcasts, Elizabeth talks to Missy, a Florida call centre worker, who has to follow a script when talking to people who phone up to sort out their insurance. Missy is not allowed to deviate from the script or engage with the human on the end of the line in any empathetic way otherwise she is reprimanded. Consequently, Missy describes her job as the most boring job in the world.

Surely this is a perfect job for automation – it doesn’t seem to have been designed with humans in mind inside or outside of the call centre.

The paradox of work

Sadly though, Missy is not alone. Investors In People published a survey at the beginning of this year which said that 60% of UK workers are unhappy in their jobs, citing lack of job satisfaction.  The majority of people who work are doing for the money to pay for the things we need: food, shelter, etc., the things at the bottom of the pyramid of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Two years ago the Swiss voted no to universal wages which is a scheme which would ensure that everyone, who was legally entitled to work in Switzerland, whether working or not would be paid a basic income.  Key supporter Enno Schmidt’s argument was that a society in which people work only because they have to have money is: no better than slavery. Instead, a universal income would allow people more freedom to decide what they really want to do.

The Guardian ran an article about writers on the dole saying that unemployment benefits have given many writers the freedom to learn their craft without starving. Imagine, if everyone got paid something without the need to explain themselves at the job centre. Oooh – no more jobs for the job centre workers.  Interesting.

It wouldn’t be enough though would it? Because we define ourselves using a premise which is false:  The more we do, the more we are worth. And so those people who used their universal wage to lie on the sofa and watch telly – very happily indeed,thank you very much – rather than tackle the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs such as status, reputation and self-actualisation, sadly, would be judged lacking. We judge everybody including ourselves.

And, this is perhaps where robots and computers can teach us something new and liberating, like the robot psychologists who don’t pass judgment. If we could all just be more flexible with our interpretation of worthiness and our expectations of how things like call centres should work (especially those ones in which humans are forced to behave like robots),  then perhaps we could learn to love the machine and not rage against it.

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Feeding the machine: The embodied human in a social media world

embodiment pic borrowed from http://timelessearth.co/earthproject/

Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world? Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy… But I believe that, as a species, human beings define their reality through suffering and misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from.
– Agent Smith, The Matrix (1999)

In Saturday’s Guardian, author Jonathan Franzen describes social media as a protection racket and says: Your reputation will be murdered unless you join in this thing that is, in significant part, about murdering reputations… Why would I want to feed that machine?

In contrast, Deepak Chopra defines social media as the extension of our brains, and believes that we are all creating and contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or global brain, every time we Tweet, Facebook, and share online.  He says that our brains restructure themselves according to the information we gain, the habits we have, and our skills.

As an embodied human in a social media world, I believe that both realities are true.

The embodied human

Borrowing embodiment.org.uk ‘s view of the human as an iceberg, we get:

  • The tip of the iceberg is our everyday awareness and the ‘self’ with which we identify.
  • The bit just below the water is our gut feeling.
  • And below that in the unfathomable depths, is the deep body of our subconscious. We only tap into this part with meditation or ritual.

This narrow focus on ‘self’ heightens our subjectivity and because our brain interprets new experiences in light of our past experiences including the context in which they occurred known as embodiment  (situatedness, or social situatedness), we never have a raw experience. All our experiences are subjective.

This realisation has fascinated humans in the domain of phenomenology  for at least a century now. Phenomenology is the study of the structure of experience.   Literally, the study of how we make sense of phenomena.

We live in our minds and with the advent of social media, sociologist Sherry Turkle believes that it is changing us.  Best-selling author and influencer, Jennifer Weiner  in the New York Times, says technology leads to bad behaviour and the dumbing-down of America.  And, so is in agreement with Franzen, her nemesis.  Myself, I am not so sure,  I think social media is reflecting us.  Although I have wondered if computers are making us stupid because when we rely on them, we don’t use our minds so much.  Whereas social media removes us from where we are and as Weiner points out we behave badly – e.g., ignoring others is rude – because all our attention is given to the communication online.

The social human behind social media

Ultimately, we are social animals, so, it is no surprise that we have adopted social media in order to share our thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the things right in front of us with as many people as we can.  However, in the midst of all this sharing,  we are hardwired to fight for our survival and protect ourselves from harm. This is part of our brain is called the amagydala, or our inner lizard.

Maslow sums up this social, yet scared, human being brilliantly in his hierarchy of needs with a pyramid.  At the bottom are the inner lizard concerns:  survival and our physiological needs.  The next level is safety.  And then comes the need to belong to a community or a family because it gives meaning to our lives.  After that comes our esteem need. Humans need to respect themselves and have others respect them in their communities. And lastly comes self-actualization: humans need to realise their potential, and feel fulfilled.

The types of information we share on social media fit exactly into Maslow’s hierarchy,  (Maslow’s hierarchy of social media), and savvy content media marketing types know that the lower down the pyramid their product taps a human need, the more likely they are to make a sale.

This kind of thinking and selling horrifies Franzen which is why he says that he would not want to feed that machine.  And he has a point.  As much as I like Chopra’s idea that we are contributing to the collective unconsciousness, or a big body of knowledge, as originally defined by Jung,  a lot of information that gets posted on line is done not deeply after meditative thought, or after being in touch with the deeply submerged depths of our subconscious.  Often, posting occurs self-consciously or purposefully like the marketers in order to achieve an end result with other people jumping on board.  Franzen’s view then is more mob rule.  When people come together and the individual gets submerged beneath crowd or mob psychology, it can be murder.

The human need to please

As humans we are inherently social animals – we need to belong – but also we are trained from birth to  give people the behaviour they want or the information they prefer.  Dr Caspar Addyman, is researching why we laugh and only uses babies because:  Adults are far too complex. They either tell you what you want to hear or try to second-guess you. But if a baby does something it’s bound to be a genuine response. 

It is hard though to second guess someone and give someone what they want without the social cues you receive in specific situations in society,  when you are just reading text on a screen.  Much communication research has tried to remedy communication with or via a computer: facial recognition, speech recognition,  and even the invention of the emoticon.  We need cues online because our brains contains mirror neurons which enable us to simulate the intentions and feeling behind someone else’s actions in the real world.  Is this even possible online when we lack context? Even robots need bodies to be embodied and situated to have a context within which they can navigate the world.  Indeed context can get you far even if humans don’t speak a language.  As Professor of Sociology Lucy Suchman realised, most interactions in restaurants or supermarkets are scripted and familar because of the context and situation humans find themselves in.  We all know the scripts.

Similarly, social computing recreates the social systems we have at work, in teams, and local communities.  By accessing the information these organisations generate, the online world becomes familiar and more reliable. One simple example is the review system of products on Amazon or Argos. We are social so we take on board other people’s opinions and feedback, especially those people who are influential, and we may make different decisions based on their recommendation.

But how do influencers become influential?  @RStarDinoPirate  set herself a goal to blog once a week until one day she wrote a funny, brilliant blog about sexual consent. It went viral and led her to feel that she had to be a voice because she had a crowd of people listening to her. This responsibility made her feel fatigued and put her off blogging until she remembered why she began blogging in the first place. Hurrah that @RStarDinoPirate  did, otherwise we may have lost her distinct voice and interesting thoughts.

Learning to listen to yourself in the midst of the social media clamour can be difficult for even the most social media savvy people amongst us. Personal growth expert Steve Pavlina gave up social media altogether because he had become aware of how he would take pictures to share, rather than take the pictures that he wanted to take.  It was only then, that he realised, he too, rather like @RStarDinoPirate,  was blogging about things he felt he should blog about rather than what was closest to his heart or bubbling up from his subconscious.

The human being not the human doing

We refer to ourselves as human beings not human doings, but in society, our worth has always been measured by what we do and what we have. Online it is the same.  How many followers do we have?  How many people can we influence? The world is busier and crazier because digital advances have compressed time and space, and we can be online 24/7.  This was summed up beautifully by the advice I got last year at the content marketing show:  You have 15 minutes to create momentum on Twitter, 1 hour on Facebook, latch onto a world event. Aaargh!  Now we have to choose to consciously unplug.  But how do we do that?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine and Mindfulness advises us to: Find your own way, listen to your own heart, longing, yearning.  He says that thinking only takes us so far because this new digital landscape overloads us with facts, not wisdom.  Instead we must paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally.  We must be mindful instead of taking life for granted.

Yogis believe that we hold pain and suppressed emotion in our bodies because we have often not paid attention to ourselves in a mindful way.  I know this to be true, for when I first began yin yoga, I found that each time I sat in Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend (Upavistha Konasana) I would become overwhelmed with anger and irritation.   The hardest thing for me to do was to stay in that position and accept those feelings.    I didn’t want to be there.  I wanted to run away.  In my less enlightened moments I have checked my Facebook whilst in various poses on my yoga mat because let me tell you, three minutes in Upavistha Konasana can feel like an eternity.  With practice, I learnt to accept those feelings until they dissipated and I was left with peace and relief.

We all crave and yearn for a moment of peace and relief outside of time where we allow ourselves to be – a human being not a human doing. Many, like me, turn to social media to find inspiration because meditation and mindful are hard things to do, and hard to sustain.   Kabat-Zinn is very practical and says: Instead of trying to sustain it over a day capture it moment by moment many times, be 100% when you pick up your child, cut the carrots, stir the pot, teach yourself to come back to who you actually are… until life becomes the meditation teacher.

Then and only then should we reach out from that place of peace if we want our social media to be an extension of us – or the wiser deeper parts of us – as Chopra believes.  Otherwise we may just experience a Franzen-frenzy fear of feeding that machine.

https://twitter.com/WorldAndScience

The human body by @WorldandScience

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Writing fast and slow

writing

I love writing and yoga, but for many years I just couldn’t seem to get it together to establish a daily practice for either, until I discovered yin yoga. Overnight, my yoga practice was transformed. Later, I watched long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad on Ted talk about achieving her lifetime goal aged 64 years, after she adopted her mantra: Find a way. It was then that I decided that I could find a way to a daily writing practice too.

Following the advice of Rachel Aaron’s 2K to 10K a day and Monica Loelle’s Write Better, Faster, I set up a spreadsheet and then, for six weeks, I tracked everything I wrote whilst noting down my location, my mood, what I was writing, how I was writing, and this is what I found worked for me:

Have an audience

The minute I started the spreadsheet, I had begun to watch myself, so I had created an audience. And with that came the need to add numbers to my spreadsheet. It was the same when I experimented with going to the library or a coffee shop. I had made such an effort to get my things together, get there, and then set it up, that I was that person working. Even if where I was got really loud and I was distracted, I would force myself to finish what I had set out to do.

Some writers on Twitter use the hashtag #amwriting. I haven’t tried it yet but it is quite nice to say out loud: I am writing, I want to finish this. NaNoWriMo, every November, encourages Twitter writing sprints, which can be both motivational and provide writing company, to encourage everyone to finish their 50,000 words.

Have a plan

If I was to keep another spreadsheet I would not allow myself to count the words I put in my journal. This is because I found that I would write away merrily, first thing on a morning, coffee to hand, and could rattle off 3k in under an hour, which was amazing, but then I would down tools once it had gone in the spreadsheet, as it felt like I had done my work for the day. I was producing words, but not finished writing.

When I kept a blog about my daughter being born with kidney failure, we had a lot to do each day with all the medical stuff. Often, people would ask me how I managed to be so prolific, but I found that writing it all down at the end of each day, didn’t take too long. It was cathartic and easy to do because I lived it and knew exactly what I was going to write. And, rather like the blogging I do now, it helped me make sense of things. That blog also had a specific audience of people who were expecting a new post, so that helped me get on, focus, and finish.

Knowing what to write when starting something new is a great way to avoid the blank page. Now, before I begin anything, especially a blog, I plan it out for at least 20 minutes. I then have something to type in and a structure to follow, and so I don’t waste time wondering where to start.

The other thing that helps me is having an external deadline. This ensures I have planned what I am going to say, how long I need to say it, and when I have to say it by.

Have a timer

I installed a timer on the bottom of my screen and set it to 20 minutes. This stopped a lot of the daydreaming and also ensured I was motivated to get writing as I had a break to look forward to at the end of each session. This approach gives me lots of words at the end of a day of sessions. A 20 minutes stint gives me around 1,000 words, which all make more sense than I thought possible and helps me get down a first blog draft quickly.

I can’t yet fit editing into the 20 minute-sprints. I have tried longer sessions but ended up noodling about. Editing and writing are very different skills. Perhaps, next time I will do an editing spreadsheet, as each time I edited work to make it better, I would fret about the lack of words in the spreadsheet, which is interesting, as I had nothing to proof to anyone except myself, but then taming your inner lizard is a life’s work.

Have a break

Writing this blog today has been very quick but that is because I have followed the three Haves above. I have had:

  1. An audience: Mainly myself because I found it fascinating to track myself and my inner lizard can take note and criticise me later with this new found knowledge.
  2. A plan: Partly because I took notes when I was tracking and journalled about it, so I didn’t need to research or think about it.
  3. A timer: I put the timer on because I wanted to make sure I finished this today. Sometimes, if I have been thinking about something for too long I have to fight the urge to feel that because I know what I think about it, I don’t need to write it up.

There have been days, however, even with the above three things, I have been unable to finish a blog or another piece of writing in the time I have set. And now thanks to the spreadsheet, I can see where I have banged my head against a piece of work to get it finished when I would have been better off just leaving it and giving myself a holiday, even a busman’s holiday, and writing something else.

Taking time to reflect on what I want to say seems to be part of my process, especially when writing a blog. My blogs on Sherry Turkle’s theory that social media is changing us and Maslow’s hierarchy of social media took a couple of weeks of thought. No timers, deadlines, or audiences could have changed that. First of all because I had a different opinion from anything else I had read anywhere else on these topics. And secondly, I didn’t even know what my opinion was until I gave myself permission to ruminate. So, I spent some time drinking coffee whilst thinking about these topics and reading around, and taking notes, before I was able to plan them out. And even then they didn’t go the way I had planned, because for me, writing is the surest way of getting clear about what I think.

Have a good time

Sometimes when I have spent a couple of weeks wondering what I am trying say, followed by saying it. I post it online and wonder why I put so much effort in. I blog because I like to and that is enough.

Today, I installed the Organize Series plugin for WordPress**. I have found that, once I begin a blog and post it, later I go back and want to add more, and so a series is quite a nice thing to do. Next on my list – after another blog on embodiment – are my old HCI lectures, which are a less old and more relevant today than I believed. Aside from what I believe though, they will be fun to write up.

And this is the most important rule I am now living by when writing fast and slow: Have a good time whether you are getting results or not, because having fun is what it is all about.

** I had to disactivate this plugin as it ate all my resources and gave me a 508 error! More investigation needed as having links to my series was very nice.

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Card Sorting: Anyone for a game of cards

[This article originally appeared on Digital Web Magazine in 2007, alas, their website is now defunct.  I am reposting it here so it doesn’t disappear.]

card-sort

Although a computerized version of card sorting might help you to quickly analyze the results, it is much better from a user point of view to sort physical cards. Users enjoy the tangible aspect of sorting cards; they like to move the cards around, scribble on them, chew them, and throw them away. Don’t deprive them of this feeling.

Ruth Stalker-Firth, Digital Web Magazine

Everyone loves a game of cards.

I was raised playing Whist for pennies and matches. Whatever the stakes, we ten-year-olds would play for hours, peering over at our opponents while trying to make sense of the random hand we had been dealt. And in exactly the same way, card sorting is appealing to users. As humans, our minds prefer to absorb information in chunks, and we subconsciously look for and remember links, groups, and other patterns in the information we see. Because of the way our minds work, it can be satisfying for users to sort through a stack of cards—in the same way that some people enjoy rearranging their CDs or bookcases to make it easier to find a specific tune or book.

Often, clients come to us with their website in a tangle, overwhelmed at the prospect of tidying it up, especially if it is a large website with numerous stakeholders and seemingly random strands of information. For the usability consultant,card sorts are a powerful tool, and a nice alternative to simply instructing your test participants to “give voice to your stream of consciousness while I watch you interact with this website.” Call in some users, give them a stack of index cards with content subjects written on them, along with a list of headings from the client’s site—“Business and News,” “Lifestyle,” “Society and Culture”—and see where users think “How to floss your teeth” should sit. Users can, and do, untangle seemingly impossible spaghetti structures by identifying new patterns, as well as finding a home for content or categories that don’t seem to fit anywhere.

Using a card sort gives us an insight into how users expect a site to work, and where they would look for specific information in a site. The advantage of the card sort is that, as well as sorting out navigation problems, we are also able to understand users’ mental models, which leads to better information architecture. Users are busy people who wouldn’t normally give this much time to analyzing websites. If a site is too convoluted to use, most users will click away as fast as they can. Redesigned sites based on card sort results will encourage them to stay.

Open or closed?

There are two ways of performing cards sorts, open and closed.

  • In an open card sort, users are given a series of cards without any category headings or indication of how to group the cards—they make up their own categories and names as they go.
  • In a closed card sort, users are given a list of categories, or headings, under which to place the cards.

I use a semi-closed card sort; start the users off with several headings, and tell them to ignore, add, or rename them as they see fit. Giving users some category names to begin with makes the task seem easier to start—then, once they are comfortable with the task, they can start to consider category headings. Headers can also suggest a sense of context which is otherwise missing even if you explain to them what the purpose and aims of the site.

Where and when?

Traditionally, card sorts are a lo-fi approach and don’t need any technology, so they are easy to transport—you can go to the users, or the users can come to you. All you need is some cards, paper, and double-sided sticky tape—just like any self-respecting Blue Peter project.

Card sorts are most useful at the beginning of a design project, when there is some idea of what content should be included, but not how or why. They are also great at the start of a website redesign, particularly on sites where the volume of content has spiraled out of control.

How much time have you got? One-on-one or groups?

The decision whether to perform your card sorting sessions as one-on-one or group activities really depends on the amount of time for which your client is paying you. Use your time wisely.

Bringing ten users into one room to card-sort together, even if you are lucky enough to enlist the aid of a colleague, might not allow you to hear everything that everyone has to say about each card—but, how much do you need to hear? They will, after all, leave behind a layout, and your analysis will identify trends.

Getting the users to card-sort in pairs is useful, as it reduces the number of conversations you and your colleague need to listen to, as well as the number of cards to analyze afterwards. It is also a good way to open up conversation about the site content—in pairs, users are more likely to begin debates about the terminology they have in front of them, while you, the consultant, can walk about the room capturing these nuggets of information and exploring them further as and when you feel necessary. Ten card sorts is a good number to run, so if you do use pairs you will need twenty participants, perhaps running two card sorts over two days.

Sometimes, during a normal usability testing one-on-one session, you may discover problems with the site navigation, and it can be useful to run an impromptu mini-card sort when this happens. Give the user a Post-It pad and a pen, and ask him or her to write down category headings they would find more useful, and then the content which would go under each heading. Devoting fifteen or twenty minutes of your one-hour session to tackling the problem when it occurs can help you obtain more useful results over the remaining seven or eight sessions you have left. In turn, this may trigger the realization that there is an information architecture problem, and perhaps a card sort will help with solutions.

Setting up a card sort: A few points to consider before, during, and after

Before

  • Context: In order to overcome the lack of context, putting large screenshots of the website on a wall nearby can help users have some idea of what they are helping to design, without being too influenced by the current layout.
  • Use a maximum of one hundred cards. Too many cards can be overwhelming for users (and for you during the hours it takes to analyze all the results). With larger websites, try and give a balanced representation of the types of information the site has to offer. Give each card a unique identifier, numbering them one through one hundred. You will need these numbers if you later analyze the results using a computer.
  • Use DIY business card packs. Avery sells perforated business card packs which have eight to ten cards on each sheet. Use one of their downloadable templates to type your content on each card, print them out, and then punch the cards out. Business cards are a nice size to hold and manipulate. Printing labels and sticking them on cards bought from a stationary shop (or out-of-date business cards) is another quick method. (Don’t do what I once did, and print your cards on a single sheet and then cut them up—my hand is still aching!)

During

  • Put the cards on large sheets of paper on the table so that users have an area to organize. Give them thick marker pens so they can doodle on the paper and draw around their groups of cards.
  • Some users might prefer to stand up so bring tape or Fun-Tak so that users can stick the cards to the paper, and stick the paper to the wall.
  • Always have a couple of spare sets of cards. Accidents do happen. Users will also need spare empty cards and felt-tip pens so that they can make their own cards and headings.

After

  • Discarded cards are just as useful to us as ones that the participants found easy to sort. If users are creating a great big pile of uncategorized cards, this is an important result: There is something wrong with the site content.
  • Once users are happy with the content tree they have created, give them some glue or tape to stick down their card organization. In this way, you preserve the order and the groups/categories they have chosen.
  • If you don’t think you need to record the precise layout, give the users elastic bands and have them collect together each group and put the piles in large envelopes. (During analysis, though, you may find it easier to have the cards all spread out in front of you, so that you see the big picture as well as the fine detail.)
  • Bring a digital camera and take pictures of each card sort result, as well as your helpful users having a great time—a picture of a group of users sorting through cards is great to show to your stakeholders when you are explaining what you have been doing.

Analysis: The big (and fine detail) picture

Although a computerized version of card sorting might help you to quickly analyze the results, it is much better from a user point of view to sort physical cards. Users enjoy the tangible aspect of sorting cards; they like to move the cards around, scribble on them, chew them, and throw them away. Don’t deprive them of this feeling.

A top-level analysis can be carried out just by looking at the layout of the sorted cards. Patterns will emerge. For example, “How to floss your teeth” may be grouped with other how-tos under a “How to” heading on the top level, instead of under the “Health” category where it originally lived. Alternatively, users may have a pile of cards which don’t fit anywhere—this can indicate the need for a different information architecture, or a reduced amount of site content.

Spreadsheet analysis

For a deeper analysis, use a spreadsheet. You can use a spreadsheet to:

  • Store the results of the card sort without having to keep referring back to the cards.
  • Interpret results using tables and graphs.

Enter the name of the card and its number, and then number each category. If the users have created new categories, add those too, and then enter the data.

A more detailed tutorial on how to set up a spreadsheet to analyze a card sort can be found at http://www.ruthstalkerfirth.com/card-sort-analysis-using-a-spreadsheet.

Trends

Trends to look for during analysis are:

  1. How often a card appears in a category.

    If the card appears consistently in the same category across users, then that is where the content should live on the live site.

  2. Categories which contain the same content across users.

    If categories—either user-created or original ones—are appearing in several sets of user-sorted cards, then this category and its content should be used on the site. For example, if the majority of users put “How to floss your teeth” under a newly created “How to” category instead of the supplied category heading “Health,” then during the site redesign, perhaps a “How to” section should be introduced.

  3. Differences between category contents.

    If there are a lot of differences in the contents of a particular category across users, then you might have to relabel the category so that it is clearer what content it should contain, and so that it reflects user expectations. Looking at the categories users have created can help you with the new label.

  4. Content which has caused problems with users, because it appears in many different categories or user-created categories; or it is impossible to categorize.

    The easiest way to solve this headache is just to get rid of the content. Less can be more, especially if the overall message of the site is getting lost. Unfortunately, clients might want to hold onto their content—if you can’t win this battle, cross-referencing content so that it can be found regardless of which heading users look under can help.

  5. New categories which several users have created.

    If users are not categorizing any content under a predefined heading, such as “Business and News,” but are instead creating a new one such as “Technology” under which to store content, then use this new category.

  6. Ways users categorize information: by subject (“health”) or by process (“how to”).

    Again, careful cross-referencing can help solve this problem. Users should be able to find “How to floss your teeth” whether they begin in “How to” or “Health.”

  7. What content users feel should be at the top level (main menu).

    If a new top level category is emerging across several users, then this should be considered in the redesign.

If you still can’t decide

If the results of your card-sort feel inconclusive, more user testing can complement the results you have generated, particularly if you concentrate on the content and categories which users found confusing to inform the next batch of user testing.

Presenting results and managing expectations

Like many usability techniques, card sorting can be viewed with suspicion by some, which can make presenting your results an uphill struggle. If the results are not what the stakeholders want to hear, one way to prepare them and manage their expectations is to get them to perform a mini-card sort during the debrief session. Encourage them to look at each others results and where they place their cards. If the stakeholders themselves have different ideas about how the site should be structured, then it follows that your answers, as the usability consultant, won’t satisfy them all. Hopefully, individual stakeholders will realize that they may have to think about what their aims are for the website.

Whatever happens, don’t panic—there is always an emerging pattern.

Posted in Musings | 2 Comments

Ritual: Feast on your life

ritual

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
– Zen proverb

Mythologist Joseph Campbell once said that we don’t always need a ‘why’ life happens as it does, but often, we need a ‘how’.

How does life happen to us? How do we live life? And how do we mark or validate the events which change the shape of our lives?

One way to ‘how’ is through ritual.

A couple of years ago, I happened to attend a naming ceremony at my local Church of England. It was very like a traditional baptism but without the catechism. I didn’t know anyone involved, so can only surmise that the parents wanted to mark the birth of their baby but not have him baptised, as they weren’t or didn’t want to become members of the Church of England.

In years gone by, when church going was something the majority of the population did, the church handled all rituals for us. And today, as the baby’s parents demonstrated, it is still somewhere that many people, who don’t describe themselves as religious, go when they want to mark an event: birth and death; sickness and health, thanksgiving, marriage, and coming of age – to name but a few. People often go when they want some comfort.

But, it is not just the big events which we need to mark and manage. The uneventful days when we are alone can often be just as challenging and in need of a ‘how’. In psychology, the term ritual is sometimes used in a technical sense for a repetitive behavior systematically used by a person to neutralize or prevent anxiety.

Last winter, I was dreading the end of the summer and the drawing in of the dark nights. Each time I thought about it, I felt something close to despair. I soon learnt that by thinking about the upcoming rituals and religious festivals, I could make myself feel happier and more accepting of the dark days. Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas and New Year helped me through the many long nights until spring arrived and I felt better.

There are many rituals we engage in, whether we know it or not. As a child picking brambles up the hills and moors near to where I grew up, we were told to leave the last couple of brambles on each branch, for the fairies to ensure that they would allow the brambles to grow again the following year. I did not know that this is a Celtic tradition, until I read Shiva Rea’s Tending the heart fire. Leaving out some brambles is like an offering to nature, and/or our ancestors. Similarly, the Halloween tradition of ‘Trick or Treat’, when people dress up and exchange candy, is an echo of the same ritual.

Superstition or pagan offerings? Who cares?  Ritual gives us reassurance and hope that although the world is ever-changing, the sun will rise tomorrow, and there will be more brambles to eat next season.

All is well.

This same reassurance can be found in smaller daily rituals, like baking bread or making a pot of tea.  It is no surprise that the Japanese have turned tea making into an elaborate ceremony.  But less elaborate rituals work just as well. They are a moment of pause, a comforting sequence of familiar sounds and smells which can be offered up as meditation and a moment of mindfulness.  And when done with meaning, they can, as the Zen proverb above says, lead or instill a sense of purpose and enlightenment in all aspects of our lives. Other simpler actions can help too. During the winter, I found that the seemingly easy rituals of lighting a fire and some candles, or putting on a pair of fluffy socks and drinking hot milk, helped me feel better when facing a long winter’s night, just as much as looking forward to Christmas did. I felt soothed and comforted.

When I was younger, I used to always be in a hurry, needing to be somewhere else, and now I see it was because I was looking for reassurance and comfort. I believed that I could only find that elsewhere and from someone else. I didn’t know tea-making, fire-lighting, or fluffy socks could help me create a space in which to be, to look within and at my life, and feel better without any external validation.

The poet Derek Walcott puts it beautifully in Love after Love:

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door

Life gives us many experiences good and bad which enrich us all the same. And sometimes there is no one there to comfort us. Nowhere has this been made more clear to me than when I was contemplating the gap on my CV and the well meaning people telling me not mention it for fear that I would never get another job. I didn’t want their advice or fear. I just wanted some sort of support and recognition.

I am finally learning that those experiences happened and are part of me. I don’t have to pretend otherwise. I don’t need to know why. I don’t need well-meaning people giving me advice or anxiety or even recognition. I only need a ‘how’.  How do I mark those events which changed me, if I so choose?  How do I let them go and move on with the rest of my life?  Only I have the answers .

This is a wonderful surprise, and so I am finally beginning to understand the last line of Walcott’s wonderful Love after love.

‘Sit. Feast on your life.’

The time has come, indeed.

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