The accidental techie (7): Lost and found

1) the accidental techie2) the uninvited3) transference california4) flow5) shadowing6) going inside 7) lost and found8) 20/20 9) creating, 10) finished ]

Growing up I wanted to be a botanist just like David Bellamy, but changed my mind when I found out that I would have to cut up dead animals in biology to get to my goal. For a little while I wanted to be a police officer when the local bobby came into school, but back then there were height restrictions, and I was far too small.

After that, I switched to wanting to be a journalist, and indeed years and years after I first thought of it, I got a pgdip in journalism which was great fun hanging out with twentysomethings again and flashing a press card but I just couldn’t hound people for a story when they were at their lowest ebb. Deciding, however, to become a university lecturer was such a gradual, accidental thing, that I barely remember a time now when I didn’t want to be one.

It began in my final year of computing undergrad at LJMU when a gang of us went to karaoke night at the pub and then back to ours where we found a bottle of Ricard behind the fridge. It was covered in dust and God knows what or how long it had been there, but one of the lads was like: This is how you drink it. He mixed it up with water and sat clutching the bottle to his chest, literally all night, telling us about his broken heart after his summer of love in France, whilst we laughed a lot, like you do in a bubble of Ricard sharing stories with friends.

The next day we all had final year project meetings, three of us with the same supervisor. I wonder if he noticed that we were acting stranger than usual. I was a bit overexcited in that had-too-much-to-drink-and-no-sleep way and couldn’t stop babbling on, but felt better about it when Ricard man came out his meeting dying of embarrassment as he had actually fallen over partway through.

Our supervisor was such a lovely man and did great lectures – not that I appreciated them at the time – and it was during my meeting, that he asked me what I wanted to do when I left university. He was really cool and had helped me back in my first year shortly after a friend from home had taken his own life and I was finding it hard to make sense of things. That year I got exactly the pass mark in the supervisor’s exam, not a coincidence I know, I have done it myself for my students. I thought really hard about his question and as I looked into his kind face, I said that I wanted to be a university lecturer, like him. He said: You’ll need a PhD, which seemed like such a daunting prospect that I immediately dismissed it as a possibility.

Growing up on our council estate, very few people had jobs. It was a time of upheaval and massive job shedding in the steel and chemical industries, redundancies, lay off, mines closing, and so on. So the idea that you could choose a job and a career path and not just take anything that you were offered, and feel lucky, was still an alien concept to me. Someone asking me what I wanted to do with my life, like I mattered, like it was important, and then listening to what I had to say and not telling me what I should do, was just such a gift, that years later typing this, I am as touched as I was right back then in that room with that man who talked to me like I had potential and that I was a person who could choose.

I did get a PhD. The opportunity came by accident, not long after I had completed an MSc in AI, again an accident, which had come about because someone re-posted an advert the admissions officer at Aberdeen University sent out via email in a last-ditch attempt to fill 20 places on his MSc with exchange programs to France. I only saw the advert because after I graduated I stayed on at LJMU for the summer, employed by my lovely supervisor to create tutorial materials, which I really enjoyed, and also it was great as I had access to everything I needed to apply for jobs.

I saw the advert as a way to live in Paris and remember going round to the AI lecturer and asking if she would write down some words for me to get me on the MSc as I wanted to live in Paris. She was slightly, in the loveliest way, offended, and asked me why I hadn’t chosen her AI module. Simples: It was 4-6 pm on a Tuesday afternoon, and the parallel computing module was on a Monday at a more sensible time and had a 50% coursework so I could know that I had passed before going into the exam. I’d learnt occam and became a huge fan of the origami editor (can’t find a link, only one to 3D origami modelling which looks fascinating). Her help totally got me on the course however, the admissions officer sent me to Chambéry near the Alps, but me being me, fell in love with all that fresh air and cycling so much so that I didn’t want to go back to rainy England. Though, I did hitch to Paris that summer to see a friend from the course. Christ, I also hitched round the Dorgdogne, getting a lift off a slightly scary bloke he pulled over a few times to say: Madame, vous etes tres belle. But, that’s a different blog.

Once in France, another advert for the next job – which again got reposted from elsewhere as they were having trouble filling the position, it was for a GUI programmer in some random place called Lausanne – popped up in my inbox, I couldn’t wait to send off my CV. Alas, I made such a hash of the interview and I was so upset, it was such a lovely town where people spoke French slowly and in such a gentle way and were so helpful, that I remembering standing in tears on La Place de la Riponne, desperately yearning to stay. So, much so that the minute I got back to my computer in Chambéry (via Geneva, two trains, and a party at the local language school – imagine waiting that long nowadays) I emailed the interviewer to explain that I was normally brilliant at interviews and if he could only give a second chance he would never be sorry.

I am not sure I kept that promise because I still remember his super red face during a massive outburst in a meeting: I hate her, she comes in here full of her own ideas. I won’t lie, it was hurtful. I thought I was supposed to have my own ideas. Isn’t that the whole point of a PhD? I thought I saw him a couple of years ago on the tube, and had a flashback to that day.

After my PhD, I took a year off to go travelling. This was because when I left Switzerland I was given a lot of my tax back so I was given a lump sum. I asked a few people around me what they would do with it. The responses were varied: 1. Put a deposit on property. 2. Buy a car. But, you need roots to do that, so seeing the world was a unique opportunity. Now, with a property and a car and a family and responsibilities, I am so glad I went.

It was a bit stressful dropping out as well meaning people advised me that it was a bad move.  In that time my peers would be publishing and getting jobs, and generally getting ahead of me and I would have trouble getting a job when I got back. I didn’t have any difficulty at all but because I figured I was behind, I went straight to lecturing instead of a post-doc. If I had to do it all again, I would have applied to post-docs and got some publishing going and some guidance. I did apply for one post-doc, but the supervisor there was so unpleasant, even when offering me the job, in a you are so not any good but I can’t find anyone better way that I turned it down on the phone. I remember her saying to think about it. And, I was like: No need. Instead, I got the job I had always wanted and chose a difficult path for myself, lecturer. It’s only saving grace was that it was in human-computer interaction (HCI), a subject which fascinated me in Switzerland as a GUI programmer and PhD student, and ever since as HCI lecturer, researcher, and UX consultant. After life gave me the opportunity to be a mum, a dialysis nurse, and a cancer patient, going back to HCI and lecturing helped me find my way back to myself after a lot of joy and pain.

I don’t know how the world works and I do often ask what it’s all about, Alfie? But, there’s one thing I am starting to believe, just by dint of experience, is we get the same lessons over and over and over, until we learn it.

Inasmuch as I thought I had learnt to choose what was right for me, I hadn’t at all. When I went to interview for my first lecturing position, I was in a waiting room with other people and I was overwhelmed with a sense of despair, like a drowning sensation. Fool that I was, I ignored my gut instincts and accepted the job because there were two people there with whom I wanted to work with, and I was slightly starstruck. I didn’t get to work with anyone, I was put in an office by myself, with no furniture and one of the secretaries used my office for storage and couldn’t understand why I got upset. I kid you not. I had to beg the head of department for some furniture and a laptop. I had to figure everything out by myself, and the lecturing was such a small part, I had to get a team, get funding, do all this stuff, all by myself, without any support. I was the first lecturer they had come in from the outside in years, and it never occurred to anyone that I may need a bit of help. Every other lecturer either came in at a senior position with their own team, or they had come through the ranks all the way from undergraduate and were supported. I was outside of that and only when I requested an exit interview on my way out the door after an awful time did the head of department admit that they hadn’t treated me very well. I had just felt so lost in the supposed job of my dreams.

The next time I ignored my instincts at a job interview, it didn’t end well at all, either. When would I learn? It was for a usability consultant position. I applied for it, as I was lecturing HCI part-time and had suffered a miscarriage and we had not long moved to London, and I was super sad, super lost. I thought getting into a full-time schedule would keep me occupied so I didn’t sink into a sadness I couldn’t get out of, and also I would meet some new people, and make some new friends. Again, sitting in a waiting area talking to people I felt that same drowning sensation and again, I ignored myself and took the job, convincing myself that it would be ok. I had the worst time ever.

For ages they didn’t give me any work to do and made me just sit about in the office and could I please answer the phone and empty the dishwasher? I asked for the time off to give some lectures that we had agreed I would do during my interview should I get a job there, but they were unimpressed – that I should think I was entitled to that sort of thing. Who did I think I was? I pointed out that I had nothing to do and really I could empty the dishwasher on my return. Grudgingly they let me go and then gave me a biggish project with terrible timescales and a supervisor who after it all went badly wrong, admitted when I asked him – you always have to ask people otherwise they just hide in the corner and refuse to accept that they are responsible too – that he was too intimidated to supervisor me or offer any advice. (I was using cultural probes to get the information I needed and wrote about it later so I pulled something good out of the whole fiasco.) They had very specific ways of doing things but he couldn’t bring himself to tell me instead he would come to my desk and talk about nothing in particular for at least an hour at a time all about how good he was (another woman would rewrite everything I wrote instead of explaining what was required so that it felt very much like shifting sands) and make me feel stressed about the time I was losing and I would ask if what I was doing was ok and because he never said it wasn’t I assumed I was on the way to giving him what was needed for the project we were working on! So peculiar. I struggled a lot and was already not 100% given the bleeding I was still managing and I was struggling from anxiety (like I do sometimes) and couldn’t get on public transport which one of my colleagues took as yet another sign of my diva-ness. When I look back I see that I was a bit of a mess and shouldn’t have been there at all, but only one person noticed.

He was one of the tech lads and one day he came over to me and asked me to go to the shop with him. It seemed a peculiar request but I went along anyway. We walked there and he just talked a bit about the weather, and insisted that I try coconut water (yuk) and then on the way back he finally said what he wanted to, which was not to take on so, not take it so personally, and so on, and explained that their passive-aggressive behaviour was on them, including how they regularly told him there was no work for him and he was there on a week by week basis. Baffled, by the term passive-aggressive, he explained it to me and made me laugh by saying that when he got the manager a cup of tea, he would spit in it. Brilliant. But, not true, he was would never have done such a thing as he was such a lovely gentle soul.

I got fired shortly afterwards and was hustled from the building like I’d done something wrong. The reason I was fired: I didn’t fit. I never saw my tech guy again. We didn’t fit in that place, I know that as his kindness that day helped me get through a tricky patch. He was good at his job, he fixed things for me a few times, but they didn’t treat him well and let him know regularly that he was surplus to requirements and that his job was not secure. I hate them to this day for that as it was his lifeline but they didn’t bother to check. They just didn’t care. He had his struggles so that he could see suffering in others like he did that day with me. But, it wasn’t the sort of environment in which people behaved like that, it was a bruising one (I remember one female colleague refusing to let me speak one day because: You know everything.) it took a few days before anyone noticed that he hadn’t turned up for work. I think they wanted him to fix something. But he wasn’t able to because he had already taken his own life. Someone, weeks later, left me a message to tell me that they were buying a park bench in his memory. Which twentysomething in the history of the world has wanted to be remembered with a park bench? #ffs. That’s for old people. He just wanted not to have his job threatened everyday. He wanted to feel secure. He wanted to feel like he mattered – Maslow’s basic needs – without them we feel deficient. They bought him a fucking park bench. They’d have done better to give him that in wages.

I fell pregnant not long after this, and when my baby was born with kidney failure, I tried to have a job and be a mum but did one lecture and realised that I couldn’t teach and worry about her blood pressure and vomiting at the same time. It wasn’t fair to my students. And, there was no way I could hold down a job as a usability consultant, not without having flexible hours – which as we all know are not flexible at all – and not in a passive-aggressive environment like the one I had experienced. And, even though the hospital told us to go about being normal as possible, I couldn’t, I couldn’t do anything but sit by my baby’s bed and be with her in case she was only passing through. I needed to be by her side. I didn’t want to miss a minute as beautiful and as heartbreaking as it was. I couldn’t act like everything was normal.

There is too much emphasis on being normal and business as usual. During that first lectureship, a professor in conversation one day, casually asked me if I had really gone travelling for a year. Surprised, I asked him what else he thought I might have been doing. He said that a gap like that normally meant one of two things: a pregnancy or a nervous breakdown. Sad but true, nothing much changes. Society dictates that we not mention our kids or our mental health in case it affects our job prospects. We all pretend, we all suffer and bleed in silence.

I went to a women’s networking back to work thing when my girls both started school as I wanted more than just a bit of volunteering at the school and the odd web design job, and my previous boss at Westminster University was no longer working there. So, off I went to explore new possibilities. Wow. Part way through the day though, someone asked me something, I don’t remember what exactly, and I said that my baby had been born with renal failure and I had had cancer and everyone was horrified. I wanted to say that I hadn’t really had a choice in whether I got to be a stay-at-home mum or not. But, they didn’t want to hear it, they wanted me to stop making everyone uncomfortable and said I shouldn’t ever mention it not in that room, not on my CV, and definitely not in interview. These are some of my defining life experiences, how could I pretend not to have had them? How could I act as if they hadn’t changed everything. I was lost for words. I was lost.

I saw that I wouldn’t get the answers I needed, and finally understood the lesson, I have the answers I need, no one else knows what’s best for me. When I am lost, I need to find myself, no one can find me for me. So, I left the networking group and started applying once more for HCI lecturing positions. Course, all anyone sees is the gap on the CV and the lack of published papers, but I just didn’t want to publish, I just wanted to teach and not have to research teaching and education. I just wanted to teach and keep up with HCI so that I could teach it well. One time, I even got an email back saying I didn’t have the right skill set. I mean seriously?! I don’t have the skillset to teach HCI? I don’t have the skills to do the job I have already done?

A professor friend who gave me a reference said: Why not lecture something else? Does it have to be HCI? That advice was pure gold and the answer was: No it didn’t. So, I got myself back into university life on one of those zero hours jobs lecturing other people’s slides on web technologies.

Though I will be honest and tell you that I had the same sinking feeling during interview, can you credit it? I ignored myself again, but you know what, this time, it was ok, I did it to get my feet under the table, and they were desperate to fill the position so I started straight away and I had the experience to know what I needed and how to ask for it, and it seemed a small price to pay to hang about in the library. I love libraries and students who are on the whole so inspiring. In fact, I enjoyed it for a couple of years until my mum was dying and instead of struggling, I just said, I need to some time off, but as zero-hours contracting is the worst sort of job, they just fired me, thanks very much. I got that email the same day someone else who was a ‘proper’ member of staff was leaving. He got a cake in the common room and drinks. I got a brusque email. Zero hours are the worst. I miss the library, I miss the students, I miss my mum, but not the slides.

It’s autumn once more, and I have that new term, new academic year feeling and I am ready once more, for more HCI, for more lecturing, for more life, more students and more laughs. This time, older and wiser, I am ready to listen to myself and my gut instincts, and I am so pleased. I no longer feel lost, in fact I am starting to feel found and I like that. I like it very much. With the way technology has expanded over the last few years, there are so many different ways to teach, and I am looking forward to exploring them all and finding myself somewhere new in a new landscape, lecturing the HCI course of my dreams, which is what I always think. And, this is what I love about HCI and technology it is always changing, always expanding, and there is no need to get stuck or feel lost. I just to have to remember to go with the flow and remember where I have been. I am experiencing. How cool is that?

[ part 8 ]

Let’s talk! #broadcastsfrommybooth

I have been struggling to blog for a while now which was making me miserable as I like nothing better than to get a large cup of tea, swizzle round on my chair and tippety-tappety-talk into my computer.

So to wrestle back some sort of control over my writing, I began to talk tech over on YouTube and now I have embedded it here on a specially created Broadcast page. Ta daaa! The result is that I am feeling much happier.

The first time my girls caught me watching myself on TV and transcribing what I said, they thought it was really amazing and wanted their own channels but after a minute or so they started doing impressions of me falling asleep saying: I am very excited about technology. And, they have a point. I do sound a bit monotonous in What am I doing? but that is better than the video Our human experience on social media I seriously look like I am about to cry. It seems that I am not a natural in front of the camera.

My original idea was #broadcastsfrommybooth as I film myself in an old fireplace in my bedroom – my one fabulous go at interior design, even the carpet fitter thought I was mad – but it is a bit long to say in each video, and every word counts.

I use a Google Pixel phone. The camera is fabulous but doesn’t sound brilliant since the Pixel doesn’t allow you to use a plugin microphone, and if you change to a different camera app, the sound doesn’t really improve enough to make it worth the diminished video quality. Apparently, Pixel 3 will fix this problem but they said that about Pixel 2 and when I tested one, it didn’t seem to use the external mic. So, I will just use what I have.

I tried filming on my laptop with one of those headphone mics plugged in lying across the keyboard. It had great sound, but a terrible picture, I look like Voldemort (take a look – 1st Broadcast from the booth) so I turned off the softbox to get my nose back but then I looked like a guest on Most Haunted (check out Privacy and technology) although thankfully you can’t see up my nostrils. What is it with filming and noses? Softboxes are fabulous but it has taken ages to position them just right.

YouTube Creator Studio has lots of editing tools so you can trim your uploaded video, add notations and helpful graphics which I will do once I get my story straight. Currently, I don’t script my videos which I should do – it is a YouTube rule – but it’s a bit tricky talking about my own ideas in a couple of minutes. I just need to practice.

I manage to wear a lot of black even though that is a big no-no and try to follow the other YouTube rules like put face powder on to so as to not be shiny and distracting. I also stare right into the tiny lens and bring my energy to no one in particular which is easier said than done, believe you me.

Speaking into a tiny lens for a maximum of five minutes is very different from lecturing to computer scientists in a purpose built room for at least an hour where I get moment-by-moment feedback. However, I am enjoying the challenge. I gurn a lot and sometimes my hair looks a bit crazy though I bought a hairbrush this morning. This afternoon, I was drinking tea in between takes so my lipstick is all over the place. Yes that’s right, I look like I don’t know how to put on lipstick.

What can I say? YouTubing is much harder than it looks and I am in awe of those who make it look so great but now I have my first real subscriber over on YouTube who is not a member of my family and thinks I have useful things to say, I am inspired to talk more to my audience.

Today, I talked a lot about The Social Animal on Social Media and tomorrow I will tackle Web Design. I can’t wait!

Is this progress? Humans, computers and stories

As a computer scientist, I have to say my job has changed very little in the last  last twenty-odd years. The tech has, admittedly, but I am still doing what I did back then, sitting in front of a computer, thinking about how computers can make peoples’ lives easier, what makes people tick, and how can we put the two together to make something cool?  Sometimes I even program something up to demonstrate what I am talking about.

It seems to me though that everyone else’s jobs (non-computer scientists) have changed and not necessarily for the better. People do their jobs and then they do a load of extras like social media, blogging, content creation, logging stuff in systems- the list is endless – on top of their workload.

It makes me wonder: Is this progress?

Humans and stories

As a teenager, on hearing about great literature and the classics, I figured that it must be something hifalutin’. In school we did a lot of those kitchen sink, gritty dramas (A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Kes, etc.,). So, when I found the section in the library: Classics, Literature, or whatever, it was a pleasant surprise to see that they were just stories about people, and sometimes gods, often behaving badly, and I was hooked. Little did I know that reading would be the best training I could receive to become a computer scientist.

Human and computer united together

In my first job as systems analyst and IT support, I found that I enjoyed listening to people’s stories in and amongst their descriptions about their interactions with computers. My job was to talk to people. What could be better? I then had to capture all the information about how computers were complex and getting in the way and try to make them more useful. Sometimes I had to whip out my screwdriver and fix it there and then. Yay!! Badass tech support.

The thing that struck me the most was that people anthropomorphised their computers, talking about them needing time to warm up, being temperamental, and being affected by circumstances, as if they were in some way human and not just a bunch of electronic circuits. And, that the computer was always the way of progress, even if they hated it and didn’t think so.

I think this is partly because it was one person with one computer working solely, so the computer was like a companion, the office worker you love or hate, who helps or hinders. There was little in the way of email or anything else unless you were on the mainframe and then it was used sparingly, especially in a huge companies. Memos were still circulated around. The computer was there to do a task – crunch numbers, produce reports, run the Caustic Soda Plant (I did not even touch the door handles when I went in there) –  the results of which got transferred from one computer to another by me, and sometimes by that advanced user who knew how to handle a floppy disk.

Most often information was transferred orally by presentation in a meeting or on paper with that most important of tools, the executive summary whilst the rest of it was a very dry long winded explanation, hardly a story at all.

Human and computer and human and computer united

Then the Internet arrived and humans (well mainly academics) began sharing information more easily, without needing to print things out and post them.  This was definitely progress. I began researching how people with different backgrounds like architects and engineers could work together with collaborative tools even though they use different terminology and different software. How could we make their lives easier when working together?

I spent a lot of time talking to architects and standing on bridges with engineers in order to see what they did. Other times I talked to draftsmen to see if a bit of artificial intelligence could model what they did. It could up to a point, but modelling all that information in a computer is limiting in comparison to what a human can know instinctively, which is when I realised that people need help automating the boring bits, not the instinctive bits.

I was fascinated by physiological computing, that is, interacting using our bodies rather than typing – so using our voices or our fingerprints. However, when it was me, my Northern accent, and my French colleagues, all speaking our fabulous variations of the English language into some interesting software written by some Bulgarians I believe, on a slow running computer, well, the results were interesting, to say the least.

Everyone online

The UK government’s push to get everything electronic seemed like a great idea, so everyone could access all the information they needed. It impacted Post Offices, but seemed to free up the time spent waiting in a queue and to provide more opportunities to do all those things like pay a TV licence, get a road tax disc, and passport, etc. This felt like progress.

I spent a lot time working on websites for the government with lovely scripts to guide people through forms like self-assessment so that life was easier. We all know how daunting a government form can be, so what could be better than being told by a website which bit to fill in? Mmm progress.

Lots of businesses came online and everyone thought that Amazon was great way back when. I know I did living in Switzerland and being able to order any book I wanted was such a relief as opposed to waiting or reading it in French. (Harry Potter in French although very good is just not the same.) Progress.

Then businesses joined in and wanted to be seen, causing the creation of banners, ads, popups, buying links to promote themselves, and lots of research into website design so they were all polished and sexy, even though the point of the Internet is that it is a work in progress constantly changing and will never be finished.

I started spending my time in labs, rather than in-situ, watching people use websites and asking them how they felt. I was still capturing stories but in a different way, in a more clinical, less of a natural habitat, way which of course alters what people say and which I found a bit boring. It didn’t feel like progress. It felt businessy – means to an end like – and not much fun.

Human -computer -human

Then phones became more powerful and social media was born, and people started using computers just to chat, which felt lovely and like progress. I had always been in that privileged position of being able to chat to people the world over, online, whatever the time, with the access I had to technology, now it was just easier and available to everyone – definitely progress.   Until of course, companies wanted to be in on that too. So, now we have a constant stream of ads on Facebook and Twitter and people behaving like they are down the market jostling for attention, shouting out their wares 24/7, with people rushing up asking:  Need me to shout for you?

And, then there are people just shouting about whatever is bothering them. It’s fantastic and fascinating, but is it progress?

The fear of being left behind

The downside is that people all feel obliged to jump on the bandwagon and be on multiple channels without much to say which is why they have to do extras like creating content as part of their ever expanding jobs. The downside is that your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times. The upside is that people can say whatever they like which is why your stream can contain the same information repeated a zillion times.

Me, I am still here wondering about the experience everyone is having when this is all happening on top of doing a job.  It feels exhausting and it feels like we are being dictated to by technology instead of the other way around. I am not sure what the answer is. I am not sure if I am even asking the right question. I do know how we got here. But is this where we need to be? Do we need to fix it? Does it needs fixing?  And, where we should go next? I think we may need a course correct, because when I ask a lot of people, I find that they agree. If you don’t, answer me this, how do you feel when I ask: Is this progress?

Web design (5): Structure

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

[Part 5 of 7 : 0) intro, 1) story, 2) pictures,  3) users, 4) content, 5) structure, 6) social media, 7) evaluation]

Many designers have adopted a grid structure to design web pages because a) it lends itself well to responsive design and b) it allows a design which is easy for users to understand. Designers literally have about five seconds before a user will click away to find a different service/page/content provider if the page is laid out in a way which is difficult to understand.

In a great talk for An Event Apart, Designer and Developer Advocate at Mozilla, Jen Simmons looks offline at magazines for inspiration and remembers how there was much experimentation and creativity online until everyone adopted grids and fell into a rut of grids.

But, it is easy to understand why everyone adopted grids, because users create their own understanding of a webpage from its structure. Text is complete within itself and meaning comes from its structure and language rather than the ideas it contains. This is a fundamental principle of semiotics, the study of meaning.

Managing expectations

When a webpage is judged to be useless, it is often because it does not behave in the way the user is expecting, particularly if it is not very attractive.

Designers either need to manage a user’s expectations by giving them what they are expecting in terms of the service they are looking for, or they need to make it super attractive.  Attractive things don’t necessarily work better but we humans perceive them as doing so  because they light up the brain’s reward centre and make us feel better when we are around them. We are attracted to attractive things which is given by certain Gestalt principles such as unity, symmetry, and the golden ratio.

Gestalt: similarity, proximity

Good design is one thing, but we also have specific expectations about  any given webpage. We scan for headings and white space and interpret a page in those terms.  This is because according to Gestalt theory we will interpret items according to their proximity: items which are close together, we will group together; or similarity, items which are similar we interpret as together.

And also, because we have been to others sites and we transfer our experiences from one site to another and anticipate where certain functions should be.

Where am I? Where have I been? Where am I going?

Main menus are usually at the top of the page, grouped together and are used for navigation through the site.  Secondary navigation may take place in drop down menus, or in  left or right hand columns. Specific house keeping information can be found in the footer, or the common links bar if there is one.

If users are completely lost they will use the breadcrumbs, which Google now uses instead of the URL of sites as part of the results their search engine serves up. Therefore, it is in a designer’s interest to put breadcrumbs on the top of page.

Users will stay longer and feel better if they can answer the three questions of navigation as articulated by usability consultant Steve Krug:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where have I been?
  3. Where am I going?

Often this answered by changing links to visited, not visited and enforcing the consistency of the design by adopting a sensible approach to colour. There is a theory of colour in terms of adding and subtracting colour to create colour either digitally, or on a palette, but there is alas, no theory about how to use colour to influence branding and marketing, as personal preferences are impossible to standardise.

HTML 5 & CSS 3

As discussed earlier in part 1 of this series, we separate out our content from our presentation which is styled using CSS 3. Then, once we know what we want to say we use HTML 5 to structure our text to give it meaning to the reader. This may be a screen reader or it may be a human being.

HTML 5 breaks a page into its header and body, and then the body is broken down further into specific instructions. Headings from <h1> to <h6>, paragraphs, lists, sections and paragraphs, etc., so that we can structure a nice layout.  There are thousands of tutorials online which teach HTML 5.

The nice thing about sections is that we can use them to source linked data from elsewhere and fill our pages that way, but still keep a consistent appearance.

Theoretically one page is great, or a couple of pages fine, but once we get into hundreds of pages, we need to think about how we present everything consistently and evenly across a site and still provide users the information for which they came.

Information architecture

Information architecture (IA) is the way to organise the structure of a whole website. It asks: How you categorise and structure information? How do you label it so that users can navigate or search through it in order to find what they need?

The first step is to perform some knowledge elicitation of the  business or context and what everyone (owners, customers) known as stakeholders expect from the proposed system. This may include reading all the official documentation a business has (yawn!).

If there is a lot of existing information the best way to organise it is to perform a card sort. A card sort is when a consultant calls in some users, gives 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”— then users decide where to put “How to floss your teeth”.

This can take a few days each time and a few goes, until a pattern is found, us humans love to impose order on chaos, we love to find a pattern to shape and understand our world.

Once we have a structure from the card sort, it becomes easier to start designing the structure across the site and we begin with the site map.

The site map reflects the hierarchy of a system (even though Tim Berners-Lee was quite emphatic that the web should not have a hierarchical structure).

Then, once a site map is in place, each page layout can be addressed and the way users will navigate. Thus, we get main menus (global navigation), local navigation, content types to put in sections and paragraphs, etc., along with the functional elements needs to interact with users.

Other tools created at this time to facilitate the structure are wireframes, or annotated page layouts, because if is is a big site lots of people may be working on it and clear tools for communication are needed so that the site structure remains consistent.

Mock up screen shots and paper prototypes may be created and sometimes in the case of talented visual designers, storyboards are created. Storyboards are sketches showing how a user could interact with a system, sometimes they take a task-base approach, so that users could complete a common task.

Depending on the size of a project, information architects will work with content strategists who will have asked all the questions in the last section (part 4) on content and/or usability consultants who will have spoken to lots of users (part 3) to get an understanding of their experiences, above and beyond their understanding of the labelling of information in order to answer questions such as:

  • Does the website have great usability which is measured by being: effective and efficient; easy to learn and remember; useful and safe?
  • How do we guide users to our key themes, messages, and recommended topics?
  • Is the content working hard enough for our users?

Sometimes, it may just be one person who does all of these roles and is responsible for answering all of these questions.

It takes time to create great structure, often it takes several iterations of these these steps, until it is time to go on to the next stage (part 6) to start sharing this beautiful content on social media.

[Part 6]

Designing design: Function, behaviour, structure

astrolabe pic

[Part 2 of 12: 1) The science of the artificial 2) function, behaviour structure 3) form follows function, 4) no function in structure, 5) the medium is the message 6) types and schemas 7) aesthetics: attractive things work better 8) managing (great) expectations 9) colour 10) styles and standards 11) design solution spaces 12) conclusions]

The design process exists because the world does not always accommodate us humans, so we employ designers to create things or artefacts, to get the world to adapt to us. In this way, we can see that design is the science of the artificial.

One way of thinking about design is to categorise information into three groups: function-structure-behaviour, as follows:

The first step is for designers decide on the sorts of functions they want the new artefacts to be able to do and then they write descriptions that could potentially do that.  However, until the artefact exists in its physical form, i.e., it has a structure, it is impossible to predict if the artefact will function in the way the designer anticipates, especially when choosing materials – plastic behaves very differently to wood and so on.  Or, in the case of designing a website, a blog behaves very differently to an online store.

So, instead of going straight to the second step of trying to describe the structure of an artefact directly from a set of required functions, the designer will first try to describe the expected behaviour of an artefact, and probably do some sort of simulation (by building a prototype, or performing computational analysis) in order to see how the thing behaves and if it is different to the expected behaviour, and this even works with software.

So, I am currently redesigning my website as it’s looking a bit old, so if I think of it in terms of function, behaviour, and structure, what might happen?

  1. Function: What is the purpose of your website? (Currently, it is just my blog, but I would like it to showcase what I do.)
  2. Behaviour: What will your website do? (Describe what I do, potentially offer what I do?)
  3. Structure: What structure will your website take? (I should have an about-me page, a courses page, a books page,  links to what I do, or a membership area so people can access what I do directly.)

In this way we can see that once I divide how I want my site to behave and how I want it to be structured, it becomes easier to open up to new ideas. Had I just thought that I have a blog, which looks like a blog, it would have been harder to arrive at the idea of creating a membership area. I might never have even thought about it.