Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Every detail matters

Every detail matters. Every single one.

You're in a pub. You meet someone you like the look of. That's how you'll think about that pub next time. It matters.

You hire a car for the weekend. The gears feel a little bit flakey, and the gearstick isn't quite where your hand wants it to be. That's why you won't buy that brand of car. Ever. It matters.

You visit a website. There's an unusual delay between pressing a button and getting a result. They've lost you. They're obviously untrustworthy. It matters.

Sometimes the detail matters more than the big picture even. It's not just about presentation or perfectionism. It's about attention and assurance.

The only get-out clause for brands who get it wrong is that people might not recognise that it's your fault.

Monday, 28 November 2011

Voice recognition detects emotion in your voice

Following hot on the heels of my article about voice, touch and usability, I found a short video published today on Mashable about a system for tailoring voice recognition according to imputed emotion. That is, if you're angry, your voice recognition could interpret what you say with that in mind.

At the moment, it's intended for call centre systems. Sounds to me like it could be the start of a much more nuanced approach to voice control for computers.

Here's the link to the academic research behind the excitement:

Friday, 25 November 2011

The future is voice, touch, and incredibly exacting usability

For most people, what are the easiest ways to control something? Clue: it's not by typing words out, letter by letter, and nor is it by moving something around on a tabletop.

Voice control

Apple has Siri, Google has Voice Actions for Android, and other stuff for Search. Amazon recently acquired Yap for their voice recognition software.

Voice is not great yet, and it is after all stunningly complicated. Leaving aside that accents vary the sound of the human voice a great deal, vocal communication is a beautifully subtle human art. More so than with the written word, it depends on context, intonation and inflection, and any face-to-face vocal exchange is generally augmented by all sorts of gestures and facial expressions. Wow, you wouldn't want to be the computer that has to reduce all that lot to noughts and ones.

It's not only difficult for computers though. It's hard for us fleshies too. We're not used to stripping all the good stuff out of the way we speak and reducing it down to commands.

We might hate to admit this, but we're all computer programmers these days, sort of. "Start my application." "Quit it." "Make a calendar appointment." "Delete something." Techie types are totally used to communicating like that when they're pressing buttons on a computer keyboard, but even they find it awkward to be so purist when speaking. It almost feels like a bad habit to get into: being so expressionless.

Also, voice is all about immediacy and flow. How comfortable do you feel when someone pauses for 10 seconds before responding to even your most basic comment. Bit of an idiot, no? That's what it feels like talking to a computer, which has to upload your voice to the Internet, where it gets processed and returned as something more usable.

Siri has captured the imagination precisely because it's the most natural voice control we've seen so far. All those amusingly human exchanges with Siri are exactly what makes Siri feel usable. Sure it's very clever and capable too, but throw in a few funnies and it's far more reassuringly human.

However, it's still a bit like ordering your half deaf Grandmother to do your domestic chores for you. Perhaps not your proudest moment. Especially in public.


What I love is that touch is getting increasingly gestural and expressive. Inertial scrolling is the most obvious example. You fling your content around, and it behaves like it's been flung. Very reassuring. We live in a physical environment - and the more accurately our digital systems reflect behaviours that we're used to, the better.

I'm sure there's a long way for touch to go too. Touch keyboards are generally unsatisfying, partly because haptic feedback is so poor. (Haptic feedback is when something gives you tactile feedback which helps confirm that you've done it. A physical button that presses down with a satisfying click for instance.)

Also, does touch make you feel clumsy? Great big sausage fingers getting in the way of the screen or accidentally pressing the Backspace button when you meant to press "M"? Any time computers screw up, or the UX is poorly thought through, we blame ourselves. That's not a good experience.

I wonder if reverse-mounted multi-touch screens will help? The PS Vita looks like it'll be the test case.

Digital experiences that suit human beings

It strikes me that all of this is part of the same movement. Digital device form factors, and their software, are integrating more and more tightly with the needs and natures of the human body.

This is simply because people can fit decent technology into almost anything now. As a result, we're no longer devising crazy ugly machines just because we can.

Usability is the absolute key to the success of modern hardware or software. That's all there is to it. There is greater opportunity for this than ever before.

This is also proof that usability is becoming more subtle than ever before. In the case of either hardware or software, the tiniest flaw can knock an entire experience askew, and it may well be harder than ever before to identify that flaw. We users become more exacting as the computers become more capable.

We are getting ever closer to parity between devices and their use cases. It's a very welcome advance, but it makes users more critical than ever before, and it makes designing successful software or hardware even more demanding than ever before.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

On becoming a 'social media guru'

I've decided to become a social media jedi professional savant guru. This will raise my day-rate exponentially as I waltz into high-powered meetings spouting nonsense about trending top of mind, reach and virality (not virility).

@JohnLewisQuotes is a new Twitter account I'm using to experiment with new l33t social media skills. Why John Spedan Lewis? He's a personal hero of mine and there's very little available online of what he actually had to say. He had great insight into capitalism and democracy, so in these days of massive twitter-savvy Occupy protests, I hope that might give me some traction. Also the John Lewis Xmas TV ad went off the scale on Twitter, so that's another angle.

I know you're reaching for the +1 button already, but steady yourself: here's what I've learnt so far in my quest to make @JohnLewisQuotes more popular than @StephenFry.
  • Use the tools for the job. I tried Tweetdeck, the official Twitter software, Echofon, Tweetie, CoTweet and SocialOomph. Mostly clunky Air apps, the quality is generally poor. I settled on Hootsuite, a browser-based application with all the main features I need.
  • Stay in character at all times, as an actor must on-stage
  • Ignore the trolls. A few naysayers will try to drag you into a deeply negative, one-on-one disagreement. Don't engage.
  • Consistency over genius. Use scheduling features to keep up the momentum even while you're elsewhere
  • Auto-DM (on follow) is generally frowned upon. Hootsuite don't offer it and other products implemented it then took it out.
  • A watched pot never boils - sitting waiting for re-tweets is depressing. Better to check back every few hours.
The experiment started 48 hours ago and while my follower count remains low, my first tweet has been retweeted over 100 times and I've a meeting lined up with Peter Cox, author of the book 'Spedan's Partnership'.

What are you waiting for? Follow @JohnLewisQuotes now!

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Minecraft: opening reel

This from the recent 'Minecon': the first conference entirely dedicated to Minecraft, the game started by Swedish developer 'Notch' for a bit of fun that somehow gained traction and has now sold over 4 million copies. And you've never heard of it? Let's fix that.

Dominating through delivery

Put a person in front of a computer, or put a decent phone in their hand, and they have access to a mindblowing universe of content. Because it is now so readily available, it is increasingly clear that part of what makes content wonderful is its diversity. From Amy Winehouse's new single to Uncharted 3, and from Ansel Adam's classic photos to some guy torturing cheese, there's an amazing range of stuff just a couple of clicks away.

So us humans like things to be nice and simple and well categorised, right (or is that just me?). There's a fairly clearly defined, simple set of types of content, even though what gets filed under those types is so fantastically wide-ranging and exciting. These types aren't definitive, but when a whole new type of content emerges it tends to rock our worlds pretty fundamentally.

Here they are. These are the ones with a lot of attention and therefore, one way or another, a lot of revenue attached to them.

Types of digital content:

They all follow the same pattern. They are treasured by their audiences. They are deeply specialised, and, largely thanks to the Internet, they are also impressively democratised too. In each case, no matter how complicated or even impossible it would have been just a few years ago, the tools are now readily available to create and publish your own contributions in each one of these categories (assuming that you have a computer). Sometimes the free world is a really great place to be (assuming that you have a computer).

The megacompanies have moved in

All well and good, but now something interesting is happening. The biggest companies on the Internet have noticed that these are the categories to fight over, and they are massively dominating the delivery mechanisms for each area of content. The big companies are now publishers, because that's where the money is. It's getting to be a little bit uncanny, and they've nearly completed their dominance. As this table shows, there's a few spots left which haven't been fully fought over yet, but we're nearly there.

Megacompanies dominate delivery

So what does this mean? There are a few scary implications here.
  1. Content producers are increasingly dependent on a limited number of publishers.
  2. Content naturally has to conform to the requirements of the publishers. Publishers aren't censors, but they need content producers to play their game to get noticed.
  3. If anyone else tries to become a publisher, they will be squeezed out by these mighty organisations.
I'm not saying any of this is dreadful. Sure, it does mean there's an awful lot of eggs in a very limited set of baskets. But those baskets are amazing places, and the people who own them are benevolent, right?

My main point is simply that the model is changing. To succeed as a content producer, you have to play the big boys' game. And to succeed as any kind of publisher, it seems like your best possible outcome is that you get bought by one of the megacompanies.

And if you try to produce something that doesn't immediately seem to fit into this eco-system, well, good luck to you!

Monday, 21 November 2011

Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson

Where will Apple go from here? In losing Steve Jobs, the company has lost its founder, its rescuer, its leader and its champion. Jobs' philosophy is simple. Above all other considerations - such as money, market forces, or popular opinion - Jobs believed in the sanctity of the perfectly simple product. To deliver this he built companies to respect and serve two things: origination and purity of vision. Apple, NeXT and Pixar. "Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page," he said. "People don't know what they want until you show it to them."

Whether you're a technophile or not, you have to admit that the world is a better place with computers that anyone can use. Apple's products are focused on creating a positive and unintimidating user experience - rather than computers that need a technophile to have the patience to bear with their cryptic error messages and idiosyncratic behaviours. Without Steve Jobs, there really is doubt that the industry would have moved in that direction at all. Computers could have stayed forever with the specialists, the nerds and the scientists.

But who will carry that standard now, and can the company maintain it with it's chief exponent gone? Jony Ive is the nearest Apple has to being Jobs' spiritual successor: the mastermind designer behind the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone and pretty much all the other popular products too. But Ive was hugely dependent on Jobs. When Jobs was away sick for a period in 2009, Ive was very aware of "how hard it had been to keep things going while he was away".

It seems that simplicity and purity are among the hardest paths to tread - at least in technology and in business.

Jobs' story is one of the greatest examples of the American dream becoming reality. It literally starts in a garage and ends with the most valuable company in the world - a company that genuinely "made a dent in the universe", as intended by its founder from the very start. Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs is extremely well made, and Jobs' story just keeps getting better until its untimely end.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Jony Ive's design philosophy

This is a short quote from Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Steve Jobs. It's Jony Ive describing his design philosophy:

"Why do we assume that simple is good? Because with physical products, we have to feel we can dominate them. As you bring order to complexity, you find a way to make the product defer to you. Simplicity isn't just a visual style. It's not just minimalism or the absence of clutter. It involves digging through the depth of the complexity. To be truly simple, you have to go really deep. For example, to have no screws on something, you can end up having a product that is so convoluted and complex. The better way is to go deeper with the simplicity, to understand everything about it and how it's manufactured. You have to deeply understand the essence of a product in order to be able to get rid of the parts that are not essential."

Ive was (is!) inspired by Dieter Rams from Braun: "less is better" (Weniger aber besser).

Friday, 18 November 2011

Skyrim and the art of gaming

Skyrim PC
Skyrim's brilliant. I  say that without having played it.

I know it's brilliant because it's by Bethesda. Not everything they do is gold. Fallout 3 was good, but not great. But Elder Scrolls, which started in 1994 and of which this is the fifth installment, is a unique and stunning creation. Every game since that first one 17 years ago, all of which I've played from start to finish, exists in the same world, meticulously curated and filled with magic.

Uncharted 3 is brilliant because when they do the motion capture for the animation they simultaneously record the actor's voices allowing for improvisation. Elder Scrolls is brilliant because of the depth of its Universe.

Most games are made up mostly of the equivalent of those empty plastic TVs they put on furniture in Ikea: imitations that challenge your suspension of disbelief. In the recent Deus Ex for example, you inexplicably see the same 4 books owned by every character in every room. In Elder Scrolls you sense that everyone at Bethesda spends lunchtime writing stories, all gloriously kept 'canon', to fill the bookshelves of the game. The game has over 300 different books - many of which you'll recognise from Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion - but are now 200 years older.

"When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and nobody will ever see it. You'll know it's there, so you're going to use a beautiful piece of wood in the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through."
- Steve Jobs

Is it more of the same, as Modern Warfare 3 stands accused? Sure. Will anyone complain? Not a chance. These games are a wonderful flight into fantasy, a connection with a rawer time of magic and strangeness, of limitless adventure and visceral encounters - all with you the main character. Middle-earth doesn't qualify as 'epic' next to this. Harry Potter belongs to a 9 year old's bedtime. Skyrim is a land of 16 square miles with hundreds of inter-related characters soaked in historic feuds and factions: that's a story.

Still, it's just a game. It isn't a great work of art, achieving only the more humble ambition of being great entertainment. That's OK.

But there are movies and there's certainly theatre that moves you, enthralls you, exhilarates you, makes you laugh and makes you cry. The comedy/tragedy masks above every stage, with us since the Ancient Greeks. Has a game ever made you feel intense emotion? "Yes", you might say. But was it able to sustain that, deepen and develop it over the course of the narrative? The games I've played have one or two shining but sporadic moments, the exception not the rule.

Take a pack of cards and you get more drama. The Tarot (major arcana) is the story of the fool as he goes through the dramatic changes of life: innocent, tempted this way and that, experiencing transformation and the shattering of illusions. Most games restrict their plot to 2 or 3 Tarot cards. I'd love to experience one that symbolically attempts the whole deck.

It's within the grasp of game technology to do this, but it needs a vision - a vision beyond assuming your audience is 14 year old straight male gamers that want a massive gun to blast the zombies - and even they would appreciate something better than this poor assumption.

It's time to move on from Pong, Bomberman, Angry Birds and the fairground duckshoot that is Call of Duty. We want games with Shakespearean complexity of nuance, wordplay, symbolism, wit, beauty and mystery. That vision needs ambition, and whatever game you want to say has some of these things, maybe you'll say Heavy Rain or Zelda or something else - I'm sure we need to be far more ambitious, more demanding.

It's time to up the game.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Vertical bar with official share buttons for Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, LinkedIn

So, today we've been setting up this blog.

Part of the reason why we have chosen is because it is easier to customise some important bits and bobs. And among those bits and bobs is the ubiquitous 'share this post' bar. Vertical share buttons. Easy right?

I trawled around on the Internet and I found loads of variations on this theme, several referencing Mashable's share bar, which seems popular. I also found all sorts of untrustworthy crap marked for the attention of site administrators who don't want to use their brain to customise or learn anything whatsoever. It's a scary world of dodgy bloggers out there!

But I didn't find any that did exactly what I want. This is what I want:
  • Simple. I'll sacrifice complexity for simplicity, any day.
  • Encapsulated. I don't want to have to link to someone else's stuff, and have my site compromised if theirs goes down.
  • Customisable. I'd love an amazing wizard that helps me customise the bar, but on the other hand I want simplicity and tidy encapsulation, so I'll settle for code that's well enough written for me to mess around with directly.
  • Official. I want the official share buttons from the official sites. Lots of bars don't do this. Don't know why.
So, basically, I made one that does exactly (and only) that stuff.

I'm focused on sharing this site on Twitter, LinkedIn, Google Plus and Facebook. So that's what this bar does. You could easily add other stuff though (like StumbleUpon or Digg or whatever).

I've annotated the code so that you can see where the official share button came from, in each case.

Get all the code you need to install this on your blog right here.

Installing the share button gadget

  1. Download the code, which is a single txt file, right here.
  2. Go to the Layout page on your blog.
  3. Click 'Add a gadget'. You can put the gadget anywhere on the page, as it's going to float to the left of your site anyway, but personally I'd stick it under the Header.
  4. Select 'HTML/JavaScript' from the selection of gadgets in Basics.
  5. Don't bother adding a title. It won't show up anywhere.
  6. Copy and paste the text from the file you downloaded from here into the big box.
  7. Customise the code, which is quick and easy. See below.
  8. Click Save.
  9. You're done. Have a look at your blog.

Customise the code if you like

There is one thing you must do. You must edit the bit near where it says TWITTER that says data-via="elecmal". Change "elecmal" to your Twitter user name. Then the tweets from this will say via your user name, rather than mine.

If you want to add other social sites, I'd recommend that you type into Google "official share button" + the name of the site, and you're sure to find a very easy wizard to create the button you need, provided by the official site itself. (I've linked to the ones I used in comment tags in my code.) Once you've got the code, paste it in just like the ones in my code, surrounded by a <div class='sharebutton'> tag.

Otherwise, you could change the layout by fiddling with the code in the <style> tag at the top. I have glued the bar to the bottom left of the browser with the code "bottom:0px; left:0px;". You could change this - maybe "top:30px; right:0px;". Some people prefer the bar to be bolted onto the right or left of their blog. To do that, use something like "top:15%; margin-left:-155px;". Try it out and see what works for you!

Installing MongoDB on a Rackspace Cloud server (SOLVED)

Just to get this technical note on the Internets for general helpfulness of humanity..

After following the main MongoDB instructions, I was stumped with "Error: couldn't connect to server shell/mongo.js:79". Mongod had started but I couldn't 'mongo'. This was NOT a mongoDB problem, despite all the rest of the advice on the internet telling you to set the datadir, check permissions, uninstall the packages, try a different package etc.

I should have thought earlier to use my own brain. The problem was the server's own firewall preventing mongo from accessing port 27017. Specifically, the Rackspace sample iptables ruleset does not allow an SSHd user to 'mongo': Rackspace Cloud sample iptables.

So if you followed the official YouTube video on setting up your Rackspace Cloud server you'll hit this issue. Rackspace Cloud setup video by Chad. My cloud server is Ubuntu 10.04 Lucid but I expect any Rackspace cloud server configured as above will encounter this. To save you the hours of troubleshooting I've just undergone, this will sort you out:

[After following the MongoDB 'Quickstart' instructions and the stuff on the page above, installing from the mongodb-10gen package]

sudo iptables -A INPUT -p tcp --dport 27017 -j ACCEPT
sudo iptables -A INPUT -p tcp --dport 28017 -j ACCEPT
sudo iptables -A INPUT -s -j ACCEPT
sudo iptables -A OUTPUT -s -j ACCEPT
sudo bash -c "iptables-save > /etc/iptables.up.rules"

This assumes you followed Chad's instructions (around time 10:00) to reference /etc/iptables.up.rules from /etc/network/interfaces:

pre-up iptables-restore < /etc/iptables.up.rules

Do that, reboot your cloud server from the Rackspace web management interface - and you'll be able to 'mongo' on your server (and remotely).

Make sure you add 'auth = true' to /etc/mongodb.conf (also adding an 'admin' user via mongo) so that the web interface on isn't too useful to people.


Murmuration from Sophie Windsor Clive on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Data speeds up evolution; Aesthetics makes revolutions happen

Reading a great article about Apple vs Google - focusing on the difference between two hugely influential companies. They are clearly even more different than notoriously dissimilar chalk and cheese. And there's a very interesting theme in there.

As the article states, Apple believes in the power of design ("It’s really hard to design products by focus groups,” Steve Jobs said in a 1998 BusinessWeek interview. “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.").

Google believes in the power of data (Both Page and Brin "both shared a core belief in the primacy of data," says Levy in his book In The Plex.)

Ben Parr makes a great point in his Mashable article (referred above). Apple are responsible for a series of largely unexpected revolutions in technology. Google are responsible for hyper-evolving several existing markets.

Personally, I've never found my thrill poring over data to find its hidden secrets. Seems like a simple question now: do you want to speed up evolution, or are you looking for the next revolution?

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Google fail whale

RSA Animate: Ken Robinson on Changing Education

If you haven't seen it already, you really should. A great talk. A great speaker. Great ideas.

Quick summary of some good bits...

Education is still built on Industrial paradigms: directing children into academic vs non-academic streams; teaching children in batches, according to their date of manufacture; and ensuring that they are anaesthetised to swallow irrelevant and dogmatic content during an aesthetically exciting and diverse times.

Great talks inspire change. I love this stuff.

It is not facts that inspire people to action - it is the opinions they hold about those facts.

Websites are software - a lesson for marketing companies

Why are so many websites produced by marketing companies so poorly received by users? Come on, let's face it. There are times when every agency has thought to itself, "Why did we get such unimpressive stats on that project? Why didn't users revel in our exciting new web project just as much as we slaved away producing it?"

The answer is bloody simple. Marketing companies generally don't get that websites are software. They treat websites as perfect renditions of a brand or campaign thought, probably with an awkwardly crow-barred-in attempt at social media engagement. And they expect all those lovely little Mohammed's crawling around on the Internet to come to their fantastic new mountain. And they're heartbroken when they don't. (Or alternatively, since the agency has probably already been paid, maybe they don't give a stuff.)

Software isn't like that. Software provides a service. If it isn't clear on what that service is, or if it provides that service poorly, or if no-one wants that service, then the software isn't worth making in the first place. Also, software is generally pretty interactive, and pretty customisable. It's my software, not yours. I use it to do my stuff, and I like it best when it let's me do my stuff my way, without distraction. The emphasis for software is massively massively massively on user experience. It's not generally about passively looking at someone else's creative or informational ramblings, and occasionally being privileged enough to click my way through a navigation system to find something more or less appealing.

Software self-consciously adapts its feature set according to tech capabilities and emerging user requirements. Photoshop added more vector tools when they could, and didn't drop them when they found people liked them. Functionality is crucial, and goes way beyond the front end 'skin' of your website. No amount of dressing up an empty cardboard box will make it into a bijou residence. You need to work out what your business can deliver and what your users are demanding from you, and then make a front end for that.

Apps are a great case in point. They're so self-consciously software - and most of them are web-enabled. So they're a bit like websites too. Hooray! Now ask yourself how many apps there are that just let the user browse around a fixed set of unchanging designed screens. Good apps help people do things they want to do - whether those things are utterly trivial or completely critical. And they have development cycles, and they invite user feedback, and they have ongoing programs to maintain them, develop them and evolve them.

And yet marketing companies and their clients still roll out barely functional websites with painful deadlines and big bang launches, pretty much totally abandoning them shortly after. Well done. You've just clogged up the Internet with more abandonware.

All of the websites on the World Wide Web are software. All of them: even the marketing sites that barely anyone ever visits. It's just that they're crap software.

Projection mapping for LG Optimus Hyper Facade in Berlin

Tuesday, 1 November 2011


OMG. Check this out... you press buttons a computer, and THIS happens in real life. Right before your very eyes.

Made by these people: