My comment to Radio 2 on cycle helmets

As widely reported elsewhere, a “judge has ruled that cyclists may be partly at fault if they are knocked off their bikes while not wearing a helmet”: The issue was discussed on “BBC Radio 2”: by Matthew Bannister, standing in for Jeremy “Daily Mail FM” Vine.

Just after the intro to the piece, there was an advert for the BBC’s coverage of Formula 1 car racing (something that encourages some drivers to drive like idiots), an unfortunate juxtaposition but typical for the MSM, where “dog bites man” or “car driver kills people” isn’t news.

Seeing as my comment wasn’t read out, I thought I’d publish it here.

bq. Cycle helmets aren’t a panacea. They tend to cause cyclists to take more risks, and some research has shown that helmet-less cyclists are shown more respect and given more overtaking room than helmet-wearing ones.

bq. The only thing that compulsory helmet wearing will do is reduce the number of cyclists. Fewer cyclists = less safety for those who remain. The greatest thing that would increase cycle safety is more cyclists.

There were lots of messages and calls saying “yes, you should wear a helmet” “a helmet saved my life” and “helmets should be compulsory”.

They should all go and read “The Bicycle Helmet Research Foundation”: The issue isn’t as simple as “wearing a helmet = greater safety”.

There was also the usual “serves them right, pavement terrorists” rubbish, as well. This person should ride a bike for a bit, and then comment further.

“But I’ve got my hazard lights on!”

There are some “great”: “blogs”: out there documenting the worst excesses of a car-supremacist culture (in which we in the UK live): both the behaviour of drivers and the panderings of local authorities to them, despite claims by “certain extremist groups”: that drivers are persecuted by councils.

Bristol gets a lot of attention as the UK’s first cycling city, and it undoubtedly has too many cars in certain parts of the city. Bath, a much smaller city, also has parking problems in certain areas. It also arguably has worse cycle provision. I ride a combination of roads, car parks and cycle lanes during my 3-mile commute.

On my ride to work today I witnessed two examples of how bikes get a raw deal in day-to-day encounters.

First: a van in the ASL(Advanced Stop Line) zone at a the bottom of Brougham Hayes.

“! Masonry Ltd van in Advanced Stop Line zone)! (Stokes Masonry Ltd van in Advanced Stop Line zone by t1mmyb, on Flickr)”:

It didn’t inconvenience me, but it just displays an insidious arrogance in the mind of some drivers; a mindset that thinks that non-motorised vehicles don’t have a right to be on the road.

Second: a delivery truck parked in the contra-flow cycle lane in James St. West:

“! Logistics – Making Cycles Flow Into Oncoming Traffic)! (CEVA Logistics – Making Cycles Flow Into Oncoming Traffic by t1mmyb, on Flickr)”:

I stopped and spoke, very politely, to the driver. He was polite too, and his reply came down to “what can I do? I can’t park on double-yellow lines! I’ve got my hazard lights on!” as if the hazard lights protected cyclists from the oncoming traffic if/when they had the guts to cycle round the truck. There were some empty (albeit private, off-road) parking spaces that he could have pulled into, but no. The cycle lane it was, because it’s an easy target.

The truck belonged to a company called “CEVA Logistics”:, whose tag-line is “Making Business Flow”. I assume they don’t mind business flowing right through the tattered remnants of the Highway Code and any unlucky cyclists in their way.

Improving Freecycle

I’ve been a member of our local “Freecycle”: mailing list for a few years, successfully using it to offload and acquire various items, from a double futon bed to an mp3 player.

In 2006, “Giles Turnbull blogged about Freecycle’s shortcomings”:, from a usability and webapp point of view. It boils down to “Freecycle is a great idea unsuited to living inside a mailing list once the size of the list is >100 people”. Giles’ proposed solution was a web app, and his post contains some pretty detailed design descriptions. I’m sure that there’s an interaction designer in Giles trying to get out :)

(There’s probably something interesting there about group psychology and Dunbar’s Number, but I’m more interested in finding a practical solution.)

Other people have tried to build Freecycle-like philosophy in a webapp form, e.g. “SnaffleUp”:, but they (so far at least, but it’s early days) lack the one thing Freecycle has in spades: a critical mass of users. Oh, and a snappy brand.

What if, instead of building a Freecycle-like webapp in competition with Freecycle, an app were built on top of the existing mailing lists, teasing out all that lovely data and metadata and making it queryable, sliceable, diceable and geo-plottable?

There are three pieces of information pertinent to an item on Freecycle:

* what it is
* where it is
* whether it’s still available

There’s no API to Yahoo Groups at the moment, but it’s possible to get Freecycle mails sent to a mail account on a *nix box, where they could be parsed and inserted into a database for querying by item name, description or location. If we group items by sender, it should be possible to determine that when a “taken” follows an “offered” with the same/similar subject line, then that item has changed from being available to unavailable.

All of that data is present in a Freecycle email, but the inconsistent way in which people format their subject lines makes parsing out the item and location a bit of a challenge.

An ideal Freecycle subject line looks like this:

bc. [BathFreecycle] OFFER: Cat basket (Combe Down, Bath)

However, they are often more like this:

bc. [BathFreecycle] offered cat basket bath

(As an aside, Bath’s Freecycle list is a great test case, as the name of the city is also the name of an item. Supposing someone wrote “Offer: baby bath”, one would assume that they weren’t trying to offload their offspring but had merely omitted their location. Formalising this in the parser would be hard, if not impossible, such that it may have to be flagged for review by a human.)

A way around this would be to prime the parser with a list of possible locations. Once you remove the list name, the offer/wanted/taken/received prefix and the location, you’re left with the item.

The variability of people’s use of grammar, spelling and format (despite the fact that your messages are moderated until you’ve demonstrated that you can write a subject line properly) makes the subject parser the biggest challenge in implementing this solution.

All of this does raise the issue of increased ease of, and cross-group, querying. Already there are scammers on Freecycle lists, making bogus offers then directing people toward pyramid schemes and the like. Also, it’s seen as bad form to post the same item to more than one group simultaneously; having said that, it’s ok to subscribe to several lists (if you can keep up with the volume of email).

This geocoded database would make it much easier for people to snap up “big ticket” items, possibly to sell on (it happens at the moment). If Freecycle’s aim is purely to keep usable or servicable items out of landfill, does this really matter? Also, I can imagine the central Freecycle organisation not being happy if this “hack” were built on Freecycle outwith their blessing and control.

I know other people find Freecycle frustrating. Does this (very rough) outline of a solution sound like it makes sense?

A shepherd

(I found this in my inbox during a clearout…)

A shepherd was herding his flock in a remote pasture when suddenly a brand-new BMW advanced out of a dust cloud towards him. The driver, a young man in a Prada suit, Gucci shoes, Dior sunglasses and D+G tie, leans out the window and asks the shepherd, “If I tell you exactly how many sheep you have in your flock, will you give me one?”

The shepherd looks at the man, obviously a yuppie, then looks at his peacefully grazing flock and calmly answers: “Sure. Why not?”

The yuppie parks his car, whips out his Dell notebook computer, connects it to his Vodafone cell phone, surfs to a NASA page on the internet, where he calls up a GPS satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on his location which he then feeds to another NASA satellite that scans the area in an ultra-high-resolution photo. The young man then opens the digital photo in Adobe Photoshop and exports it to an image processing facility in Hamburg, Germany.

Within seconds, he receives an e-mail on his Palm Pilot that the image has been processed and the data stored. He then accesses a MS-SQL database through an ODBC connected Excel spreadsheet with hundreds of complex formulae. He uploads all of this data via an email on his Blackberry and, after a few minutes, receives a response. Finally, he prints out a full-colour, 150-page report on his hi-tech, miniaturised HP LaserJet printer, turns to the shepherd and says: “You have exactly 1,586 sheep.” “That’s right. Well, I guess you can take one of my sheep,” says the shepherd.

He watches the young man select one of the animals and looks on amused as the young man stuffs it into the boot of his car. Then the shepherd says to the young man “Hey, if I can tell you exactly what your business is, will you give me back my sheep?” The young man thinks about it for a second and then says: “Okay, why not?” “You’re a consultant” says the shepherd. “Wow! That’s correct,” says the yuppie. “But how did you guess that?”

“No guessing required,” answers the shepherd. “You showed up here even though nobody called you, you want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked, and you know f**k-all about my business. Now give me back my dog.”


It feels quite weird to be writing this, but I’m leaving “IOP Publishing”: after nearly eight years: my longest-running job by a country mile. I’m going to “Digerati Studio”:, a Web agency in Bath; no more train-induced commuter stress for me.

I’m leaving just as the first project I worked on at IOPP — the Magazines Online Subscriptions system — is being retired, which I feel is poetic: a complete project lifecycle.

I’ll be doing similar work to what I’m doing now, but for clients in other firms (rather than elsewhere in the same company) and using different server (PHP) and desktop (Mac) technology. I’ll also get to do some User Experience Architecture work, an area I’ve been wanting to get into for some time.

While this means I won’t be in Bristol anything like as much as before, I still hope to get along to SkillSwaps and other such events. I also plan to be at Horts to meet ex-colleagues after the IOPP Christmas Company Meeting and catch up on the gossip.

As Merlin Mann is fond of saying: “see you in cyberspace…”

September 19th

Off the train; voices in a garden. I look and see barbeque smoke.

Up the hill, more smells of outdoor cookery; further on, it blends with the aroma of the chip shop.

A beautiful reminder of the summer we never had.

dConstruct 2008: part five

(This is turning into a marathon: parts “one”:, “two”:, “three”: and “four”: precede this one. I can’t guarantee your sanity should you choose to read that lot.)

h3. Joshua Porter: Leveraging Cognitive Bias in Social Design

bq. “Rationality be damned…”

We (humans) work on limited information to make a decision – the Bandwagon Effect.

h4. Heuristics

Heuristics are a shortcut to making a decision. They’re useful (else we would likely never make a decision, make a decision _very, very slowly_ and/or go insane in the process) but they are subject to “cognitive bias”:

h4. Design-related biases

* Including “_Not Invented Here_”: (which I loathe; hey – I have a bias against it!)

h4. Representation bias

* leveraged by Freshbooks to go after the type of audience they want
* “’s”: reviewer of the day
** these are power users that are showcased as being representative of the wider community, even though they’re not

h4. Loss aversion

More people would take a bet on a 50% chance of a win than a 50% chance of loss, even though _the result is the same_!

Losses loom larger than gains [as illustrated by the LHC switch-on this week, and the focus on the infinitesimally small chance of earth-swallowing black holes]. For instance, here is “OpenID”: described in terms of gains and losses:

bq. “Log in anywhere with your domain!” – _gains_

bq. “Don’t forget another password!” – _losses_

Any feature described in terms of _future savings_ is probably better described in terms of an _immediate loss_.

h4. Ownership bias

People value things more when they have a sense of ownership, and this is reflected in the names of many online services: [*You*]tube, [*My*]Space, [*my*]hotel. Also, “Flickr”: is littered with “you” descriptions.

This ownership bias is a factor in the 9x effect (mentioned during “Joshua’s workshop”:, where sign-up is actually nine times harder than we think.

On “”:, sign-up is deferred until later; the user gets to make something first, creating a sense of ownership (and the need to avoid losing that which they’ve created – more loss aversion).

*More to come. Yes, really.*

dConstruct 2008: part four

(Parts “one”:, “two”: and “three”: precede this…)

After the workshop ended, a few of us decamped to Komedia Bar for an ale; at 7pm it was time for the emerging tradition that is the Pre-Pre-Party Burgers, next door at Gourmet Burger Kitchen. GBK had reserved half the restaurant for dConstruct attendees, so it wasn’t too difficult to get a seat. I stuck my coat on an empty chair on a table otherwise occupied by “Ross”:, “Mark”: and “Adnan”:, all of whom were fine burger-eating company, despite having never met me before in their lives 😉

Burgers eaten, we headed for the Pre-dConstruct Party, at Po Na Na’s in The Lanes, the area that was originally the fishing village that eventually became Brighton. The party was sponsored by “”:, a still-in-beta-as-I-write-this service for claiming your identity online and doing aggregated life-streaming. I’ve signed up for a beta invite, but no word yet. Still, I got a free t-shirt and baseball cap, neither of which I’m likely to wear, unfortunately. The t-shirt says “Never mind the bollocks, here comes” and is extra-large so looks like a tent on me: two good reasons not to wear it to work. The baseball cap is one of those trucker’s caps that ironically fashionable people were wearing a few years ago, but since I may be ironic or fashionable but not at the same time, I decided that it’s not for me.

This was to be the start of a large well of freebie-related disappointment at this year’s dConstruct. I had planned to stock my wardrobe for the coming year but, alas, it seems that the economic woes of the wider world have reached Noomeejaland and no-one wants to spend on quality giveaways! What we need is more VC cash to flood into the industry… no, wait: we don’t.

Anyway: there were free drinks, at least, so it’s not all doom and gloom. It was good to see some familiar faces from Bristol and Bath (Alex and Laura Francis, Dan Dixon, Mel Kirk, Ryan Carson, Keir Whitaker) plus Mike and Dominic from Carsonified, who I’d not met before. I also got chatting to some new faces: “Andy”: and “Geoff”: and a couple of guys who work at Cardiff Uni and who’ve just been through the same Groupwise -> Lotus Notes transition that we went through a few years ago (“but at least Groupwise IMAP actually _worked_!”).

I’m far too old to be partying all night, and I have two young children, so I’m tired by 10pm these days. I didn’t stay very long at the Pre-Party, where the music was so loud that it wasn’t really possible to hold a conversation. I _do_ sound old, don’t I? Off to bed, said “Zebedee”:

Next morning, breakfast with friends! Chris Hall and Alex and Laura Francis were also staying at The Kemp Townhouse, so it was a more sociable affair than the day before. The _Smoothie of the Day_ was the same as yesterday’s, suggesting that it’s actually the _Smoothie of More Than One Day_; it was, nonetheless, delicious. I started with muesli as before, but followed it up with pancakes with smoked salmon. This was a mistake: the pancakes were far too filling compared to the muffin that you get with Eggs Benedict or Florentine, and I couldn’t eat it all. I hate wasting food.

h3. The Actual Conference

As the conference agenda was printed in full on the attendee badge, I could relax a bit; opening remarks weren’t due until 10am. I checked out of the hotel and wandered over to the Brighton Dome, venue for the conference. I realised part-way there that I’d forgotten my invoice, without which I’d fail to claim back expenses. One phone call to the hotel later and the manager promised to leave it with Chris, who was staying the Friday night as well.

With no more checking in to do (as I had my pass from the workshop day) I grabbed a coffee, bumped into “Adrian”: again and we found a seat for the talks.

After an intro from “Richard Rutter”: and Glenn Jones (of “Madgex”:, one of the sponsors) it was time to hear from…

h3. Steven Jones: “The Urban Web”

(Steven is author _The Ghost Map_, an account of Cholera, Information Design and Social Networks in 19th Century London)

Steven gave a fascinating account of how a doctor (amateur InfoDesigner), a vicar (social networker with hyper-local knowledge) and the availability of open data in a standardised format led to the tracing of Soho’s 1854 Cholera outbreak (the penultimate one in the city) back to a contaminated water pump outside 48 Broad St.

These principles, discovered during the book’s writing, led to the development of “”: a (US-only, atm) web site that aggregates hyper-local knowledge, even from non-geocoded sources. This seems fraught with the risk of inaccuracy or outright wrongness; in fact Leisa Reichelt (one of last year’s speakers and a user experience designer) Tweeted: “Not convinced by the premise or the implementation of”: I guess it takes some people less time than others to see through a web site’s glossy presentation (and is glossy) to see the reality underneath. (Not that glossy presentation is _bad_, it’s just that it needs to be glossy presentation of something that’s functionally sound.)

Anyway, if you can look past that, Steven dubbed this stuff “The Geo-Web” and gave an example of being like virtual CCTV(Close-Circuit Television): a van exploded in Brooklyn, where he lives, someone Tweeted about it and it (somehow) ended up in a geo-specific alert/feed.

But, “as Chris Hall pointed out”:, there are massive trust issues with all of this (like many Web projects, the creators of which seem to assume everyone’s as nice and cuddly as they are) and the opportunity for cheap, non-destructive “social” terrorism, or at least mischief.

h3. Aleks Krotoski: “Playing the Web”

(Aleks writes for “The Guardian”:, is a gamer and an academic. She’s also a very lucid, funny speaker – not what I’d expected (which was someone rather arch) from reading her stuff in the paper.)

Her talk’s tagline is “how gaming makes the internet (and the world) a better place”. There’s a Games world out there, and a Web world; it’s not often the two collide in any meaningful way.

_Web people_ love games. Why? Stickiness! (which leads to advertising and profit, usually). _Games people_, however, aren’t really bothered about the Web.

* It’s not about the graphics – it’s about _play_.
* It’s not even about the story – it’s about _play_.

Games are part of the Experience Economy, which “is a way to make something fun sound really dull” 😀

h4. How do they do it?

# Controlled systems
** but gamers feel the need for openness
** do anything, go anywhere, meet anyone
** there can be to much openness, though; it’s a fine line
# Enabling systems
** The Internet and the Web have always had community
** Games only started getting community later on
** There are people selling games for “Second Life”: for Real Cash Money on eBay; this is virtual stuff with real value
# Psychological systems
** Games don’t have to be active – see “PMOG(Passively Multiplayer Online Game)”:, which is based on your “real Web” activity

*There’s a feedback loop between gamers and game designers*

* They often overlap (i.e. many game designers are gamers)
* there’s little awareness of formal HCI(Human-Computer Interaction) best practice…
* but they get it right by gut feel [as do web devs… sometimes?]

Gamers are a pretty homogenous bunch: most likely (though not exclusively) male “kidults”:; web users, on the other hand, are much more diverse: they are anybody and everybody.

The challenge, then, is to talk to and work with people from the world of games and meet them half-way.

bq. “gamers make the best designers” a lesson there, decision makers where I work often don’t use the internet much — “Chris Hall”:

Should people who are immersed in Web culture have a greater decision-making clout at “IOP Publishing”: That’s a tough one, as it may be that “ordinary” (i.e. non-Web-immersed) users may be left cold by services designed “by gut feel” only. User-centred (and activity-centred) design is of paramount importance if we are to be truly “customer focused”.

*To be continued…*

dConstruct 2008: part three

(See “part one”: for some _fascinating_ travel and eating anecdotes, and “part two”: for the first half of Joshua Porter’s workshop)

h3. Designing for sign-up

Contrary to what I (and presumably others) thought, this isn’t about the sign-up _form_! It’s more to do with the need to *articulate the core value of what’s being offered to the user*. In pseudo-physics terms, it’s about converting potential energy into kinetic energy.

Research has been done that suggests that *sign-up is nine times harder than we think it is*:

* users overvalue their current solution by three times, and
* providers overvalue their offering by three times

Getting from interested to sign-up – *there are three types of visitors*:

# I know I want to sign up
# I need to know more
# I’m sceptical

To meet those three visitor types where they are, there are three strategies for sign-up:

* immediate engagement – you can use the site and still see what’s in it for me (WIIFM) without signing up
* articulate benefits and features
* use levels of description, e.g.
** “ sign-up screen”:
** “”:

*The carrot vs. the stick*: “Netvibes”: lets you do stuff first, without signing up. If you want to _save_ your stuff, though, you have to register. This is a stick, rather than carrot, approach but it can work well.

“Luke Wroblewski”: calls this “progressive engagement”, though Joshua prefers the term “instant engagement”. Some examples are “”: and “Freshbooks”:

h3. Reputation

bq. “Social problems don’t have technical solutions”

The Yahoo Developer Network have some “design patterns for reputation”: in their “pattern library”:

Reputation rewards need to be tied to quality as well as quantity; you need to reward (and highlight) desired behaviour. The example given was that of Heidi Klausner, a reviewer on “Amazon”: whose number of reviews equates to >5.5 *per day* since 2001. There is some speculation out there about her authenticity (i.e. whether she’s actually a team of reviewers) but her reviews seem to contain nothing that can’t be gleaned from the back cover of the books in question.

What’s interesting is that, while no-one will get anywhere near Ms. Klausner in raw number of reviews, other reviewers perform better using other, more intelligent metrics. Some have a much better ratio of helpful reviews to total reviews; others have more reviews marked as helpful.

Reputation isn’t just about people’s behaviour and actions; personal profiles contribute as well. “The profile must fit the domain”, however, so don’t ask users for the name of their dog on a business-focused site, for instance. “”: is a good example of a site that combines lots of different reputation patterns.

bq. “Optimise for value-added behaviour”

h3. Reciprocity

On “LinkedIn”:, when someone recommends a colleague they’ve worked with, it’s very rare indeed that the recommended person doesn’t return in kind with a recommendation (so much so, that a failure to return the compliment is seen as an insult). This feeling of indebtedness can also apply to websites that users place value on, e.g. Amazon (again!).

Amazon now order their reviews by most helpful, not by date, and they display the rating spread (i.e. how many of each star rating), not just the average rating. 1-star reviews are important because people want to know the _worst_ experience people have had, as well as the best, so they don’t buy a bad product.

eBay’s feedback profile contains lots of data. The join date is a very important piece of information; a longer membership period increases trust. eBay removed reciprocity from seller/buyer feedback as it created a toxic relationship between the two parties: sellers wouldn’t leave feedback until a buyer left _positive_ feedback; if a buyer left negative feedback, the seller would respond in kind. Ultimately, who needs to know how good a buyer is? Apparently, eBay had wanted to remove the seller->buyer feedback for a few years but eventually bit the bullet and did it.

h3. What _can’t_ you do?

* you can’t rate a review as helpful (or not) from a reviewer’s list of reviews. If possible, this would allow bulk, targeted fanning or hating of specific reviewers, taking the focus away from the review and onto the reviewer. An _ad hominem_ form of rating, if you like.
* You can’t Digg someone’s Diggs on your Digg friends’ activity or profile page – again, this would make it about the person, not what they had Dugg.
* Facebook’s newsfeed had users up-in-arms when it launched, as they saw it as an invasion of privacy. None of it was data that was new or previously unavailable; it was just aggregated in one place for the first time. Facebook’s response was to introduce fine-grained privacy controls, which apparently no-one really uses but their mere existence pacifies people, making them feel in control.

h3. Metrics (for pirates – AARRR!)

The usage lifecycle goes like this:

bc. Unaware -> Interested -> First-time use -> Regular use -> Passionate use

Compare to this metrics scheme: AARRR, which stands for:

* *A*cquisition
* *A*ctivation
* *R*etention
* *R*eferral, leading to…
* *R*evenue (“profit!”:

Your sign-up process is a funnel; it’s very likely that, of 100 people who hit a landing page, only 60 will make it to the sign-up form, and only 20 will complete sign-up and hit the confirmation page. *All funnels are leaky*. [It’s possible to track funnels in Google Analytics, though better solutions exist, apparently]

*However*, number of users is *not a valuable metric* (take note, sales and marketing!). What is important is *engagement*, but how do we measure that?

h3. Engagement analysis

Retention is a good measure of engagement. If people keep coming back, you’re doing something right.

* Do a “Cohort Analysis”: on registered users who visit or do some other activity on the site.

h3. The Viral Loop

How well are users bringing new users into the system?

* Word of mouth
* Embed a widget
* Mimic an action (e.g. Facebook apps)
* Forced sign-up
* Direct invite

h3. The problem with Metrics

bq. “You get what you optimise for”

bq. “At “Blogger”:, we determined that our most critical metric was number of posts. An increase in posts meant that people were not just creating blogs, but updating them, and more posts would drive more readership, which would drive more users, which would drive more posts.” — Evan Williams, founder of (and Twitter)

h3. Fin

That’s the end of the workshop notes – check back for the conference write-up!

*To be continued…*

dConstruct 2008: part two

(If you’re short on things to do, “part one”: contains _fascinating_ details of my journey and dinner)

Thursday morning brought a slight respite from the high winds and torrential rain of the previous night. Breakfast in the hotel was _really, really good_: muesli/dried cranberries and yoghurt followed by my choice of Eggs Benedict. Oh, and the Smoothie of the Day.

Looking at the map, I reckoned that “Clearleft’s”: offices (the location of the workshops) were about half a mile away – I estimated a 10 minute walk. The slightly less-than-crow-flying route meant that I breezed in the door on the dot of 9.30, the stated start time. But lo! That’s just the coffee and pastries; no need to panic.

After signing in and obtaining my badge-cum-programme, I was waved at by none other than “Adrian Long”:, who I’d not seen since leaving Uni in 1999. _C’est un monde petit_.

h3. The actual workshop: Social Web Design – From Strategy to Interface.

The workshop was led by “Joshua Porter”:, who’s ex-UIE(User Interface Engineering) but now runs his own business, specialising in the design of social web apps. He famously (well, in web design terms) wrote “The Lesson”: blog post, defining how “personal value precedes network value” or, basically, a site needs to be useful to *one* person over just being useful to *many* people; it will become useful to many people if people use it because it’s useful to them.

A few aphorisms to start with:

* “What worked in the Industrial Age doesn’t work in the Information Age” i.e. where once each user of a mass-produced product had essentially the same experience, now each user’s experience is highly individual.
* “Your audience is the only thing that matters”
** in-house designers have a massive advantage over consultants: domain knowledge
** there should be no barrier between the design team and the audience
* The recent focus on usability is great, but “if ease of use were the only requirement, we would all be riding tricycles” (Douglas Englebart, creator of the computer mouse)

We need *usable* _plus_ *useful*. How are we providing *daily value* to our users?

h3. Strategy: finding focus

There have been countless Web sites whose strategy is mashing up two other Web sites; this is a strategy of mashing up two other strategies and, as a result, is not really a strategy.

Over time, it is likely that your audience tends towards being made up of 15-year-old girls who, because of their lack of inhibition, will sign up for _anything_. “’s registration page”: was cited as an example of a site that, like our own Community Websites, expect sign-up before giving very much value to the user. The big problem is that, if you make people sign up before doing anything, you’ll end up with the *wrong audience* (the aforementioned 15-year-old girls).

*This is a Fuzzy Strategy* or, putting it bluntly, “Old-school business thinking”: where making money is the primary goal; the goal influences strategy and therefore influences design.

If the user activity is “create a widget”, the old-school, fuzzy approach can be shown like this:

bc. Landing page -> Sign-up ($) -> User creates widget

In the rearranged, activity-centred approach, it goes like this:

bc. Landing page -> User creates widget -> Sign-up ($)

In the second model, money-making is less of a focus than meeting user needs. [These principles are very much in line with the philosophy of “Obliquity”:, though the word was never mentioned. Obliquity is the idea that “overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly”.]

h3. Design Strategy

Moving to a model of “user-value first, money second” requires long-term thinking, as value is created over time. If we do this, User Experience (UX) must be primary, and drives all other strategies.

To do this, we must optimise for use. If we create something that people love to use, *the business will be fine*. [*N.B.* IOPP has a stated aim to be customer-focused]

*Why are we still struggling with this stuff?*

* competing interests
* political infighting
* short-term thinking
* buzzword bingo
* no ongoing evaluation
* fake strategies

bq. “Software doesn’t usually fail because of a lack of programming talent… it usually fails because the talent is not pointed in the right direction” — Joshua Porter

Joshua then asked us “what’s your favourite software”. The answers were all applications that are very focused on a very specific activity, and do that one thing well. This is consistent with both Unix and the Web: “small pieces, loosely joined”:

Advocates of User-centred Design often suggest asking “Who are your users?” In social software design, though, it’s better to ask “what are your users doing?” [*N.B.* On our sites, once upon a time, the answer to that question would have been “reading”, but the list of activities is now much, much longer]. This is *Activity-centred Design*, or…

* What do people have to do to make you successful?
* What are you making people better at?
* What are your users passionate about?

An interesting comparison was made between “traditional” bulletin boards (giving discussion & support in an unstructured way) with social networking sites (with specific, aggregated data) e.g. “Patients Like Me”: – users input very specific details of their illness and symptoms, and over time the system determines who their “neighbours” are).

*Lessons from “_Made to Stick_”: by Chip and Dan Heath*

* The Commander’s Intent: “if we do nothing else, we must…”
* Feature Creep can kill strategy

h3. Social Objects

Social Objects are the things that users work/play with on any given site, e.g.:

* Flickr -> photos
* Upcoming -> events
* -> music
* YouTube -> videos

On YouTube, greater than 50% of the page real-estate is taken up by these social objects.

To find out what your objects are and the activities users carry out on them, it’s often necessary to conduct structured research. When you’ve discovered your objects (nouns), you need to find your verbs (actions). Social features are verbs that involve more than one person.

*To be continued…*

Because every silver lining has a cloud. Or something.