Opt-in uniform, or wardrobe minimalism? A simpler me.

It’s a bit odd to be writing this post as it’s a pre-emptive strike, or rather defence. I’m expecting commentary and criticism at some point but it’s yet to come and will, at first, come in-person I suspect. But it will be necessary as i’ve embarked on a behaviour which, although I see it as perfectly rational, is definitely going to be seen as a little eccentric.

I’ve switched to a uniform. Loosely based on ideas like the capsule wardrobe, wardrobe minimalism and the well-publicised strategic approach taken by Jobs, Zuckerberg, Einstein and (albeit rather more inconsistently) Obama, I have decided that I’ll pretty much be seen in the same thing every single day at work.

I’ll get to the why later (although I’m sure you’re already ahead of me), but first, let me take you through exactly what I mean by ‘the same thing’.

Practicality and basic hygiene mean this isn’t the exact same item, of course. At the moment London is in the midst of a typical temperate summer, so the first consideration is environment. My office environment is casual (with the occasional client contact) and the expectation isn’t much higher than looking presentable. Beyond that, I’m surrounded in the city and the company by people that both know fashion and have the disposable income to indulge in it. So, for now, I’m going for:

Grey V-neck T-shirt. Quality decent weight cotton, sized to fit neatly and slim but not skinny. I’ve got 5 of them. A mix of Abercrombie & Fitch and J Crew. Absolutely no pockets or detailing beyond a logo.

Denim. Again, decent quality, slim but not skinny. Swedish brand Nudie because I love their approach to sustainability and repairs as well as the attention to detail in the fit and washes. A simple, classic leather belt.

Shoes, a work in progress, but I’ll need to switch between in-office Nike and the occasional more formal shoes. I’m probably going down the line of a brown boot to tie-in with the denim. Dune, Timberland, Bertie even Clarks. These will last beyond the immediate season of course, and I walk a lot to-and-from the office.

As the weather deteriorates I know I’ll not get away with the T-shirt, this isn’t Cupertino after all, so I’m going to choose something that will go equally well with the denim and boots. Probably merino long-sleeve, quality from somewhere like Icebreaker.

There will be things I occasionally need to add. I’m expecting I might need a simple V-neck sweater to pair with a decent, tailored white shirt for more formal client meetings. At the most formal I still have my suit of course. When the weather really closes in I’ll be buying British and getting a down jacket from Rab, standing on platforms is about the most miserable part of winter in the UK for the provincial commuter and as much as I love my Buffalo, that’s more for active movement.

Quality & provenance
I wanted to really focus on fewer items, but in doing so, invest in quality clothes. Checking the fit and cut really suits me, I want it to make it seem like I at least made the effort in choosing the products; even if I made it once about 6 months ago. It makes sense to spend £25 on a T-shirt and to buy 5 of them rather than go to a discount place getting 10 for £6.99 that look like dishcloths. Ditto a good investment in the denim and the shoes. I do like the idea of buying British and Swedish where possible. I love brands that think about their products and process, like Nudie and Icebreaker. Organic cotton is good of course but I do accept I won’t hit the moral high-ground with every supplier.

I don’t think I’ll be in the uniform at the weekends. This doesn’t mean that the approach is put aside, I’m still keeping my options pretty limited. I’ve had a huge clear-out at home and sent a load of stuff to charity. I want less choice, less sentimentality, more quality and fit. I want to be ruthless and specific about what suits me. There are certain styles and approaches that are pretty much timeless and that seems ideal, classic colours and cuts.

Running & training
I’m an Adidas-dressed runner. Their kit suits me and I want it all to work together. I want to go out for a run knowing it functions and looks right, I know the specification, ranges, weights, seasons, colours and fit of Adidas. It’s an investment in my running gear that I’ve made over several years and I’ll continue to run as an Adidas runner for the foreseeable future.

So, why?
I really haven’t been fashionable for a while. In fact I’ve looked pretty bad for a number of years. I’ve been wearing things that in some cases are ancient and date back far too long. My wardrobe got so out of date that I felt the only way to get fashionable again was to spend a fortune on personal shopping and get a large number of new outfits. To do that I thought I’d need to look for some cheap stuff and have the odd expensive brand here and there. I signed up to Thread and had some poor stylist send me batches of outfit suggestions I ignored constantly.

I didn’t like the sound of the changes I needed to make whichever way you cut it. Equally, I just wanted less to think about, I absolutely suffer from decision fatigue. I wanted to stop struggling to dig through clothes in my drawers and wardrobe, to think about what I’d worn this week and what I needed to wear to look different. I was, I do crave simplicity.

Obama himself put it thus [Vanity Fair, 2012] “managing your life as a president requires that you cut away the mundane, frustrating decisions like deciding what to wear — which people around the world fret over. You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits,” he said. “I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.”

I’m hardly Obama and my decisions are nothing of the magnitude of his, but the cognitive effort is relatable. I see it as analogous to having my Oyster card with me everyday and just rolling up the top-up automatically. I never have to think about getting a train ticket again to work. This feels just as sensible, just as good.

This simplicity extended to looks as well. I felt the things I did wear were trying too hard. Logos, slogans, prints. It’s not really me. One thing, done right. It seemed to match the sort of parsimonious rigour I like in my job. I knew I’d enjoy the cathartic discarding of the old stuff and it really does feel good to know I don’t have to think about it at all. The economics of it made sense to me too. I had reached a point where I knew I’d have to spend money. This way I can shop simply for each season, buy multiples and benefit from reorders and discounts online when I see items that match on offer. A 20% sale at A&F means I can simply re-stock and won’t entail me hunting around for items in the sale I might like. Sales now will help me get a better price on items I need, not encourage me to buy Items I don’t need and never really wanted.

It means the focus is on me, not my clothes, me and what I do every day, having said that, I don’t mind at all if it becomes something that defines me and something I’m known for.

I’m not announcing it, beyond directing people here if they notice and a link in my social media bio. So, if you noticed, now you know.

Other uniformists
Matilda Kahl, Art Director at Saatchi & Saatchi NY: “Why I wear the exact same thing to work every day
Mashable piece on ‘insanely successful men‘ who wear the same thing.
Capsule wardrobe piece on Mens Health … bizarrely still features 24 items and no underwear.
A famous Gawker article on Steve Jobs’ approach.

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It’s really easy to make stuff persuasive: A story of linguistics, prototypes and Dare.

Picture from Fine Country Lifestyle – Devon Farm Shop

I’ve done the same presentation about psychology, seduction and persuasion several times. It changes a bit here and there depending on the audience. I include a few more contemporary examples, add a few gags and throw in the odd bit of data to back things up.

At one part of the presentation I talk about how adding largely meaningless adjectives to products makes them more appealing – so pepper becomes hand-cracked pepper or we add a provenance like Suffolk honey. I’d always think of these off the top of my head during the presentation and, for the sake of a little humour, would try and invent outlandish examples to make the point (an in so-doing probably dilute it). Then last year I was watching the inestimable Stewart Lee when he amusingly parodied the craft-beer industry with some ludicrous names: Gandalf’s Memory Stick, Hogwarts Bukkake and it inspired me to keep doing the same gag.

I must have been holding on to this idea for a while and I got chatting to Dare’s technical director, Charlie, in a cab. Charlie’s got an academic background in English and a similar sense of humour so we naturally came round to the idea that this generation of novel food labels could be done in a random fashion. It seemed so simple to concoct the recipe: take a foodstuff, add a method and a provenance and the result takes an ordinary staple and turns it into a farm shop or artisan product that can be sold with a healthy mark-up.

Persuasive marketing nomenclature, automated with a tinge of comedy.

So we (well he) started building it. A simple JavaScript took items from three arrays (lists of data) and combined them at random in the order: Provenance, Method, Foodstuff. It worked quite well. But, thinking about the old adage of garbage-in, garbage-out, we noticed that some of the combinations didn’t work.

Does it feel right?
At this point we should stop and consider what we mean by work. It’s quite subjective, but you have to think about it a bit. The comedy is about the combinations appearing almost right but a bit outlandish. If you go too far toward the outlandish then it just feels wrong. In some cases this is obvious – the pairing of methods with foods that don’t make sense hand-reared houmous, pulled briochegrass-fed asparagus. So we started to think about what it was about these pairings that made them wrong and how we could eliminate them. Do you, for example, identify a matrix where methods applicable to foods are deemed ok/wrong? So hand-reared is relevant to all animal products? line-caught is relevant to seafood only? Or do you simply manually edit the list to exclude methods that are too niche? The trouble with doing that is that you reduce the serendipitous moments that make this work. Trying to avoid creating a behemoth that relies on learning or crowd-sourcing inappropriate pairings I set about building an Excel sheet with a series of lookup tables that allowed me to fettle with the source lists and try out combinations without relying on a very busy Charlie to repopulate his script.

Syntax is important
Creating the spreadsheet opened up even more questions. Taking a leap from an unconnected musing I had on Twitter last week, it occurred to me that order – syntax – is an important part of the output. Food will always come at the end but does changing the position of provenance affect the humour or the apparent luxury of the item? To use an example, is Newlyn fried corn a different product to fried Newlyn corn? So the method seems more artisan and niche if it’s Newlyn fried (presumably only a handful of people know how to fry the Newlyn way) as opposed to the corn being from Newlyn and then simply fried? It’s almost the difference between an item being at the bottom of the prestige retail hierarchy and the top.

Aside: Could you put the following retailers in hierarchy of perceived prestige? Tesco Finest, Waitrose Seriously, Marks & Spencer, Whole Foods, Borough Market, Artisan Farm Shop, Selfridges …

Provenance and terroir
Looking at the list we’d made for provenance it was clear there were two things going on. Once was about the association a place had with the growing or raising of food and the other was about what this meant by association. So the concept of terroir is that the geography, geology and climate of a place affects a foodstuff. It’s hugely important in wine and coffee to know the place it’s come from, but also in items like meats or vegetables (Hereford beef, Norfolk turkey). It gets more complicated when you add in the method of preparation or the regional significance of a recipe (A Bakewell tart, a Cornish pasty) or get super-niche and choose a specific producer Blacker Hall quiche. Consequently, the list we compiled is composed of places that have strong associations with food – largely agricultural counties, coastal locations and regional recipes. I then scoured a list of Britain’s top 50 farm shops and delicatessens for examples of artisan-sounding producers

What’s a method, what’s a foodstuff?
Related to our thinking about ordering and the awkwardness of pairings it became apparent that the foodstuff could be the array that includes a variety of methods specific to that food. So, instead of simply putting pork we could add pulled pork to the list. We could have scallops and hand-dived scallops. This would mean that we wouldn’t need to worry about hand-dived pork coming up but we could keep the fancy-pants descriptor of hand-dived to make the scallops seem more interesting. It’s fair to say it had stepped away a little from the original plan to have a simple 1+1+1 = 3 pattern (but that was about to have another twist anyway). We started to think a bit more about what constitutes a food and that complicated dishes don’t work so well as items that are atomic or simple but this wasn’t clear cut. Bakewell vanilla-infused cupcakes works but Jersey broiled yoghurt doesn’t. For every decent example involving brioche, sourdough, quiche, pasties there were far more decent examples involving single ingredients – asparagus, quinoa, lentils, beans, chicken. Once again, order plays a part here and having categories might help solve this. Hold that thought.

Something extra
Finally, after about two days fiddling about in Excel and chatting to Charlie we decided to throw in another part to the concatenated string, a garnish perhaps. We had a randomly-appearing descriptor that affected the overall product. It could be vegan or gluten-free or giant. So, not so-much a method or a provenance but in the spirit of the type of thing that gets added to nomenclature to change the perception Clearly the taxonomic importance of vegan/gluten-free over micro/giant is worth bearing in mind. It many cases it works wonderfully: Giant sugared Herefordshire pudding in others not so well Salt-Baked Pommery Vegan Steak Pies, so it’s fair to say that becomes a matter of user preference. Which leads us neatly on…

Getting it out there
After a while you realise there’s loads more you can do and several of these things made great sense. I always loved the Urban Spoon app that helped you find a restaurant matching a series of criteria at random, the trick was that you could lock down the most important part of your criteria – for example price, and then leave the random bit to choose the genre, location or both. It strikes me that this might be a nice add-on to our generator. You might lock-down the foodstuff and just play around with random combinations of qualifiers – the most fancy chicken product you can find for example. Then there was the consideration that this could have a crowd-sourced element; users could work in volume to rate the best combinations or highlight ones that don’t work. Clearly this would mean a lot more coding effort than we could afford to spend. What about supporting unique URLs for each combination so they could be shared or copied straight into a tweet link. And finally, what about categorisation? would this be better if you could focus-in on drinks, ingredients or prepared products like quiche, cakes, pastas.

Everything’s a remix
Back to reality and I realised fairly early on that this wasn’t that new. There are about ten thousand ‘generator’ sites that compose sitcom and film character names, craft beers and, perhaps channelling a little of the Bill Bryson observation on British place names, a village name generator. What I rather like about all this is that it seems to be most effective with our wonderful language here in Britain. I hastily trimmed out provenances that weren’t British and have tried to keep the foodstuffs a little native, scattering a bit of brioche or salami here and there does work but one must be parsimonious. when the strings get a bit long and they pick up quite specific methods like -infused or cold-pressed it can definitely feel a bit Heston Bloodyhell (sic)

To what end?
So, where does this leave us? Perhaps one day Charlie and I will get a public facing version up, designed hopefully around a style that befits the point-of-sale references we see in hipster marketplaces. A tool that uses some of the functionality we’ve mused about and ultimately becomes a playful little twitter stream. I like the idea that you could run this for 6 months with a voting mechanic, gather the data and establish a shop somewhere in a quaint Cotswold market town (Greater Drowsisle?) that sells products derived entirely from this output.

In the meantime it has given me a great chance to revisit ontological thinking, nomenclature and linguistics and logic. Any opportunity to play around in those fields can’t help but contribute to my understanding and enjoyment of the job I do on a daily basis.

A selection of how it works (or doesn’t).

  • Irish air-dried kale
  • Ballymaloe thin-sliced mackrel
  • Hand cut Suffolk micro couscous
  • Fermented Worcestershire buffalo
  • Pressed Derbyshire giant pheasant
  • Castleford dried rye bread

UPDATE: Now showing on Twitter@shinyplums
A Daily Mail headline generator and a direction to consider the writings of Brian Wansink concerning food psychology , thanks to Juliet Hodges.

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False peaks: Understanding what effort feels like

Rushop Edge gives great visibility to the task ahead

Rushop Edge (Derbyshire) gives great visibility to the task ahead (Photo: John Gibbard)

One of my most persistent habits is the use of analogies to describe user experience problems. I don’t always get it right, occasionally this means that I’ve made the concept harder to understand and everyone leaves the conversation a little more befuddled.

Today I think I got one right though, largely because my work and non-work life have been in close proximity this past month. I recently returned from another sojourn to The Lake District and during my fell walks it occurred that arduous ascents draw strong parallels to the most problematic interactions we have online and in-store. Several years ago Stephen P. Anderson showed a graph designed by Joshua Porter that bore an obvious resemblance to a mountain. In a task we have to surmount a peak, we have a certain amount of motivation to perform this task and consequently we can increase success rate by either making this mountain easier to climb or making the motivation to climb it even stronger.

Joshua Porter’s chart as presented by Stephen P. Anderson in 2011.

Tasks are not always (in fact they are rarely) single peaks of effort. When these tasks require multiple deployments of effort it’s really important to help the user understand their position in the overall challenge – how much they’ve completed, how much there is left to do and what the reward (benefit) is of completing it.

One of the jobs I’m engaged with a lot is the design and development of transactional forms – particularly for financial services organisations. Investment modelling, quotes, illustrations, that sort of thing. These are tasks that typically have a large number of requirements for data capture – many of which are regulatory mandatories. This means, simply, that we can’t make the mountain much smaller. What we need to do is help them climb it and make them want to climb it.

A way in which we can do this is through reducing the task to smaller steps, sometimes colloquially referred to as ‘eating the elephant’ but in cognitive psychology it’s part of what is known as ‘chunking’. (Aside: strictly, chunking is part of how our short-term memory behaves but it has become shorthand for the manner in which we reduce tasks to related component parts).

This isn’t easy to do. There are a host of ways in which we might design a chunked or sequential process. We might ask one question at a time, we might ask a cluster of questions. These clusters might be related to concepts you know (e.g. ‘about your savings’, ‘your payment details’) or they might just be related to how the system or business needs the information (e.g. ‘Some assumptions we have made’, ‘Things you need to tell us about’). The manner in which we present information has profound effects on how much effort we perceive the process to be.

A common technique I see is to cluster questions together and hide additional questions (through the very sensible method of progressive disclosure) but giving the user false hope that they will proceed through the task rapidly. So you might, for example, see a 3 step process but after a few questions you realise that step 1 is actually about three different steps and despite completing fields and perhaps even clicking a next or continue button, you’re still on step 1.  These are the false peaks. You think you’ve reached the summit when you reach the next or continue button, only to find that there are another load of questions to complete.

What effect does that have on your perception of the remaining steps? How can you determine how far you are through the process and what you have in store? It has just the same soul-destroying effect on you as climbing a mountain where the eventual summit is hidden behind a series of maddening false peaks that make the task ahead infuriating.

We recently proposed a number of alternatives to a data collection process and one of these was to show everything on one long page. Much like a traditional paper form, customers arrived at it and sized it up (ie. they scrolled all the way to the bottom before inputting anything). They got the measure of it. It might have still intimidated them but at least they knew what they were letting themselves in for. In effect, to hammer the analogy, they got a great view of the path up the whole mountain.

Sometimes of course it’s likely that the majority of users will only need to complete a fraction of those questions – and so we show them a simpler, more likely path and find ways to handle the exceptions/outliers. So, like so many user experience problems, there must be a happy medium. The great thing about digital is that we can find this optimum ‘happy medium’ through multivariant testing. We can put out versions of our forms in full-length, clustered paginated, question-by-question or accordion formats. We can trial progress indicators with major sections, major and minor sections, with labels or with numbers. All of these things can lead us to create data capture that is more successful for user and the client (business/organisation whatever).

Translating what can sometimes feel like fiddly user experience problems into tangible, real-world analogies can therefore actually be quite useful. We all know what it’s like to slog through a form and we might well know the pain of what if feels like to climb a tortuous hill on foot or by bike. Fortunately whilst we might not be furnished with the ability to change the profile of mountains, we can certainly furnish our digital travellers with a much more agreeable route to the summit.

Penalising the unsophisticated in financial services

My Dad used to work in the City. He’s always been a great source of information about investing and financial management. He recently sent me a snipped article he found in his weekend papers (there’s an aside story in there about his old-school physical sharing versus digital, for another day). The article [“Tracker funds that could come off the rails” – Emma Wall, Telegraph Money 18-May-2013] was about passive investing and exchange traded-funds (ETFs). He sent it to me as I’ve been looking at different ways of saving that will provide better returns than lazy cash ISAs and ‘high street’ fund packages.

My search for a solution had be prompted by looking at Nutmeg, an up-start provider of ETF investment portfolios that simplify it just enough to make it accessible to the Everyman but with enough scope to receive better returns than you might manage from the big name brands. The article began with the intention of bringing clarity to the complex world of investment options (it started by explaining what bonds were) but ended up doing nothing of the sort, and if anything, making it seem even more complicated and seemed to be suggesting tracker ETFs were bad but I couldn’t work out if there were circumstances where they might be the right solution. Emma Wall, or the ‘experts’ she got comments from, really did make a mess the piece, it became incomprehensible and I’m in no way an idiot with no financial knowledge.

Others have mused that the sheer complexity of the financial markets today was a significant factor behind the world economic crises of recent years. Simply nobody can or could hope to understand the system. In order to make the best of it, of course you’d have to pay for expertise but the industry has made its products so impenetrable that even when it’s simplified is just way too difficult to get a handle on. Naive investors like me end up leaning on the simpler services like Nutmeg or the high street but in doing-so are excluded from the best returns and are penalised with considerable fees and a form of pseudo fund-management that the more complex products don’t. I know there’s no such thing as a free lunch and it pays to become more educated in this sphere but I’m not sure it’s that fair a system right now as it so heavily penalises all but the most educated investor.

Nutmeg’s saving grace is that it is at least transparent in what it’s doing and charging and, because I’m quite the digital magpie, I’m rather attracted to their interaction design. In general though, this is doing little for my ongoing despair of the FSA and the industry that talks a lot about being ‘clear fair and not misleading‘ but each step toward that finds us further and further awayImage


Every day when I work with FS brands I try really really hard to challenge this self-serving obsession with elitism and complexity but I do wonder if I’m pushing a boulder uphill when the underlying products and markets their based upon are so ludicrously difficult to unravel.

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Apple focussed on design as their signature

A series of videos, one presumably a TVC, are a clear indication alongside the WWDC keynote this week that Apple is all about design, designing for people and a slavish attention to quality and purpose. It’s hugely encouraging for those of us in the industry of making [digital] stuff better for people. Even if I don’t particularly like the iOS 7 palette

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On being ‘trendy’ for the sake of it

Planners are nice people. We’re quite in to sharing and helping, finding little bits of information that reveal a little something of the world we live in today and perhaps, hopefully, helping us do out job better by highlighting opportunities in the marketplace for brands.

It’s in that spirit that a deck got shared today by Hugh. Hugh’s brilliant, lovely chap and in no way is the deck a reflection on him or his ability to parse useful stuff. 

But it was, is, a terrible deck. Produced by the venerable Mary Meeker who is a venture capitalist and analyst with her jolly clever beady eye trained on the Zeitgeist of our digital world, the intention of the deck it seems is to share with the world how everything is changing and it’s really exciting…. But, to what end? I felt I had to respond:

1. [slides 1-12] You’d have to be a moron to deny that life is different today than it was in 1993. Is this news?
2. So there’s lots more video being uploaded on to YouTube. It’s not a massive surprise is it? It’s also not a massive spike, it’s just something that’s been happening progressively as things get better. Like the fact that street lights are brighter than they were 20 years ago.
3. It might be jolly exciting to the owners of DropCam that their software’s popular at the moment but nobody in the real world knows about it or cares. They’ve only just got their head around Skype and maybe Facetime. I’m digitally savvy yet only about 20 people I know use Vine. It’s interesting but it’s not changing the world.
4. What the hell am I supposed to do with the knowledge that 700k hours of sleep are logged on Jawbone per day? Ask around your friends, do you know a single Jawbone user? Has this told us anything about how people sleep now as opposed to how they slept in 1953? Can we make any conclusions from it? No.
5. There’s a chart that shows that the developing new world shares more than the old world. Is that really a surprise given the changes happening there in culture and politics? Crucially, has digital driven these changes or is it a reflection of changes that were happening anyway and digital happens to be their conduit? Basic cause-and-effect paradigm. So this infers we should be focussing on Saudia Arabia’s population sharing on Facebook? great, I’ll bear that in mind for the next Post Office site I work on.
6. This slide (pictured) Take this to a marketing director on £150k a year in a boardroom in their corporate office. Talk them through it, explain what it means for them and their business, how it will help them impress their CEO and deliver on their purpose. I bet you couldn’t.
7. Every single f-ing graph shows an almost linear progression. So stuff’s getting faster, bigger, or changing channel entirely predictably. No big shocks, that’s just change over time.
8.[slides 32-37] Mobile is over-taking desktop. Thanks for that. Have you hear more people drive cars now than horses and carts? True fact.
9. Apparently, stuff we’ve only just seen will be important. Like wearable tech – and if you say it won’t be, remember those idiots that thought there wouldn’t be a computer in every home LOL!!! fancy not being able to predict the future . Idiots, it’s all here, the graphs are telling you it’s going to be mega!
10. Driverless cars, clever crop-spraying drones, better uses of QR codes. It’s all coming. Are you ready? Don’t forget to use this in your next slides for Go Compare.
11. Have you heard about China? They’re going to be really important. Increase in GDP, big population, they have bikes where you can see where your parcel is.
12. [slides 82 onwards] And then a baffling series of slides on immigration and skills shortages in tech industries….

So, anyway….it’s great that we think about how the world’s changing, that we know people using devices and acting in ways in which they might not have done 5, 10, 15 years ago but knowing this stuff doesn’t tell us anything useful about where we’re headed, it’s a Black Swan. I applaud the amount of time and effort that goes into these decks, no doubt justifying the cost of all that thinking, but I wish there was more genuine insight.

For example, I recently got told by someone that their kids wouldn’t be seen dead on Facebook or use an iPhone; there’s a chart that probably shows that somewhere in this deck. Now that’s a good bit of information but I want to know, why don’t they do those things? What can I do to connect with those kids in order to communicate with them about a brand, a story, a product or service?

I wrote this quickly and off the top of my head and thought it was probably a knee-jerk rant and just as unhelpful as the deck itself but it turned out quite a few people here at Dare agreed, and Hugh kindly showed me the post by Tess Alps from 3 years ago where she rants about something quite similar. So I thought i’d dust off WordPress and post it.

As you were.

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Experience design is rocket science

Back in January I posted an assertion that customer service isn’t hard to do. Sometimes I leave people wondering why I get paid a nice salary to pontificate on this stuff as it’s all pretty easy and largely the articulation of common sense. It’s the same argument I used to hear when telling people about the ‘obvious’ results of academic psychology studies. It’s easy to start believing this stuff and even though certain designs and designers are lauded for their pursuit of the obvious, others are called out as snake oil salesmen. Krug‘s done a nice line in books that make it plain how simple this all is.

This week, however I read two important posts. The first being from Harry Brignull, Senior UX at Brighton’s Clearleft. In his posts (slides and notes) he explores the mistakes he and the team made on the way to delivering the successful app experience for The Week. It rang true to read of his frustrations as blindingly obvious interface and navigation elements were wilfully ignored by apparently stupid users. How I nodded along recalling my recent experience with Treejack when my simple and straightforward site architecture for a major British institution was exposed as confusing and muddling one to users in a 500-person remote test. The second post, far more important and sobering, was the analysis of the last moments of Air France flight  447 (Popular Mechanics and Telegraph articles). With the recover of the various voice & data recorders a clearer picture of what happened on the flight deck emerged but, crucially, why the pilots behaved the way they did in the face of apparently obvious warnings and information has proved both incredibly complex and rather contentious.

This is where cognitive psychologists, engineers and really incredibly talented people are earning their crust. Analysing, exploring, experimenting and evaluating the hugely complex elements at work when we interact with systems. Our irrationality and unpredictability are being explored in light hearted ways as we persuasionists are asked to design new campaigns and digital experiences but when these forces work against us in catastrophic ways it causes us to pause and remember our colleagues and peers’ role in solving these riddles.

I might not be designing an error-proofed flight deck any time soon but I think it’s about time I stopped underselling our value quite so much. The work we do is complicated and rewarding, whether it’s saving lives, producing a digital magazine or shifting some more products. One of the final persuaders for me to transition from psychology to HCI was James Reason’s book Human Error and my course under Dr. Phillip Quinlan at York where we explored a variety of complex scenarios leading to catastrophic human error. Understanding the part designers had to play in helping us protect us from ourselves was a strong motivator. The book still sits on my shelf and I would heartily recommend it to anyone in this business.

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Draw Sometimes


News reaches us today that Draw Something, a game I’m not ashamed to say I recently played A LOT, is suffering a sharp decline in usage. Unlike Angry Birds or similar meteorically successful mobile games, Draw Something exploded very quickly, peaking in April and has boomeranged – at least for frequent users – in recent weeks.

The BBC article raises the argument that this might be due to a general drop in appeal but doesn’t really explore what the pathology of this malaise might be. Here, for what they’re worth, are my thoughts:

One of my biggest bugbears with mobile app developers is their lazy attitude to making their apps work without a connection. Designing and testing an app in a production house with a gigabyte network is great but it’s not the real world. Draw Something is a time-killer app that’s perfect for the train, the tube/metro, planes and so-on – i.e. all the places you can’t get a reliable connection. That Draw Something insists on a connection is an Achilles heel. It wouldn’t be hard to design an offline process where you could complete your drawings and the data is cached to send next time a connection is obtained.

The game used an American-centric dictionary and American-centric references. Obscure pop artists, minor celebrities and TV shows would regularly appear in the word list and lead to frustration as you’d have no idea who these people or items were – and could be pretty sure your friend wouldn’t know either. Cue using up valuable bombs to get new words. How hard would it be to localise the word database? Even when you did know the word the spelling might be the Yank version … again, easily fixed.

Roz points out that each game actually takes quite a bit of time. From the viewing of the other player’s guess (even if you skip it) to then watching the other player’s drawing. As an aside, even though there’s fun in seeing the construction of an image, especially when done by an artistically gifted friend, I still want to skip to the end and see the final image  in most cases. If you could just do your guesses and and leave the drawing bit until you have more time, that might make it feel a bit more manageable. There’s no ‘I’ll just have a quick go’ process built in to the sequence.

All of those elements add up and As Ben Griffin says, the app was initially easy to manage as you had two or three friends playing. Once it became successful you could find yourself inundated with drawing requests. Compounded by the time it takes to play each game this meant that you are having to administer an ever-growing and impatient list of friends wanting to play. It’s a nagging list that feels like an unmanageable inbox which you, albeit in a mild way, resent and duly avoid.

Whilst I’m confident that Zynga and the team behind it will continue to develop the app and ensure its long-term success (releasing commenting features shows it understands how people use the app – replacing artists writing messages to each other in the first frame), the undeniable failings I describe above do give us pause to reflect what makes a truly engaging mobile game experience that, importantly, can scale with popularity.

In the meantime, take a look at this collection of the most-talked about Draw Something efforts.

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Target 3hrs 10

There’s good, and there’s Good. I absolutely will not take anything away from anyone who runs a marathon (and that includes run-walk-run), but to be blunt there are times that are exceptional, times that are good, average and below average. Marathons are now very popular yet still you’re in less than 1% of the population if you’ve completed one. So, by that token, even an average effort is rather impressive.

It’s against this framework that most efforts are judged. Because friends and family are likely to be non-runners without the context and knowledge of age-gradings and suchlike, they base their judgements on what they might have heard other recreational runners achieve. Good news if all your friends have known is a 50 yr old retired fireman running a 5hr 30 effort for charity. Not so good news if you’re friends are also friends with top-end club runners and chaps like David Cartwright of Poole Runners (02:54:36 at age 63). Fortunately there are things like age gradings to help you understand whether these achievements stand relative to your age. There are also handicap systems like the runbritain rankings. So, whilst friends, family and colleagues happily applaud my 3:29:58 and I’m personally delighted with dropping my PB by nearly 30 minutes this year, I’m pretty aware that the (male) qualifying time for Boston is 3hrs 10 (18-34) or 3hrs 15 (35-39) and that London‘s ‘Good for Age‘ entry is reserved for 3.10 runners (under 40). What made me settle on this was seeing Nell McAndrew cross the line at London (just in front of Mr. Cartwright) in under 3hrs. A time that placed her in the top 40 women in the UK. She started with a 3hr 22 eight years ago at the age of 31.

> To see how my time compares to everyone else in the race, the ugly but v. interesting RunPix has the data

Whilst my two marathons were a year apart, I can’t honestly say I trained solidly in that year to get my time down. After 2011 I sat out most of the summer, a few short runs here and there and gradually built up to running distances around 12-13km. When I took on the Run Kingston (16mile) race in October I was under-trained and had a miserable final 6 miles to scrape in well over 2hrs. I then did a bit more to keep a base going and eventually started a 16 week plan following Jeff Gaudette’s Runkeeper 3hr 30 schedule for London 2012. With a few sessions missed thanks to injury, a ski holiday and the odd work-life-unbalance it wasn’t a perfect build up but as close to perfect as I’m likely to get. I might not have had ideal nutrition or done much in the way of stretching and strength (quite  contrast to last year when I religiously did both) but some of my splits in my training intervals were really surprising me. I was able to run pretty fast, comfortably. When I went out and did Asics Fleet pre-London Half Marathon in March I ran conservatively and intelligently and ducked comfortably under 1hr 40.

I have told too many people that I’m going to run a marathon every year until I’m 40 (and who’s to say I won’t carry on beyond) so I feel like I really should keep that up. Having said that, I suggested ‘never again’ to the reception party in Horse Guards’ Parade last sunday but a bit of time and perspective helps! Since watching Berlin from a hotel room in September last year and knowing how my friends have talked about it as a race (and a city) I think I’d really like to do that. It’s too late to enter for 2012 and, in any case I’ve got something else planned for this September anyway. So, 2013 it is which means 17-18 months of training to get that 3.10.

There’s precedent here though. My good friend Darren is a little older than me, very similar build, been running a little longer and has a (much) busier life –  but he has had some great success in recent years (using Jeff’s plan) to drop his marathon from the 3.30s-3.13.43 (Royal Shakespeare) to a PB of 3.07.05 in windy conditions in Rotterdam this year and is aiming to go sub 3 at some point soon.

To do this I want to draw a straight line between today’s PB and September 2013. I have some milestones to reach along the way and I need to methodically tick these off to achieve that goal. Milestones like gaining strength in the legs and my core, in improving my cadence (footfalls per minute) and general form (transitioning to a more mid-foot strike). With those ticked off I can continue to work on my aerobic capacity and my psychological strategies to ensure I can dig in for longer at faster paces.

With that in mind I have two races coming up. Sadly they’re not really compatible but I want to PB in both of them. The first is the LGN Inter-Advertising 5km race in Regent’s Park. This is a flat and easy course and it’s important to me to put in a good showing there in front of colleagues and peers. I can definitely shave a slice of my previous best of 22-ish minutes. The second however is the Great North Run. A race I’ve been bag-holder for twice and always been jealous of, it’s got a fantastic atmosphere, a reasonably straightforward (though not super-fast) course. It is only three days after the LGN 5km though so it probably means that it will have to take precedence and mean that my 5k PB could happen sooner in the year, at a parkrun for example.

I need to work out what the Great North should be run in. I think it should be a 90 minute race, based largely on the fact that the  McMillan pace calculator suggests a 3hr 10 marathoner should be capable of a 1hr 30.07 half (and a 19.29 5k). So, that’s the short term target. With the long summer evenings, warm weekends in the parks and towpaths and maybe a bit of trail running in the Surrey hills, it should be a good time to put the miles in. Added to the big goals of strength and speed, I want to run with others a bit more
Dare Run helps with this particularly as some of the lads have good 5k speed. I’m keen to hook up with some old rowing chums (James & Owen) too, both of whom have much better PBs than me.

And that’s it, for a little while. I’ll just quietly get on with it. If you want to follow my progress (!) then the usual Runkeeper, Endomondo and Garmin links are out there, as well as Twitter of course.

Just as I was wrapping this post up, Laurian (Dare and fellow VLM sub 4hr runner) posted a link to an article in a paper I detest, which  did draw attention to the fact that amongst certain middle-class aspirational circles that posting PBs and talking about your endurance feats is the new rat-race. It is actually alarmingly accurate and brings this post of mine wonderfully back down to earth. So thank-you, horrible paper, for making me realise that this might actually be pretty gauche to many of you. For that, I apologise!

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Marathon 2012: My race report

It might seem obvious but 26.2 miles is a long way. It’s actually quite easy to forget that. Where I grew up in Kent, I used to think that when I’d drive the 26 miles from home to the end of the M26. A journey that even at 70mph in the car seemed quite a way.

But today, one week on from my second marathon in London, I’m struck by how quickly it went. I was having breakfast this morning and realised it was 09.45, exactly the same time as I set off last week from pen 3, blue start, Blackheath. I finished my breakfast, watched an entire film, did some chores and helped Jo make and bake some cookies. The week before I’d still have been running. It felt like a long time this week but back then it flew by.

That’s not to say it’s easy, just that your mind is actually very occupied throughout and, through some cognitive chunking, the race is separated into a series of moments. So much so that now, even after having watched the BBC footage, listened to the Marathon Talk podcast round up, viewed the photos and had debriefs with uninterested colleagues and fellow runners, I still can’t remember too much about it. Here’s what I do remember:

A good start
This year I travelled to the start with Naomi Dunne and Zeeta from Clapham Chasers. Naomi’s a great friend and colleague who was starting her third marathon and – in spite of injury – after a sub 4 hour time. We had plenty of time on the (more busy than 2011) trains and arrived in good spirits. Sun shining, start buzzing and we found a spot out of the wind an near the loo queues. After dumping bags and hugging for luck we hit our respective pens. I lucked-out this year and with a low number (6226) I was in pen 3. Blue start is the best start in my opinion. It’s the elite and championship start and it follows the ‘proper’ route rather than joining the route a few miles in like red and green do. We moved forward a couple of times and by the time the announcements of the men’s elite were being made I was about 60ft from the front line. I crossed the line under a minute from the starting gun so my splits would be close to the official gun time which was pretty handy.

Last year back amongst the Fun (capitals intentional) runners I had a mare. Stopping an shuffling for at least a mile. This year I was running from the start and much more relaxed too. I stuck to the Jeff Gaudette’s plan and settled in to 8.10-15/miles for the first 5 miles.  I passed Iwan Thomas with a cheery hello about 2 miles in, enjoyed the ‘humps’ up Charlton Park Lane, the Olympic shooting test event  and generally got in to the swing of things. Just after Charlton we hit the 5 mile mark and from that point I had to make sure I was closer to 8 min miles (4.57km). But for the first 2km I’d been comfortably under 5 min/km and my heart rate was an easy 155. I could see the 8 min mile (3.30hr) pacing team so I hopped on their ‘bus’ and thought that would take my mind off the next 15 miles and the fact that I was starting to need a wee quite a bit.

Pit Stop
I’d hydrated on SiS before the race and had been really making sure I started the race properly hydrated. It’s a gamble as to how far you take that and despite using the facilities en-route to my start pen, you can’t legislate for how quickly it goes through you. I thought I could hold out and that sweat would deal with it but a few miles later I was in the same situation I’d been in a Fleet half marathon a month before and was looking around for the next portaloo.

Knowing I needed a time cushion to cope with the pit stop I picked up my pace (4.54, 4.52/km) after Cuty Sark (which looked amazing and brilliant to be back after missing it last year) and the winding detour of Greenwich I finally ‘scratched the itch’ just by Deptford Park at about 13km. I lost about 30 seconds in the stop but kept my watch running to have my total time, and picked up the pace (4.49, 4.55, 4.51) to try and get back in touch with the pace bus.

This was hard work (heart rate nudging 160) and despite some pretty attractive cheerleaders at Surrey Quays the miles rattled on toward Tower Bridge without any real incident or any real gain on the pacers. So I settled back into my own rhythm to tick off the miles in Rotherhithe and get to Tower Bridge in good shape. Well, that was the plan.

Hill Start
The trouble with Tower Bridge is that it’s great. And straight after it I knew my family would be near Tower Hill. So I sort of got excited again and put some faster km in again to take me over the bridge and on to The Highway. Knowing that it was about that point that I started to feel shocking last year I did at least reign it in and hit 8 min miles again. To some extent (as the elites passed us on the other side) heading down toward Narrow Street and Limehouse I knew I’d been a bit naughty with the pace.

I came up behind James Barnard around this point and since I’d been following his blog Sir Jogalot for a year after we both had similar experiences in VLM 2011 [him / me], I introduced myself. Both going for sub 3.30 we exchanged pleasantries and then had that awkward moment when you say goodbye/luck and then continue to run in silence alongside eachother for a bit. James looked in control at this point and I figured as an experienced pacer I’d keep in touch with him. However, I seemed to be naturally pulling away a little and as we headed down into docklands I lost touch with him. Reading his post later that weekend it’s clear he had some challenges of his own but I’m delighted to see how well the Newcastle United Foundation have done out of his run.

Watching the tide roll away…
Last year I was in tatters in docklands and the first of my walk breaks came in to play. This year I was determined that wouldn’t happen. I knew I had to hang on to the 18 mile mark which was going to be my first of three gels. I’d taken on Lucozade sport at 5, 10 and 15 miles (a quarter to a third of a bottle each time) and water intermittently. Psychologically I was feeling ok. I’d had some tired legs and some dark thoughts around 14-16 miles but by the time the crowds built through Canrary Wharf I felt happy about getting out of docklands and heading for home. The data tells a slightly different story. It’s tricky to be specific as the tall buildings and tunnels play around with the GPS but I was definitely slowing and my heart rate was getting into the high 160s. As someone in the crowd announced ‘single digits now’ I was getting excited about turning back west.

I’d expected that by this point we’d be getting pretty wet. The forecast had been for the wind to build to be a moderate westerly, a headwind all the way home along Embankment and for the rain to start around 1pm but neither really arrived. It’s always windy in the towers of the Wharf so I didn’t notice a significant headwind and the scraps of shade that arrived with a few clouds and tall buildings helped to reduce the inevitable overheating.

“The race starts at 20 miles”
Reaching the 20 mile marker with a 10km race ahead I felt tired but that I’d done enough sessions in training to know that I could put some speed into my legs in spite of it. I didn’t know how low I could drop the pace only that I needed to go ‘as fast as you can’. I hit 4.48 in that first km (7.43 miles) and kept my ear out for my km splits as I tapped in a 4.53, 4.48, 4.47 in the following kms. Weirdly this extra pace seemed to be good for me psychologically as I began passing runners – including Tony Audenshaw on his was to becoming Fastest Schoolboy – comfortably and the miles were passing faster. It wasn’t easy though, by this time I was in the 170s for heart rate. I expected to pass my family again at 22 miles but they’d moved and I thought I’d missed them. This caused a little slump in pace which picked up again when I saw them a little further down the road. As Canon Street passed and the underpasses dragged on I stopped looking at my watch and focussed on feel. Running down the miles and picking up my last drink at 23 and gel at 24. Embankment turns to face Westminster and I realised I was still ticking off good splits. Perhaps understimating the distance, I dropped a gear at 40km and put in a 4.44km (7.37mile) split to take me around the bend into bridge street and the wide Birdcage walk, head up and looking for the marker boards.

Birdcage Walk is a bizarre part of the race. It’s much wider than the previous few miles (or at least it seems like it) and it seems to drag on for ages. Knowing you’re 2km, then 1km from the finish you realise you eat those distances for breakfast normally but there’s nothing in the tank.I’d passed the 3.30 pacer I’d all but forgotten about since the pit stop somewhere on Embankment so I knew I must have had 3.30 in my sights but I didn’t want to look at my watch as I knew I was giving it all I had anyway, knowing the time wouldn’t have made any difference.

The BBC cameras caught me as I thumped ungainly up the Mall puffing like Ivor the Engine (replayed at the company meeting the next day) and I crossed the line having dropped a 4.12km (6.45 mile) for the last 1000m. My Garmin had it as 3.29.59. I couldn’t believe it. So much so that I fully expected it be revised up by a few seconds when the chip time came in.

The lonely 800m walk, photos and bag collection followed and I couldn’t believe my legs were as minced as they were. Where had those final 10k come from? I could barely shuffle to Horse Guards. Desperately looking out for water (I couldn’t face any more sweet sugary drinks) I didn’t realise there was one in my bag so I swiped up the Pink Lady apple they’d popped in there and by the time my family arrived at the meeting point I was halfway through that. Happily my brother revealed the chip time had me one second quicker. 3.29.58. A solid negative split (1.45.38 and 1.44.20) and inside my goal. Delighted and demons from 2011 expelled.

Straight afterwards I said “never again” just like most of the non-elite runners I suspect but here I am,a week later with new goals in my head. But they will wait for another post. On what was a terribly dark day for others, it seems churlish to celebrate too much but the honest reality is that I felt pretty damn smug the following day, even if my legs were incapable of providing me with any dignity.
Photos here > Marathonfoto.com
Data here >Garmin, Endomondo and Runkeeper (splits have all been corrected as distance set to 26.2)
Official results

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