Does TfL deliberately profit from user error? | April 15, 2013
Today I got a £20 penalty fine from TfL (Transport for London) because it turned out that I didn’t have enough credit on my Oyster card. I typically use the underground so when this happens you’re stopped at the barriers, giving you clear feedback and preventing you from making a costly error.
However I rarely use the DLR/Overground which is barrier free and have never had a situation where my credits had expired. It turns out when this happens the machine beeps twice rather than once. Unfortunately (for me) I wasn’t aware if this so I simply heard a beep and assume everything was OK and got on my train.
I presume there was also a message on the machine, and if I was to complain would be told that it was my duty to read the display. Of course we all know that the context if use (busy platform, unfamiliar surroundings, contact less payment and rushing for a train) makes glancing at a tiny display unlikely.
Sure this was user error, but a user error that could easily be avoided if the system was designed correctly. For a start it would be very easy to change the tone if the error message from a friendly and encouraging beep to a low toned culturally understandable buzz.
Secondly it would be easy to put the card into debit and allow users to top up on their next trip. This is what many other transit systems around the world do and what I thought the underground did as well.
Sadly TFL make user errors extremely easy and as they profit from this error I suspect there is little incentive to change.
I’ve experienced similar issues when booking rail tickets at train station kiosks. They always seem to present the most expensive ticket first (one way peak fare to London) rather than the most popular fare, presumably in the hope that a percentage of people will succumb to human error in their rush to buy a ticket and end up spending more money.
In most customer facing jobs, when user error happens you only need to look towards a friendly customer service representative to get the issue resolved. Sadly with TFL it seems there is an immediate assumption of fare evasion so rather than assistance you get slapped with a fine.
Even this would be OK if the treatment you received was friendly and apologetic. But in my experience its usually the opposite - cold, rude and unsympathetic. So what started as a small and easy to dismiss error ends up leaving you angry at an institution you spend hundreds if not thousands of pounds with, while casting a shadow over the rest of your day.
Privatisation (the legacy of Margaret Thatcher) was supposed to give us consumers better customer service and more choice, it instead it feels like we’ve inherited the worst of capitalism (profiteering) and the worst of state control (poor customer service) instead.
Why The Same Old Faces? | March 27, 2013
In an eailier post I discussed one reason why some people may perceive a lack of new faces on the speaker circuit — namely that by the time you reach the point in your career where you’re being asked to speak at conferences, you will most likely have had so much exposure already that you’ll no longer feel like a new voice.
This being said, there is a small but growing number of people who are continually asked to write articles, comment on news stories or speak at conferences. Is this due to lazy editors and event curators, or due to the existence of an “old boys network” that aims to exclude outsiders in favour of it’s own?
While it’s easy to assume that the road is blocked by others, sadly the truth is usually more mundane. Being an awesome designer or developer doesn’t necessarily make you a great writer or speaker. I’ve met some truly outstanding practitioners who show almost no interest or ability in sharing their knowledge on the public stage. Conversely I’ve met plenty of—often only slightly above average—designers and developers who have an amazing ability to tell stories and communicate ideas.
It turns out that the ability to inspire, inform and entertain is pretty rare, so is it any wonder why these people are approached time and again? In fact, wouldn’t it be a little strange if conference organisers and publishers routinely ignored people with a track record in favour of less experienced people?
It also turns out that being knowledgeable in a particular topic doesn’t make you automatically attractive to conferences and magazines. Especially if there are dozens of other people talking about the same thing. Being a recognised authority in a subject is attractive to commercial organisations as it helps increase sales and minimise risk. So it’s important to build a strong following, whether that’s because you were the first, the best or simply the most prolific. Self promotion isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just as long as it has some substance to back it up.
One reason for seeing the same old faces is because they are the ones offering to write content or speak at events. There seems to be an unhealthy belief that it’s solely the responsibility of publishers and conference organisers to discover talent. However that’s not true. It’s also down to the individuals to promote themselves, and some of the most recognisable faces happen to be the ones that put themselves out there time and again.
Reliability is another big factor here. One of the reasons I get asked to comment a lot in magazines is because I respond quickly and have something relevant to say. This feels like such a small thing, but if you’re working to a deadline and you know somebody is slow to respond and variable in quality, you’ll simply stop asking. We’ve had similar issues with speakers. You’ll set deadlines for speakers to send in bio information, provide talk descriptions and confirm flights. People are really busy these days so you have to make allowances, but if folks are continually late sending you information, you eventually stop asking, no matter how good they are.
These are just some of the many reasons why you see the same people cropping up time and again. It’s not that they are necessarily the best designers and developers out there, or that they have the most cutting edge things to say. It’s usually because they put themselves out there, can spin a good yarn, respond to their emails in a timely manner, consistently deliver the goods and a host of other pedestrian reasons.
Should Programming be Taught at Schools? | March 25, 2013
There’s a lot of buzz around technology education at the moment.
The old ICT courses which taught children to be passive consumers are being overturned as schools in the UK are encouraged to set up their own curricula with programming at it’s core. At the same time after-schools clubs are growing in popularity with projects like Code Club operating in nearly a thousand British schools. This boom has been thanks, in part, to services like Code Academy and Scratch which have revolutionised the way people learn to programme, and to projects like the Raspberry Pi which hark back to the golden age of the BBC Micro.
While I don’t necessarily buy into the Rushkoffian rhetoric of “programme or be programmed”, I see huge benefits in leaning to code. For instance it’s a practical and engaging way of teaching other skills like maths and physics, while the problem-solving techniques you pick up are highly transferable. I also think it can provide young people with a sense of agency and purpose which is often lacking in their lives (computer games often fill this role). So as somebody in the technology industry I see this trend as a very positive move. However I also wonder if this could just be a case of selective bias?
Classicists argue that Latin is is one of the most important subjects to be taught at school as it’s the basis for all modern languages. Similarly business leaders argue that finance, law and entrepreneurship should take a central place in school curriculum. We even have sports people and celebrity chefs calling for health and nutrition to feature more prominently in schools. I bet if we asked most vocations, from engineers and architects to TV presenters and ballet dancers they’d be able to provide a string of tangible benefits their profession can teach. As such I struggle to tell how valuable learning programming at school really is or how we balance this against other subjects.
I also worry about the expectations we’re setting by teaching programming as a core subject. Are we creating a generation of children raised on the dream of becoming the next Internet entrepreneur only to end up creating an underclass of poorly paid Microserfts? What’s more, do we really want our education policy dictated by the Facebook’s and Google’s of this world, just to ensure they have a plentiful supply of engineers?
It’s a tough question and one that has me sitting on the fence. The benefits to me are immediate and obvious. However I still can’t shake the concern that the downside will only become apparent 5 or 10 years down the line when it’s Java (pun intended) programmers serving our coffee in Starbucks rather than geography graduates.
The Post-digital Renaissance | March 24, 2013
We first saw it with food. People getting back to nature and growing their own veggies, or hitting the kitchen to bake their own sour dough. We then saw it with the the rise of the craft movement, inspiring a generation of knitters, potters and jewellery makers take back the skills their great grandparents once owned but were lost in the rush to convenience.
Next up were the artisanal bakers, cup-cake makers and independent coffee shops. Baking their own breads, frosting their own buns and roasting their own blends, all delivered on a fixed gear bike or (for added kudos) a Penny Farthing.
This trend was also seen in the world of fashion, with hipsters in New York, London and San Francisco donning tweed jackets and growing improbable facial hair as part of a new found chap manifesto. Second hand clothes were no longer the preserve of students and the term “vintage” came to mean something with history and craftsmanship.
At the same time, burlesque shows, tea dances and secret speakeasy’s have been on the rise, encouraging people to partake in the illicite joys of days gone by. I wonder when opium dens will come back in vogue.
The post digital age has seen a mass of disaffected hipsters, born into a world of Orwellian connectivity, embrace a simpler age when craft was king. They are throwing off the shackles of mass produced, industrialised garbage, keen to the lies of the marketing executives. Neighbourhoods like Brick Lane, Williamsburg and The Mission are seeing a kind of reverse gentrification, with local bakers, milliners and hardware stores taking over from big chains.
Fuelled by Etsy and Kickstarter, the new digital fronteer is no longer virtual. Instead we’re seeing a new generation of tinkers who want to see the network manifest in physical products. So the big tech conferences are awash with boxes the print, light-up or chime to the flow of the network.
It’s a curious trend and not the first time society has looked to the past for clues about the good life, or reapplied old wisdom through a new societal lens. So is this renewed interest in craftsmanship, tinkering and personal scientific discovery some kind of post-digital renaissance or are we simply going through the typical soul searching that occurs once a century once the initial party has finally wound down?
More importantly does it really matter? I think things are about to get very interesting (commercial space flight, personal drones, 3d printers in every home) and I’m really looking forward to seeing where it all goes.
Trends in Web Design | February 17, 2013
The growth of UX Design vs. the decline of Interaction Design and Information Architecture
IA vs. CS
Agile Methodology vs. Lean Start-up
The growth of Responsive Design
It’s All Academic | February 2, 2013
Considering the World Wide Web was created to facilitate the sharing of academic research, I’ve always been surprised by how little of this I see online. In the early days of the Web, most of the sharing seemed to be done by amateurs and hobbyists. However as businesses discovered the value of the Web, these amateurs turned professional and the discipline of Web Design was born.
In most other industries, people tend to keep their information secret, for fear of giving away their competitive advantage. On the Web I’ve always been amazed by how willing people are to help others on Blogs, Mailing Lists and sites like Stack Overflow. It’s this willingness to share that led me into this career and is something I’ll always be thankful for.
When I first discovered the Web I was excited by all the new things I’d learned and wanted to share these with others. I quickly found likeminded souls and assembled them first into a Blogroll and later into a NewsReader List. When I declared RSS bankruptcy around 2007—shortly after joining Twitter as it happens—I was following around 600 websites. Out of these, only three could be considered from academic sources.
How was it that despite working in a medium designed for the dissemination of academic research, I was only following three people? I wasn’t being deliberately selective and only following practitioners. In fact I’d spent quite lot of time looking for relevant and interesting academic Bloggers and had failed every time.
With the exception of people like Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, there was a distinct lack of academics speaking at conferences, publishing books or writing articles—at least ones that the industry was acutely aware of.
On occasion I’d meet a lone academic at a conference or BarCamp and quiz them on the subject. The conversation would usually go something like this.
Andy: “So how come we don’t see more academics speaking or attending at conferences like this?”
Academic: “My University expects me to publish a certain number of papers and I don’t get any credit from speaking at events like this.”
Andy: “Oh, OK. But why not speak anyway? Most of the folks here aren’t getting anything for speaking. They’re just doing it because they want to share.”
Academic: Blank Silence
Andy: “So what are you researching at the moment? Is there somewhere I can read about it?”
Academic: “I had a paper published in
a few years back, but you need access to . You’re not a student are you? If so your University Library will have a subscription.”
Andy: “No, I’m not. Sorry. Do you have a Blog?”
Academic: “It’s difficult for us as we need to publish original work or it won’t get accepted. So it’s not really possible to Blog.”
Andy: “How about once it’s been published?”
Andy: “I just discovered this great Blog by Dan Lockton about his research, do you know any others?”
Academic: “Yes, that Blog is great isn’t it. Let me think. Er, no I can’t think of any others.”
For a long time I’ve felt that I’ve been missing out on a wealth of academic information. Research I could use to demonstrate to people the value of usability testing, prototyping or some other design technique. Not to make more money but to help improve the Web experience for everybody. After one such conversation I actually looked into signing up to one of these academic journals but the cost was prohibitive. Unlike industry, it would seem that academia believe there is money to be made from sharing their knowledge, even if it has been created using public money.
This is a theme that was born out in a recent conversation I had with a lecturer. He explained that he was coming under increasing pressure from his administration to undertake original research because teaching just wasn’t paying the bills anymore.
I can definitely see this approach working in some disciplines like physics, biochemistry and engineering (Graphene anybody?) but I find it hard to imagine there’s a lot of money to be made from interaction design. So while I understand why private organisations may feel the need to hoard their discoveries, I believe that publically funded bodies have a duty to publish their findings for free and for the betterment of society.
This is starting to happen and I believe there are small but increasing number of free online platforms that provide academics with the credit they desire. However as academic publishing is big business, it is a trend that the traditional publishers are keen to resist, and as long as academic publishing is based on reputation, the well-known journals will continue to dominate.
I think industry has a lot to benefit from academia, but penetrating the academic world can be difficult. The London chapter of the UX Bookclub has been doing a great job of surfacing interesting papers for its members to discuss. However these kinds of bridges are few and far between.
In some small way I’ve also been trying to learn more about the academic world in an attempt to discover new speakers. I went to my first academic conference this year, but to be honest it was a bit of a struggle. I guess my expectations were two high as I was expecting to come away with some cutting edge research that was years ahead of current industry thinking. Instead I was shocked and dismayed by how out of date the talks were and had to sit through research that was presented as novel but was considered old news by industry. When discussing this with an academic friend of mine I was told that this was because the majority of sessions were from Masters Research and that I really needed to attend a conference based on PHD research to get the good stuff. So I’ve decided to attend CHI this year to see if I faire any better.
Thankfully more and more academics and researchers are speaking at industry conferences and publishing their thoughts on Blogs these days. So while I may have only been aware of three people back in 2007, I’m now following eight or nine and am keen to discover more. So if you happen to know any really interesting and well-written academic Blogs, please add them to the comments section of this post.