Category Archives: work

Digital denies the past. Why do we ignore nostalgia and context online?

Despite architecture being a common sight in the nomenclature of digital user experience design, it’s rare that I come across practitioners in my field of human-centred design that take either inspiration or education from the work of our cousins designing in the built environment.

For some six years now I’ve had it in mind to call out this naivety and invite discussion about what this means in our profession. I can say 6 years (nearly 7) because that’s how long ago it was since Kevin McCloud gave the RIBA Trust Annual Lecture [available on Vimeo]. It’s a lecture that has stuck in my mind all this time for how vividly he discussed the role of context in architecture, it was a concept so profoundly lacking in digital (information/user experience) architecture in 2010 and is still absent today.

Context is part of the story, nostalgia is another. Nostalgia is woefully underrated in digital design, you’ll find examples of it being used of course – particularly in social environments where the sharing of memories in photographs, memes, music and culture are commonplace or perhaps in the preservation of the earliest video games. The benefits of nostalgia are not to be underestimated in enhancing our social connectedness, improving our self-regard and comfort. Of course it can be used negatively (false perspectives and alignment with nationalism in both the Brexit and Trump campaigns) but in general terms, it’s a benign pleasure. Etymology ties it to the house and home, from the Greek nóstos (homecoming) and álgos (ache) and in this spirit, we might look to the work of Tsuruta Architects with their beautiful House of Trace to start our journey unpacking what this means for digital. Trace makes clear the delineation between the existing space and the Victorian history and in doing so draws attention to both. You can read the makers’ marks in the mortar of the Victorian brickwork or the laser-routed ply of the new. It’s a house that celebrates patina, cracks, the mundane extension it once wore and the bold new materials and spaces that define its current incarnation. [Edit 09.11.17 and, in a more subtle sense, the wonderful work done on Etch House, by Fraher Architects]


House of Trace, Tsuruta Architects. Photo: Tim Crocker

If I may, I’d invite you at this point to think about the possessions in your life. A notebook you might use, a leather chair. A favourite pair of jeans, even the scuffed and aged treads on your stairs, a jewellery box, garden tools or a suitcase battered from a hundred baggage carousels. Items like these appreciate in value as they age. Maybe not monetarily (though this is certainly true in some cases) but certainly in what they mean to us. Even functionally, we like things that have broken-in in some sense, that have a well worn but reliable behaviour. Contrast this with the technology in your life. From the unboxing onward our digital products are perceived on a downwards trajectory. A dented corner, a cracked screen, these are items that deteriorate, not patinate. Even when their functionality is, like the well-worn chair, intact, we care so little for them that we’ll seal them in cellophane and ship them off for a paltry cashback or simply dump them unceremoniously. Truthfully these are places and products within which we will have spent considerable time and invested equal parts emotion. It might be the phone you made a life changing call on, a camera you took a defining photograph with, a piece of software on which you designed or listened to something personal or profound. In both a literal and figurative sense, digital does have memory – arguably more so than those battered jeans. I fully appreciate I paint with broad strokes here: a pair of marathon-worn shoes are sentimental to one, a scrap-heap invitation to buy new ones to another, but if you accept the general premise that we have a distorted value of history in digital then we might move to consider our online experiences.


Scuffs, turned corners and finger marks tell a story, adding context and value.

The artist William Morris founded the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings in 1877 because he saw a future where our architectural heritage was being swept aside or clumsily restored, asserting as he did that “As good buildings age, the bond with their sites strengthens. A beautiful, interesting or simply ancient building still belongs where it stands however corrupted that place may have become. Use and adaptation of buildings leave their marks and these, in time, we also see as aspects of the building’s integrity.” We acknowledge the contribution made by the barn, the guildhall, the corn exchange, the coaching inn, the gate house, the packhorse bridge. We preserve in aspic (how needlessly pejorative that term has become!) that which we feel defines the context of our environment. Our towns, cities, villages and streets are rich with the complex layers of history and the people who have moved through them. This complexity adds depth, regardless of your penchant for steel and glass, thatched roofs or Georgian symmetry. What could be more empathetic and ‘user-centred’ than the streets of downtown Boston, a layout that owes its muddled honesty to the movement of cattle to pasture? We do not appear to have carried this through to our digital age; least, not to anything like the same degree.

In the digital arena, there is no surprise when designers and planners are asked to redesign a complete experience from scratch, tabula rasa. Briefs are rich with all-encompassing disdain for the current site, products or applications. Even when the scope does not extend as far as a full teardown, even the discrete and specific jobs are almost exclusively seeking to retain little to nothing of the incumbent. Furthermore, these briefs are so intent on the new that the presentation of historic context is done so only to tell the team what is not wanted. Digital is throwaway.

A significant part of the 6-year delay in writing this post has been in my nagging feeling that there’s a really good reason why the analogy (and therefore the nexus between the two types of architecture) is broken, that I’m missing a really obvious point as to why we design digerati behave in such a way. I’ll start with technology here. Technology depreciates in a way in which buildings don’t. Sure, materials deteriorate and, over time, things will break but, in simple terms, when someone creates a new way of opening a door, it doesn’t stop the door at your house from working. Standards in construction have changed, you can’t get sign-off for 1930s electrical wiring, for example, and modernisation for safety and future compatibility is essential, as it is online. Backwards compatibility and more mature approach to obsolescence in code can still draw strong parallels in architecture. A stonemason can still use centuries-old techniques to join a crumbling facade to a new building, a joiner can restore a timber framed barn with spliced green oak. Equally, there could be is a requirement for skilled artisans of deprecated languages to develop for our digital realms. What of design and aesthetics? We might improve functionally on an Elizabethan window, however, it’s not inconceivable, in fact, it’s more often than not the case, that we retain them in spite of their limitations, for their aesthetic and – I can’t stress this enough – for how they make us feel. In doing away with what love (however clouded in nostalgia) and in undervaluing these intangible feelings, we risk marching robotically to a banal and derivative digital world where we find little more than emotionless efficiency. Donald Norman’s Emotional Design is approaching 13 years old and I profoundly wish more designers paid attention to the visceral and reflective elements of design whilst they rush to tell us about their behaviour-led approach.

In simple terms I want us to throw away less of our digital heritage. I want to provoke a conversation (if not a debate) about how we might make use of that which adds texture and heritage to our online experiences. Nevertheless, what are the interactions, the patterns and structures that we could preserve and incorporate in the new? Where are the echoes of past behaviours and the people that use our sites? What are the iconic, seminal elements that define the brands and places we interact with? It might be the Google search box, the Daily Mail‘s ‘sidebar of shame’, the iconography of Airbnb. To be clear, this is not about archiving and preservation. It’s not or slideshows of interfaces gone by, this is living history, contextual inspiration and the fusing of interesting, beautiful and usable experiences within the inexorable desire to create in platforms and devices.

To return to the physical world, fair criticism might be levelled at our low-effort veneration of our architectural past. A cursory drive around the suburbs of Britain is all it takes to see clumsy pastiches of architectural epochs, anachronistic conceits like bricked-up windows, fake chimneys, concrete ‘Kent peg’ tiles, Doric columns. There’s no accounting for taste nor the application of contextual consideration in new design. However, our built environments are governed in a way digital is not, we have town planners and conservationists, we have some keen to retain a facade, others to slavishly recreate the past, at great scale. There is no corresponding planning authority or Grade Listing for our online environments and the risks of aesthetic carnage are even greater online as the barrier to entry as a designer is lower than that of the architect. Misguided design decisions, the lack of guardianship and our human nature to seek the path of least resistance will naturally tempt many to simply copy and produce uncanny replicas akin to a  Tudor mansion in a Chinese town. Our only defence is the financial, as digital environments get ever more complex and integrated the cost of a clean slate becomes that little bit harder to justify but only so long as those involved still have skin in the game. The rapid turnover of staff often means that there is a happy corporate amnesia for such historic investments.

I have spent a large part of the past few months working on a full redesign of parkrun and, in the coming months, this site will launch into a community of runners and volunteers many of whom will be intimately familiar with a site that has been in place for many years. It’s a site that, although aged and with many idiosyncrasies, is much loved and efficient for those familiar with it. It’s been a fundamental part of the work undertaken by Dare’s Experience Planning (UX), Design and Engineering teams to understand what of those experiences must be maintained and how they might be upgraded without losing the soul and efficiency of the previous incarnation.

Perhaps it is in the physicality of our future digital environment that we will finally see the blend of old and new. It’s taken 7 years and the maturation of technology like Alexa and Siri, an ecosystem rich in connected devices and applications to get to a point where I feel comfortable in painting a picture of a world where our familiar objects age through the hybridisation of technology: a classic car with voice activated navigation, our photo albums with face recognition a much-loved HiFi bridged to every piece of music ever written. I can’t help feeling this isn’t quite enough, however, and in time our future selves will look back with disdain at our wilful ignorance and disdain for the earliest efforts of our architects and artisans in creating places for us to live, work and play.


Thorington Hall, Suffolk, demolished 1949. Image: Tiger Aspect Productions & Lost Heritage.

I found myself listening to Sir Roy Strong’s Desert Island Discs recently on a long, contemplative walk in the hills, I wonder if we need our own digital version of the Destruction of the Country House, the most obvious response to which would be to dismiss our digital heritage as being the rudimentary experiments of an immature industry, quite unlike the grand country houses Sir Roy was drawing the nation’s attention to at the V&A in 1974That may be so, but I cannot help but feel we have all too easily ignored both the lessons of our architectural purges and the powerful role that context and nostalgia play in enhancing and making sense of our digital lives. As this excellent piece by Matthew Beckett notes, the Destruction exhibition was part of a chain of such as the Gowers Report on Historic Houses, Grade listings and the frameworks for appreciation and preservation that ensure we are rightly forced to think of heritage in the built environment. This chain started post-WW2, an environment where, much like today, the forces of a desire for innovation, optimism and the new were in conflict with those who didn’t see the sense in flattening everything the Luftwaffe hadn’t had the opportunity to finish off.

Here then is one great opportunity to apply lessons from the past, reusing code, visual design, tone of voice or interactions. We should, for example, be unafraid of whimsical skeuomorphic elements that connect us through shared memories and learned behaviours. Although it’s not easy to conceive of how, I’m inspired by the portfolio of reuse on Dezeen and how this might lead us to reimagine old digital devices and experiences in new ways. The success of The Design Museum’s celebration of the construction and relocation-to the former Commonwealth Institute is inspiring.

And that’s ultimately all this post is intended to be, an opportunity to provoke and inspire conversation of what it is to value context and nostalgia in digital, to think less about purges and redesigns and more in terms of work that responds to and reflects the experience of the people that built it and use it.


Pound cost averaging: An update

Back in June 2016 I wrote about how investors might learn from the endurance runner who modifies their effort according to the terrain. Since then I have been looking at what sort of numbers a strategy like this might have returned in 2016.

To recap, assume I decide to invest around £1200 a year. I decide that I’m going to average this at £100 per month, but if the market is falling I will invest more (to take advantage of lower prices) and if the market is rising I will invest less (because my money will buy less stock).

I took the FTSE100 index as a guide, establishing the index position on the first of each month (or as close to as possible). I determined the rise or fall in the preceding month. For example, on 1st Jan 2016 the index was 6903.4, on 1st Feb it was 6060.1, just 87.78% of the value. This meant I would invest £112.22 in February. I called this my ‘Modified PCA’ (Pound Cost Average). In February my £112.22 bought theoretical ‘shares’ which were tied to the FTSE100 index, so £6.06 per unit, giving me 18.52 units. I followed this pattern for the entire year and benchmarked it against a strategy which simply bought £100 worth of shares each month. As a control, I also looked at performance against a scenario where I had invested £1200 in one lump sum at the FTSE100 ‘share price’ in January (£6.90).

By the end of the year there had been only four months where the market fell from the previous month. My total expenditure on the Modified PCA was £1201.08 (assuming I didn’t add another amount in January 2017). I was surprised it was so close to the strict average. The effect of adjusting my effort meant that the value of the ‘shares’ I owned was now £1419.47, a healthy 9.63% return. By contrast, a strict normal PCA of £100 a month investment would have left me with £1423.45, a little more in absolute terms but the reduced buying power in a rising market meant a slightly lower return, 9.5%. Nevertheless, if I had just invested all £1200 in January 2016 I’d have made only £48.69, just 4.05%.

Of course, this is just based on my basic maths (easily my weakest subject) and assumes investing in the FTSE100 as a simple index rather than a specific fund, but it just shows that there is some real-world opportunity in taking a consistent and disciplined approach to monthly investment. Now if only I could apply that to my sub 3hr marathon project…

Raw data here (please do interrogate and correct me if wrong)


A Morningstar piece identifies that plain old PCA is only better than lump sum investing during falling markets. It’s a good summary of the potential but I still haven’t seen anyone using a modified PCA like mine and it and this Money Observer piece also make it clear, again, that regular investing penalises the investor with transactional fees.

Finally, my approach also falls into the Black Swan trap of using historic data to inform future investment decisions.




Listen less, observe more. Human-centred designers must ask deeper questions

One of the most oft-repeated tropes of human-centred design is that we must pay attention to a person’s needs. These needs are often said to be identified through the observation of past behaviour. In digital (whatever that means these days) this is typically through the gathering of usage data. Sit in any pitch or briefing and it won’t be long before someone starts talking about dwell times, form drop offs and so on an so forth. Often a well-meaning ‘user experience’ staffer will pipe up about the need to develop personas, and a marketeer will add “based on our segmentation of course!” “of course!” they reply. Data is incontrovertible.

Really, businesses don’t like anecdotes. They’re not keen on stories (even if the managers are consuming books on storytelling and the engineers are developing use cases), so they rely on the known knowns – how people are using their site or service. It’s this, they say which informs us how people will use our experiences in the future.

I’m unconvinced. Increasingly I find myself resisting the temptation to read much into past behaviour. The empirical psychologist in me knows that, to be a predictor of future behaviour, fellow researchers have come to some agreement that there really are quite strict conditions for this to be the case:

  • The behaviour has to occur rather often (i.e. it’s high frequency).
  • The prediction is most accurate if based on a short time frame.
  • The predicted situation must be a close match for the past situation that the observation was made from.
  • The behaviour must not have been influenced by negative or corrective feedback.
  • The person must be unchanged and, finally,
  • The person must be generally consistent with their behaviours.

That’s quite a set of experimental conditions to maintain. Consider this, if your customer bought from your site or interacted with your brand once before, can you honestly assume that they will meet all those conditions on their return visit? Even with high-traffic repeat visits I’d contend that there’s sufficient variance to make predictions at the very least, wobbly. Add in a timeline of a few weeks or months (like financial services sites, for example) and your prediction is looking essentially worthless.

Demographics are not behaviours
Quite apart from the predictive past performance within your own brand experience, what does this mean in terms of inferring behaviour from others’ actions? One of my bugbears is the regurgitation of segmentation and demographic-led personas. Passed on from media buying and market research these exhibit the classic failure of data vs. insight, that is they offer no illumination. As an identical twin who shares the same postcode, age, socio economic group and racial profile as my brother, the lazy marketeer assumes I have the same needs and behaviours as he. Though there is some cross-over, there is much that is also different and to paint with broad strokes is to miss the kind of detail in human-centred design that creates real breakthroughs. Repeat after me: demographics are not behaviours.

In 2016 where profiling and polling were shown to be so woefully ineffective at determining voter action (c.f. Brexit, Trump), isn’t it time we took a long hard look at the way in which we interrogate and model human behaviour? Fortunately some are doing this and we might look to important contexts like criminology, where they are identifying the desistance curve as offenders age and applying Bayes’s theorem to calculate offenders’ likely behaviour.

Will it rain today?
Where this leaves us is in the area of accuracy. Ultimately, as Rory has asserted in the past, analogous to our weather forecasting, we’re getting better at predicting short term behaviours but still a long way off high-fidelity predictions for weeks and months ahead. What’s helped Dare and other progressive human-centred design teams is looking at what are the stable traits of human behaviour and, furthermore, rigorously considering what is the relevance and integrity of data that forms the inputs of our predictions; we should never draw general conclusions from specific observations and it is this inductive reasoning that plagues our profession.

Nate Silver’s seminal ‘Signal and the Noise’ is undeniably popular and his models had much early success but criticisms begin to be levelled quite fairly when attempts are made to model personal and social behaviour not financial markets. I wonder if, dear reader, you’ve read Taleb’s “Black Swan“? (If you have I wonder if you read all of it? I’ve met few people that have and if you’re like me you found it’s autobiographical style impenetrable, obfuscating and bombastic. Even the Wikipedia summary suffers a similar fate) in short Taleb makes the same point, we care way too much about the inputs to our black box of analysis and truthfully understand very little of what’s going on in incredible complex systems. Taleb also points us at another user-centred design bear pit: the narrative fallacy. We construct user journeys, use cases and flows in narratives that serve to over emphasise what we think we know and bring with them all the confirmation bias of author and reader combined. How often do we still read that it’s important we design brilliant experiences that delight? You’ll see testimonials plastered on the walls of Customer Experience Officers’ offices and headline grabbing responses from frontline staff going above and beyond, and yet research has shown for some time that exceeding some expectations does no more for loyalty than a comprehensive approach to meeting most of them. But it’s just such a nice story isn’t it?

I don’t believe that the way human-centred designers unquestionably use the tools our industry have been using for the last 20-odd years gets us to great solutions.

I believe we need, like Khaneman did, to take the lessons from Taleb and stir in even more psychology, evolutionary psychology.

The answers are in our past, our prehistoric past
I’ve found comfort in developing an approach based on two seminal statements on consumer behaviour: The late David Ogilvy’s famous quote questioning the value of market research: “people don’t think how they feel, they don’t say what they think and they don’t do what they say.” and further Theodore Levitt’s “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole“. I would go one step further than Levitt and suggest that they want to hang that shelf that their spouse has been hassling them about so they can unlock a little more affection. Our modern age skulls house stone age minds and, as far as I’m concerned, a ludicrously overlooked truth is that we are a species that was for a very very long time motivated by procreation, the next meal and the next opportunity to rest. These basic needs of simple satisfaction surely form the basis of our the vast majority of our motivations and when we understood the roots of our behaviour we begin to unlock some truly creative solutions to our clients’ problems (there’s a reason everyone’s talking about Lagom and Hygge, simple satisfaction is incredibly human). We don’t get there by asking our customers this stuff, we get there only through anthropology and ethnography level observations: facial coding, eye tracking, galvanic skin response, neuromarketing. I’ve yet to see a CV where a UXr tells me they’re fascinated in anthropology or they’re fluent in FACS taxonomy, when I do I’ll hire them.

Research and analysis like this doesn’t come cheap and it doesn’t come quickly but tools like iMotions and IBM Watson have the potential to do for behaviour modelling what supercomputers have done for weather forecasting. Interpretation by inquisitive and analytical strategists that are comfortable asking ‘5 whys‘, doing field observations and contextual inquiries will guide us far better than fire hosing strategy and Ux teams with web analytics. To be clear, I am not dismissive of the role of usage data, I simply insist that it augments a broader collection of data gathered from IRL observations and a contextual understanding of human behaviour.

Bury the cliches
Henry Ford never said he didn’t listen to customers (I happily correct anyone who regurgitates the Faster Horse quote), Schiller never said Apple don’t do customer research (rather they do deep ethnographic studies and are ferociously tracking observed behaviour). I’m not saying we won’t learn from customer behaviour but rather, in order to get us to innovative, creative human experiences and behaviour change we must go beyond a facile and shallow observation of customer segments. We must build intelligent teams, use tools and encourage methodologies that give us the time to build upon the evolutionary roots of human behaviour and, whilst doing so, accept that our view extends no further than the horizon, we are powerless to know if it will snow next Christmas.

In a future post I will explain why I believe an automated approach to predicting and ‘optimising’ human behaviour through so-called personalisation offered by web platforms is not helpful at advancing our online experiences.

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The unreasonable consumer

On the 1st April Kara Pernice wrote a satirical piece on the NN/g blog calling on the user-centred design community to switch to creating difficult designs, for the benefit of humanity. I’m sure it was a jolly April Fool for the NN/g to post such an about-turn but in truth there is much we could do to reduce our obsession with making things easier for customers,  listening to their every whim and generally ignoring the realities of human existence in our pursuit of the utopian user experience.

I’ve written and spoken several times about intentional friction. It’s something I passionately believe in. From the smallest poke-a-yoke to the intentional deployment of dark patterns, there is a place for cognitive – even dexterity challenges – in user experience (see William Peng’s post on sign ups) and to deny them is to apply flat earth thinking to our behaviours.

The unreasonable consumer

As these things often do, later I read a great post by Rubuss’ Mark McArthur-Christie on LinkedIn where he mused about a customer service issue many of us have experienced, the customer that is beyond help and satisfaction. It inspired some additional thinking around how we might categorise these personas:

  • The naive dogmatist – a customer who is convinced that there is only one way things should be, often formed of a collection of misunderstood information: consumer rights, archaic business structures or some previously used process. Most likely to say “I know you can give me a discount”, “I know my statutory rights…”
  • The intransigent utopian – a customer that believes that businesses should operate at a loss in order to fulfil every customer whim. Indoctrinated with the mantra that the ‘customer is always right’ and will not yield as they insist that any problem or issue is fixed in their favour regardless of the cost or implications to the business or, for that matter, other customers. Most likely to say “I want to be compensated for my phone calls and be sent a brand new product tomorrow, personally by the Chairman”
  • The confrontationist – Generally spoiling for a fight and actually enjoys the process of battling with front line staff, progressively picking off more senior members of the team until they get to speak to the biggest boss whereupon they’ll continue to shout and begins to sound a little deflated and resentful when solutions are offered. Most likely to say “I’m going to be putting this all on Tripadvisor” and “I have sent my complaint to the chief executive and am waiting outside for them in my car”


In user centred design we have to believe that the user is, by definition, a sacred cow. I’d contend that, although the entire herd are not for the abattoir,  we should at least consider some tactical ignorance. In my second piece on the subject, I will be exploring what it really means to listen to users and not resort to the tropes bandied around by a lazy community of precocious experts.

The Trip 2017: where next?

We’ll be off again in 2017. We’ll be going SW it seems. Take a look at this post (and the summary of our October 2016 homage to The Trip).

The Trip: a 2016 homage

As the dust settles and the bright autumnal days descend into a more wintry gloaming, the only remedy is to start planning the sequel. It won’t be Italy, or Spain. As discussed in my earlier post, Italy is a less achievable facsimile. And Spain, the destination of the completed but un-aired third series, is entirely unknown.

It’s time to be brave. Original to a point but clearly derivative and domestic.

It’s an uncontroversial view to say that The Trip has a proven formula. Road trip + picturesque locations + fine restaurants and accommodation + a cultural (literary) thread. Surely that formula can be applied to any number of locations in the UK. It is not entirely subjective to say that the UK is blessed with beautiful landscapes, fine dining and a rich cultural narrative. It is perhaps also no coincidence to postulate that these things combine most happily in areas…

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Hipping Hall and The Angel at Hetton

It has been a feature of the hotels and accommodation up here that the central heating is cranked up to a level that would be banned as torture under the Geneva Convention. Still ravaged by sicknes…

Source: Hipping Hall and The Angel at Hetton

Holbeck Ghyll

and so we entered, met by a small man in a box room

Source: Holbeck Ghyll

Cartmel and Greta Hall

From now on The Trip gets a little truncated. I have never been good at maths but I know that six into four won’t go. Some divergence from canon is necessary. So today began at Bashall Eaves …

Source: Cartmel and Greta Hall

The Inn at Whitewell

With the best intentions of leaving at 40 minutes earlier, it will come of no surprise to any who know us well that we pulled away at 9.10am. Slipping with remarkable ease through the Surrey rush h…

Source: The Inn at Whitewell

The Trip: setting off

It’s not just me that writes stuff about me. Here’s my twin brother writing about something properly interesting that we’re doing next week.

The Trip: a 2016 homage

I suppose the idea began the first time I saw The Trip, inasmuch as it started from an idle thought  along the lines of “I’d like to do that one day”. The first time I saw it was on its first airing in the UK, on BBC2, back in the autumn of 2010. Life was different then. Two years before I had my first child, four years before my second. Another series has taken Steve and Rob to Italy (2014) and, as I write, they are on location filming the third series in northern Spain.

From time to time it came back to me. The movie version on a transatlantic plane in 2011. The second series broadcast in Spring 2014. Passing mentions in interviews, podcasts and articles. A Children In Need sketch. A lingering memory of a particular impression that cried out to be retold or shared on…

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