Coming home from Smashing Conference 2015

Unfortunately I only managed to attend 1 of the 2 days at Smashing Conference because I fell ill. Yes, I was that awakward and annoying person in the middle of a crowded room sniffing and spluttering everywhere, so much so that I had to excuse myself mid way through a talk and say at the back like a social reject. I thought the least I could do would not pass it on any further so I took the 5 hour trip home myself.

That being said, all was not wasted. The first day was very good. I took away a lot and it felt especially applicable given recent developments with projects at work.

The why and how of designing for people

The talk from Meagan Fisher was very interesting and it touched on some of points from my previous post about finding efficiencies where needed. She mentioned a range of different systems that would be helpful during testing, and one in particular really stood out to me. It’s an application that you can build into your system call Full Story. They sell it as a DVR for your users. See what they are actually doing with your website. For us it could be a really useful way to see if web publishers are able to find the functionality that they are looking within a CMS of some sort. Of course the main thing you miss out is the emotional, personal connection with the user. Whilst it’s incredibly important, it’s also very expensive so getting personal one-to-one feedback should be reserved for key milestones when beta testing large updates to the UI or a piece of functionality once every year or so.

Her talk also helped me ascertain some barriers between the different specialists within a team.

  • business goals (project manager – cost and time)
  • what would look best (designer)
  • what do people really want (ux research)

Find your middle and you are going to have a shit hot piece of software.

Beyond the browser

I also really enjoyed the second talk by Tom Giannatsio. He spoke about Hybrid applications, which allows you to create seemingly native applications for Windows, Mac and Linux but is all built using Web Technologies such as Javascript, HTML and CSS. He showed us some incredibly innovative concepts but for me the greatest strength is the integration with the system itself and the ability to selectively rollout an application and take back some of the control that the range of web browsers have. By confining yourself to one browser, you are reducing your compatibility testing, increasing quality and increasing features and support through saved time.

What to expect from Smashing conference 2015

I’m on my way to the smashing conference, ready to meet with 3 other colleagues (2 dev and 1 UX dev) and find my self contemplating about what to expect from this conference. I think it’s important for me to be forthright about something. I dislike the term UX. It’s fluffy. Misinterpreted. A buzz word used by everyone which means the term, specialisation and professionalism that usually comes with some roles has been tainted by mediocre professionals and misinformed managers/directors who write the job descriptions.

Changing my opinion is going to be next to impossible however I hope to get some clarity on the true origins of the UX role. We all know that there a range of tools out there to help create an amazing User Experience such as focus groups, personas, user testing, guerrilla testing, beta versions etc but I feel as if following a process such as this to the letter doesn’t make for a good development team but more like a personal assistant. Yes you are more likely to provide a product that your client and users will like but I’m not sure the extra work creates value for money.
I shall pluck some numbers out of the air for you to illustrate my meaning. Would you, as a client or institution, like a website that provides 95% satisfaction and took 150 days to gather requirements, design develop, test and rollout. Or would would you prefer 90% satisfaction that took 120 days? How would you spend those extra 30 days? To ensure that as a team you can deliver efficiency, I would prefer to use those 30 days to use in 12 months time for enhancements to that same website. The web moves too fast meaning that a more agile approach to is needed. UX discovery is a part of the development process but we should not underestimate our experiences and I don’t fear the risk of assumptions as many others do. Assumptions based on experience can go wrong, yes, but find good member of staff and those assumptions can create efficiencies. It’s about trust in your fellow professionals and trust in yourself with a calculated risk.
And no Big Bang. Incremental rollout is always best. Get something sensible rolled out based on skill, small amount of user research for clarity and then iterate. We are the professionals and the term UX and the tasks associated with creating a good UX has created a situation where the users hold a huge amount of power. Often that power results in comfort and not innovation. And not necessarily what they truely want or need. I would not be surprised if Apple did user research before the iPhone was released and they all said they needed a physical keyboard. Nowadays the whole notion of a physical keyboard is laughable, and Blackberry are paying the price.
Am I the only one who thinks like this? Let’s find out…

To underline or not to underline: that is the question

UX is the latest buzz word in the world of tech. For those who haven’t heard, it stands for User Experience and companies are employing specialised UX designers/developers to assess their web presence, mobile apps and internal software to ensure that the user experience is high. The benefits of this are of course significant, so much so that the University of Kent have employed their own UX specialist to assist in the development of future websites and services to ensure that prospective students and their family can find the information that they need, as easily as possible. A very clear example of this is the new Courses pages.

An area of great debate in the world of the web is underlined links. There are 2 very strong but very different arguments that attempt to do the same thing:

  • Make links clear to the user so that they are not missed.
  • Improve the legibility of a webpage.

Whilst there is of course a great deal of variation, the 2 main options I have personally noticed are:

  1. Links should be a different colour and underline on hover.
  2. Links should be underlined always and have some sort of hover effect.

There doesn’t appear to be consistency in the use of these different approaches either. The national website have gone down the road of underlining all links and it does appear to work quite well. That being said, design on this webpage focuses on textual content, data, information, linking similar pieces of information where the user journey is incredibly important. General browsing of the site is not expected as most users are looking for something specific on the website.

Google on the other hand have recently changed their search results page quite significantly by removing the underline on links by default (so it only appears on hover). Everyone knows that the big blue headers on the Google search pages are links and users generally search for something and then browse the results therefore making the page look as clean as possible to ease in the legibility of text.

It seems as if designers, developers and UX specialists are noticing these irregularities and the benefits of both, therefore a whole new range of link styling is being experimented with. Spend 5 minutes on several different websites and you will see a range of variations of underline styles and more embarrassingly, several different styles on the same website (blog post by Evan Knight).

  • UEA: Headers have no hover style, standard links have a permanent underline.
  • Bath: Links are a different colour, background colour change on hover only.
  • Cambridge: Links are a different colour, underline on hover only.
  • Birmingham: Don’t underline at all.

More than anything, this shows that the industry is unable to decide on a specific way of displaying links. Or maybe their research suggests different methods are required for different types of websites. Search, catalogues, news, e-commerce, link repositories, manuals etc. This may be less about the UX but instead about how it appears within the frame of the website.

I must say that I have not noticed a pattern myself but with enough research there may be one.

 [ This post originally featured on the Web Solutions blog which I wrote whilst working for the University of Kent. The words are my own and do not represent the views of the University ] 

Week 2 of attempted weight gain

As you know Faye bought me a Fitbit (see first post) and I am closing in on my final week with the Fitbit and I have already noticed a positive change in my life. Now, don’t get me wrong, my saturated fats intake is probably through the roof and continuing down this route may cause more problems than it solves although in the short term I have noticed an improvement. I tend to have more energy throughout the day and my stomach has definitely stretched. I am now eating 300 – 500 calories a day more than I am burning. In contrast the week before last I was eating approximately 100 – 200 calories LESS than I was burning. It has been very difficult – eating when I’m not actually hungry but to be honest the most difficult part is the mental strain. My body is getting used to the fact that it gets hungry quicker but my brain doesn’t want to eat. My stomach says I’m hungry but my brain says I’m full. It has been difficult to overcome that mental obstacle and I suspect it will continue to be a challenge in the weeks to come.

What is most interesting is that I tend to eat one piece of fruit a day now. Whilst that may not sound all that amazing, the truth is I can’t remember a time where I was doing that. Fruit is just a way to ensure I hit my targets whilst not destroying my body with only carbs and fats. My aim of 2 pieces of fruit a day will begin this week, in addition to my glass of orange juice that I try to have daily (although I have been far less consistent with that).

So what does this mean for now? Well not much apart from generally more energy. I should continue down this path. Ensure I eat more healthy by snacking on fruits and ensure my saturated fat intake does not go to high. I want to check my weight at the end of February to see if my efforts have increased my weight (I’m hoping for 1 – 2 kg as I am currently 57kg) and to ensure I am part of the “healthy” section on the BMI scale.

Getting healthy and gaining weight with my Fitbit One

I have always wanted something to track my movements throughout the day. Not in the location aware sense but in terms of calories burnt, calorie intake and even to monitor sleep and it became even more prudent recently. As most of you know. I am a skinny guy and I have many failed attempts in the past to try and gain weight. Mostly because I know my weight isn’t particularly healthy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not troubling for now, but it is something that needs to be improved. It is particularly noticeable when I’m stressed as I stop eating all together. I get busy, my mind goes into overdrive and my mind forgets to eat and my body forgets it actually needs food to survive.


“The Internet of Things” is a hot topic at the moment and the prospect of these wearable technologies can be seen as an invasion of our privacy, but if done right and implemented by companies whose business model is not based on selling your information, it can actually be a real asset to your day to day life.

This leads me onto the Fitbit One. Faye bought me one for Valentines day as it is something that I have wanted for quite sometime, but wasn’t prepared to shell out the cash for something that I didn’t particularly need. I did always hold the assumption though that something like the Fitbit would greatly assist in my ability to track the energy I burnt off, and the food that I took in, and hopefully finally convince myself that it’s time to take my health and eating habits a little more seriously.

For anyone who doesn’t know. Fitbit is a small device (approximately thumb drive size) that you can clip to your belt or pocket which tracks your movement. Every you step you take, every flight of stairs and leg jiggle it detects which in turn provides data which can be used to estimate how active and how many calories you have burned during the day. In addition, the Fitbit One provides a wrist band so that you can log how well you sleep during the night. Whether it be you were fast asleep, restless or fast asleep and for how long.


That is a feat in engineering in itself given it’s size and cost of £80 but the bit that really sets it apart is the ease of use of the software it provides. I mainly use the iPhone app which gives you a snapshot of information throughout the day as well as the ability to add some manual information. It uses low power bluetooth 4.0, which is available in most modern smartphones, and syncs with my phone constantly throughout the day, without draining battery life in any real significant way. This then syncs to “the cloud” (awful term but people love it) which allows me to login to the Fitbit website on my computer and look at my stats in more detail. The app allows me to input how many calories I have eaten during Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner, including how much I have snacked, water drunk and weight gained. All this information is put into a beautiful interactive graph which can then be analysed on a daily, weekly or monthly basis to see the progress that is being made.

My goal is of course to gain some weight but to be very honest that is a long term goal. I have always been cavalier with how I eat. I have always had the luxury to eat little or eat a lot with very little consequence to my short term health. I used to get a little pale and skinnier in the face but my actual body weight barely fluctuated. It’s when your boss starts noticing and thinking you are ill is when you start to worry! So my goal is simple. An upward trajectory. I want to see my average calorie intake progressively increase on a weekly basis over the next 3 months. But not with a huge amount of thought. Just small incremental increases so that it doesn’t feel like a chore. This week it’s been all about having something extra to normal. Just a little. Next week it’s going to be ensuring that I have a snack between breakfast and lunch, and hopefully I will progress nicely using this kind of philosophy which may include exercise and increasing my calorie intake further. Thankfully there is a nice graph to show this too so I can actually ensure that I am sticking to my targets and ensuring that I am eating all my meals.

I have a very specific routine at work which makes it much easier to plan my life style. The bits in red is where I am making improvements at the moment and into future weeks. The green is where I would like to be in the next few weeks.

  • Breakfast: Breakfast biscuits
  • Breakfast: Latte
  • Late breakfast: milkshake/banana
  • Lunch: Panini/Origins or Pasty and a chocolate
  • Mid afternoon: Latte
  • Mid afternoon: piece of fruit, packet of crisps – just something extra
  • Dinner: anything really
  • Late evening: small chocolate/ice cream

I will let you know how it goes over the next few weeks but also if I hold the same opinion about the Fitbit. It has become, so far, a true companion in my day to day life and looking at my stats I can already see a real benefit to it. This is something that I could’ve always done – but this just makes it easier and most importantly – fun.

Things you should know about weddings before proposing!

This is a jokey one but certainly useful if you are concerned about proposing but not being fully prepared. Myself and Faye love the challenge :P

  1. Weddings are expensive. Even the cheap ones.
  2. Wedding dresses are expensive. Even the cheap ones.
  3. Prepare to cause some internal family arguments regarding the invites unless you are minted. You can’t afford to invite everyone especially for the whole day. So ensure you have a good party in the evening where you can afford to invite all your friends. The party is the second most important part, where the ceremony itself of course is the most important. Thankfully we managed to avoid the arguments
  4. Don’t be a douchebag about invites. Allow kids to come. Sure, don’t add them to the invite but allow your guests to ask if their kids can come. Not everyone can afford a babysitter or have access to one. Besides – it’s a family event.
  5. Give plenty of notice. Send your invites 9 months early so that guests can book time off work and not double book over a family holiday
  6. Don’t let it take over your life.The wedding is a phase and will pass! Marriage is not. If your relationship is being consumed talking about the wedding then what are you going to talk about once it’s done?!
  7. Do it together.


And finally – enjoy yourself! It only happens once!

Tech companies on the smart watch train before it’s even left the station

This is what happens when companies release a device that they don’t fully understand all in an attempt to “be there” before Apple release their smart watch. When I first heard the rumour that Apple were working on a watch I said it would never take off. Who the hell actually wants those features on their wrist for the world to see? There is one major flaw that in my thinking that I didn’t realise until now. I was assuming its inevitable failure based on similar ideas as the Samsung Gear and the Pebble. Relatively large, ugly and uninspiring.

No one needs a smart watch. Apple are experts at making you WANT things that you don’t need. Maybe that’s what could differentiate their rumoured iWatch to the pathetic smart watches out there at the moment. I for one though find it difficult to believe that even Apple could pull it off.

Notifications, calls, texts all on my wrist – I’m alright thanks.