My new keyboard

My WASD Keyboard next to the inspirational Amstrad CPC464

I spend a great deal of my time typing.  As a programmer that’s what I do.  So it’s incredibly important that I have a keyboard that helps me with typing.  I’ve had a few mechanical keyboards in the past, and I’ve been pretty pleased with them.  But the other day I decided to treat myself to a wasd keyboard. The main reason I went with them was due to how customisable your keyboard – and I have for ages wanted a keyboard that was a homage to my very first computer – the Amstrad CPC 464.

I chose to have Cherry MX Brown switched in the keyboard so that they were a bit less clicky, and less noisy – so my typing wouldn’t annoy people too much when I worked in shared spaces.

Its a total joy to type on the new keyboard – it’s amazing how the tactile and audio feedback can really help with typing.  I’ve noticed just within a day of using it that my typing speed has increased.

I use this keyboard with a mac, and Karabiner to map some keys, and here is a gist so that was needed to map the Backquote (`) to the Backslash (\) – as I’ve decided to keep the keyboard pretty much using the standard PC layout.

I’d urge anyone who does a lot of typing to invest in a decent keyboard – it’s so easy to pick up a cheap keyboard and then forget that when you’re typing away on it how horrible it really is.  If you’re using a tool every day then it’s sensible to have one that makes you more productive.

There are other companies that make great mechanical keyboards, but I have to say WASD Keyboards’ service was second to none!.

gh

Why I’ve moved over to Atom Editor

I spend a great deal of my time typing.  I spend a great deal of my time editing text files. I’m a programmer – a text editor is essential.  My brain is too small for me to use Vi / Vim or Emac, I just can’t remember the key bindings.  But it’s essential for me to have a light weight editor that keeps out of the way but is extensible and has a rich eco-system of plugins / packages.

I used to use Sublime Text, I loved it – it was neat and it kept out of the way and let me edit files and program.  Then along came Atom . At first it was a bit clunky, and too slow – but over time the development cycle of it has made it as good as Sublime – and the package eco-system has grown with people porting their Sublime packages over to Atom.  I feel bad that I am no longer using Sublime Text (I paid for a license after all) – but the thing that got me worried was that Sublime Text was a proprietary product and it just wasn’t being updated.  Atom is rolling out patches and updates all the time, and as it’s Open Source (here is the source), it means that there is a good chance that even if Github decide not to actively support it in the future there will be enough people who want to carry on with the project.

It took me a little while to pluck up the courage to abandon Sublime Text – as I had got so used to it, but Atom is similar enough to Sublime to make the transition almost seamless.

gh

decadnids – phatic musk 5 inch vinyl release

Phatic musk recently released a 5 inch vinyl record!

This is a hand lathe cut 5 inch record! that’s CD -sized. Cut by bladudflies.com  With two tracks by decadnids . This was a response by Farmer Glitch for the Eastville Project Space CD vending machine. Strictly limited of 9, 5 for sale here and 3 in the physical vending machine. This is hand made, very limited and comes in a hand sprayed cd case with custom stickers.

gh

The Maunsell Sea Forts: Photography

The Maunsell Forts were small fortified towers built in the Thames and Mersey estuaries during the Second World War. They were named after their designer, Guy Maunsell. The Thames forts shot down 22 planes, 30 flying bombs and were instrumental in the loss of one U-boat which was scuttled after coming under fire from Tongue Sands tower.

A couple of weeks ago I spent three hours on a converted tug boat visiting the Maunsell Forts at Red Sands in the Thames Estuary. The anti-aircraft guns are long gone, and the forts are in a state of slow decline without the funding to restore them and too expensive to demolish. The MOD have little interest in preserving them; the forts are maintained by volunteers and by donations from the public. I shot a few rolls of B&W medium format film (Ilford and Kodak) on my Mamiya 645, and a roll of AFGA E6 35mm which I shot through a LCA and cross processed. A selection of shots are below.

More information on these amazing structures, and how you can help preserve them, can be found here: www.project-redsand.com.

The full set of photographs I took can be found on my Flickr feed here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/owen23/.

Maunsell Sea Forts

Maunsell Sea Forts

Maunsell Sea Forts

Maunsell Sea Forts

Maunsell Sea Forts

Maunsell Sea Forts

op

phatic musk – some new releases

We’ve had two releases out on phatic musk  this past two months, which is amazing considering we’d previously done 1 a year!

Analog by BLACKCLASSICAL + THE REVENANT SEA

Analog is a C40 release with the added bonus of receiving a vintage copy of Analog Sci-Fi zine to read whilst listening.

The Second release is in conjunction with a subscription service called dronestocodeby.com . This release was limited to 5 mp3 players custom skinned loaded with over 14 hours of drones created by apkallu of enmerkar – the subscription service will be offering over 4 hours of new drones per month for the price of £3.  That’s a lot of drones for your pound!

Drones to Code By - apkallu of enmerkar

DTCB:07/15 by apkallu of enmerkar

Keep your ears peeled as there will be more releases coming up from phatic musk in the not so distant future!

gh

Two years on the other side – from making stuff to sell stuff, to making stuff that just works

I’m not one to generalise, but let me do some generalising. My career in design has has been unplanned and random at best, and my life as a designer has been varied – there have been some common themes but the biggest shift was a couple of years ago when I joined Semantico, and the world of digital publishing.

Before Semantico I had a stint for a small agency that mostly made games with the purpose of selling stuff, and before that I had a longer stint at a strategic comms agency which made all sorts of different kinds of stuff with the purpose of selling stuff (Back then I was the creative lead for our publishing clients – Faber & Faber, Hachette Livre and Dorling Kindersley, one of the reasons I’m enjoying working with publishers again now). And before that I spent quite a few years freelancing at various advertising agencies large and small, making stuff with the purpose of selling stuff  (Mother London and Mccann Erickson being two of note). So that’s knocking on 17 years designing to push product, shift units or somehow facilitate ‘engagement’ (because engagement somehow means stuff will sell).

‘Clickthroughs’ used to be the currency, soon followed by the zeitgeist of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ – that was the ROI, the bottom line, how work was judged (I will avoid mentioning ‘awareness’  - unquantifiable but seemingly keeping the internet in banners).

So what’s changed? I still work for a paymaster, a business with clients to satisfy, clients that need to make a profit, have ‘brand values’ to communicate, who want a return of investment, and who need to sell product, shift units. But there is a difference.

In the main, the differences are in the product’s lifecycle, its longevity or life expectancy. Often (but not always) in the world of advertising the work is campaign work, and those campaigns can be short sharp affairs, designed to burn brightly but quickly, just like Rutger Hauer in Blade Runner. The emphasis is on the message, the comms, the impact.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Semantico make products that hang around for a while. They have to be robust. The product our users interact with isn’t just for a few three minute bursts but for hours and hours. They are not used for entertainment, distraction or sociality, but for work, for research and study.

And our clients don’t just sell stuff, they also have to do a ton of other stuff really well too. They need to add value around their content, find new relevant ways to get their content to new audiences. A student or researcher will use this product for years. A single purchase by one institution will serve a multitude of people. Not everyone has a bought the product they are using, or even directly paid for it.

In the world of advertising, knowing your demographic, your target audience is a huge part of the creative process. You need to speak the same language as your audience, communicate in the same way, resonate. Be their friend, part of the same pack, the same tribe.

Within publishing, understanding your audience is just as important, but there is a change of emphasis. I am now designing tools, and designing a service, for different wants and needs.

Full Circle

At Semantico we very user centric. Our whole design methodology and philosophy is based on user insight. So my design life has come a little circular in fashion – The agency where I learnt most of my game was, for the time, particularly user-centric. When I joined them in the early noughties it was standard process to produce wireframes and user journeys and use these as tools for insight and production. We actually had an information architect and producers who ‘got’ UX. And as I was reminded by my old strategy director the last time we hooked up in London, we often profiled archetypical users, and created stories and narratives around those archetypes – designed to get under our audiences skin and help us deliver effective solutions for our clients. We wanted to understand our users so we could offer them the aspirational experiences our clients expected us to deliver.

Now I have the need to understand our users so we can design a better service, better tools. User research is now a task absorbed into all our design activity and all our design choices are informed by real users and the user insight we gain from research.

I can’t say I miss working on stuff that just disappears into the internet abyss once a short term goal is reached (or not), but what I find most rewarding is that I am designing useful stuff – stuff to help people educate themselves, learn about new stuff and answer problems. And in the case of the online clinical procedures tool we launched earlier in the year, stuff that might help save lives too.

 

op

From the physical to the emotional: User experience research and design

In my previous posts on User Experience (UX) methodology I have touched on sketching, wireframing and prototyping. I would be remiss not to discuss the most important factor in any user-centric design approach: user research.

Since the emergence of Participatory Design in the 60s and 70s design thinking has moved on from the physical to encompass the emotional and behavioural. Designers today create a context for experience* and user experience is an expertise that provides a user-centric and data driven approach, needed when designing appropriate and effective products in today’s digitally fragmented world.

UX is no new speciality, rather it is an umbrella term for processes and methodologies that have had their genesis in other specialities for a number of years. Human-computer interaction, behavioural and cognitive psychology, usability and user centered design: all influences on what we call UX, and all methodologies that have a focus on the user.

Ignore users at your peril

I generally work with publishers, and I often encounter a quite complex user ecology. To make a generalisation we usually design for a specific task – research. But our user base is complex. Domain expertise varies between the undergraduate, the postgraduate, the academic and the professional. Differences in subject area throw up variations in behaviour, down to the favouring of a tatty notepad over using the latest digital tools. There is a vast difference between an undergraduate accessing textbook content through a desktop computer situated at their university library to an architect accessing building regulations whilst onsite, through a tablet on a 3G connection.

We have to understand this complexity of our user base. The differences and commonalities between user types, mental models, motivations and triggers – all areas that as designers and UX practitioners we need to fully comprehend before we can design the appropriate collateral that combined, make up the overall experience and impression of a product. This can only be achieved by talking and listening to our users and UX methodology gives us the tools to do just that.

Crafting experiences for online research

One of the most important factors in our approach to UX is that we are involved with a projects lifecycle from start to finish. We have an integrated and embedded approach – our front end development team encompasses developers, UX architects and designers – this integrated approach ensures UX is a consideration in every decision no matter at what point a project is at.

At the preliminary stage of any project our work is predominantly requirement gathering. We do a raft of exercises and workshops with client stakeholders designed to sanity check business requirements, aspirations and priorities, making sure a project brief is created that all parties involved believe to be feasible. We facilitate workshops around our clients data, the earliest stage of producing a sites taxonomy: the information architecture and interaction model. The output of these collaborative exercises and workshops are the beginnings of the documentation that make up the ‘blueprints’ of a particular project.

Following on from these early requirement-gathering workshops we move onto user research.

Once we identify the appropriate testing and research techniques we recruit a user group that we test on throughout the whole production process of a site build. At the beginning of a project we use our user group to create personas defining common user mental models and user tasks. The insight we gain from our user testing can point to the relevance of tools and features, and how those tools are used. What motivates our users to use our product, how social activity differs between user types and an idea of device usage. This research gives a shared view on the typical user(s) of a product, a view we can share with all stakeholders. When decisions are made, they can be made within the context of understanding users’ needs and motivations.

During a project build we use our user group for comparative testing and prototyping, giving us feedback and direction on our interface design. We also carry on this activity post launch, checking benchmarks have been met and making sure a product is being used as intended, and if not, why and how? It is important at this post-live launch to be especially active – feedback forms and surveys, a look at analytics and a further round of user testing all make sure that the solution we have provided performs as expected and intended.

The image below is a snapshot of a few desks at the studio where I work – everyone works on a Mac, but as individuals we have different roles, we use these machines for different tasks. We bring our idiosyncrasies into our working habits. Our personal life bleeds into our work environment. All these desks are different, but we all use the same tool.

If we speak the same language we could have different accents, different traditions and inclinations. Localisms change the cultural meaning of symbols and signifiers with a short hop across a border. This is what makes people interesting, the differences, the ability to surprise and be surprised. And this is why we cannot make assumptions about our users.

User Experience challenges

There are challenges in the adoption of UX methodologies. One such consideration is cost. Research and development in any field is not cheap, and with UX research it is no different. Time and resource defines the extent and scope of our research. Analytics alone, although cheap to obtain, can only take us so far. We believe in a lean methodology – we keep our UX overhead as low as we can get it, but when it comes to user insight we want to do as much as we can, and we firmly believe that any quantitative data needs to be paired with more in-depth qualitative data that could be more costly to obtain.

Combating bias can often be the hardest challenge to overcome. I mentioned the importance of keeping an open mind – this was no throwaway comment. We all have bias, a favoured interface, a way of interacting we are familiar with. A prefered aesthetic, a cultural association …  all these factors add bias. Overcoming them is a matter of self awareness and by having the experience of being surprised one too many times. We all have our prefered solutions and outcomes usually for seemingly rational reasons but seeing your own expectations confounded and discovering insights previously hidden from you is the best antidote to adhering a little too much to your own predilections.

Keeping it real

I have been undertaking some user research in conjunction with the University of Sussex. Initially we have been conducting in-depth interviews with a cross section of student and academics. This research will hopefully point to areas of interest which we can investigate more thoroughly. Andrea Fallas, our UXA, will be publishing some insight from our research activity with the University on the Semantico blog soon.

This post first appeared (with some slight edits) on the Semantico blog.

*Hummels, Djajadiningrat and Overbeeke (2001)

op

ID Situations : Laica release phatic musk

ID Situation is dedicated to the millions of unknown faces caught on hours of grainy CCTV images every day, to all the footage that will be stored away and never looked at again, the boxes full of old VHS tapes of empty streets and hard drives loaded up with hidden shop corners

 

New release on phatic musk ID Situations by Laica –  with remixes by Production Unit (Broken 20)  and decadnids.

Following on from the Uschi-No-Michi release there was a bit of a challenge from a packaging design point of view – so we’ve gone ultra minimal and opted for a matt black bubble envelop with a clear sticker.

gh