What’s user experience?

User experience is a difficult term. Ironic then, that it’s all about making things easy.

Inspired by a fab new podcast (@TheUXIntern, since you ask), I thought I’d try to explain what user experience (UX) means in fewer than two hundred words. We’ll come to that. Before then, a bit of background on where my understanding of user experience comes from.

I first became aware of the notion of user experience whilst watching Tom Hanks’ 1988 fantasy-comedy Big.  It wasn’t called user experience back then, of course, but a pivotal moment in this hit film captures things rather well.

The bit that I’m talking about is when Tom Hanks’ character (‘Josh’) gives his opinion on a new line of toys. Now, Josh, as you may remember, is a 12-year-old boy trapped in a 30-year-old man’s body and so lacks the inhibitions of the adult world. His verdict on the new line of toys: ‘I don’t get it’.

Josh isn’t stupid; he understands how the toys are supposed to work. What he’s really saying is: ‘I don’t understand the logic of this and why it’s supposed to be fun’. This sense of interactive disappointment was my first exposure to what bad user experience is all about.

So, to the point. What, more concisely, defines user experience and what’s a good user experience? Here’s my definition (and, yes, you can start counting the words from now on):

User experience is all about how we, as humans, interact with physical and virtual things. Good user experience is about removing the ‘why?’. It’s about having the courage to not ‘get it’ and championing the needs of those who won’t or don’t ‘get it’. We shouldn’t need to understand how things should work, only that they do – beautifully and intuitively – the first time and every time. Good user experience turns a can’t into a can and a won’t into a will.

How did I do?


Things of 2013 – another pointless list…

Just when you thought people had stopped publishing their pointless lists, another one rears its obsessive-compulsive head. Mine’s a little different though, I promise. Here’s why:

  1. it’s hopelessly, almost inappropriately, late; and
  2. it’s not a top ten or anything so logical. It’s a random assortment of things that floated my boat in 2013.

Film: The Great Gatsby (in 3D). Baz Luhrmann’s masterpiece distils the essence of Fitzgerald’s novel and catapults it into a stratosphere suitable for 21st-century audiences.

Wine: Chateau Figeac ’88. This experience was, to me, what being a wine aficionado is all about. The bottle looked like it’d been rescued from a sunken pirate ship, the label rendered the exact vintage a mystery but what was inside was one of the finest sensory pleasures I’ve experienced. It was like opening a wine-filled oak barrel and curling up inside. Cheers!

Technology: Amazon Kindle. Yes, I said it. Buying a Kindle has transformed the way that I read. Not least because its percentage-read status indicator gamifies reading. If, like me, the modern world has turned you into a distraction magpie (ooh! shiny…) then anything that helps you commit to a book is a fabulous thing.

Place: Saint Emilion, Bordeaux, France. This medieval city is majestic, charming, pretentious and workaday. It’s also a melting pot of some of the best wines in the world. Not many places can claim that.

Music: The Next Day, David Bowie. The fact is, this chart-botherering sexagenarian could probably have banged out a glorified best-of album and we’d have bought it. The Next Day is exciting, relevant, tender and raw. There are moments of shuddering electricity even when Bowie’s not singing. Check out 00:20 – 00:33 on If You Can See Me if you’re not sure of what I mean.

Book: Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. Hang on, hang on! Before you say anything, I will say that this isn’t one of the best books I’ve read. What I will say is that it contains one of the finest sentences (‘He was a man of jagged risings’) I’ve read and is unputdownable. I’d also say that its narrative chicanery would put Dickens to shame. You’re right though: it is a bit baggy towards the end.

Event: Glastonbury Festival – because I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin.

TheatreBorges and I, Tobacco Factory Theatre, Bedminster, Bristol. This came as a true surprise. The tale of one of the greatest storytellers of modern literature and his heart-wrenching love for literature and tigers was tender and exquisite. The realisation of the near-blind Borges that he’ll never see his beloved animal again was devastating and beautiful. I’m not a crier but this moment tipped the emotional equilibrium within me until I sobbed uncontrollably.

Person: Mrs. H. 2013 was, at times, an incredibly tough year for us both. Despite all this, my wife’s optimism, charm, support and loveliness have held things together. Thank you, you’re wonderful x.  

Meal: Home-cooked (by Mrs H) Chateaubriand (bought from: http://www.donaldrussell.com/)  served with goose-fat chips, stilton sauce and a rocket and parmesan salad. Eaten at home and thoroughly complemented by a bottle of Chateau Haut-Brion, 1998. Perfection.

So, that’s my list. I told you it’d be different. Are any of those things on your lists? Not the last two, obviously, that’d be a bit weird.

Hemingway, cats and me

‘I do know that I do not love dogs as dogs, horses as horses or cats as cats.’

Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon

For many, Hemingway is the definition of sturdy masculinity. The first picture I ever saw of him reinforces this. It was the one on the front cover of The Essential Hemingway. Here we have Hemingway depicted as leathery, defiant sea captain, replete with cable-knit sweater and luxurious beard. He looks so tough that you’d think twice about mocking his impressive combover.

A picture of The Essential Hemingway book, courtesy of Amazon.co.uk

Inspired by a friend, I’ve been revisiting Hemingway’s works over the last few months and I’ve discovered something surprising. I expected to be reacquainted with the toughest man (and men) of modern literature but, instead, I’ve discovered that Hemingway was, at heart, a bit of a softie, like me.

My image of Hemingway first started to change when I found out that he had a thing for cats. I’d always had him down as a dog person. Not least because of their fierce loyalty and innate ability to fetch the charred-and-scattered remains of the thing you’ve just shot. Hemingway’s fondness for cats (by 1943 he owned an impressive 23) made him seem human, tender and vulnerable. This made him more interesting but seemed to betray the image of him that I’d always had.

I’ve always been a cat person. We live with a deeply moody one now and, at one time, I lived in a house with five of the furry lodgers. I never would have imagined that cats would be the thing that Hemingway and I have in common.

A visit to Hemingway’s house in Key West last year provided even greater insight into Hemingway’s feline world. We met (and stroked) relatives of cats that Hemingway owned whilst he lived there. I was delighted to hear that this literary tough guy gave his cats names like Snowball, Uncle Wolfer and Furhouse. Some of the cats that we saw even had six toes (known as ‘polydactyl’ cats) just like the one that Hemingway was given by a ship’s captain all those years ago.

A six-toed cat at Hemingway's House in Key West, Florida

I used to read Hemingway because he and his protagonists were the types of men that I knew I’d never be. It was a form of escapism. Spending time with his characters was a vision of lives lived by men more confident and self-assured than I. The more I get to know Hemingway through his works, the more I see glimpses of his less-familiar, fragile, sensitive side and I like him the more for it.

Hemingway didn’t love cats as cats, he loved what they represented. To him, they were the embodiment of fierce individualism, profound affection but also an innate capriciousness. Perhaps the kind of heart-breaking capriciousness embodied by Lady Ashley and suffered by Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.

I often wonder if Hemingway’s fondness for six-toed cats had something to do with their apparent defectiveness. Perhaps they were outwardly imperfect in a way that Hemingway identified internally? Heck, even tough guys can be painfully self-conscious. Think about the tender exchange between Harry Morgan and his wife in To Have and Have Not after much of his arm has been amputated. Harry worries that his wife won’t love him because she finds him repulsive. She loves him more than ever, of course, but Harry’s vulnerability is deeply moving.

A fact of Hemingway’s life that seems to make him macho is that he was married four times. Many see this as a superficial sign of heroic womanising but this is only one way of looking at things. I prefer the notion that Hemingway, like his character, Harry Morgan, was terrified of rejection.  Many think, and I tend to agree, that Hemingway ended his marriages out of a desire to end the relationship before he could be rejected.

On that thoroughly depressing note, I’d like to pick things up a bit. Cats, to Hemingway, were also about simple, uncomplicated joy through physical contact. Now, when I think about Hemingway (Ernest), it’s not the sea-captain image that springs to mind but this one of him and his sons blissfully playing with their cats. It doesn’t make him less of a man to me, it simply makes him more human. Hemingway with his sons and their cats in Cuba, courtesy of Wikipedia

From gravitas to graft: perspectives on Bordeaux

“Wine is one of the most civilized things in the world and one of the most natural things […] that has been brought to the greatest perfection, and it offers a greater range for enjoyment and appreciation than, possibly, any other purely sensory thing.”  Ernest Hemingway

We decided on a trip to Bordeaux after I passed my first wine exam earlier this year. We’d hoped to get a candid insight into wine, wineries and the Bordelaise way of life. We weren’t disappointed. Our trip offered up a range of sensory pleasures and some unexpected perspectives too.

Picture of the sign for 'Margaux' from the road

Route Soixante Six

Driving slowly through Bordeaux is a thrill. Seeing names like ‘Pauillac’, ‘Margaux’, and ‘Saint Emilion’ on signs is like being on a wine geek’s Route 66. These names, for wine aficionados like me, have taken on an almost mythical quality, they’re stamped on my consciousness after years of reading them off of wine lists, wooden crates and the pages of my wine course book. Visiting Bordeaux, however, throws this into relief. Vines next to the road in Bordeaux

Wine, in Bordeaux, is a way of life. Vines run through the landscape like veins, delivering lifeblood to the local economy. Wine, here, has both workaday and romantic qualities. Everyone’s at it.  It’s as common to see grapes growing alongside the scarred remains of an ancient Bordelaise church as it is to see them flanking a railway line or cheek by jowl next to the local carwash.

Chateaux, wine factories, boutiques and farms

A ‘chateau’, in winespeak, means anything from an exquisite seventeenth-century mansion to a farmhouse filled with battered winemaking paraphernalia. It’s simply the name given to a self-contained estate or stretch of land that grows its own grapes and produces its own wine. This means that, despite the dizzying number of chateaux, they, like the subtle differences between their wines, are unique in their own way. In some cases, strikingly so.

Take Chateau de Bonhoste, for example. Our visit here was undoubtedly the most candid insight into winemaking that we’ve had. Our guide, an enthusiastic 23-year-old with impeccable English, allowed us inside the process. We watched grapes being hurled (at eye-watering speed) into the press, smelled wine as it was maturing in oak barrels (delicious! by the way) and met two generations Grapes going into the hopper at Chateau de Bonhosteof the family that own and run the place. Their ageing room is a cave, hewn out of Saint Emilion rock, that maintains a natural fifty-five degrees Fahrenheit. Within it are such gems as the tiny vintage made to commemorate the birth of the owner’s first son. Delightful. They do passion by the case.

Stainless steel vats inside Chateau DauzacAt the other end of the scale is somewhere like Chateau Dauzac, situated on Bordeaux’s famous left bank. Its wines are outstanding but its chateau is not. Dauzac is owned, not by a family of ruddy-faced Gallic vignerons, but by an insurance company. Dauzac is about as soulless as it gets. Walking around the ‘chateau’ (there is a mansion but it’s empty and used for business meetings and conferences only) is like walking around a wine factory, with its eerily clean stainless steel vats and temperature-controlled ageing room. Dauzac is what a vineyard run by a team of accountants would be like.

Celebrity fruit

Driving through deepest Margaux is like driving through the Hollywood hills, stealing glances at iron-gated celebrity mansions as security guards stare on.

Tastings in this elite world are for ‘professionals’ only and the intimidating presence of the top chateaux feels entirely (almost comically) contrived, intended to dispel any myths that what’s inside is merely fermented grapeChateau Margaux - glimpsed from afar juice. Instead, as they would have you believe, is a rare chance to try the ‘greatest perfection’ of ‘natural things’ of which Hemingway speaks. It’s there, of course, but not to buy. That, it would seem, is even too vulgar for the world of the elite chateaux.

The universe of Bordeaux is pompous, ridiculous, charming, intriguing, intimidating and utterly fascinating. That’s why we’re going back next year.

The meaning of ‘like’

‘Good artists copy, great artists steal’

Pablo Picasso

I saw something very strange the other day. I was leaving the lounge at a foreign airport and, just by the exit, was a machine that asked me what I thought of my visit. It had three buttons on it: ‘like’; ‘neutral’; and ‘dislike’. At first, I was impressed by this social media-style approach to gathering immediate feedback. On reflection, I think this is a clumsy attempt to superimpose the Facebook-like feedback model on the physical world. It’s a good idea but its creators, like many others who’ve done similar, have missed a trick. They’ve missed out on the opportunity that seeking inspiration from another’s work allows. To paraphrase Picasso: if you copy an idea or a concept, then you’re simply reproducing it; if you steal the idea, then you’re capitalising on the opportunity to make it your own. This also allows you to innovate.

The value of ‘like’

I understand why Facebook introduced a ‘like’ button. It’s effectively a peer-recommendation tool and makes good marketing sense. Within the context of Facebook, it means ‘endorse’; ‘recommend’; ‘advocate’; ‘advertise (sell) to my friends’. It’s clearly very powerful too as it compels 2.7 billion of us to click it each day.

When ‘like’ buttons are used within other contexts, their meaning and purpose becomes clumsy, confusing and unhelpful.

What does ‘like’ mean?

The ‘like’ button is not an effective means of gathering meaningful feedback. That becomes clear when you consider the fact that many sites, including Facebook, don’t feature a ‘dislike’ button. In these instances, your feedback options are:

  • I care about this and think this is good and so will click on a button;
  • I’m indifferent to this and so can’t be bothered to click on a button; or
  • I don’t like this but can’t show this other than by appearing to be indifferent to it.

When ‘like’ goes wrong

Many producers of content management systems have jumped aboard the social bandwagon and delivered social media-style features such as ‘like’ and ‘follow’. Similar to the sentiment machine that I described at the beginning of this post, they, at first, seem both clever and useful. It’s only when you start to use them that you realise that you’re using a lazy reproduction of a workable concept put to use in the wrong context.

I came across an acute example of this quite recently when I went to visit an organisation to talk to them about their new intranet. Said new intranet was very impressive and featured a dizzying array of social media-style feedback options. Said organisation was quite conservative and so the adoption of their new tools wasn’t great. A lot of good work was done to explain the use of the site’s new features as well as new concepts such as liking and following in order to get people on board. It was when a news article was published announcing the death of an esteemed and long-serving colleague that things went wrong. Understandably, people were confused and, in some cases, unhappy about the fact that they had the option to ‘like’ an article about someone passing away. Things got so bad that they’re now exploring options to remove the ‘like’ button completely.

What, exactly, do you ‘like’?

The word ‘like’ is deceptively complex. This unassuming four-letter word can be used as a preposition, a noun, a conjunction, an adverb, an adjective and a verb. Its use is heavily dependent on its context. For example, if you click on the ‘like’ button beneath this blog post, what is it that you are telling me? Are you telling me that you like this post, the ideas within this post, the way that I write or that you like me? Feel free to ‘like’ this post anyway, of course, and, if you’ve any feedback, leave me a comment. 😉

Making ‘like’ meaningful

Let’s return to the sentiment machine that inspired this post. I think it’s safe to assume that the people who put it there want to know what people think about the lounge. Ultimately, they want to know whether they need to do anything to improve it or whether things are ok as they are. They might also want to be able to play those figures back to say how satisfied people are with the lounge or, conversely, how much they’ve improved things based upon some poor feedback.

Wouldn’t it be better to ask people ‘How was the lounge?’ and then give them options like ‘couldn’t be better’ and ‘could be better’? If most people said that things could be better then they could set up a more detailed survey (maybe face to face?) to find out why with an irresistible incentive offered for taking part. If most people said that things couldn’t be better then you probably don’t need a follow-up survey. Instead, you can simply play the glorious stats back through flat-screen TVs within and outside of the lounge. Perfect.

Measuring indifference

‘Neutral’ options within surveys have always kind of bothered me (yes, I’m that kind of person). The thing is, you see, they don’t seem to offer any value. To me, they’re the equivalent of a ‘meh‘ button.

Research suggests and experience shows that a fair number of people will go for the sit-on-the-fence option if given the choice. Some say that this is good because it means that people don’t feel bullied into committing to a particular sentiment. I take this point but if feedback that you can do something with is your goal, then this option won’t help. I suspect that Brits (like me) are particularly inclined to click on such options for fear of offending someone. Perhaps we could have a ‘Dislike (but I’m terribly sorry)’ option instead?

To e or not to e?

Our basement is full of books. Our dining room is full our books. Our lives are full of books. This is why I’ve finally bought an e-reader. This was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make in recent weeks (pathetic, isn’t it?). If you’ve read any of my early posts, you’ll know that this makes me feel like a bit of a hypocrite but, heck, we live, we learn, and, I can assure you, my decision was borne out of practicality. Honest.

I adore real books. I love what’s in them and I love them as artefacts. I can select a book, at random, from our bulging shelves and recall which chapter of my life it relates to. For example, Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy will always remind me of living in a mouldy flat in Southsea and sleeping on a mattress because I was too stubborn to buy a bed. There are happier memories too, of course, but that’s the thing about randomness: it’s kind of random.

The books that my wife and I own are part of us. That’s why we refuse to give or throw them away. They’re our version of Borges’ Library of Babel and losing them would be like losing a large part of the history of ourselves. Inspired by the wonderful Dr. John Lyon of Bristol University, I even started writing my name, the year and where I was living at the time of reading inside each front cover. It’s a trivial but delightfully immediate way of keeping in touch with your younger selves. Each inscription is like a miniature postcard from the past.

Sadly, our obsession with keeping all of our books has left us with little space. Our cramped little house is buckling under the weight of our literature of life.

The most obvious solution to this problem was to place an immediate embargo on buying any new books and to enforce a strict library-only approach to reading. This didn’t work. Mainly because of the frustrating amount of time I had to wait until I get get my hands on what I wanted to read. Plus, having the Amazon app on my phone meant that I’d ‘accidentally’ buy a book or two whilst caught off guard (honest). The obvious and more practical solution slowly came into focus: I should buy an e-reader. That was about a year ago and I’ve been grappling with whether to buy one or not until just a few days ago.

I’ve yet to read a book on my new e-reader but I know it won’t be the same. In some cases, it’ll be a richer experience because I’ll be able to look up tricky words as I spot them using its in-built copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. In others, I feel sure that it’ll feel quite alien and divorced from the haptic and sensual delights of a real book. Don’t you just love the musty whiff of an old book? To me, it’s like an olfactory version of Proust’s madeleine, recalling potent memories of days, weeks, months lost in literature.

I do think an e-reader can neatly complement your reading ecosystem. It’ll work best for reading those books that you just want to read but not physically own. It’s also a nifty way of reading something that you don’t want to be seen reading in public. In fact, Fifty Shades of Grey seems to owe a debt to the e-reader for precisely this reason.

I love a beautifully-bound hardback but their format seems almost comically impractical. How many times have you nearly knocked yourself out by reading a weighty tome in bed and drifting off mid sentence? Oh, ok. Just me then. A benefit of the e-reader user experience means that you don’t have to buy a book in hardback if you want to buy it when it’s just been released. That’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

Ok, that’s enough trying to convince myself that I’ve made the right decision. Will I feel the same nostalgia when I look through the list of titles that I’ve read on my e-reader compared to picking one up from a shelf? No, and I’ll just have to live with that. Well, at least until we can afford a bigger house.

I was a thirty-something Glasto virgin

I remember when I first decided that I had to go to Glastonbury. It was summer 2010 and I was sat on the sofa watching Gorillaz play the main stage.  Odd then, I suppose , if you consider the fact that many people panned that performance. For me, something about the ear-to-ear grin that shone on Damon Albarn’s face when Bobby Womack belted out the chorus to Stylo was infectious. It told me that watching this on TV wasn’t enough. I needed to put myself on the other side of the screen. Even if it was just once.Dan at Glasto

Before this moment, Glastonbury was something that other people did. I’d been to music festivals before (most notably, three trips to the Reading Festival whilst at uni) but Glastonbury was something else. In many ways it stood at the centre of something that I was happy not to be part of. Plus, there would be mud, E. coli and dreadlocks.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to get tickets back in 2010 but lost out in the, now infamous, Sunday-morning technology lottery. When I managed to get a ticket in 2012, I was elated. I couldn’t believe that I was actually going to go. When, earlier this year, something horrible happened to my wife and I, my want turned into a need to be part of it.

When the time finally came and my brother and I got to Glastonbury (him, the seasoned veteran; me, the gleeful Glasto virgin), I was predictably overwhelmed. The scale of the place is incredible – a city with legs and voices. One of my most potent memories of the weekend is of being buoyed along by a river of people after the light had faded and The Stones had strummed their last string. I expected to find this unsettling and scary but it was something of a joy, like being – literally – part of the human race. The complete opposite of the prickly claustrophobia of The Tube.

The main stage at GlastonburyI understand now that being at Glastonbury is about being part of something, part of people history. It’s the kind of spectacle that, when aliens do finally pay us a visit, you’d be proud for them to see it as part of who we are and what we’re about. The world of Glastonbury is an, often magical, themepark-like place that banishes our normal lives to the sidelines. It’s also a chance to bend the rules of life. Not just for purely hedonistic reasons, but to remind you that normality and routine are arbitrarily imposed and that we can live without them. Even just for a bit.

What were the highlights? Well, Glastonbury was the highlight. If pressed, I’d say that Dinosaur Jnr; Seasick Steve; Portishead; Smashing Pumpkins; and the mighty Rolling Stones were a close second. Oh, and, that amazing jazz-funk band, that bearded Eastern European surrealist comedian, and England’s take on Flight of the Conchords with their triumphant encore: ‘My rock face is my sex face’. They were all pretty good too. Will I go next year? Of course I will. Well, as long as I can get a ticket.