Blind spot

Goddamn AC in here’s like a child’s breath. First meetings are tough enough without getting this sweat on, and we’re still waiting on that refurb thanks to Homeland jumping the line. I still remember the grumbling in DOT when Homeland got their increase. You’ve never seen a pretzel line so long.

“Thank you all for being part of this historic ethics delegation. As you know, the Safer Cars on American Roads program has been active since January in Washington, Pennsylvania, and California. I think we can say that, minor bumps aside, it’s gone well at the state level.” A few Pittsburgh taxi drivers had thrown themselves under the Uber XC90s, but they’d earned only scant sympathy and six-figure medical bills.

“Before we progress to federal and NHTSA approval Meg has asked us to dialog the outstanding ethical questions. So that’s the role of this group.” Important at meetings like this to be metronomic with eye contact, to feign impartiality. There’s protocol, recordings. “Since we have a few newcomers, let’s start with brief introductions. Brief, please.”

I point my pen at the kid I’ve not met, who must be Eric. Twenty-five, six? He leans back in his chair. “I’m Eric Jo. I’m a staff engineer at Alphabet.” He means software engineer, of course – car people don’t wear those ridiculous watches. His t-shirt has ‘Google SDCP’ printed above that laughable cute fascia. Eric wears the resigned look of a young man left holding the short straw, glasses about five degrees off horizontal.

Next to Eric, Bud Carver, in his yellow Wednesday suspenders. Bud’s a professional fucking saboteur. Spends his days hovering in departmental meetings, complaining the meeting shouldn’t happen. I’ve protested to Meg of course, but the guy’s inner circle: some kind of Tea Party figure before Don threw him the DOT trimmer gig.

Been perhaps three years since I last saw Cecilia – she was at Mercedes forever, then went totally quiet. Like, nothing. Vanished from the mailing lists, wasn’t at the Denver convention, then we finally got word from Cupertino two months ago. Great engineer. We still don’t really know what they’re up to over there: all sorts of stories of cutbacks and prototypes. Not exactly a forthcoming bunch.

Of course, Facebook sent Roosevelt. Ever since the Post alleged their latest prototype brakes more heavily in front of Democrats, Legal stepped in. I tried to discourage lawyers – this is a working group after all – but it’s hard to change Facebook’s mind these days.

Dylan and I go way back. ASU, class of ’96. There were rumors Kalanick himself wanted in on the committee until Uber PR nixed the idea. Dylan wiped the floor with me at Spyglass last month: went round in 77 and won’t let me forget it. He emailed last week to announce his new title – “Director of Strategic Infrastructural Programs Direction” – and asking “to powwow about subsidy opportunities” before the next spending reviews.

“I’m Alexandrine Lang, I head up future projects at VW Group.” Three weeks back, an Audi A6 suddenly occupied Meg’s parking space, GM-Ford were out, and Alexandrine was on the list. The PR optics aren’t good since we let VW wriggle off the emissions hook, but at least they’re eager to please.

Finally, Floren Moïse. Heard he was the only Georgia Tech guy to decline the UPS offer. Meg’d be happy to ditch him, but Floren adds spice: specifically, he drives Bud crazy. I don’t know how exchange programs work in that world, but Atlanta has eroded his accent somewhat. He’s wearing one of those collarless shirts, buttoned to the top. A dapper academic: who’d have thought?

“Thanks everyone. Jaxson sends his apologies – as you know, the Autopilot hearings are ongoing and delicate, so we agreed Tesla should step back for now.”

The coffee pot spits in the corner. A fern wilts silently in the heat.

“Our first order of business is federal border protocol. Our friends at Justice tell me you’ve all implemented their patrol-car stop recommendations; they pass on their thanks. We now have to consider how to handle international crossings.

“Per last week’s memo, Homeland has requested not only the checkpoint dead-zone but remote shutdown capability within a 3-mile radius. This would mostly be an issue on the Canadian border, of course, but while California’s dragging its heels over the Wall, it may be relevant in the south too.”

“Three miles is going to be risky," says Eric. "From an engineering point of view of course there’s no obstacle, but at that range I don’t think we can guarantee safe shutdown in mixed-autonomy traffic, unless we have the specialized lane filters.”

Cecilia speaks precisely over steepled hands. “Our view is that a remote disable sets a worrying precedent. A backdoor is a euphemism for a vulnerability, after all.” She hesitates. “I must add however that Apple has no official stance on autonomous vehicle behavior, and I am unable to confirm or deny my presence at this delegation.”

“Look, the Russians are basically all over our asses at this point, Tom,” says Dylan. “Putin’s got a gifted crew behind him now, and if we give Homeland a backdoor it’s just a matter of time until the Russians jack-knife a semi on I-5. Christ, Tom, it’ll be a mess. Uber… they don’t want to put passenger lives in danger.”

“But the true problem,” interrupts Floren, “is we would be subverting the established capitalist model of ownership, we reframe the relations of subject-object. Are we morally justified in imposing this ludicrous proto-authoritarianism on the world?”

It’s usually harmless to let Floren lap the course a few times, to let him exercise those post-nominals and flap about us focusing on the wrong horizon. By the time he’s expounded upon the distinction between deontology and consequentialism, Bud’s eyelids are twitching.

“Let’s get back on track, folks,” I say. “Frankly, I’m not worried about a little top-down control. Our focus groups tell us that, except for the usual ACLU types, citizens are comfortable with authority intervention, so long as it’s framed as a safety measure. But let’s cut the crap – we all know the deal with the remote shutdown. You just want deniability in case another Snowden crawls out.”

“Well, silence that made whole scenario far more painful than it needed to be,” says Roosevelt. “If DOJ actually allowed us to disclose interventions I’m sure we’d all be warmer to the idea. This is basic First Amendment stuff, Tom, and as you know we’ve been over it a thousand times with any department that will listen. And since the FBI disclosure cases are still in this mysterious holding pattern, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.”

“Yeah, okay, look – it’s between you and Homeland really. We’re just the messenger on this one,” I say.

“I think the moral angle has to be secondary to the legal case. If Homeland makes a formal request we’ll consider it through the proper channels. Until then, it’s a no.”

Bud, already on his third cookie, is staring at Alexandrine. A small column of saliva pulses between his open lips. She shifts awkwardly in her seat.

“Fine,” I say, “I’ll circle back with Homeland’s counsel. They seemed eager, so my guess is this’ll come back. Anyway, since we’re on legal turf, let’s move into collision liability.” Bud shuffles his papers; everyone else swipes their tablet. “Per the April ISO draft, vendors will assume liability in level four-compliant autonomous modes. So we still have to thrash out what we’re doing about laggard firmware. Uh, Dylan, can you update us on Uber’s stance here?”

“Sure,” Dylan says. “They’re now prepared to disable vehicles once they’re 30 days behind the upgrade curve. But as you know, inventory is Uber’s priority – vehicles out of service really hurt their passenger load factor. So for lesser lags the passenger will see a HUD warning, and if they dismiss it, liability shifts to the passenger or his insurer per EULA.”

“Okay, thanks. Alexandrine, since VW is new to the group, can you fill us in on their thoughts?”

“We’ve carried out surveys to crowdsource our collision heuristics, which we expect to underpin all software versions. So patching shouldn’t be an issue. Actually, the surveys have been very illuminating. They’re based on something called the trolley problem – have you all heard of it?”

An exasperated crunch escapes from Floren’s throat, and Cecilia and I exchange a glance. Eric takes pity first. “Look… the trolley problem is basically useless in real life. If you find yourself crashing it’s because you fucked up three seconds earlier, and the answer is almost always just to smash the brakes. Steering makes you lose more control, and a few mph might make all the difference.”

“Gotta say I’m with Eric here, Alexa,” says Dylan.


“Oh – Alexandra, sure. Sounds like you should lean on your machine learning guys more. Predictive heuristics are a waste of time. Ship with an adaptive ML system, learn from fleet damage, injury records, y’know? Let the algorithm choose a response based on previous patterns.”

“Nom de bleu,” cries Floren. “You tech people are like this always. Such wretched solutionism! Kill a few people but never mind, just tweak the algorithm! It’s… it’s indecent,” – his chair rocks forward – “the way you wash your hands of moral agency, when it is through your own technology that these futures are mediated.”

Bud waves a disdainful hand. “Now Floren, I’m sure we all read your piece in Armchair Ethicist Weekly, but this is about American industry. The real world, you get it? This isn’t the time for philosophizing.”

“Monsieur Carver, now is precisely the time for philosophizing!”

I have to step in. “Okay, so Alexandrine, I think we need to cover VW’s approach in more detail before the next licensing committee. I’ll ask the team to review with you next week.

“I guess we should move on to the final agenda item, which is HIMs of course. As you know, highly intimate moments in moving vehicles are mostly covered by states’ reckless driving or indecency laws. But, er, certain… media properties are concerned about moral corruption – tinted windscreens, mobile brothels, all that panic. So I need to bring Justice a recommendation that’s going to balance the realities of driverless time with this political aspect.”

Bud sits bolt upright. Crumbs fly from his mouth. “Gimme a break! Classic example of government meddling in the lives of ordinary people. Some guy wants to bust a nut in his car? Big deal. So long as it’s discreet, so long as it’s legal, let him.”


“But nothing kinky.”

“Obviously our incognito mode disables internal cameras,” says Eric. “Or at least, it disables transmission anyway. But our view is essentially that this is just another connected device, and who are we to dictate use cases?”

“Discretion is important,” says Cecilia. “HIMs are, how should I say, seen as incompatible with our brand. As you know, we’ve disallowed adult content on the App Store for years. But also, people will do what people do. Our primary concern is inadvertent audio triggering by user vocalizations. I’ll have the Siri engineering team provide an update, although I can’t confirm whether such a team exists.”

“Facebook is keen to keep this area as loose as possible, Tom,” says Roosevelt. “As you know, intimacy has proven to be a surprising growth area for Oculus, and we think it would be a shame if overregulation got in the way of these exciting new forms of self-expression. Not to mention the potential constitutional issues.”


“Hi Meg. Good weekend?”

“Ah Tom. Yes, thanks. Kids up, so you know: zoo, tantrums.”

“So, you wanted to see me?”

“Yes, sit down. How are things with the ethics panel?”

“Fine. Still working with VW on their heuristics. They’re, well, they’re a long way behind. But Homeland have backed off remote disable for now: something about reassessing terrorism vectors, new strategy soon. We’re meeting again early next month. Tenth maybe.”

“Ok, well I have an update from my end. Seems Bud’s been talking to Dylan and the other vendors since the meeting, and… they’ve tabled a new approach. They’ve asked that we look again at self-regulation…”

“Oh, you’ve got to be—”

“…and DOT’s agreed we’ll suspend the delegation…”

 “—shitting me!”
 “…to let vendors choose their own approaches. We’ll monitor progress with DOJ, and—“

“They screwed me!” Shot a 77, then shot me in the back. 

“Oh, don’t be melodramatic, Tom. Look, word is Don himself had a hand in it: jobs on the line and all that. You know policy priorities take precedence; not a lot we can do from our level.”

I shake my head. “Unbelievable. Wait, all of them? Floren?”

“Oh, Floren.” Meg laughs. “He’s fuming, of course, but Legal waved the NDA and he calmed down.”


“Look, Tom, I get that you’re upset but really, I think the ethics thing is overblown. These guys are innovators, remember? Smart people. It’s not good business for Silicon Valley to do unethical things; the market will iron out any misbehavior.” She pauses to sip her coffee. “And besides, if things do start out a little hairy, we still have plenty of budget for signage and public information programs.”

The improbability of Alex Hales

Occupying as it does the fragile months of the summer, English cricket is deeply influenced by alcohol. While football terrace prohibition causes binge-drinking before kickoff, cricket presents a daylong test of boozy stamina. Cup deposit schemes and zealous stewarding have made the beer snake an endangered species, but the cricket and a stag night remain the only places at which an Englishman can consider fancy dress.

This does not make for precise memories.

Ah, but I forgot. You Americans, you don't understand cricket. Actually, you relish not understanding it, this daft tortoise game of bad teeth, straight elbows, and dinner etiquette, as enacted by Britain and Her Colonies.

But you like baseball, which makes explanation surprisingly easy. Cricket is baseball but really, really hard to get someone out. While baseball outs tumble like autumn leaves, a cricket 'wicket' is a gleaming butterfly on a spring morning. Hundreds of runs are scored. A game lasts five days. This, you begin to understand, is why we drink.

I watch quite a lot of cricket, mostly Middlesex and England. (These deserve nominative elaboration. Middlesex are a London-based team named after an obsoleted county; the anachronisms pile up quickly in this game. The team called England is the responsibility of the England and Wales Cricket Board, allowing me as a Welshman to pledge allegiance.)

I drink less than I used to, as maturity has grown and my tolerance dropped. But it’s fair to say that cricket's longitude and consumptions, and my woeful memory, have made my cricket memories melt together. It's been marvellous, sunburned, imprecise fun; I've seen no-balls, legends, centuries, dogged controversies; but I'd struggle to recall exactly when and where and who.

Until last week.

England batsman Alex Hales has had an awful summer. On the brink of deselection, he was a man at war with own psyche. With a game based on quick scoring, on aggression and active intent, he too often has lacked the technique and patience required of an opening batsman. Just one week ago he played perhaps his worst ever England innings, staying in just long enough to, in the words of one commentator, look really bad.

On Tuesday his luck was in. A one-day match at his home ground, Trent Bridge, against a Pakistan team that excels at the five-day game but is short of quality in the short stuff.

Tuesday's game will stick around, unlike others, because it broke all-time records. Hales played perhaps the worst best-of-all-time innings I've seen, swiping the bat recklessly, bisecting fielders with mishits. Commitment and luck overruled control and timing. Cat-like, he survived many deaths, including a dropped catch and a dismissal reversed by a no-ball. Dancing on the knife edge of fortune, Hales was electrifying. His partner Joe Root, the world's leading exponent of eloquent batting, capable of exquisite shots that catch your breath like only great poetry can – looked ordinary in comparison.

By the time he finally yielded his wicket, Hales had scored 171, an English record. And England themselves weren't done. Hales's departure brought in Jos Buttler, a known slogger, who feasted on some poor Pakistan bowling to rack up a lightning 90 not out. Buttler too rode his luck, clean bowled at one point but – to whoops around the ground – recalled after the TV umpire declared another no-ball. With his last stroke, Buttler hit the boundary that sealed the all-time record score. England ended on 444–3 off fifty overs; a score unfathomable a generation ago.

Hales is a vigorous but fragile player who threw caution aside. Batting form moves slowly, as befits this intensely slow game. Recovery often requires a spell out of the limelight, some time playing to tiny crowds in domestic cricket. Rarely do we see a transformation this abrupt. It's easy to overplay the triumph-of-the-human-spirit angle, but Hales was somehow able to shed his mental shackles for a day and produce something extraordinary. He has not cured his technique issues. He may yet not be the man England need as a Test Match opener. But for one day, the world truly rotated along his axis. And to be there was to witness a day when cricket surpassed itself, that became not just about sunburn, cider, and cheers, but genuine sporting improbability.

“It can be a cruel game” Hales said afterwards, “and it can be the best game in the world."

Inherent and acquired diversity

[Capturing a tweet drizzle in a better format.]

There are actually two dimensions to diversity. One is ‘inherent’ diversity in traits such as gender, ethnicity, age, sexuality. Lots of welcome focus on improving this through recruitment practices, addressing bias, etc.

But poor decisions can also stem from a lack of ‘acquired’ diversity: a homogeneity of backgrounds, languages, life experiences. This gets easier as you get older / richer / more senior – more breadth, more travel, more inputs. But it's also a personal responsibility.

So, people of tech: Travel! Learn new languages! Hang with people outside your socioeconomic group! Work abroad! Dabble! You’ll become a more rounded person with broader and more useful perspectives. And you’ll have a lot of fun too.

A 🔒 user wisely points out those are privileged prescriptions. True. But please, friends, broaden your perspectives if and however you can. Because we don’t need more stupid tech decisions caused by a lack of thinking, a lack of perspective. Our industry is going to demand an enormous amount of user trust over the next couple of decades. Let’s start justifying that trust today.

Past and futures

From this terrible hotel room in this unlovable town, the outlook is bleak. The twin disasters of Brexit and Trump look not just possible but likely. Orlando is still naming its dead. The Euro 2016 football tournament has fractured into violence.

To ascribe common cause is to oversimplify, but in all of these acts I see the influence of the past. The Trump and Leave campaigns alike fixate on restoring former glory. Some people wish so much to deny LGBT people their contemporary freedoms that they will murder to revoke this progress. Even the Russian hooligans have targeted English fans based on a reputation twenty years out of date.

Meanwhile, youth culture continues to fetishise bygone eras, and when the kids grow up they emerge into a thriving mainstream retro culture. Garden parties for the Queen. The infantilisation of adult colouring books. Keep Calm cupcake fascism.

The past has a lot to answer for.

We technologists prefer to focus on the future, sketching out how things might be, wondering how to improve matters both trivial and significant. Imagining bright futures can make us prone to melancholy about the present, and today that sadness feels particularly strong. To see the world take conscious steps to mimic a past that has evaporated (if it ever existed at all) … it’s agonising.

Part of that agony comes from realising it’s partially our fault. We’ve failed to convince millions of people the future will be better. Our intentions and excitement have left people cold, or even hostile, to the extent they would rather chase an impossible reversion.

Progress will always create winners and losers, but we ignore the scary and disenfranchising potential of our work at our peril. What Silicon Valley wants is often not what the wider world needs. The past has a lot to answer for, but then, so does the future.

Reflections on Japan

The West still looks at Japan in infantile ways. It’s all a bit Early Internet, of an era when user-generated content was viral and heady: look at what those crazy Japanese do. But the wackiness fades quickly and, embarrassed at my inarticulate arigatou gozaimasu arrogance, I find the mistranslations more generous than hilarious, although some are still charming. 

Yes, there’s a street that sells wax food, but it’s knowing – the retailers know it’s a tourist attraction now, so they also sell nigiri keyrings and iPhone cases with tempura protuberances. I head to the Ghibli museum sceptical, fearing queue-for-a-photo-with-Totoro pandering, but the place is detailed and charming. Fragments of Japanese mythology, coal dust, tatami.

We eat well, five-figure blowout and starchy backstreet okonomiyaki alike. My fingers stain with soy and umami, although I draw the line at the fish eyes. We make makizushi and you know, it’s pretty easy. Like brushing a cat, you need more force than you’d think. Mix the rice with a slicing motion, and wipe the knife with each cut. I learn I prefer red miso to white, and that Japanese desserts aren’t for me: too little sweetness and crunch, too much paste. At the tiny Ginza sushi bar I simper as wasabi steam rises in my nose, but the guy has a damn Michelin star so I’m hardly about to disagree with him.

There is something about Zen, isn't there? Simplification, purity, doing one thing well: I can see why artists like it. Rituals abound. The tea ceremony is exactly ceremonial, all genuflection and cleaning and not much tea. Do you bow at the temples? I'm not a religious man, and decide it could be insulting to pretend otherwise. But enough people are doing the suggested motions, tossing loose yen into the grate, clapping twice, purifying the air with the bell. What's the difference between a shrine and a temple anyway?

Very little appears to happen by accident. The tarmac is immaculate, emblazened with sturdy ideograms, begging for the glide of streamlined bicycles and heavy suitcases. No lawn is unedged. The Japanese clearly love infrastructure: even the most trivial roadworks employ glowsticked security guards. While we Brits love engineering as historical badge of honour – the first railways, mate! Victorian sewers! – we’ve no interest in doing that kind of thing any more. Tokyo shrugs and lays another kilometre of seductive tarmac.

We buy niknaks that fit our too-small suitcases: stickers, biscuits shaped like pigs, useless soy saucers that fall into the “believe to be beautiful” category. Japan’s precision is infectious, but I know within three months I’ll be my old mess, sticky tape, beer caps and neuroses. I'm not sharp enough for this lifestyle, but that's okay: it's not mine.

Service is deferential and sexless, excepting perhaps Shinjuku's more lurid alleys. My wife’s game attempts to speak Japanese receive gratifying forgiveness. (I’m in France next month, so I enjoy this compassion while I can.) We drink with an ex-pat friend at an Okinawan bar, at which we're offered pickled snake juice, a staff-uniform kimono, and countless cups of sake. We roll out at 1am, the owners pressing business cards into our hands and waving us down the street. At 100 metres we sneak a backward look and, sure enough, they're still waving.

As a tourist, tourists are agonising. We’ve missed the best of the blossom season, but a few late bloomers linger in the parks, smartphonistas crammed in anticipation of Instagram hearts. It seems Chinese tourists are the new American tourists, barking at us to vacate their viewfinders, dressing in tacky polyester kimonos at the shrines, brandishing selfie sticks. I’m cool with selfie culture, but I'm no fan of the me-plus-landmark photo, a pic taken purely for documentation, to confirm presence, rather than for any recognition of beauty.

In our brief countryside stopover, the birds are different. Even the oblate sparrows, probably pests here, are captivating. I spy a yellow wagtail on a power line. I don't know birds, but it was yellow and wagged its tail. Our ryokan’s alpine tranquility is punctured by lingering jetlag and a pillow made of rock. I fidget half asleep, haunted by Suntory Boss's monochromatic face.

Finally, one last night in Toyko. Megacities are really about night-time: the 34th storey views, red eyes blinking on skyscraper shoulders, and advertisements blooming on the horizon like frozen fireworks. The photos never come out right, but I turn the lights off and press my face to the glass. In a gridless city everything below is Escher. I’m paying for the distance, for the vantage that helps me understand a city without having to be a part of it. Even this far up I can hear trains. Yoyogi Park is a blanket of darkness amid the light, and if I hold my gaze, the city really does twinkle.

What UX Designers Can Learn from Watching a Heron

As UX Designers we face constant challenges. As we wade through the lake of Poor Product Choices we must stalk our users/fish carefully. The path to UX Success demands that we strike with sharp-beaked efficiency – just like a heron I saw today.



So I’m on my honeymoon – doesn't matter where, okay it’s Tokyo, maybe you've heard of it – and we’re walking round a lake. ”Do you see that heron?” says my wife. (We do things like this, pointing out cool animals.) And yes, I see it, but it’s a long way off so let’s go round the other side to see it better.

Except when we get there, I realise it's a fake: one of those joke herons they put up to scare other birds away, although do herons even eat birds? My wife says look, its leg is moving. She’s right. But the heron still looks wooden. Animatronic? Japan does enjoy that sort of thing.

But no, no, the heron is real. Beak angled toward the water, neck arcing logarithmically, centre of gravity perhaps a foot behind it. A study in potential energy. This bird is about to go apeshit on a fish. I hope for keratinous knives spearing wet scales, a mouth gasping open. So we wait, in obligation to witness nature at its most resplendent and brutal.

A minute passes. The bird remains poised on its stupid legs, taunting gravity. Any moment. Any. Moment. The cliché: the minute you turn away, it’ll strike. It doesn't matter, since we’re going to win this one. Not going to be beaten by a bird.

Another minute. Two. Three.

The sun is bright today and my retinas are scarred with a heron imprint. Tonight I will dream of olive-green bezier necks, beaks plucking at my eyes. And it strikes me that this is like UX, somehow.

No phenomena exist except me and the heron. I find out later that Shinjuku is burning, helicopters scrambled, sirens wailing, but we exist on new wavelengths. My telekinetic beams versus its magnificent stasis. But… I lose, I lose. I move on. Suns will rise and set, dynasties will fall before this heron unfurls a wing. Later, as I lie in bed and write this thinkpiece, I deduce that the heron had, be it through genius or plain limbic stimulus-response, redefined the time axis. And thus I reach UX enlightenment.

What happens next with Conversational UIs

Hey, I have some thoughts about conversational interfaces. They’re kinda predictable, but it’s been a while and your next appointment isn't until 3. Would you like to hear them? Y/N

> yeah ok

Okay so obviously Conversational UIs are hot. I’ll confess that sometimes they can be appropriate and fun.

> you mean slackbot?

Well, yes.

But we both know how our industry responds to a promising idea: we bleed the thing dry. Dribbble saturation, FastCo thinkpieces, conference talks. Within 18 months I expect to be rejecting conversational résumés. Shortly after that, the renunciation. Conversational UIs become passé, discarded. It’ll take perhaps three years before we can at last settle on the only accurate answer to design questions: It Depends.

> whats your point?

The point is conversational UIs are coming, ready or not, relevant or not. Works for one product? Try it for all products! There’ll be some woeful efforts ahead: two-screen onboarding flows that become fifteen-minute dialogical ordeals, etc. The call centre experience, coming to an iPhone near you.

> cute: let me tweet that

I'm sorry, I didn't understand your response.

Haha no but really, that’s worth talking about too. There’ll be all sorts of text-adventure linguistic complexity, and designers aren’t great at textual rigour. Things could get messy. Grammatical entanglement, syntactic opacity, localis(z)ation tripwires.

> arent you being a bit negative

…That’s fair. Okay, there will be some positives.

Conversational UIs will cause some innovation. The Quartz app isn't for me, but isn’t it great to see a refreshing approach in a tired sector? Anything that moves the debate on from how-much-drop-shadow-is-too-much is welcome.

Conversational UIs will also force designers to cosy up to writers, or to become more linguistically literate themselves. Information architects will be trendy again, since syntax and labels are totally their turf.

There’s pleasing alignment with the NoUI theme too, misnamed and oxymoronic though it may be (it really means NoGUI, since of course there’s always an interface). So hopefully conversational UI will advance non-graphical approaches, particularly voice/sound. Text fatigue will set in after a while, and sound could be an ideal I/O method for conversation.

And users could love conversational UIs, at least those done well during the novelty window.

> i sense a but coming

But I worry about what happens when the marketers get stuck in. I mean… some of my best friends and all that, but marketers can’t resist an opportunity to force a damn relationship on you.

Truth is, I don't want to talk to most of my products. They’re dumb utilities. Close and forget. I want a spade, not the experience of digging. 

The inflationary language of UX has already loaded commodity products with self-importance; conversational UI will make it worse. Apps will bloom with personality, but in the mould way rather than the flower way. That patronising first-person tone, previously quarantined in App Store notes and FMCG packaging — it’s going to infect the core of digital products. Products will get chatty. They’ll want to be your buddies. They’ll insist on being called by names

> that reminds me, youve actually been saying my name wrong this whole time

…and you can bet those names will be sexist too: female for administrative services, male for analytical ones. Think it’s hard enough to remember real people’s names? Now you can experience that with your tech too. You’re out of washing powder: is it Alice or Rita you need to tell?

> yeah, its actually pronounced Kenn-ith by the way

Oh well look actually I have to go, sorry. Talk to you later, all right Senid?

Edge cases (part 1 of hundreds…)

What if their surname only has two letters?
Are we sure that button is big enough for translated text?
What if the user doesn’t have JavaScript on?
Can a colourblind user still understand that?
What happens when network connection drops?
Does this drag-and-drop work properly on a touchscreen?
What if a user receives an abusive message in this inbox?
“You have no friends.” What now?
Your server had a glitch: does the user understand what happened?
Is that target big enough for all users to tap?
What if the CDN takes a while?
Does that field work for people with non-binary genders?
Could someone just build a bot to get around this?
What if the browser is zoomed in?
What if they want to paste from a password manager?
Did you remember that for Amex the CCV is 4 digits long?
Have we tested with VoiceOver?
Wait, couldn’t this become a spam vector?
Does this even load on a 2G connection?
What if the user can’t point with a mouse?
We are stripping hyphens and parentheses from this telephone field, right?
Does that wrap okay?
Oops! They didn't mean to click that: what do they do now?
Doesn’t Apple hold the patent on that?

Exploring permanent roles

[Update, January 2016: my year is filling up, and a permanent role is now a less likely fit. I’ll announce any change to availability in due course.]

I’m starting to explore permanent roles. I’m interested in positions:

  • at design leadership level (Head/Director/VP);
  • based in London, preferably with a fully colocated team;
  • mobile-focused;
  • in an interesting and worthwhile consumer vertical (financial services, advertising, betting etc aren’t for me, thanks.)

I’m definitely happy to wait for the right permanent role. In the meantime, I’m also available for interim design management opportunities. Please let me know if you have something that may fit.

What “UX Design doesn't exist” means to me

Peter tweeted that there’s no such thing as UX Design. I agree. I haven’t gone by that label for years, because I don’t think it makes much sense as a title or framing for our work. Nor does it reflect my current interests. I wouldn’t use it in the title of my book were I writing it now. Opinions change; no big deal.

But to be clear, this doesn’t mean I think people who call themselves UX designers are worthless. Nor does it mean I think their work is worthless. The things UX designers commonly do are valuable. Please research users. Please prototype. Please test and iterate. (These activities aren’t the sole domain of designers either – everyone on your team has something to offer here.) 

I also think UX people are largely a terrific bunch too: insightful, analytical, strong systems thinkers. Now, I do think most are too narrow: I want designers who do all that and more. But my complaint is with the UX design label, not the activities. These activities happen in all good design: if you’re not trying to create positive experience then I don’t really understand what you are doing.

But it’s just metadata; the output is what matters. So long as you design better technology, I don’t really care what you call yourself.