The year gone by

Please indulge me for the customary year-end contemplation.

I’ve recently returned from a family break in Cornwall; a chance to repay my sleep debt, help around the house, and rediscover the warmth of a novel. In quiet moments I watched a fox inch across the garden, wagtails bounce on the patio, acrobatic squirrels wrap their haunches around the bird feeder. Seems I’m becoming more sentimental about the natural world as I get older.

The break was also a chance to take stock of a dizzying year. Although 2010 has been fruitful, burnout has stalked me like a shadow. I can’t sustain the tempo, so next year’s themes will be enjoyment, travel, and the opportunity to breathe the air.

I’m keen to do more public speaking and have a few gigs already lined up, not least the plenary. I also want to write more. This year I’ve been seduced by the romance of the written word—and experienced its occasional drudgery—and I now regard myself as both a designer and a writer. Design will always be my passion and pay my bills, but next year I hope to broaden my writing horizons and scratch out whatever reward I can earn. I’m not yet ready to write another book, but please bear me in mind if you have any suitable projects.

Finally, I must confess that it’s been a year of maturation. I’ve learned a lot about the humbling experience of having an audience. I’ve surprised myself with my determination and occasional temper. But above all, I’ve found that my love for what I do is stronger than ever. And for that, I’m truly thankful.

See you next year.

Cennydd Bowles
On UX and advertising

Peter Merholz’s rant The Pernicious Effects of Advertising and Marketing Agencies Trying To Deliver User Experience Design is bold, uncomfortable and dogmatic, as all rants should be. I too have been thinking hard about the role of UX in advertising and, reaching similar conclusions, rushed to slap Peter’s back. However, my comments were somewhat splenetic after a difficult week, and after some time to think (and yes, to feel some of the sting of the backlash too), I’d like to make a more reasoned case for the offense.

I’ve never worked in an ad agency. However, I’ve mentored and befriended enough designers in the industry to recognise many of the patterns that Peter condemns. Harmful practices such as spec work, bait and switch, and employee exploitation pervade a worrying proportion of the agency world. So the post is a heavy punch, but a fair one. And I’m glad that, ignoring a few blow-the-belt blows, the critical reaction has been constructive. Most of it, of course, comes from ad agency designers who feel hurt by the article. They have fought their corner and accused Peter of tarring all agencies with the same brush. It’s a fair counter, but to shrug our shoulders and blame the other guy doesn’t make the smell disappear.

Are all ad agencies “soulless holes”? No, but some certainly are. Can UX designers make a difference in the advertising field? Possibly. But I see it as a a quixotic endeavour, swimming against the tide of a value system that frequently causes the disempowerment of the user. So I stand by my comment that a UX designer at an ad agency is an oxymoron. I have never made a “campaign site”. Nor will I, particularly after this post. To me, user-centred design must have higher aims, and I don’t understand how a UX designer can be excited or rewarded working on advertising projects.

And this, to me, is the crux of the debate. Peter’s post is an ideological gambit, and an old one at that: First Things First for the next generation. The debate was, and is, unwinnable as it revolves around sacrosanct personal values. Those who subscribe to the worldview that “advertising as it is widely practiced is an inherently unethical and, frankly, poisonous endeavor” (for the avoidance of doubt, clearly I do – but note my italicisation) will approve of Peter’s stance. Others won’t.

So far, so idealistic, and I know well that my belief in turning design toward The World’s Big Problems will be seen as naive or elitist. But just because an argument is unwinnable it doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Difficult, scary questions lie beneath the surface of the post, although for some readers the aggressive language caused those questions to be lost in the froth. How do we come to terms with the fact that a wide range of organisations now practise (or claim to practise) user experience design? How will this affect the perceived value of our work? Does user-centred design contain values that conflict with a capitalist society? How do we decide which projects are most worthy of our attention, and is it right for designers to play the role of ethical judiciary?

These are questions that truly matter in our industry, and I hope the conversation can move beyond personal affront and politics. If it can, then I think Peter’s role as agent provocateur will have been worthwhile, whatever your feelings about his comments.

Update: Peter’s followup post.

Cennydd Bowles
Closing the IA Summit 2011

Finally, I can reveal that I’ll be giving the closing plenary at the 2011 IA Summit in Denver, Colorado.

Several weeks ago, I opened a late-night email from Livia Labate, the IA Summit conference chair. I responded with blinking disbelief, the sort you get upon learning you were raised by wolves.

Needless to say, to give the closing plenary is both an immense honour and surprise. Sure, I write a lot and talk a bit, but my achievements pale in comparison to those of my illustrious predecessors: Andrew DillonPeter MerholzRashmi SinhaAndrew HintonJesse James Garett and Whitney Hess. So for weeks now I’ve been thinking hard about what I can bring to the role, researching and synthesising the topics that truly matter in user experience today.

One noteworthy point is that, as far as I can tell, I will be the first non-American to give either a closing plenary or the opening keynote at the IA Summit. I see this as a tribute to the growth of the European and British UX communities, and I’ll certainly be using this opportunity to discuss the realities and implications of global practice.

Wherever you hail from, I’d be delighted if you’d like to join me at the IA Summit. There are ten days left to submit a proposal, and successful presenters receive a complimentary ticket. But it’s not just about the sessions. The IA Summit is about community, putting names to faces, and learning from the wisdom of others. I’m thrilled to be a part of its history.

Cennydd Bowles
End hover abuse now

All around the web, hover states are being abused. Let’s put a stop to it.

Whatever a mouse user is doing, they are perpetually hovering. They may be hovering over a specific control, or over several places in the course of another action: dragging a scrollbar, selecting a word, even just idling around the screen. But until they click, the user has taken no positive action. A click is unambiguous: the caveman pointing at the mammoth, the dog scratching at the door to go out. It cannot be done in the course of anything else.

Hover states can provide subtle visual cues that help the user understand how something works. A faint glow around a “favourite” star. An underline appearing underneath a link. But they should not be used for anything else. Hovering does not demonstrate intent.

Designers who pop up information panels or move page elements on hover are using flawed logic, second-guessing what users want to do before they do it. The result, which I’ve seen in countless usability tests, is that users activate these controls accidentally. You know what happens? People actually flinch: “What was that?” They return with hesitation, less confident in their understanding of the site. It’s no accident that the Twitter worm propagated through hover—accidental activation meant users spread the worm unintentionally.

You may argue that hover states save space, and you can use hover panels to display supplementary information that helps the user know whether to click. It’s a feeble excuse. If the information is important, it should be on the screen already; if not, it should be omitted. The hover compromise shows only that you were too timid to make this decision.

Another compelling reason not to hide information behind hover is that you can’t rely on hover states even existing. The approach prioritises just one mode of input—the mouse—and makes information unavailable to people using keyboards, touchscreens and screenreaders. That’s not what your parents taught you.

Please, do your part. End hover abuse now.

Addendum: If you positively have to use hover popups, at least add a delay so they only activate if the user hovers for >500ms. It’s still no guarantee of intent, but it makes it a more likely probability.

[Post edited lightly in July 2015 inc. cleaning up some needless default gendering. Sorry about that.]

Cennydd Bowles
Instapaper & the Kindle

Instapaper is where best intentions go to die.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a fine service. But its simplicity predestines it to serve as a final resting place for the written word. While the iPhone app is pleasant enough for grouting the quieter moments of my day, reading is still a pokey experience. Instead, I typically succumb to games or email, the weight of words growing heavier until shamefully purged.

So I bought a Kindle.

Some technophiles scoff at single-purpose devices. No features! Get an iPad instead! And yes, the Kindle is a limited beast. A laughable browser. Prehistoric syncing. Awkward interaction design. But the reading experience is generally good, and this is why the Kindle is an interesting device. The e-ink display makes long articles a pleasure to read—which is fortunate, because of course there’s nothing else to do. The Kindle allows no access to the black hole of email, games or social networking, much to its benefit.

That’s not to say I’m entirely sold on the Kindle ecosystem. I’m still unconvinced by the idea of buying books in Kindle format, due to DRM and my reluctance to only license something that I ought to own. For now, my Kindle has found its niche just serving me Instapaper articles. Sure, the integration is hacky, but it comes with an odd curatorial satisfaction, just like loading the iPod in the old days.

With my enforced RSI breaks adding up, I’m devouring upward of twenty articles a day (Dan Saffer’s list of canonical interaction design articles has provided ample food for thought). Between them, the Kindle and Instapaper have exposed me to a host of fresh perspectives—and that’s surely among the highest praise technology can earn.

Cennydd Bowles
Undercover UX Design out now

At last, the book’s rolled off the printers and is in stock at all good online bookshops. You can now buy the paperback on Amazon UK for £11 or Amazon US for $20. If digital formats are more your thing, it’s also available on Kindle: Kindle UK (£10) or Kindle US ($16). An ePub version (for iPad etc) is also in the works, release date TBC.

We’ve given interviews for UX Booth and Scrunchup about the book, and there’s a short excerpt Winning a user experience debate on UX Booth too. Early reactions have been very positive, and sales have been brisk, so we’re pleased with the end result. I’ve been particularly humbled to see so many friends and colleagues industry grab a copy. That said, Undercover User Experience Design isn’t really a book for the senior conference-going elite. If you’re a junior-to-mid UX professional, or a developer/designer/etc looking to introduce user-centred ideas into your business, UUXD should be right up your street.

Finally, if you’ve read and enjoyed the book, please do consider leaving a review on Amazon. It makes a huge difference, and we’d be very grateful.

Cennydd Bowles
The heat death of the digital universe

For a while, I was a Final Fantasy XI addict. My equipment was top-notch, my White Mage and Bard fully levelled, and I could navigate Vana’diel better than my hometown. As an officer in a successful “linkshell”, I endured and mediated the drama that competitive internet anonymity creates, and made some good friends along the way. I even shifted my body clock for a week to complete the infamous Chains of Promathia missions with my East Coast buddies. However, the urge to spend time on other pursuits—namely design—eventually grew too strong, and in 2005 I donated my precious equipment, embarked on a suicidal tour of the game’s most difficult foes, and logged off for the final time.

Last month, unable to suppress my curiosity, I briefly rejoined FFXI.

Although the game’s mechanics are largely unchanged, the designers have given belated thought to the beginners’ experience. The fearsome learning curve has been softened thanks to a tutorial, benevolent sprites to help newbies in distress and new trials to allow players to gain their first few levels quickly. No doubt spurred by customer retention metrics, the game’s designers have tried to create a more enjoyable newcomer experience.

Their attempts have failed.

Designers of MMOs (massively multiplayer online games) provide the game mechanics such as the architecture of the game world, the appearance and behaviour of enemies, and rules for movement and combat. But the primary architecture of an MMO is social. While game design provides the initial impetus to explore and level up, the thirst for experience points soon dries up without social context. FFXI’s original design acknowledges this, and encourages player collaboration by rewarding efficient party-based levelling. Thus a new player is quickly thrown into a social world, meeting other players with whom they can explore team-based missions and, finally, “endgame” content such as defeating Notorious Monsters. The fundamental premise of player versus AI foe continues all the way to the highest levels, but teamwork is essential at all times. Even the endgame reward system is socialised, as many boss battles only reward players with raw materials that must then be synthesised by another player. Value is created largely by users—all the game designers can do is trickle currency and items into the system and watch as they are bought, sold and reconfigured. The game outside of combat becomes largely an exercise of socioeconomics and commerce, with markets rife with inflation and deflation, supply and demand, and sharing of resources among clans and friends.

Although there is intrinsic reward in defeating a formidable opponent, social capital is the driving force in endgame play. Defeating Notorious Monsters grants players a title visible to all. Members of exclusive endgame linkshells, who hunt these monsters, wear their allegiance like a badge of honour. Even altruistic acts like raising fallen colleagues help to build reputation in the eyes of others.

In 2005, I was part of this world of interaction, rivalry and friendship. But almost all of my friends have now quit FFXI (endgame play tries your patience after a while), meaning this social incentive is missing from the game today. The shared exploration of the early days—such as being the first on our server to discover, and quixotically attack, Cerberus—has long gone.

FFXI is now a lonely experience for the new player. Experienced players hang around in ever-expanding high-level areas, where they can mingle with players of equal experience and trade endgame equipment. As a lowly level 14 character, these areas were off-limits. I was never once invited to join a levelling party and, since I kept my elite history concealed, established players assumed I had little of value to tell them. Instead of a social experience—a community bonding around the rules of the game—FFXI now feels joyless and isolated. For all their attempts to improve the newcomer’s experience of the game itself, the designers can do little to improve the social experience.

Virtual worlds in their dotage

Square Enix won’t want to lose the revenue from a relatively successful game, and have just appointed a new director to guide the game’s future development. But with a sequel just days away, new players are no longer the focus, minor gestures aside. Instead, the designers will continue to support the endgame activities of their existing, committed userbase. The time investment and social capital these players have built up will mean some keep their accounts, but many FFXI players will soon migrate to the sequel. I expect that FFXI will therefore implode in the foreseeable future. As resources are poured into the sequel, development of new content will cease, and eventually the maintenance costs will exceed revenue. Vana’diel will die, taking with it the memories and stories that took place within its territories.

(If a tree falls in an uninhabited digital forest, does it play a sound file?)

FFXI has had remarkable longevity, but the game is no longer fit for new players. In concentrating on endgame activity, the designers have (perhaps deliberately) caused the social architectures around low-level play to vanish. Where new players once experienced a rich world of social value, economics and interaction, they are now left with a mere game of player against environment.

Digital environments undergo an ageing process more aggressive than mere erosion. This ageing is not caused by the degradation of the environment, which stays as faithfully preserved as at its creation. Instead, the value of our digital worlds is eroded by relative decrepitude. Our games, our websites, our interfaces are soon rendered obsolete by more fully-realised alternatives. Final Fantasy XI loses to Final Fantasy XIV. MySpace loses to Facebook. The lure of the new feature set, the redesign, the higher polygon count is hard to resist. The death of our digital environments—websites, MMOs, operating systems—is inevitable. Entropy always wins.

Perhaps nostalgic sentimentality has no place in our futurist outlook, but in our eagerness to create the new we should consider the human experiences that lie within the walls of our antiquated structures. Designing to conserve experience, perhaps, is the digital industry’s sustainability challenge.

See also: James Bridle—The Value of Ruins at dConstruct 2010.

Cennydd Bowles