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Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Thursday, July 14th, 2022

Food Timeline: food history research service

The history of humanity in food and recipes.

The timeline of this website is equally impressive—it’s been going since 1999!

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

10 Years of Meteor

While I’ve always been bothered by the downsides of SPAs, I always thought the gap would be bridged sooner or later, and that performance concerns would eventually vanish thanks to things like code splitting, tree shaking, or SSR. But ten years later, many of these issues remain. Many SPA bundles are still bloated with too many dependencies, hydration is still slow, and content is still duplicated in memory on the client even if it already lives in the DOM.

Yet something might be changing: for whatever reason, it feels like people are finally starting to take note and ask why things have to be this way.

Interesting to see a decade-long perspective. I especially like how Sacha revisits and reasseses design principles from ten years ago:

  1. Data on the Wire. Don’t send HTML over the network. Send data and let the client decide how to render it.

Verdict: 👎

It’s since become apparent that you often do need to send HTML over the network, and things seem to be moving back towards handling as much as possible of your HTML compilation on the server, not on the client.

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Even more UX London speaker updates

I’ve added five more faces to the UX London line-up.

Irina Rusakova will be giving a talk on day one, the day that focuses on research. Her talk on designing with the autistic community is one I’m really looking forward to.

Also on day one, my friend and former Clearleftie Cennydd Bowles will be giving a workshop called “What could go wrong?” He literally wrote the book on ethical design.

Day two is all about creation. My co-worker Chris How will be speaking. “Nepotism!” you cry! But no, Chris is speaking because I had the chance to his talk—called “Unexpectedly obvious”—and I thought “that’s perfect for UX London!”:

Let him take you on a journey through time and across the globe sharing stories of designs that solve problems in elegant if unusual ways.

Also on day two, you’ve got two additional workshops. Lou Downe will be running a workshop on designing good services, and Giles Turnbull will be running a workshop called “Writing for people who hate writing.”

I love that title! Usually when I contact speakers I don’t necessarily have a specific talk or workshop in mind, but I knew that I wanted that particular workshop from Giles.

When I wrote to Giles to ask come and speak, I began by telling how much I enjoy his blog—I’m a long-time suscriber to his RSS feed. He responded and said that he also reads my blog—we’re blog buddies! (That’s a terrible term but there should be a word for people who “know” each other only through reading each other’s websites.)

Anyway, that’s another little treasure trove of speakers added to the UX London roster:

That’s nineteen speakers already and we’re not done yet—expect further speaker announcements soon. But don’t wait on those announcements before getting your ticket. Get yours now!

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

More UX London speaker updates

It wasn’t that long ago that I told you about some of the speakers that have been added to the line-up for UX London in June: Steph Troeth, Heldiney Pereira, Lauren Pope, Laura Yarrow, and Inayaili León. Well, now I’ve got another five speakers to tell you about!

Aleks Melnikova will be giving a workshop on day one, June 28th—that’s the day with a focus on research.

Stephanie Marsh—who literally wrote the book on user research—will also be giving a workshop that day.

Before those workshops though, you’ll get to hear a talk from the one and only Kat Zhou, the creator of Design Ethically. By the way, you can hear Kat talking about deceptive design in a BBC radio documentary.

Day two has a focus on content design so who better to deliver a workshop than Sarah Winters, author of the Content Design book.

Finally, on day three—with its focus on design systems—I’m thrilled to announce that Adekunle Oduye will be giving a talk. He too is an author. He co-wrote the Design Engineering Handbook. I also had the pleasure of talking to Adekunle for an episode of the Clearleft podcast on design engineering.

So that’s another five excellent speakers added to the line-up:

That’s a total of fifteen speakers so far with more on the way. And I’ll be updating the site with more in-depth descriptions of the talks and workshops soon.

If you haven’t yet got your ticket for UX London, grab one now. You can buy tickets for individual days, or to get the full experience and the most value, get a ticket for all three days.

Monday, April 18th, 2022

Shame. – Dirty Feed

Deleting your old thoughts may be giving your older self a kick they really don’t deserve. And the beauty of having an archive is that you don’t need to decide whether you were right or not. Your views, with a date attached, can stand as a reflection of a specific moment in time.

Reconciling every past view you’ve ever had with how you feel now isn’t required. It sounds exhausting, frankly.

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

UX London speaker updates

If you’ve signed up to the UX London newsletter then this won’t be news to you, but more speakers have been added to the line-up.

Steph Troeth will be giving a workshop on day one. That’s the day with a strong focus on research, and when it comes to design research, Steph is unbeatable. You can hear some of her words of wisdom in an episode of the Clearleft podcast all about design research.

Heldiney Pereira will be speaking on day two. That’s the day with a focus on content design. Heldiney previously spoke at our Content By Design event and it was terrific—his perspective on content design as a product designer is invaluable.

Lauren Pope will also be on day two. She’ll be giving a workshop. She recently launched a really useful content audit toolkit and she’ll be bringing that expertise to her UX London workshop.

Day three is going to have a focus on design systems (and associated disciplines like design engineering and design ops). Both Laura Yarrow and Inayaili León will be giving talks on that day. You can expect some exciting war stories from the design system trenches of HM Land Registry and GitHub.

I’ve got some more speakers confirmed but I’m going to be a tease and make you wait a little longer for those names. But check out the line-up so far! This going to be such an excellent event (I know I’m biased, but really, look at that line-up!).

June 28th to 30th. Tobacco Dock, London. Get your ticket if you haven’t already.

Monday, April 4th, 2022

The Unintended Consequences of China Leapfrogging to Mobile Internet · Yiqin Fu

Imagine a world without hyperlinks or search:

Take WeChat as an example. It is home to the vast majority of China’s original writing, and yet:

  1. It doesn’t allow any external links;
  2. Its posts are not indexed by search engines such as Google or Baidu, and its own search engine is practically useless;
  3. You can’t check the author’s other posts if open the page outside of the WeChat app. In other words, each WeChat article is an orphan, not linked to anything else on the Internet, not even the author’s previous work.

Search engine indexing is key to content discovery in the knowledge creation domain, but in a mobile-first world, it is extremely difficult to pull content across the walled gardens, whether or not there is a profit incentive to do so.

Again, the issue here is not censorship. Had China relaxed its speech restrictions, a search start-up would’ve faced the same level of resistance from content platforms when trying to index their content, and content platforms would’ve been equally reluctant to create their own search engines, as they could serve ads and profit without a functional search engine.

Sunday, March 13th, 2022

Building a Digital Homestead, Bit by Brick

A personal site, or a blog, is more than just a collection of writing. It’s a kind of place - something that feels like home among the streams. Home is a very strong mental model.

Monday, February 28th, 2022

A Long Bet on Link Rot is Resolved, but Questions About the Durability of the Web Still Remain - Long Now

The Long Now foundation has a write-up on my recently-lost long bet:

On February 22, 02011, Jeremy Keith made a prediction that he hoped would be proven wrong.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Curating UX London 2022

The first speakers are live on the UX London 2022 site! There are only five people announced for now—just enough to give you a flavour of what to expect. There will be many, many more.

Putting together the line-up of a three-day event is quite challenging, but kind of fun too. On the one hand, each day should be able to stand alone. After all, there are one-day tickets available. On the other hand, it should feel like one cohesive conference, not three separate events.

I’ve decided to structure the three days to somewhat mimic the design process…

The first day is all about planning and preparation. This is like the first diamond in the double-diamond process: building the right thing. That means plenty of emphasis on research.

The second day is about creation and execution. It’s like that second diamond: building the thing right. This could cover potentially everything but this year the focus will be on content design.

The third day is like the third diamond in the double dia— no, wait. The third day is about growing, scaling, and maintaining design. That means there’ll be quite an emphasis on topics like design systems and design engineering, maybe design ops.

But none of the days will be exclusively about a single topic. There are evergreen topics that apply throughout the process: product design, design ethics, inclusive design.

It’s a lot to juggle! But I’m managing to overcome choice paralysis and assemble a very exciting line-up indeed. Trust me—you won’t want to miss this!

Early bird tickets are available until February 28th. That’s just a few days away. I recommend getting your tickets now—you won’t regret it!

Quite a few people are bringing their entire teams, which is perfect. UX London can be both an educational experience and a team-bonding exercise. Let’s face it, it’s been too long since any of us have had a good off-site.

If you’re one of those lucky people who’s coming along (or if you’re planning to), I’m curious: given the themes mentioned above, are there specific topics that you’d hope to see covered? Drop me a line and let me know.

Also, if you read the description of the event and think “Oh, I know the perfect speaker!” then I’d love to hear from you. Maybe that speaker is you. (Although, cards on the table; if you look like me—another middle-age white man—I may take some convincing.)

Right. Time to get back to my crazy wall of conference curation.

Tuesday, February 22nd, 2022

02022-02-22

Eleven years ago, I made a prediction:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

One year later, Matt called me on it and the prediction officially became a bet:

We’re playing for $1000. If I win, that money goes to the Bletchley Park Trust. If Matt wins, it goes to The Internet Archive.

I’m very happy to lose this bet.

When I made the original prediction eleven years ago that a URL on the longbets.org site would no longer be available, I did so in a spirit of mischief—it was a deliberately meta move. But it was also informed by a genuine feeling of pessimism around the longevity of links on the web. While that pessimism was misplaced in this case, it was informed by data.

The lifetime of a URL on the web remains shockingly short. What I think has changed in the intervening years is that people may have become more accustomed to the situation. People used to say “once something is online it’s there forever!”, which infuriated me because the real problem is the exact opposite: if you put something online, you have to put in real effort to keep it online. After all, we don’t really buy domain names; we just rent them. And if you publish on somebody else’s domain, you’re at their mercy: Geocities, MySpace, Facebook, Medium, Twitter.

These days my view towards the longevity of online content has landed somewhere in the middle of the two dangers. There’s a kind of Murphy’s Law around data online: anything that you hope will stick around will probably disappear and anything that you hope will disappear will probably stick around.

One huge change in the last eleven years that I didn’t anticipate is the migration of websites to HTTPS. The original URL of the prediction used HTTP. I’m glad to see that original URL now redirects to a more secure protocol. Just like most of the World Wide Web. I think we can thank Let’s Encrypt for that. But I think we can also thank Edward Snowden. We are no longer as innocent as we were eleven years ago.

I think if I could tell my past self that most of the web would using HTTPS by 2022, my past self would be very surprised …’though not as surprised at discovering that time travel had also apparently been invented.

The Internet Archive has also been a game-changer for digital preservation. While it’s less than ideal that something isn’t reachable at its original URL, knowing that there’s probably a copy of the content at archive.org lessens the sting considerably. I couldn’t be happier that this fine institution is the recipient of the stakes of this bet.

A Long Bet Pays Off - Internet Archive Blogs

The bet was been won (not by me, thankfully) and Jason has some thoughts.

Thursday, February 3rd, 2022

When Women Make Headlines

This is a great combination of rigorous research and great data visualisation.

Tuesday, January 4th, 2022

The UI fund

This is an excellent initiate spearheaded by Nicole and Sarah at Google! They want to fund research into important web UI work: accessibility, form controls, layout, and so on. If that sounds like something you’ve always wanted to do, but lacked the means, fill in the form.

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

Kagi Search

A new search engine (and browser!) that will have a paid business model.

Between this and Duck Duck Go, there’s evidence of an increasing appetite for alternatives to Google’s increasingly-more-rubbish search engine.

Thursday, December 2nd, 2021

Townscaper

Now you can play a demo of Townscaper right in your browser.

There goes your productivity.

Wednesday, November 17th, 2021

Priority of design inputs

As you may already know, I’m a nerd for design principles. I collect them. I did a podcast episode on them. I even have a favourite design principle. It’s from the HTML design principles. The priority of constituencies:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

It’s all about priorities, see?

Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.

Jason is also a fan of the priority of constituencies. He recently wrote about applying it to design systems and came up with this:

User needs come before the needs of component consumers, which come before the needs of component developers, which come before the needs of the design system team, which come before theoretical purity.

That got me thinking about how this framing could be applied to other areas, like design.

Designers are used to juggling different needs (or constituencies); user needs, business needs, and so on. But what I’m interested in is how designers weigh up different inputs into the design process.

The obvious inputs are the insights you get from research. But even that can be divided into different categories. There’s qualitative research (talking to people) and qualitative research (sifting through numbers). Which gets higher priority?

There are other inputs too. Take best practices. If there’s a tried and tested solution to a problem, should that take priority over something new and untested? Maybe another way of phrasing it is to call it experience (whether that’s the designer’s own experience or the collective experience of the industry).

And though we might not like to acknowledge it because it doesn’t sound very scientific, gut instinct is another input into the design process. Although maybe that’s also related to experience.

Finally, how do you prioritise stakeholder wishes? What do you do if the client or the boss wants something that conflicts with user needs?

I could imagine a priority of design inputs that looks like this:

Qualitative research over quantitative research over stakeholder wishes over best practices over gut instinct.

But that could change over time. Maybe an experienced designer can put their gut instinct higher in the list, overruling best practices and stakeholder wishes …and maybe even some research insights? I don’t know.

I’ve talked before about how design principles should be reversible in a different context. The original priority of constituencies, for example, applies to HTML. But if you were to invert it, it would work for XML. Different projects have different priorities.

I could certainly imagine company cultures where stakeholder wishes take top billing. There are definitely companies that value qualitative research (data and analytics) above qualitative research (user interviews), and vice-versa.

Is a priority of design inputs something that should change from project to project? If so, maybe it would be good to hammer it out in the discovery phase so everyone’s on the same page.

Anyway, I’m just thinking out loud here. This is something I should chat more about with my colleagues to get their take.

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

Winnie Lim » this website as a learning and reflection tool

I love reading about how—and why—people tinker with their personal sites. This resonates a lot.

This website is essentially a repository of my memories, lessons I’ve learnt, insights I’ve discovered, a changelog of my previous selves. Most people build a map of things they have learnt, I am building a map of how I have come to be, in case I may get lost again. Maybe someone else interested in a similar lonely path will feel less alone with my documented footprints. Maybe that someone else would be me in the future.

Oh, and Winnie, I can testify that having an “on this day” page is well worth it!

Saturday, October 2nd, 2021

Wayforward Machine • Visit the future of the internet

This speculative version of the internet archive invites you to see how websites will look in 2046.