Links and articles about technology, design, and sociology. Written by Rian van der Merwe.

Email signoffs: the end is (hopefully) near

I know there are more important things in the world to get annoyed with, but I completely agree with Matthew J.X. Malady’s rant about email signoffs:

After 10 or 15 more “Regards” of varying magnitudes, I could take no more. I finally realized the ridiculousness of spending even one second thinking about the totally unnecessary words that we tack on to the end of emails. And I came to the following conclusion: It’s time to eliminate email signoffs completely. Henceforth, I do not want—nay, I will not accept—any manner of regards. Nor will I offer any. And I urge you to do the same.

And while I’m complaining about things that shouldn’t bother me, is there a way to make airlines stop telling us to “disembark the plane” instead of just asking us to get off the thing? Here’s an idea: the next time an airline announcer asks you to “commence boarding procedures”, launch into the following speech:

Research process: note-taking for one

The ideal situation for any qualitative research project is for the facilitator to rely on someone else to take notes. That way the facilitator can focus all their attention on the participant. This holds true for contextual inquiries, in-depth interviews (IDIs), as well as usability tests. However, sometimes it’s just not possible to have a separate note-taker on a project. In those cases the interviewer has to take their own notes — but that can be distracting and terribly inefficient.

So, what’s the best way to be your own note-taker?

I’ve seen interviewers taking their own notes in a variety of ways, but the inherent flaws in each approach has always made me uncomfortable. Some interviewers use their laptops to make notes while the interview is going on. This is very efficient (there’s no transcribing afterwards), but the clicking of the keyboard can be distracting and off-putting to the participant.

Others print out their interview scripts, and leave blank spaces for writing notes about each question. The problem here is that scripts are fluid. You sometimes skip over questions, while other times you go off on an important tangent that isn’t covered in the script. So you tend to end up with empty spaces and cramped notes, all spanning multiple pages. Not ideal.

I am currently working on a project to make it easier for talk radio producers to do their jobs. As a first phase we’re doing a bunch of IDIs with producers — and I have to take my own notes. So I decided to try a new approach, and I like it so far.

I started the project with a long, free-form interview with one of the project leads to develop a generic user journey for producers. I looked for common elements that remain constant regardless of the process each producer might use to perform their tasks, and used that to build a basic journey model for talk radio production. It’s not a full-on journey map, just a list of steps that all producers have to complete when they put on a show.

I then created an A3 sheet (6.5 x 11.7 in) for each interview, consisting of the participant’s name, time slot, and the headings for each of the steps in the journey. While conducting the interview I filled out any insights that came out for each of the steps — as we worked our way through the script. Here’s an example of what a sheet looked like after an interview:

Note taking for one

I discovered that this approach has several advantages over other note-taking methods I’ve tried:

  • It’s script-agnostic. The interview questions address each of the steps in the journey, but I don’t have to stick to it religiously — it’s ok to jump around and make notes in a different column if needed.
  • Everything is on one page. This not only makes note-taking more efficient, but it’s also going to make the analysis phase easier. I’ll be able to lay out the sheets on a table and see all the data in one place as I start the affinity diagram process.
  • It makes me a better listener. I was worried that the note-taking would be distracting to participants, but I found the opposite to be true. By taking notes while we talk (and looking them in the eyes when I’m not writing), participants could tell that I’m really listening to them — not just pretending. And this made for much better interviews.

I’m sure this method of note-taking isn’t perfect, but I’m quite happy with how it turned out. Please let me know if you have any suggestions to improved this process — or if you have a different method that works well for you.

On careers and parenting

I never used to like interview articles — I felt they lacked substance. Too much backstory, not enough useful information to help me do my job better. But over the past few years I’ve realised the error of my ways. It became clear that by getting to know the people who make the things we use every day, we keep being reminded that we’re defined by more than the jobs we do. And we find that we have more in common with people than we might think.

This week I read two great interviews with designers I’ve admired for a long time. The Great Discontent interviewed Trent Walton, and Industry Web Conference interviewed Josh Brewer. Both interviews are worth reading all the way through, but I want to mention something specific that stood out for me.

Once you become a parent you start looking at everything through that lens — from grocery shopping to restaurant menus to the work you decide to devote your life to. There’s no getting around it. Non-parents usually find it annoying, while fellow parents are drawn to each other and can’t help but discuss how the parenting lens affects every single decision they make every day.

So, my favourite parts of these two interviews were their reflections on parenting. Here’s Trent:

It’s insanity [at work] until 5pm and then I go back inside and it’s all hands on deck. I’m feeding the kids, changing diapers, reading books, and bathing them—I love it because there’s no time to answer email or think about anything work related. It’s a really great transition for me. What I would have thought I would see as a pain in the ass is the best part of my day and it helps me to shift gears.

And here’s Josh, saying something similar:

Keeping things in balance was (and is) a constant challenge and something that my wife and I work hard at. I tried to be home in time for dinner and reading to my daughter and tucking her into bed. Weekends were definitely reserved for family time. I was lucky enough to walk to and from work which gave me a little time to decompress.

It’s hard to explain how comforting it is to read those paragraphs. To realise that these extremely successful designers — people I look up to and learn from every day — generally don’t work 12 hours a day. They work hard, of course, but as any parent knows, 5:30pm – 7:30pm is chaos. And the people we look up to aren’t immune to that. They don’t have superpowers that allow them to fly through that time, and the ones I really admire don’t push those responsibilities to their partners or someone else. They show up, every day, and they pursue the challenges of being a parent with every bit of passion that they throw into their design work.

This is really obvious stuff, I know, but I also think (hope?) I’m not alone in the struggle to find a balance between pursuing my career goals and learning to become a good parent. So reading Trent and Josh’s stories gave me comfort that it is possible to excel at what you do without losing your soul to your work.

And that’s why I like interview articles.

Twitter as river, RSS as filing cabinet

Cap Watkins is switching from RSS to Twitter, and so far he is very happy:

Now that I’ve started using Twitter for feeds, I’m unlikely to ever go back. The ease of sharing, Favoriting, Retweeting, sending to Instapaper, etc. not only match, but at times surpass even Reeder in terms of ease and simplicity. One less app to deal with is a win, not to mention that the links are ordered exactly as I like them (and holy crap, Tweetbot iCloud sync. So good).

Cap goes over the pros and cons of his decision, but I think there’s one major con that he left out: Twitter is a river, RSS is a filing cabinet. Ok, I apologize for the mixed metaphor, but hear me out.

Twitter updates flow by you in a never-ending stream of links. This means that if you choose to follow RSS feeds in this way, all the separate article feeds flow into that one river, and there’s no stopping it. If you happen to be offline for a day or two, it’s extremely likely that you’ll miss an update from an infrequently-updated website you love.

With RSS, that problem doesn’t exist. Since article feeds are separate, there isn’t one giant river (you can choose to view “All feeds” in most readers, but that’s optional). So, I just open the filing cabinet whenever I want, and I can immediately see how many updates my favourite sites have received. I can decide to nuke the unread counts on a site with 50 new items. I can seek out the content I really want. I don’t have to worry that the river will keep flowing and I’ll miss the boat completely (ok, now I’ve really killed this metaphor).

So, although I agree with the pros Cap highlights in his post, and I’m glad he found a reading flow that works for him, I’m not ready to give up RSS. It’s still my favorite way to discover good content.

Flexibility and feedback during the design process

In A More Flexible Workflow Dennis Kardys describes an all-too-familiar design process problem in agencies:

In theory the design assembly line made us extremely efficient. Design documents were handed off like batons from one team member to the next as projects moved through stages. The reality however, is that projects would often get held up as clients mulled over wireframes or fought for consensus within their organization. […] In a nutshell, there was too much talking and too little testing.

Dennis goes on to describe how they’ve successfully changed their workflow to incorporate interactive prototypes and frequent customer feedback. These aren’t new ideas, of course, but it’s great to see it from an agency perspective, where these flexible workflows can be much harder to implement.

Sticking with the design process theme, Tuhin Kumar wrote a good post about matching the type of critique a project requires to the design phase that project is currently in. From Feedback & Fidelity in Design:

Momentum is one of the best things for any product design process. It helps you from straying around the wrong path, or losing your core vision, or trying to solve too many things in the first release. […] Asking the wrong questions at the wrong fidelity or giving the wrong feedback kills momentum like nothing else.

Tuhin defines some different phases of the design process, and recommends the right questions to ask during each. Both these articles give some great tips to improve your design workflow.

[Sponsor] Xero — Your numbers never looked so beautiful

I’d like to thank Xero for sponsoring Elezea’s RSS feed this week.

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Sponsorship by The Syndicate.

The value of exposing kids to technology

About a year ago I wrote an article for Smashing Magazine called A Dad’s Plea To Developers Of iPad Apps For Children. It was generally well received, but some of the comments were inevitably judgemental about parents who let their kids use iPads.

With that as backdrop, I really enjoyed Gary Marshall’s post Don’t fear your kids’ tech tantrums. He starts by making this point:

Let’s start by separating the “lazy parent” argument from the “kids shouldn’t have devices” argument. You can be a good parent and let your kids play on the iPad, and you can be a bad parent with a house full of encyclopaedias.

Gary’s main point is that giving kids appropriate exposure to technology — as part of a wider mix of non-tech activities — is essential to help prepare them for the digitally-focused world they are growing up in:

These are all valuable skills, critical skills, and the older she gets and the more tech-saturated the world becomes the more important digital literacy will become. I want my daughter to be ready for that world, not to be afraid of it or to be manipulated by it.

So thank you, Gary. I feel a little bit better about those comments now.

Why the Google Reader shutdown matters

I was going to write about the Google Reader shutdown but Brent Simmons beat me to the argument I was going to make. In Why I love RSS and You Do Too he sums up why we should all care about Google Reader’s demise:

Even if you don’t use an RSS reader, you still use RSS. If you subscribe to any podcasts, you use RSS. Flipboard and Twitter are RSS readers, even if it’s not obvious and they do other things besides. Lots of apps on the various app stores use RSS in at least some way. […] And those people you follow on Twitter who post interesting links? They often get those links from their RSS reader. One way or another, directly or indirectly, you use RSS. Without RSS all we’d have is pictures of cats and breakfast.

Killing Google Reader doesn’t kill RSS, for sure, but it’s such a big part of the ecosystem that we should be concerned about the health of the platform. From the perspective of a guy with a blog this is pretty depressing news. RSS subscribers are extremely difficult to grow, but they are, by far, the best kind of readers. I’ve written about this before, but to reiterate: they’re loyal, they read almost everything, and they share your stuff. It’s the best way to build an audience. Hunter Walk makes this point succinctly:

But Scott Stein has perhaps the best TL;DR version of the whole debacle:

So, what now? For a bit of nostalgia, Buzzfeed has a great history of Google Reader. It’s a fascinating story, worth reading. And then, Om Malik has an interview with the original creator of Google Reader. Once you’re done grieving and ready to move on, Lifehacker has a very comprehensive post on the alternatives.

NoUI, YesUI, and appropriate visbility

Frank Chimero has a great follow-up to Tino Arnall’s excellent post No to NoUI. In The Cloud is Heavy and Design Isn’t Invisible Frank explores what’s appropriate (and what’s not) about using “The Cloud” as a metaphor, and then he makes a great point about the Invisible Design trend:

Sometimes I wonder if the desire to obfuscate production and make the resulting design invisible or seamless to users diminishes their appreciation for the craft of building systems. I think there’s a strong likelihood that metaphors like “The Cloud” and sayings like “It Just Works™” reduce a user’s appreciation of the software/hardware they are using. “Magic” is a great word for selling product, but it also can cheapen all the sweat it takes to get there. If the seams have been covered, you can’t admire how things connect.

I completely agree with Frank on this. As I’ve mentioned before, I think our goal shouldn’t be NoUI (or YesUI or AlwaysUI or whatever we want to label the other extreme). Our goal should be appropriate visibility.

Engineered to be vaguely dissatisfied

Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed is a punch-in-the-gut piece by David Cain. Consider this paragraph:

We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have. We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.

Feeling indignant that he would insinuate that you of all people have been indoctrinated by a consumerist culture? Before you close your laptop in disgust, hear the man out. Haters gonna make some good points sometimes…