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

The rise of massive open online courses

Nicholas Carr wrote an excellent, balanced article on the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs1) like Coursera and Udacity, and the complex data mining required to make it work. From The Crisis in Higher Education:

The advances in tutoring programs promise to help many college, high-school, and even elementary students master basic concepts. One-on-one instruction has long been known to provide substantial educational benefits, but its high cost has constrained its use, particularly in public schools. It’s likely that if computers are used in place of teachers, many more students will be able to enjoy the benefits of tutoring. According to one recent study of undergraduates taking statistics courses at public universities, the latest of the online tutoring systems seem to produce roughly the same results as face-to-
face instruction.

This is some really in-depth reporting, and it’s not all sunshine and roses. Nicholas went out of his way to seek out and report on legitimate counterarguments to this movement as well.


  1. Yes, really. 

We’re stupid and we don’t know it: a history

I’ve long been fascinated by the Dunning–Kruger effect and its distant cousin the Peter Principle. If you haven’t heard of these theories yet, I recommend you don’t read about it at bedtime if you value sleep. This is the kind of thing that keeps you up for days as you try to figure out how it applies to everything you’ve ever done.

Dunning-Kruger basically states that people who are incompetent don’t realise that they’re incompetent, because they lack the competence to figure it out. That’s really scary stuff.

Anyway, in June 2010 Errol Morris conducted an interview with David Dunning, and it’s a fascinating read. Among other things, Dunning gives more background about the research they did, and also goes into detail on the idea of “unknown unknowns”, that scary realm of not knowing what you don’t know. From The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is:

Unknown unknown solutions haunt the mediocre without their knowledge. The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects. The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered. The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there. People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.

This is a five-part series, and I’ve only read part 1, but I’m really looking forward to digging into the rest of the series. If you have an interest in human behavior, and you’re not scared of freaking yourself out a bit, this is highly recommended reading.

(link via @berkun)

How to clarify confusing behaviors in apps like Twitter and Instagram

Most successful applications do a good job of onboarding users to teach them how the basics work. After that, good applications also make it easy to learn more advanced features simply through repeated use. You might make a wrong turn once, but if the application corrects your course, you never make that mistake again.

But sometimes there are features that fall between the cracks of onboarding and self-learning. It usually happens when there is some unique behavior in the app that is not only presumed to be commonly known by all users in the community, but is also small enough so that it’s not worth making a big deal out of during new user onboarding.

I recently thought of two such examples that I wanted to share, along with some suggestions for addressing the issue.

Twitter mentions

First, there is the issue of Twitter mentions. I still see people who I know have been on Twitter for years, who don’t know that if they start a tweet with “@”, not all their followers will see it. This information is buried deep in Twitter’s Help section, where I’m guessing very few people venture to. From Types of Tweets and Where They Appear:

Users will see @replies in their Home timeline if they are following both the sender and recipient of the update. Otherwise, they won’t see the @reply unless they visit the sender’s Profile page. 

This is fairly clear, but if you don’t think about this as an issue, you won’t know to ask the question, so it’s not information you’re likely to seek out.

Instagram replies

Second, there is replying to comments in Instagram, which I’m sure trips up quite a few people. If you comment on one of my photos in Instagram, I will get a notification. But if I respond to your comment without including your @username, you won’t get a notification. This is not how it works on Facebook, where you get notified of five comments after the one you posted1. Instagram does have an easy way to reply to people with their usernames, but it’s a slide gesture I discovered by accident:

Instagram replies

So the easiest way to reply to someone is to slide from left to right on their comment, then tap on the arrow. Or you can start the comment with an @, which will then autocomplete the name as you type. But it’s not something they tell you about explicitly. It’s also, again, not information most people will seek out actively, since they’re getting notifications for each comment on their own photos, so why worry?

A proposal

My proposed solution for this type of situation is fairly simple. In the case of features that don’t behave as people expect them to, show a lightbox-type message to explain how it works just one time — the first time they perform the action. For example, the first time a user sends a tweet that starts with an @, show a message to explain who will see it. And the first time a user comments on one of their own photos in Instagram, show a message that explains when people get app notifications.

These are small but important details, especially for social services where understanding exactly what happens when you hit “Post” is essential to the enjoyment of the app.

Related post from the Elezea archive: Best practices for user onboarding on mobile touchscreen applications.


  1. I think it’s five. But I’m not 100% sure. Come to think of it, it’s probably a good example of this type of confusing behavior as well. 

Cell phone culture all over the world

Naomi Canton’s Cell phone culture: How cultural differences affect mobile use is a fascinating article by itself, but the videos and photo slide show really drive home how ubiquitous mobile phones have become all over the world. For example, here are some interviews with cell phone users in Kenya:

Direct link to video on CNN

To be creative, your most important tool is utter concentration

Mark Helprin offers up some great advice to writers in Skip the Paris Cafés And Get a Good Pen, but it’s advice that works just as well for all creative pursuits:

Your most important tools will be your honesty, labor, courage, practice, luck and utter concentration. […] More valuable than speed or being struck by what you think is lightning (and others usually do not) is concentration. When asked how he managed to come up with the calculus, surely one of the greatest achievements possible for the mortal mind, Newton replied, “I thought of nothing else.”

I love the writing style in this piece. For example, while expanding on his advice not to try to be Hemingway by writing in cafés all over Europe:

Literary skill, much less greatness, cannot be had with a pose, and exhibitionism extorts the price of failure. Also, have pity on the weary Parisians who have wanted only a citron pressé but have been unable to find a café where every single seat is not occupied by an American publicly carrying on a torrid affair with his moleskin.

When I grow up, I want to write like that.

Small but significant usability sins that websites should never commit

I spent the past two days running usability tests on websites that sell financial products like life cover, funeral policies, and annuities. The target market is lower-income users who access the Internet at least once a day on a desktop at home or work, or on their phones. They are, for the most part, tech literate, and very used to finding their way around the Internet. I wanted to document some of the more general findings while we’re knee-deep in analysis and everything is still fresh.

What follows is a list of interaction design elements that I believe should never, ever be used on a website. They might seem like small issues, but I’ve seen time and again how small things add up, and eventually end with frustrated users who abandon a site altogether. Also, if you’re tempted to think that your users are different and somehow more sophisticated than the ones we tested, please consider the growing digital usability divide.

So, here it is — an incomplete, top-of-mind list of usability sins your website should never commit, based on data gathered through in-person usability testing:

  • Don’t use an asterisk (*) to mark required form fields — especially if there is no explanation of what the asterisk means. Most users do not understand this at all. Instead, state that all fields are required unless indicated otherwise, and then mark optional fields with the word (optional). By the way, Luke agrees with me on this one.
  • Don’t open links in new browser tabs. Tabbed browsing is for advanced users. If you open a page in a new tab, most users will get lost, start clicking the back button, and then not understand why they can’t get back to where they started. Remember that they’re not focused on the chrome when they click a link, they’re focused on where they’re clicking. So it’s very easy to miss the fact that a new tab has opened.
  • Don’t have an FAQ page. Most users don’t know what FAQ stands for, and besides, it’s bad practice to answer questions outside the context people want to ask them in. Figure out where in the process each question in your FAQ might come up, and provide the answer right there within the flow. Don’t expect people to click to a different page to find the information they need.
  • Don’t use PDFs at all (unless you’re explicitly stating that it’s a downloadable research paper or something). Many users have no idea what a PDF is, and can’t even tell when they’ve clicked on one. There’s no reason to have your rates/menus/timetables as a PDF as opposed to standard text. This was a recurring theme, but one user in particular clicked on a PDF, didn’t realize it, and continued interacting with it as if they were still on the website.
  • Don’t give table rows highlighting mouse-overs if the rows aren’t clickable. This confuses users. Any mouse-over movement gives users a trigger that they can click on the thing. Don’t think they’ll look at the cursor and distinguish between an arrow and a hand — most don’t look past the hover effect.

This is obviously a fairly random list of UI transgressions, but I feel like we talk about the big issues so often that we tend to skim over the smaller ones that can really add up. If you were observing the usability tests we ran this week, you would have felt the same way I did when you saw person after person struggling with the most standard of UI conventions. Let’s just not do these things, for the love of the web and everyone who uses it.

Dealing with subjective design feedback from clients

I really like Mike Monteiro’s “Dear Design Student” series on the Mule Design blog. The latest entry gives advice on how to deal with clients who say things like “I hate green!”:

When a client says, “I don’t like green”, most designers translate the sentence into “You must change the green.” But no one asked you to, did they? They merely made a statement about their subjective dislike of a particular color. Your job, as a designer, is first and foremost to listen. And then to gather data. Don’t jump the gun. How, if at all, does the client’s subjective taste enter into the success of the project?

He proceeds to give some good advice about how to figure out what the real problem is that the client is commenting on (if there is one).

(My other favorite post in the series is I want to start a company right out of school!)

Quote: Thomas Kempis on considering ourselves better designers than others (ca. 1420s)

Thomas Kempis in The Inner Life:

A true understanding and humble estimate of oneself is the highest and most valuable of all lessons. Should you see another person openly doing evil, or carrying out a wicked purpose, [or launch a really bad website/app], do not on that account consider yourself better than him, for you cannot tell how long you will remain in a state of grace. We are all frail; consider none more frail than yourself.

Startup growth is ok, career happiness is better

If you’re at a company where the next step up the ladder means managing people more than managing the quality of the design the company is producing, get the hell out of there. There’s way too much design to be done to be losing good people to idiotic corporate structures that take our best designers out of commission.

– Mike Monteiro, Design Is a Job

Those are some harsh words from Mike. But it’s a topic I’ve been thinking about quite a bit. I’ve now spent about an equal number of years at small companies as I have at big companies. And I’ve come up with a theory that I probably shouldn’t even write about yet, because I might be wrong. But in the spirit of thinking out loud, here goes — as long as you know I’m open to being convinced otherwise.

My theory is that as soon as a company grows to a size where the people who make the strategic decisions aren’t the same people who actively work on making the product, it becomes very hard for that company to continue to serve the needs of its customers. Not impossible, just much harder. We recently did some work with a startup where the founders are also the people who write all the code for their product. They were passionate, engaged, ego-less, and interested in only one thing: how to make their product better for customers.

But in bigger companies, what often happens is that once you enter the management career path, priorities start to change. You need to learn how to play the game so that you don’t become irrelevant. You need to watch your back. You need to figure out how HR works so that you can get to the next step on the ladder. Directors need to know how to become VPs. VPs need to know how to becomes Senior VPs. Senior VPs need to know if there is any growth left for them. And sooner or later, you spend so much time caught up in the politics of the organization that there is simply no room left to worry about customers.

I am not saying that all managers are like this — I have been in these situations myself, and I know how difficult it can be to stay sane, and I know many people who are managing the pressures extremely well. But it doesn’t help that we tend to measure business success by the size of a company, and personal success by the seniority of people’s roles within that company. In his much-praised post Startup = Growth, Paul Graham said the following:

Eventually a successful startup will grow into a big company.

Mark Suster responds to this particular idea in a very interesting post called Is Going for Rapid Growth Always Good? Aren’t Startups So Much More?:

Some entrepreneurs can make a dent in a smaller world. […] It’s ok to build a company that stays small, has a few million dollars in revenue and builds careers, bank accounts and enriches client experiences.

A poster child for this kind of startup is 37signals, whose CEO Jason Fried has repeatedly stated that they deliberately stay small. From an interview with Fast Company:

I’m a fan of growing slowly, carefully, methodically, of not getting big just for the sake of getting big. […] There’s a great quote by a guy named Ricardo Semler, author of the book Maverick. He said that only two things grow for the sake of growth: businesses and tumors. We have 35 employees at 37signals. We could have hundreds of employees if we wanted to — our revenues and profits support that — but I think we’d be worse off.

My point is that each of us needs to think carefully about the kind of career we want to have. If the title at a big company is what you’re after, that’s great, but make sure it’s because that’s what you want, not what the system makes you think you want.

But if you find that a company focus on growth is making it harder to make customers happy, or that you’re no longer able to do the things that you love so much that you decided to make a career out of it, it might be time to consider working at a company where the decision-makers and the doers are the same people. You might make less money, but you’ll also be happier.

Good design is good for business

Cliff Kuang has a great article in Fast Company called Why Good Design Is Finally A Bottom Line Investment. He tells a bunch of stories about companies who realized that good design is good for business, and he also covers some of the organizational challenges:

When designers lack influence, superb products become almost impossible. Good designs seldom stay good for very long if they must navigate a gauntlet of corporate approval. That’s because the design process is as much reductive as anything else — figuring out what can be simplified and taken out. Corporate approvals are usually about adding things on to appease internal overseers. When something has been approved by everyone, it may be loved by none.

That last sentence reminds me of the old Seth Godin quote: “Nothing is what happens when everyone has to agree.”