Friday, 5 December 2008

The web is not a sheet of paper

Print-turned-web designers:

  1. Learn the medium you're working in. A five minute video of even the best print advert makes for a lousy TV advert. Likewise, techniques and habits refined by years of print design are often sub-optimal or flatly counter-productive when applied to the web.
  2. For the love of god, give up on pixel-perfect positioning and learn to appreciate flow layout. Sure, it makes design harder... but if you think designing flow layouts is hard, think about the poor schmuck developers who have to implement the damn things. And if you think flow layouts are ugly, let's see how good your precious pixel-perfect design works when I do something freakishly unusual like resize my browser window.
  3. Print pages are Things To Look At. Web sites are Things To Use. Prioritising aesthetics over usability or functionality is like putting a car steering wheel in the middle of the dashboard. Sure it looks nicer, but it makes the whole product useless. Incidentally, I swear if I get one more design through with a "button" image specified but no "pressed button" image (or "link" style but no "active/hover/visited link" style) I will personally bite off your head and defecate into your body-cavity. You have been warned.
  4. Conventions are not boring - conventions are your friend. Putting light-switches near doors is a convention. Sure, putting them square in the middle of the ceiling is innovative, but then so is cheesegrating your knees (hey - do you know anyone who's done it?). Innovative means "nobody else is doing it". Accept the possibility that nobody else is doing it because it's a fucking stupid idea.
  5. I don't want to "explore the interface". I want to get in, do my shit and get out again. If you think forcing users to explore the interface is such a good idea, try ripping the labels off all the cans of food in your cupboard. A couple of meals of cat-food, chilli and peaches should demonstrate exactly how "fun" this is for your users.

PANT, pant, pant... pant... ahem.

Originally via reddit.

Fear, Instincts and the Patented Lightning Test

Our mass-media (meme-propagation system) has increased in efficiency tens or hundreds of times faster than our context-supplying instincts.

We evolved in loose groups of 150-250 individuals. If you heard about someone getting eaten by a tiger then, chances are you should watch out because he was likely only a few hundred metres over that way, so the danger to you was very real.

Then we started to hear about things that happened to someone at the other end of the country, and suddenly it seemed like there were murderers and rapists and nutjobs everywhere, because barely a day went past when we didn't hear of someone getting killed in an inventive or gruesome way.

Now we've got the web, and e-mail, and satellite TV, and blogs, and we hear about it if a mouse farts in Buttfuck, Antarctica. And now it's not even safe to let your kids walk to school for fear of them getting molested, you can't get on an aeroplane for fear it'll be bombed out of the sky, and you can't visit the toilet in your own house without getting abducted and beheaded by terrorists.

The only way to tackle this is by recognising what's going on and overruling your instincts. They served you well ten thousands years ago when you lived in a tree and had to avoid tigers, but now we're living in condos and keep small tigers in the house as pets.

Try my patented Lightning Test: Look up the statistics of whatever the latest mania/terror/panic is about, and only worry about it if it's more likely than… oh… say… getting hit by lightning.

Try terrorism - look up the number of deaths from terrorism each year, then look up the number of people who get hit by lightning.

Now if someone's advocating taking away civil rights because of terrorism, or locking up our children because of paedophiles, you can apply the simple test: Are they also advocating the compulsory wearing of earthed metal hats and rubber gumboots?

If not, then their little pet crusade is clearly disproportionate and can be safely ignored.

This has been a Public Service Announcement from the Lets All Get A Fucking Grip Society. Have a nice day.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Intellectual comparisons involving wood

True story: in UK schools they used to run an extra-credit annual maths test called the Maths Challenge (or something equally imaginative)[1].

The test was a series of 20 maths problems - "a snail climbs up from the bottom of a 10 ft well, moving up five inches every day and slipping back three inches every night. How many days does it take him to escape from the well?" being typical.

You started off with 20 points, scored +5 points for a correct answer, -1 points for a wrong answer and 0 for a question you didn't attempt (so your final score was in the range 0-120).

Pretty much all the kids worked out immediately that this meant you could answer 4 questions you weren't sure of for every question you were, and you'd still end up with at least a few additional points... all except my friend Dan.

Dan ploughed ahead, attempting nearly every question on the paper. When he got his mark back he'd only scored around 15-17. He wasn't too bothered, however, until we realised that he'd scored worse than the 20 points he'd have got if he hadn't answered a single question.

In other words, if the chair he was sat on had taken the test, it would have scored higher than he did.

This is the true story of how my mate Dan was once proven to be dumber than furniture.

(originally posted on reddit)


[1] Awesomely, apparently they still do. Oh, and I got the scoring slightly wrong from memory, but the principle remains the same.

Sunday, 16 November 2008

"Offended" is a choice you make

We'll start with an epiphanette[1] vouchsafed to me by an insightful friend:

Offence can never be given, only taken.

In other words, before you can offend me, I have to allow you to do so.

It's understandable that many people don't realise this - given a strong emotional reaction to a subject, I may instantly feel offended by something someone said. I make no conscious decision, and the only action I perceive is the original statement - it looks like simple cause and effect.

However, the important word is perceive - sure, it looks to me as if my offence was a direct effect of the statement, but that's not actually true.

Offend me. No, really - go on...

Call my mother names. Impugn my political affiliation. Assert things about my sexuality. Go on - post comments or e-mail me, if you like. All of these things can be reliably guaranteed to cause offence to people, but I promise I won't get offended by any of them. How can this be?

It's because I've simply chosen not to take offence at them. This much is obvious, but wait - if a statement is or is not "offensive", how can I choose whether or not to be offended? If "being offended" is a direct consequence of the statement, how can I opt out, and merely decide not to be?

The point here is that being offended is a choice. It might be the default choice - one I usually take automatically, or without even being consciously aware of it - but if I can choose not to be offended, surely that proves the opposite choice (being offended) is also a choice?

If offence can only ever be taken, then the "offensiveness" is your reaction to a statement, not a property of the statement itself. Moreover, it's not even a reaction the speaker can necessarily predict ahead of time - I make a statement, and then you decide whether you're offended by it.

Always remember this fact - every time you are offended, it's because you have chosen to feel that way. The nasty feeling you have is a direct consequence of your choice, not of the statement which motivated it.

The case of deliberate provocation

Obviously, some statements are made with the deliberate intent to offend you. It's understandable (though not admirable) that in these situations it's hard to overrule that emotional reaction - when someone tries to insult you, it's hard not to be offended.

To see why this is a problem, let's reason by analogy:

When babies are born, they have no bowel control - if their bowel is full, they'll shit. As far as the baby's concerned it's an automatic process.

However, as we grow and develop we learn that although excreting is an automatic process, we can learn to make it a conscious choice. Even if (through some biological problem) we can't do this, we at least recognise it's a fault within ourselves and strive to ameliorate it (for example, with diapers, medication, colostomy bags, and the like).

What seems like an automatic process we have no control over can - with recognition and effort - be mastered and controlled. And the more we practice it, the less difficult it becomes, until our chosen option becomes the automatic one (seriously - when was the last time you took a conscious choice not to shit yourself?).

Likewise, although "being offended" feels for many people as if it's something beyond their control, this is an illusion caused by their own lack of self-control. It's effectively emotional incontinence.

Given this, how fair is it to demand others change their actions based on a flaw within ourselves? It seems to me rather like demanding that everyone else carry around a potty at all times, just in case I want to take a shit.

Applying this reasoning to incontinence makes the reaction seem ludicrous - obviously my lack of self-control is my problem to deal with. Anyone who insisted everyone else has to scramble to solve their own problem while they themselves did nothing would be considered enormously selfish, demanding and immature.

So why when the issue is an emotional lack of control do so many people insist others change their behaviour, instead of asking what it says about them?

Can we as a society stop thinking of "offendedness" as a blameless condition, and start thinking of it as a lack of self-control? Can we stop advocating banning "offensive" things, and instead strive to fix the flaws within ourselves that mean they bother us so much?

Please - if you've remotely enjoyed this post at all, I want you to promise me something. Next time you read or hear something really offensive - something that really makes your blood boil - do me a favour.

Instead of shouting back or demanding something be banned, I want you to sit back, count to ten, and ask yourself

Am I shitting myself in public?

And if you are, and you decide to do it anyway, and then blame it on someone else, what does that say about you?


[1] Epiphanette: like an epiphany, but less-so. An interesting little thought that explains something fairly profound, but isn't really world-shaking enough to qualify as a full-blown epiphany. And no, sadly, it isn't a real word. ;-)

Friday, 19 September 2008

On The Decentralisation of News Media

What you hear informs your world-view.

When everyone consumed the same (mass-)media, everyone had a fairly consistent (if sometimes wrong) world-view. It wasn't always correct, but at least everyone was on the same page and talking the same language.

Now aggregators, social news sites and predictive "you might also like" functionality has made it ever-easier to only see things you agree with, and to never even be aware of events and attitudes you don't.

This gradually, subconsciously leads you to believe that "everyone" thinks the way you do (so anyone who disagrees is obviously a kook and can be ignored), and to confuse "commonly-held beliefs in your particular subculture" with "proven, empirical facts" (or if you prefer, just "commonly-held beliefs for the entire population" ;-).

(I believe that this on its own is a major cause for the worsening "culture war" in the US, as well as the rise of tacky smear-based campaigning and staggering bitchiness of modern politics.)

This situation was always a possibility (witness the people who only ever watch Fox News, for example), but at least by deliberately limiting themselves to only one source it was obvious (often even to themselves) these people were closed-minded and willingly ignorant.

They might only watch one channel and forswear all other viewpoints, but the majority of people knew what they were doing and why it was dumb... at some level even them.

Now, with the advent of the internet and the massive decentralisation of news, discussion and rhetoric, hundreds of blogs and publishing outfits have sprung up for each mindset, niche political leaning, sexual preference, subculture... you name it.

This means that it's entirely possible to only read tens or hundreds of different sources... and yet still only really hear what you want to hear.

And yet, because you're reading so many different, unconnected sources the agenda they're pushing looks even more reasonable and widely-believed than when it could be easily written off by others as the agenda of just one channel, or just one new-corporation owner.

So although in this brave new world of millions of dissenting and conflicting voices the truth can be found more easily than in the monolithic, old world of Big Media... it's also made the truth harder to spot when you do find it, and it's made the bullshit look a lot more widely-supported and convincing than ever before.

I'm still not sure what to do about this state of affairs - I'm working on a few ideas which might help in the long run, but it's a serious problem that in the short term leads to social paralysis and all the he-said-she-said unconstructive, name-calling bitchiness of the politics of the last few years.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

What's wrong with TV?

Why do people who watch TV typically watch so much of it, and why do people who stop watching TV do so? And why do people who don't watch TV often instinctively have such a poor opinion of it? After all, they usually used to watch it too, didn't they?

For the purpose of explaining my theory, I'm going to start with the conclusion I reached and work back from there there:

People dislike TV because it's an inherently sensationalist, emotive and passive medium. It positively discourages critical thought and subtly but definitely encourages a receptive, passive, uncritical mindset.

Constrained input frequency

Television drip-feeds you information without any activity on your part - indeed, you're better off not moving or doing anything else, as any activity on your part will only distract from the medium. Unlike reading (where you can read as fast as you feel comfortable), the speed of information-flow is limited by the television. This encourages a passive, receptive mindset, as there's literally nothing you can do to affect the incoming information flow without degrading it (e.g., by fast-forwarding).

Water, water everywhere...

The (often largely irrelevant) moving visual image also means that though there's a lot of information to take in at any one time, precious little of this is useful data.

Compare the amount of time and raw information in the written sentence

"The man walked twenty metres down the road."

compared with a video imparting exactly the same thing. Also compare the amount of useful, important data in the written sentence versus the sheer volume of unimportant information you have to assimilate from a video to get the same amount of data[1].

Nevertheless, with TV you still have to sift through all this unimportant information to select out the important parts, and this extra cognitive workload impairs and discourages any other thoughts you may be having. Additionally, having to handle such a comparatively large amount of input in real-time at least reduces the amount of attention you have to consider, analyse and critically evaluate what you're receiving.

Compared to other media

Reading, in contrast, is like accessing pre-filtered meaning - very little written text doesn't relate data essential to the communication, and text which does break this rule quickly becomes dull, windy and boring. Text is low-bandwidth (lower even than radio) and isn't inherently interesting to look at, so since the form won't hold your interest the content is required to be more interesting. Written text typically has a higher ratio of data-to-information - analogous to the idea of the signal:noise ratio in electronics.

Likewise, while radio has many of the same faults as TV (no random access, constrained input frequency) its lower bandwidth (audio compared to video) also communicates meaning much more efficiently than television - again, it has a higher data:information ratio.

Poor at communicating meaning

TV therefore communicates surprisingly inefficiently, in terms of the amount of raw information you have to sift through to extract meaning. This means that while it typically requires a large amount of attention to parse out the incoming information, it imparts relatively little actual data or knowledge... and what data it does impart is drip-fed to you at a rate much slower than you could typically assimilate it if it were presented in a more condensed or refined form.

Finally, its imposed (and slow) rhythm, high-bandwidth but data-poor input and a complete lack of interactivity (indeed, a disincentive to any activity at all) means no matter what you're watching, the medium itself acts to cultivate a more passive, receptive and uncritical mindset than you would otherwise experience.

Don't get me wrong - obviously there are plenty of situations where information could only sensibly be transmitted in a video medium (sports events, any communication where movement and visual change over time are important aspects, etc), and in any one particular instance these effects are typically very small[2]. However, when you compare the very nature of the medium of TV to other media (books, the web... arguably even computer games) it's hard not to come to the conclusion that it's the least interactive, least efficient and most unchallenging of all the mainstream media we typically use.


[1] Finally, if any extra detail is required or desired by the receiver (What man? How old was he? Was he wearing a hat? What colour?), compare the amount of mental exercise required be the receiver to imagine all these things compared to merely observing them.

[2] But the rather more worrying question is: are they cumulative? If one gets used to regularly existing in a passive, receptive, uncritical mindset does that make it easier (and more common) to to experience it in future? Obviously I'm not trying to claim TV turns people into mooing idiots or anything so excessive... nevertheless, at the very least it raises interesting questions...