Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Prototyping in code

I've just written a post for The Team blog on this subject, but given that my personal blog has a more web design-savvy audience I'll do an abridged version here. If this version doesn't make sense, you know where to look!

We hosted the inaugural UX Bootcamp last week, organised by Leisa Reichelt. The subject was ‘Prototyping in Code’. I'll assume for sake of brevity that readers know what prototyping is and why it's important.

But why use working code for prototypes? There are a few potential reasons:
  • With experience, and a set of good templates, it's possible to create and amend a prototype really quickly

  • It allows you to include and test complex interactions, such as click events or fancy form elements. You can also test for different browser widths / screen sizes, including mobile, especially if you have an understanding of media queries

  • By improving our understanding of web site architecture, it strengthens our ability to describe intentions to web developers

  • By designing sites in this way, you don't have to spend money on other tools such as OmniGraffle or Photoshop
The UX Bootcamp was, first and foremost, a crash course in creating basic code. We learned how to mark up content correctly, how to style it using CSS and how to introduce funky interactions using JavaScript (predominantly JQuery, but also Chosen for forms). We learned where to find useful grid templates, for large screens and mobile. There were kittens. We also learned how to use an app to streamline the workflow (I used Espresso, others used Coda). The course material was fantastic, and the facilitators (Anna, Peter and Alex) were incredibly patient and really knew their stuff. We definitely finished the course with a great foundation to build on.

But would we use code for prototyping? That's a harder question to answer. To my mind, if you're starting from a point where you know this stuff, and have a set of familiar templates from which to draw, it might well make sense to use thesetools for creating prototypes. However my feeling was that this wouldn't work as well for designers learning to code for the first time. We depend on these designers to give deep thought to the layout and flow through a website, considering the user's goals at all times - and hacking code could be a big distraction from this. It's far easier to draw a box in OmniGraffle, which is better for subsequent annotation as well.

That said, there's no doubt in my mind that all designers would benefit from a working knowledge of the tools that power the web, and I'm well chuffed with the course. Nice one, Leisa!

Monday, 25 July 2011


When I was growing up, I had what my parents might call an unhealthy obsession with computer games. My brother had a ZX81, my best mate had a Spectrum 48k (with a ram pack!), and I had a Vic 20. And then one birthday, I was lucky enough to get a Commodore 64 - and my life changed forever.

I used to spend countless hours in my room playing computer games. For some reason, the one which always comes to mind now (25 years later) is Gauntlet - but there were dozens more.

So anyway, I recently picked up a couple of copies of ZZAP!! 64, the industry mag for the Commodore 64, and boy did the memories come flooding back!! Ghosts'N Goblins! Paperboy! Rambo! Yie Ar Kung Fu! Green Beret! Out Run! And oh so many more!

I remember owning these issues. Odd what your brain remembers and decides to forget - but then, I was completely obsessed. Clearly a lot of love went into these mags. It wasn't just about game reviews, but hints and tips, game maps, top charts, kick-ass joysticks, 8-bit art, and so much more. Sometimes we got tapes, containing 8 Bit music from our favorite games! Even the adverts were brilliant, showing screen shots and cover art hinting at an altogether more innocent time.

Anyway, seeing as I was enjoying these magazines so much I figured you might too. Here's a gallery on Flickr for y'all:

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

A share of the blame

Like a lot of other people, I'm enjoying the furore around the News International phone hackings scandal. It isn't just schadenfreude; we've tolerated the gutter press for so long that it seemed like an inescapable and unfortunate part of the fabric of Britain. Now, with a fair wind, the Murdoch empire could come crashing down. Bring popcorn.

But one important fact seems to be widely overlooked. Surely the people who used to read the News of the World, and who still read The Sun, the Sunday Sport, The Mirror, not to mention the colourful cheap women's magazines, and other publications like it, are equally to blame? It's their insatiable appetite for gossip that underpins the entire sordid affair. In the same way that kerb-crawlers are considered law-breakers, creating the demand that fuels the supply, shouldn't the same apply to customers of these newspapers? You might even say that kerb-crawlers have a lot less to be ashamed of - at least there are usually consenting adults involved. No-one consented to having their phones hacked.

Of course, all this shines a light on the British psyche. All countries have their equivalent of the red-tops, but ours seems painfully successful by comparison. It really doesn't bear close inspection. It'll be interesting to see whether the demand for (and supply of) salacious gossip declines once the dust settles on this current debacle. Only good can come of this.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Why Google+ has already failed

It's now a week or so since Google launched their new social networking product, Google+, so here are some early thoughts.

I wanted this to be a Facebook killer, for obvious reasons (Blimey, that blog post is four years old!). There was a glimmer of hope shortly after Google+ launched that it might even meet these high expectations - the essential early adopter geeks were arriving en masse, and reporting that it was a great user experience. And sure enough, adding people to 'circles' - creating groups to target your messages - is pretty compelling.

But then what? Unfortunately, first time user experience isn't a good reflection of how well it'll fit into your existing daily activity. This is where Twitter in particular has been so successful - you can dip in as frequently or rarely as you like, wherever you are (especially in a mobile environment, where you might just want to kill a few minutes).

But there are some fundamental shortcomings with the new Google+ product. I should say that, being a Twitter advocate, I consider the lack of features to be a strength. And to be fair the user interface is pretty and functional. But put simply, "the same, but better" isn't going to be enough to bring a critical mass of users over to a new platform - or especially away from existing ones. It worked for Twitter and Facebook because they were sufficiently novel. For Google+, a high enough percentage of new users needs to arrive at the same time to have a chance of success. This is one area where beta testing will not work. By limiting the initial roll-out in the way that they did, and by not having a strong enough mobile story from the get go, I think they've lost the opportunity to launch a winning platform.

Yes, I know there's an Android app. But there's no iPhone app, and the web app doesn't cut it. Say what you like about closed platforms - this will seriously hamper adoption. And there isn't a public API either, which means no desktop apps, making it difficult to integrate Google+ into my working day. I basically have to remember to keep going to the website. The far more attractive alternative is that I keep using my desktop Twitter app and iPhone twitter app, both of which critically already contain the friends and colleagues I care about.

Of course the API and native iPhone app will come, but that's too little too late. The chance has gone for me and, I suspect, for many others. And I can't help but notice that none of the people I'm connected to on Facebook that I'm not connected to on Twitter have joined. And why would they?

I'm sure Google will continue to invest in Google+, just as they seem to continue supporting Buzz (no idea why!). But it'll take more than group video chat and some interesting Feedback tools to persuade people back en masse. Even the commendable 'liberate data' feature won't be enough.

Some bonus links: