Discussing software, the web, politics, sexuality and the unending supply of human stupidity.

user experience

An excellent article on the silly Conversational UI trend: Bots won’t replace apps. Better apps will replace apps.

As the author of the piece notes, there’s plenty that’s wrong with the current trend in app design. Conversational UIs are orthogonal to fixing those problems. Each individual app has become its own silo. The model of “spend a bunch of money to hire a bunch of iOS and Android devs to build out a custom app for each platform, then spend a ton of resources trying to convince people to download those apps” has to wind down at some point. And there will be a point where we want a lot more fluidity between interactions. We still spend an enormous amount of time jockeying data between apps and manually patching pipelines of information into one another like some a telephone operator of old. Conversational UIs don’t fix any of those things. Better UIs, which is often less UIs, fix that. As does more focus on trying to make it so we can more efficiently and seamlessly have single-serving, one shot interactions (which goes against all the metrics: we often measure success by how much time someone spends interacting with something, rather than measuring success by how well that thing hides itself away and doesn’t need to be interacted with).

Little Printer: like my Samsung laser printer, but thrice the price

Today, the Little Printer went on sale. Let me show you.

Pretty fancy, huh.

The Verge has an article on it called “Paper lives: Little Printer and the rebirth of the hard copy”.

The rebirth of the hard copy! Wow. That’s pretty exciting. It’s almost like before this little gadget came out, people weren’t printing things.

Hold up. What’s this thing?

Oh look, it’s my boring old laser printer. It lets me print things on to paper. Bits of paper I can pick up and carry around. Almost like hard copies of things I have on my computer.

And, oh my, a new Samsung laser printer costs me… £69.95 on Amazon. As opposed to £199 for a Little Printer. Here’s the thing, It’s not beautifully designed. It’s ugly as sin. But it works. The toner is cheap, the print quality is pretty good, and it allows me to print out A4 documents… like web pages, CVs, letters, business forms, and even fun things I want to read.

I’m pretty impressed by the Little Printer though. I do like the idea of having some way of reading things when I’m out and about. I’m not wild about how the Little Printer requires paper refills, and it’s not that portable. That said, someone seems to have come up with some other type of device that does the job…


Samsung Galaxy S2 Epic 4G Touch

I hear it can even make phone calls and send tweets and browse the web and take photos too. Amazing.

Still, if you need an amazing, delightful user experience for printing out the same stuff you probably read on your smartphone… the Little Printer does the job pretty well. I know it has a beautiful user experience because user experience people keep telling me about the user experience of how user experiency the user experience of this is because it has been designed by user experience designers who know about user experience.

Wikipedia and teaching game rules

As always, on Wikipedia there’s a big dust up going on about new page patrolling or NPP. Basically, the issue is something like this: when you create a page on Wikipedia, it gets listed on a page called Special:NewPages. If you are a logged in user and are confirmed, you can click on pages in that queue and mark them as patrolled. New page patrollers check through that list, usually from either the beginning or end of the queue, and make sure that new pages coming in are of decent enough quality.

Only there’s loads of work and not really enough people to do that work. It’s rather taxing work too: if you mark it as patrolled, you have to potentially live with the possibility that you might be the last person to look at that page. It might have a massive copyright violation, it might contain some subtle vandalism, whatever. You have to intuitively tell in about a minute or less if it needs further attention, and if it does, tag it as such, fix it, or nominate it for deletion (or perhaps delete it outright if you are an admin).

There is constant anguish amongst the new page patrollers, because the queue never seems to really go down, however hard you try. It’s always a few days away from the 30 day limit: once a page is over 30 days, it drops off the end of the new pages queue, and we don’t really want that to happen.

The other complaint is that new page patrollers don’t necessarily do a very good job: they miss obvious issues and mark stuff as patrolled, and they unnecessarily scare newbies by falling on them like a ton of bricks, deleting their pages and leaving them lots of warnings. Some have suggested that we need to certify new page patrollers, basically ensure they are competent and give them a user right to ensure that the NPPers are doing their job right. There are problems with this: some people go into NPPing because it is the first real maintenance task they come across that they can do that doesn’t require special rights. To do recent change patrolling, you tend to need rollback to use things like Huggle. And, of course, there’s adminship… which is hard to get.

Last year, a plan was floated to try making it so that new users wouldn’t be able to create new pages. To try it. Test it for six months and see if it makes the encyclopedia better. The Foundation turned it down and told the community on English Wikipedia that they should stay calm because they would have other stuff coming soon to fix the new pages problem.

Besides the political issues of WMF-community relations, the issue with the autoconfirmed trial (ACTRIAL) is that it puts a restriction in place, but does nothing to reduce the demand. People will turn up at Wikipedia and want to create new articles. We might channel them into the AfC process instead of articles going into the main namespace… but the issues haven’t disappeared.

The motivation behind ACTRIAL was noble: we would rather have users who spent a few days lurking and finding their feet by editing existing articles before jumping in and creating new articles. In the olden days of the Internet, lurking was a lot more widely practiced than today. Now, of course, you should be able to turn up at a new social site like Twitter or Facebook and get going very easily. It’s an age of user experience (much as I might, in my grumpier moments, lament that), and if a website doesn’t hold your hand and guide you through the etiquette of how you behave and what you use the site for, that’s obviously a fault with the website rather than a moral failing of the user, as a previous generation might have said.

The root of a lot of the problems with newbies on Wikipedia is that we need to explain a shit ton of rules to people when they most probably don’t care, have a very short attention span, and want to have fun and edit stuff.

Fortunately, there’s already a field who have handled this. Anyone who listens to user experience people bang on about game design will know the answer already: game designers. Pick up almost any video game and it’ll have strategies for teaching new players how to play the game. Some of these are not necessarily very well done. It can often be cliché: dramatic opening, then some obvious plot device pops up like a character whose only point is to teach you how to perform simple tasks even though you are a super-duper knife-wielding commando badass who presumably knows all this shit back-to-front. Or perhaps they have a dumb foil who can’t quite do it and asks you, the super badass, to show you.

In Final Fantasy VII, Barret, being a gun-toting muscleman, can’t quite get to grips with materia and asks you to explain it to him. Even better is when they break the fourth wall, and your NPC buddy tells you to press the ‘X’ button to fire while jiggling the joypad like this.

There are ways, then, to induct people to the game world. What they are depend on what sort of game it is. Something like Pong is fairly obvious. Most people don’t need much help to play some kind of colour matching game like Tetris or Bejeweled. Something more sophisticated will have more complex tutorial modes. Wikipedia is definitely at the harder end: more EVE Online and less Asteroids.

There’s plenty of advice online and in game design circles on tutorial modes and how to design these introductory procedures. Let’s take as an example a post called Teaching players how to play your game, which I found just by Googling. It seems to contain some sensible advice and, more importantly, some examples of how not to do it. Wikipedians might have some of those eerie deja vu feelings while reading.

Don’t teach too much too soon

If we tell people that before even touching Wikipedia they need to understand N, V, RS, GNG, NPOV, COI, MOS, AfD, MOS, ANI, WTF and all that, they’ll just fuck off back to Facebook. Or ignore it all and learn nothing from any of the advice we’re giving.

Don’t give the answers before the questions

Again, we can spout policies at people, but they don’t understand why we have policies. I’ve had this with users before: I remember calmly explaining the username policy to a user, and then told them that I’d have to softblock their account and they’d have to re-register with a personal rather than corporate account. If I had just blocked and templated, rather than explained the point of the username policy, they probably would have been angry. On Wikipedia, policies are usually created in response to something. We have reliable sources as a policy because people often use shitty sources.

This is obviously a hard one, as we don’t necessarily know what questions the user is going to ask. If the Foundation are working on improving the new editor experience, they probably should be working out roughly the order of the questions they are asking, answering those questions, and then cutting out all the clutter that doesn’t help the user do the right thing.

Don’t be a bastard

Yeah, shouldn’t this be obvious? Shouldn’t it be obvious that this should be obvious? Obviously. But obvious point obviously needs obvious reinforcement. The problem here is that unlike a game, we have a social environment. And that’s a lot harder to design. You might be lucky and get some nice person who’ll be really helpful, or you might get an utter bastard. But, of course, that’s fixable too: if you design the software in the right way, it might be possible to make it a lot easier for people to be nice and a lot harder to be mean.

The learning curve for Wikipedia is there, and it is hard, and it is probably necessary: most people do actually need to learn various skills in order to be able to write a decent encyclopedia article. And, no, the learning curve will still be there even with a visual editor. (The learning curve can be even steeper on other wikis: if writing a good three paragraph encyclopedia article is hard, think about how hard it is to write a decent dictionary definition, or a decent news article, or a decent scientific description of a biological species.)

I don’t have any solutions, sadly, just a suggestion that people who are interested in issues around new page patrolling and newbie treatment think about it through the lens of game design (I mean, people already think Wikipedia is a giant RPG, may as well make it easy for newbies to join in). The issue is how do we balance the openness of welcoming all editors and the issue of all the work their inexperience causes for patrollers. Think about it as a game tutorial design problem, not as a supply and demand problem. I’d write more, but then this might spiral out from being a blog post into being a serious, considered piece of writing.

Ways to improve commuting

I saw on Twitter today that there is an event in Oxford called Design Jam going on, and they are trying to work on designing things to make commuting better.

I travel back and forth to London quite frequently on a commuter train, although I don’t do a daily commute. I did commute nearly every day for about three years though. (Telecommuting is a wonderful thing.)

Here are a few ways the commuting experience could be improved a lot.

No more high-capacity seating

On train services on Southern and Southeastern, there are two types of train carriage that are used: standard and high-capacity seating. Standard seating is arranged with two seats on either side of the aisle, while high-capacity is arranged with three seats on one side and two-seats on the other, and a very narrow aisle. The narrow aisle causes access problems for people with baggage, pushchairs/prams and so on. When they used to have refreshment carts on the train, they struggled to get through the very narrow gaps.

And the seating is unbelievably uncomfortable. Everyone I know who I have discussed this with say the same thing regardless of their size or body shape: it causes aches in the back and shoulder.

Adequate, obvious places to put luggage

The number of times I’ve got on a train and watched someone put their giant rolling suitcase on the seat next to them, when there is plenty of space in the overhead and underseat storage areas is ridiculous. On the old slam-door trains, those were clearly marked and obvious for people to put their luggage in.

Noise dampening: physical and social

I don’t know how it could be done, but ways to make it so that noise doesn’t transmit as far on the train and is dampened in various ways would be ideal. The chief problem with public transport is the other people who use it. They make a bloody racket: on their phones, on their digital gadgets, on their laptops. Finding ways both physical and social to reduce digital noise and nuisance is one of the main things needed to prevent long-suffering commuters from going postal.

For instance, imagine if electronic devices had some kind of thing where when they entered a quiet carriage (of which there aren’t enough), it could signal to the user that it might be an idea to pipe down. Perhaps a little Bluetooth transmission saying “hey, you are in an area with lots of other people who value a bit of peace and quiet”. You don’t have to abide by it: technology isn’t there to stop you being a dick. But it could help to set the social expectations of the environment you are in.

Low-cost super-effective noise-cancelling headphones that are very comfortable, have inline iPhone controls and don’t take up a lot of space and don’t break when manhandled by a security guy at the airport would be a good thing too…


One major annoyance when commuting is lack of information. Many trains in the south-east stop at both London Bridge and then either go onto Cannon Street or Waterloo East and Charing Cross. For some people, if you intend to carry your journey on by bus or tube, knowing which stop to get off at is quite an important thing. Yes, we could carry smartphones and obsessively check tube and bus data, but it would be very useful if, when approaching London, train announcements or information boards were to say “By the way, the Circle line isn’t running” or something like that, so that people who intend to use the Underground can make informed decisions about which station to get off at. This needs to be tempered with not being annoying.

On the being annoying front, there is a guard on the train I take who is very annoying because he goes into information overload. At every stop, he’ll list every potential interchange you can make. So, for instance, when you finally get to London, he’ll explain that if you want to go to the North and Scotland, you can get off the train, get on the Thameslink and go to King’s Cross. Well, duh. If you are in Dover and you want to go to Edinburgh, you probably don’t need the guard on Southeastern Trains to tell you how to do that. But it would be nice if he could tell you when the Thameslink (sorry, Worst Crapital Connect) isn’t running.

And finally software

A popular diversion for many who commute is gadgets, including gadgets which go on the Internet. That means smartphones, iPads, Kindles, laptops and so on. Great way to pass the time. But there is one giant problem: tunnels.

The line I use to go to London has one of the longest railway tunnels in the country: 3,156 metres long. Now, I take great sadistic pleasure in watching people get frustrated when their noisy phone calls end abruptly as they enter the tunnel. But what about tweets, e-mails and other online interactions. Here is where software could be designed better. For a lot of software, it would be very useful if it could queue up network connections in the background. Take something like Twitter: I write a tweet, and say send. The iPhone/iPad client now blocks me from doing anything until it has sent. Well, what if I’ve just lost connectivity and am in the tunnel. I don’t care if my tweet is queued to be sent out once I’ve come out of the tunnel. This kind of thing should be built into mobile OSes like iOS and Android, and even into desktop OSes like Windows, OS X and Linux. Because for a lot of people, a lot of the time, connectivity will not be constant. It’ll be very patchy. So design around that constraint.

I feel this is the kind of thing which has been lost when we all got broadband. Pre-broadband, people didn’t have Internet access when you weren’t dialed-up. I remember Netscape’s mail and Usenet client had a mode that let you queue up all your sending and receiving, and then it would connect, do all it could as quickly as it could, then disconnect again. To save money and to keep one’s phone line unoccupied for incoming calls, batch processing of network transmissions was an essential thing. Will you find that in the Thunderbird of today? Or, indeed, in the web apps of today? Now that Google Gears seems to have disappeared, it is very difficult to get offline Gmail and Google Reader: the HTML 5 promised land hasn’t arrived quickly enough to give us back the functionality Gears used to have.

Similarly, think about synchronisation: there are lots of apps on mobile devices that need to sync with ‘the cloud’ (aka. ‘servers’ on ‘the Internet’). But the only way to do so is to open them up and wait for them to sync. Dude. Background processes. I still want my e-mail to be up-to-date even if I don’t open my e-mail client before going into the tunnel. I still want my calendars to be up-to-date even if I forgot to sync them. Synchronisation should be a background process. And to keep the users from going insane, this is an ideal thing to be an OS-level service. Mac OS tried to do this with iSync, but they never quite finished it. Have a way to register syncing services and give them a priority setting.

To see how this fails, look at the Dropbox client on the Mac. I have Dropbox set up on most of the computers I use, and I think it is a fairly mediocre implementation of what I envision from such a service. But look at the Mac implementation. It’s terrible. It only runs when you are logged in. So, you log into a machine you haven’t used for a while, and it suddenly spends half an hour downloading all the crap it hasn’t synced. Even though the machine may have been sitting there idle for hours. That’s why you need background processes and good process scheduling. I don’t want a stupid little icon in the menu bar, I want it so it works in the background when I’m not there.

Having to explain these bloody obvious things repeatedly to otherwise intelligent people constantly leaves me out-of-breath. Anyway, if this were a tweet, it’d be hashtagged #firstworldproblem

Finally then, the main problem with commuting.


To go from my local station to London at peak time without any discounts, it costs thirty pounds return. That’s fucking ridiculous and needs to change if we have any hope of getting people out of their cars and living in a post-oil, low-carbon economy. This can’t be designed away, it needs fundamental social and political reorganisation.

The OpenID usability myth

I’m fucking fed up with two bullshit myths about OpenID.

First of all, there’s this insistence among ‘‘user experience experts’’ that “users don’t know what URLs are”.

Yeah, they don’t. But they know what web addresses are. And they do actually understand that web addresses map to people.

Listen to any independent musician before about three years ago and you would remember them saying at the end of their performance or on their promos or whatever:

We’re at myspace dot com back slash foo bar music

or something like that. Yes, they said backslash not forward slash.

Look at the dizzying rush when Facebook let you choose your own vanity URL.

And people would remember those things. People are able to remember phone numbers of dizzying length (my mother seems able to recall about 25 different phone numbers from memory and doesn’t bother to use the phonebook function on her mobile). People are able to remember hundreds of names of bloody Pokémon or the names of all the kings of Belgium. People may be stupid, but they aren’t nearly as stupid as user experience people make a living believing they are.

Since when was it okay to design standards and technologies around the stupidest people on the planet? I bought a camera recently and it has fourteen buttons on it and a dial which allows me to access ten different shooting modes. In the menu that comes up when you hit ‘menu’, there are seven different things I can change with names like “EV” and if I go into the menu, it asks me whether I want to have an “AF Illuminator” turned on or not. To get it so the camera GPS would work, I need to download ‘GPS assist data’ every month. By default, that only works on Windows. To get it to work on OS X or Linux, you have to use a ropey little Perl script.

This isn’t some top-of-the-line Canon pro DSLR. This is a Sony Cybershot intended for a mainstream or prosumer level. There are various things in the manual I don’t understand, and I’m a reasonably experienced photographer: I’ve got an A-level in Photography and was admitted to and studied photography for a year at university. I’ve printed Ilfochrome and done various experimental darkroom stuff. Technically, I know what I’m doing and I still need to read the manual. And I don’t really care. I read the manual, I experimented a bit, I now know roughly how the camera works. And once you see that, it’s fine. A bit of a learning curve is fine because it actually improves the overall experience: once you’ve learned how it works, you don’t have to be in simpleton mode forever.

At this point, designers and UX people are furiously grumbling going on about the user experience and this and that. I don’t give a shit. Cameras are complex pieces of technology, and even Sony can’t hide away this kind of complexity from users very well. The camera even has a “SIMPLE MODE” but I don’t use it because I read it as “SIMPLETON MODE”. It hides away half of the useful stuff you need to take a good photograph.

The only way you can make technology simple for users is to make users have simple needs—to turn them into simpletons. But people don’t necessarily have simple needs. If you had no complex needs, you wouldn’t use a computer. You’d buy a toaster or, if you can find one, a manual typewriter and be done with it.

Secondly, there’s the myth that something like OpenID is not necessary. It so bloody well is. The very fact that Facebook and Twitter are offering similar functionality but under a proprietary name kind of shows that. That people install software like 1Password and LastPass and so on in order to make the pain of usernames and passwords go away shows that. Ah, but the mythical “normal person” never does that.

Fuck normal people though. Normal people don’t buy BMWs or laser printers or a whole host of things. Normal people don’t listen to obscure free jazz with twenty-three minute drum solos. That doesn’t mean those things are bad. The reason normal people might not be using something isn’t because it is unusable or badly designed or, for want of a better word, bad. It might just be because they are stupid. Nobody ever goes broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people, to paraphrase the quote. Producing something good may go against that.

The idea that we should only do what normal people want is a refusal to educate. Perhaps the reaction when normal people don’t know how to do something is, instead of designing a way so they can remain stupid, is to help them become not stupid. This is the premise upon which schools, universities, libraries, museums and many other aspects of culture are based. But, apparently, not technology.

People have to learn how to use an operating system, a browser, even a mouse, but if we insist that they learn how to use something, rather than just designing it so they can remain completely ignorant, that won’t have any negative effect, will it? No idiotic mass panics about iPhone location tracking because people are unable to understand that “storing your data in a file on your computer” is quite a long distance from “snooping on you!”. That kind of thing never happens. Lawyers and legislators making a technically meaningless distinction between ‘streaming’ and ‘downloading’ is purely a lack of education.

Further, the complete failure to do security online properly is because people haven’t been taught that, oh, security is hard, and that you need to do things like verify dodgy-looking SSL certificates, not click on “free_britney_spears_getting_tits_out.exe” that just arrives in your e-mail and so on. But free market logic kicks in here: there’s no direct benefit to you to educate users, so you don’t do it. Despite the fact that it would make the world a more secure and less awful place if you stopped making crap designed for simpletons and taught those simpletons not to be simpletons and thus break the cycle of user experience dependency.

OpenID may not be usable if you are a bit of a thicko. The answer to that is for you to stop being such a thicko and not for the rest of the world to try and adapt to your stupidity.

I'm not an experience-seeking user, I'm a meaning-seeking human person

After an evening of cynicism last night, reading a bloody awful article by a pompous twit, and travelling on bloody slow trains, and then logging on to Twitter and seeing a bunch of bloody fools debating things they are completely ignorant of without even a modicum of philosophical charity, I found something which restored my trust in the human race: psd’s talk at Ignite London. It combines giving naughty link-breaking, data-sunsetting corporate types a spank for misbehaviour with an admiration for I Spy books. I had I Spy books as a kid, although mine were products of the late 80s/early 90s and had the Michelin Man, although in not nearly as an intrusively corporate way as Paul’s slides of current day I Spy suggests. Do forgive me: I’m going to do one of those free-associative, meditative riffing sessions that you can do on blogs.

The sort of things Paul talks about underly a lot of the things I get excited about on the web: having technology as a way for people to establish an educational, interactional feeling with the world around them, to hack the world, to hack their context, to have the web of linked data as another layer on top of the world. The ‘web of things’ idea pushes that too far in the direction of designed objects (or spimes or blogjects or whatever the current buzzword is), and the way we talk about data and datasets and APIs makes it all too tied to services provided by big organisations. There’s definitely some co-opting of hackerdom going on here that I can’t quite put my finger on, and I don’t like it. But that’s another rant.

I’ve been hearing about ‘gamification’ for a while and it irritates me a lot. Gamification gets all the design blogs a-tweeting and is a lovely refrain used at TED and so on, but to me it all looks like “the aesthetic stage” from Kierkegaard applied to technology. That is, turning things into games and novelties in order to mask the underlying valuelessness of these tasks. Where does that get you? A manic switching between refrains. To use a technological analogy, this week it is Flickr, next week it is TwitPic, the week after it is Instagram. No commitment, just frantic switching based on fad and fashion. Our lives are then driven by the desire to avoid boredom. But one eventually runs out of novelties. The fight against boredom becomes harder and harder and harder until eventually you have to give up the fight. There’s a personal cost to living life as one long game of boredom-avoidance, but there’s also a social cost. You live life only for yourself, to avoid your boredom, and do nothing for anybody else. Technology becomes just a way for you to get pleasure rather than a way for you to contribute to something bigger than yourself.

In Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, the alternative to this aesthetic life was typified by marriage. You can’t gamify marriage, right? You commit yourself for life. You don’t get a Foursquare badge if you remember your anniversary. The alternative to aestheticism and boredom is an ethical commitment. (And, for Kierkegaard anyway, ultimately a religious commitment.1) And I think the same holds true for the web: you can gamify everything, make everything into Foursquare. Or you can do something deeper and build intentional, self-directed communities of people who want to try and do something meaningful. Gamification means you get a goofy badge on your Foursquare profile when you check into however many karaoke bars. A script fires off on a server somewhere and a bit changes in a database, you get a quick dopamine hit because an ironic badge appears on your iPhone. Congratulations, your life is now complete. There’s got to be more to life and technology than this. If I had to come up with a name for this alternative to gamification that I’m grasping for, it would be something like ‘meaning-making’.

Gamification turns everything into a novelty and a game (duh). Meaning-making turns the trivial into something you make a commitment to for the long haul; it turns the things we do on the web into a much more significant and meaningful part of our lives.

In as much as technology can help promote this kind of meaning-making, that’s the sort of technology I’m interested in. If I’m on my deathbed, will I regret the fact that I haven’t collected all the badges on Foursquare? Will I pine for more exciting and delightful user experiences? That’s the ultimate test. You want a design challenge? Design things people won’t regret doing when they are on their deathbed and design things people will wish they did more of when they are on their deathbed. Design things that one’s relatives will look back in fifty years and express sympathy for. Again, when you are dead, will your kids give a shit about your Foursquare badges?

A long time ago, I read a story online about a young guy who got killed in a road accident. I think he was on a bike and got hit by a car while driving home from work. He was a PHP programmer and ran an open source CMS project. There was a huge outpouring of grief and support from people who knew the guy online, from other people who contributed to the project. A few people clubbed together to help pay for two of the developers to fly up to Canada to visit his family and attend the funeral. They met the guy’s mother and she asked them to explain what it is that he was involved in. They explained, and in the report they e-mailed back to the project, they said that the family eventually understood what was going on, and it brought them great comfort to know that the project that their son had started had produced something that was being used by individuals and businesses all over the world. This is open source: it wasn’t paid for. He was working at a local garage, hacking on this project in between pumping petrol. But there was meaning there. A community of people who got together and collaborated on something. It wasn’t perfect, but it was meaningful for him and for other people online. That’s pretty awesome. And it’s far more interesting to me to enable more people to do things like this than it is to, I dunno, gamify brands with social media or whatever.

This is why I’m sceptical about gamification: there’s enough fucking pointless distractions in life already, we don’t need more of them, however beautiful the user experiences are. But what we do need more of is people making a commitment to doing something meaningful and building a shared pool of common value.

And while we may not be able to build technologies that are equivalent in terms of meaning-making as, say, the importance of family or friendship or some important political commitment like fighting for justice, we should at least bloody well try. Technology may not give us another Nelson Mandela, but I’m sure with all the combined talent I see at hack days and BarCamps and so on, we can do something far more meaningful than Google Maps hacks and designing delightful user experiences in order to sell more blue jeans or whatever the current equivalent of blue jeans is (smartphone apps?).

The sort of projects I try to get involved in have at least seeds of the sort of meaning-making I care about.

Take something like Open Plaques, where there are plenty of people who spend their weekends travelling the towns and cities in this country finding blue memorial plaques, photographing them and publishing those photos with a CC license and listing them in a collaborative database. No, you don’t get badges. You don’t get stickers and we don’t pop up a goofy icon on your Facebook wall when you’ve done twenty of them. But you do get the satisfaction of joining with a community of people who are directed towards a shared meaningful goal. You can take away this lovely, accurate database of free information, free data, free knowledge, whatever you want to call it. All beautifully illustrated by volunteers. No gamification or fancy user experience design will replicate the feeling of being part of a welcoming community who are driven by the desire to build something useful and meaningful without a profit motive.

The same is true with things like Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons. Ten, fifteen years ago, if you were carrying around a camera in your backpack, it was probably to take tourist snaps or drunken photos on hen nights. Today, you are carrying around a device which lets you document the world publicly and collaboratively. A while back I heard Jimmy Wales discussing what makes Wikipedia work and he said he rejected the term ‘crowdsourcing’ because the people who write Wikipedia aren’t a ‘crowd’ of people whose role is to be a source of material for Wikipedia: they are all individual people with families and friends and aspirations and ideas, and writing for Wikipedia was a part of that. As Wales put it: they aren’t a crowd, they are just lots of really sweet people.

What could potentially lead us into more meaning-making rather than experience-seeking is the cognitive surplus that Clay Shirky refers to. The possibilities present in getting people to stop watching TV and to start doing something meaningful are far more exciting to me than any amount of gamification or user experience masturbation, but I suspect that’s because I’m not a designer. I can see how designers would get very excited about gamification because it means they get to design radically new stuff. They get to crack open the workplace, rip out horrible management systems and replace them with video games. Again, not interested. The majority of things which they think need to be gamified either shouldn’t be, because they would lose something important in the process, or they are so dumb to start with that they need to be destroyed, not gamified. The answer to stupid management shit at big companies isn’t to turn it into a game, it’s to stop it altogether and replace the management structure with something significantly less pathological.

Similarly, I listen to all these people talking about social media. Initially it sounded pretty interesting: there was this democratic process waiting in the wings that was going to swoop in and make the world more transparent and democratic and give us the odd free handjob too. Now, five years down the line and all we seem to be talking about is brands and how they can leverage social media and all that. Not at all interested. I couldn’t give a shit what the Internet is going to do to L’Oreal or Snickers or Sony or Kleenex or The Gap. They aren’t people. They don’t seek meaning, they seek to sell more blue jeans or whatever. I give far more of a shit what the Internet is doing for the gay kid in Iran or the geeky kid in rural Nebraska or a homeless guy blogging from the local library than what it is doing for some advertising agency douchebag in Madison Avenue.

One important tool in the box of meaning-making is consensual decision making and collaboration. There’s a reason it has been difficult for projects like Ubuntu to improve the user experience of Linux. There’s a reason why editing Wikipedia requires you to know a rather strange wiki syntax (and a whole load of strange social conventions and policies - you know, when you post something and someone reverts it with the message “WP:V WP:NPOV WP:N WP:SPS!”, that’s a sort of magic code for “you don’t understand Wikipedia yet!” See WP:WTF…). The reason is those things, however sucky they are, are a result of communities coming together and building consensus through collaboration. The result may be suboptimal, but that’s just the way it is.

Without any gamification, there are thousands of people across the world who have stepped up to do something that has some meaning: build an operating system that they can give away for free. Write an encyclopedia they can give away for free. All the gamification and fancy user experience design in the world won’t find you people who are willing to take up a second job’s worth of work to get involved in meaningful community projects. On Wikipedia, I see people who stay up for hours and hours reverting vandalism and helping complete strangers with no thought of remuneration.

It may seem corny, and it’s certainly not nearly as big of an ethical commitment as the sort Kierkegaard envisioned, but this kind of commitment is something I think we should strive towards doing, and helping others to do. And I think it is completely at odds with gamification, which seeks to basically turn us all into cogs in some kind of bizarre Skinner-style experiment. We hit the button not because we are getting something meaningful out of it, but because we get the occasional brain tickle of a badge or get to climb up the leaderboard or we get seventeen ‘likes’ or RTs or whatever. Gamification seems to be about turning these sometimes useful participation techniques into an end in themselves.

Plenty of the things which make meaning-making projects great are things any good user experience designer would immediately pick up and grumble about and want to design away. Again, contributing to the Linux kernel is hard work. Wikipedia has that weird-ass syntax and all those wacky policy abbreviations. Said UX designer will really moan about these and come up with elaborate schemes to get rid of them. And said communities of meaning will listen politely. And carry on regardless. Grandma will still have a difficult time editing Wikipedia.

When I listen to user experience designers, I can definitely sympathise with what they are trying to do: the world is broken in some fundamental ways, and it is certainly a good thing there are people out there trying to fix that. But some of them go way too far and think that something like “delight” or that “eyes lighting up” moment is the most important thing. If that is all technology is about, we could do that a lot easier by just hooking people up to some kind of dopamine machine. Technology should give us all our very own Nozickian experience machine and let us live the rest of our lives tripped out on pleasure drugs. I read an article a while back that reduced business management to basically working out how to give employees dopamine hits. Never mind their desire for self-actualization, never mind doing something meaningful. Never mind that the vast majority of people opt for reality with warts than Nozick’s experience machine—the real world has meaning.

The failure of meaning-making communities to value user experience will seem pretty bloody annoying, if only to designers. There are downsides to this. It sucks that grandma can’t edit Wikipedia. It sucks that Linux still has a learning curve. Meaning-making requires commitment. It can be hard work. It won’t be a super-duper, beautiful, delightful user experience. It’ll have rough edges. But that’s real life.

A meaningful life is not a beautiful user experience. A meaningful life is lived by persons, not users. But the positive side of that is that these are engaged, meaning-seeking, real human beings, rather than users seeking delightful experiences.

That’s the choice we need to make: are technologists and designers here to enable people to do meaningful things in their lives in community with their fellow human beings or are they here as an elaborate dopamine delivery system, basically drug dealers for users? If it is the latter, I’m really not interested. We should embrace the former: because although it is rough and ready, there’s something much more noble about helping our fellow humans do something meaningful than simply seeing them as characters in a video game.

This post is now on Hacker News, and Kevin Marks has written it up on the Tummelvision blog.

  1. This is one thing I disagree with Kierkegaard very strongly on. But not for any high-falutin’ existentialist reasons. I just don’t believe in God, and more importantly, I don’t believe in the possibility of teleological suspension of the ethical, which makes the step to the religious stage of existence rather harder! I’m not even sure I’m in the ethical. It could all be a trick of my mind, to make me feel like I’m some kind of super-refined aesthete. Or it could be rank hypocrisy. But one important thing to note here is that the aesthetic, ethical and religious stages or spheres of existence, for Kierkegaard, are internal states. The analogies he uses don’t necessarily map onto the spheres. So, you don’t have to be the dandy-about-town, seducing women and checking into Foursquare afterwards to be in the aesthetic. If you are married, that doesn’t mean you are in the ethical stage. Nor does being overtly religious or, rather, pious, mean you are in the religious stage. Indeed, the whole point of Kierkegaard’s final writings, translated into English as the Attack Upon Christendom is that Danish Lutheranism was outwardly religious but not inwardly in a true sense.