let me rephrase that, part three

January 29, 2008

One of the first things you learn when trying to speak to kids with cognitive disabilities is not to fill in the pause after you speak to them with a rephrase of what you just said. Autistic kids often take slightly longer than usual to respond to spoken communication, and waiting a few seconds can really help the conversation.. but it’s almost impossible not to try to fill in that pause with a rephrase (which makes things worse, it feels like a different thing for them to parse).

Here’s an experiment you can do, next time somebody says something to get your attention, pretend you haven’t heard. Within a few seconds the person trying to talk to you will rephrase, they won’t ask you the same thing with the exact same words.

Oh and don’t do this too often, it’s very irritating. And now that I’ve said this, you’ll notice yourself and other folks rephrasing a hundred times a day.

Rephrasing is the polite thing to do, it feels aggressive to use the exact same words when you repeat.

Rephrasing is the usual style in most writing, particularly ‘entertainment’ writing, but it’s not a good way to communicate when speed, clarity or accuracy is the goal – for instance in instructions or interfaces.

But it’s worse than that, and I tried to lead in to this with the two tunes, it’s not just in speech that the rephrasing problem occurs. My point is that we ‘rephrase’ everything, and that rephrasing is seldom an improvement on the original, the desire to embellish, add some thing extra, smooth out a texture… there are a hundred ways to do this and with the best intentions too.

My idea here is that ‘rephrasing’ is a different thing from improving, or even redesigning and I’m interested in how we work out when we are doing it.

Erm, does that make sense?


let me rephrase that, part two

January 28, 2008

This is all leading somewhere, bear with me, here’s Paul Mauriat’s Love is Blue. Its probably the most insanely irritating tune I know, please watch it four or five times and get back to reading this…

This version of “love is blue” was a Number 1 US single in 1968… it was the number one that preceded ‘Sitting on the Dock of the Bay’.

Sitting on the Dock of the Bay is one of the highest achievements of culture in the 20th century, it says more than the collected works of Sarte and Camus can say about existential angst, it has more humanity in the breaking voice that stretches ‘ti -ide’ to two syllables than almost any other human artifact… Bury beneath it and hear the most sublime instrumentation… and think about that and go back to ‘love is blue’.

Love is blue is lacking in soul, it’s so vacant and empty it’s actually spooky (the TV show millennium once used it for just that quality). It’s not elevator music though, it’s too insidious for that, listening to the muzak that plays on our conference call system is disorienting, but because there is no focus to the music it’s just mildly upsetting. ‘Love is Blue’ has a much more powerful malignant impact…

The original version (previous posting) had some humanity, some character, that’s been removed in this version.

OK that’s enough, I’m using these two versions to try to make a point about rephrasing, I’ll explain “rephrasing” in the third post on this.   


let me rephrase that, part one

January 27, 2008

What can the Eurovision song contest tell us about web design? More soon.


the road less travelled, or not travelled at all.

January 25, 2008

One of the greatest things about music is seismic shifts of style that revitalise it. (We could be doing with another one).

But these shifts usually wipe out other possible paths, rock’n’roll swept away the crooners, the British invasion made redundant early sixties American pop, new wave killed the careers of non-new wave mid 70s, rave, grunge, brit-pop all stopped stone dead many of their immediate antecedents too. It’s ironic that each paradigm shift becomes quickly an orthodoxy.

Mostly it’s a good thing, but we often lose stuff too. Just before The Beatles changed the world, American pop was going rather strange, think of the creepiness of Bobby Vee‘s ‘Night has a thousand eyes’… pop wouldn’t get that paranoid again until, um.. Massive Attack’s third album. That’s probably why David Lynch uses that period for his soundtracks.

Just before New Wave, bands like Racing Cars, Doctors of Madness, Lone Star were emerging, but they had to adapt of die – and mainly they died.

But this post is more about the late 60s, what did that period’s emerging “new rock orthodoxy” trample underfoot?

orpheus albumOne example that is pretty interesting is the first self titled album by Orpheus, even listening to it today, it sounds square, trying to cope with a change that it just didn’t get. Perhaps the nearest comparison to the music on the Orpheus album would be Gary Ushers slightly psychedelic orchestral adult pop album under the name Sagittarius, or maybe the soundtrack to the musical ‘Hair’. It’s a great album to listen to in all its awkwardness and its over eager desire to be hip.

A common phrase used to describe music is ‘timeless’, but sometimes great music can just be off its time. (“off”, not “of” see what I did there? Oh never mind.)

Anyone think of other bands that should have been huge, but they turned up just too late or too early?

What other emergent cultural or technology artefacts were swept away in a similar manner? Anyone remember the closed, non-internet version of msn that shipped with windows 95? Erm, OK admittedly some things should be swept away.

ps The Orpheus album is on emusic (subscription required)


It’s not what you say it’s what you don’t say

January 25, 2008

Continuing my thoughts on sticking to the bare minimum…

I was reading a blog posting of a list of 50 great albums from 1971 and my first thought wasn’t about all the fine albums listed, but what was missing and why… No ‘Maggot Brain’, no ‘Surf’s Up’ nothing from the Germans such as ‘Faust’ or ‘Tago Mago’.. I could go on, but the point is what was chosen and what wasn’t chosen is the revealing thing.

The new (and superb) Coen brothers movie, No Country for Old Men, has an ending that has caused many people to comment, it doesn’t tie up a lot of the plot, instead it switches back to the Sherrif pontificating on how the world has changed. It was the first time I’d seen a whole audience watch the credits, as we were all hoping to find an explanation about where the money came from, or maybe even what was the deal with that haircut.. But the film wants to make a point about how things have changed, for maybe half an hour after the film was over I was kinda dissapointed, and now I think it was a genius piece of framing.

For content websites, it’s long been suggested that they need fewer words,  and the best way to improve a site is to leave out stuff. Not to get people thinking about why you have left something out, but to stop them having to think about much at all and get straight access to what is important.

Even applications should do this, the twitter interface is brilliant and the constraint is deliberate, but many applications, particularly in a corporate environment are hopelessly overloaded with features… I think its on Deep Purple’s Made in Japan album where you can here Ian Gillan say to the sound engineer ‘Can we have everything louder than everything else please?’ the joke being that such a policy isn’t going to make anything stand out… (I wish they’d thought of this before deciding a 10 minute drum solo was a good idea).

Leaving something out is the best way to say the important things.


Less is more.

January 25, 2008

This is counter intuitive but I think that the best way to ensure best practice is to limit choices, as long as the choice limiting is smart.

Microsoft Front Page was a program many people loved, it gave people with very limited technical skills the ability to create web sites. Unfortunately it often resulted in very bad websites.

This wasn’t Front Page’s fault, in the hands of a skilled user it could create great sites, but it was too easy to make bad sites. Flash is another good example of this, in the right hands Flash is terrific, fully accessible, maintainable and can produce compelling interfaces – its just that 99% of the examples of its use are in ropey animation gimmicks.

I set myself a challenge about this, I wanted to create a ‘coffee time quiz’ generator, similar to the types of quiz you see in the BBC new site. So I thought, what’s the optimum number of questions? Say 10, then OK, my generator will force the quiz to have 10 questions, how long should the question be? Make it 60 characters maximum, how many answers? Alway three.

So I built this (it was easy too, as I didn’t have to be flexible) and it was great at generating quizzes, took about 10 minutes, and the quizzes were fun to do. I got a few other folks to try to make up a quiz, and immediately they wanted more features, can I make five answers, can I say choose 2 from 4, can I have a much longer explanation text after the answer… however, when I said no, they had to rethink how they were trying to build their quiz, optimise it for a user experience and the quizes they produced were well liked.

Limiting the choice limits the scope, my quiz generator would be hopeless for a formal assessment test, but its a great coffee time quiz.

The blogging software I am using now, is a highly specialised, limited publishing system, its not got the power of Front Page, but the rigidity of the format means that people write better blogs. I’ve even seen a company that uses a very rigid CMS, which enforces best ‘write for the web’ practice. It has very high user satisfaction ratings too. 

Placing the best practice enforcement inside the tool is always going to impinge on someones freedom (I like creating web sites in a text editor for instance!)  but it works because it almost always improves the users experience.


wikis it is then

January 24, 2008

See, here’s the thing… there’s a bit missing in the story being told about wikis.

First bit missing is that the story is dominated by wikipedia, because it’s so wildly successful and provides such great consumer experience (both contributor and reader) but it’s pretty ropey thinking to think that wikipedia is typical of a wiki, its been long understood that on the internet, the most successful may not be a good role model ( see: what’s good for Amazon is not good for normal sites). This is doubly true for an intranet. So the missing bit there is what is it that makes wikipedia work and does that extend and apply to other types of publishing? Its not just that its a wiki.

The next bit missing is how to get the stuff in wikis to be good, and what to do if it isn’t good or there isn’t much there at all. If you are wanting to use a wiki for a reason (such as provide information to people) then you need some techniques and measurements to see if it is delivering, there aint a free lunch and wiki’s will not by magic, osmosis or the wisdom of the crowd migrate around the optimum value… what if you threw a party and nobody came? I’ve seen tons of stuff about how to write for the web, how to blog, tips for getting people to read your blog, but nothing much about how to get this wiki started.

Like ‘Fight Club’ I suppose you could stand in a car park and beat yourself up..  but its not true that ‘if you build it they will come’.

Lastly, because wiki’s use a wysiwyg creation, the assumption is that this speed of publishing over-rides the quality of what is produced (I call this the Microsoft Front Page argument).  The best intranets I’ve seen actually have a poor or even a not-wysiwyg interface encouraging best web writing practice. Hated by the authors, loved by the users. Wikipedia has a huge amount of background tidying-up ers because a lot of its content isn’t originally very good. If you can’t depend on an army of “hobbyist pedants” your wiki isn’t going to be a good user experience.

I  hope I’m not sounding too pessimistic, I love wikis and wish there were more of them, but they aren’t free money and they can’t beat a good content management system in terms of reader experience.