Writing content for everyone

Lately, I’ve been trying to simplify my writing. Schools push us to increase our reading age. We learn more words and everybody expects us to use them. Our language has to be formal and using a thesaurus can get you bonus points. Teachers love to see you use new words, and because of this bad language is everywhere.

I don’t mean the language is bad because the spelling is wrong. I also don’t mean the language is bad because the grammar is wrong. Technically, a lot of the time it’s perfect English. The problem is that in real life, we don’t talk the same way we write things down. Like most people, I probably only speak around 3000 of the 170,000 words in modern English. I’ve actually never used the word ‘thus’ in a sentence, but I have written it down.

This week, I ordered some stickers which Royal Mail delivered. When I tried to track my delivery, I saw a great example the bad language I’m talking about. They have three statuses for my order: ‘received into our network’, ‘progressing through the network’ and ‘delivered’. At a glance, delivered is the only one that makes any sense.

Royal Mail's website showing the tracking information of the parcel. The information is displayed as a line with three marker points reading: Received into our network. Progressing through the network. And delivered.

I contacted Royal Mail and told them the language was difficult to understand. They linked me to a glossary of terms. This is a second page full of complicated words and an explanation of what each one means. A glossary of terms is a bad solution for using bad language. If you just use simple language in the first place you will save time for both you and your users.

Royal Mail told me ‘progressing through the network’ means my stickers had been processed and were on the way. I could have guessed that, so maybe I was being a bit of a troll, but I wanted to see if they would eventually simplify their language enough for me to understand. They did, but it took a lot of time and effort.

With writing, we sometimes try too hard to sound smart. This can make it difficult for a lot of people to read. Writing using simple language doesn’t leave out anybody with a high reading age, but writing using complex language can leave out those with a low reading age.

Hopefully, by simplifying my language I’ll become a better writer, and I’ll measure this by how many people can understand me rather than how many teachers I’ve impressed.

Hear no, see no, techno

Last week I attended Camp Digital, in the beautiful Town Hall of Manchester. It was your usual digital conference, and your usual crowd; but today I saw a talk that has hopefully changed the way I think about websites and service design forever.

We all know websites have to be responsive. They have to be malleable so that they look crisp and well laid out on all devices. We know the font size needs to increase for mobile devices, and that columns should stack when the viewport becomes narrow. We think we have this all figured out. But the problem with assuming, is that we think all of these people are using the devices we use and seeing the site the way that we see it.

Hear no, see no, techno‘, was an inspiring talk by the incredible Molly Watt, about how technology allows blind and deaf people to interact with the world and the web. Molly was born with Usher Syndrome, leaving her deaf. As if this was not challenging enough, in adolescence she became almost completely blind due to retinitis pigmentosa. But here she stood, strong and independent, delivering this amazing talk and interacting with the audience through the use of digital hearing aids.

Molly began to talk about things that are often not on a designers scope. Can the contrast of the website be changed? Can the colours be changed? Can the font size be changed? The answer is probably not; unless it involves opening the stylesheet.

Another issue was something as simple as a twitter widget. Twitter uses ‘infinite scrolling’, which means by the time you reach the bottom, it loads in more tweets. This is fine you are able to click away from the widget and continue your interaction with the site. But what if you’re trying to tab through the content using a keyboard. Every time you tab down a tweet, it loads in another one, and as it is called ‘infinite scrolling’, you could be seven years deep in somebodies twitter feed by the time you get out!

I realise the hypocrisy of publishing this post on my non-accessible WordPress blog. But at least I have had my eyes opened to these kinds of challenges, and can begin to implement some design changes in future! Perhaps as designers we often focus too much on making things look pretty, instead of making them available to everyone.

Are You A Cereal Killer? – Tesco’s Bad UX When Buying Spoons

As an interaction designer, I like to analyse the technology I see, and work out how it makes life easier, or in some cases, more difficult. This is a short story about how I noticed that sometimes technology can create ridiculous scenarios out of nothing.

It was a Sunday. I was working out of the office, and I had packed a pretty generic ‘sandwiches / crisps / yoghurt’ combo for the day ahead. The yoghurt looked amazing. A little vanilla number that I’d been eying up all morning. However, I’d soon come to realise I had made a grave mistake. Ok, ok… It wasn’t that dramatic, I’d just forgotten to bring a spoon!

The thought of ‘cave-mannning’ the yoghurt; using the lid as a makeshift trowel, did cross my mind. But as I’m a civilised human being, I figured I’d just go buy a new one from Tesco.

I can’t find anything I’m looking for in Tesco. I would expect to find spring onions next to the onions, but they are not. They are next to the strawberries. Perhaps this is because strawberries have a green stalk, and spring onions are green? Probably not, but it’s the only explanation I have come up with so far! Anyway, on this one occasion I was in luck. I entered the store and within three aisles, there were the spoons!

I opted for a single dessert spoon. Just one. Not a pack. Not a cutlery set. Just one lonely dessert spoon. I made my way to the till; bearing in mind that I already felt a little stupid for buying one spoon, I had fully expected to be chastised, but nothing could have prepared me for the conversation that ensued.

The till was being governed by a young, nervous looking woman. I’m not going to get into descriptions for reasons that I will discuss later, but given her reluctance to push any buttons, I would assume that she hadn’t been trained for very long.

‘BEEP’, she scanned it through. So far so good. The woman looks at the screen and looks a little uncomfortable. She looks up and says ‘it says I need to see some ID.’ I thought she was joking. ‘But… It’s a spoon?’ I replied. As if she hadn’t noticed that already, and had actually mistaken it for a chainsaw. ‘It says that it’s a restricted item, so I have to see some ID’ she stammered.

I assume from her nervousness, that this is the part where I am supposed to belittle the member of staff, and tell her how ridiculous the whole charade is. Perhaps I demand to speak to a manager, because this will get me more money-off-vouchers for being so massively inconvenienced. My driving license on that day made me twenty nine, so if I were under eighteen, my face already looks like the dishevelled after picture of a crystal meth awareness campaign. I think based on these two facts, I would have had a pretty solid case to argue back. But instead, I nod nonchalantly, hand over my ID, and then tweet about it instead.

I did a quick Google search, and I found that this is a common occurrence at Tesco tills. Newspaper articles[1][2], tweets[3], Facebook posts[4]; all of similar spoon related stories. I would have thought that the most obvious solution would be to amend the database of restricted items, and simply remove spoons. I can’t imagine it being a difficult task. Simply scroll down until you find ‘spoons’ in the ‘restricted database of doom’ (hint: they’re probably somewhere between Soft Toys and Ryvitas) and hit delete.

However, as we have already established with the ‘onions / spring onions location debate’, Tesco don’t share my logic. Instead, they responded to my tweet with an itinerary of information they needed. The exchange of tweets is below:

@abbott567 – Genuinely just got ID’d for a dessert spoon at @Tesco – is this actually a thing?

@tesco@abbott567 Hi Craig, I’m really sorry about this. It definitely is not a thing unless it was along with any sharp objects.

@tesco@abbott567 Please DM me your full name, address, email, barcode, store purchased from & a description of my colleague who ID’d you?

@tesco@abbott567 If you still have a copy of your receipt, a pic would be very helpful. I will then contact Store Management 🙂 TY – Jade

@abbott567 – .@Tesco Thanks, but not really her fault. Instead, I’d look more at why your software flags an individual dessert spoon as a restricted item

I may be being a bit harsh on Tesco. It may be that they need the barcode so they can remove it from the database, and they need the store location because perhaps different stores have different stock lists or whatever. But the ‘description of the member of staff’ part makes me uneasy. Why do they need that? This is why I refused to cooperate. If the staff need informed about spoons, then inform all of your staff about spoons. The quick Google search I performed showed this was not an isolated incident. A Daily Mail article from 2009 shows that this has been a Tesco problem for more than 6 years.

I am under the impression I was asked for ID because the woman was trying to do her job correctly. Because she was more fearful of getting in trouble at work for not asking, than she was of me for asking. We probably all know what it is like working for a large corporation, with their policies and their staff performance reviews. The pressure is on to do everything right, but to also use your initiative when it suits them. They always need a person to blame if they are left embarrassed. But I don’t blame the cashier. Nor do I want her to point her out in an identity parade, just to get her in trouble.

I think the blame lies in the design of the Tesco till system. By simply being more aware of their products, their users and their customers they could easily put an end to the ‘Spoonsgate Scandal’. It appears that despite several newspaper articles Tesco keep using the same come back. ‘We ask our colleagues to use their judgment as to whether this should be applied.’[1]

If the problem keeps on occurring, then you need to design a solution to quash it at it’s core. Wagging your finger at cashiers or stating you ask staff to make their own judgement is simply smoothing over the fractures, it isn’t solving the problem at it’s foundations. For more than six years, Tesco have been asking their members of staff to use their own judgement and common sense on this, rather than address the design flaw in their system.

A feature that simply pops up when you scan a spoon, and asks ‘Are there any knives present? YES / NO’ would probably suffice. If the cashier hits yes, then by all means do your ‘THINK 25’ checks. If the cashier hits no, then just continue with your scanning.

Sometimes the problem isn’t that hard to solve, it’s asking the right question that’s difficult, and this should be factored into your design process. If you keep encountering the same problem, then ask ‘why does this keep happening’ or ‘how can we make things easier’. Telling somebody to use their own judgement, and then telling them their judgement was wrong, is never going to solve the problem.

Anyway, to wrap this up. The vanilla yoghurt was amazing, and well worth the spoon inconvenience, so I fully expect to live happily ever after.

The End

[1] – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2580317/College-student-16-ordered-ID-Tesco-staff-tried-buy-TEASPOONS.html
[2] – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1217504/Are-old-spoon-Woman-asked-ID-buying-teaspoons-Tesco.html
[3] – https://twitter.com/Lea_Rob/status/509650565660700673
[4] – https://www.facebook.com/tesco/posts/653280684731066

What Is Normal Anyway?

‘I just want to be normal.’ I wonder how many people have muttered these words during times of turmoil. I wonder how many people have (at least in that instance) wanted to trade their noisy, adrenalised, racing thoughts, for a brain that was more peaceful. A brain that was numb, and void of opinion. I know I have.

As I sit here, staring at the blank page, I can already feel my anxieties rising. As I begin to write, I find myself trying to envision how my words will be perceived by anybody that reads them. Type, then delete, then type, then delete.

The problem is, I rarely talk about these issues for fear of ridicule. I fear that I won’t be taken seriously, or that I will be branded dramatic. I have suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember. Doctors, councillors, they all just like to label stuff and hand out leaflets. Cyclothymia, Bipolar II, these are just a few attempts at a diagnosis I’ve had thrown at me, to try and ‘define my troubles’. Professional people, friends, family, everyone has an opinion. ‘Cheer up mate.’ ‘What do you have to be down about?.’ ’Things can’t be that bad!’ This is why I say nothing. This is why I shuffle through life hiding the lows and pretending to be ok.

My anxieties go way back. I believe the need for acceptance and the need to fit in is burned deep into the limbic system of my brain. You can pretend to be confident. Bravado can get you so far, but then the armour cracks and that ugly viscous fluid of self-doubt slowly leaks out. It makes you forget who you are. It stains your soul, and the very skin you are printed on.

“As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction!”

The problem is…

I have always know I was ‘different’. Parties, fashion, clubbing, ‘getting on it’, they are all part of ‘normal life’ when you’re 18 years old and living in Newcastle; the party capital of the UK. I hated it. But if you didn’t conform, you were quickly branded ‘boring’. There is no room for introverts here, you will simply be crushed under the egos of narcissistic juggernauts.

Large crowds. Strangers. Drunk people. Rowdy and volatile situations. These are all things that send my anxieties through the roof. I spend most of the night on edge, analysing every detail of the room. Escape routes, possible threats, objects that could become potential weapons. I feel out of control, and the only way to regain any is to analyse everything. To come up with a plan for possible scenarios. As you can imagine, this is mentally exhausting, and I’m usually ready for home well before midnight. But of course, you can’t go home before midnight, because that’s ‘boring’.

Now comes the bit I find extremely difficult to admit. I spent these times (the best part of a decade), finding ways to try and subdue my anxieties, whilst still trying to fit in and maintain the illusion that I was a ’normal’ socialite. Trying to last until 4am when the clubs closed, so I could be part of the taxi-queue victory parade of full-time-partiers! I found the only way achieve this, was to not think about (or not get anxious about) anything. It sounds simple enough. But for me, the only way to achieve this, is to simply to get so off my face that my brain can’t think up anything to worry about. Or at least so it can’t remember any of it in the morning!

Looking back on it, this behaviour made me hate myself. It made me a selfish, angry and often unapproachable person. I would spend my nights unable to sleep, and my days unable to get out of bed. I would snap at anybody that attempted to save me from myself. As I look out on my past, many relationships lay wrecked in my field of view, dashed upon the rocks for simply failing to navigate the fierce storm of my self destruction! I wasn’t addressing the issue. I was simply abusing a coping mechanism. The trouble with coping mechanisms, is that they never address the problem directly. They don’t ever make you feel better, they just delay the onset of despair. And they amplify it when it arrives!

“How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?”

Creative people tend to think more. And by this, I don’t mean creative people are more intelligent, or that people who don’t necessarily consider themselves creative have nothing going on between their ears. What I mean is that creative people have a much higher chance of dwelling on something that others may overlook. They pay more attention to things, in far greater detail. Whilst this is our gift, it is also our curse. That attention to detail is the difference between painting a picture, and painting a masterpiece. But it is also this attention to detail that makes us ruminate. It is the reason we can’t let go easily. The reason we play scenarios out in our heads over and over again. The reason we can always see how we could have done things better.

It is this ruminating that is often the catalyst for depression. Or at least, it is in my case. The constant battle with yourself to be better. The over analytical views you take of your work, or yourself. The feeling that you don’t deserve any credit you receive. These feelings are all too real in our industry. Because, in this industry, it is rare for you to come up with anything entirely on your own. Developers are given work from designers. Designers are given briefs from clients. So when you reach the end of a project, it is often easy to feel like you have possibly been carried by the team, or that you have been handed an idea. If we go back to my counselling sessions they would have called this ‘imposter syndrome’. It is the inability to accept an accomplishment, despite the external evidence.

So how do we deal with this?

Learn to internalise any external verification. When somebody compliments you, believe them and take it on board. Very few people go around handing out lies as compliments, so if they tell you they like your work, it’s likely that they genuinely do. Say thank you, pat yourself on the back, and don’t discuss what you felt you could have done better!

Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people. Don’t surround yourself with people that may be negatively impacting your life, or making you feel anxious about just being yourself. One of the biggest problems in my life, was believing I had lots of friends, when in fact, I actually had lots of acquaintances. If people are being negative towards you, then stop taking their comments on board, and stop associating with those people. As Goi Nasu once said: “An entire sea of water can’t sink a ship unless it gets inside the ship. Similarly, the negativity of the world can’t put you down unless you allow it to get inside you.”

Don’t suffer in silence! If you have any doubts, anxieties, or if you are feeling depressed, talk to somebody. Sometimes just lifting the lid off it all makes the load seem lighter.

Look for flaws in others. I don’t mean this in the sense that you should make things difficult for people, or point out their mistakes. But notice to yourself that they do make mistakes, and realise that this is what humans do. Realise that you are not alone. By noticing that other people are not perfect (because nobody is), it can help you to come to terms with your own mistakes when you make them.

Discover your fears. All anxieties stem from fear. You need to work out what it is exactly that you are afraid of, and make an active plan to try and conquer them.

Discover what really makes you happy. Most people think more money will make them happy. But the depression doesn’t go away, no matter how much money they make. For me, I am most happy when I am helping people. I would rather give something away for free and feel I have genuinely helped another human, than see it as an opportunity to exploit somebody and make some money.

Don’t conform. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. I am now teetotal, simply because I don’t enjoy drinking. I never have. The coping mechanism is no longer needed. People may think it is boring, so what? In fact, people often have more of an issue with me not drinking, than I do!

Most importantly: Be true to yourself. Wear the clothes you want to wear, rather than what society has told you is cool. Discuss things that interest you, rather than ‘twerking’, or what ever is popular at the time. Individuality is what makes us human. We should embrace and celebrate the fact that everybody is different. How can you ever escape depression with the suppression of who you are? How can you ever be happy with yourself if you are pretending to be somebody else?

If you don’t agree with any of these points, then that is fine. If I don’t know you, I no longer require your approval! I am what I am, not what you would like me to be.’

Geek Mental Help Week is a week-long series of articles, blog posts, conversations, podcasts and events across the web about mental health issues, how to help people who suffer, and those who care for us.

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