The Bland Design Episode

Paul Boag

This week on the Boagworld show we talk about bland design, testing devices and contributing to the future of the web.

Skip to the discussion or this week’s links.

This weeks show is sponsored by Videoblocks and CurrencyFair.

Paul: Hello and welcome to the Boagworld show the podcast about all aspects of digital design, development and strategy. My name is Paul Boag and joining me on this week’s show is Andy Clarke, hello Andy.


Paul: Don’t do it. I thought you were going to go “hello” in your sexy voice like you did a minute ago.

Andy:No I’d get arrested. If I keep sounding like Lesley Phillips people are going to get the wrong impression. So, I’m not going to do that anymore. I was gonna say “g’day” but then I realised that I’m back here now to grey skies and Brexit so I have to say whatcha.

Paul: Watcha, yeah. Oh, I am sorry to hear that you are back. No, that sounded bad didn’t it? (Laughter) I didn’t mean it like that.

Andy:It’s okay. We can all commiserate together.

Paul: Because I know how much you love Australia.

Andy:That’s a conversation we need to have another time.

Paul: Oh, you are determined to move out there aren’t you? (Laughter) Yes, he’s going to get in such trouble with his wife.

Andy:That’s why I’m sitting here with my lips sealed.

Paul: Right, is she in the room with you by any chance?

Andy:No but she will listen to it later and get into just as much trouble!

Paul: You will do. Even now. That’s it. Now my wife does the transcription for the show, I’m terrified that if we run slightly over time she will moan about having to do the extra time. And I tell you the worst thing, Sam, she really doesn’t like you mate! Because apparently you talk really fast.

Sam: Oh… kay….

Paul: So we all need to slow and speak very carefully otherwise my wife will be upset.

Sam: Okay, that will now be my priority.

Paul: Yes, you don’t have two be interesting, just slow and clear.

Sam: What about patronising?

Paul: Patronising is good. She loves it when I patronise her!

Sam: All right, noted.

Paul: So, we are also being joined by Sam as you can hear.

Sam: Hello, hello.

Paul: hell… o…. I am Sam Barnes.

Sam: Exactly, the project manager robot.

Paul: Yes, and we’ve got Rachel Andrew on hotel Wi-Fi. Hello Rachel.

Rachel: Hello, yes I am in Berlin this week.

Paul: Exactly, there we go. (Laughter) that was great Rachel. You couldn’t have done that any better. I introduced you as speaking on hotel Wi-Fi and immediately you turn into a sylon and it doesn’t come through so…

Rachel: Excellent!

Paul: It’s like it new. So we’ve got Rachel on the show and then of course Marcus. Hello Marcus.

Marcus: Hello Paul. And the unfunny thing about that is because Rachel is recording remotely it won’t sound like she wasn’t coming through.

Rachel: You will have to add some sort of effect.

Marcus: I will have to block you out now.

Paul: Yeah, and now that will confuse people because you just said… Oh, it doesn’t matter. Whatever. I don’t know any more.

Marcus: We are in a spiral now aren’t we?

Andy:Where is Rachel this week?

Paul: Gore, blooming heck! That was loud!

Rachel: I’m in Berlin.

Marcus: Yes. How lovely!

Paul: That’s where I want to move.

Rachel: That’s where I want to move. Drew is here and I’m trying to persuade him but every time I bring him to Berlin it’s freezing cold so he thinks it’s really bleak.

Paul: Ahh.

Sam: Are we all moving?

Paul: Well it sounds like it doesn’t it. I tell you where I’m not moving. (Laughter) don’t fancy moving to the states right now. Geewhiz, they’ve lost the plot haven’t they? Bless them.

Rachel: I don’t think we can talk.

Paul: Well know, this is very true. The fact that the first British MP Donald Trump meets with is “that man.”

Andy:Oh, don’t get me started!

Marcus: Well, interestingly we have got a couple of American clients at the moment and they are going through all the same emotions that we went through. Andy is obviously still going through the same emotions. For me they have kind of died a little, should I say. But she is in, she is going through the disbelief, despair, anger, all the stages of grief. Went into a full diatribe of you know this man can’t be sleeping in the same place that Lincoln slept. And all this kind of thing. And it’s like, wow. But then I did point out that we have got Brexit for ever and you have only got Trump for possibly eight years.

Sam: A lot of damage can be done in those four years.

Marcus: True.

Paul: The reason I bought this up wasn’t just to rant about how horrible Trump because honestly I imagine at least some Americans don’t think he is. Or thought he was the lesser of two evils. Which I think to be honest is probably what most people thought. The reason I wanted to bring it up is that he himself says that he thinks social media won his campaign. Also there has been a lot flying around that places like Facebook are to blame for this because they create this environment where fake news stories fly around all over the place and that some of these fake news stories are really damaging to the Clinton campaign. I am just interested, it feels like the old story of “Oh, the Internet is bad and the world has gone bad because of new technology”. Like people didn’t like the telephone and the television and all the rest of it. I’m just interested in what you guys think. Andy, you’ve always got an opinion on absolutely everything.

Andy:I just think that it’s not necessarily about blaming the Internet this time. It is exactly the same problem as I think people have had with our tabloid media or even broadsheet newspapers over the last kind of, I don’t know, however long. It is that people base their opinion on what they are told and we could say that Facebook might have published stories that were more pro-Trump or anti-Clinton or whatever but that is no different to stuff appearing in the newspapers or on the radio or on the BBC which as far as I am concerned is so far biased towards the right wing of the Tory party right now. I mean all of these, you touched on Farage earlier on, why was he front page news? Why was he lead story on the BBC when I landed the other day, in meeting Trump? Here is a guy who has never won a parliamentary election that runs a party at the moment that has got one MP and yet there he is on the BBC front page news, he’s in all the debates pre-Brexit et cetera, et cetera. So, so biased. So the problem I think is, people aren’t necessarily stupid. although I think, as regards most leave voters they haven’t got two brain cells to rub together, but the problem isn’t that. The problem is that a) what people are told and that comes down obviously to mainstream media but the other thing is that you’ve got to ask the question Brexit and otherwise, why give people the choice? When they are so plainly unqualified to make a bloody decision of such magnitude? I was talking to Alex about this the other day when we were having a chat about Brexit and he was saying “Yes, there are people in our family that voted Brexit”. Well, maybe they’re not in my immediate family because they’ll have been buried under the patio but! The people who voted, up in Lancaster where my family live, they are not affected by coming in or going out. They are just affected by what they hear in the media and all this kind of stuff. That’s the problem they are not qualified to be making the decision about such a thing.

Paul: You can say that about Brexit but you can’t say that about the US presidential elections. Surely people have got a right to vote who their president is!

Marcus: Yeah, I mean,……


Paul: Good try Marcus, go for it.

Marcus: I’m going to go for it. Yeah, a very sad thing I am about to say but I think, because of the fact that Trump won, maybe makes what I am going to say true, but I think people liked his message. I think there are a lot of people out there that liked his kind of racist and misogynistic message and they voted for him because they thought that was how, the way the world should be. A very depressing thing to say but the fact that he has won there has got to be some kind of truth behind that.

Rachel: I think a lot of people are afraid though and I think it comes from a place, a lot of the time, of fear. Because things are changing and I think that kind of message of “Oh we will make it all right, we will make it the way it was before” which is essentially the same as we had before Brexit, that seems reassuring to people “Oh, well it was better before” but of course it wasn’t. But if people are looking into an uncertain future where they are not sure about what sort of jobs they are going to do, they are frightened about where things are going in the world, looking back to the past, some sort of fake utopia which never existed anyway but if someone sounds convincing enough. I think that’s a lot of what this is.

Paul: You know, it depends… You say it wasn’t better before but that very much depends on what you do. If you manufactured cars in Detroit then it was better before. If you are a programmer who develops web apps then then it wasn’t. It is the fact that society changes, and bringing it vaguely back to technology, and what it is that what we do, every time there’s been a big technological change there have been winners and losers but the truth is it actually doesn’t matter whether it was better before or not. There is no going back as far as I can see it.

Rachel: No, it is interesting this thing about technical change, a lot of my ancestors went to America. They went to America at the time when… As industry was becoming more and more automated and so all of these factory workers and people who worked in farms and worked on the land they were finding their jobs were disappearing. Because of all these machines. In Wiltshire people were breaking up the machines and getting really angry that these things were taking their jobs, back in Victorian times. A whole bunch of them ended up in the states because they didn’t have work in the UK so they emigrated and went to America to find… To get land and be able to build a life. So, this sort of thing has happened repeatedly but then it was breaking up the machines that were being used to take jobs. Now it’s a fear of the jobs that we do.

Paul: Hmmm, Sam?

Sam: I was just thinking about something and he said. I completely agree that the kind of manipulation of the truth, the bias, has been going on since the dawn of time. But it just strikes me that, I don’t know if it’s my attention to it or if it’s always been there but certainly the reach that those biased opinions or those fake stories can have now. It is so much easier to create them and distribute them amongst so many more people. I’ve seen people sharing stuff where it is so obviously link bait. And actually they haven’t even read it, they’ve read the title and it fits in with their beliefs. To be fair on either side of the debate. There is just a lot less scrutiny, it feels. There is so little scrutiny.

Paul: You see this is where I do think social media has had a big impact. It has had a big impact… Or digital has had a big impact for a couple of reasons. One is that it has undermined the business model of existing newspapers which means that they have cuts costs which means there is not the in-depth journalism that there was which means that a lot of times they are just picking up on something they have seen online and re-publishing it. Then you’ve got situations where, on social media a fake story, if it has got a good headline, if it is compelling enough it gets shared, as you say, without anyone ever checking it. And then on top of it you’ve got social media and social channels like Facebook that are going “Ah, this person likes seeing Republican news stories and always liking those therefore we are going to show them more of that type of thing”. So you end up with this filter bubble where people are only having their own views constantly reinforced.

Sam: I must admit that blew me away when Brexit happened. I wasn’t even aware of “echo chambers” or anything like that. I hadn’t really thought about it at all but a colleague of mine wrote a post and it really rocked me actually because he was right. By my world we were going to stay, in fact it wasn’t even close. By the polls on the news we were going to stay, it was closer but still we were going to stay. And it just goes to show how powerful that is. We are all pretty smart people and we are probably a victim of it as much as anybody. The thing that scares me is the fact that people at the polls are obviously not being truthful. I mean that is nothing to do with technology…

Paul: Now you see that’s really interesting, sorry Rachel, I know you’re trying to get in…. Serves you right for being on rubbish hotel Wi-Fi. That I find is very interesting as well because I think then you get into the realms of the fact that people… There is such a judgemental culture online these days. We all like to judge each other very quickly and I think that applies whether you are right wing or left wing.

Sam: I agree.

Paul: So I couldn’t for example say… Well, I can’t say it, can I! If I expressed an opinion that was pro life you can guarantee pro-choice would jump on me and vice versa. Whichever, doesn’t really matter. So I think people tend not to express how they feel until they go to the voting booth where no one else can see them.

Sam: And actually I said it had nothing to do with technology but of course it does because it makes it a lot easier and instant to get that kind of shaming, in a way.

Paul: Exactly, yeah. Rachel sorry.

Rachel: I was going to say that I think one of my successes as a parent and I don’t have many, one of my successes as a parent I have managed to raise my daughter to be incredibly cynical of all this stuff and to ask the questions. They don’t do it in schools. They don’t teach kids to assess stuff, to look at things and say is this truthful, is this something which I should take at face value, where has this come from. What is the bias behind this, they do not teach this stuff to kids so as a parent you have to do it, you have to show them how much bias there is. You have to teach them to read statistics, to understand when they see this “This gives you twice the possibility of getting cancer” and then there’s another thing along the next day. You say, well actually what does that mean, what does that mean in real numbers". I think there is this huge lack of education as to how to read a news story and how to read the stuff that is put in front of us. Anyone who is a parent needs to be drumming that into their kids because I think a lot of the problems that we see with people being unable to decide how to vote or just taking it as complete face value what they see in the media is because they don’t have any basis for digging into that. You know, is there something behind this, someone is trying trying to influence me. Why? What is the point of view? You need to make sure that our kids know this.

Sam: There is that site, I think it is called That is something I discovered during this whole US election thing. When I actually took the time to compare that, not scientifically, but certainly they were calling it what it was. I was pretty shocked at how even I had been, I guess, misled on both sides. I really had, it was quite shocking. I think that should be where people start but yeah.

Paul: There is also this view these days that everything becomes polarised. Whether that’s because of social media and the filter bubble I’m not quite sure but there is this kind of thing that… I’ll use Andy as an example because I like picking on Andy. Andy has been very vocal about Brexit, that everybody that voted to leave are idiots, what were they thinking. From my perspective I can completely see where Andy is coming from and I kind of feel the same. What were people thinking? This doesn’t make any sense. Are they mad? But on the other hand that’s only because I’ve got a certain perspective on life, I come from a certain place. I didn’t get… My dad for example. He voted to leave and that is because he had gone through the horrors of the common agricultural policy and the huge impact that had on the agricultural industry in the UK. That had given him a completely different perspective than me on, about that issue than I had. There is no black-and-white with these things yet we are so quick to shout at each other on Twitter.

Sam: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. I mean, there’s left and there’s right, if you are not either of those then each of them will blame you or label you as the other. Whereas I think that there are so many different opinions that I have that would sound contradictory to maybe the left or the right. But the fact of the matter is there are… I must admit after Brexit I was completely in the camp of labelling people. You know, “You idiots”, da da da. I was there, and I think the reflection and reading all sorts of stuff afterwards, and actually the US election, has really brought home to me that that isn’t going to get us anywhere in fact that’s going to get us Brexit and Trump. That is my honest opinion.

Rachel: Yeah, I think so. I think it becomes very polarised, I chucked a couple of links actually in the chat, it might be useful for the show notes. There is a book called “The Tiger that isn’t” which is about the numbers that they used to sway us one way or the other. Also the “Bad science” book which is just great about looking behind the big stories and they are good books if people want to chuck stuff… I recommend both those to my daughter at one time or another and they are interesting books.

Marcus: I got my kids to read Bad Science, the other one I will have a look at.

Rachel: The Tiger that isn’t as interesting just about how statistics are used to sway arguments.

Paul: You, I like the look of both of those. That’s going on my list. All right….

Marcus: No don’t stop, because you’ve pointed the finger at Andy and Andy needs to respond.

Paul: I don’t think he cares what I think.

Andy:No, well actually your Dad, very nice chap, I like your Dad. Quite nice, I wasn’t meaning that my insult would be against your Dad.

Paul: No, no, no. I know you didn’t!

Andy: It’s fine. But in general terms, no, I like labelling people still. And I like insulting them! (Laughter) because to be honest it is fun. If I’m not picking on leave voters I’m picking on people from Peterborough so you know, you pays your money, you takes your choice.

Paul: And Andy you’ve always… Yes theres always been a comedy factor to you and I know there is an underlying seriousness to it as well but it’s always that tongue in cheek approach.

Andy:It is, you know, when you say somebody’s got the sense of a piece of carpet, you know, you take it one way or the other.

Paul: Yes exactly. So no, I wasn’t having a go at Andy. I’m sorry if it came across like that.

Andy:No, no, no, it’s fine.

Paul: He is a twat though, but that’s another story! Right, let’s move on to our sponsor for…

Andy:Can I just tell you a story before we talk about… You’ve got to let me do this.

Paul: Okay. Go on then.

Andy:You’ve got to let me do this because it is my payback for you insulting me. I’ve just been in Australia for the last six weeks and…

Paul: Have you?! You haven’t mentioned it!

Andy:It’s amazing the difference in culture, little details between here and there. One interesting thing was they have a campaign against littering at the moment so you see big posters on the sides of buses and everywhere you go there is this one particular campaign which is encouraging people not to toss their litter. So Sue is in one of the museums one day and going round looking at the exhibits and she is walking behind a group of 8 to 10-year-old schoolchildren with a teacher and they are looking at this exhibit and there is a fake beach there and it has got can and some cigarette butts and an old paint tin and all this kind of litter that is lying on the beach. The teacher turns round to this group of a dozen 8 to 10-year-olds and says “And children what do we say if we see somebody littering?” And all of these kids shouted in unison “Don’t be a tosser”. (Laughter)

Paul: Yeah. And this is the country you want to live in? The country of tossers.

Andy:I like that.

Sam: The little differences.

Rachel: It is very straightforward is the Australian…

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Round Table Discussion

Paul: Andy, as I was so rude to you earlier I will let you kick off because apparently you think Steve Jobs is to blame… Just generally.

Andy:For what?

Paul: Well you told me that you had some problem with something Steve Jobs said.

Andy: No I don’t have any problem with what Steve Jobs said. I tell you what, where this all came from… I don’t know whether I’ve mentioned this to you before but I’ve just been in Australia… Did I bring that up?

Paul: Maybe once or twice.

Andy: Hmmm, yes. I’ve been at a couple of conferences down under in Australia and I think at both of them a speaker brought up the paraphrase of the Steve Jobs quote which is “Design isn’t what something looks like it how something works”. I think we’ve all probably heard that quote. I don’t know, I can’t remember whether they were UX people or Dev people but this quotation came up on a slide and it kind of got me thinking because you hear this quote coming back again and again and again. Or this sentiment coming back again and again and again and quite often when I’ll talk about homogenous design or everything looking the same or, I don’t know, things being unimaginative or whatever people will always, always trot out on Twitter “Yes it’s not how something looks, it’s how something works that is important”. Again paraphrasing this whole kind of Steve Jobs thing. So it got me thinking the other day about a) what this quote was all about and what Steve actually did say. And I’ve got it in front of me actually and he said something “People think that it [design] is veneer. Designers are handed a box and told make it look good, that’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like, design is how it works” and that is one of the things he said. But it got me thinking, do you remember what it was that got us excited about Apple products again all those years ago? It is probably, if you are older than… As old as me, it was probably that original iMac G3. Do you remember the thing? The kind of the plastic thing, I’ll put a link in the notes. Amazing looking piece of kit that you lusted after and you’d lusted after it before you actually saw it or saw how it worked or used it or whatever. I just think that people are jumping all over this “No design isn’t how something looks it’s how something works gig” and completely forgetting about the fact that there is this extra component that is about creating something that people want to own or emotionally connect to or something. If we just think about how something works we are going to end up with the web that looks like a Meccano set. Which is all just about the nuts and bolts and nothing about the imagination. I don’t think that’s what Steve Jobs was talking about when he said it was not about veneer. Of course it’s not just about putting veneer on top of… What they say “lipstick on the pig!” But I think the people are taking it to extremes.

Paul: Oh yeah. I totally agreed that that wasn’t what Steve Jobs said and it wasn’t what he meant. Would you agree, mind, that you need… It needs to work before you worry about the veneer. Do you know what I mean, that your base level is that it has to be usable, functional and accessible and then you make it look pretty.

Andy: Who would go out and to design something that wasn’t usable or functional, intentionally!?

Paul: Oh come on.

Andy: Intentionally. Nobody sits there and thinks I’m going to design something that’s really bloody awkward to use today!

Paul: Yes, but there are a lot of people that… There’s been years of design, especially from ad agencies or people without a real background in user interface design, that have done something that blows your socks off and looks absolutely incredible but if you try and find anything or you try and use it, it is a pain in the arse to do so. A classic example are things like, in the past, the Nike site or the high-end car or band sites where they look incredible, they’re really impressive from a visual point of view but actually getting to any kind of information is really challenging.

Andy: Nobody would suggest, I think for a minute, that you would intentionally go out and make something that was difficult to use unless you actually wanted to slow people down and make them think. Which I think is a thing in itself. I don’t think that is the point I think the point is that what we are doing at the moment is focusing so much on this kind of “How something works gig” and not respecting the fact that we have to create an emotional attachment in people as well.

Paul: Yep. And that I would agree with. Sam?

Sam: I was just thinking there if you’re thinking like a functional site like Gov.UK, that kind of site that is primarily there for function versus a luxury e-commerce site. I think that there are a couple of things here. One, I would completely agree, by the way, with both of you, that if you went for the “As long as it works” approach to a luxury e-commerce site I would say you are kind of missing your audience. They are going to be looking for that aesthetic. Whereas Gov.UK users arguably won’t care as much. They just want quick access to information. Is this not just simply, I guess, an affect of agile and scrum and MVP thing that’s been going on for the last few years where people are, with the right intentions, but you couldn’t for instance create that luxury e-commerce site and have it look like and say that’s fine because Steve Jobs says that’s fine. That’s just falls apart in my opinion, in that example.

Paul: I do agree that, with what you’re saying about agile. That I don’t think agile particularly helps or provides the space or time and the creativity to enable you to create a better user… Visual aesthetic. I think where my problem is, is that, in my perspective it works something like this. Something has to first of all, the base level, the minimum, minimum requirement of every site, in my opinion, is that it has to be accessible. Then up from that it has to be usable. You have to be able to find your way around it. You have to be able to get the content you want and then the level on top of that is it has to be desirable and engaging. If you stop at just accessible you have failed. If you stop at just usable you have failed. Right, you need it to be desirable and engaging with a few exceptions. I think is an example of that because it is utilitarian it is not trying to sell you anything. It is a service pure and simple. But everybody else needs to achieve all three levels but in my head if you make it desirable and that undermines the accessibility or usability you have also failed. Equally, if you make it usable and that undermines the level below it, which is accessibility, then you have failed. So, I am totally with you Andy that yes, you can’t… You have to make it desirable, engaging, exciting but you can’t do that at the cost of usability or accessibility.

Marcus: I think one of the problems is the processes that we go through to build websites. In that there is such a lot of emphasis on early prototyping. I’m not saying… There’s a good reason for that obviously to test it with real users as quickly as you can. But what I have seen happen, and I think one of the reasons why we end up with so many websites that look the same is because designers are brought in too late and they end up just colouring in wireframes. That is one of the reasons why we’ve got what we’ve got but I think it’s a subject that has been talked about a lot over the last year or so. Hopefully it will change going forward because it is something we are talking about.

Sam: I think leading on from that as well the process… I’ve seen it many times myself where you start with the best intentions to do all the right processes but through whatever the business is going through at the time… I mean, one of the benefits of working in an agile fashion is that you can stop. Whereas before the project was a write-off. You can actually stop and have something out there working for customers. I think that the tendency is that you stop and you don’t go back to it because you get focused on something else which isn’t good. Isn’t good.

Paul: Andy, from your perspective what needs to be different? How do we need to work in a different way?

Andy: I think that we need to… And I’ve been talking about this in my conference talks recently… I think that we need to include creative direction at the heart of a products, if that’s what we’re doing, design. I’ve been working down in Australia recently with a bunch of companies.

Paul: Oh, have you been in Australia!?

Andy:Yeah, I have, I don’t know if I’d bought that up! Where there is no creative leadership. Whether it’s the website or the product or whatever that people are making, all of that comes under at the moment product teams. That include UX people and include visual designers and they include everything else but there isn’t a creative strategy. You know, we often see organisations that will have a product team and they will have a marketing team. And the marketing team will look after the front end website and they will be thinking about the brand values and all of that usual kind of stuff that goes with it. But those people are not necessarily involved in the design of the look and the feel of the product for example. And I think that is where we need to… We need to actually start thinking about the personality of the product as well as its function.

Paul: Yeah, and I do think, I think that’s a very valid point. I think there is normally a massive disconnect between the functionality and the UX and those kinds of things and then the marketing kind side of stuff. I have a real problem with almost the snobbery that exists, and I include myself in this by the way, the snobbery that exists amongst the user experience community towards marketing people. That marketing is somehow a dirty word. And I actually think you are right, that there is a need for almost like the old-fashioned art director that kind of bridged that gap between the two.

Sam: Could I ask a question. I agree, it all sounds great but is there any way you can describe how that would work at a ground level? Like, right down to a few sprints. How would that change the involvement or… I’m just trying to picture how that would practically work. Because I completely agree in theory.

Paul: Andy this is your idea! (Laughter)

Andy: I didn’t want to jump in though. I think it’s… one of the interesting things is how do you fit this stuff into a sprint for one thing? Quite often we don’t have visual design sprints or this kind of thing. I think the problem is, and the opportunity for improvement is actually thinking about what design is right now in terms of visual designers, and I think quite often, I think Marcus said about colouring in wireframes. At the moment, and this goes for a lot of the teams that I have been working with, the stuff that they design is very much a fait accompli, that’s it. It’s been tested, it’s been wire framed, it’s been prototyped, it’s been whatever and now just make it look good. Which is exactly the kind of veneer that Jobs was talking about. And actually what we want to be doing is to be sitting there thinking about exactly what is it that makes people want to use this product and involving designers right from the very beginning. And I think one of the things that I have learnt from doing my consulting over the last sort of few months is that one of the most important things about doing things like design systems is not the actual component libraries but the design principles themselves. That is something where marketing people and designers can really have an impact and in actually deciding what these design principles are and how we would then measure everything that we do against them. And that is missing in a lot of product teams right now. A lot of UX people are just kind of, you know, bowling ahead without remembering what it is that actually were trying to build.

Marcus: I think a couple of really practical things that you can do are basically don’t let non-designers design wireframes that have boxes and layouts. Get them to do lists, prioritise lists and then ensure that the designer is the person that designed the prototype. That way there isn’t this kind of, like Andy says, there isn’t a fate completely, you haven’t delivered a layout. I know you can say to the designer “Oh, here’s a layout, you can do what you like” but if there is actually sort of boxes in a row and there’s something else that appears, you have started the visual design process for them. So let them do that. That is a very practical way of doing this.

Sam: One final question is… Andy is there anyone you know who is doing a good job at this? That people… Because I’m fascinated by this it feels like, almost like a small evolution over the processes that we are using right now because I’ve always felt that this was a bit lacking I know Paul did too. Is there anyone that’s doing this well that people can look at or is it kind of something for us to forge.

Andy: I think it is something for us to forge in general. I am seeing a little bit of more art directed stuff going on in editorial now. I’ve certainly got more clients that are asking me to talk to them about kind of art direction and editorial and bringing some personality back to news sites for example. But in the product space no, I don’t know whether there is. No, it’s a very difficult… No, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head.

Sam: Okay.

Paul: I mean you are absolutely right on the editorial and content site. I’m sitting writing an expert review at the moment and the thing that I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them over is, “Look, text is not the only way of communicating information” And that there is so much that they can be doing. So I think from a kind of an editorial point of view absolutely. Andy, what do you think of… I look at someone like MailChimp, not so much now maybe, but back in the day a little bit more, where they developed a very strong visual and character personality identity. And that infused everything from the way copy addressed you to their branding, to even little tweaks in the user interface that represented that stuff. I feel that that has been sucked out of their site a little bit. Would you say they were an example? Is that the kind of thing you mean?

Andy: It’s not exactly the kind of things that I mean but I would say that MailChimp has been the poster child for design with the personality over the last few years. It is no coincidence that Invision have been developing their brand and their presentation and, in fact, their product in the same kind of spirit as MailChimp did back in the day. That has to come down to Aaron Walter.

Paul: Rachel, you’ve been very quiet as a developer. I’m interested in your perspective on all of this.

Rachel: Yeah, it was the MailChimp thing that reminded me that back in the day when we did client work, we were recommending MailChimp to clients who were very, very put off by the whole monkey, cheeky sort of branding thing. So, I think it appealed very much to web designers and developers but putting that in front of an end client like this, they were like “this is…” They felt it wasn’t professional, it wasn’t a serious thing that they were going to entrust the thousands and thousands of emails to. So I think this can kind of backfire. And we kind of had the same issue with Perch in that when perch was just this very little CMS the whole, all the birds and the highly illustrated style that we had worked really, really well. It was beneficial for us. As people started to use Perch for bigger products serious projects and more serious projects then we started to get this feedback that we “Oh, the site looks too childish”, “it looks like something that is a toy.”. So when you start to inject this personality it’s a really difficult balance because while some people will find it great and it may be that the people that you are selling to think it is great. But the decision-makers may be one step removed and don’t necessarily get that.

Paul: Yeah, I mean that… But that’s where you get into good design and good design decisions because the danger is that if you don’t design, I’ve said this many, many times, if you don’t design for someone then you end up designing for nobody and you end up with something very bland and very featureless that doesn’t say anything. That doesn’t mean that everything has to be comic and humorous like MailChimp. I remember working once with a, back in the day, with an HR company that were dealing with professionals. And they wrote the best copy I think I have ever read on a website because it walked that line between being friendly and personable but not too humorous. It treated the people it was writing to as humans rather than corporate bot 2000 but on the other hand it didn’t do it in a really jokey way. So that’s where a good designer comes in and good art direction comes in, is to set those standards. And it is a tricky line but I agree with Andy what’s happened is because it’s a tricky line, a lot of people have gone “Oh, I won’t do anything, I will just give up and we’ll end up producing something that ends up looking like every other site out there” and that is equally a mistake. So, there we go I think we will move on from that one because we could go on for… And I do at least want to get onto Marcus’s, well actually I would like to do Rachel’s as well because both you two missed out last week. Marcus, you want to talk about the problem of testing in a world with so many different devices.

Marcus: Yeah, let’s do this one quickly because I don’t think… I wanted to bring it up because it is an issue but I’m not sure were going to get an awful lot of answers. Basically at our office down in Winchester we’ve got a dedicated desk that is covered in old phones and computers and tablet devices all of which are now somewhat old and I have been talking to our guys about what do we need to be buying to test on? Because I’m quite happy to buy stuff to test on, it’s part of the service that we bring to our clients, we don’t want to deliver sites that are untested. I’m just interested to know what the rest of the people in this digital room do regarding testing on different devices, different operating systems that kind of thing? Because it is a cost, this is me bringing in my business head to the discussion. And it’s a cost that we have to bear but I don’t know what to buy. I don’t know how far to go so I would be interested to know what other people’s thoughts are on that.

Rachel: I think… There’s a couple of things. You want to be able to test on devices that kind of fill the full range from the high-end devices I’m kind of thinking iPhones and decent android phones and so on and obviously it’s important to look at your stuff on those. I think if you’re trying to have a minimal setup of things. The other thing you need to have is a really cheap low end smartphone something that, you know, something that might be someone’s first phone or you or you give to a kid. These underpowered things because it’s not just because they have not great screens and are smaller often. They also just don’t have the capabilities in terms of the technology as the nicer devices. So you might find that things that you think perform perfectly well on an iPhone are just awful and janky on some low-end devices. So it’s almost more about the profile of those devices and actually which operating system they are running and so on. It’s making sure you’ve got a bit of a spread of the kind of things that are out there.

Marcus: Yeah, we’ve got that at the moment but I need to update, good advice. What about you Sam?

Sam: Umm, I think coming from more product background recently it was a bit easier for us to determine what to test on. Obviously we would look at the statistics and draw a line where we thought we would capture the majority of the traffic and that would be our core things to test on. But even then I think Rachel was absolutely right we fell foul of things like not testing on 3G.. You know, it’s silly little things like that where you have got a device that is working well and even the whole experience feels good then you put it live and people start complaining “This is slow, that is slow” and it’s the 3G that is actually the differentiator, if that makes sense. Again I think there’s obviously all the services out there where you can test your layout, I guess you could call it, on. But I think there is a bit of work still to do, with the money men et cetera, to explain why that isn’t always good. There is more to it, depending on your project you need to feel the device and see how it works with your hand, as it were. I think the final thing I would say is that one thing we always have to bear in mind is how our device testing list can actually influence our audience. I remember times when we were saying that a certain percentage were using a certain device and none were using another but what we found out was that obviously we had been optimising for these devices and it really threw us. We actually gave it a test and optimised for a device that we didn’t think was popular and within a space of about a month or two that figure did climb way more than you would expect. That took us by surprise too. So what to test on and when to buy… A much bigger question than most people realise.

Marcus: From what you’ve just said it is basically, you need to test on everything.

Sam: But you can’t!

Marcus: But you can’t! Yeah, exactly.

Rachel: There are these open device labs out there. If there is one near you. That’s the project where people have these open device labs where they collect up a whole bunch of devices and people donate them. You can usually book a time to go in and try your stuff out on lots of devices. And that is a great option for people who are maybe freelancers or who just can’t afford to be buying a whole ton of devices. See if you can find an open device lab and go and have a session testing with lots of different things. Even if you can’t do that all of the time it will give you a chance to get your hands on lots of devices and just see how they behave with some common things that you might want to do.

Paul: I totally agree. I really like Sam’s point about testing on a 3G network as well. I was out in India recently and that was the bane of my life because, you know, the connectivity was so poor there was such slow… It was supposedly 3G but it wasn’t good 3G changed and it completely changed the whole experience which is really good. Well, really bad but you know what I mean! Rachel please save me from my waffle (laughter). Move on to whatever it was you were going to talk about!

Rachel: Whatever it was I was going to… What I wanted to talk about is a bit of what I’ve been talking about onstage at these various conferences that I’ve been at. I’ve been talking a lot about New CSS, I’m an advice expert to the CSS working group, and one of the things I am really keen… because I’m not affiliated to a browser company I am just an independent person, most of the people who are on the CSS working group are in some way affiliated to browser manufacturers or some other user agent. So uses and develops something using CSS. So what I’m very keen to have is more developer and designer feedback to the CSS working group. So I try and get that as I go around conferences, try to chat people find out what they are interested in in CSS. I think, the feeling I get is that people don’t realise that it is possible for all of us to get involved with new CSS specs. and to have our say about these things. This year the CSS working group moved all their specification issues and discussions to Github which is great because it used to be the fact that if you wanted to get involved with CSS you had to subscribe to the world’s worst mailing list. Which was like, from the 90s. You’d subscribe and you would immediately start getting this torrent of emails all of which sounded really angry as people had academic arguments about CSS and very, very quickly those things got very complicated because…. these are… A lot of people are implementing in browsers. They are browser implementers, they speak in a language that we don’t. And I think that is just incredibly off putting. So the fact now that every spec… You can go to Github, you can find the spec you are interested in, say you’re interested in CSS grids I would go and see which issues are listed for Grid and some of those are things like what should we call this property? How do we name it? And it is quite interesting. That comes up quite a lot in working group discussions. We don’t know what to call something. What is a good name for this? And that is something that everybody can input into.

Paul: Because I mean, I think for me that is what has always put me off of these groups is like… I don’t feel competent, but I would feel competent to expression opinion over what to name something.

Rachel: Exactly, and on Github it’s a lot easier to see the issues or to raise an issue. But the other thing is that what happens in working group discussions a lot of the time is they say “What do authors think about this feature?” Typically what I do is I just Google. If I haven’t spoken to people about it, I Google, I think “Is anyone writing about this”? And you will find one or two people have written a blog post or an article about something and literally it can be the difference… How the feature is changed can be just because we found a bit of author feedback about that. We are like “Ah, yes, people have got use cases for this, this is something we should be talking about”. So I think it is really important that people realise that they can impact how CSS develops by just writing about the use cases they have for CSS features. Making sure it is out there so that when we are looking, when we are looking to find out what people are trying to do with Flexbox and are struggling, when we are looking at what grids are out there, what are people trying to do with Grid and they are struggling. For the level II of the spec a lot of that is going to come from the community, what people are wanting to do. And the only way we find that stuff is if we are talking about it

Paul: I was just going to say it almost sounds like you want some beginners, as well, to be inputing into this stuff.

Rachel: Absolutely, absolutely.

Paul: Because otherwise it is just a load of very clever people that are finding things very easy because they’re very clever. You know?

Rachel: Well yeah! Well, that’s it.

Paul: You need some thickys like me is what I’m saying.

Rachel: Well you need people as well from different backgrounds. You know, I would love to see more designers say looking at grid layouts or something and saying “We can’t yet do this type of thing, here’s a thing that we want to do and we can’t do it” and then that is something that can be looked at. And no, it probably isn’t going to get mapped directly onto a CSS spec. because these things have to deal with languages that go into different directions and all the interop??? Issues. But those ideas, those ideas are likely to be discussed by the working group and are hopefully going to end up in a spec. The same is true with features you want to get into browsers. If you are not talking about them and saying why you want them then browser vendor’s won’t implement them. So it is so important to start looking at stuff and say “Hey, here’s a really great feature that is only in Firefox, or only in Chrome. Here’s why want to be able to use it and I can’t”, so that those kinds of noises out there in the community that then encourages people to start implementing and it’s really, really important.

Paul: Andy, I mean, you are a designer have you ever inputted into this stuff?

Andy: Yeah, actually I was an invited expert to the CSS working group back in the mid-zz, 2004/2005 and it taught me a couple of things. The most important thing it taught me was that I am the world’s worst collaborator. I am… It is just not for me. It really isn’t. I had nothing sensible to say at all about contributing to the W3C or to working groups.

Paul: Glad I asked you!

Andy:But what I would say, and I’ve got to keep this incredibly brief, but I have just come back from Australia where… I did talk, I did do a couple of talks and I did a couple of workshops where I was teaching imaginative layout. The afternoon session was all about flexbox and CSS grid and I could not have done that had it not been for Rachel. So I wanted to say publicly while we are on this podcast, thank you Rachel for everything that you are doing with this because you made everything so really clear and your videos are amazing and I saw a couple of the new ones today and keep doing that please!

Rachel: Well I think… Part of that… I really wanted us to have Grid where as soon as I saw it, I saw the original implementation, we’re talking over four years ago and I was like, I want this, I want this for me. So I just started going on about it and Igalia who had been doing the development in blink, so in chrome, have just put their intent to ship to the chrome mailing list, just basically saying “We think this is ready to go live in the browser”. And they cited my work and Jen Simmons’s work as showing that there is community interest in having grid live in browsers. There are already examples out there. So it is that important. If you want something to be adopted by browsers and to be out there then actually just writing about it and creating examples, you don’t even need to be involved with CSS spec. discussions, just by writing on your blog and talking about it on podcasts or write a conference talk, can make all the difference in terms of people saying “This is useful and we want it and let’s actually get it out there and into browsers.”

Sam: I’m quite naïve to this Rachel. Is there somewhere people can go. It sounds almost like a marketing issue, people don’t realise you can get involved in this way. I would have assumed you would need to be incredibly technical, almost an expert of the highest order to be able to contribute of any value. That’s what I think… I certainly didn’t realise that until you just said.

Rachel: I think that is the case, it is something that I am very keen, and I know other people in the CSS working group are very keen to get more people looking at this. And I think part of that, moving stuff on to Github is a big part of that because that is kind of where everybody already is. And it means that if you are capable of raising an issue against a JavaScript framework or bootstrap or whatever it is that you are using then you are also capable of raising an issue against a CSS spec. saying “Why does flexbox not do this?”. I think the other part of that is that you need to try and encourage people in the working group who are used to having very technical discussions about this stuff and who understand more than most of us could imagine about this stuff. We need to kind of stop them from jumping down peoples throats and saying “Well there’s all these other issues” it’s like, “Well yes there is but that doesn’t make the use case invalid. They’ve got a valid use case it may be that we need to have lots of discussions about how that could ever be implemented in CSS” but we will need to make sure that those use cases aren’t rubbished. It is the same as anyone asking for a feature to a product or anything else. They will come and say “Ooo, will you add the setting for this please? ” and then you end up with 5 million checkboxes. Well you can’t do that but as a product owner we have to take those ideas and say “Maybe there’s a way we can give them this functionality”. It is the same with CSS, it is just like anything else but it is this enormous project of interrupability and there are so many issues. But people’s ideas get through and I’d like to see more of them.

Paul: I think that is absolutely brilliant. I’m really glad we covered this on the show. Rachel, if there is a URL that we can point people at will you let us know in the chat? (CSS GitHub)

Rachel: Yes, I will dig some stuff out and ping some stuff through.

Paul: That would be great. To point people at and get people going. And don’t think that you have to be Rachel Andrew in order to contribute to this kind of stuff. Or Andy Clarke. I love that idea that they need people that are just kind of working on this stuff day by day and a real use case rather than, not that I’m implying that Rachel and Andy don’t do real work, but you know what I mean. Exclamations mark. I’m going to stop talking!

Rachel: Yeah, I’m always happy as well if people are sort of “Oh, I’ve been thinking about this and wanted to run it by me.” I’d be very happy to chat about it. I try and be friendly about this stuff.

Paul: Oh, that’s a good… That would reassure me massively before I said something stupid to the group that I could send it via you and get you to check it. I like that a lot.

Rachel: Send it to me and I’ll say something stupid. They used to me saying something stupid so (laughter)

Paul: You can be our kind of mouthpiece. I like that a lot. Okay, let’s talk about our final sponsor and then we will wrap up the show. Our final sponsor this week is CurrencyFair. You can save up to 80% on international transfer fees and exchange rates. Unlike so many other organisations there is not a hidden commission built into the crappy exchange rate that they give you. Their rate is on average about 0.35% above the rate quoted on Google, so you know exactly how much money they are making off with you. Which is very open and transparent and kind of stuff we like to see. Their rates are live, they are constantly updated all the time on their website so you can go along and check that out. Customers can either exchange immediately so you can look at what the rate is, to exchange there and then or you can set your own rate so basically it waits until you hit that rate and then it will exchange it immediately at that point at which ever rate you set which is obviously brilliant. So it is perfect if you’ve got clients that work abroad and you get paid in various monies or if you sell a product in a non-native currency. Check them out at So that wraps it up for this week. Let’s quickly go round and see where people can find out more about each of us. Rachel I think we probably ought to start with you considering you just said about people contacting you. How can people reach out to you?

Rachel: Well I am on Twitter which is @RachelAndrew, my website is but, yeah, Twitter is probably a good initial place to say hi.

Paul: Cool, and Andy what about you?

Andy: I am @malarkey on Twitter and my DM’s are open in case anybody wants to send me pictures. Why not, and my website is

Paul: Sam? What about you?

Sam: My site is and I’m the same on Twitter @theSamBarnes.

Paul: And Marcus?

Marcus: I am @Marcus67 on Twitter and the website is

Paul: Wonderful stuff. So we now come on to Marcus’s joke. Make it a good one Marcus!

Marcus: Well, I was listening to the radio yesterday to an amusing program where they were finding alternative meanings to different words and my favourite was “mirth” a French moth! (canned Laughter) Oh we’ve got laughter. Ha ha!

Paul: I’m so excited. It’s a new piece of functionality that they have just added.

Sam: Did you hear everyones sort of shocked silence?

Paul: I thought nobody is going to laugh at that joke we need to insert laughter. So, there you go. I was pleased with that new feature. Do you know I didn’t even pay attention to what the joke was! I was concentrating on finding the Laughter button.

Marcus: The right time.. There!! Hit it now.

Paul: Yeah, Now, Now! So there we go. We can do all kinds of things. look, I’ve got the divider Marcus. (plays boagworld music)

Marcus: Ooo!

Paul: How cool is that see. We can just insert things on the fly now. you are pretty much… your editing skills are no longer required.

Marcus: Well I got to get rid of Andy’s snoring, obviously.

Andy: I was not snoring!

Paul: Seriously, it sounds like you were snoring.

Marcus: It was the sexy heavy breathing, that’s what it was!

Sam: I thought it was more “Darth Clarke” than snoring.

Andy: I was not bloody snoring!

Paul: Do you have some kind of asthmatic condition we need to be aware of?

Sam: It must be all that travelling.

Andy: I am feeling a little bit snuffilly but…

Paul: Seriously, it sounded really bad. I muted you and then you un-muted yourself again! (Snoring sounds) Honestly, there you go. So that is it for this week. Just to remind everybody about the Christmas appeal that I mentioned last week. If you go to and you can find out all about that. Basically I’m encouraging you not to spend money on clients this Christmas but to give it to charity instead. So check that out please and contribute! And that’s it for this week. Join us again next week where we will be talking more stuff, I don’t know what about but we will find out. Goodbye.