We, like, literally don’t understand each other

This has been the daydream title of my future TED talk for some time, written both as a working title, and as a mantra like reminder for me personally (a reminder that I need to fully research and publish on the idea in order to one day qualify to being invited to speak at TED!).

The point of the title is twofold. Firstly, the generally clear and basic idea that we have trouble understanding each other. Secondly, in the deliberately oxymoronic nature of saying something is ‘like literally’, only that now, officially, it’s both oxymoronic and not, since the 2013 dictionary definition addition of literally to include ‘emphasis while not being literally true’.

In these senses, the following Anglo-EU Translation Guide struck a big chord with me recently:

And when trying to find the original source, I found a great 2004 piece from The Economist which is thought to have been the impetus of the guide.

…when a Briton says “I hear what you say”, the foreign listener may understand: “He accepts my point of view.” In fact, the British speaker means: “I disagree and I do not want to discuss it any further.” Similarly the phrase “with the greatest respect” when used by an Englishman is recognisable to a compatriot as an icy put-down, correctly translated by the guide as meaning “I think you are wrong, or a fool.”

The realisation that communication is difficult isn’t exactly new, but I still marvel at times with quite how deep and frequent our misunderstandings go, and not just across languages, but within them, down to quite casual and local levels.

I’m reminded of a recent confusion with a friend when I said, on a Monday afternoon, to meet them on Tuesday. They turned up the very next day, a Tuesday. But when I said Tuesday, on Monday I meant the next Tuesday, as on a Monday, the next day is called tomorrow, not Tuesday… in my mind at least. I digress. Or perhaps not. Maybe you just don’t understand wha tI mean and where my mind is going.

Minimal terms, maximum angst

Found on LinkedIn, Googled, discovered on Signal v. Noise, linked to segura-inc.com, the celebrated (at the above sources) terms are interesting.

You give me money, I’ll give you creative.
I’ll start when the check clears.
Time is money. More time is more money.
I’ll listen to you. You listen to me.
You tell me what you want, I’ll tell you what you need.
You want me to be on time, I want you to be on time.
What you use is yours, what you don’t is mine.
I can’t give you stuff I don’t own.
I’ll try not to be an ass, you should do the same.
If you want something that’s been done before, use that.
If you want your way, you have to pay.
If you don’t pay, I have final say.
> Let’s create something great together.

Part of me really likes it. It’s clear, understandable, and much more open than regular terms, which feel designed to obfuscate and cause more issues (and cost) than they prevent or resolve.

Another part of me finds it really facetious, almost vulgar, and verging on combative more than extra communicative. The first three lines being about money, the fifth, suggesting infallibility in the part of the contractor and thereafter, it just comes across as accusatory and defensive, more like a frustrated checklist of what has previously gone wrong for this designer, rather than a piece of communication meant for commencing a secure and positive relationship.

Like someone starting a sentence with “Now, I don’t want to come across as nasty or bitter or anything, but…”. Too late. job done. Don’t think of a pink elephant.

The idea then, really nice, the execution, perhaps they just need a hug?

Successful SaaS stacks

A great post for seeing what’s behind a good piece of software ‘these days’. For those that don’t know: A ‘stack’ refers to the preferred technology and tools chosen to run various parts of a product / service, and ‘SaaS’ stands for Software as a Service, and refers specifically to software and services that are hosted and managed for you, not things that you have to install, support, or update yourself.

Emphasis above on ‘these days’ relates to why this post resonates with me personally, as the stacks outlined are exactly what we meant in our notice about closing With Associates when we described an “ecosystem that was utterly unimaginable when we began”. It’s also what I meant in Point 8 of this post, about changing our old service offer, toward a more fixed cloud stack. It’s sort of what strut.uk.com do these days, focusing on WordPress builds with the team and heritage of jp74.com behind them. Smart move if you can build a team that’s up for it.

Ensuring resilience

It’s been an emotional few months in the UK, specifically in London. Waking up to find news about tragedy, or to read texts from friends and family, checking that we’re all OK. Looking at my phone in the morning has developed a new sense of foreboding, making we take breath before I peek, and wonder like Schrödinger, if just leaving the box closed is the safest or most positive option.

While I feel unable to add to emotions already expressed, and unqualified to add views and opinions on ideological causes and resolutions, I can’t help but think about something I learned recently from the world of engineering, namely ‘Black Sky Hazards’ which to me are like advanced forms of defensive pessimism.

The particular Black Sky hazard that I learned about focused on “resilience of electricity infrastructure systems”, meaning, what happens to the electrical grid and infrastructure in the event of something really crazy happening. Not like an outage, or one substation having an accident or something, oh no, those are easy issues. Black Sky’s are like Black Swans and the polar opposite of Blue Skies, things that are more like sci-fi storylines or at a scale that’s almost unimaginable.

Massive and utterly destructive system wide hacks for example, or electromagnetic pulses (EMP’s), or even more coordinated physical terrorism, or even never before seen scales of environmental ‘attack’, from solar flares or freak storms that knock out and destroy more than one or two systems. Basically, hazards that have a super low probability of happening, but in the event of which, you have to have made some sort of preparation, meaning that you have to have imagined the worst.

While this sounds and feels pessimistic, there’s something I like about having a term for it like Black Sky. It reminds me of the project premortem idea, where you find a way for a team to productively imagine and prepare for things that could go wrong, without it being brushed to the side like a naysayer of health and safety. It’s just preparation. Essential and even potentially a competitive advantage if you think it through.

Here’s to more detailed planning then. Imagining Black Skies so that in the slim chance of something terrible happening, you’ll be ready, and glad that you were. Preemptive optimism, if you like.

Cook this page

A fantastic promotional idea that deserves going into production. A set of large format IKEA posters made of baking paper with human friendly ink. Just place all the (IKEA sold) ingredients onto the page as instructed, fold, then bake:

Nose to tail IKEA. Such smart design. So obvious yet unlike anything I’ve seen from anyone else in the recipe card, instructions, book, magazine area.

Via kottke.org

Personal Parables #13

The Simpsons, Season 2, Episode 7, Bart vs. Thanksgiving. The bit in The Silverdome, when the announcer points out the uselessness of camera flashes in the crowd.

I searched for this episode and clip for years, remembering only that there were camera flashes in a stadium and that the announcer referenced the camera flashes. Finally I came across the Simpsons Archive Episode Guide and started searching for ‘flash’ in the scrips, season by season. Thankfully it was only in season two so didn’t take long. Next, for the gif above, I used frinkiac.com. Too much detail here perhaps, but this Personal Parable has come to my mind so many times over the years that finding the actual reference feels like exorcising a demon of some sort! Back to the point.

The comment comes from a halftime show announcer at a Thanksgiving Day football game, and is a classic quick throw away Simpsons joke, like all the ones involving maths, but this one is about physics, user experience, with a tad of Dunning–Kruger effect for good measure:

”In the Silverdome, now ablaze with flashbulbs, as ‘Hooray for Everything’ leaves the field! Of course, a stadium is much too big for flash pictures to work, but nobody seems to care!” Announcer for the halftime show

The joke, if you never studied photography, or like other normal people, never gave much thought to how cameras and flashes work, is about how camera flashes are only useful at distances of a few meters. Maybe more if they’re powerful. But at the range of a stadium seat to the centre of a stadium, a camera flash is utterly useless. If anything, it will actually make your photo worse, as along with the flash, your camera will use a faster shutter speed, and lessen your chances of getting a good long distance exposure.

In short, it is pointless to use a camera flash in a stadium, yet how familiar and in our culture is that idea of seeing thousands of flashes firing off around an arena or in front of a stage, each flash effectively a hand in the air for “I don’t know how my camera works and no! Of course I never read the instructions”. More things in the world are like this than designers accept I think. From website forms to phone interfaces to central heating systems to voting. Assuming people understand what you understand is the first worst step to take as a designer of anything.

Ultimate interface when it comes to considering experience

I don’t know what just reminded me of this. And it wasn’t as morbid a chain of thought as you might think. I was just considering user interfaces that prompt us to consider and be conscious of our perceived user needs, which led to the UI of nuclear weapons, and this idea for making it painfully clear what the results will be:

Roger Fisher, professor of law at Harvard University, offers a simple suggestion to make the stakes more real. He would put the codes needed to fire nuclear weapons in a little capsule, and implant the capsule next to the heart of a volunteer, who would carry a big butcher knife as he accompanied the President everywhere. If the President ever wanted to fire nuclear weapons, he would first have to kill, with his own hands, that human being. ”He has to look at someone and realize what death is – what an innocent death is. It’s reality brought home, ” says Professor Fisher. Source

Gives you another perspective on that OK or Cancel button styling at least.