02 Jan

I emigrated

It’s been quiet around these parts, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been busy.

As you may already be aware, in July of 2013, I emigrated.

I left my beloved London to set up home with my American husband in San Francisco. A combination of visa issues and job shenanigans led us to making this decision, which are far too boring and tedious to bother to explain in any other setting than that of “over a beer in a pub”, which I’m happy to do should the situation arise, but let it be known that I left London and my job there with great sadness. If given the opportunity to go back one day, I gladly will. I miss London a lot, but that’s almost exclusively because I miss all the people I counted as friends there more than I let on.

Come visit me, guys.

And so, we’ve been busy with moving and finding somewhere to live in the madness that is the San Francisco real-estate market (it’s a really quick way to learn your way around SF, if nothing else, after you’ve viewed near 30 apartments) and doing all the sorts of boring bureaucracy that comes with starting over, not to mention dealing with the ridiculous US immigration system – I’m now a family-based visa expert, if anyone needs that.

We’re pretty settled in now, finally.

What’s next?

I loved working for the Government Digital Service. Having been there from before that department was even born, back in those slightly dingy offices in Lambeth, I was in the enviable position to see things grow and have an early impact. I can barely believe how big they are now and how much has been achieved in such a short space of time.

It was truly an honour to get to play a part in all of it and to get to work with such an incredible team of people. It’s affected me greatly in terms of what sort of work I now want to do. I knew when I arrived in San Francisco, that I didn’t want to just jump on board with the first thing I came across. I wanted to find somewhere that I knew would “get it”, somewhere that wanted to try and do Good Things™ for real people.

And so, on January 7th, I’m joining Code for America as their senior designer and front-end engineer.

08 May

Jawbone Up Review

I’ve had a fair few people ask about the Jawbone Up I’ve been wearing since November (the second version, not the recalled first one – although, as you’ll read, perhaps this one should have been too). Here’s how I’ve found it.

The good

The reason I waited on the Up, over say the Nike Fuelband, was because I wanted a wrist-wearable tracker plus sleep data. The FitBit One has a wearable night-time band, but it looks rather large and cumbersome and I didn’t want a clothes-clip tracker in the day time (where do dress wearers clip them?).

Jawbone Up

The Up band’s size is really good and it’s comfy and it doesn’t look ridiculous.

I like the sleep tracking, although I feel like it’s not terribly accurate – if I wake and don’t move around much, it doesn’t record it as a waking period – but it’s accurate enough to collect the information I’m interested in.

I have been a bad sleeper for a long time, but having actual data about the length of time I’ve been asleep and awake has helped reduce my anxiety about a bad night’s sleep (it always feels like a lifetime when you’re awake in the middle of the night and don’t want to be – but turns out it isn’t), which in turn has helped improve how well I go to sleep generally, I think.

I also like the smart-alarm – before I’d put off looking at the clock to see the time, but the gentle nudge that, yes, it is about time I got up is really useful, and again, anxiety reducing.

The steps tracking seems fine. I’ve never bothered to calibrate it, since I don’t do much exercise except walking – but it seems to match the distances I do regularly around the city. It’s fun – I’m not competing, so it’s mostly just interesting. I hear from others that it basically can’t cope with running or cycling, though.

The bad

It broke. Twice. The first time, it broke after about 6 weeks – the vibration feature (needed for the smart-alarm and idle alert) just stopped working for no apparent reason. At the time, the Up band wasn’t out in the UK, so Jawbone were not willing to replace it (ugh) but when I said I’d be in New York for a week, they agreed to courier me a replacement to the Google office there while I was in town – which I think was really just a nice act on the part of one very good customer service rep I’d met on the support forums. Had I not been on the forum or nagged on twitter, I suspect I’d have been left out of pocket.

Unfortunately, the second band stopped working a couple of months later. The smart-alarm feature became temperamental and often wouldn’t go off at all, and the button on the end of the band had become dislodged and no longer clicked. This time, the band was out in the UK, and they sent me another one immediately.

I’ve been wearing the third one for about a week and I honestly expect it’ll break soon, too, sadly. Edd, who originally picked up my first band for me while he was in New York, had his first and second bands break too (the second after only 2 weeks) – so the statistical data I have available to me is not very favourable and a quick look through the forums will find most people in similar situations.

The other stuff

They just released third-party app integration, but sadly on iOS devices only (I use a Nexus 4 day to day, so syncing with an iOS device is an extra annoyance if I want to use those features). I expect that’ll help make the data the band is recording more interesting.

Otherwise, these are things I wish it had:

  • A visible metre or something on the band. I have to sync it with my phone to find out how I’m doing. It doesn’t even tell me the time. I feel like it’s not providing me with much in return for the space it’s taking up on my wrist.
  • There’s no web view – the only way to share the data is through facebook (meh) or if your friend is also an Up user (which is basically no one). I’d like to be able to let my husband see my sleep data – then he’ll know that I’m just grumpy because I’m tired. He can sneak a look at it on my phone, I guess, but it would just be nice to have a public view somewhere on the web.
  • The food and mood logging is boring and pointless. It may be that the new app integration gives this value, but it was onerous and I gave up after a week. The insights offered to you only ever related to steps and sleep, so no matter how much food and mood you logged, it was for your own entertainment only. These features appear to be rather tacked-on.
  • Some people complain about the lack of wireless sync as a deal-breaker (you sync it via the mic jack). This personally doesn’t greatly bother me (longer battery life is a reasonable trade), but given that I have to take it off my arm to find out anything about it, as mentioned above, then I think it would have been preferential in this case to sync wirelessly.

But, these are all minor gripes – I’d recommend but for the fact that they clearly have not managed to make a band that doesn’t expire every 2 months.

I’m mostly just hoping this band will hold out long enough for the delivery of the Fitbit Flex I just pre-ordered.

Update: My 3rd band has the same smart alarm fault. Sigh.

20 Jul

Accidental designer

Despite my advertising myself as a front-end developer, writing a lot of HTML and JS, I find my most productive days taken up considering and designing digital products and services, ideally with data and evidence.

I enjoy it a lot, but it as left me with a bit of a “am I a developer or designer?” identity crisis.

Colleagues suggest I’m in denial about being a designer – mostly because I’m not a visual designer; I don’t do pictures and graphics and I don’t wield photoshop as my tool of choice – I work in-browser. They also suggest that if I don’t start labelling myself better, I won’t be able to continue finding work doing the sorts of things I enjoy, which it turns out are mostly around supporting and, sadly, defending the user.

If I’m honest, I think I have actually just always had a bit of a problem with designers.

I unfairly (despite being very much into, and doing, art throughout my life) considered “design” to be a soft subject – engineering being the one with the greater level of difficulty. Wrong assumption, I realise, but easily encouraged during my time with computer scientists during my degree years where the concept of service design for the human-being end of software was treated as a “nice extra” and usually quite glossed over.

Along with the engineering bias, the industry as I entered it wasn’t exactly doing much for changing those wrong assumptions. When I started out, I had, as many people did in the early 00s until relatively recently, a lot of up-hill conversations and experiences with designers who were traditionally working in print and had somehow found themselves on the web, and they were doing a pretty crappy job of it.

They didn’t get it.

Those of us building websites then, early adopters of proper web-standards and sites that worked for lots of different kinds of users, tried desperately to make them understand that this isn’t print and it is a flexible, changing, growing, responsive, versatile, medium. They didn’t get it. We fell out. I had some fairly horrible run-ins with the then design director in my first job as a junior developer… Every day I am glad my current one can take me calling him an idiot and see it as a positive (not snark, genuine <3).

So, all that had left me with a fairly bitter taste. I very much knew that in my career, I not only wanted to distance myself from people who didn’t get it, but also myself from being anywhere near them in terms of the work I did, which is pretty much why I have always very clearly said “I do the code, I don’t do the design”. I’m not one of them. As if there should ever really have been a them and us.

It has meant I have had to push back into the “design” aspects of organisations I work for, because I hadn’t aligned myself from the start as part of the design team, where most of the user-orientated decisions tend to get made (which, I do think, is a mistake on most organisations part… designing for your users should be a concern from everybody on your team, no matter their role).

I think all developers should be more engaged with the overall site experience, but I realise that specialisms exist and some of us want to be nearer to that area than others. I’m one of those people who wants to make design decisions as well as code them up where I can. I want to have my cake and eat it too.

In hindsight, the problem was never really the art director when I was a junior. It wasn’t the designers that didn’t want to include me in decisions because I was a developer. It was the organisation, like many others at the time, as a whole not getting it. It’s part of the reason why it’s been great to work with other people over the years that have got it, allowing me to do the things I like and change early biases, and most recently at the Government Digital Service where I honestly believe they get it better than anyone I’ve ever worked for before. And that’s not just down to the amazing people they’ve hired – they get it at a basic level in the ethos of the department. My current contract may say “software engineer” but I am in the design team and like it very much.

I don’t really want a label. I hate labels. I loathe the term “user experience designer”, because I still believe that “user experience” is just a fundamental to what you’re doing, and shouldn’t need stating. There is nothing but user experience design if you’re building products for people.

I have a sneaking suspicion that’s what I am though and probably have always been, in the wide world of jobs people are already doing. User experience service product developer maker dogsbody thing. I am a designer who writes code, who will defend better user experiences and probably be able to tell you how to get them. But I still won’t do the pictures. Deal?