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Colin Johnson’s blog

Archive for the ‘Design’ Category

Exit Questionnaires and Interviews

Tuesday, December 1st, 2020

Organisations like to do exit questionnaires and interviews with people who are leaving the organisation voluntarily. They want to understand why people have chosen to leave their job, whether there are any problems or any way in which they can improve their talent development processes or pipelines.

But, there is no upside to this for the (former) employee. They are leaving or have left—they don’t owe the labour of the questionnaire or interview to to the former employer in any contractual sense. Also, there is a considerable downside risk. If someone says something damning or (perhaps unintentionally) disruptive at such an interview, it can burn bridges for future partnerships or a future return to that organisation.

The risk is stacked against the employee and in favour of the employer. So, it seems only reasonable that a sensible employee would refuse such a request. Perhaps, therefore, there needs to be some motivation to compensate for the risk. I don’t think that it is unreasonable for the former employer to pay the former employee a non-token amount to do this.

We baulk at this. Why should we pay for this? Well, if we value the information, we should be able to work out a reasonable monetary value for that information—how much would our organisation gain from knowing that piece of information? We seem very reluctant to quantify in monetary terms the cost of information, probably because (unlike a physical thing) it is literally intangible, and so ought, surely to cost nothing. There are exceptions. Companies subscribe to market intelligence briefings. But, overall, we are reluctant to do this. One exception is in management accounting, which has a well-developed idea of doing a cost-benefit analysis of gathering information. Sometimes, information just isn’t worth knowing—the difference it would make to our decision making is outweighed by the cost of getting to know the information. This still jars with a very human understanding of information.

A Theory of Stuff (1)

Monday, August 12th, 2019

What underpins the broad shift in (broadly Western) design from highly decorated things in times up to the 19th century to the eschewal of decoration later in the 20th century and beyond? Here is a rough-cut of an economic theory of decoration.

Prior to the industrial revolution, individual things were expensive. The cost of making the stuff was in material—not necessarily raw material, but getting material from its raw state to a state where it can be used. A lot of this is semi-skilled labour cost, but a lot of it. There is an interesting argument that a shirt in mediaeval times cost around 3500 USD in modern money. For example, spinning (by hand) the thread costs 500 hours of work, and weaving the cloth another 72. Therefore, each shirt was a very valued object, and worn to exhaustion, frequently repaired, and repurposed if it was not viable in its original form (there is a nice discussion of this in Susannah Walker’s recent book The Life of Stuff).

Similarly for other material. Transport costs in an era where horse and human motive power was the prime driving force was huge. The cost of getting material to a building site—a minor cost of building a modern building—might have been a huge proportion of the cost.

By contrast, the marginal cost of adding some decorative addition to something is therefore small. If you have paid hundreds of hours of labour to get your basic shirt, adding a few more days to add some decoration is a minor marginal cost.

By contrast, with 20th century manufacturing techniques, the cost of producing the object is much less: the core materials can be produced and shipped at low cost, and a lot of the cost is coordinating the various low-cost steps and delivering the object to the final consumer. The relative labour cost of adding elaborate decoration is high. This doesn’t fully stand up—after all, modern techniques of manufacture can add some decoration very cheaply and easily. But perhaps in some cases it holds—I can see this particularly in the case of architecture, where the logistical cost of coordinating lots of special decorative components will be high.

Legacy Code (1)

Monday, June 24th, 2019

It’s fascinating what hangs around in code-bases for decades. Following a recent update, Microsoft Excel files in a certain format (the old style .xls files rather than the .xlsx files) started showing up with this icon:

(old excel icon)

Which I haven’t seen for a couple of decades. More interestingly, the smaller version of the icon was this one:

(old resedit icon)

What has this to do with Excel? It looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place it. After a bit of thought and Googling around, I realised that this was the icon for a program called ResEdit, which was an editor for binary files that I remember using back in the pre-OS X days. Looking at this further, I realised that the last version of ResEdit was made in 1994.

How did these suddenly appear? There are occasional references to this happening on various Mac forums from the last few years. I suspect that somehow they are in collections of visual assets in codebases that have been under continuous development for the last 30 years or more, and that somehow some connection to the contemporary icon has been deleted or mis-asssigned. I’m particularly surprised that Excel wasn’t completely written from scratch for OS X.

On Responsibility

Sunday, December 30th, 2018

When people collaborate on a codebase to build complex software systems, one of the purported advantages is that fixes spread. It is good to fix or improve something at a high level of abstraction, because then that fix not only helps your own code, but also redounds to improvements in code across the codebase.

However, people often don’t do this. Rather than fixing a problem with some class high up in the class hierarchy, or adding some behaviour to a well-used utility function, they instead write their own, local, often over-specialised version of it.

Why does this happen? One theory is about fear of breaking things. The fix you make might be right for you, but who knows what other changes it will have? The code’s intended functionality might be very well documented, but perhaps people are using abstruse features of a particular implementation to achieve something in their own code. In theory this shouldn’t happen, but in practice the risk:reward ratio is skewed towards not doing the fix.

Another reason—first pointed out to me by Hila Peleg—is that once you have fixed it, your name is in the version control system as the most recent modifier of the code. This often means that the code becomes your de facto responsibility, and questions about it then come to you. Particularly with a large code base and a piece of code that is well used, you end up taking on a large job that you hadn’t asked for, just for the sake of fixing a minor problem in your code. Better to write your own version and duck that responsibility.


Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

Graduation ceremonies should have credits, in the same way that films do. This would emphasise to students and a wider set of stakeholders the scale of the support and the hidden activity that goes into providing the environment in which students can flourish.

Design Puzzles (2)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

For a while I wondered what these benches were all about:

Benches at Stratford International

They appear at a number of London and South-East railway stations, and when I first saw them I thought they were a bizarre and out of keeping design decision. Why choose something in such bright, primary-ish colours against a generally muted design scheme. They wouldn’t be out of keeping somewhere—but, not here! And after a couple of years it suddenly struck me—they are the olympic rings, that hung up at St. Pancras during the games, sliced and turned into benches! My supposition is confirmed by Londonist here.

Design Puzzles (1)

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

What’s going on here?

# _____ DAY

This is the back of the packaging of my protein bar. What’s with the white stripe across the top left? It reads, basically “# _____ DAY, fuelled by 12g of PRIMAL PROTEIN”. Presumably the the # is a hashtag marker, and there is meant to be some text between that and “DAY”. Is this some kind of fill-in-the-blank exercise? I don’t think so, it seems rather obscure without any further cue. Did it at one point say something that they had to back away from for legal reasons: “# TWO OF YOUR FIVE A DAY”, perhaps? If so, why redesign it with a white block? Does packaging work on such a tight timescale that they were all ready to go, when someone emailed from legal to say “uh, oh, better drop that” and so someone fired up Indesign and put a white block there. Surely it can’t be working on such a timescale that there wasn’t time enough to make it the same shade of red as the rest, or rethink it, or just blank out the whole thing. Is it just a production error? At first I thought it was a post-hoc sticker to cover up some unfortunate error, but it is a part of the printed packaging. A minor mystery indeed.

Kruft (1)

Sunday, November 20th, 2016

I often refer to the process of taking the content that I want to communicate and putting it into the 200-by-300 pixel box reserved for content in the middle of our University’s webpages as “putting the clutter in”. I get the impression that my colleagues on the Marketing and Communication team don’t quite see it this way.

Verboten (1)

Thursday, September 22nd, 2016

I like the literalism of this graphic from Dreamland at Margate, particularly the one depicting “May cause motion sickness”:

Dreamland ride restrictions graphic

Design Failures (1)

Thursday, September 8th, 2016

Here is an interesting design failure. A year or two ago, the entry gates on my local stations had a message from a charity saying with the slogan “no-one in Kent should face cancer alone.”. A good message, and basically well thought out. The problem is, that they were printed on two sides of the entry gates, which open when you put your ticket in it: as a result, one side of the gate says “face cancer alone”, and this part of the message is separated out when the gates open:

"face cancer alone"

Interestingly, someone clearly noticed this. When a repeat of the campaign ran this year, with more-or-less the same message, it had been modified so that one side of the gate now says “don’t face cancer alone”:

"don't face cancer alone"

There’s a design principle in here somewhere, along the lines of thinking through the lifetime of a user of the system, not just relying on a static snapshot of the design to envision what it is like.

Creative (1)

Wednesday, April 6th, 2016

An interesting challenge for computational creativity research. Build a system which takes in a large dataset, and which builds an interesting and informative infographic from that data.

Tech is Blue

Saturday, November 28th, 2015

Here’s an interesting and unexpected result. Do a google image search for “tech”. You will, at the time of writing, get something like this:


Tech is clearly blue. The same is true for “digital”:


and for “cyber”:


I had to make sure that the search-by-colour filter was turned off. This is really surprising to me. I have seen lots of these kinds of images before, but I am gobsmacked at how dominant this colour scheme is as a way of depicting technology. Where does it come from? Some vague notion of “computers are made of electricity, and electricity looks something like a lighting bolt going across a twilit sky”? The second choice seems to be some kind of green-screen terminal green, which is vaguely comprehensible; but, even so, odd. I am in my forties and probably of the youngest generation to have used a terminal for real, and even then only for a few years whilst I was at university.

I wonder what other hidden colour schemes there are out there?

Aside: our university timetable still calls classes held in a computer room “terminal” classes. I wonder what proportion of the students would have any idea why they have this name? I suspect that the vast majority just take it as an arbitrary signifier, and have no idea of its origins.

Uh-oh (1)

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

From a colleague’s email: “SharePoint is very precise and there is plenty of room for human error to interfere with the workflows.” Uh-oh.

The Extensional Revolution

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014

We are on the threshold of an extensional revolution.

Philosophers draw a distinction between two ways of describing collections of objects. Intensional descriptions give some abstract definition, whereas extensional descriptions list all examples. For example, consider the difference between “the set of all polyhedra that can be made by joining together a number of identical, regular, convex polygons with the same number of polygons meeting at each vertex” (intensional), and “the set {tetrahedron, cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, icosahedron}” (extensional).

Despite its claims to be (amongst other things) the science of data, computer science has been very intensional in its thinking. Programs are treated as realisations of descriptive specifications, satisfying certain mathematically-described properties.

As more data becomes available, we can start to think about doing things in an extensional way. The combination of approximate matching + the availability of large numbers of examples is a very powerful paradigm for doing computing. We have started to see this already in some areas. Machine translation of natural language is a great example. For years, translation was dominated by attempts to produce even more complex models of language, with the idea that eventually these models would be able to represent the translation process. More recently, the dominant model has been “statistical language translation”, where correlations between large scale translated corpora are used to make decisions about how a particular phrase is to be translated. Instead of feeding the phrase to be translated through some engine that breaks it down and translates it via some complex human-built model, a large number of approximations and analogies are found in a corpus and the most dominant comparison used. (I oversimplify, of course).

More simply, we can see how a task like spellchecking can be carried out by sheer force of data. If I am prevaricating between two possible spellings of a word, I just put them both into Google and see which comes out with the most hits.

Once you start thinking extensionally, different approaches to complex problems start appearing. Could visual recognition problems be solved not by trying to find the features within the image that are relevant, but by finding the all the images from a vast collection (like Flickr) that approximately match the target, and then processing the metadata? Could a problem like robot navigation or the self-driving car be solved by taking a vast collection of human-guided trajectories and just picking the closest one second-by-second (perhaps this corpus could be gained from a game, or from monitoring a lot of car journeys)? Can we turn mathematical problems from manipulations of definitions into investigations driven by artificially created data (at least for a first cut)?

The possibilities appear endless.

Terms of Art (1)

Sunday, January 19th, 2014

In most areas of human endeavour, we adopt words that have an everyday meaning and use them as the basis for terminology. For example, in physics, we talk about sub-microscopic objects having “spin” or “colour”. By this, we don’t mean this in a literal way, but we adopt these terms because we need to find names for things, and so we find something that is very loosely similar, and use that terminology. This doesn’t subsequently mean that we are allowed to take other properties of these labels and reason about the objects using those other properties (an elision that often seems to occur when word-drenched literary theorists wade into discussions of science).

When the day-to-day and technical usages of a word coincide, we can sometimes end up in a muddle. A couple of years ago I set a programming assignment about card games, and I used the word “stack” of cards. Despite being very careful to explain that this use of the work “stack” was not meant to imply that this piece of data should be represented by the data structure known as a “stack” (and, indeed, was best not), I still got lots of questions about this, and lots of submissions that did confuse the two. Perhaps I should have simplified it—but, there was a valuable learning point about requirements elicitation to be learned from leaving it as it was.

Another example is the UK government report from years ago that talked about the UK needing a “web browser for education”. This got lambasted in the technical press—why on earth would the education sector need its own, special, web browser? Of course, what was meant was not a browser at all, but some kind of portal or one-stop-shop. But, this could have caused a multi-billion pound procurement failure.

I think that we have a cognitive bias towards assuming that the person we are talking to is trying to make some precise, subtle, point, even when the weight of evidence is that they have simply misunderstood, or been unfamiliar with terminology.

I try to be aware of this when I am the non-expert, for example, when dealing with builders or plumbers.

This is a great danger in communication between people with different backgrounds. The person who is unfamiliar with the terminology can accidentally wade in looking like they are asking for something much more specific than they intended, because they accidentally use a word that has a technical meaning that they don’t intend.

Temporary Storage

Friday, January 3rd, 2014

This is an interesting part of the day-to-day environment that I have been interacting with for years:


The small, flat surface affords the placement a single object, or a small stack of them. This affordance leads on to it being used as a temporary repository for things that need to be taken downstairs the next time I am going downstairs. Here is an example:


It is interesting why it lends itself so naturally to this. It is partially because it is “in the way”. Many parts of the house afford having things placed on them, but are just a little bit too out of the line-of-sight to be effective as reminders. It also has the advantage of being quite small, so I am reminded every time I go past it to take the thing off before I break it. Other places are a bit too stable, and rapidly become permanent repositories for a certain category of things: the little stack of items in the corner of my desk used to be (and is still, in my mind) the place where I put things that I will need to use in the next week or so; but, it has now become a foot-high stack of stuff that I need to deal with one day. This space has the advantage that it is just the right size so that putting something there is an easy task, but too unstable and in-the-way that it can’t be used semi-permanently.

The design of locations to act as “reminders” within a physical (or online) environment is really difficult. Either the reminder is too in-your-face when you are trying to do other things, or it is too out-of-the-way to actually serve as a reminder.

Taking the Tablets (1)

Tuesday, December 10th, 2013

Using an iPad for any kind of productive task feels like working in a room without a desk, with no room for the messy-creative ad hoc organisation of material, and with a nagging person standing at your shoulder telling you to “put that back in the right place” every time that you have (even momentarily) finished with something.

Academic Spaces are Consulting Rooms

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

What are academics’ workspaces about? There is sometimes a view, commonly shared across administrators and architects, that they are “offices”, and that the vast majority of work is desk-based, working at computers or with books or papers. There is also a vague idea that this is a bad thing, and that things would be in some vague way better if people weren’t “siloed” in offices, and instead in some kind open-plan spaces where they might “communicate” better with each other (about what, is usually unstated). This might just be a half-arsed excuse for money-saving.

The idea of desk-based work is emphasised also by a view that they are “studies”. This is often offered as counter-narrative to the open-plan idea, it being seen as important to have individual workspaces for this.

I don’t recognise either of these models. Rather, my room is more a “consulting room”. Looking through my diary for the last few weeks, I am in my room for about half the time, the rest of the time I am teaching, meetings, interviews, at lunch, etc. I have about:

  • 4-5 hours of meetings with PhD students and postdocs;
  • 2-3 hours of meetings with project students;
  • a few short meetings with students about coursework, progress, or staff-student liaison issues; say about 2-3 hours a week. A number of these are rather confidential;
  • a couple of formally arranged meetings with colleagues for an hour or so each;
  • a few shorter meetings with colleagues; similarly, a number of these have confidentiality issues;
  • a couple of Skype discussions with colleagues elsewhere for 2-3 hours total.

So, a total of around 15 hours a week of being in my office talking to people.

The idea that I could work in an open plan space and “book meeting rooms” for occasional meetings is risible. Academics’ workspaces are closer to GP’s consulting rooms than offices or studies, and we would regard it as ludicrous to say that GPs should “book a consulting room” on the odd occasion that they see a patient.

Graffiti for Conservatives

Wednesday, October 30th, 2013

Why is graffiti such a conservative medium? The vast majority of time when I see some graffiti, it looks like this:


This looks very similar to the graffiti that people were doing when I was at school in the ’80s—we had a “graffiti wall” in common room, in a futile attempt to dissuade pupils from graffiting all over the school. Going further back, when I see the well-known images of graffiti on US subway trains in the 60s, again the overall look is very similar. For example, letters are bulbous and surrounded by a firm outline.

Naively, we see graffiti as a fast-moving avant-garde practice. We would expect it to be a rapidly changing medium, and we would imagine that there would be a rapid change of styles. But, this isn’t the case. Of course, there are exceptions, but the mainstream of graffiti looks essentially static compared with the mainstream of commercial design. Anyone with the slightest eye for design would be able to distinguish a number of design styles in the last 50 years, whereas a similar look at graffiti would fail to pull out much distinction. Graffiti seems to be a timeless, fashionless practice, more like a traditional medium like embroidery or baking than a high-fashion practice.

Perhaps the idea of avant-garde is more parochial than we think. We tend to assume that all practices will progress in the same way, with a cutting-edge fringe pushing ideas forward, feeding ideas into the next generation of the mainstream. But, of course, a lot of practices are not like that; instead, they are characterised by absorption in a craft tradition, showing deference to previous masters, etc. Perhaps graffiti is more along these lines.

Tattooing is another area where similar arguments can be made.

The Evolution of Architecture (1)

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013

First Law of the Evolution of Architecture: anything described on the original plans as a “cloister”, “arcade”, “loggia” or (God help us) a “stoa” will invariably be filled in within thirty years to make additional office space:

Overhang shelter being filled in at University of Kent