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New site, new WordPress stack, new newsletter, same me

Tl;dr – I revamped my website. It is fairly unspectacular but that’s sort of the point. I hope you like it. I also have a newsletter now and it’s on Buttondown because it seems nice and friendly and not apparently profiting from an alignment with very dubious people (*cough* substack…)

As you’ll read below, I am also experimenting with audio versions of blog posts. This is my first attempt.

Before redecorating a room, you should always take extensive “before” pictures, as you will soon forget the scale and nature of transformation. However, we often fail to remember to do this, so swept up are we by the thought of change. And so, in a similar vein, I have no screenshots of how this website looked two months ago. You will have to take my word for it that it was somehow untidy and uneven and unsatisfying. I was unhappy with the layout and design and some of the wordy but bland content, whilst the blog posts that I am proud of were too hidden, and worse, I had entirely lost control of the back end (which sounds… never mind…). So many plug-ins, so out of date, such a mess. I had begun to hate WordPress, probably unfairly.

My old renovation blog with pictures of my flat before I made it nice. It took two years. Thankfully the website redesign process was substantially shorter.

But I have had a spring clean! And now it is, I think, tidy. I know what each plug-in does and how to configure it. It is lightweight, more elegant, the voice is more authentically mine (for better or worse). Is it very swishy, cutting edge, or clever? It is not. But still, I think some of the process I went through may be of interest to others, so I’m sharing it in this post. And if not, logging it will at least be useful for me in future.

Process

It eventually dawned on me that I was not going to solve my website misery by endlessly trawling new WordPress themes for one that would magically untangle my mess (dear WordPress, please look at the search function and filters for themes because that user experience totally sucks). 

I’m reasonably website savvy, so for a long time I felt like I should be able to sort it on my own, but was utterly lost in the weeds. I needed help, but I didn’t want to prevail upon friends, nor did I want to hand the whole thing over to a designer/developer. Finally, I had the idea of finding a WordPress expert to work with me for a day on it, in real time, and asked around for someone who might fit the bill, which is where I found Sam Oakley

This tactic worked well. I gave Sam some background beforehand, so he came prepared with potential themes and a suggested stack of plug-ins. We spent half a day together on Zoom building the new site on a test server he’d set up. He then left me to do the grunt work of implementing it on the actual site whilst he did a little custom dev (such as a new “block” for the portfolio page). Total resource: 1(ish) day of developer time, probably about 2 days of mine.

Theme and appearance

The theme is a WordPress classic, Twenty Sixteen. Yes, it is a five year old theme, which in web terms is forever. But I like it, the out-of-the-box layout and fonts are nice and clear. It was about as lightweight and stripped back as we could find, which is a priority for me. I’m really interested in low carbon web development, which I’m still learning about, but as you can imagine, the gist is: the simpler the better. I was tempted to go full http://motherfuckingwebsite.com/ or maybe step up to https://thebestmotherfucking.website/ but this is realistically a little easier to use and navigate. I was also inspired by Cory Doctorow’s simple and neat layout for Pluralistic, and we discovered he was using a version of Twenty Sixteen (if I’ve remembered it right), so tried it out. Bingo. Exactly what I wanted: blog-orientated, nice fonts, sufficient flexibility, minimal fuss.

The one addition to that was a new block that Sam created for the Portfolio page to allow me to create a tidy list of projects with a header>sub header>image>wrapped text format that worked on desktop and mobile. As a result, I’m now, mostly, friends with WordPress again. The only thing I wish was easier is editing images within the wysiwyg block editor (the ability to lock the ratio as you change the image size would also be a big help, dear WordPress). 

WordPress stack

These are all the plug-ins I’m using. I could streamline it further by giving up on analytics (nnngh… I’m not ready…), but the rest seem pretty vital. I need to filter comments for spam, regularly and automatically backup the site, protect it against attacks, cache for faster loading, and I need a contact form. I think that’s it? These seemed the best options for all that, but very open to comments or thoughts on this, or anything else I might need. 

  • Akismet Anti-Spam
  • GA Google Analytics by Jeff Starr
  • UpdraftPlus – Backup/Restore
  • Wordfence Security
  • WP Super Cache
  • WPForms Lite

(Dear WordPress, it would be lovely if there was some consistency about how the settings for these are found and controlled within the admin back end, ta).

Accessibility

Still a lot to learn here, but there are the things I am focussing on to make the site more accessible right now:

  • Better alt-text. I have been so inspired by The White Pube, immense and fearless “art critic baby gods”, in so many ways, but not least by their descriptive texts on social media posts. I have tried to do as well with my alt texts. Also “alt-text as poetry“, what a wonderful idea (via Jo Verrent, I think). I don’t think any of mine is poetry but I have tried to make it more representative of the image and more useful. I wonder, though, alt text used to come up on websites as a tooltip/hover function, what happened to that?
  • Better links. Web good practice pro Amy Frise gave me a little kick (nicely) for my poor linking practice in an earlier iteration: too many links with “here” text and too much vague positional language (e.g “use the form below”). I hope I’ve now corrected all of these but I’ll try to do better in future.
  • Audio alternatives. I’m introducing spoken versions of blog posts. I see these are catching on and they seem like a good idea so I’ll try them. Any thoughts or feedback welcome, please tell me if you found it useful. It may have some bonus nonsense in it, or extraneous waffle, depending on your point of view.

The site seems to be passing tests run on various accessibility checkers, but if you spot any other issues I’d love to know about them.

Content and tone of voice

My previous website didn’t really feel like me; it felt like a projection of who I thought people/clients wanted me to be. It had little personality. It didn’t reflect my long and admittedly random career as both internet geek and digital anthropologist. There were a few too many words that were woolly and non-committal. On reflection, I don’t think that hedging served me well.

In the new version, I aim to be explicit about and own my generalism. Like many of us who have been working on the web a long time, I have done a lot of different things on different projects. When I started out, there was little differentiation in web roles, little professionalisation, accreditation, or standardisation. It’s all changed now, of course, but there is still value in someone who has a broad understanding (and it’s not like I’ve stopped doing the CPD on all of this, it is a continual learning process for me).

For example, about three years ago I was the digital producer on a creative project where, amongst other things, I ended up directing voiceover sessions and writing jokes (for the exec producer to turn into actually good jokes) whilst also developing video compression standards and compressing and exporting all video files from my laptop. That “random” previous experience was invaluable, nobody else was going to get these jobs done, so I had to. I may not be a deep expert in any of those things, but I didn’t need to be, I just needed to have enough knowledge to get it done and ask the right questions to fill the gaps where I didn’t. It goes to show that there is still a role for those of us who have been hands-on in a lot of different areas.

This change in emphasis feels a bit more exposing, but also a lot more authentic. It’s not dramatic, I haven’t added a load of selfies or pictures of my cats or gone on about being vegan (but srsly check out my insta… oops!). I’m not going to start blogging my opinions on the Falcon and the Winter Soldier vs Wandavision (even though I have SO MANY OPINIONS). But it feels a little better to share more of my whole self, a little less tiring to be filtering when writing, a little more freeing to not second guess what people might want to read. And to focus on my “core values” and personal ethics. Here I am, then, like it or lump it. 

Newsletter

To that end, I now have a newsletter. It will link to my latest blog posts and things I’ve read or seen that were interesting, along with thoughts about the history of the web as I’ve experienced it. It is called “Old Internet People” because according to Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch, that’s what I am.

It won’t be regular or consistent, but I will try to make it fun and share things that you might not have seen elsewhere. It will be a way of thinking aloud (the Memex method), will reflect the aforementioned generalism and long view of the Internet, and sometimes it will be absolutely rubbish, no doubt. Which brings me to my final point, I am open to challenge and criticism and constructive feedback, even humorous trolling in the original sense (although I will be blocking and ignoring abuse). Genuinely, let me know what you think about any of this. It all helps me learn.

PS if anyone knows how to easily redirect the http site to the new https one, or alternatively can tell me that it doesn’t matter, I will be eternally grateful.

PPS before I published, I had no idea how the featured image would appear. I don’t love its alignment. So this is till a work in progress I guess!

The “Onsite Mobile Experience Canvas” and the importance of context in digital development

Tl;dr I have created a canvas for organisations such as museums and galleries developing digital tours, games, apps or other mobile experiences to be used onsite by visitors. It provides prompts on all the different areas you need to think about during development. To jump straight to this, go to this Google doc.

The longer version: I’ve been working with a number of small heritage organisations recently as a consultant mentor on the Digital Confidence Fund for the National Heritage Lottery Fund. One of these organisations is starting to think about developing a mobile experience, probably a game, to provide visitors who were too young to go on the available tour with something fun and educational to do instead.

Since this is something I have done quite a lot of, and thought quite a lot about, this makes me instantly wary. It is always more difficult than expected to create a successful onsite mobile experience, whether it is a tour, game, app, web-based or whatever. So I created a canvas to help the organisation I’m working with think this through. If it is useful for them, hopefully it will be useful for others, so, you can find it here

When I was working at Frankly, Green and Webb, we developed a template for a client to help them develop a brief for a similar digital project. This new canvas builds upon that, adapting it for this specific purpose. It provides prompts to walk you through all the areas you need to think about and aims to “de-risk” such a project by making sure that everything has been considered at the start. To avoid, for example, unclear objectives or learning outcomes leading to poor content. Or failures of process, where insufficient time for testing is factored in, or where agile agencies clash with waterfall-style internal project management methods. 

One of the main areas of complexity is context. By which I mean, the digital product doesn’t stand alone in either the user experience or in the physical space, it exists within a big web of other factors. Failure to take this into account means the failure of your product (trust me, I’ve seen this happen far too often). I’m going to expand on this aspect here, because there is so much to say, and not enough room in the canvas! 

Here are some key things to take into account:

  • Network capabilities. Is there good wifi? Does it drop out in certain areas or disconnect and reconnect with different spots as visitors move? How do visitors connect to it? Is that easy? (If not, why not, fix it!) Relatedly, how do they find out about your wifi, is that obvious?. If this is likely to be an issue, don’t rely on wifi for a download or worse, data. There are all kinds of reasons why visitors might be reluctant to use their data allowance for your experience, especially if they don’t know how much it will take. The drop outs are key too: visitors move, so if a mobile experience relies on streaming it will cut in and out, or reset itself. A very frustrating user experience. Test your network to be sure this won’t happen, or just don’t rely on streaming. Using position to trigger content is iffy too, I know of one massive tour project that got pulled after launch because the device triggered new content in each new room, but users didn’t necessarily want it to (and sometimes the accuracy was poor so it wouldn’t happen in the right place anyway). So users would move back to the old room to finish the old content, which would restart from the beginning again, ad nauseum. (This is also a cautionary tale about properly testing in situ before launch). Bluetooth triggers can be affected by objects blocking signals, and can require significant maintenance
  • Signage and onboarding opportunities. There is zero point in spending thousands of pounds on mobile experience if users don’t find out about it at the right point in their journey. I am still sore about all the time I spent working on an app for a major exhibition only to find that, despite multiple pleas for high profile signage, when it opened the only mention of the app was in tiny writing on the wall by the entrance inside of the exhibition. This meant that visitors would only see it if they happened to turn right and look backwards (and squint) as they entered this huge space full of objects. Not gonna happen. What a waste! I have also worked with organisations to improve take up of existing mobile tours and a frequent issue was trying to introduce visitors to several different things at once on arrival (with a queue of visitors behind, forcing them to rush the intro). For example, sorting tickets, site rules, membership opportunities, tours and then the mobile experience way down the list. Separating this out to its own desk can help, as long as it doesn’t then get isolated. Explicitly directing target groups to it is a good tactic (“oh, you’re here with the kids, why not go to the family desk and ask about the game? They’d love it”).
  • Facilitation. Related to the above point, I would go so far as to say that most of the mobile experiences I have worked on have, or would have, benefitted from a degree of facilitation. Whether this is full in person hand-holding and prompting throughout, or at a minimum, hands-on help to onboard visitors and staff throughout the site who are trained and able to assist. Just leaving visitors to go it alone completely rarely works well, there are so many different needs and levels of confidence with technology. So it’s worth considering what person-power you have available for this purpose.
  • Visitor flow and behaviour. How do visitors usually move around the space? Will the mobile experience change this and how, and what challenges does that present? Will they need to sit down whilst using it, and is there somewhere for them to sit if so? What is the existing visitor behaviour? Can you build on that, rather than trying to instill new behaviours that may feel counter to visitor instincts? If the target audience is families, have you considered the specific needs of this group (perhaps more concerned with where the toilets are and where to eat lunch than getting involved with complex technology). This article we wrote on designing digital for families at FG+W might be helpful.
  • Environment. What else is in the space? Will it be competing for their attention? Or will there be too much noise to hear properly? 
  • Equipment. Do visitors need to use their own phones? What level of tech do your visitors normally have with them and how does this affect your plans? Will visitors need to use their own headphones? How will they know that they need to bring them? If not, how will you provide them? 
  • Maintenance. Will you need access to maintain the technology or related aspects? If users are borrowing devices, where and how will you be managing cleaning, charging, updated and so on?

What have I missed? Feel free to add comments below if you have any further thoughts and I can add them in. 

I would also very much welcome feedback on the canvas itself to help develop it further, so please do comment here if you have suggestions. Would also love to know if you’ve found it useful. Feel free to share it/copy it/adapt it. I am sharing it under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License*. Thank you to Lindsey Green for her very helpful comments on a previous draft.

The Onsite Mobile Experience Canvas on Google Docs.

*If your intended usage falls outside of this please get in touch for permission.

Featured image by cottonbro on Pexels.

2020 Yearnotes: the year of Zoom, new and old clients, games, yoga studies, and yeah, COVID-19

I don’t usually do a public year-end round up, but this year, this year in particular, it felt like that might be a very useful exercise. 

2020

I guess I have what used (?) to be called a portfolio career, as illustrated by the wide range of projects I’ve been working on since last January. Most people who find this blog post will know my work in digital, maybe educational games or consultancy, but I’ve also had a fairly leftfield side hustle going on for the last two years as well. Of which, more later.

In the “regular” job, I started the year feeling the post-project haze of working on the It’s Our Time campaign with Comms Lab (and other partners), creating materials to support their goal of getting young people registered to vote and to stand up for climate issues in the last election (remember that?). 2.5 million people in the target age group were registered, in no small part down to these efforts. I was just a small cog in this brilliant machine, you can read the report on what we did and how, here

I wanted to do more in the area of climate change as it’s a subject I am passionate about (there is still time to make a difference!). So I spent the beginning of the year scouting around for similar opportunities with little luck, although I did come across the climate.tech community. It’s worth joining if you are similarly interested in the subject, although the volume of posts can be a little overwhelming.

I also began consulting work with a previous client, the excellent Teach Your Monster to Read (a rare edtech success story), digging into some issues around a new strategy for their range of learning games. As usual, this involved going back to basics – getting clarity around objectives before working out how to tackle them. Honestly you don’t need to hire me, you could just stick two post-its to your work wall: “BUT WHAT ARE YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and “DOES THIS MEET YOUR OBJECTIVES?” and be done with it.

I jest, it’s not that simple so you should definitely hire me. (Although, it kind of is). I also recommended and carried out some user research on how potential new products were viewed to answer various questions that were blocking decisions from being made.

Around this I was also doing my two day a week job as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies. That one might require some explanation. In 2017 I started a Masters degree at SOAS in Traditions of Yoga and Meditation… I guess that, too, might require some explanation. The short version is, that after years of karate training, I realised it had wrecked some of my joints, and that it was no longer physically sustainable. I got into yoga instead, and then, really into yoga. It was transformative, but I didn’t understand why. 

So I did a yoga teacher training course in 2016, mostly out of personal interest. It was spectacular. Based in a beautiful Buddhist monastery outside of Kathmandu, we were woken around 6 by the sound of the horns and drums during morning prayers. After a big rain, the smog would clear from the valley and we could see across the city to the Himalayas, including what I think was Langtang Lirung. One could almost believe anything, in a setting such as this. But still, as a natural sceptic, I left the training with a lot of questions (also a tattoo and a chest infection, but mostly questions). When I found there was a Masters at SOAS in the history of these practices, I had to do it, and started in 2017.

Should you somehow be oblivious to the current state of academic yoga studies, you should know that SOAS has recently been leading the field. There has been a major EU funded research project situated there for the last 5 years, the Hatha Yoga Project, led by Dr James Mallinson (also chair of the Centre of Yoga Studies). If you are scoffing at the very idea, no doubt based on a preconception of yoga as essentially a sport for bendy people and hippies, we should have a chat some time. The history of yoga and meditation is absolutely fascinating, an incredible lens on the development of Indian religion and philosophy and the impact this has had on the world. It is tangled and complex and problematic and hotly debated and extremely political. And nascent. One could still be an Indiana Jones in this field, uncovering a dusty manuscript somewhere that changes everything. 

Anyway, the Masters has been a trip. I’ve loved it. I entered a whole new world of knowledge, and raised my general level of academic critical thinking and research skills. I did two years of Sanskrit with it and it was like learning a new code that opens up a huge box of treasures. And at the end of the first year, I got involved with the new Centre of Yoga Studies at SOAS, and became its first actual staff member as Project Coordinator on two days a week, realising the vision of the steering committee and Chair. Mainly we ran events that disseminated the latest scholarship to as wide an audience as possible, as well as an internationally attended and widely regarded summer school. We had a Facebook group and an Instagram account. With the limited time available, that was about all I could manage, although we had aspirations to do more.  By February of 2020, we had a few thousand Facebook and Insta followers, had run many many successful events and the summer school preparation for 2020 was well underway.

And then, Covid-19. I felt the initial impact in two main areas. Firstly, with my work at SOAS. We quickly realised that the massive amount of uncertainty made the Yoga Studies summer school a big risk, especially since we relied on overseas students. In the end we cancelled it, rather than trying to replicate an intensive format that relied on personal learning time with renowned scholars online. But for our events programme, lockdown was a boon. We flipped quickly to a Zoom based format, recording the events and putting them on a new YouTube channel (videos from early October and before are the ones I was responsible for). 

It was nothing fancy, well below the production values that I would adhere to for my other day job. Just minimally edited recordings of the Zoom presentations, with all the lagginess and low resolution that this entails. They were also over 1 hour long and often on very academically dense subjects. Based on the received wisdom about how long YouTube videos should be and the ideal content, they should have flopped. And yet they were a relative hit, quickly racking up hundreds of views. There is a keen audience out there for this stuff and they don’t care what it looks like, they just want access to the scholarship. 

In terms of running the events themselves, I have written up our format and process in a previous post. We kept them very locked down and used Sli.do to manage the Q&A. We had absolutely no trouble with our audience as a result, and were often complimented on how well run the events were, which I was very pleased about.

The other area was in my volunteer/activism work within XR Southwark. I’d been increasingly involved with XR since they first started their activities in 2018, especially the local group. Unlike the media picture of XR, the local groups tend to be much more grassroots, supporting local campaigns and activities such as community gardens. When lockdown was announced, XR mobilised its networks to help out with mutual aid groups. It also moved in-person meet-ups to Zoom, a tool it had already been using heavily for delivering remote training. In Southwark we realised that our experience with Zoom could be really beneficial to other local groups and charities who were suddenly having to navigate this new online world. So, we started offering free Zoom training sessions to anyone who might find them useful, which I developed based on the general XR training and delivered with the help of some others in the group. Again, the details of this are written up in my previous post

I’m very proud of the response to this, we ran these sessions twice a week until interest eventually tailed off (I guess most people had figured it all out after a while). Attendees came from a wide variety of community groups, charities, local services and even bigger organisations and we had lots of positive comments, with one woman saying it had saved her from absolute despair at the idea of trying to move her service for vulnerable adults online. And it’s added another dimension to my work, as organisations have started asking me to deliver paid workshops in this area too.

Otherwise, though, I was largely able to continue with my work as before, since I was well used to working remotely. After a number of fallow years on the books of the National Lottery Heritage Fund as a Digital Consultant, I was given a lovely project in Scotland to act as a mentor on, and then later in the year four more in England that had been funded under the Digital Confidence Fund. All small local heritage projects, with a variety of different and overlapping needs in working out how to do their usual activities remotely and build their digital skills and resilience. 

I love this work, taking all my years of experience on digital projects and figuring out how to use that to advise organisations working on a small scale with very specific needs. It’s rarely the case that they just need MORE DIGITAL. Sometimes less, in fact (e.g. running an Instagram account is very time consuming, does this actually meet their objectives and is it really where the target audience are?). It’s a learning curve for both me and the client, I think, and a balance between advising and upskilling. Anything I suggest has to be sustainable for when I’m not around, of course.

In June I took part in a panel for the National Holocaust Centre and Museum in the UK entitled “Do we need new art forms to teach the Holocaust?”, timed around the launch of their own story app, “The Journey”. You can watch this here (or here on Vimeo), it was an interesting discussion, certainly for me to take part in and hopefully for the audience as well.

I also started gathering up anti-racism resources being shared whilst the Black Lives Matter movement was making headlines. It was great to see more discussion of practical steps to tackle structural racism, from education to hiring practices, something I’d found missing in e.g. diversity or unconscious bias training I’d taken part in, so wanted to collect it all up. Now I have LOADS, and am still trying to figure out what to do with it all, but will post about this in more detail soon, I just need to tidy them up a bit more before sharing. Life got in the way of that one, but I’m posting here as a kick up the bum to do something with this!

At the beginning of the summer I began consulting work with Unthinkable and Clore Leadership on delivering a previously developed digital strategy. Not much to say on that at the moment, much more work to be done in 2021 on this. And there was another new client, the National Lottery Community Fund, on a slightly different project: analysing a big qualitative data set from a funding call for the Climate Action Fund, trying to pull out useful insight from 600+ open field responses. I was excited to try some qual coding tools to see whether they could help, and was frankly disappointed. I tried NVivo, spending quite some time setting up the code, and then just found it so incredibly slow to code each item that despite its evident power, it was unusable. I also tried Quirkos which was, sorry, so fugly and clunky that it was also no help. In the end I used a pen and paper and tally system, and it was a lot faster. (Any recommendations for other tools very welcome).

I continued various volunteer jobs: admin with the brilliant Bike Project and mentoring with Bethnal Green Ventures (Tech for Good start up accelerator) and Digital Candle (free digital advice for charities). But I stepped away from XR, at least for the moment. The evidence suggests that most people accept that we are in a climate emergency, but just don’t know what they can do about it. So I want to focus more on positive solutions and future visioning in this area, not just negative disruptive campaigning. I tried setting up a new mini venture in this vein (The Sunny Upside) but it proved difficult to get traction with it and put enough time into it to make it work (I am no sort of social media influencer). Might revisit that at some point though.

Meanwhile, I’d also decided to turn my life upside down, joining the London exodus and heading to the Isle of Wight, where I grew up and where the rest of my family live. I’ve been here ever since, house hunting (unsuccessfully so far, but anyway). The decision was undoubtedly lockdown-prompted, a desire for countryside and the sea and more space. Like many others, I also realised that the increasing move to remote working meant that I finally could leave London without sacrificing my career. I hope that continues to be true! 

One might question my timing though, not only was work fairly busy but I was also working hard on my masters dissertation, due in October. Final title: “From Monkey Mind to Inner Silence: What does permanent loss of inner speech in meditators tell us about its nature and function?” After what felt like endless rewrites and last minute research along new avenues, I finally got it in. PSA: Google docs do NOT COUNT footnotes in the word count. Thank goodness I did a final count in Word although having to strip out 1000 words at the last minute was a pretty brutal exercise. It was the last act of my Masters, and I’m pleased to have gotten a distinction in both the dissertation and the overall degree. I also finished my working contract at SOAS, handing over to a new coordinator in October.

What do I do with all of that, then? I’ve had some interesting discussions with friends about integrating different sides of one’s experience and knowledge into work, but I’m not sure I can quite marry up the digital and the yoga research. We’ll see. I’m exploring a new project on the latter front with a friend. We’re seeing if we can make a space for discussion on the future of teaching and practice given so many new developments in academic yoga studies. And on the digital side of things, I have some ideas, but I’m not ready to share them yet. I’d like to do some more writing though, and have a list of blog posts I’m working on for the New Year. Is Medium still the go to for sharing? Or does everyone have their own newsletter these days?? I need to sort out this website, either way, which is no longer fit for purpose and looks rather dated.

I’m very lucky that my work can continue on during the current restrictions. It’s always so piecemeal and up and down that it’s a little hard to tell whether it’s been negatively or positively affected, but it doesn’t feel like I’ve suffered in the same way that many others I know have, in sectors that have been badly hit by the current circumstances. But who knows what the future holds. I think we can only make the best plans we can based on the knowledge we currently have, and prepare to adapt them as necessary.

I was kept sane during lockdown through:

  • Baking, cooking, fermenting. I share my foodie obsessions on my Instagram, but I’m wondering whether to change this up a bit in the New Year. Especially since I’ve stopped using Facebook much, Insta is now the best way for friends and family to keep up with what I’m doing, should they be interested. 
  • Also gardening. My tiny wildlife friendly garden was a godsend. I spent hours just watching the bees on the salvia. So lucky to have had this (but it took about 10 years to get the garden into a state I was happy with).
  • And games! Highlights: my usual poker home game moved to Pokerstars and Zoom, using the free game and running the books on money owed separately. It has worked surprisingly well. My D&D game also moved to Zoom and Roll20, the latter being basically indistinguishable from MAGIC, at least in the hands of our excellent and creative DM. We have just conquered the dragon in “Icespire Peak” in high style (whilst mounted upon a roc, no less). I got my parents into online Carcassonne, a heavyweight and slightly clunky transfer to digital but functional enough to capture the fun of the board game. Friends and I experimented with playing board games online, with varying levels of success. I recently enjoyed two disparate seasonal efforts, the Adventure Calendar and the Jacqui Lawson Advent Calendar. The first a branching narrative game over email with daily installations, and the second a TOTES ADORBS throwback of tweeness and sentimentality that I genuinely look forward to every year. And I finally got an up to date console, the PS4, just in time for the PS5 to come out. I am loving Middle Earth: Shadow of War, and revisiting Crash Bandicoot, Worms, Just Dance, Resident Evil 5 and Wipeout (and apparently I am basically stuck in the 2000s, eh?).

As soon as I press send on this, I’ll think of something else I want to share, but I’ve probably gone on enough. And it turns out, this has been a useful reflection on the year. If anyone gets anything out of reading it, that’s a bonus. Here’s to the New Year.

(Featured image by @brujahahahaha on Giphy).

Running live events and meetings on Zoom and avoiding “Zoom Bombing”

Tl;dr sharing resources on how to use Zoom for running both live events and meetings, skip to the bottom for links.

Since the lockdown started, Zoom has become a go-to tool for running events and meetings online. I’d been using it for various things for a few years, but hadn’t really spent too much time and effort digging into what it could do. Then I got involved with XR who use it a lot for delivering training, so I saw features like the breakout rooms in action. I was impressed. It was by far the most powerful application I’d seen in the field, and it just worked.

Of course, I never expected that we’d all be living and working in part over Zoom due to a global pandemic. However, when it became clear what was happening, I realised that the knowledge we’d built up in XR on running things over Zoom might be valuable for others. So, I took some existing XR training on how to use Zoom, adapted it, and started running it for people in the local community and beyond with the help of others in XR. From the positive feedback we got, it seems it was useful for many.

At the same time, in my role as Project Coordinator for the SOAS Centre of Yoga Studies, we were having to rework our live lecture programme for an online audience. We did a trial on Zoom, and it was a success. The live events worked really well, and the YouTube channel we created with the recordings has been a relative hit. You can find it here, if obscure academic scholarship on the history of yoga is your bag. Or, if you just want to see what the recordings look like (note: they are slightly edited, simple trim edits done with the YouTube editor, and more complex ones with an aged version of Adobe Premiere. But you get the gist.)

I created guides for both scenarios and shared them on twitter, which people seemed to find helpful. So, to create a more persistent record, I’m putting them here too, see below.

Now, I should mention Zoom security concerns. Zoom has had some major security and privacy issues exposed as a result of increased use and scrutiny. Most of the flaws have been fixed (and I’m impressed with how fast and sincerely Zoom seemed to handle this). But it is still possible for malicious actors to get into meetings and share horrible things on the screen, cause mayhem in the chat, scribble unwanted things on a shared screen etc, but ONLY IF you haven’t taken precautions. These are also outlined in the documents below.

I hope these are useful, please feel free to share them if so. I’m also keen to keep them updated so if people have suggestions on improvements or other good resources I could add, please let me know or pop them in the comments. And if you are a small community organisation who wants more advice, feel free to get in touch with questions (details here or tweet me) and I’ll help if I can.

Resources:

Products vs Properties (or What Shampoo Bars Taught Me About Technology)

SOP shampoo bar
Am a fan of the sopshop.co.uk pastry shampoo, others are available

I had a minor epiphany recently; a noticing. Of the sort where it now seems so blindingly obvious, I can’t understand why I didn’t notice it before. And now I can’t stop noticing it, and the way it informs so much of our thinking as a society and, moreover, the huge problems it causes.

The thing I noticed is this: we have become slaves to product-based thinking. Well, what I really noticed first was that I have, but on further reflection I’m pretty sure it’s not just me.

Back in August, as part of a general drive to reduce the amount of plastic I use, I began washing my hair with a shampoo bar (instead of my usual brand in a plastic bottle). It took a little bit of adjustment, but I’m now a total convert. Buoyed by this success, I started converting other products over to lower waste alternatives. I stopped using shower gel, and used soap. Instead of fabric softener, I put vinegar (bought in bulk or glass jars) in the wash. Bicarbonate of soda (which I can fill a jar with cheaply at my local zero waste shop) and vinegar work for all sorts of cleaning purposes. I was on a roll.

I googled “make your own shaving cream” and started looking into various recipes when a phrase in one of them made me sit up. It said something like: “of course, you can really use a mix of anything that will lubricate the skin and protect it from the razor” and I thought: Huh, like, er, soap? And yep, turns out soap works totally fine (duh). The answer had been staring me in the face all along.

Maybe you can see where I’m going here. But I couldn’t, for a long time, until that moment when I started thinking about the properties I needed for a shaving cream to work, and then felt like an idiot for even needing to google it. But I googled it because so pervasive is the assumption I needed particular products in my life, that it hadn’t even occurred to me to think more laterally. My previous mindset, deeply entrenched, was that I absolutely had to have a separate shower gel, a shaving gel, a shampoo, a conditioner, a facial wash, etc etc. But I didn’t. I needed things with the following properties: will clean my skin, will help me shave (arguably, not something I need either but that’s another debate), will clean my hair. Plain old soap works fine for most of these things (for me, your mileage may, of course, vary).

This is not just true of beauty products. A cake recipe says I need to add an egg, but what it really means is something with binding properties and to help it rise. I can do that with apple sauce (or chia seeds) and baking powder (and yes, this works). Do you need a specific hammer for that DIY job? Or will anything hard and flat that you can hold do, really?

As someone who works as a digital producer (/product owner/manager/whatever), I often find myself railing against the “we need an app” mentality. Or even, as much as I love games, the “we need a game to change behaviour in this area!” mentality. Sometimes as a consultant I will find myself saying, well, let’s go back to your objectives here, it seems what you really want to do doesn’t really require a game at all, and a simpler low-tech approach might be better and easier (like, maybe downloadable resources for schools, or, er, a book). In these situations I am very comfortable with thinking laterally about what solution might have the necessary properties to meet the objectives. So it seems odd that I rarely applied those same principles to the rest of my life.

But the thing is, this type of thinking is now deeply embedded in our culture, because products make our capitalist world go round. We’ve been sold the idea that we can’t just use soap for a variety of purposes, because if there is only one product to sell us (and it’s a simple, cheap one) then there is less money to be made. We’ve been sold the idea that everything should be an app, or use a new piece of hardware, not because we actually need it, but because that’s what makes money. Forget the old stuff you bought, this new stuff will fix your problems!

This is actually dangerous. This technological product-based thinking is driving societal change at a rate that is outstripping policy and safeguards to deal with the new challenges it poses. It is filling our oceans with plastic, using up precious resources, distracting our brains with concerns about which product to use – which one is moisturising, which is cleansing, which one gives off the right social signals – instead of all the more useful activities we could be putting our energies towards. This is infantilising, too, discouraging us from thinking for ourselves and testing things and building personal experience to find the best option (maybe one soap is too drying, does it help to try one that has olive oil in it? This ratio of vinegar to soap in my cleaning solution isn’t working so well, let’s adjust it).

So now I’m thinking, what does the world look like if we go back to first principles? If we think in terms of properties, not end products? What do we really need and what can we replace with, well, vinegar and bicarb, or soap? Does it have to be VR, or could it work with the technology that most people already have? It might mean a little compromise, but are the marginal gains to be found in the new and improved version really worth it?

(Who is doing this property-based thinking well? I’d love to hear any examples, please share!)

Should you ask for creative work as part of a pitch?

At the risk of breaking Betteridge’s law, the answer to the question in the title isn’t quite “no”, but it isn’t far off…

Trevor Klein shared this tweet with me recently, and, basically, HELL YES:

I got a bit excited:

I’d like to expand on this a bit, and reboost the signal outside of the advertising world, because I think this is a really very important point. I’ve seen this get ignored too often within both broadcast and cultural sector work, in particular. I’ll also provide an example of what you can do instead that I hope may be useful.

BUT… I wanna see the ideas  

So, the idea that we should ask for a creative pitch for creative projects seems logical at first. It is also extremely prevalent; so ingrained in fact that even when I’ve asked specifically for NO creative as part of a pitch, companies often can’t help themselves.

BUT there are several reasons why this is usually a bad idea, and one I heavily discourage when advising clients on briefs and tenders. This is some hard-won personal experience here, folks.

Let’s start with some of the points mentioned by @tomroach in their tweet.

Insufficient time, understanding, access, client input

The first part of a creative project should be a discovery process between the client and the agency. This is often several days long and involves joint meetings, brainstorms, audience research gathering, idea testing, collaboration etc etc.  This is what it takes to come up with an idea/product that might actually be a good starting point (and still just a starting point). Why would you expect agencies to come up with something worthwhile without going through that whole, involved, collaborative process?

As Tom says above, they are therefore not a means of coming up with correct creative solutions.

Creative solutions often immediately appealing, rarely correct

Creative pitches are, however, quite seductive. This is dangerous on two fronts:

a) the client (and agency) gets attached to the idea presented at the pitch and then fails to allow a properly executed discovery process to deliver something much better. It is especially important to factor in user research at this stage and genuinely tailor the product to people’s needs and behaviours. For this to happen you need to be fully open to all potential solutions at the start (within your means, of course). I’ve seen the opposite happen several times, though, where the creative idea at pitch dictates the direction of the discovery process, and the end product doesn’t really meet user needs as a result.

b) the idea blinds the client to shortcomings in the rest of pitch. They are so excited by the idea that they fail to fully question the track record of the agency, their processes, or the proposed budget. All of which are actually far more important. Which brings me to…

Creative credentials should be evident from track record

Just because someone has a good idea, doesn’t mean they can deliver it. The only way you can be sure that they can is to look at their track record (as well as, I would add, their project management processes, proposed approach and budget). Even a new company should be able to provide you with the individual track records of those involved.

If they have none, be aware, you are taking a major risk and you should spend considerable time discussing their proposed processes (especially project management, user testing), technical knowledge and risk mitigation to attempt to offset this. If you don’t have sufficient relevant experience and resources in-house to effectively mentor an agency in this type of situation, go with an agency who is very experienced instead.

And to add a further point:

It isn’t ethical to ask companies to do lots of work on spec

Especially small agencies. You are asking them to do thousands of pounds of (pointless) work for you for free, and in a competitive climate, companies will, but that doesn’t make it OK. Agencies go bust because of this, seriously, and that benefits none of us.

Any exceptions?

Maybe you’re doing something that you feel is quite new, or you’re asking agencies to break out of their comfort zone a bit and show what else they can do. If so, consider taking more time to brainstorm ideas in a workshop together, which will also give you time to see how compatible you are. But still don’t get attached to these initial ideas, see above. Be prepared to entirely throw them out when you start the proper process.

You could also pay a company who seems promising and creative to go through a more involved discovery process. I’ve actually seen this done with several companies at once, which I think worked well. It’s also, I think, completely fine to separate discovery and delivery if you want to manage risk – committing only to a week or two’s work initially – and potentially use a different company for delivery.

And (evergreen statement), if you haven’t got budget for any of this, consider whether you are really able to deliver anything worthwhile on this scale, and maybe adjust expectations accordingly. Squeezed budgets rarely result in useful or usable solutions.

What should I do instead?

Writing a good brief is a subject for another day, to be honest. But, here is a (redacted/edited) outline from a recent brief I wrote that may be useful. After outlining our objectives, requirements and parameters, we asked for proposals to include the following:

  • Scope of the proposal (including risks + dependencies). Responses should not focus on creative responses, but should instead outline an approach to delivering the specified outcomes.  This should address [specific issues related to this product].
  • Suggested timelines and a draft budget. [Or you could just say the budget that you are working to and ask for their day rates]
  • Examples of previous relevant work. Ideally this should demonstrate experience working with [list of features of this project that we would like to the chosen vendor to have experience in].
  • Brief CVs/outlines of relevant experience for the team members who would be working on this.
  • Any changes or variance from the requirements laid out in the brief

Any other thoughts? Counter examples? Feel free to share them in the comments.

Turning research into results: the Teach Your Monster to Read Teacher Toolkit

A little while ago I wrote this blog post on creating resources for teachers that they will actually find useful (summary below). It was partly  based on research I carried out for Teach Your Monster to Read, a game from the Usborne Foundation for teachers and parents to help teach phonics to kids. Usborne wanted to know if there were other tools, games, videos or other content they could create that would make teachers’ jobs easier. 

Very wisely, rather than guess at what these might be, they commissioned me to talk to teachers in the UK and US and find out more about how they teach the subject and what might help them. It was hugely instructive, we learned a lot about what teachers might and might not use, and the research results were used as the direct inspiration for a set of ideas that have now been turned into reality. Just launched on the TYMTR site are mini games, flashcards, videos and printable resources (teachers love to be able to print stuff and make it their own!). They are lovely things.

Teach Your Monster to Read screenshot

I know this user centred, research based design process isn’t new, but unfortunately in my experience people don’t always see the value, or ignore the research results when they don’t fit their preconceptions. For the teacher audience, who have very specific needs and little time, this is especially likely to result in a product that fails. 

So, if you’re thinking of doing something similar, please read my previous post. The tl;dr version below:

Make life easy for teachers. They work hard, they don’t have much time or budget. Make it easy, and they are much more likely to use your resources.

  1. Make online resources easy to find. Put them where teachers already go.
  2. The benefits must be easy to see. Make it clear what it is, who it’s for, show images of it being used.
  3. Be mindful of the time of year. Teachers are insanely busy at certain times of year, and more or less likely to be planning ahead at other times of year.
  4. Make it flexible and modular. Teachers will want to adapt it.
  5. Don’t try and break the mould, make it fit with teachers’ existing practice. Don’t expect them to start changing the way they have always done things overnight.
  6. Make it beautiful, easy, and solve a problem. 

And I would also add, test it heavily with teachers in the environment in which it will be used.

Creating compelling museum games: A talk, video, slides and summary

I used to give a talk about how museums should do more games. I would talk about how successful we’d been with this at Wellcome Collection with games like High Tea and Axon, and give other great examples from Tate, the Science Museum, the Smithsonian, and so on. However, I don’t feel that evangelising entirely makes sense any more, because the reality has proven tough.

So I have updated this talk to reflect that reality, to look into why some museums have found it actually very hard to create successful games, and to suggest a solution. Below is a video of me giving it at We Are Museums in Bucharest earlier in the year, including a short example of live game design game Cat On Yer Head in action. Since the slides from that are quite hard to make out, I’ve put them below, along with a summary.

Since the talk, I’ve left Frankly Green + Webb to go solo again, with a view to focus more on the game side of things (along with some general digital consultancy and research, and, er, yoga teaching and other bits and bobs. I do like a portfolio/random sort of career!). One of the things I offer is a game design workshop, which has proven very successful (two comments from the last one I ran: “I was really impressed by the way we managed to create our own games at the end of the session – this was really inspiring.”,”I’d say you learn a lot while having lots of fun. Great if you want to understand more about how games work and become a better commissioner of games.”).

The workshop gives you a chance to try out the principles described in the talk below, and feel confident about what it takes to create a good game. I’m looking for various outlets to run it at the moment for whoever wants to come, so more on that soon, but I have run it for specific organisations in the past, tailoring it to their needs, so if that sounds like something your museum or group would be interested in, let me know (give me a shout via twitter or linkedin). I genuinely love doing this workshop, it involves a lot of play and experimentation, and at the end of it participants have come up with some properly brilliant ideas.

On with the talk:

[slideshare id=67403766&doc=wearemuseumsmarthahenson-161019113943]

And the written version:

  1. Games can be a powerful medium for museums. Done well they can be engaging, educational, and reach a large audience. Look at what happened with High Tea. Over 4 million plays, amazing audience feedback/evaluation and engagement with the ideas and themes.
  2. But this turns out to be hard to get right, and too often goes wrong. Why?
    • Lack of digital and games knowhow or dedicated resource
    • Specifically a lack of understanding of the game design process from clients
    • Lengthy crippling sign off processes
    • A lack of flexibility in the game design process linked to funding structures – often decisions are made before games experts have had a chance to feed in and then are locked in.
    • Small budgets or tight schedules that don’t allow for testing and development
    • A poor fit between objectives and outcomes of the game – little learning or engagement
    • Lack of understanding about the audience
    • Failure to market – nobody played it
    • No shared learning or insight passed on.
  3. This is what I’ve heard from both museum insiders and agencies/developers, some of whom have stopped doing this sort of work on commission because it’s so fruitless. And lots of cultural organisations have had budgets cut, so doing a game can seem hard to justify if they haven’t worked in the past.
  4. Bummer. Cat gif for light relief. But, take heart! There are so many encouraging signs. Great things are being done in board games (look at all the lovely examples in slide 11!), in indie games, in physical games. Look how popular and brilliant Now Play This was. The answer is not to stop doing games, the answer is to do the right sort of games, appropriate to your needs and resources. And the answer is to understand what best practice looks like in this area and learn from the mistakes that have been made.
  5. So, how do we make good games? My thoughts. There are many (many) definitions of games. But I find helpful way to understand games is to see them as a system of rules or MECHANICS that produce DYNAMICS (what you actually do in the game) that lead to AESTHETICS or the player experience overall (Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek 2001 http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/pubs/MDA.pdf).
  6. As the designer, you control the mechanics, and then look at what this produces in terms of dynamics, and then how the players actually experience that.
  7. Too often, we think in terms of the aesthetics and the trappings of the game (the story, the art design etc), and forget that what you can control and what will make it compelling are good mechanics. And whatever learnings or objectives you have for the game, need to be embedded in the mechanics.
    • (For example, we wanted players to understand that the opium trade that caused the Opium Wars was about the buying and selling of opium, in order to buy tea. So, those are the mechanics of the game – buy opium, sell opium, buy tea. You can’t play the game without picking that up.)
  8. So, the good news is, the process for doing this isn’t really that complicated:
    • Identify your objectives (DO NOT SKIP THIS STEP)
    • Identify mechanics that fit (or try, just start somewhere plausible)
    • Draft a game
    • Prototype and test it. Does it meet the objectives? Is it playable/fun/compelling?
    • Revise based on findings from testing.
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • Test again
    • Revise
    • etc
  9. What are the implications of this?
    • Be clear about objectives, the mechanics will flow from that – these can be the brief
    • Leave room in the development process for the actual development – must be flexible enough for this
    • Test it early – leave budget and time for this
    • Bring in many voices
    • Think about how you are going to distribute and market it
    • Evaluate and share insight – within your institution and outside too
  10. The end. Another cat gif. PS if you want help with thinking about mechanics, why not use these game mechanics cards for inspiration? I’ve updated them a bit since, but you’ll just have to hire me for a workshop to get the latest 🙂

I’ve simplified, and generalised here, of course. Some game designers take different approaches in their work, which is fine. But this post isn’t for experienced game designers, and you can always break these rules once you’re comfortable.

I would also now add: be clear about your limitations e.g. if you don’t have sufficient budget to do a good digital game, don’t do a bad one on a small budget. Would a physical or board game work instead? (And sometimes, of course, a game isn’t the right approach at all, but you have to understand them to make a good decision about that).

I hope this is useful! Go make games 🙂

Pokémon Go in your museum: you can’t replicate it but you can work with it

Woo, on to the bandwagon I go, roll up for my hot take… (And a links round up, which you can skip to the bottom for if you like).

SO I tweeted this earlier today

I was kidding, but it turned out I was already too late, as people messaged me to say they had already heard this happening.

Listen, the massive success of Pokémon Go is very interesting, no doubt. I’m enjoying playing it, and that’s despite the fact that the collecting/battle game mechanics themselves are not even that compelling. It’s just fun seeing pokémon out in the real world and the surprise of finding them, the collecting and evolving and sharing the pictures and so on is enjoyable too, plus I found out about several local landmarks I hadn’t noticed before, bonus.

And yes, the collecting is obviously something museums can relate to, museums love collecting based games. However, museums are not Pokémon, they do not have objects as beloved as Pikachu (sorry), they do not have the staggering reach and influence and years of brand development that Pokémon has, and they do not have the budgets, not even close. Amongst other things (Dan Hon’s post on how to replicate Pokémon Go’s overnight success explains this excellently, thanks to  Chad Weinard for pointing me at that). And believe me, I’ve tried something in this vein. I still love Magic in Modern London but getting traction on something like that was insanely difficult.

My original tweet was in response to this, which sums it up:

I’ve been in countless discussions with people at cultural organisations who point at similarly huge success stories (“we’re thinking maybe we could do something like Clash of Clans?”) and want a piece of it. I understand why, but Clash of Clans is no overnight success either. Making games of that complexity takes serious time, expertise and budget. I’m a big advocate for museums doing games, but they need to be different beasts: simpler, and more focussed. (Not convinced? Hire me to run my game design workshop in your organisation and you’ll have created something like this by the end of the day).

It is good, however, to see museums embracing Pokémon Go itself and getting excited about it. It has already driven up attendance at some museums. So here’s my round up of the interesting stuff I’ve seen so far on it:

Seen anything else? Share it in the comments.

 

 

Organise your life using Trello

I was recently evangelising about using Trello to keep on top of everything to someone, which involved trying to describe how I use it. It was a bit difficult, in the abstract. So I decided to create a template board that mimics the way I use it, in the hope that it might also be useful to others.

Quite genuinely, it has made my life a LOT easier. I no longer forget stuff when packing for trips, I rarely miss exhibitions I want to see, I can see what I need to shop for when I find myself in the supermarket, I can see what I need to save money for (and don’t forget who I owe money to), I can easily see my slate of activities for work, and quickly put a to do list together for the day. When I am at a loose end at home, I can check my list of jobs around the house and clear something off the list. Very satisfying. And a huge weight off of my brainspace.

For example, I’ve had “write a blog post about Trello” on the list for a few days, and now I get to check it off (or rather, archive it, the Trello equivalent).

It is SUPER easy to use, as long as you have an internet connection. It syncs across my browser and phone, so I always have my lists handy. I haven’t tried calendar integration yet, but will explore that soon. Because it genuinely integrates with my life and makes things easier, it has stuck, and I’ve been using it for a few years now. (It’s a real art, creating processes and tools that actually stick).

Work/Life trello template
Work/Life trello template

Here is my template. Hopefully it’s pretty self explanatory. I’ve put some descriptions in for certain cards. But basically when I think of any new job (or thing I want to see or do, or shopping item I’ve run out of) I create a new card or add it to one of the lists. Then, each day first thing I move cards to “today” that I need to get through or that I could reasonably tackle. Some cards might not get moved to today, but are useful references in different circumstances.

I’ve also used Trello on work projects to share tasks with other people, but this is the board I use the most.

I’d love to hear any other tips that people have, or comments on this. Was it useful? Do you do something differently?