In the blink of an eye and the touch of a finger

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This method of arriving at the financial returns for changes in user experience has been doing the rounds recently. The writeup talks about how Amazon may possibly lose 1% in sales for every 100 miliseconds added to page load time. With all the data at one’s disposal it seems reasonable that one has been able to establish a relationship between sales and speed. While it may be easier to quantify and A/B test in this specific instance, there are multiple user experience initiatives where it’s not easy to measure interactions or the impact of change.

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In this light, I have been wondering how Apple would have worked out the business impact of changes in its font from Helvetica Neue to SanFrancisco Neue. Although it seems like a harmless change (because, in most cases, all functionality remains intact), and new users may not argue, old users will most definitely be rattled by the changes, because they have been used to using the same interface, with the same font, over and over again. While some decisions to change the typography (or font) are clearly led by rationale to make the type work for newer (and smaller devices) and offer better legibility, it also impacts users emotions in two ways.

Cognitive bias

Firstly, we associate certain connotations to specific fonts and font styles. This, like many other things in our world, is often influenced by our cognitive biases and the culture we grow up in. For instance, sans serif fonts are commonly used on official U.S. government forms. But, in England, sans serif fonts are more commonly used by tabloids.

The context in which different fonts are used changes how we feel when we see them.

Objective readability

On top of all that, some fonts are inherently easier to read than others. And the harder our eyes and brains have to work to interpret a piece of text, the worse we report feeling afterwards.

Serif fonts were originally used by the print press, as serifs are proven to help the eye move from letter to letter faster.When computers were first used, computer screens had low resolutions. Serif fonts had to be created using vectors, which just didn’t look right with the low pixel-density available back in the days. So, early designers defaulted to using sans serif fonts, which were created as bitmaps.

Screen resolutions have come along way over the past few decades. We’re at a point where pixels are barely recognizable up close. As such, serif fonts liked Georgia are becoming more and more popular.

Experimenting with typography

While you may still have a hard time convincing your clients or your other team at work to make that extra investment in typography to improve the user experience, the fore-mentioned formula does help in arriving at the return of the UX investments. The method allows one to use the expected change in monetary value for every user interaction that the change in customer experience (or UX) development will arrive at for a user or a customer and then multiply the monetary value with the total number of customers impacted by the change while including the time period and the cost of development as other important considerations.

As more and more touch points become enhanced with elements of technology, they become more measurable allowing organizations to improve customer journeys. However, as human behaviour interacts with new forms of technology it often conveniently arrives at methods and ways of interaction which no one perhaps would have thought through at the stage of inception or development of the technology and its manifestations in the form of devices. I wonder if Apple at the time of developing the Watch would have thought that more than half of the users would use their nose to interact with the device! But then such are the intricacies of human behaviour which in turn makes improving user experience as much a science as it is art.


Line breaks: irony
Pronunciation: /ˈʌɪrəni /
NOUN (plural ironies)

1The expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect


early 16th century (also denoting Socratic irony): via Latin from Greek eirōneia ‘simulated ignorance’, from eirōn ‘dissembler’.


Via Twitter

The future of news will be written in code

I am enamoured and excited by the recent bout of venture investment in news startups like Vox, Pandodaily and Buzzfeed. This story from Quartz explains some of this fascination.

Continuing on the thread of the news websites, I thought I will take this moment to express my great fascination for Quartz. I begin my day with their most smartly curated newsletter. This story explains its making and how some of the smartest editors from the Atlantic (their sister publication) spend hours working on it everyday.

It is not surprising that Quartz is now amongst the most visited new websites in the world. It is no mean feat that they managed to get to this level in a period of less than two years!

This video by the Quartz publishers, from one of the Digiday events explains some of their ways of working. And it is not too different from the principles a technology company works on!

The Making of a Modern Publisher: Atlantic Media’s Quartz from Digiday on Vimeo.

I am really glad that Quartz is launching an India edition.

A social network for the dead

Is it ever possible that the social network you use frequently will contain profiles of more dead people than that of living ones? And what challenges does it pose for someone who is trying to study the user behaviour of people on that social network? Is it ethical? Does it adhere to the basic tenets of doing ethnography? Your social network can afford to keep all our pages and data indefinitely. Living users will always generate more data than dead ones, and the accounts for active users are the ones that will need to be easily accessible. Even if accounts for dead (or inactive) people make up a majority of their users, it will probably never add up to a large part of their overall infrastructure budget. More important will be our decisions. What do we want for those pages? Unless we demand that the social network deletes them, they will presumably, by default, keep copies of everything forever. But there are a lot of questions surrounding passwords and access to private data that we haven’t yet developed social norms for. Should accounts remain accessible? What should be made private? Should next-of-kin have the right to access email? Should memorial pages have comments? How do we handle trolling and vandalism? Should people be allowed to interact with dead user accounts? What lists of friends should they show up on? T

hese are issues that we’re currently in the process of sorting out by trial and error. Death has always been a big, difficult, and emotionally charged subject, and every society finds different ways to handle it. In every place, culture, and technological landscape, we develop a different set of behaviour around these same activities. And it is this evolving behaviour, which poses great challenges when someone is trying to do study users on digital platforms. Death may appear to be an easier issue to deal with, if you keenly observe the different cultural sensitivities that come into play when people are expressing their opinion on religion, politics or other complex matters of the society. There are also issues related to user anonymity and state control. To add to the complexity, the ethnographer faces many methodological challenges like playing the dual role of participant-observer, contextualizing and arriving at normativity while conducting the research.

To pause, to ponder, to tweet or to move on

Sherry Turkle:

A 14-year-old girl tells me how she gets her device-smitten father to engage with her during dinner: “Dad, stop Googling. I don’t care about the right answer. I want to talk to you.” A 14-year-old boy reflects: “Don’t people know that sometimes you can just look out the window of a car and see the world go by and it is wonderful. You can think. People don’t know that.”

John Dickerson:

When you pause to write about something—even if it’s for Twitter or Facebook—you are engaging with it. Something within you is inspired and, at the very least, you’ve got to pick the words and context to convey meaning for your private recollection or, if you make it public, for the larger world.

Sounds & Notes from London

It may just sound weird but I often wake up in the middle of the night thinking of the woman who sells The Big Issue outside the Waterstones on Gower Street. Not that I am unsympathetic towards the cause of The Big Issue but there is something eerily scary about her voice. I even avoid going to that part of the Waterstones but still every visit to Waterstones is full of reminiscences of that sound. This gets me to think if there is a hierarchy of senses in a way that we end up remembering more visual experiences or associate sounds with visuals and then in a similar order may be taste or smell or touch. In most cases it is the visual experience that one recalls most often or if there is a visual associated with a sound or a smell or a taste or touch it becomes easier to remember. Is this the reason we take more pictures than we record sounds or has the medium somehow adopted itself to a hierarchy of senses which perches vision right at the top? Is this the reason we have more apps or platforms that make it easier for us to take pictures, record our visual experiences and share with others?

I think about sound as a photographer. I’m not a “good photographer” but I do it enough that when I’m out in the world I see things in terms of what I would like to see again or that I would like someone else to see from a particular perspective. That’s my guiding principle with pictures. I wonder why exactly we have such a different relationship with sound as compared to how we relate to images. We have music, of course, but that’s not like photography at all. Music is the brush of a paint on canvas or a sculpture or graceful curve of an atrium. But music is not photograph of sounds.

I found this group on Soundcloud, Sound Art, that advertises itself as interested in ambient recordings, but in practice it looks more like another place for people to post their sick jams. What I want is a place to hear things that people record in the spaces around them. This seems reasonable to me: An app with just one button to record and another to share. I’d have fewer “friends” than on Instagram, in the realm of sound, but there would surely be some. And some who use the app would be pushed to find better and more interesting sounds, and to appreciate those sounds in new and different ways.

It’s worth discussing why this audio-sharing network would be so much smaller than the visual ones and why there would be less interest. For starters, vision is the dominant sense. All I really need to prove this is to ask which sense you would rather lose, but it’s still important to look a bit closer than that. Research has shown that up to 85 percent of our perception, learning, and cognition is mediated through vision. Just think of absolutely anything you enjoy: “running,” “chocolates,” “plants,” or “cats.” If you’re an average person, you saw those things in your imagination. (Possible exceptions, like “sex,” are an interesting digression, however.)

On Instagram people share subjects. In my experience, they don’t share very much ambience. There is very little to be found in the sense of a place on photo sharing sites. Rarely do I get a chance to “like” a photo of a room or some field. This is a shame. I’d like to be better able to share environments and ambience in general. We’ve reached a particular point in evolution and technological advancement that we don’t need to dote on vision anymore to survive or at least not as much as we used to. We have a vision-based internet and given that the internet itself doesn’t exist as an actual space, in the sense of needing to be spatially navigated, perhaps sound just needs a better advocate than websites that autoplay horrible music.

So: a sharing network for sounds. Someone build that. I’ll be your first member.



Flickr image via