Why I disagree with GamerGate

I oppose GamerGate, and I’d like to explain why. Please be aware that much of what follows is unpleasant and NSFW.

GamerGate began on unsound foundations

GamerGate started off with Eron Gjoni posting an angry rant about his ex-girlfriend Zoe Quinn. Zoe Quinn was accused of using a sexual relationship with journalist Nathan Grayson to obtain favourable coverage for her work.

This claim isn’t convincing: Grayson never wrote a review of Quinn’s work, and the article that he did write which mentioned her work was published before they were in a relationship.

But even if these claims were convincing, GamerGaters targeted the wrong person. Grayson was the journalist, yet Quinn was the target of vitriol. If GamerGate is a movement about ethics in games journalism, I would have expected it to focus on the journalist.

I don’t think that policing the sexual conduct of one female indie game developer is the best way to make the case for ethical improvements to games journalism. If you are concerned with unethical actions of games producers or publishers, I think it’s much more useful and courageous to focus not on minor indie developers, but on big AAA publishers. These are the companies who have the power to undermine ethical games journalism, and who actually have a track record in doing so.

There are real, known ethical issues in games journalism, but GamerGate doesn’t seem to be focusing on them

GamerGate did not arise in response to the following ethical breaches:

  • A retail chain owning a gaming publication. (The same company owns Game Informer magazine and Game Stop games stores.)
  • Journalists being fired for standing up to the demands of a publisher. (Jeff Gertsmann being sacked from GameSpot after posting a negative review of Kane & Lynch)
  • Product placement in Youtube reviews. (Geoff Keighley being interviewed by Pixel Perfect with product placements for Halo 4, Doritos and Mountain Dew)
    Geoff Keighley product placement
  • PR companies controlling the editorial output of reviews. (Plaid Social requiring Youtube reviewers of Middle Earth Shadows of Mordor to submit their reviews for approval before publication.)
  • Certain publications being granted exclusive early preview access, incentivizing them to produce positive copy. (Eg IGN First.)
  • (See also Leigh Alexander’s list of ethical concerns that have not led to furious activity.)

Out of concern for journalistic ethics, GamerGate has challenged journalists using Patreon, which has led to Kotaku banning its journalists from using Patreon, and to Polygon requiring staff to disclose Patreon use.

But this relatively small area of attack doesn’t address the above concerns. Nor does it identify or seek to challenge the key conflict of ethics at the heart of games journalism. As this article published on Deadspin puts it: “From the top down, publishers ranging from AAA behemoths like Electronic Arts to the IndieCade crowd do in fact enjoy symbiotic relationships with gaming media outlets, and if it came down to nothing more than sex and petty corruption, that would be nice, because the problem would certainly be a lot more easily solved.” In short, games companies have a vested interest in supporting journalists to promote their games. Changing Patreon policy in a few places doesn’t challenge this core problem.

So far I haven’t seen GamerGate seriously engage with ethical questions in games journalism. But I have seen GamerGate actively working to attack journalistic ethics.

GamerGate’s main campaigning effort directly opposes journalistic ethics

Gamergaters have attempted to punish sites that they disagree with, by acting to remove their advertising revenue. As a result of Operation Disrespectful Nod, Gamasutra lost advertising from Intel; Gawker lost advertising BMW, Mercedes (later reinstated, I believe) and Adobe.

If GamerGaters are unhappy that the press is not sufficiently independent and principled, attempting to influence publications by lobbying advertisers to withdraw their adverts seems like an odd move. The aim of Operation Disrespectful Nod appears to be to make the press less independent and to intimidate journalists who hold opinions that GamerGate supporters disagree with. In other words, this course of action suggests that GamerGate is opposed to ethics in games journalism.

I want to look at sexism now, as it’s a dominant theme of GamerGate.

GamerGate is an opportunity to attack women

GamerGate coincides with a wave of threats of violence against women. Zoe Quinn, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu have recently left their homes in response to threats of violence.

Some people have dismissed these threats as publicity stunts: e.g. “Let’s be honest. We’re all used to feeling a niggling suspicion that “death threats” sent to female agitators aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. And indeed there is no evidence that any violent threat against a prominent female figure in the media or technology industry has ever been credible.”

I strongly disagree with this. If someone is making something up they probably wouldn’t go to the FBI with evidence. And violence against women is a big problem, and not just something that people make up on the internet to get attention. In Britain, more than a million women experience domestic violence each year. The UK government reports that approximately 85,000 women are raped on average in England and Wales every year, that over 400,000 women are sexually assaulted each year, and that 1 in 5 women (aged 16 – 59) has experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. We need to take threats of rape and violence seriously, not as the currency or cost of online discourse.

Some people have said that the women being attacked online have brought things upon themselves. e.g. “goading people into making unpleasant remarks and then using those statements to publicly beg for sympathy and cash,” or “They’ve become professional victims.” I think this is incorrect. I haven’t seen any deliberately inflammatory material put out by Sarkeesian or Quinn prior to their being attacked. Rather, I think that their main ‘crime’ has been speaking about and analysing games. Regardless, nothing justifies rape or death threats. To say that Quinn, Sarkeesian etc have brought things on themselves is to harness a common misdirection in our culture: blaming the victim of a crime rather than the perpetrator. In GamerGate as with society more generally, it’s wrong.

Anita Sarkeesian should have nothing to do with GamerGate. Her Kickstarter-funded project Tropes vs Women in Video Games is an example of open, clean funding for independent journalism. But Sarkeesian has been under attack since before GamerGate, and things have intensified:

Women engaging with GamerGate in a cautious, neutral fashion are being attacked. Felicia Day aired her concerns about being attacked if she shared her views on GamerGate: “I realized my silence on the issue was not motivated by some grand strategy, but out of fear that the issue has created about speaking out… I am terrified to be doxxed [having your public contact details / address shared] for even typing the words “Gamer Gate”. I have had stalkers and restraining orders issued in the past, I have had people show up on my doorstep when my personal information was HARD to get.” Day’s article included passages like “Games are beautiful, they are creative, they are worlds to immerse yourself in. They are art. And they are worth fighting for, even if the atmosphere is ugly right now.” She was doxxed shortly after publishing this post.

Jennifer Allaway was working on a study to understand “the importance of diversity in game content to game players, and whether or not the game industry is able to predict this desire.” Gamergaters discovered her survey and spammed it with loads of sexist entries. “if you’re even asking about equality or diversity in games, being shouted down in a traumatizing manner is now a mandatory step that you have to sit back and endure.” “Had #Gamergate participated in my survey honestly, as a researcher, I would gladly have taken their data… But instead, #Gamergate left me with hundreds of replies consisting of bald-faced mockery and threats.”

But men are safe to participate in online discussions about GamerGate, even if totally inflammatory.
Chris Kluwe, former American Football player, wrote an article on Why #Gamergaters Piss Me The F*** Off, in which he called GamerGaters “Basement-dwelling, cheetos-huffing, poopsock-sniffing douchepistols”, and a load of other things, and did not get doxxed.

I haven’t seen sexualised, violent abuse and doxxing levelled against JonTron and Adam Baldwin, prominent figures in the pro-GamerGate movement. This suggests that there is a problem with the treatment of women in GamerGate. As such, I was not convinced when Huffington Post Live asked two women who support GamerGate whether equality is important and needs talking about, and the response was that “This has nothing to do with women. It is about journalistic integrity,” and that sexism in gaming “isn’t really an issue”. From the evidence I’ve seen, I disagree. Of course, not all GamerGate supporters are sending rape and death threats. But GamerGate supporters do seem to have a women problem. Gender seems to be more of an issue than ethics here. Where’s all this gender stuff coming from?

GamerGaters feel that (feminist) critics are vilifying gamers

Lots of the complaints against Sarkeesian or ‘Social Justice Warriors’ are based on the idea that gamers are being vilified and victimized because some material in games is being called out and analysed as sexist:

  • e.g. “culture warriors, who thrive in an atmosphere of fear and moral condemnation … the entire gaming community is attacked as a pack of bigoted savages corrupted by gaming tropes”
  • e.g. “#GamerGate supporters are constantly being told they’re horrible, misogynistic, gross nerds who just want to harass women, so they’re perpetually on the defensive.”
  • (Around 22:40 in this Huffington Post Live video) “We just want to enjoy games without being told we’re horrendous people for doing so.”

I don’t think that this stance stands up to scrutiny. Anita Sarkeesian is not calling gamers terrible people in her criticism. (NB that criticism in this context means “intellectual analysis” not “saying something is rubbish”.) At the start of each of her Tropes vs Women in Games videos, she says that “It’s both possible, and even necessary, to simultaneously enjoy media, while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” Sarkeesian’s criticism is calm, evidenced, and highlights some games as positive counter-examples:

Similarly, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a news site that has been attacked by GamerGate, responded with an assertion of values saying that “It is possible to criticise games and gamers, while at the same time being a gamer, loving games, loving gamers.” This is a really important point.

There is a real sense of gendered grievance in GamerGate, so let’s explore it a little more.

GamerGate is a reaction against feminism, ‘social justice warriors’ and the broadening of what is meant by games and gamers

GamerGate opposes a perceived intrusion of a liberal/left-wing social agenda into gaming and games criticism. In the words of some male developers surveyed by The Escapist:

  • Daniel Vávra: “The root cause of Gamer Gate [is that] people had enough of those hypocrites that started to inject their ideology everywhere… accusing millions of people of misogyny…”
  • Xbro: “I’ve personally been against the phenomena of ‘social justice warriors’, as well as the path certain gaming publications have taken in recent years (more and more discussions on morals, feminism, misogyny and other non-game related issues, and less talk about actual games and the industry).”

In the Huffington Post Live interview (about 9:40) one participants argues that it isn’t appropriate for a game to be criticised for being sexist in a review, that reviews should be objective and about mechanics.

I disagree here. Criticism should be, and always has been, about more than mechanics. Criticism is also about theme, dialogue, writing, art direction and pace. And if a game is sexist or racist or homophobic, I’d want to know about it because that’s a factor in how much I’d enjoy the game – and in some cases whether I’d even play the game at all.

I support criticism of games, and greater diversity and more inclusiveness in games, because it’s good and because it makes games better

I’m pleased to see games increasingly subject to intellectual and cultural analysis – it’s a sign of the medium becoming more respected. I’m also pleased to see games becoming more diverse in their subject matter, themes and mechanics, and in games being produced by a wider range of people for a wider range of purposes. The demographic of gamers has shifted so that it’s no longer male-dominated. The majority of gamers are now women (see research by the Internet Advertising Bureau and by SuperData Research).

No one’s going to stop people playing Call of Duty – particularly not as it remains massively profitable – but maybe we can consume other games that are totally different. As games become more diverse, we can play through a broader range of exciting, interesting, challenging stories and challenges. I’m pleased to see journalists respond to this change.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun stated that “We’d love gamers to mean ‘everybody’. It can mean everybody, if we let it.” I hope and expect to see games continue to develop and grow as a unique and awesome artistic medium. But to fully realise this, we need to let everyone speak, think and create. If we want gaming to flourish, let’s take ethics seriously and build an open, critical, loving community.

How to view the number of unique visitors to a page, or set of pages, in Google Analytics

You can see the number of unique visitors to your site as a whole in Google Analytics’ Audience report. But if you go to Behavior > Content Drilldown, to view a particular page of set of pages, you can only see “unique page views”.

Unique page views is a different measure to unique visitors. What a nuisance.

So the solution is to create an advanced segment in the Audience > Overview report, which includes the pages you want. (Inspiration taken from this comment by Rendy.S)

Let’s say I’m interested in the information section of the www.mind.org.uk website. All of this content lives inside the /information-support/ section.

So If I wanted to create a segment to look at unique visitors to this part of the site, I’d use a regular expression like this: /information-support.*
The . and the * at the end combine to mean “plus any number of any other characters”. i.e. this will match any URL that starts mind.org.uk/information-support

regular expression example for a site section segment in google analytics

So if you ever want to view the number of unique visitors to a particular page or pages in your website, create a custom segment and user regular expressions to target the page(s) you’re interested in.

Edward Said: Orientalism – summary

Ideas created and presented in an academic context are often brilliant but hard to unwrap and digest. I’ve attempted to pull out some quotations from Edward Said’s Orientalism that I hope will help summarise some of its key points. (Page references in square brackets are from Edward W. Said, Orientalism, Penguin Classics, 2003)

What is Orientalism?

Orientalism is a body and tradition of Western representations of the Orient, created in the context of Western political dominance over the Orient, which understand and master the inferior, inherently opposed Orient, and which bear more relationship to each other as a discourse than to the real, diverse, experiences of people who live in the Middle East.

“from 1815 to 1914 European direct colonial dominion expanded from about 35 percent of the Earth’s surface to about 85 percent of it.” [41]

“Orientalism is fundamentally a political doctrine willed over the Orient because the Orient was weaker than the West, which elided the Orient’s difference with its weakness.” [204]

“It is rather a distribution of geopolitical awareness into aesthetic, scholarly, economic, sociological, historical and philological texts;” [12]

“so far as the West was concerned during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an assumption had been made that the Orient and everything in it was, if not patently inferior to, then in need of corrective study by the West. The Orient was viewed as if framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual. Orientalism, then, is knowledge of the Orient that places things Oriental in class, court, prison, or manual for scrutiny, judgment, discipline, or governing.”[40-41]

“Orientalism as a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient.” [3]

The division between monolithic West and Orient is man-made

“such … geographical sectors as “Orient” and “Occident” are man-made. Therefore as much as the West itself, the Orient is an idea that has a history and a tradition of thought, imagery and vocabulary that have given it reality and presence in and for the West.” [5]

“neither the term Orient nor the concept of the West has any ontological stability; each is made up of human effort, partly affirmation, partly identification of the Other.” [xii]

“The geographic boundaries accompany the social, ethnic, and cultural ones in expected ways. Yet often the sense in which someone feels himself to be not-foreign is based on a very unrigorous idea of what is “out there,” beyond one’s own territory. All kinds of suppositions, associations, and fictions appear to crowd the unfamiliar space outside one’s own.” [54]
“…We need not decide here whether this kind of imaginative knowledge infuses history and geography, or whether in some way it overrides them. Let us just say for the time being that it is there as something more than what appears to be merely positive knowledge.”[55]

Debates about identity are important. Identities create outsiders and enemies

“Debates today about “Frenchness” and “Englishness” in France and Britain respectively, or about Islam in countries such as Egypt and Pakistan, are part of that same interpretive process which involves the identities of different “others,” whether they be outsiders and refugees, or apostates and infidels. It should be obvious in all cases that these processes are not mental exercises but urgent social contests involving such concrete political issues as immigration laws, the legislation of personal conduct, the constitution of orthodoxy, the legitimization of violence and/or insurrection, the character and content of education, and the direction of foreign policy, which very often has to do with the designation of official enemies. In short, the construction of identity if bound up with the disposition of power and powerlessness in each society, and is therefore anything but mere academic wool-gathering.” [332]

“A fourth dogma is that the Orient is at bottom something either to be feared (the Yellow Peril, the Mongol hordes, the brown dominions) or to be controlled (by pacification, research and development, outright occupation whenever possible.” [301]

People are more diverse than this binary

“the terrible reductive conflicts that herd people under falsely unifying rubrics like “America,” “The West” or “Islam” and invent collective identities for large numbers of individuals who are actually quite diverse, cannot remain as potent as they are, and must be opposed,” [xxii]

Antidotes and alternatives to division and Orientalism

“critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy. Rather than the manufactured clash of civilizations, we need to concentrate on the slow working together of cultures that overlap, borrow from each other, and live together in far more interesting ways than any abridged or inauthentic mode of understanding can allow.” [xxii]

“Since an Arab poet or novelist – and there are many – writes of his experiences, of his values, of his humanity (however strange that may be), he effectively disrupts the various patterns (images, clichés, abstractions) by which the Orient is represented.”[291]

Be aware of differences; avoid sweeping groupings; look at mingling and exchange between groups. Look at individuals and their expressions of their own feelings and thoughts. Look at self-expression, art and literature.

Recommended works:
Amiel Alcalay’s Beyond Arabs and Jews: Remaking Levantine Culture
Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Donsciousness
Moira Ferguson’s Subject to Others: British Women Writers and Colonial Slavery, 1670-1834. [353]
“In these works, domains once believed to have been exclusive to one people, gender, race or class are re-examined and shown to have involved others. Long represented as a battleground for Arabs and Jews, the Levant emerges in Alcalay’s book as a Mediterranean culture common to both peoples; according to Gilroy a similar process alters, indeed doubles, our perception of the Atlantic Ocean, previously thought of as principally a European passage. And in re-examining the adversarial relationship between English slave-owners and African slaves, Ferguson allows a more complex dividing white female from white male to stand our, with new demotions and dislocations appearing as a result in Africa.” [353-4]

“My aim … was not so much to dissipate difference itself … but to challenge the notion that difference implies hostility, a frozen reified set of opposed essences, and a whole adversarial knowledge built out of those things.” [352]

What I learnt from Coursera’s Operations Management course

Recently I completed Coursera’s Introduction to Operations Management course. The course was made up of 5 units.

Course outline

  1. Process analysis
    Measuring the flow of units through a production process; Little’s Law; inventory turns; inventory buffering: make to stock (McDonald’s) or make to order (Subway); working out bottlenecks when there are different types of flow units, processes with attrition loss; reasons for inventory.
  2. Productivity
    Lean operations and waste reduction; the seven sources of waste; KPI trees and sensitivity analysis; overal equipment effectiveness framework (OEE); reducing idle time through line balancing and standardising processes; labour, material and capital productivity; return on invested capital (ROIC) trees;
  3. Variety
    Motives for variety; batch processes and setup time; working out a good batch size; Single-Minute Exchange of Die (SMED); benefits of partial flexibility; delayed differentiation (via product design) to reduce costs of variety;
  4. Responsiveness
    Reasons for waiting: insufficient capacity and variability of arrival times and/or processing times; coefficient of variation of demand and processing time; how to compute the averate waiting time; measuring inventory over the course of a day; usefulness of pooling; strategies for prioritising work: first come first served aka first in first out, versus sequencing, shortest processing time rule; problems with appointment systems; efficiency gains are often about process redesign rather than just optimising/balancing: value stream mapping aka process mapping aka service blueprints: Vyes Pigneur’s 7 ideas for redesigning processes; waiting time and attrition loss (using Erlang Loss table);
  5. Quality
    Reasons for defects – performance and conformance quality; redundancy; impact of scrapping and rework on flow; buffers reduce risk of resources being starved or blocked, to keep flow rate up; in contrast: Toyota production system: reduce inventory to expose problems; Kanban – demand pull: work is authorised by demand, so you reduce the number of Kanban cards over time; six sigma: checking units produced against a specification; control charts: normal and abnormal variation; Jidoka system sacrifices flow for quality; Kaisan and Ishikawa diagram for root cause problem solving.

Short of summarising the outline above, I won’t attempt to share everything I learnt. Instead, I’ll share what was most relevant to my own practice.

The distinction between project management and process management

This course was about process management – about doing the same thing over and over. My job is incorporating more process management elements, so I took this course to improve my understanding, and so that I could begin to make more effective process improvements.

Some elements of my work are process management – communicating, planning, and running an agile sprint production cycle. I run through this process every couple of weeks.

Other elements of my work are project management – leading a large web development project; providing consultancy on a project; overseeing the scoping, planning and creation of a new element of functionality or a user experience improvement: each discrete piece of development work is unique. So sometimes it’s useful for me to think in terms of projects, and other times it helps to think more generically and look at underlying processes.

Little’s Law

In any process, the average inventory (number of units in the process) = the average flow rate x the average flow time (the time it takes a flow unit to go from the start to the end of the process)

Key implication: if the flow rate is constant, reducing inventory will reduce flow time, allowing work to be completed more quickly.

See more about Little’s Law.

The seven sources of waste (Taiichi Ohno)

  1. Overproduction – to produce sooner, or in greater capacities than demanded. These goods need to be stored; their production slows the rate with which you turn your inventory; they could become obsolete or be stolen.
    The solution: match supply with demand.
  2. Transportation – unnecessary movement of people or parts _between_ processes.
    The solution: relocate processes, then introduce standard sequences for transportation.
  3. Rework – repetition or correction of a process.
    The solution: do it right the first time. Find out the reason for the quality problem and put a stop to it.
  4. Overprocessing – processing beyond what the customer requires.
    The solution: make sure you have guidance for what your standards are.
  5. Motion – unnecessary movement of parts or people within a process.
    The solution: create and use standard workspaces that have been created to minimise movement.
  6. Inventory – the number of flow units in the system. The biggest source of waste. Bad for inventory turns, increases customer wait time and flow time. Inventory needs to be stored, which is costly.
    The solution: improve production control system and reduce unnecessary “comfort stocks”.
  7. Waiting – underutilising people or parts while a process completes a cycle. i.e. a flow unit waiting for a resource. Often a direct result of inventory. Waiting can happen at the resource: this is idle time.
  8. Intellect – an eighth source of waste. Don’t waste workers’ abilities to help solve problems and improve processes.
  9. Increasing profitability is easier if you’re constrained by capacity than if you’re constrained by demand

    If you’re constrained by capacity, increasing the productivity of the bottleneck can help you significantly increase profits. (This is particularly the case for businesses with low variable costs and high fixed costs)

    If you’re constrained by demand, you’ll only be able to significantly increase profitability if you’re able to lay off workers.

    Variability increases wait times, even if resource utilisation is less than 100%

    If people arrive at regular intervals, and take a fixed length of time to process, then you can plan your processes to avoid waiting time. But real life is less predictable.
    Variability of arrival times and processing times can lead to inventory in a process, even if utilisation is 80%.
    So variability means that even if you aren’t utilising all your resources all the time, you’ll still have people or products waiting in the process.

    Two reasons for waiting: insufficient capacity; variability of arrival times and/or processing times.

    If you’re constrained by capacity, you don’t need to worry about demand variability as you already know there will be bottlenecks. If demand is the constraint, and it’s variable, then you need to think about it, as it will cause waiting times.

    Partial flexibility is usually the best way to deal with variety

    If there is variability in demand, you need to accommodate it. Total flexibility is expensive, and usually not needed.

    Eg. It’s sensible to hire developers who have skills in two areas, so you have flexibility, but don’t have to pay the costs of a developer skilled at everything.
    For each area of your work, hire at least two people with those skills.

    “The way we frame a problem determines the types of solutions we come up with.”

    A surprisingly philosophical insight. Often it pays to be more creative than just doing queuing analysis and line balancing.
    Question your processes at a strategic level – don’t just think tactically and inside the box.

    Value stream mapping is a tool to help you focus your process on valuable activities

    Value stream mapping, aka process mapping, aka service blueprints – map out the steps the customer has to go through, then divide them into ones that add value and ones that don’t, or which are waiting time.

    Yves Pigneur has a framework for this: Customer actions; onstage actions, backstage actions; support processes.

    7 ideas for redesigning processes

    1. Move work off the stage.
      E.g. online airport check-in.
    2. Reduce customer actions / rely on support processes.
      E.g. rather than requiring customers to fill in all their medical details each time they come to visit, you could have a database to store them.
    3. Instead of optimising the capacity of a step, see if you can remove it altogether if it isn’t really needed.
      E.g. Hertz Gold removed the airport check-in step as it provided no value.
    4. Avoid fragmentation of work due to specialization / fragmentation of roles.
      E.g. in a bank, it’s annoying to have to fill in different forms for different people, rather than just doing everything at once.
    5. If customers are likely to leave the process due to long wait times, move the waiting time to later in the process if you can.
      E.g. Starbucks making you pay first, then wait for your coffee.
    6. Have the waiting occur out of a line.
      E.g. restaurants in malls using buzzers to let people know that their food or table is ready, rather than having them wait in a line.
      E.g. appointments to see a doctor.
    7. Communicate the wait time to the customer – set expectations.
      E.g. theme parks.

    How much do defects cost? It depends on where they are detected.

    If defects are detected before the bottleneck, the cost is driven by the input prices.
    If defects are detected after the bottleneck, the cost is the opportunity cost of the lost sale.

    The step at which the defect happens isn’t important – what’s important is the step at which it is detected.

    Therefore it’s very important to test flow units as much as you can before you put them into the bottleneck.

    For me, this means that we want to catch problems in the specification stage if possible. Minimise potential problems by making sure that the work is sensible, and that the requirements are clearly articulated.

    Kaisan and Ishikawa are tools for root cause problem solving

    Kaisan equips front line workers to identify and solve problems.

    Ishikawa diagram – structured brainstorm. Shaped like a fish bone. Try to identify root causes. Asking ‘why’ 5 times helps.

    Once you’ve done this exercise, go out and measure instances of the identified defects.
    Plot these on a pareto chart.
    See which defect is most frequent and focus on that first. Generally the pareto principle applies: 80% of the defects are caused by 20% of the root causes.

    These methods are recommended because they oscillate between thought and reality, gaining the benefits of both:

    Reality: Jidoka – the process is triggered by real-world defects.
    Thinking: Ishikawa diagram, to think about what might be causing the problem.
    Reality: Pareto chart – collects data to see which causes are most frequent.
    Thinking: Think up alternative solutions.
    Reality: Experiment with the solution you choose.

    Actions I will take as a result of this course

    • Map out the production process so everyone knows what steps are required. If people don’t understand all the steps in a process, they might have unrealistic expectations of waiting times.
    • Create formal processes for new jobs – development/UX work and bugs. This will reduce variability of inputs and reduce risk of defects by improving the quality of inputs/briefs.
    • Formalise waiting time processes. Draw up (collaboratively?) and obtain organisational agreement for a set of organisational priorities for bugs and for new work. This will mean that all prioritisation decisions are made according to a clear set of standards. E.g. number of users affected, financial implications, strategic priorities. Currently I don’t do first-come-first-served, but rather prioritise according to business need and urgency, but this does require me to be wise like Solomon. Better to have some commandments to live by, and a supreme court to interpret them.
    • Reduce the number of units being processed at any one time. Little’s Law states that this will result in reduced waiting times. This might be a hard sell, but the truth is that we are already constrained by how many hours of development we have in each two week cycle.
    • Identify and reduce the sources of waste in my work. eg transporation – reduce transportation costs in communication with agency and stakeholders (make it clearer), reduce movement of work around internal stakeholders (currently I report to internal stakeholders outside of the tools I use for day-to-day project management, which adds costs and the risk of misinformation.)
    • Harness worker intellect through more regular review cycles. Constitute regular reviews of processes with all people involved in them, to see how they feel they are going, and what could be improved.
    • See if processess could be redesigned to be more efficient. Could steps be removed or automated?
    • Conduct value stream mapping – figure out which steps add value and which ones don’t. Use Pigneur’s framework for process redesign to improve these processes.

How to design usable multi-page articles

In-depth digital articles can be hard to navigate. Dividing them into different sections can make things easier.

For example, at Mind, we split our information on depression into subsections, so that if you want to quickly navigate to “Symptoms”, “Causes”, “Self-help, treatment and support”, “How can friends and family help” (etc) you can do so. It also helps people understand the content that the article will cover much more easily than requiring them to navigate through a single long page of text.

But there are some drawbacks of splitting your information into different sections – sometimes people don’t know that they’re reading one part of a larger topic. So the way that you show that there are other sections, and allow people to navigate through them, is important.

Reviews on technology sites are similarly complex, and these sites face the same navigational challenge. How do different technology sites approach multi-section articles, and which approach is best? I’ve assembled a few screenshots here (with added highlighting and some analysis). I’ve also tried to summarise best practice as I see it. I’d’ be interested to see some user testing on all this, to see if my review is on the right track. This material is all for desktop – there’s another discussion to be had for mobile.

Best practice

  • Prominently number sub-sections.
  • Include sectional navigation at the top and bottom of each page.
  • Include numbers in your section headings if your content is sequential
  • Use the overall article heading and the heading of the sub-page to describe structure. You need to be attentive both to positioning and hierarchy, and to labelling your content clearly.
  • Include “next” and “previous” section navigation. Be aware that it needs context to make sense. This can be provided either by the button itself, or by proximity to a summary of the sections of the article.
  • List all the sections of the article – don’t hide them in a dropdown – and show the user where they are currently in relation to other sections.
  • Make your inter-section navigation tactile and make sure that it is consistent and not obscured.

Tom’s Hardware

View an example article. Click on the screenshot below to see a full-size version.

a screenshot showing a multi-section article on tom's hardware, with navigation elements highlighted

I think Tom’s hardware is very effective at helping people understand and navigate its multi-section articles:

  • There’s navigation at the top and the bottom of each section.
  • Sections are numbered – which, particularly when looking at the top section – helps convey the fact that this article is made up of multiple sections.
  • The proximity of the navigation elements at the top of the page is useful. The section number, the dropdown, and the next and previous buttons (one of which is greyed out in this case, which suggests that it relates to the number in front of the heading) are all displayed close to the heading.
  • The interactive elements are nice and chunky, and are highlighted using a dominant colour. This suggests that they are interactive.
  • The bottom navigation section gives more space to the next and previous buttons.
  • In the bottom section, under the heading “Summary”, the different sections are numbered and their names are written out. The current section is highlighted in bold, with a chevron next to it.
  • The adverts at the bottom of the page clearly come after the body of the article, and so don’t add confusion.

There are a couple of small points for improvement:

  • The URL could do a better job of making it clear that you’re in the first section of a multi-section article. http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/gaming-cpu-review-overclock,review-32885.html looks like the URL of a one-off page sitting directly under the home page. It’s only when you get to the second section of the article – http://www.tomshardware.co.uk/gaming-cpu-review-overclock,review-32885-2.html – that you can infer any structure.
  • The next and previous buttons themselves don’t make it clear what they relate to. In isolation they could be confusing: “Next” what? Next article in chronological order? Next page in this category? But in context these buttons work well, as the summary section makes them much clearer.

    Tech Power Up

    View an example article.

    a screenshot showing a multi-section article on Tech Power Up

    I think this design is less effective:

    • There’s less consistency between interactive elements, which it makes their purpose less clear. (Compare the “Packaging & Contents” buttons at top and bottom) So while these buttons feature at top and bottom of the page, they don’t have as much impact as they could do.
    • Of the two buttons, the one at the bottom is much better. It explains itself as a section navigation by saying “next”, and also explains what section you’ll be taken to. The top button doesn’t make it clear that it relates to another subsection of the current article. It’s also hidden among the social links.
    • A dropdown is used to allow navigation between sections. This takes up less space than the summary solution used by Tom’s Hardware, which shows all the heading names, but might confuse some users if they don’t know that they’re currently in the listed section of a multi-section article.
    • The use of numbers helps to show that this section sits in a sequence. But the numbers are shown at the bottom and not the top of the page. Tom’s Hardware, on the other hand, brings these section numbers to the fore at the top of the article.
    • There’s no back button, unlike Tom’s Hardware. Rather, the dropdown navigation sits in-line with the next button. Again, this saves space but may introduce more confusion.

    Overclock 3d.net

    View an example article.

    multi section navigation highlighted, from overclock3d.net

    • The page title, and the next and previous section buttons aren’t very clear. The “previous” button on the first page is ‘greyed-out’ (lightened in colour to show that it’s not functional in this context), but the difference in colour is so slight as to be potentially missed.
    • At the bottom of the page, sections are numbered, and previous and next navigation is used as well (it’s ‘greyed-out’ when not relevant) on the left hand side, and a dropdown showing section contents is displayed on the right hand side.
    • The URL – http://www.overclock3d.net/reviews/cases_cooling/nanoxia_deep_silence_ds4/1 – suggests that we’re in part one of a large piece of content, but it doesn’t itself tell us (or search engines) what this section contains.

    Hexus

    View an example article.

    hexus multi section articles with navigation highlighted

    • Advertising distracts attention from the top navigation. Confusingly, it’s in the same colour as the bottom navigation.
    • The hierarchy of overall article heading, and the heading of the individual pages, is nice and clear. The same is the case with Tweak Town, below.

    Tweak Town

    View an example article.

    screenshot of a multi-section article on Tweak Town, with navigation highlighted

    • The use of colour around the top navigation is quite distracting, which is a shame, as otherwise this design is good.

    Hard OCP

    View an example article.

    screenshot of a hard ocp multi-section article highlighting the navigation

    • The navigation might need to be more prominent to be visible to new visitors.

    Anand Tech

    View an example article.

    screnshoot of a multi-section article on anandtech, with the navigation highlighted

    • The top doesn’t feature any navigation options.
    • The top doesn’t make it clear that you’re in a section of a larger article through use of headings
    • The bottom next navigation says the name of the section, but it doesn’t make it clear that it is the next section in a sequence of sections. It could potentially be anything. The title of the second section in this case is confusing – “Mantle: a low-level graphics API for CGN”. This could quite easily be referring to a completely separate article on Mantle.
    • The bottom navigation doesn’t have arrows or next buttons. This can be confusing if you arrive part way through an article from organic search.
    • The bottom dropdown shows section titles, but no section numbers, even though these are in URLs after the first page.

    Vortez

    View an example article.

    screenshot of a vortez multi-section article, highlighting the navigation

    • There’s a breadrcumb at the bottom of the page, which makes it clear that you’re in page one of a larger article, even if there isn’t an easily scannable summary of the other sections and their contents.

Using wordpress for open courses – #ocTEL chat summarised

The 2014 version of Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) started last week. The course is free and open to all.

My plan for this course is to keep half an eye out for things that might interest me. I don’t expect to be closely involved in conversations, or in knowledge creation, as I’m not sure how much time I’ll have to commit.

I’m interested in people using WordPress to run open online courses, so a hangout last week caught my eye. I didn’t attend, but I’ve watched the video of the event, and have produced a rough record of the 1 hour 25 minute discussion. Hopefully this will help people access some of the insights within.

This was quite a technical and practical discussion. Certainly much of this conversation was beyond my knowledge of WordPress. The discussion was very much about the logistics of actually setting up open online courses in WordPress.

Logistics of registration and implications on aggregation

ocTEL is using AMU plugin (Add Multiple Users) to import users to its multi-site setup. It doesn’t work with existing users, though – they need to be added manually.

FeedWordpress pulls in tweets for comments in ocTEL. Potentially this could cause fragmentation of conversation, as people comment on an imported tweet inside the WordPress environment. Outside the course, the comment would not be associated with the original tweet. Some people have seen the pulling in of tweets as a bug rather than a feature.

Martin Hawksey has edited Feedwordpress registration to also check on a user on other networks, so these interactions aren’t lost even if they happen under a different username. (See below for further discussion of this code.)

Delicious‘s feed isn’t very useful any more.

Team blogs are tricky for registration – the system will just think of all posts as relating to a single author.

ds106 and ocTEL keep stealing/sharing code to improve their respective registration systems.
(I found it funny/strange how polite everyone is about this in this call. Everyone is working hard and improving things for the community. There’s no shame in using other’s code as part of this work.)

If a user changes their feed, ocTEL updates that user’s details. In ds106 this has to be done manually.

ocTEL includes a BB press forum as a space for people who want to participate that way.

(Open) Badges added to ocTEL – 36:00

Lots of people were sceptical about this at first, but soon eagerly asked how to obtain the badges.

ocTEL is using the BadgeOS plugin.

While it is possible to link up with Credly and Mozilla’s Open Badges, Martin decided against this as being too much hassle for the user.

The Badge OS plugin actually integrates with the BuddyPress plugin, and allows you to award badges for activities within BuddyPress.

Martin wants ocTEL to issue Open Badges directly. This should be feasible, as the JSON that Mozilla needs isn’t too tricky.

Badges are useful in the context of showing people what activity is happening. Leaderboards of activity could be demotivating, but maybe you could be shown the activity levels around you.

Ultimately we want to use data to help people navigate the course.

Running an open course across two different installs – 52:50

Will this be adversarial, or will the passion of outsiders help people taking the formal course? “We can use the outside people as agitators and provocateurs”

If you have open participants and paying participants in the same space, could that cause problems?

Paid students get a grade, and more feedback and attention, even if the content is the same.

Universities want to capitalise on the energies of outsiders (using them as an element of the course – “Human as OER”), but they don’t want to give them resources. That’s the origin of having an open course across two spaces. Is it really a big deal to just host outsiders? If you talk to lawyers about this, the conversation becomes trickier.

Returning to the problem of bulk-importing existing users with multi-site – 58:44

Boone’s simple import users plugin might help. Imports via an email address paste into a single site of your multi-site. Doesn’t have many options. Auto-generates user logins based on email addresses. Does some basic BuddyPress stuff – modifies the registration email to include buddy press info.

Martin Hawksey thinks this will be a good basis for what he wants to do. He expects to modify the code so that it pulls in an associated twitter username as the account name.

iframe oembed issues on multi-site – 1:04:00

Boone usually creates a shortcode, with 10 lines of code. Create an MU plugins file with shortcodes.

Potential changes to Martin Hawksey’s FeedWordpress member lookup fork, to save effort in maintaining – 1:07:28

Martin uses some code that is from FeedWordpress, but has to modify it every time FeedWordpress updates (thankfully this isn’t too frequent).

Boone suggests using filters, to save effort maintaining. He proposes adding in a line that will do nothing in most cases, but will do the extra cool thing you want to do in your specific case.

There is a debate over putting in loads of filters VS having every special use case having a custom fork. In this case, it’s probably a common enough use case to warrant being a filter.

How charities could use digital to change the world

Charities can go beyond one-sided interactions with supporters

In an earlier post I looked at how charities can use digital to improve their provision of static information, and to provide proactive advice and support. But that is still quite a one-sided interaction, with organisations being in a position of power and enlightening their beneficiaries. What could happen if we go beyond the idea of service provision?

Organisations with social, political, cultural or economic aims want to change people and the world. We know our objectives, and so do our supporters. We could use digital to work together more closely to get things done. This is where digital gets really exciting, and it’s the part we haven’t figured out yet.

I propose that we take our implementation of the social web a step further. By enabling people to connect and plan and create ideas and drive change, digital can change the world. As charities, our job is to help facilitate this but not to lead it – at least, not to lead it in the way that we tend to think of leadership.

Rather, we’re thinking about nurturing spaces for self-organisation, collaboration, network formation, knowledge and content creation. Not telling people what to do, or what’s best for them, but letting them decide for themselves, and supporting without stifling. This will feel creative, exploratory, emergent, chaotic, and probably a bit risky and uncertain.

Facilitating this in a a digital space is going to take something better than a walled platform owned by an organisation with corporate interests and an ability to control what people see. So Facebook probably isn’t the ideal space for this. But there may be a problem if any organisation – even a charity – is perceived to own a platform or network, more than the people that make up that network.

What does national campaigning for a charity look like now?

The experience of being involved in national campaigning for most charities is something like this:

  1. Sign up for a mailing list.
  2. Receive emails from time to time. These emails update you on what’s happening and ask you to take a range of different actions to help the organisation campaign.
  3. When your interests and the request from the organisation intersect, you take action.

What do charity networks look like now?

Charity networks seem to largely exist offline, or at least in silos. Initiative seems to come from the centre – the national organisation – rather than arising out of the network. Opportunities for communication and agency between nodes in the network are limited.

UNICEF’s network seems to exist mainly in specific discrete geographical locations – see its Schools Campaign Network and its regional fundraising groups. Involvement in the international cause is channelled through a national organisation, which directs the activity of local groups.

Oxfam lets you choose to take part in an action, but doesn’t seem to be focused on letting you set direction. Just like with UNICEF, Oxfam’s campaign groups seem to mainly exist as an email address on a map, rather than a live conduit into a trouble-making world transforming network of energetic activists. I wonder if these groups could be in touch with each other more powerfully, and work together more ambitiously?

oxfam find a local campaign group

The Oxfam supporter panel seems like an opportunity to contribute to the organisation’s direction, but it looks quite one-sided. The organisation asks you about what you think about what it’s doing, so that it can decide on improvements to make to what it does:

“The Supporter Panel was set up to help us understand more about how supporters view our communications, fundraising ideas and campaign work, and enable us to make improvements. As a member of the Oxfam Supporter Panel, we’ll send you a short survey once a month, which will never take more than 15 minutes to complete. We’ll then use your opinions and insights to help steer the way we fundraise and campaign for a fairer world.”

What about Oxfam’s communities platform? It seems to be based around fundraising groups and get togethers. I wonder if this space could also be used as a hub to plan projects?

Amnesty UK has specialist networks but these seem to be quite one-directional: taking organisation-led actions, reading a blog, and receiving a newsletter. “Create a profile on our website to get involved with any of our networks and sign up to receive regular emails, actions and news on the issues that matter most to you.”

Again, like UNICEF and Oxfam, their local groups live in a directory, separate from each other and on separate websites. (To start a group, you have to fill in a word doc, pay a membership fee, and send it back to the central organisation.) Local organisations being separate makes logistical sense, but in some contexts we want to aggregate them and combine them so that they become something greater. We want the living network to be more than a list of names in a PDF.

What about Avaaz? That’s an international grassroots campaigning network, isn’t it?

My main experiences of Avaaz have been receiving an email telling you to fill in a petition. Upon filling it in, you’re taken to a page placing your action in exciting real-time global, and quite personal, context. This is cool, but this action was still directed by the organisation.

Avaaz has made moves towards empowering its network. I’ve been impressed to see the annual objective setting questionnaire, through which members contribute to the prioritisation of campaigning activity.

avaaz's campaigning priorities for 2014

I’m also intrigued by the newer Start your Own Petition functionality. I don’t know how much organisational intervention or vetting there is on these petitions.

avaaz community petition - landing page form

Metaphors of control and power; insiders and outsiders; sailing ships and motor boats.

Alice Jay, a campaigns director for Avaaz, explained that “We’re like a sailing boat, not a motor boat.” I think the metaphor here is that the organisation’s supporters are like the wind behind a sailing ship. The staff of the organisation have to work out the nuances of the route, they have to sort out the logistics and worry about avoiding risks, but the general direction of travel is powered by the supporters. Supporters don’t need to worry about finesse, or to have too much knowledge or skill – they just need to keep the wind blowing. A motor boat, by contrast, would be an organisation doing things under its own power – not dependent upon outside support.

But what if the direction of supporter enthusiasm is at variance to the presumably high-quality expert insights of people inside an organisation? What if the direction of popular enthusiasm seems like it’s heading for the rocks?

The situation can become tricky when people inside an organisation believe that they can achieve better results through more private negotiation, and perhaps giving some ground, as opposed to a more belligerent and uncompromising public stance. At the height of opposition to Andrew Lansley’s reform plans, campaigners sought signatures to force a parliamentary debate. But campaigners at 38 Degrees thought that this might not be the best way forward. “that ended up as a real shit storm. People were covering their Facebook wall asking why they weren’t supporting the existing petitions. It just doesn’t look very good.”

I prefer metaphors of sailing boats to metaphors of galleys. A sailing boat organisation is powered by supporters, moving towards a shared objective, with the details of the journey worked out by those on the ship. A galley organisation, by contrast, would have its supporters on board, but they wouldn’t set the direction, and would be told when to row.

Can we go beyond metaphors of insiders and outsiders?

The sailing boat metaphor still relies on a distinction between those inside the organisation and those outside it. Why is that necessary?

I think we can nuance this a bit. Within an organisation, we already divide responsibilities. We leave finance to the people who understand and are interested in it. The specialist digital team handles digital work, working with those inside the organisation who are also interested and skilled. So perhaps we can think of charities working with supporters in a similar way. Break down the charity’s work into different areas, and let everyone who is interested be a part of decision making and implementation. (Do we need to set a barrier for competence?)

So I don’t necessarily think that the outsider vs insider dichotomy is something we need to trip up on.

There must already be examples of charities moving away from central control towards a network-led approach

Movements like Anonymous, the SOPA blackout, the arab spring and Occupy suggest that people are able to come together, making use of digital channels, to achieve change. Which charities are doing this sort of thing already?

The draft of this blog was written in January 2013, but never brought to completion. I decided to finish it off and post it today.

What Graspop 2014’s running order teaches us about user needs and being responsive

When attending a music festival, your most important decisions relate to which bands to see, and when and where they are playing.*

You want to know which bands clash with each other; you want to be able to work out how long you can spend checking out a new band before leaving to get to the front in time for a band you know you’re going to enjoy.

I love planning activities within constraints to maximise my enjoyment, so I was excited to see the Graspop Metal Meeting 2014 running order announced.

But I was soon disappointed, as I downloaded the document and tried to start planning which bands to see.

In looking at this document I made two basic visual assumptions:

  1. As we go down the page, the hour of day increases.
  2. Bands on the same horizontal level are playing at the same time.

This guide went against both of these assumptions:

  1. As we go further down the page, as a general rule the hour does increase. But each stage goes at its own pace, so it’s hard to compare between stages.

    meshuggah and megadeth timing old graspop 2014 running order

    Meshuggah are further down than Megadeth, but go on stage nearly 3 hours earlier.

  2. Bands on the same horizontal level are often playing at very different times.

    sabaton and unida timing old graspop 2014 running order

    On first glance it looks like Unida and Sabaton are playing at the same time. But if you look at the times, Sabaton actually starts 2.5 hours after Unida has finished. Plenty of time to see both.

Okay, so things weren’t looking great. I started thinking about making my own spreadsheet, but I thought I’d give the festival the benefit of the doubt and get in touch:

And in response they made a new version of the running order, and have updated their website with this new version:

The extent to which the document has changed underlines just how hard it was to use before.

We can now compare Meshuggah and Megadeth much more easily:

graspop 2014 improved running order meshuggah megadeth

And we can see that Unida play their set a long time before Sabaton:

new and improved graspop 2014 running order

The new running order is so much easier to use:

  • Easier to understand which bands are playing at a given time: all stages follow the same time axis.
  • Easier to understand the overall shape of the day across the different stages.
  • Colour coding helps distinguish between different stages when scanning down the page.
  • Easier to read because the background is white.

I think there are a few lessons here:

  • Usability is important. Some documents exist almost exclusively to be used. When designing them, we should try to understand how people will make use of them. User testing before launching a product is the safest way to do this, otherwise you risk the product failing to serve its purpose because you miss something important. If everyone attending Graspop in a couple of months was trying to use the old running order, I think there’d be a lot of confusion and frustration.
  • Listening is important. Graspop could easily have ignored my tweet and my point, but instead they chose to engage with it. Credit to them for being open to that.
  • Responsiveness is important. The festival was ready to act on what I said, and pushed out a new version of the running order in less than 4 working hours after I posted my message. If you don’t get it right the first time, being ready to respond and improve things is a pretty close second. Well done Graspop!

* Other important decisions include where to camp, who to befriend, where to obtain provisions, and whether to risk crowdsurfing or a wall of death. But I’m not going to talk about these things here.