FOWA: Future of Web Apps, ExCel, London

A quick hello from FOWA, I’m in the video control room stealin’ their internets as I was having problems getting onto ExCel’s wifi. I’m having a lovely time and have had lots of hugs & hellos from friends from all over the Geekdom, um I mean world, which is always good – especially when you can’t find any vegan food so are having a low blood sugar moment ;-P

Anyways, I’m researching some questions for our interviews tomorrow – so this is going to be short and sweet till I have time to write up my mangled notes – brb!


Okay, I’ve decided that as we didn’t get the opportunity to film interviews with any women speakers at FOWA, it was logistics rather than choice, I’ve picked out my notes from the three women speakers I saw at FOWA (I think there were 4 or 5 in total out of just under 50 speakers). I’ll probably write up my other notes at some time, but I was keen to get these ones out there first…

Suw Charman-Anderson – social media consultant

Suw talked about the psychology of email, it was a fantastic, thought provoking talk – who recognises themselves and their habits in the observations below, eh? πŸ™‚

In Suw’s role as a social media consultant, she rapidly realised that she needs to know how people react and do things, to do her job. The way people do things is not really rational, it’s something sub-concious and out of our control. If we can understand people better we can find out out how to make better web apps.

The area of psychology is a very broad field and Suw asks two questions of her web usage:
1. ‘Why I am I addicted to’
2. ‘How can I understand why I’m addicted to

Looking and comparing two different, but similar sites – vs.
Suw thought about what it is about these sites that makes their content satisfying and compelling?

Looking at the structure of the sites, Dilbert has a narrative, so going backwards is necessary to find the evolving story and can a bit dissatisfying to go through the archive. There’s no random button – you need to make a conscious decision if you want to pick a date to go back. Though an RSS feed tells you when Dilbert changes and so when to go back.

In comparison, I Can Has Cheezeburger has about 4 to 7 new additions a week. The updates are not entirely random, but random enough to make Suw go back. There’s no linear narrative, but there is a random button. She’s seen all of them but the random button and the randomness of when they’re put up brings her back to visit the site again.

There’s clearly a compulsive behavior going on and Suw feels she checks the site more than she should…

What is compulsion?

* habitual checking – finding yourself magically there
* wondering if a new lolcat has arrived – keep checking
* feelings of anxiety when you can’t check
* when you find yourself getting your phone out to see if you can check it when you’re away from you computer

This kind of compulsive behavior is called operant conditioning and the same as what gamblers feel. You’re getting a reward for doing something, so you’re more likely to do it again Suw mentioned a scientist called BF Skinner, who did experiments with rats involving pressing a lever to get a food pellet, but once the poor animals had got used to this system they then made the pressing /reward system random. The rats then got obsessed, they kept pressing the lever to see if they get a reward. Operant conditioning is the way to get a human being to do something too. I Can Has Cheezeburger does this. A Lolcat is the reward, even though they differ in funniness, we become obsessed with checking for them.

It’s pretty easy to train a behavior, you start with a regular reward and then make the reward random to get someone hooked.

What happens when unwanted behaviors are reinforced, in an unhealthy, negative manner? Email causes significant problems in business. There have been a handful of studies into how we behave with email. It would be interesting to do this with Twitter behavior. Email is our de-facto way of communicating, studies have found that people spend more than 2 hours a day in their inbox and receive over 100 email. Fifty per cent of people claimed they checked their email once an hour and about thirty per cent claimed every 15mins, but in studies where they were watched people were checking their mail every 5 minutes.

In a business context most people have an alert on their email application. Problem with these alerts is that it makes 70% respond within 6 seconds. There is an alert cost – i.e. when we have responded to an alert and consequent email we have to figure out what we were doing before we stopped! The interrupt time for software developers is higher – average is 15 minutes as they often have to answer complex problems. We can’t predict when we’re going to get an email, so we have the conditioning / reactive thing going on again.

Our processes for trying to structure our email and to-do lists etc, is problematic – how do we react with these technologies? Our brains are interested in the emotional reward of getting the email rather than what’s it about. How do we break this cycle and reign ourselves back in again? It’s difficult. There are a number of ways we can break this operative conditioning. Breaking the cycle is hard. With email you could make sure there’s always a cool email from someone you like. Break the link between the behavior and the reward – i.e. build in a 5 minute delay. There was an experiment that tried this in an office, but it caused much consternation and there was uproar, so they went back to their previous ways.

Some more ways to break the compulsion:
* Remove the stimulus to check – i.e. the alert, so that when your in a period of flow you won’t be disturbed by an alert
* Remove free will – you can only check it at certain times – set a schedule.
* Reinforce an incompatible behavior
* Do not use your computer so much
* Remove the tools to do it

Technology is developing is faster than we can develop manners or etiquette around it. Part of our reaction to technology is around our animal instincts. Unintended reactions to technology are rife, how we change our tools to change our behavior and how we apply them become key.

Schedules are important – there’s studies to show that we have limited amounts of will power so we have to be careful how we apply it – i.e. if we stop ourselves from checking I Can Has Cheezeburger, will we just go to another compulsive behavior such as buying chocolate instead?

Email culture needs to be looked at – why are we sending so many emails? Ping-pong false politeness emails, making sure everyone knows we’re being polite.

Remember: problems get resolved by themselves – for example when you get back from holiday and find someone has solved the problem in your absence!

UPDATE: I attended a talk by a colleague, Matt Channon, on mind mapping techniques and he happened to show a mind map that he’d made of Su’s talk – fab!


Kath Moonan, Senior Consultant, Abilitynet

Kath gave a compelling insight into the world of accessibility. Her talk included video interviews highlighting the user experience and needs of people who use screen readers to read web pages.

She demonstrated Easy YouTube: an easy to use interface for YouTube that also works with screen readers.

Kath finished with a wish list of items that web producers and developers can do to ensure a better experience for all:

* Apply basic web standards
* Create a robust architecture
* Explain what your application does
* Test with a keyboard only
* Involve users with diverse needs in your scoping and testing
* Get involved in Scripting Enabled

If you’d like to get involved further there’s also an event next year called ‘100,000 Flowers Bloom’ which I’m sure I’ll find a link to some details soon. For more information on accessibilty and web issues see Abilitynet or Scripting Enabled and there’s also my blog post from the event.


Kathy Sierra, JavaRanch – β€˜How to grow and nurture your community’

In a highly motivational talk to round off day two of FOWA, Kathy talked about how to empower your user while empowering yourself at the same time via a selection of top tips and observations, which included:

* Think about what your users really want to be good at – how do you help users kick ass?
* The hi-res user experience: it’s what drives people to do things, for example, people who like music say they can parse more notes
* Being better is better – we’re looking for richer deeper experiences. Kathy feels the reason geeks have taken up climbing is that if you answer you phone up a cliff you might die, so it’s one way of turning off and concentrating on being good at something else
* There are key milestones for every user – how are we helping our users with their milestones? When people have clawed their way up a curve threshold they don’t wanna go back!
* It’s not about natural talent – it’s just practice!
* Treat your users nicely – usability, treats and don’t leave anyone out – ie if you have free t-shirts have girls sizes too πŸ˜‰
* Focus on what the user does not what you want them to focus on – help them to use your tools!
* if you practice your balance then you will take less cycles to stand up and have more brainpower for thinking!