Tom Smith: Things you don’t know, but might, at BarCamp Leeds 2007

Tom Smith, of Everything Ability, gave an entertaining & refreshing talk for the last of my BarCamp Leeds sessions. A wonderful roll call, reminder and rallying cry for what he felt were great but neglected ideas things.

First up was Patterns, devised by the architect Christopher Alexander as a response to solving problems over and over again. A pattern crystallises a piece of good practice into a solution which can be used repeatedly, e.g. “waist high shelves for things you don’t quite want to put away yet”. As Tom put it, “a pattern must be tried and tested, once I’ve done something three times and it’s worked, for example the opening-the-door-before-I-walk-through-it pattern”.

Software development has taken the idea of patterns on board, and software or User Interface (UI) patterns are a great way of sharing… this was one of the themes of Tom’s things, collecting, codifying and sharing information. An example Tom gave was a company he worked at with one genius coder who ended up doing all the work, until he got RSI and had to share his knowledge, which they achieved through patterns and pair programming (another of Tom’s things). But what if you don’t have anyone in your office to discuss problems with? “Tell it to the bear.” Apparently when you’ve got a problem and you chat it over out loud to a teddy bear (or presumably cat, dog or baby could work, except some of those might wander off halfway through), you can often find a problem through the brain organising nature of speaking out loud.

Visual literacy and visual organisation were another theme Tom touched on, and for homework we were urged to pick up a copy of one of Tufte‘s tomes, as well as Bob Horn‘s Visual Language.

Life Streams were touched on, a different approach to filing which orders everything in reverse chronological order. This reminded me of the Noguchi Filing System which I came across a while back, whereby you had a continuous horizontal “shelf” or buffer of filed items. You always replace items on the left, meaning old items ultimately retreat to the right:

Over time, some of the files on the right side of the shelf will be classified as “holy files” which you will retain indefinitely. Remove these from the shelf and store them in boxes. If a “holy file” is in use, it is part of the working file group at the left. Thus, holy files are really dead files which you cannot part with. Get them out of sight into a box. (read more)

Something Tom mentioned that really piqued my interest was Jef Raskin‘s visual interface notation. This is a really great way of noting down keystrokes, clicks, mouse drags and all the other behaviours associated with driving an interface. The notation looks a lot like music and it allows you to empirically prove that interface X is faster, easier and maybe even less stressful than interface Y. This chimed for me with Tantek’s hypotheses of interface design, where he proposes that the usability of an interface is proportional to the number of clicks/keystrokes/gestures needed to use that interface. (I’m sure I’ve seen some research somewhere on recording the stress levels of a subject while you gradually add interface elements to a system they’re using – from what I recall the stress goes up with every button.) More grist for the Christmas list then… Jef Raskin’s Human Interface. (Incidentally, check out Humanized Messages for jQuery, a really neat idea to replace all those loathsome alerts that web applications throw all the time.)

Tom also covered appealing to people’s Parent (the worrier, looking outward: “what do people think of me”), Adult (the rational thinker, “these arguments make sense”) and Child (emotionally driven and PITA, “yay, fun!”). Using this in an ad campaign and website for a credit card company he and his colleagues came up with three adverts “everyone else has got one” (for the Parent), “sensible low rate numbers” (for the Adult) and “shiny shoes!” (for the Child). Then we looked at faceted information, “why don’t websites work like the iPod where you can access the songs by genre, album, artist or playlist?” Also site annotation, triggered by a website, which I think was bought by Microsoft, allowing you to draw notes, write comments and highlight webpages, then share the annotations with others… someone quickly found a Open Source alternative, Shift Space, which does something every similar (unfortunately Firefox only by the look of it, but it’s a start).

This session was an excellent opportunity to take in someone else’s enthusiasm, although it could prove the most expensive in terms of followup material! The slides are available online, and give a great flavour of Tom’s passionate presenting style.

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  1. Can I just make sure here that no-one attempts to talk this through with an actual bear?

    I fear they will find it annoyingly hard to understand software design patterns and it may result in face chewing.


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