Jobs I’ve had: Car auction driver

Reading time: 3 minutes

[Like many, I’m a firm believer that we learn by doing, and the benefit we gain from the variety of our experiences – both positive and negative – we bring to every new situation. So I thought I’d write about a few of the many different jobs I’ve done since my first in the mid 1980s.]

One of the numerous different jobs I’ve had was driving cars being sold at auction.

It was in the early 1990s, during my second stint at university. As I had no lectures on Wednesdays one year, and I needed the extra cash, I signed up with the temping agency Office Angels. They called me in. The auction house was just off Plough Lane, near Wimbledon Football Club’s old ground.

Over a couple of terms I must have driven about 200 cars, in all shapes, colours and sizes and in varying degrees of roadworthiness. From Minis to Mercs, from Reliants to Rollers.

I’d turn up each Wednesday at the Portakabin at 8.30am, put my overalls on, drink an oversweet instant coffee and smoke two or three roll-ups while reading the red-tops with the rest of the drivers.

At around 9.00am we’d head up to the old multi-storey car park, filled entirely with cars for auction. The supervisor, clipboard in hand, would point at each of us in turn and then point at our respective car. Then, with a bit of luck, the engine would start and we’d spiral down the multi-storey and form a queue outside the auction hall – really just a huge shed, with a carpeted space in the middle for each of us in turn to aim our car at, and a raised platform to the right for the auctioneer and his gavel.

If the car conked out in the queue, then you would be humiliatingly rolled on to the carpet by a few colleagues, causing cackles of laughter from the assembled buyers.

Wheeler dealers everywhere, mobile phones (still on the small brick scale) glued to their ears, sheepskin and leather jackets. A lot of cigar smoke. This was Arthur Daley territory.

“Ere, give it some revs son!”

“Lift the bonnet up will ya! ‘As it been clocked?”

Sitting in a car, that’s being auctioned, is like being on a very strange stage. And for some reason I used to feel slightly responsible for whether or not the car sold.

If the car went for a good price I’d feel quite chuffed. But if it didn’t sell at all, and then you had to be pushed off because the engine had died, I can imagine what it might feel like not to get through to the second round of auditions in Britain’s Got Talent.

Then it was back up to park the car, and pick up the next.

Arts spaces as workplaces – London’s Royal Festival Hall

Reading time: 4 minutes
View from the Royal Festival Hall
A pod from the London Eye (EyePod?) being towed donwstream, photographed from the Members' Area of The Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank.

Since I went freelance nearly four years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time working in – and a lot of time talking aboutThe Royal Festival Hall in London’s South Bank Centre.

Today is the last day I’ll cycle up here from home in London. Next week we’re moving to Bristol, and really looking forward to our new family adventures out west.

I’ve been reflecting on what it is about the Royal Festival Hall, the Members’ Area in particular, that makes it such a great place to work as a freelance.

As fewer people need to base themselves in traditional offices, is there anything you could abstract from this and blend in to other “public” spaces, I wonder?

(It’s not a complete list, but here are some of the things that I like, and few related things that trouble me slightly. It’s a bit cause and effect, and I don’t think I’d try to change it. I’m concentrating on the Members’ Area. There is seating all over the building that anybody can use, members and non-members, and you can access the wifi from most of them.)

Some things I like  (in no particular order):

  1. Once you’ve paid your annual membership you know that any additional costs are entirely up to you and will usually involve food and drink from the well stocked bar
  2. It’s a members’ area, but it’s in “public space” and you’re always reminded of that by being able to walk right in, and then the views back out over London’s landmarks through wide-angle windows.
  3. The soundtrack changes, recognisably, throughout the day.
  4. People. The staff are friendly and polite. And there are lots of fellow freelances. You’re never more than a few yards away from then next great television series in the making, a world-changing web project, a language teaching tutorial or a careers counselling session.
  5. You don’t have to book (see below).
  6. You can bring a guest. It’s a great place to meet clients. A great chance, often, for them to get out of their usual work habitat and get a different perspective on things. It’s hard not to be inspired by the place, and all its (hi-)stories.
  7. The river. Just knowing it’s there. Ever-changning, breathing, reflecting and refreshing.
  8. The free wifi. When it’s not being hogged (see below).
  9. You might bump in to someone you know here, friends, family (I once bumped in to my Mum here) and fellow freelances. You can freelance in “parallel” and watch each other’s stuff while you grab a coffee.
  10. The free lunchtime concerts in the Clore Ballroom, especially jazz on Fridays.
  11. It metamorphoses at 6:30 each evening as the day-shift is gradually replaced by besuited and bejewelled concert-goers enjoying a pre-performance aperitif.

A couple of things that trouble me (a little bit)

  1. Table-hogs. People who arrive at 10:00am, grab a table and then often leave it with their stuff on for hours at a time. This does seem to be improving as the membership staff have picked up on it, and so – unfortunately – have a few opportunist thieves, who have the audacity and front to stake out the place and remove unwatched valuable items.
  2. (Connected, but not quite the same) Not knowing if there’ll be a table available. The members’ area has become a victim of its own success, large queues form just before 10am outside the main doors. It’s a bit like Dalyan in South West Turkey, or Dahab on the Sinai Peninsula. It’s only a matter of time before best kept are on the cover of all the holiday brochures. And I must confess to contributing to this through my enthusiasm for the place. I understand there are plans afoot to increase seat numbers without damaging the unique atmosphere.
  3. Lunchtime latency. Video viewing and audio listening peak, not surprisingly. If you seriously need to use the internet for your work, get a wireless broadband dongle.

Do you freelance in the Royal Festival Hall, or another public / arts space? What do you like about it?

And if anyone’s got any recommendations for similar places in Bristol (The Watershed?), I’d love to hear from you – in comments or on Twitter.

[Information about South Bank Centre Membership]

The web – integration not destination

Reading time: 1 minute

If we really want to help people connect with each other, get stuff done, solve problems and make things, then the web is not the destination.

We need to work harder to integrate the web in to people’s lives, when and how they want and need it.

The web can be the fabric. It can be pervasive.

Walled gardens and blinkered cul-de-sac thinking are a hindrance to this.

Find, Understand, Share, Extend

Reading time: 2 minutes

Today is World Usability Day. The theme this year is communication. I’ve chosen to write about something which I find helps teams I work with communicate and explore what we design and put on the web.

Back in 2005, Yahoo! Search announced a “vision statement”.

Enable people to finduseshare and expand all human knowledge.

Somewhat ambitious, sure. A little grand, perhaps. But what a great way to think, not only about search, but also about everything we make on the web.

And it happens to form a handy mnemonic in the shape of the acronym FUSE.

At the time I was working on learning technology and intranet projects at the BBC, and found it was a really useful way to think about everything we designed, built and put out there.

If we design this site, template or widget, if we publish this content, if we make this web app, will people be able to find it, use it (more recently I’ve started using ‘understand’ as well), share it and extend it (which I prefer to ‘expand’)? FUSE?

And on every project I’ve worked in the five years since, it has still come in useful. Whatever becomes of Yahoo!, I for one, have a lot to thank them for.

[For more on FUSE, see this blog post by Tom Coates, not a fan of the acronym! In 2006, the BBC came up with its own version of FUSE – in Find, Play Share (BBC press release, Guardian article) – as its approach to all audience-facing digital output. Both work, but I find FUSE really gets people thinking.]

Don’t let distance get in the way of your user research

Reading time: 2 minutes

There’s an advertising campaign at the moment for Blackberry, the smartphone company, using the tag line “Closeness has nothing to do with distance.”

These days we can all carry our loved ones around in our pocket or handbag using the various social networking features of the Blackberry – including using it as a phone, presumably.

On several web projects recently, I’ve been conducting user research and usability testing with people in different locations (including other continents) using screen-sharing tools like WebEx and LiveMeeting. So even though we may be several thousand miles apart, we’re both looking at the same screen.

An important aspect of a user research session is building initial trust between the researcher and the respondent, so that the respondent feels comfortable and not too self-conscious. This involves an opening conversation, where I’ll introduce myself and explain the purpose of the research. I’ll then ask the respondent to tell me a bit about themselves, and gradually ask questions which narrow down towards the subject matter of the research session.

In person, you can pick up on all the cues available to you, and adjust your tone, proximity, style etc. to find a good mode for putting the other person at ease.

Using software such as LiveMeeting and talking over the telephone (or VOIP) you lose a lot of those cues.

So to try to help put the respondent more at ease, the first thing I’ll do during the introductions is share my web browser via LiveMeeting (or WebEx etc.) and show my profile page. This could be on the respondent’s company’s intranet, or my LinkedIn profile, or whichever seems the most appropriate.

Then I’ll encourage the respondent to do the same, or I’ll have a browser tab available with their profile page available to share if I can access it.

I find this really helps put people at ease and feel more able to “think out loud” when we move on to usability testing the prototype, web app or intranet site in question.

It’s never quite the same as being there in person, but it’s definitely an improvement to just being a disembodied voice at the end of the line.

Traffic lights and inclusive design

Reading time: 4 minutes
Traffic Light Tree
Traffic Light Tree. Photo by Squirmelia on Flickr

I’ve been thinking a lot about traffic lights recently.

Why are there three lights? Why are they vertically arranged? And how can the answers help us understand inclusive information design?

We learn from an early age that red means stop and green means go. We also learn the convention is to have red at the top and green at the bottom.

According to a Stanford University research article, “Roughly 1 in 10 men are fully or partly colour blind.” Although colour-blindness affects men and women, men are 20 times more likely to be colour blind than women.

For people with the most common types of colour-blindness, it’s hard to distinguish between red, yellow and green.

At a road junction, someone with red-green colour-blindness can see whether the red or green light is lit because of the additional information provided by the vertical arrangement of the lights.

In the world of project management, a common usage of the traffic light metaphor is as a project reporting device, using red, amber and green (RAG) to denote the current status of a particular aspect of the project. Red usually means there’s a problem, while green is all systems go.

In project reporting it’s common to show a single spot of colour to denote a RAG status (See 1a below).

To someone with colour-blindness the information design has failed. Showing a single traffic light removes the contextual information required to determine whether it’s red or green (See 1b below). That’s quite a fundamental problem.

Example of project summary Red, Amber, Green status
1a. RAG status shown as spots of colour
Project status Red, Amber, Green summary
1b. RAG status shown as spots of colour. Colour-blindness simulation

Once the colours become indistinguishable, it’s no longer possible to use the Gestalt principle of similarity to help us distinguish between the symbols.

One option is to reintroduce the full traffic light, with the RAG-status colour lit. Having three lights arranged vertically means that you don’t have to distinguish between red and green to know what the current status is. You just have to remember that top means stop. This option (not illustrated) would require some reworking of the grid to accommodate readable traffic lights, and would not make efficient use of the space available.

So what other options are there?

Adding the initial letter of the RAG status to the symbol enables us to see the differences (2a).

RAG status shown with initial letters in coloured spots
2a. RAG status shown as spots of colour containing initial letters.
Colour-blindness simulation of RAG status shown with initial letters in coloured spots
2a. RAG status shown with initial letters in coloured spots. Colour-blindness simulation.

However, the colour-blindness simulation (2b) shows it still requires some cognitive effort to read the letters.

Better still, use a different shape for each of the three RAG statuses, as well as the colour (3a and 3b).

RAG status symbols shown as coloured shapes
3a. RAG status symbols shown as coloured shapes.
RAG status symbols shown as coloured shapes. Colour-blindness simulation.
3b. RAG status symbols shown as coloured shapes. Colour-blindness simulation.

It’s easier to scan for triangles than the letter “R”, for example, to quickly identify the Red items.

Whichever you choose, it’s important to include a key in the diagram as well.

There’s a massive drive on at the moment to make public data available, and to use graphic design techniques to make sense of it all. A popular example is to overlay crime statistics on to a map. As data visualisation becomes ever more possible and ever more popular across digital and print media, the principle of inclusive design has never been more essential.

In a nutshell: to ensure your information design is inclusive, don’t rely on colour alone to convey meaning.

Tools and references:

Social networking on intranets – have a problem to solve, and expect it to take time, says Jakob Nielsen

Reading time: 2 minutes

Here are the findings from usability “guru” Jakob Nielsen’s report on Social Networking on Intranets


  • Underground efforts yield big results. Companies are turning a blind eye to underground social software efforts until they prove their worth, and then sanctioning them within the enterprise.
  • Frontline workers are driving the vision. Often, senior managers aren’t open to the possibilities for enterprise 2.0 innovation because they’re not actively using these tools outside of work. Indeed, many senior managers still consider such tools as something their kids do. One of the dirty secrets of enterprise 2.0 is that you don’t have to teach or convince younger workers to use these tools; they expect them and integrate them as easily into their work lives as they do in their personal lives.
  • Communities are self-policing. When left to their own devices, communities police themselves, leaving very little need for tight organizational control. And such peer-to-peer policing is often more effective than a big brother approach. Companies that we studied said abuse was rare in their communities.
  • Business need is the big driver. Although our report discusses specific tools (blogs, wikis, and such), enterprise 2.0’s power is not about tools, it’s about the communication shift that those tools enable.
  • Organizations must cede power. Using Web 2.0 technologies to communicate with customers has taught many companies that they can no longer control the message. This also rings true when using Web 2.0 tools for internal communication. Companies that once held to a command-and-control paradigm for corporate messaging are finding it hard to maintain that stance.


Nielsen talks a lot about integrating the social networking tools in to the rest of the intranet, where useful and possible. My team did a lot of work in this area a few years ago at the BBC.

Be careful, sometimes the writing really is on the wall

Reading time: 2 minutes

Imagine my surprise the other day when I walked past a meeting room and read the words:

How to tell the team the bad news

Alright, that’s made up. But I have seen several rather over-revealing meeting titles on my way down various corridors recently.

Technology for setting up meetings is getting pretty sophisticated these days.

In one or two office buildings I’ve been in recently, there is a small touch-screen on the wall just outside each meeting room showing the subject of the meeting taking place therein.

Touchscreen outside meeting room

It’s all linked to the everyone’s Outlook (Exchange) calendars. You invite your colleague/s, give the meeting a subject, then you invite the room as a “resource”. The subject – and the name of the organiser – then appears on the touchscreen as the meeting takes place.

So, as a friendly word of advice, be careful what you call your meetings. More common and less high tech is for people to print out their daily agenda and walk around with it for all to see.

While we’re on the subject (as it were), and for good measure, put as much meaning in to the meeting title as possible, without giving away all your company’s top-secret information.

A popular bug-bear is when a meeting request arrives with the subject “Catch-up and coffee with Bob” or something similar. Of course it makes perfect sense to the organiser, but once Bob’s accepted the meeting requets, it doesn’t provide Bob with many clues at a glance!

Communities – start simple, don’t over-design

Reading time: 2 minutes

Social notworking

In 2002 we built something on the BBC’s intranet called “Learning Online”. I was working with an amazing team of forward-thinking and innovative people.

We designed Learning Online to be the intranet home for BBC employees to manage their personal development, training and career development.

Alongside e-learning, personal development planning and a personalised virtual induction, was a section called MyNetworks.

If you picture MyNetworks as an early prototype for Facebook groups you’ll have a pretty close approximation. But this was 2002, so the concept was still fairly alien to most people.

The idea behind MyNetworks was simple. Create spaces for groups of people who had something in common where they could have conversations, share “knowledge” as documents or images, and plan events.

We had a lot of interest from various people, who set up and “ran” their networks with varying degrees of success.

There was one consistent and recurring theme.

Where a lot of time was spent “designing” a network before involving its members, the network invariably failed.

Often people would put great effort in to the planning of how a network would be run, and how the information in the network would be organised. When the network was finally launched, nobody used it. And those who did found a perplexing empty suite of rooms.

It seems obvious to say it, but the idea of “if we build it they will come” really did not work in most cases.

The less “designed” the network, the greater chance of its success, through participation and involvement of its members using the online tools to support the network, but not to be the network.

To do: switch on Labs features in Google Apps

Reading time: 2 minutes

I recently switched over from standard google mail, calendar etc. to make more use of and get my head round Google Apps.

The first thing I noticed was that I’d lost some features I’d enabled on the standard gmail.

I’d been using:

Settings > General > Browser Connection > Always use https (for tighter security)
Settings > Labs > Signature tweaks

Experimenting with various others, including as announced in the last 24 hours:

Settings > Labs > Tasks (a new To Do list feature)

More than anything I wanted to see what I could see before. It’s frustrating not to have them available as standard in Google Apps.

The good news is that you can activate these “hidden” features in Google Apps if you know where to look. As it’s not in the most intuitive place, I thought I’d explain where to find it.

First go to manage your Manage this domain, select Domain Settings, then scroll down the General tab to the section called New Services and Features

Here you have two checkbox options for:

  1. Turn on new features (like group chat or colored labels)
  2. Turn on new features in this domain when they are launched to Google consumers (before Google supports them for organizations using Google Apps)

Switching these on should enable Labs in your apps settings.