Reading List 2

I've been migrating my blog from Wordpress to Jekyll, and in the process I've been going over some of my old half-written drafts. This one is from 2011, and all it had in it were two links. I have no idea what I originally intended to say about them, but they're both interesting, and they're both roughly about finding failures early to get to a better outcome. This is something I try to do in my own design process: embrace the possibility that I am wrong, try alternatives, and maybe I'll find something better.

Pixar's Motto: Going From Suck to Nonsuck

Pixar's film development process involves many iterations of storyboards before they even get to a script, and even then they still iterate and critique and may still be working out problems in the story shortly before release. The idea is to "be wrong as fast as we can," and every piece of the film will be picked apart repeatedly before they finally get to something good.

Visual vs Action Oriented Design

This article is about game design, and in particular about how often games start out with a general idea of how it looks and feels, which are easier to sell, but neglect the basic mechanics, which are ultimately what make a game fun. Focusing on the mechanics can allow game designers to iterate faster to get to something fun, like Pixar's storyboards. However, the prototypes will be ugly and abstract and harder for executives and players to connect with.

What are design docs?

I've talked to several people lately about potentially helping projects they are working on with the design. As a designer coming into a project, it's helpful for me if I can see the design work you've done already so I don't duplicate work, step on toes, or go in a different direction than has already been decided on. A lot of people have no idea what sort of thing I'm looking for though, so here are some things I find helpful (though by no means an exhaustive list!), and several of them can be useful to non-designers, too!

Note that it's absolutely ok if your project doesn't have these. They're good to have, but if you don't, that's good to know, too, and a designer can help you create them!

Project Goals

Basically, what problem are you trying to solve? What are your overall goals, how do you plan to achieve them, how will you know if you're successful in achieving them?

Ideally, a design starts with some problem you're trying to solve, then do research to verify and clarify the problem, come up with a number of possible solutions, and then validate which one will solve the problem best. But to be perfectly honest, the only projects I've worked on like that were in design school. Most projects seem to start with a pretty hazy idea of the project goals, if that, then jump straight to how to implement the solution. That's ok, but you do need to figure out what problem you're solving before you know if your solution is solving it well or not.

I've found these things to be helpful not only to me in designing and validating designs, but also for keeping conversations and features focused. Goals help you decide what work is important, what isn't, and what features outright detract from your purpose.


Any research involved in creating the goals and plans above, or research suggesting changes in your audience over time and how people are actually using your product. This can include contextual research, interviews, usability studies, market research, surveys, statistics and analytics, or really, any other work you've done talking to people about the problems you're solving and how they use your product—it doesn't have to be formal, anything you have is useful.

If you don't have the up front research about your goals—or even if you have, since things can change over time—it might be a good idea to have your new designer do that now with the people who are currently using your project. You may find out that it does poorly on the things you thought you were doing, which can sting if you're really attached to the idea, but that people are using it to solve an entirely different problem, which can be really enlightening. These are good things to know, and you can take them back and revisit your goals and solutions.

Style Guides

These can be visual and granular like what colors to use and how to style buttons, more structural, like what context calls for what sorts of widgets, or verbal, like what tone of voice to use in different parts of the interface. They can also include design assets like logos, photoshop templates, color palettes, etc. Here are some examples of nice ones:

Style guides are useful to maintain consistency across the whole system and help developers put new pages together faster using existing patterns, but to remain useful they have to be kept up to date with new design patterns as they are added.

Other Design Artifacts

  • information architecture (think sitemap, or more generally, what things should be grouped together?)
  • interaction descriptions or diagrams (when this page is displayed, if user clicks this do this...)
  • sketches, wireframes, mockups, and prototypes
  • discussion surrounding all of the above

If you haven't had a designer before, you may not have anything formal, but even just sketches, annotated screenshots, and white board diagrams can be helpful. And in particular, if there's an online record of the discussion on new features, for instance why something was done one way and not another, that can be particularly useful in absence of more formally documented style guides and research.

Reading List

I frequently have a number of tabs open with long articles that I read throughout the day, and in the interests of keeping more of my thoughts in a space I actually control here are some interesting things I've read lately. There may or may not be other posts like this in the future.


An interesting dive into the scholarship of what the Americas might have been like prior to the arrival of Columbus. The article makes no conclusions, but presents several scholars who believe that 1) many parts of the American natural environment, including the Amazon rain forest and the great plains were in fact human-constructed, and 2) the Americas were much more populous than originally believed, with possibly over 90% mortality from European diseases spreading ahead of the explorers, giving the false impression of an untouched wilderness. I don't know if that's true, and probably we'll never know, especially since the scholarship can't be dissociated from political and moral implications, but it's interesting to contemplate.

How White People Got Made

An argument that whiteness as a race--vs individual country affiliations like English, Irish, French, Dutch, etc.--was invented in colonial Virginia as a divide-and-conquer technique to keep the colonists from all rebelling together. Now, I don't know that I'd go quite that far, there was certainly language about civilized European Christians vs "savages" before that, but there's probably some truth to it too. Certainly the effect of dividing a group by giving some a small privilege and taking away from others has been replicated many times, e.g. in the Stanford prison experiment.

Both of which remind me of this, which I read some time ago:

How presidential elections are impacted by a 100 million year old coastline

Richer soil from the ancient coastline led to more slave-owning plantations which now means more black voters in that area. Our culture is forever shaped by all of history and all of pre-history.

The Secret Casualties of Iraq’s Abandoned Chemical Weapons

I was opposed to sending soldiers to Iraq, but since we sent them, it's our responsibility to take care of them. Starting a war on false premises led the military command to fail in that responsibility, and that is unacceptable.

"You Are Not Alone Across Time": Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

Our culture doesn't talk about sorrow much, but it's a normal part of life, especially in traumatic circumstances. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing, that you aren't the only one, that this isn't a singular, personal failure, is huge.

Kafka’s Cognitive Realism

I haven't read this, but I'm delighted that it exists. Kafka-inspired philosophy of mind meets embodied cognition.

Against the Grain

A roundup of research about gluten intolerance. Gluten-free diets seem so faddy, but the article points out that 1) many of the people who are "intolerant" to gluten probably aren't, but may have a sensitivity to some other compound in wheat; 2) there is an increase in diagnosed gluten intolerance that probably can't be explained by better awareness alone; 3) there is substantially more gluten in commercial bread and other foods than there was before it was mass-manufactured.

Photo essay: What’s growing in West Virginia’s urban ruins?

Repurposing abandoned urban wastelands for farming. I found myself wondering about other times this has happened in human history, e.g. Europe after the fall of Rome. Farms -> cities -> farms ->cities -> farms.


Not an essay or book, just a toy. I loved my Spirograph when I was a kid, this is the web version. I'm disappointed that it doesn't work on my iPad, but it's still great.


Finally got around to uploading some pictures from the last year.

Niagara Falls


Nostagia, in CSS

The other day I was working on a table and I realized that the colors I was using for table striping reminded me of that old green bar printer paper--you know, the kind with the tear-off strips of holes on the side? A little bit of tinkering later and I ended up with some css for green bar paper and ditto-machine ink. I'll probably tinker with it some more to make the holes better and try out text masking to give the effect of a bad ditto run-off, but here it is:

See the Pen Ditto by Pam Griffith (@pamgriffith) on CodePen

Someone should write this, part 2

Tezcatlipoca as a jazz musician in the 1920s. Quetzalcoatl should show up and sass him, but then maybe they end up saving the world together. Or maybe not. There should be speakeasies and Gatsby-esque decadence. It might take place in the same world as American Gods and Anansi Boys.

Freelance rates survey

Results of the 2013 freelance rates survey

I quit freelancing and got a full-time gig so I could stop having to think about this sort of thing, but this would have been super-nice to have when I was just starting--it won't tell you what you specifically should charge, but having a ballpark of what other people might be asking would have been fantastic. So, promote, share, and enjoy.

Privacy and autocompleted usernames

I dislike sites having access to information (e.g. from a social network) that I haven't explicitly said they could have. I also get peeved at sites like Quora being very pushy about getting me to log in, in particular with said social networks, presumably so they can track what I, as a particular individual, am interested in, in addition to anonymized stats.

So given that, I was kind of annoyed earlier today when I discovered my twitter avatar appeared next to the login box on the top of a Quora post.

I had third-party cookies disabled and it's not in an iframe, so they weren't getting it from facebook, and it was still there after deleting all (39!) cookies from the domain... So how did they know that?

It turns out removing the username and password autocomplete for Quora also removed the avatar. Filling in the email field again put it back. The site was able to detect the autocompleted username and potentially figure out who I was and what pages I visited even though I wasn't logged in--I doubt there was any intent to collect the autocompleted name, just a cute embellishment when someone intentionally fills out their name as an extra indication of who they are logging in as, but there it is.

When I browse sites while logged out I generally assume that they don't know 100% exactly who I am--there are things they can do to correlate IP address and even browser, OS, plugins, etc., but there's work involved and it's not bulletproof. But when my browser auto-fills a username, it's telling the site exactly who I am--I could screw with that, of course, by putting in someone else's email address, so it's still not 100%, but still, I'd just rather they didn't get that information at all...

Werewolves in Star Fleet

There aren't enough scifi/fantasy crossovers. Think urban fantasy in a space opera setting, or perhaps...werewolves in star fleet. I was thinking of the latter the other day when I was wondering what effect space travel would have on lycanthropy (I don't remember how I got on that particular train of thought)--is it just Earth's moon, or will any full moon do? Could you avoid the effect altogether by staying out from between any moons and their nearest star? Anyway, I'm no author, but I'd like to see someone write that, and after searching a bit I'm disappointed that it doesn't seem to exist already (I did, however, find Nazi Werewolves from Outer Space). I think there are a few interesting story possibilities...

Story 1:

The story universe's equivalent of Vulcans come to earth and set up an international space federation of some sort, but they insist that all of earth's sentient species be allowed to join--

"What do you mean, all? Like, dolphins?"

"Well, those too, if they want, but we were thinking of the humanoid creatures like werewolves and elves."

"Wait, what‽"

Fairytale creatures cautiously come out from under their hills and whatnot, humans reel from the double revelation that not only are they not alone in the universe but they aren't even alone on their own planet. Prejudice on all sides, but eventually it fades into the background noise with all the diversity of a galactic civilization. Perhaps there is a realization that "you may be weird, but you're our kind of weird."

Story 2:

None of the above has taken place, werewolves and the like are still covert. One of them decides join the story universe's star fleet equivalent, perhaps to fight some threat to all life on earth. Mother and father are aghast--"It can only end in tears!" Perhaps the academy goes ok, with some sticky situations with roomates or exams on full moons, but it's a lot harder to hide things on a spaceship, and this next planet we're visiting has how many moons‽

Story 3:

Bad vampire and werewolf romance in space. I don't actually want to read this, but imagine the melodramatic cover art possibilities.


  • The chief engineer leaves a saucer of cream for the brownies in the engine room every night. The other engineers think this is a bit eccentric, but you can't argue with the ship's safety record.
  • Space ships and stations have to be redesigned not to use iron to comply with non-discrimation acts so fairies can work and live in space.
  • Fairy glamor makes for great spies and diplomats. Fairies are also great at negotiation.

IAS13 - Revolutionising GOV.UK

This is part of a series of notes from the Information Architecture Summit from 2013. All posts will be tagged IAS13. This talk was presented by Paul Annett.

  • Before:
    • hundreds of government department websites make it hard to find stuff, have to know how gov works to know where to look
    • 1 in 5 phone calls to help lines were for failed digital transactions; web transaction costs 1 penny, phone call costs 6 pounds
    • locked into contracts, can cost 75,000 dollars to change a line of code
  • starting to replace everything with single
    • created Government Digital Services (GDS) cabinet office with control of all user experience across all digital channels
    • fix publishing
    • fix transactions
    • open API
  • citizen needs information (next public holiday, do I apply for X) and services (taxes, renew passport)
    • most digital services can't be done online, working on digitizing and improving
      • some services can be prioritized based on frequent use (register to vote vs apply for burial at sea)--created metrics of transactions for each department of each service, all publicly browsable
      • started with 25 of the most important services that will set the bar for all the others
  • private sector ecommerce has design patterns, but government transactions are obligated, complicated, infrequent ("grudge transactions")
    • users don't compare to other governments, compare to google and twitter, need to measure up
    • want people to prefer online to phone or face to face
  • proof of concept in 2011 to start conversations
    • just a taste of what could be done without bureaucracy overhead, use to convice polititions that this was the right way to go
    • public, invited feedback, have continued to iterate design
    • initial prototype didn't worry about scalability, main focus was feedback
  • design principles (published, want to change how government organizations think and work, explain process, evolve over time)
    • start with needs (user needs, not departments or stakeholders)--if you don't give people what they want in private sector, they go to a competitor; in public sector, competitor is the more expensive channels like phone
      • analyzed search terms on old sites, used to prioritize content on new site and uncover user needs
    • do less, focus efforts on what needs to be done: government should only do what only government can do--cut out things like tips on keeping bees, reduced number of pages and closed things that other non-gov sites could do better
    • design with data: user testing on prototypes, analytics
    • share information, e.g. with call centers, who have rich information on exactly what the problems are with digital services, create shared responsibility for keeping things running smoothly
    • do the hard work to make it simple--online services are on top of complex processes and legislation--hard to simplify something when specific procedures are enshrined in law
      • don't over-simplify, people can feel sped through without being given time to think on forms that are too short and simple; people have trouble trusting government services that are too simple, "can't possibly work that way"
    • iterate! don't treat websites like rockets, they're services so you can refine them over time
    • build for inclusion
      • the people who use gov services the most are the people who are most vulnerable and hardest to reach--need to allow people to register to vote without email or computer; accessibility is not just checkboxes, needs to account for real use
      • people who haven't used a computer don't scroll--the fold is back! don't have to avoid scrolling, but consider it, especially on things more likely to be seen by people who haven't used computer before
    • understand context and environment (job center, home, hospital bed)
      • government transactions are often related to stress and suffering, being asked to make very serious decisionts--slow people down, give them the time to make those decisions wisely, consider emotional context
    • build digital services, not websites
      • many services have elements that aren't digital, design for those--some can be digital, but some won't
        • e.g. may have alternatives to signing using webcam, try to make people's lives easier
    • be consistent, not uniform: not every pattern works in all situations, agencies have guidance on how to design services but also freedom to experiment and work out what works best as they go along
    • make things open, share with colleauges, users, etc.--why they have alpha, github, etc., allows feedback, lets people to contribute better code, enable world to build services that are bigger and better on their data
      • also paying back open source community
      • the public paid for it, they own it