Another Argument Against Ad Blocking

By on September 26, 2014

Butterick’s Practical Typography: The author of Practical Typography released it on the web, for free (he specifically refused other, downloadable formats, even).  If you wanted to pay for it, you were welcome to.  A year later, he examines what happened, and he completely summarizes the perfect argument about why the advertising model is so broken, but when we block ads, we’re not doing anyone any favors.

Let’s face it, un­less you’re re­ally slow on the up­take, you’ve out­fit­ted your web browser with an ad blocker. Ha ha, you win! But wait—that means most web ads are only reach­ing those who are re­ally slow on the up­take. So their dol­lars are dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­por­tant in sup­port­ing the con­tent you’re get­ting ad-free. “Not my prob­lem,” you say. Oh re­ally? Since those peo­ple are the only ones fi­nan­cially sup­port­ing the con­tent, pub­lish­ers in­creas­ingly are shap­ing their sto­ries to ap­peal to them. Even­tu­ally, the con­tent you liked—well, didn’t like it enough to pay for it—will be gone.

Why? Be­cause you starved it to death. The im­mutable law re­mains: you can’t get some­thing for noth­ing. The web has been able to de­fer the con­se­quences of this prin­ci­ple by shift­ing the costs of con­tent off read­ers and onto ad­ver­tis­ers. But if read­ers per­ma­nently with­draw as eco­nomic par­tic­i­pants in the writ­ing in­dus­try—i.e., refuse to vote with their wal­lets—then they’ll have no rea­son to protest as the uni­verse of good writ­ing shrinks. (And make no mis­take—it’s al­ready happening.)

I’ve talked about this before:

I realize that blocking ads means you’re clever. But the ads are sometimes not there because someone is greedy. They’re there to support the content that you’re consuming.

(Stop arguing. You know it’s true.)


Canada Spends More on Digital Advertising Than TV Advertising

By on September 22, 2014

Canadian digital spend has surpassed TV for the first time: This is a fairly significant milestone.

Canadian brands spent $3.5 billion on digital advertising last year – roughly $100 million more than they spent on television.


Secret Hashtags

By on September 7, 2014

Inside The Secret World Of Teen Suicide Hashtags: Hashtags are being use to mobilize communities around some very bad things. What’s interesting is that the posts are public, but the hashtag acts as a password to the aggregate – so you can’t get the entire picture unless you search for the hashtag, which you need to know.

In a world where these companies actively police hashtags like #cutting and #proana to crack down on inappropriate content, young people are trying — and mostly succeeding — to fly under the radar by creating codewords like #sue and #secretsociety123 to discreetly form communities organized around self-harm, and they’re showing up in strong numbers. An Instagram search for the #sue hashtag, a secret word for suicide, reveals nearly 800,000 tagged posts. The vast majority of these posts all contain evidence of cutting, quotes about depression, and messages related to self-harm.


Email Never Dies

By on September 2, 2014

Email Will Last Forever: Absolutely agree.

A wave of new companies have recently tried to replace the communication channel people love to hate: email. Slack pretends to be “an email killer”,Asana promises “teamwork without email” etc. But the promise of a world without email is a fantasy.

Email represents a solid pattern of user interaction: The Necessity of Asynchronous Communication


Desktop Linux in Munich: The Aftermath

By on August 19, 2014

Linux-on-the-desktop pioneer Munich now considering a switch back to Windows: I remember writing about this often a decade ago. Sad to see that it hasn’t worked out, but I’ve long-maintained that Microsoft isn’t nearly as bad as it’s made out to be.

The world is still waiting for the year of Linux on the desktop, but in 2003 it looked as if that goal was within reach. Back then, the city of Munich announced plans to switch from Microsoft technology to Linux on 14,000 PCs belonging to the city’s municipal government. While the scheme suffered delays, it was completed in December 2013. There’s only been one small problem: users aren’t happy with the software, and the government isn’t happy with the price.

Though, towards the end of the article, things take on a tone of conspiracy. Not sure what to make of that.


The Difference Between Reading on Paper or in Pixels

By on August 19, 2014

Reading Literature on Screen: A Price for Convenience?: I was waiting for someone to do a study like this. The results confirm what I suspected, as I personally tend to rush more when reading something electronically.

A team of researchers led by Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger in Norway and Jean-Luc Velay at Aix-Marseille Université in France divided 50 graduate students — with equivalent reading habits and experience with tablets — into two groups and had them read the same short story by Elizabeth George (in French translation). One group read the story in paperback, the other on an Amazon Kindle DX. All the while, researchers measured the students’ reading time and their “emotional response” — using a standard psychology scale — to the text. Afterward, they were tested extensively on different aspects of the story.



By on July 8, 2014

Scoop: A Glimpse Into the NYTimes CMS: The NY Times lifts the lid on its own CMS – entitled “Scoop” – to explain how it works and what it does. The article is brilliant: it explains a lot of the features in clear terms. Some notes:

If you love CMS, this is a great article. I think few companies share at this level because they don’t think anyone would be interested, but there’s a subculture of card-carrying CMS nerds that love this stuff


Uber as an Example of the Perils of Technological Expansion

By on June 26, 2014

Uber isn’t the problem; taxi regulations are: This column for the Boston Globe (by John Sununu, of all people?) pulls no punches, and explains one of the problems faced by technological advancements in any field: they threaten the established status quo which someone is making money from.

Uber has plenty of enemies. The Web-based taxi service opened for business just five years ago, but recently its reputation has instilled enough fear in competitors to tie up traffic not just in Boston but in London, Paris, and a dozen other European cities. The protests staged were intended as a defiant stand by cabbies against the “unregulated” car service. Instead, they were an advertisement of a different sort: for outdated business models, archaic regulatory structures, and entrenched business interests that are desperately fighting to protect the status quo.

Indeed, what’s the argument against Uber?  That it’s somehow worse than a traditional taxi?  Or just that it’s unfair?  If it’s unfair, do we need more regulation or less?


Does Online Advertising Work?

By on June 23, 2014

Online advertising effectiveness: For large brands, online ads may be worthless: A lot of startlingly honest revelations in here. Turns out that we have no idea if online advertising works, and it probably doesn’t.

[…] if somebody searches for “Amazon, banana slicer,” and clicks on a search ad that pops up right next to his results, chances are he would have made it to Amazon’s site without the extra nudge. Even if he never typed the word Amazon, he still might have gotten to the site through the natural power of search.


Miller’s Magic Number and It’s (Non-) Relevance to Web Navigation

By on June 8, 2014

At some point, anyone working on the web has heard the exhortation that ideal web navigation should be “seven items, plus or minus two” with some vague reference to science which “proves” this is true.

Some years ago, I finally decided to look up the “science” and found that this is a reference to what’s been called “Miller’s Magic Number,” which come from an article by George Miller published in the Psychological Review in 1956. The article was entitled “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” (link to original text).

This weekend, I finally took the time to read the article.  It’s dense, but in it, Miller summarizes dozens of studies that examine (1) the ability of humans to remember information, and (2) the ability of humans to distinguish between gradients of information (so, to evaluate something – an audio tone, in one example –  and correctly categorize it). He summarizes the research to mean that our ability to do these things across all these different studies fell to somewhere around seven items.

I was bothered by what I found. The more I read both the article and multiple summaries of it, the more I became convinced that this has nothing to do with web navigation. It just didn’t seem to follow – I don’t memorize web navigation, nor do I compare it to a gradient scale. All the studies Miller discussed seem to do with recall and categorization. I couldn’t figure out what this had to do with anything.

I was all set to write a passionate post to his effect…and then I found that someone had beat me to it:

UX Myth #23: Choices should always be limited to 7+/-2

Limiting the number of menu tabs or the number of items in a dropdown list to the George Miller’s magic number 7 is a false constraint. Miller’s original theory argues that people can keep no more than 7 (plus or minus 2) items in their short-term memory. On a webpage, however, the information is visually present, people don’t have to memorize anything and therefore can easily manage broader choices.

That’s a well-written post that summarizes about a dozen references which refute the link between anything Miller ever did and the design of web UI and navigation.

Bottom line: the “magic number 7” has nothing to do with web navigation, and only may have some application to larger concepts of IA.  If someone quotes it, they’re just likely just repeating something they’ve heard and have never actually read the primary research on it.

This is sadly common – things that make a good sound bite tend to take on a life of their own. We repeat these things because they sound smart and reinforce some narrative which makes sense in our heads. They provide form to an amorphous concept which we hope has discoverable boundaries, so when we find something that claims to define one such boundary, we pin our hopes on it and are loathe to let it go or even examine it too hard lest we threaten it. From there, these things propagate like a virus.

Larger lesson learned: make an effort to read and evaluate original sources, which I’ve argued in favor of before. If you hear something like this, trace it back to see whether the original research actually exists and whether or not it supports the conclusion.