Interesting stuff club
Our monthly roundup of anything we’re doing and learning in our own time.
“I’ve been reading a book that was recommended to my by Kirsten – ‘Interviewing Users – How to Uncover Compelling Insights‘ by Steve Portigal, which explains how to frame user research and interviews. It’s understandably more from the perspective of a full time researcher but it’s full of great insights on how to get more out of your interviews. A particularly good chapter covers how to ask better questions, coupled with some good anecdotes and examples. Firstly; recognising the importance of silence, giving examples of trailing your question “for breakfast did you have toast orrrrr…” or deliberately filling silence with other examples – “like, cereal or a bagel…” – while the interviewee is thinking. Don’t do this, instead “ask your question and let it stand” as Steve suggests. Further to this is the reminder that people speak in paragraphs, and will embellish points unprompted. One more take away is to not summarise your own conclusions of what the user has said back to them, they may not share your ‘world view’ and this may cause conflict in conversation rather than encouraging more. There’s also a palette of questions in the chapter to help you ask the right questions, it certainly helped me to better prepare and catch some rather common mistakes I’d have made.
On a more technical note, I’ve recently come across rosie.js which I’ve incorporated into the Limpid Markets frontend. It’s a little library for generating fixture objects which has been really useful for our unit tests. We have some quite large data structures so it’s awesome to be able to generate them, pass in overrides and compose smaller fixtures together, making everything much more manageable.”
“I’m still learning Elm and Elixir at home and still focusing more on the Elixir side of things. I’ve progressed to learning about processes and the actor model.
The actor model is a solution to the problem that is threading. The book I am reading, Programming Elixir, has a nice metaphor for the actor model: Each small process can be viewed as a person who lives in a room with a mailbox. The room that they live in has a state, but if anyone else wants to obtain information about their room they can only do so by sending messages to request the information. To be clear, the only way the person in the room can communicate with the outside world at all is through sending and receiving messages.
The next step for me is OTP (Open Telecom Protocol) which is used to abstract away the grunt work of managing Erlang processes. I can’t wait to get started with this.
On Tuesday, James, Ryan and I went to an Elm meetup, which was quite different. When we arrived we were told that we’d be splitting off into groups, pair programming and then presenting to everyone what we’d done at the end. I joined the intermediate group and was paired with someone with a similar skill level to me, which put me at ease. James and Ryan joined the beginners group as they had not played with Elm much before. Whilst the intermediate group was playing around with the Spotify API the beginners were looking at tree structures, which I think was a bit of a turnoff for James and Ryan. I’ve taken a note of this as I will be running an internal workshop on Elm at the end of May.”
“I’ve just discovered a podcast called Planet Money, which aims to explain the economy and covers whole range of topics ranging from gun safety, to the origins of class action law suits (in America). I’ve listened to two so far, but the one I’ll mention is about the history of the credit card. 50 years ago, all a credit card was a piece of plastic with your name and a number on it. To use it to pay you’d take it to the cashier and they’d have to call the bank for approval. The whole process took about five minutes and there was no tech involved at all. When the Boeing 747 came out, air travel became increasingly popular and queues in airports became longer and longer as paying for flights took ages. So, among others, IBM were called in to help improve the use of credit cards and the first prototype was created by wrapping a piece of magnetic audio tape around a piece of cardboard. That’s how they came up with the magnetic strip that we see today.
The chip was invented 40 years ago in France, by a freelance journalist/hippie named Roland Moreno. He would hang out in the Motorola offices where the techies would talk about the amount of fraud involving the magnetic strips. As the phone lines in France at the time were so bad, instead of calling through to confirm credit card purchases ad-hoc, shops would call them all through at the end of the day, which made fraudulent purchases even easier.
Moreno suggested that credit cards could be verified instantly with a machine in shops using a computer chip. The only obstacle being that computer chips were so big at the time. Eventually the fraud became so bad in France that they pushed forward the chip on credit cards. The fraudsters moved around Europe and the chip would quickly follow suit, but it’s a pretty recent development in the USA.”
“We’ve recently redesigned our website, and I’m planning to write a blog explaining why, but the TL;DR is that it fell in to the category of all websites looking the same. I follow Jen Simmons on Twitter, and I love how enthused she is by new layout technologies, which will enable us to hopefully be a bit more creative on the web. There’s an article from Chris Coyer with some good examples, and he suggests picking up a magazine and mocking a page up in CSS to practice, which I’m hoping to get round to doing. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that websites should all look like magazines now, but there are some nice typographic and design elements that we can now use on the web to give our sites a more unique, or creative feel.”
“Related to what Eddy was saying about thinking about how we learn, most of us in the tech industry have little or no formal training in how to learn or how to teach/mentor others and yet we’re in an industry which demands constant learning and re-learning. It’s also an industry where developers are thrown in at the deep end not only from a learning but from a mentorship perspective. The result can be a bit messy as both learner and teacher struggle to get things to stick because they have no methodology to follow. So I started looking at learning techniques and came across the phrase Shu-Ha-Ri used by Neil Killick, an Agile coach I follow on Twitter. I was interested in the phrase and dug a bit deeper to discover it’s a Japanese martial art concept, and describes the 3 stages of learning to mastery. The approach has been adopted by some people in the software industry as an approach for thinking about how techniques can be learnt. One of the clearest descriptions of the 3 stages I could find was written by Martin Fowler:
Shu: In this beginning stage the student follows the teachings of one master precisely. He concentrates on how to do the task, without worrying too much about the underlying theory. If there are multiple variations on how to do the task, he concentrates on just the one way his master teaches him.
Ha: At this point the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working he now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. He also starts learning from other masters and integrates that learning into his practice.
Ri: Now the student isn’t learning from other people, but from his own practice. He creates his own approaches and adapts what he’s learned to his own particular circumstances
Another example of this approach applied to music is from Jazz musician Clark Terry. He talks about the steps to learning Jazz mastery in a similar way: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate.”
“My girlfriend has just been to DisneyLand Paris as a carer with support from the Make a Wish foundation so previous to this, we’ve been doing some research on the parks. I recently came across an article about how Disney developed two colours, a green and grey, to hide things they don’t want to be seen: ‘Go Away Green and No Seeum Gray’. They paint areas which aren’t part of the attractions but support the park such as preparation areas and trade bins. They also model buildings to fit in with areas, such as the ‘Tower of Terror’ where the back is modelled to fit in the with buildings in Epcot when seen from a distance.
Finally, I’ve just started building a website at home to encourage people of Polish and Ukrainian descent to sign up to stem cell donation schemes, as a friend of my Mum is in need. I’ve started this in Jekyll but I may change later on as it will have to support multiple languages and I’m not sure how easy it’ll be to update on a static site, that in my case, will require knowledge of Git to use.”