Paul Swain

I head up the user experience department at digital product design agency The Unit in Brighton. I really love the open nature of the web and discussing standards, accessibility and ST:TNG with colleagues and clients.

I have a personal blog but do most of my chat on Twitter.

Published Thoughts

Let me paint a picture of a mid-1980s newsroom.

The atmosphere of the Birmingham Post and Mail’s ‘goldfish bowl’ is one of cigarette smoke, conversation, ringing phones, and clattering typewriters.

Enclosing this room is the upper balcony. It is home to offices, vending machines, meeting rooms, yet more cigarette smoke, and editors discussing upcoming editions.

Amongst this organised chaos, father of me, Martin Swain, is rushing to get his match report submitted for the print deadline. If he feels the rumble of the subterranean print-presses, he’s missed it! A unique piece of 1960s architecture, the Post and Mail’s offices were a self-contained newspaper production facility.

Before long, the city’s paper vans and distributors would arrive at the offices to collect the evening edition and take Dad’s copy to the VillaWolves and West Brom fans of the Midlands.

This is how it had been since the beginning of his career, almost 10 years earlier. It wasn’t to stay the same.

The Times They Are A-Changin'

An assumption that their writing team would ‘get it’, meant the Mail and Post’s senior management rolled out monochrome screened computers almost overnight.

The following morning, a generation of hard-copy professionals were left bewildered and alienated by this new tool.

Without training or support:

  • The American English based operating system made no sense. Trash?
  • Regular UI upgrades meant interface elements behaved erratically.
  • Inadvertent deletion was common so frustration and content insignificance increased.

An interesting side-effect: complaints about the silence were common. Without the familiar sound of the typewriter, concentration proved difficult.

Even at home, Dad went from a relaxed, confident professional, calmly and proudly dictating his afternoon’s copy over the phone, to a tense figure casting a long shadow across the house as he hunched over the table, waiting to see if his modem connected with the office’s systems. It rarely worked as it should, when it did it was quicker, but Dad was left in an anxious and frustrated state.

Many were left asking ‘so, how does this benefit me?’. To be fair, I don’t think anybody of the time could’ve adequately answered their question. Quickly the Post and Mail’s most important asset, their writing staff, grew disenfranchised and became indifferent towards their work.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom, there were a small number of journalists that thrived and became the goto people for questions. Seeing their chance to shine to senior management, they regularly belittled their colleagues using statements that began with ‘It’s easy, just…’ or ‘Simply…’.

And at home, I wasn’t as supportive as I could’ve been, especially as teenager (and in some ways, an adult too). I was guilty of mocking Dad when he asked for help, so guess what, he stopped asking. I hope this piece goes someway towards an apology.

On all fronts, Dad was left feeling foolish, angry, and frustrated by a situation never resolved.

It’s easy to blame the Birmingham Post and Mail’s senior management for this but the truth is, they didn’t know any better either. As an industry, we are still learning now, 30 years later.

Why share this story?

I’m sharing this with you all so that you can see one story from an innumerable amount; a story of a catastrophic introduction to the world of digital. And also because behind every peevish, frustrated family member, client and/or friend, there’s a story like this. If you really want to prove your worth, allay their concerns.

Dad: I’m sharing this with you to tell you there’s a generation of web designers, developers and business professionals making sure this experience never happens to anyone ever again, ever!

N.B. Today, thanks to good design practices, Dad runs a blog for his band, checks up on me and my siblings’ grammar and spelling via Facebook, and has 8,000 followers (and 1 troll) on Twitter.

Working on the south coast of the UK, you’ll find train commuting a necessity, especially into London. If you commute, it’s up to you what you choose to take from it.

I use it as an opportunity for empirical research through direct observation.

You’ll find that you’ll begin to build empathy for your fellow commuters: what task are they undertaking and how effortless is it? Does it illicit an emotional response and if it does, why do you think that is? You’ll be able to observe these behaviours directly.

These observations will begin to influence your designs and give you confidence to validate your decisions when needed.

Over time you will build up your own library of observations which will influence your genius design.

Everyday activities can offer us great opportunities for supplementing our professional research in realistic and natural environments.