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an industry of hornbeam

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I’m walking through our garden. There’s normal garden stuff: trees, shrubs, patio, table and chairs, a washing line. Not much lawn but that’s down to the chickens.

But all about there are also the signs that an (untidy?) craftsman works here.

A cleaving brake in the veg bed, a pole lathe that is fighting a losing battle with Boston Ivy, a shave horse sheltering under the jasmine, a persuader that has rolled under the rhubarb, chopping blocks next to the path, a saw horse that has perhaps seen better days.


All around there are remnants, waste, bits in need of a purpose: saw dust, wood shavings, cleaved sticks, trimmed ends, rejected twigs.

There are finished products too. Gate hurdles to protect the crops from pecking chickens and stampeding puppies. Woven hurdles screening compost and covering gaps in the fence. Beanpoles and pea sticks in the vegetable beds. Oak shingles on the wood shed and some spares in it. Firewood and kindling. Charcoal in bags in the shed.


It’s a strange sight in this urban garden although the neighbours are equally baffled by the chickens and even the normal horticultural stuff.

It stops people in their tracks when they stumble across Iain at work in the woods. We don’t think of woodlands as places of work, except maybe in the sense of industrial scale forestry in Canadian pine forests. Finding a lone guy with a pile of sticks and a billhook is a curiousity.

Our wood has ponds the agent claimed are ancient earthworks. Whatever the truth of that, it is unmistakable from the shape of the trees that sometime last century someone else worked these woods.

Woods were places of work and tools just as farms and cities are.

Written by Karen

July 23rd, 2013 at 2:57 pm

Posted in craft,past,woods,work

my second Guardian job

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After working in the Guardian library I started my MSc at City. To pay the bills I worked on the Guardian website at night. The website wasn’t run out of the main Farringdon road office but from an attic in Ray Street, accessed via what seemed like a goods elevator.

I written about the pleasures of night shifts before, and my abiding memory of this time is the beautiful, out of this world taxi rides home along embankment through an empty city.

The Guardian was also responsible for my only (brief) spell of vegetarianism. One shift I was charged with sifting through images of burning cows to add to the Foot and Mouth special report. Following that with a walk home past fast food shops and their waft of burgers was a bit too much.

I cracked a few months later, roasted a chicken and ate pretty much the whole thing.

Both the best and worst night shift ever was the night of the US election. Instead of the night shift being the usual mundane whirr of hacking the daily paper into a website, it was how I felt a newsroom should be. Realising around 3am that George Bush was the next US president was not so uplifting.

At the same time, my friend Sally was working on one of the Guardian’s digital experiments, the weblog.



That coincidence meant that in autumn 2000 I covered for her whilst she was on holiday and allows me to annoy Martin with having blogged before him.

It was also the first time I was required to look at porn for work, as my stint coincided with Richard Desmond buying Express newspapers and the weblog editor wanted us to link to one of his *other companies* but one that wouldn’t cause too much upset.

So stint two was memorable for Richard Desmond, burning cattle and George Bush. And for the realisation that these websites need a lot of organising.



Written by Karen

August 29th, 2012 at 6:42 am

Posted in guardian

my first Guardian job

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So I’ve left the Guardian again.  Maybe it’s a sign of age but I’ve been thinking more about my previous jobs at the Guardian than the last 2 years.

I began my first stint at the Guardian in the last century (just). The role was a library trainee. During the interview it was casually mentioned that the rota for Millennium new year had already been completed and the successful candidate would have the pleasure of working new years day. So my century began in the Guardian office, with a hangover and a sense of being hard done by.

The interview day had kicked off with a general knowledge quiz in which I was fine with the names of shadow cabinet members but only knew half of “who are Barak and Mubarak?”. Later we had a group interview. It was not as terrifying as I’d assumed, for the depressing reason that seeing other people give terrible answers reassures you that at least you didn’t say that. The individual interview was memorable too, not least for the question “how do you cope with boring work”.

I got the job and moved to London to live with my grandparents which added a surreal air to it (my grandad would warm my gloves in the morning before I went to work).

In the mornings we filed newspaper cuttings. In the afternoon we checked the automatic feed for the digital archive, shifting bylines out of standfirsts and reintroducing ampersands where they’d been garbled.

The electronic archive interface, 2001


Sometimes a journalist would come by. Only Gary Younge left a good impression.

There was the odd side project, sifting through microfiche for original serialisations of Dickens novel or contemporary World War Two reports. Absorbing, hypnotic stuff.

We answered enquiries from the readers, tracking down articles from just the flimsiest of recollections. Going further than we were supposed to made the work into something more akin to a game. I still remember the lovely surprised thank-you letter from a reader when we sent him a copy of an old Telegraph article that he’d remembered as being in the Guardian.

By the time I left, I’d learned the surnames of all the Spice Girls, developed a fleeting interest in football, and had an invaluable body of knowledge about personal finance. Most things are interesting once you read about them everyday.

I’d also made contact with the fledgling Guardian Unlimited team, which turned out to be more useful than the Spice Girls and the football but arguably less useful than the finance.

I never worked in a library again but I still feel on some deep infrastructure level that I am a librarian.



Written by Karen

August 28th, 2012 at 6:40 am

Posted in guardian

leaving the Guardian

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The end of my second stint at the Guardian is nearly here. I’ll be  finishing a few things off over the summer and then moving on.

I’ll remember this stint for my ‘3 users a week’ user testing, setting up the product voices panel, and testing a prototype I made with Xcode. The kind of work that is being taken to a whole different level by Craig Spencer, now heading up the Guardian’s UX research.

The best times were more fun than any other time in my 12 year career.

I’m not leaving a purple dog-filled office this time, although it’s not often you get art galleries in the office basement. Grayson Perry’s Map of Nowhere is quite good for IA inspiration at the moment.

It’s been a gift working with  Martin, Lynsey & Alastair: sketching in Camley Street Nature Reserve, munching our way through Eat.St and drinking/goose watching by the canal.  I’m very very sad that our little UX team is dispersing but I suspect I’ll work with them all again on other things.

Things to take away this time:

  • nothing beats working with developers who can build it *better* than you drew it
  • you must always stick things on the walls
  • it’s amazing how fast you can get stuff done if you don’t ask if you can do it

Written by Karen

June 18th, 2012 at 6:02 am

Posted in guardian

on degrees

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I have two degrees. I’ve carried on studying with Open University. My degrees helped me get specific jobs. I love studying. I’m still fascinated by some of the stuff I studied at universities and I’m still inspired by some of my lecturers.

But. I’m not convinced I couldn’t be in a very similar role, earning similar amounts of money, without the degrees.

I’ve worked with plenty of people who have taken alternative paths. And those of us with degrees have all got wildly different degrees so it can’t be the subject matter that matters.

There must be other things I could have done with 4 years and the money spent that might well have made up for the lack of certificate.

Most of the non-graduates I’ve worked with have perceived their career paths blocked by their lack of a degree. I once knew a VP of a billion dollar multi-national who felt hampered by his lack of a degree. He was hardly hampered from where I was sitting.

It will certainly be true that specific roles will not be open to non-graduates, although many (good ) employers are increasingly relaxed about their academic requirements. But that doesn’t mean you’ll do worse overall, and it might even save you from damaging your career by working for a bureaucratic, old-fashioned employer who isn’t clear what qualifications their employees actually need to do a good job.

Even if we know graduates earn more, we don’t know they earn more because they are graduates.

Written by Karen

April 20th, 2012 at 6:20 am

Posted in career

a decade of 9 to 5

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My first job was 10.30 to 6.30. The ‘late’ start was so we trainees didn’t have to be paid enough to travel peak. It suited me too as I don’t approve of waking up already under pressure about the imminent need to leave the house. I also don’t approve of rush hour. It seems perverse and deeply inefficient to have us all try to use the transport network at the same time. That same job also involved weekend shifts, sometimes for overtime, sometimes for weekdays off. The weekdays off were incredibly useful, not least because parcel delivery services don’t seem to have noticed that houses haven’t come with built-in housewives for about 50 years.

My next job was 8pm to 2am (yes 8pm at night), up to four nights a week. People generally seem horrifed at the prospect of night shifts but I quite enjoyed it. I commuted in the opposite direction to everyone else and we got sent home in taxis (an amazingly quick and uplifting journey, along the Thames in the middle of the night). We went home when the job was done so everyone in the team mucked in to get it finished, skipping breaks and damaging my eyesight.

As this was technically an evening rather than a full-on night shift it was surprisingly undisruptive.  I kept student hours, in bed at 2.30, up at midday and with the afternoons to do as I pleased. I was also in-sync with my family on the east coast of the US. It wasn’t great for my social life but that saved me money. And the need to crash out when I got home meant that I ditched the caffeine habit.

Since then I’ve had a decade of proper grown-up jobs, always loosely based on 9-5, 5 days a week with occasional time off for good behaviour. I’ve settled into a habit of spreading my annual leave throughout the year rather than taking it in chunks of a week or so, in an attempt to replicate the useful daytimes at home. But I’ve not been able to do much about the 9-5, especially with the current popularity of agile.

This isn’t a straightforward matter of larks and owls. Homeworkers tend to report unusual working patterns. I find when I work from home I tend to work in two chunks, one starting early morning and one starting late afternoon with a long break in the middle.

Even in flexi-time environments, 9-5 remains the norm, with small deviations from this accepted but still very much considered deviations. And flexi-time is generally considered an employee perk not a business benefit.

Managers generally believe in the 9-5 because their lives are so meeting heavy, it is necessary for them to be present in the same time slots as most other people are. The constant challenge of finding times when people are available to talk can make it seem that this is a) a universal problem and b) an important problem. It isn’t really either.


Written by Karen

April 18th, 2012 at 6:02 am

Posted in work

ux themes in ‘Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love’

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Marty Cagan ran a product management workshop for us yesterday and I spent some of this morning reading Inspired: How To Create Products Customers Love. The workshop was based around his top product mistakes.

My background has often blurred the line between product manager and UX person, and I was interested to hear some tension(?) at London IA last month about IAs being perceived as claiming product management territory.

Inspired is mostly a practical, sane book exploring familiar (to me!) problems. It deals with UX a lot and is definitely worth reading if you are working in an environment that has both UX and product manager roles.

Marty suggests (p6) that the right ratio of roles to have is one product with:

  • one product manager
  • ½ interaction designer/information architect
  • â…› visual designer
  • 5-10 developers

He sees 4 ux roles, which maybe be separate individuals or not (p18)

  • interaction design (deep understanding of users, tasks, flows, navigation, wireframes)
  • visual design (precise layouts, colours, fonts, emotions)
  • rapid prototyping
  • usability testing

There’s some supportive stuff about the timing of UX work (p117)

  • UX work should be done before implementation,
  • using a sprint zero approach, maybe one or two sprints ahead for an agile team.
  • need to give UX team some (but not loads) of time and space to research and design

Some good advice for working in large organisations (p170) and with your manager (p63)

  • measure and plan for changes in plans
  • conduct the real meeting before the official meeting
  • be low-maintenance to your manager (use someone else as your mentor)
  • learn how decisions are actually made in your organisation
  • do skunk works projects/seek forgiveness not permission
  • build relationships before you need them

Other interesting points

  • doesn’t recommend outsourcing interaction design because it takes time to develop the deep understanding of the users, they need to be on hand throughout the project and UX is just too core to the business. (p19)
  • recommends that Product should be “organizationally on par with engineering and marketing” and that ideally Product should include the UX team (p53)
  • recommends high fidelity prototypes as the product spec (p113)
  • product manager should attend every usability test (p133)

Written by Karen

March 30th, 2011 at 2:55 pm

Posted in ucd,work

back to the Guardian

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The Guardian was my first job out of university.  I’m back 10 years later and the office is a whole lot shinier and is also closer to my house. So far, so good.

I’ve been surprised at how pleased I am to be getting back to the media.  I think it’s the culture of trying new things, of  exceptionalism and something about being engaged with the outside world.

But the very, very exciting bit is I get to work with Martin again.

On the downside the dogs in office count is likely to be zero.

Written by Karen

February 21st, 2011 at 6:38 am

Posted in guardian,work

the obsession of The Story

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The Story was a satisfying and intriguing day out. Chatting to @lynsey_s in a break, we reflected that it felt different to the usual speaking events we get to go to.

(although I’ve not been to much in recent years…my charity days have been focused on very tangible tactical events on topics like RFID and SharePoint).

The eclectism of The Story is often present at web/ux events and many of the topics were familiar but there was something else. There was a continuous sense of being exposed to depth, detail and obsession. these speakers were talking about things they’d been doing for years and years (often every day of those years).

Updated: I think Phil Gyford’s comments about his presentation fit with my impressions:

“It turns out that I need to run a website on a very specialised topic for eight years before I’m in a position to feel confident talking about it.”


Written by Karen

February 19th, 2011 at 10:06 am

Posted in events

leaving RNIB

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The Web Strategy Programme of work that I’ve been working on at RNIB has been completed and in the current climate there’s not likely to be big new web projects coming up. So it’s time for something new.

It’s tough times in the sector and it looks like I won’t be replaced with another IA.

I’m probably never going to work in an office quite as purple again.

RNIB Judd Street

And it’s really unlikely I’ll work in an office with this many dogs again (and that makes me very, very sad). I’m also disappointed that I won’t see the new online library through to launch.

Things to take away:

  • sight loss is something that happens to lots and lots of people as they get older. Accessibility is just as much about partially sighted users.
  • don’t do large scale customisations of commercial software (knew this already but seem to need reminding)
  • proper lunch breaks, with nice people sat round tables eating nice food are a wonderful thing

Written by Karen

February 18th, 2011 at 6:06 am

Posted in rnib