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the good life in a digital age

my second Guardian job

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

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

new wimbledon website and scary strawberries

Wimbledon have a new website for this year’s tournament and one of the most striking things about it is the use of background photography.

On the homepage the background dominates with only a fraction of the real estate taken up by content or navigation. Compared to traditional lets-stuff-everything-on-there homepages this works quite well…depending on the choice of image.

There’s quite a few images being used in rotation but thus far the overhead shots of grass and the shots dominated by blue skies seem to work.

But there’s a few in the mix that I find distracting and not particularly pleasant as backgrounds. I’m not convinced by the ball boys and girls:

The scoreboard is far far too busy:


And the strawberries (of which there are at least two variations) just freak me out:

But I’ll forgive them if they change the blue-sky shots to soggy one when it actually does rain. No Cliff Richard please.


Written by Karen

June 26th, 2012 at 11:29 am

Posted in homepages

leaving the Guardian

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

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

i’d rather have a puppy than an iPad

I remember saying that. “I’d rather have a puppy than an iPad”.

Now I’ve got an iPad and  I still don’t have a puppy. I use the iPad continuously. But I would still trade it in for a puppy without even momentary regret.

There are more side benefits to a dog. I’ll get exercise. I’ll need less heating (all dogs are lapdogs). I’ll need to vacuum less (there are no crumbs with a dog).

Upfront costs range from far cheaper than iPad (rescue mutt) to several times more expensive (Malamute). There are more ongoing costs to a dog but the upgrade timescale is longer. Round my way I think they are both equally at risk of getting pinched.

If I got a puppy, I think there is a reasonably possibility that I might die from the excitement. I’ve been waiting ten years. It’s been a consistent life goal since leaving home (and our dog).

The point isn’t really that I really really want a dog. It’s about trying not to waste money on things that don’t carry that death-from-excitement risk.

I do, of course, value good design but that has a limited value (in the literal sense that there is a limit not that it’s value is low). I won’t pay the premium regardless of what the premium is. I’ll weigh it up against other things of value to me.

My resistance to regular purchasing of expensive gadgetry (robots not included) really comes down to the other wanted things in the back of my head, things that the dog is only one representative of (having the fabled farm, moving somewhere where our neighbours don’t steal our trucks, not being a wage slave…)

I guess my (work) point is, make sure you understand everything the user values.

Written by Karen

April 19th, 2012 at 6:31 am

Posted in dogs,happiness

a decade of 9 to 5

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

why is wireframing our deliverable?

When we reviewed job adverts at the BBC to understand how the market was defining the various UX job titles, the unifying part of information architect job descriptions was creating wireframes. It seems to remain the main deliverable IAs get asked to produce.

But ‘wireframe maker’ is a label that pretty much everyone would deny (except in their most maudlin moments) and it hardly covers the breadth or the essence of what we do.

I’ve been relieved to see a designer producing wireframes, as it (might have) indicated a UX style approach to design. But I’d have been upset if they’d told me my job = wire framing so it was probably a bit perverse to be particularly reassured.

It seems at the moment wireframes are being squeezed by sketching on the one side and prototyping on the other (although I’d argue these are part of same tradition rather than a revolution). But still the wireframes get produced.

So what do they prove?

  • they show a way of thinking: what things, what relationships, what priority, a below the surface layer way of thinking
  • they are a way of communication: one that encourages focus on things+relationship+priorities again, one that helps with building and enables it to begin earlier, and possibly one that invites more collaboration because it says “this isn’t finished”

I don’t think these proofs mean the wireframes are especially necessary, just that these are things that creating wireframes might signify about the person who made them.

Written by Karen

April 17th, 2012 at 6:24 am

Posted in deliverables

putting special stuff in global navigation

Last year I was grumbling about why global navigation isn’t a good promotional tool and how people aren’t *generally* just wandering around the internet going “ooh, what’s that? I have no idea, why don’t I click it and see”.

And then I went to Food52, saw Piglet in their navigation and just had to click on it.

So now I feel I need to justify why this boxed pink piglet is different to all the stupid things I’ve ever had to argue against sticking in the global nav for ‘marketing’ reasons.


I wouldn’t base your navigation designs around my propensity to click on things that imply piglets. Although that does allude to a possible route to success with marketing via navigation. Some words are sufficiently attractive to enough people that sticking them in the navigation will always be successful e.g. “cute kittens” or “pretty women”. If the content you are marketing is said kittens or women then please do carry on.

Other reasons why this works ok:

  • The basic navigation is pretty sensible
  • The piglet is visually different
  • It’s a single item
  • It isn’t in the middle of the other items

(also worth noting that whilst I remember that Piglet did not lead to the piglets I was expecting, I can’t for the life of me remember what it actually does go to)

The BBC is also doing this at the moment for the Olympics but I’m not quite as taken with the approach. The rings do give a bit of visual difference but not enough.  The design was tight on space already so this feels a bit squeezed in.

And I wonder about the need here, especially this early.


Now Radiotimes used to be my favourite example of doing this. I mean, their navigation was always seriously focused. Home, TV, Film, Radio. That’s it! Plus one promotional slot, styled different for a single marketing priority. The discipline involved in getting to such a short navigation and then not stuffing it with other stuff just because there was space is impressive. And then deciding that you’ll pick one and only one priority at a time, also impressive.





Well, I say single. A little part of my inner IA died the day I saw this.

But I accepted it. It is reasonable. It’s two really important shows and they probably don’t want to pick sides.


And then they did this. Live events??? That’s not a big show, it’s not something loads of people are coming to site looking for right at this minute…that’s a vaguely named marketing initiative, probably ‘of strategic importance to the organisation’.



So piglets, yes. This, no.


Written by Karen

April 16th, 2012 at 6:04 am

Posted in navigation

robots or heirlooms. nothing in between.

I like robots and heirlooms and very little in between. Heirlooms are things with a lifetime guarantee; binoculars, cast iron frying pans. Robots I shouldn’t need to introduce. If I need to replace something within a year or two and it isn’t a robot then I’m likely to be a bit sniffy about it.

This attitude can appear as occasional Luddism, cosy catastrophism, or an outbreak of Steampunk.

I really really like this pan.


This pan will never die. I will give it to my grandchildren, assuming I haven’t made use of it as a murder weapon. It is better than non-stick. You’re not supposed to wash it up (so clearly this is a better invention than a dishwasher).

Robots encompasses anything properly futuristic i.e. the sort of stuff that appeared in the sci-fi i read as a child. I’m working on a collection of domestic robots.

It’s my attitude to the things in the middle ground that worries my professional peers. Particularly because that middle ground includes smart-phones. And I design things for phones so it’s an understandable concern.

Phones are the middle ground. Useful, yes. Loveable, no. I was a bit stubborn about getting a smartphone but I also refused to wear jeans or watch Jurassic Park when I was a teenager, so I don’t think it’s a coherent principled position.

My iPad is a perfectly nice consumer product. But it’s Jigsaw not Vivienne Westwood.

Written by Karen

February 24th, 2012 at 6:14 am

Posted in future