Mountain biking, misdirection and peanut butter sandwiches

Recently I took part in a 30 mile mountain bike ride. It was quite a challenge and on reflection made me think about not only my cycling ability but also user experience design… naturally!

This post explains how I’ve made the tenuous leap from mountain biking to UX and then to my thoughts on Jared Spool’s lunch.

My DorsetDirt experience


The annual event is a challenging loop around Dorset starting and finishing in Dorchester. Having grown up in the area the route looked pretty straight forward, the ride not too competitive, and on the day the weather was perfect.

I forgot to pick up an OS map before leaving home but made the assumption, based on previous experiences, that on registering for the event I would be given a route map, so wasn’t too worried. On arriving at the start no maps were available, only written instructions. The directions seemed clear but without a map or prior knowledge of the route I couldn’t be sure. I settled on the tactic of following the herd and for the first half of the ride it worked nicely. I simply made sure I stuck like glue to a decent sized group of riders and let them do the navigating.

As I reached the halfway checkpoint it became apparent that I was near the front and the only people leaving were in ones and twos. My plan to follow the herd looked like it might fail. I latched onto the biggest group I could find. At the first junction we stopped and asked each other ‘where next?’ We started making regular little mistakes, so I turned to the instructions for guidance in an attempt to figure it out for myself. Before long the group had split up and I was riding on my own. I was pretty sure I was on the right course but riding alone made my confidence drop.

The last instruction on the sheet before the penultimate checkpoint was to turn down a steep hill towards a Friary. After 2 miles of cycling I realised I had taken a wrong turn. I blamed myself for it and headed back in the opposite direction. After a short distance I met 2 other riders who had made the same mistake. I felt better knowing that I wasn’t the only one. We turned down the next junction we came to and rode for another couple of miles. We soon came across another group of riders all studying the instructions. We were all lost and couldn’t figure out how. Within a couple of minutes 2 more riders turned up from a completely different direction to the rest of us. We were all pretty tired and being so lost was starting to annoy all of us. We were in a steep sided valley and through one wrong turn we were having to ride up and down the valley to find the correct path out which made the ride all the more tiring.

We read back through the instructions one last time and I realised that the instruction to ‘turn right down a steep hill to the Friary’ was actually just a comment ‘there is a right turn down a steep hill to the Friary’. We had all made the same mistake and the error had cost us time and energy and had negatively impacted on our experience.

Clear sign posting

In retrospect my experience had a lot in common with issues I often see people face when taking part in user research.  Each time I made a mistake, however small, I instantly blamed myself and with each error my frustration grew.  I blamed my poor preparation, which in the case of the ride is probably quite fair, but conversely if my preconceptions were commonly held, that preparation wasn’t necessary,  then it should be catered for. An good online example of this is the application for a UK Driving License. It’s a legal document and you’d expect to have to submit some official information, but not necessarily what sort. The first step of the process deals with this well, it clearly explains who can apply and what is need to complete the application.


DirectGov lays out clear instructions at the start

During the ride the errors at first were slight and easily corrected but as the ride progressed my confidence dropped and I had a strong feeling I was the only person that had made mistakes. I’ve witnessed this regularly in usability testing, however much a system is at fault people will often blame themselves and believe that they’re alone in making it. It’s often not until you witness someone else make the same mistake that your confidence is reassured. When I took the wrong turn I felt far more confident when I saw another rider, even if they didn’t know the right way either, at least I wasn’t the only one!

“Any good global navigation scheme should, at a glance, answer the top three questions every user has at the back of their mind.” Derek Powazek

The lack of a route map wasn’t the only problem, the route wasn’t sign-posted either which meant even when you were on the right track there was still a sense of uncertainty. Derek Powazek in his A list Apart post ‘Where am I?‘ explains that for navigation to be successful it needs to answer 3 questions:

  1. Where am I?
  2. Where can I go?
  3. Where have I been?

Without the reassurance of clear sign-posting I became paranoid that if I needed to, I wouldn’t be able to find my way back and although ultimately I completed the ride and was therefore successful in completing my task I had more work to do to get there. The extra effort wasn’t necessary and negatively impacted on my overall experience.

My diminished experience wasn’t the fault of the organisers, they did a great job, they just hadn’t necessarily taken context into account. After 20 miles or so a lot of people would have been tired and hungry, and if they weren’t familiar with the course their chances of going wrong would be increased. When mentally and physically tired its far easier to make a mistake, especially if in my case it looks like the easier option!

Lessons learnt

In summary, there are 5 lessons that can be learnt from my experience and applied to web design:

  1. Understand your users preconceptions
    What preconceptions will your users have of your service or product? If they don’t match make sure its clearly communicated to the user.
  2. Instructions are only needed if the journey isn’t intuitive
    Optimise the interface and make sure instructional text is only used when absolutely necessary.
  3. Make sure each step of the way is clearly sign posted
    Where am I? Where do I go next? How do I get back to where I started?
  4. Consider the context
    Accessing a website at home in a comfortable environment with no distractions is a totally different experience to accessing the same site in a busy work environment or on the move via a mobile device.
  5. And lastly, provide free tea and biscuits at the end In other words make sure the finish-line is obvious and if there is no direct reward (e.g. a successful purchase) make sure there is a sense of completion or achievement.

Peanut butter and Jelly sandwiches

In writing this post I was reminded of a workshop technique that Jared Spool wrote about a while ago on the UIE blog which helps to illustrate the importance of clear instructions. In my next blog post I’ll be looking at Jared’s techniques and the use of instructions within web design.

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Footage of snowboarding in Whistler (part 1)

Back in 2007 I traveled to Whistler (British Columbia) with a bunch of friends for a spot of snowboarding. We had an amazing trip and some of the best conditions snow we’d ever experienced. I shot a whole load of video footage and made a promise to edit the footage together as soon as we returned. Over 2 years later and I’m only just fulfilling it!

I’ve been really struggling to put something together so I decided to break the footage down by rider and create individual movies, that way each of my traveling companions would stop hassling me one at a time. So here’s the first of the films:

Rider: Stu ‘The Councillor’ Cox

Although we were in a group of 10 I’ve probably only got enough footage for 3 or 4 films so I won’t be inflicting too many on the World. The footage isn’t great and I’m a rubbish editor but I always find the experience enjoyable.

Vaguely related links

If you’re a glutten for punishment you can watch some of my other snowboarding films thanks to YouTube:

Bournemouth surf – Monday 27/04/2009

Surprise waves at Bournemouth Pier again this evening so I thought I’d take a few photos. These were all taken using my iphone and then mucked about with using iPhoto. Once again my fingers are crossed that this will still be around in the morning but it’s doubtful.

Bournemouth surf – Thursday 26/03/2009

I thought it was about time I included some surf related stuff into my blog seeing as its called Short Bored Surfer and in 3 months I haven’t mentioned surfing once! So here are some photos from a season I missed out on last week. The photos were taken using my iPhone so not the best quality.

Feeling the crunch in Avoriaz

I’ve loved snowboarding since the first day I tried it back in 1998 whilst studying at Bath Spa University. A bunch of us, including Ian Jones, Steve ‘Buzz’ Pearce and Torie Clarke, made the trek across to Gloucester dryslope for weekly lessons to prepare ourselves for our first trip to Meribel (part of Le 3 Vallees area) that winter.

I wish my French was good enough to know what this marked

Since that trip I’ve only ever missed 1 season, the year Deepend closed it doors, and I was the moodiest person around and promised myself I wouldn’t miss out again.

This year was no exception. We sacrificed going on a big group trip with friends to give Jen a chance to progress and it was well worth it as she did a great job improving, even though she probably wouldn’t agree with me!

We decided to leave booking a trip to the last minute in an attempt to save money but I soon learned that wasn’t necessarily the best idea this year as according to one of my clients, a large national insurance company. Apparently travel companies have booked up to 80% less trips than previous years so there just hasn’t been the surplus this year to fuel the last minute deals.

In the end our best option was to book everything independently. We managed to get relatively cheap SleazyJet flights from Bournemouth to Geneva with a transfer (thanks to ResortHoppa) to Avoriaz in the French Alps, right on the Swiss border. We’d been to Morzine, the neighbouring resort the previous season with friends but this was my first opportunity to really explore the area.

The accommodation

Résidence Maeva Antarès was fantastic for the money. A newly built hotel overlooking Avoriaz with ski-in and an awesome view to boot.

A room with a view

A room with a view


Although it hadn’t snowed for over a week the conditions were great. There wasn’t much in the way of off-piste boarding but there was plenty to keep me amused, not least The Stash, care of Burton Snowboards. I can’t wait to revisit the area again soon and hopefully next time there will be fresh pow to keep us entertained.

Vaguely related links

Weekend walk in the Blackmore Vale

On the weekend we joined some friends for a walk around the Blackmore Vale, in North Dorset. Although I’ve lived in Dorset for the majority of my life I’ve never hiked around this area before. It was both incredibly striking and incredibly cold! We were able to take in 2 prehistoric hill forts during the walk, Hambledon Hill and Hod Hill.

The views were amazing and I learnt a few things about the history of my home county including the story of the Dorset Clubmen, who played a little known part in the Civil War. The Clubmen were “countryfolk who resented the ‘un-natural’ Civil War and had grown weary of the battles between Cavaliers and Roundheads, and the depredations of the soldiers of both sides which damaged their lands and ruined the crops”. It made me smile to see that even though they were outnumbered and poorly equiped they still didn’t take the hint; “they took a battering wherever they defended their land.” At their final stand at Hambledon Hill they were soundly beaten by Cromwells forces, the few that managed to avoid the usual ‘battering’ were soon caught and locked up in the village church. The next morning Oliver Cromwell decided that they were ‘poor silly creatures’ and after lecturing them sent them home!

I’d strongly recommend a visit to the Blackmore Vale and far more importantly a visit to The Cricketers in Shroton.

Vaguely related links