Newcastle makes an impression

I had lunch today with two Americans who, at my suggestion, stopped to spend a few hours in Newcastle on their way from London to Edinburgh. They are not regulars to the UK and had never been to Newcastle before. Walking from the train station toward the castle, one of them looked around and said, “London was wonderful and I marvelled at the architecture, but this really ramps it up a notch.” We took a quick look at the castle from the outside — they had suitcases so I didn’t suggest they go in and struggle with all those steps. We did go into St Nicholas Cathedral (which they loved), and before I left them there and headed home to do some more thesis writing I told them to ask the guide to direct them to Grey’s Monument after that. I’ll look forward to hearing what they thought of that. :-)

His comment reminded me of the time I spent in the Italian region of Le Marche a few years ago. My hosts (several families in sequence) insisted on driving me around to see the area, and every time we rounded a curve and I saw another panorama of hills with a hill town perched atop each one — looking for all the world like a Renaissance painting — I exclaimed, “Oh, che bello!” More than one of my host families told me that my reaction had given them a new appreciation of the place where they lived. After four years in Newcastle I’ve grown used to its beauty, and it felt really good to hear that from someone who was unbiased.

They say that…

They say that writin’ up is hard to do,
Now I know, I know that it’s true.
Do say that this is the end.
Instead of writin’ up I wish that
I could lighten up again…

(with apologies to Neil Sedaka)

OK, now I’d *really* better get that visa

£30 sideboard from British Heart Foundation Furniture & Electronics StoreRotating closure for cabinet doorsI adore used-furniture stores. Whenever I go to the supermarket during the opening hours of the nearby British Heart Foundation Furniture and Electrical Store, I have a wander through, always wishing I needed furniture. Recently I’ve been gladdened to discover that there’s a good-sized one in Cambridge, although I haven’t been in it yet and I don’t know what kind of things it tends to have.

Well. Today they had a hutch whose tag said “£60, now £30”. Hmmm… At today’s exchange rate, £30 is less than $40. Hmmm…

I asked what was wrong with it. “Nothing,” they said; “it’s just been here for several months at £80 and we want to sell it.” It certainly appears to be in good shape. I don’t know how old it is, but that kind of rotating closure (see photo of detail) hasn’t been used in a good while. Plus, the piece is beautiful. So I thought about where I might put it in my Newcastle flat, and then I thought about how I’m looking forward to getting my own furniture that isn’t from IKEA… and then I thought about the prospect of putting down roots in the UK…

And then I bought it.

Only £15 for delivery, and I’ll have it on Monday. Even if it is an imitation, it’s beautiful and in good shape. Next purchase: furniture polish.

I looooooove used-furniture stores. :-)

Update: My cleaner, who used to work at an auction house, looked at it and said it’s a 1980s reproduction. He guessed £80 and agreed with me that it’s in good condition and that £45 including delivery was a good price. So I’m happy.

Thesis title approved and examination team appointed

Today I received a letter from the Graduate School that started:


Dear Elizabeth,

I am pleased to inform you that the University’s Research Degrees Committee has now appointed the Examination Team to examine your thesis and has approved the final title of your submission as:

Exploring Techno-Spirituality: Design Strategies for Transcendent User Experience

It went on to say who the examiners are (I knew this already; my supervisor chose them but he had asked me what I thought and I agreed with his choices) and who the chair will be. The examination chair doesn’t have to be particularly knowledgeable in the subject; it’s more important that they know how an examination should be handled. The chair they appointed is someone I know and like; he’s in social science rather than design, and I think he’ll be fine.

Now to finish drafts of all the chapters and put together draft appendices for the internal panel (due on Sunday) so we can hold my mock viva on the 17th. I’m up to almost 75K words now.

So I’m a foreign employee

This week the news came out that the UK Home Office is considering requiring employers to report the numbers of foreign employees they have. (See news report in The Guardian.) Today I made my first visit to Sigma UK’s headquarters, in Macclesfield (20 minutes by train from Manchester, where I had come to attend the fifth Northern User Experience 2016 conference, NUX5), and we were talking about this. I think, and the boss agreed, that this sounds like a step toward requiring visas for EU workers and that a lot more companies will apply for visa sponsor licences. She said Sigma got their application in before the announcement so we’ve beat the rush, and she thought that getting the licence would be fairly straightforward now. I’ll be glad when things are settled and I can make longer-term plans.

On the other side, it was a great day. I met people I had spoken to but hadn’t seen in person before, and everyone was pleasant and helpful. I learned some more things about the company (part of my induction) and we talked about some ways I can contribute even before things settle down and I can move into a permanent role. It’s all good.

Mock viva set for 17 October

I received an email today from my primary supervisor saying that my “mock viva” has been scheduled for the 17th of October and that I’ll need to get a reviewable draft of all my chapters to the panel no later than the 8th. The mock viva panel are the two people who have done my annual progress reviews, so I’m pleased they could both do this. They know my work and give good feedback.

A mock viva is like a test run of the viva voce exam in which the examiners ask questions about the final submitted thesis and decide on your fate. The mock has two purposes: to give you experience in answering questions of the sort the examiners are likely to ask, and to give you feedback so you can make changes in your thesis to ensure the examiners get your best work. I have been reassured that for the mock the thesis doesn’t have to be polished (or even quite finished), so I will do the best I can by the 8th. I must get my literature review finished this weekend and then write drafts of the discussion and conclusions chapters, which I’ve not started yet (except for notes). Polishing the analysis chapters (of which there are three) can wait until I’ve got some meaningful content in every chapter.

My thesis has to be 75,000-85,000 words long. I’m at about 73,000 now, so it’s going to be tight. As I write, I’m identifying bits I can move into footnotes, endnotes, or appendices, if need be.

Thanks for all your good wishes!

UX Cambridge: A good debut with Sigma UK

I’ve just returned from the UX Cambridge conference, having had a wonderful time. I attended interesting, high-quality presentations and gave two myself that were very well received. I met fascinating people and had exciting, energizing conversations. All in all, a great experience.

My major presentation was a one-hour tutorial on designing for older adults. Titled “Older adults: Are we really designing for our future selves?“, the tutorial discussed the common slogan “designing for our future selves” and teased apart the two types of issues that people face as they age — challenges due to changes in our bodies, and challenges due to unfamiliarity with newer technology — and discussed the implications that those two types of challenges present for the design process. I used examples from my own experience of aging (I’m just shy of 64 now) to illustrate and personalize the issues. For example, I didn’t need reading glasses until ten years later than most people do, and I’m still using a low-power magnification; but I’m probably a little early with the challenge of dexterity and stability of my hands, as I have both mild osteoarthritis and essential tremor. The tutorial elicited a lot of great questions, and the exercises saw lively discussion among the participants. People said (and tweeted) a lot of nice things about it, and I had some great conversations afterwards. The slides are on the Sigma Slideshare.

The other presentation was one of the “lightning talks” that these conferences run at the end of the second day. At one of the talks the first day, I had asked a question and raised some objections based on the answer, so the organizers asked me to do a lightning talk. Rather than speak about that objection (which would have taken me longer to prepare), I spoke against the oft-stated idea that a product “should be usable with no training”. Here are the slides from my lightning talk. The Sigma team are planning a blog post about it, so stay tuned. This talk elicited some great questions as well.

This was my first foray into representing Sigma at professional events, and I’d say it went rather well.

It was also my first visit to Cambridge, and I think I’ll enjoy living there.

Voting in US elections

My UK friends often ask me if I can vote in US elections, since I’ve lived overseas for a while. Yes, I can vote in federal elections forever, unless I’m disqualified for some reason (such as being convicted of a felony or being mentally incapable). My ability to vote in state and local elections depends on my intention to return to the US, and for the first time since I’ve been here I put “my return is uncertain” on my absentee ballot request. (I’ve sorted a job, eh? :-) This means that in the November election I’ll get to vote for president, senator, and congresscritter but not anything at the lower level.

Instead of putting the US voting info in a blog post where it will eventually get buried in the sands of time, I’ve created a page about being an American expat in the UK. Right now all it has on it is voting info, but as I think of other topics I’ll add them.

I have a lot to live up to! :-)

I’m into my second week with Sigma, and on Monday they published a blog post with the news. I wrote the bio (the middle part), and they wrote the first and last bits. I feel really honoured and grateful to be so well thought of, and delighted to be working with such great people. If I weren’t already highly motivated to finish my thesis, the knowledge that I’ll have more time to spend with these folks would put me there. Can’t wait to make this move!

I’m returning to industry — in the UK

A year and a half ago I wrote a post about having decided to return to industry after my PhD instead of trying to stay in academia. I had realized, I explained, that at my age and with my experience I’d find more opportunities in industry — and it would also pay better. Well, I am delighted to announce that my efforts have borne fruit: as of today I have joined Sigma Consulting Solutions Ltd. as a Senior User Experience Consultant. I’m starting on a limited part-time basis while I finish my thesis, and after my Tier 2 General visa comes through I’ll switch to a permanent role in the company. When my three-month probationary period ends, I’ll buy a car and move to Cambridge. My permanent role will have me working three days a week, and I hope to spend the other two doing further research on my PhD topic (with the occasional extra-long-weekend excursion thrown in). I’m savoring the idea of being only an hour from London — close enough to go into the city for an evening event, and much more convenient than Newcastle for flights to (most of) the rest of the world.

This is a wonderful opportunity for me. I’m looking forward to returning “home” to UX consulting and to exploring how I can apply what I’ve learned in doing my PhD. I’m really excited about collaborating with a great group of UX folks who are interested in both my consulting experience and my PhD research. I don’t think I could have asked for better.

I’m also acutely aware that I’m going to miss the North East of England. But this will be arrivederci, not addio; I’ll be back for semi-regular visits. You’ve grown on me, Newcastle.