The Cobbler’s Child

It’s a common problem for those of us who work on the web: we never seem to have the time or energy to put into our personal sites. This was certainly the case for me — I hadn’t updated the look and feel of my site since 2010 (!), it wasn’t responsive or mobile-friendly, and it no longer particularly reflected what I hope to get out of a personal site. Content-wise, I jettisoned a bunch of the sales-pitchy stuff (I’m not really looking for freelance work anymore) and have turned the focus to my blog posts, which I’ve now finally migrated from Blogger to the more flexible platform of WordPress. Design-wise… well, this cobbler’s child may finally have new shoes, but they are straight off the rack from Payless.  I chose to go, for the time being, with the default “Twenty Seventeen” theme. It’s clean and gets the job done, and I knew that if I started spending time obsessing over the site’s design, I’d never get it launched. So I will go back and customize the design at some point, but for the time being I’ll have plenty of content-related cleanup to deal with (I’ve already found a few broken image links, and I’m sure there are more).

A Tale of Two UXs

One of the many tasks that the modern web professional often finds themselves responsible for is what is known in the business as “user experience,” or UX. While those of us who design websites often tend to think of UX as pertaining specifically to one’s experience with a website’s interface, the godfathers of UX and usability, Don Norman and Jakob Nielsen, propose a more encompassing definition: UX, they write, “encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products.” I recently had two experiences that focused on companies’ websites but highlighted how a website should (or should not) tie into the users overall experience of the company.

The first experience was with a company that not a few people seem to love to hate, Comcast. We had had a lot of problems with our internet service going out, often multiple times a day, and the only way to fix it was to disconnect and reconnect the cable box. We had multiple service calls to address the issue, none of which seemed to actually fix the problem. When the tech failed to show up at one of these service appointments, and Comcast’s idea of how to make it up to us was to give us a coupon for a free on-demand movie that turned out to be expired and was never honored, I was about ready to switch to the only competition in our area, AT&T’s U-Verse. But the holidays were approaching, it seemed like a hassle to switch, and eventually the internet problems seemed to mostly resolve themselves through no apparent intervention by the company.

At that point I was ready to stay with the devil I knew, so when we finally upgraded to an HD TV, I went on Comcast’s website to add HD service to my package… and that’s when their website lost them a customer. Having logged into my account on Comcast’s website, I clicked “upgrade my services,” and was shown a list of available packages. After doing some comparisons between them, I chose one to order. I was then required to live-chat with a customer service rep who would, I was told, ensure that I understood the terms & conditions of the package I’d chosen, etc. As it turned out, the rep informed me, I was not eligible to order the package I had chosen, which was only for new customers. “Then why,” I asked the rep, “was it displayed to me as an available choice?” “Because the website only knows where you are, not whether you’re already an existing customer,” he told me, despite the fact that I had clicked “upgrade my service” from within an existing account. He then proceeded to list a number of packages for which I was actually eligible, but the whole process had already taken 45 minutes and I no longer had the time or patience at that moment to sort through another set of fine print. So I signed off the chat, figuring I’d come back later and do the whole thing over again; when I signed off, however, a customer satisfaction survey popped up. Feeling distinctly dissatisfied, I decided to fill it out and clicked ok… at which point the thing threw a database error, and I clicked over to the U-Verse site and signed up for installation.

Compare that with a recent experience with Grubhub, a site I probably patronize too often for my own good. The site usually works so flawlessly that I almost never have any reason to interact with their customer service, but when I noticed that we no longer appeared to be within the delivery area of one of our favorite Thai restaurants on GH, even though we were well within the are described on their website and could still order delivery via a number of other online services, I opened a live chat with their customer service. Their rep was in many ways the complete opposite of the Comcast rep I had chatted with; he “spoke” in real language, as opposed to Comcast’s carefully scripted and insincere-sounding responses (“We understand your frustration and are sorry for the inconvenience,” etc.) and just generally seemed like an actual human being, while the Comcast guy might not have actually passed the Turing test. It turned out that Grubhub couldn’t help me—only the restaurant can change the delivery area in Grubhub’s listings—but the experience was such that I’m willing to call the restaurant to request that they update their Grubhub delivery area.

Think about that: my experience with the Comcast website and customer service lost them a customer, while with Grubhub my experience has been such that I am willing to do work for them—to help them make more money—for free. It may well be that this is simply a matter of scale: Grubhub is still new, relatively small, and nimble, while Comcast is a bloated former near-monopoly likely trying to integrate dozens of legacy systems, but the fact of it is that providing a positive user experience is at the core of what Grubhub does, rather than something tacked on after the fact, and that this can make all the difference in keeping or losing a customer.

Concealed Carry v. Crime, Part II

Some months ago, I posted a design project that charted changes in violent crime rates versus changes in concealed carry laws. It was pointed out to me that, since many of the categories of violent crime included in the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting tool include attempted crimes (see the UCR’s definitions), it was possible that the negative outcomes in violent crime rates that I noted could have been the result simply of an increase in reported attempted crimes resulting from, for example, victims shooting their assailants.

While this seemed unlikely to me, and while I don’t have time to build additional infographics representing new data, it was worth looking into. The best way to do so, as far as I could tell, was by examining the murder rate, which does not include attempted murders; therefore, the crimes included would be successfully completed crimes that would almost certainly not have otherwise gone unreported. If the negative outcomes in overall violent crime rates were masking what were in fact positive outcomes by way of an increase in the reporting of attempted crimes, then we should see more positive outcomes in states’ murder rates.

Digging into the data (I’ve updated the spreadsheet where I tracked all of this) we do in fact see a slightly higher number of positive outcomes: seven states had positive changes in 5-year average murder rates compared to the change in the national average, as opposed to four positive changes in overall violent crime rates. However, as with the overall violent crime rate, far more states had negative outcomes.


  • National average increased, state average decreased: 2 (FL, OR)
  • National average decreased, state average decreased more: 4 (AK[2], CO, MN, TX)
  • National average increased, state average increased less: 1 (ID)
  • National average decreased, state average increased: 5 (AK[1], AZ, GA, MO, OH)
  • National average increased, state average increased more: 3 (MS, PA, WV)
  • National average decreased, state average decreased less: 13 (AR, KY, LA, MI, MT, NM, NV, NC, OK, SC, TN, UT, VA)
Overall, states that switched from no-issue to shall-issue laws had an average change 15.58 percentage points worse than the national average (compared to an average of 10.13 percentage points worse in overall violent crime rates), while those going from may-issue to shall-issue fared an average of 8.86 percentage points worse (compared to an average of 7.68 percentage points worse in overall violent crime rates). So, if the national murder rate was going up over a given time period, the average state that transitioned to more permissive concealed carry laws saw its murder rate grow faster than the national rate; if the national rate was going down, transitioning states saw their murder rate fall more slowly than the national average. Again, this suggests that more permissive concealed carry laws not only do not prevent murders, they may in fact exacerbate them.
Finally, as before, I looked at how no-issue states’ rates compared to the national average, and in all but two years (1982 and 1999) between 1981 and 2010, the murder rate in no-issue states was equal to or less than the national rate, indicating that the inability for citizens to legally carry concealed weapons does not necessarily encourage more murders.

Design Lab: Concealed Carry vs. Violent Crime

A few years back, after a one-day class with information-design rock star Edward Tufte, I decided to try my hand at creating a complex infographic by charting violent crime rates in different states against a number of variables, including strictness of gun control laws, poverty rate, and diversity. The biggest problem with this attempt was that it contained no temporal index. My father, an ardent gun-rights supporter, suggested that I look instead at how crime rates change after laws prohibiting the carrying of concealed weapons are repealed; the argument from gun-rights advocates, of course, is that if criminals are unsure who might be carrying a weapon then everyone is less likely to be the victim of crime. I decided to take him up on the proposition, and have spent the last year or so working on the graphics displayed below. Little did I know that by the time I was finished with them, the Seventh Circuit would have struck down Illinois’ status as the last state with a total ban on concealed carry or that the nation would be embroiled in a passionate debate over the place of guns within our society after Newtown.

I should state at the outset that my interest in creating these images is less in influencing social policy — I am not naive enough to think that I have much chance in doing that — than in testing my ability to communicate information about large amounts of data. I also recognize that, not being a statistician, there are certainly more sophisticated ways of analyzing the same data that I have examined here; should this post happen to inspire someone with more statistical chops to check my findings, so much the better. All of that said, I think the data I’ve accumulated here (also available in this spreadsheet) speaks pretty powerfully to the question of whether permitting citzens to carry concealed weapons has a deterrent effect on violent crime.

A few notes on sources and terminology: stats on violent crime are easy to find via the FBI, but it is surprisingly difficult to find official information about when changes in gun laws have been made. The closest I could find to a comprehensive survey of changes in concealed carry laws was the cheekily named pro-gun site Radical Gun Nuttery!, which provides a list of dates and a (partial) list of citations for those dates. States are ranked as having concealed carry laws that fall into one of four classifications:

  • no-issue (allows no private citizen to carry a concealed weapon)
  • may-issue (allows concealed carry with a permit that may be granted at the discretion of some local government office)
  • shall-issue (acquiring a permit only requires meeting a predetermined set of criteria)
  • unrestricted (no permit required)
For the first part of this project, I looked at 27 states whose laws changed from either no- or may-issue to shall-issue or unrestricted between 1982 and 2009. Since crime rates can fluctuate from year to year for any number of reasons, I looked at the five years before and the five years after the laws were changed. The graph below shows those changes, along with the national average and, for perspective, four states (Illinois, New York, California, and Vermont) that underwent no changes over that time period.

Aside from a few anomalies (such as Alaska’s increase after going unrestricted or Vermont’s consistent rate over many years), the graph would appear to largely bear out my initial hypothesis that gun laws have little effect one way or the other on violent crime rates — nearly all of the pre- and post-change violent crime rates track closely with the national average, as do the rates of states that underwent no change.
However, I decided to look more closely at the data and compared the five-year average before each state’s change and after with the changes in the national average over the same times. This turns out to be a clearer picture of possible effects of the change in gun laws, and the picture is striking. Only four states appear to have had positive outcomes in relation to the national crime rate, while 23 had negative outcomes.

  • National average increased, state average decreased: 1 (OR)
  • National average decreased, state average decreased more: 2 (KY, TX)
  • National average increased, state average increased less: 1 (PA)
  • National average decreased, state average increased: 6 (AK, OH, CO, MN, TN, UT)
  • National average increased, state average increased more: 6 (MS, ID, FL, GA, MT, WV)
  • National average decreased, state average decreased less: 11 (AR, AZ, OK, MO, NC, SC,  NM, LA, MI, NV, VA)
Overall, states that switched from no-issue to shall-issue laws had an average change 10.13 percentage points worse than the national average, while those going from may-issue to shall-issue fared an average of 7.68 percentage points worse. So, on average, if the national violent crime rate was going up over a given time period, the average state that transitioned to more permissive concealed carry laws saw its violent crime rate grow faster than the national rate; if the national rate was going down, transitioning states saw their crime rate fall more slowly than the national average. This suggests that not only does greater ability to carry concealed weapons not deter violent crime, it may in fact exacerbate it.
Finally, just to make sure limiting my data to five-year averages wasn’t hampering my view in some way, I looked at how no-issue states’ violent crime rates in comparison to the national average over more than two decades. If, as the argument for concealed carry goes, a citizenry without the ability to legally carry concealed weapons is easy prey for criminals, then one would expect no-issue states to have, on average, violent crime rates higher than the national average. In fact, however, as the graph below indicates, the average violent crime rate for no-issue states was consistently below the national average (the weight of the red line indicates the number of no-issue states, while the red dots indicate the distribution of states). Until the sample size shrank to two, the majority of no-issue states had violent crime rates below the national average. Once again, we’re left with evidence that, at the very least, the inability for citizens to legally carry concealed weapons does not necessarily encourage violent crime.

So… what do you think of these graphics? How could they, or the data communicated in them, be improved?

Web Design Project: Niehaus LLP

Earlier this year I launched a redesigned website for Niehaus LLP. The brief from the client, a boutique law firm in Manhattan, was to create a more elegant site that exuded both the legal sophistication expected from a larger firm as well as the personal touch that clients can expect from a small firm. To that end, I designed a logo, reworked the site’s information architecture, and hand-built a new, standards-compliant site.



The Mark of a Good Designer

While listening to Debbie Millman interview Michael Arad, the designer of the World Trade Center memorial, I was impressed by his ability to adapt to his original vision for the project so many requests and requirements that would seemingly conflict with that vision. Designers are constantly complaining about clients who get in the way of designers’ ability to create good work for them; but while listening to Arad I was struck by this aphorism:

“The mark of  a good designer is the ability to create good work for clients who ask you to do bad work.”

What do you think? True or no?

Redesign: TweetChicago

I’ve blogged before about a project at the University of Chicago Law School that we call TweetChicago; it’s a page that aggregates a number of student and faculty tweeters in a single place, to provide the viewer with a snapshot of life at Chicago Law.

After nearly three years of service, it was time for the page to get a facelift. We ditched the HTML/Javascript widget that we had been using to import our Tweeters’ feeds and went with Twitter’s new standard widget, which, unlike the previous version, will actually display retweets, and updated the look a bit.



Law School Project: Mobile Site

(A version of this post is cross-posted at the University of Chicago Law School’s Electronic Projects Blog.)

Today I officially unveiled the Law School’s new mobile-optimized website. Users accessing the Law School’s website from a mobile device (with the exception of iPads) will now be automatically redirected to a version of our website that is specifically designed with mobile users in mind.

It features:

  • A re-imagined information architecture, making it easy to find the information that, according to our research, is what our mobile users are usually looking for.
  • Fewer images and other bells-and-whistles, so pages load more quickly (and with less drain on your data plan).
  • Quick and easy means to find your way to and from the Law School, or to get contact information for faculty and staff.

When developing an institution’s mobile presence, there are many options. You can, for example, build native apps for iPhone, Android, etc., as the University has done; and certainly, there are advantages to that approach. However, given the limited staff for this project and the increasing proliferation of new mobile devices, we wanted to create a mobile presence that would be platform-independent (i.e., viewable on all devices, from iPhones to Droids to Blackberries, etc.). Luckily, the content management system we use for the Law School’s website, Drupal, is flexible, robust, and supported by an incredible community of contributors. By plugging in the Mobile Tools module and a modified version of the Mobile Garland theme, I was able to easily create a mobile site that serves up the same data as our standard site, repackaged in a mobile-friendly fashion.


Earlier this year, while visiting some friends in Greensboro, NC, my wife and I happened across a really nice antique store that was selling old printing press equipment, from type slugs to the cabinets in which they had been stored.

I picked up a few slugs as gifts for designers I know, as well as some for myself, with the idea of doing some sort of project with them (a poster? t-shirts?). So far I’ve just been toying around in Photoshop and Illustrator:

Any brilliant ideas about what to do with these? I’m all ears.