One year to go

- April 9th 2012

With an almost unbelievable inability to sleep on planes (even when armed with very potent sleep gels!) I spent my 30+ hour journey home from New Zealand putting more thought in to my half-baked plans to move there.

That was almost a year ago, in May 2011. For the rest of that year, I happily chirped on about how I wanted to move to the southern hemisphere once I had finished my degree. My tutor and I worked out a way for me to complete my studies by January 2013, leaving me free to tie up loose ends at work before making the epic move.

It’s still my plan to move away, but from pretty much the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Day, everything seemed to become a bit more ‘real’. A bit more real and, dare I say it, a bit more… scary!

Instead of saying I had “about two years” and, later, “another 18 months” until I moved away, now when people ask me when I’m planning to move, I admit that my throat goes a bit tight as I reply: “this time next year.”


Not much has changed for me since I last blogged, months and months ago. There have been hikes and bike rides and dates which haven’t come to much. I feel as though I’m living in a bit of a no-man’s land at the moment, just waiting until next year: I was lusting after a new road bike, but didn’t want to buy something else I would later have to sell, or have shipped, or do something (what?) with. I flit between being happy on my own and quite wanting a boyfriend, but again am in a tricky spot: I don’t particularly want to find my future husband in Newcastle when I’m planning to move 20,000 kilometres away next April.

One thing I have always done, from being about 9 years old, is go horse riding. I’ve always understood the huge commitment owning a horse requires, which is why I never have! However this year, I thought it would be good for me to get out riding a bit more: afterall, who needs to go on a date when they’ve got three wheelbarrows full of poo to scoop up?! I decided to look in to getting a horse on part-loan, meaning I would care for and ride it a few days each week by arrangement with the owner. Happily, there was an owner at my yard who was looking for someone to share her horse, a lovely chestnut mare. I’ve been part-loaning her for a few weeks now and we’re just getting to know one another a bit better. As well as being good fun (and good exercise!) I figure it’s another string to add to my bow for moving away: I could always do a bit of graft in a riding stables if my plans for a marvellous career in communications don’t quite work out!

As well as my hiking club, I’ve joined a new club full of people into climbing, and mountain biking, hiking and camping and all sorts of other things. I go climbing with them a fair bit (and to the pub, too) which is fun. The club is affiliated with the British Mountaineering Council and, if you’d like to try a club yourself, this handy search tool on the BMC website will help you find clubs in your area.

University is ticking along well: really I just want it all to be over now! I’m still on-track for first-class honours so am hoping and trying not to mess that up. By the end of this semester I’ll have one module and my dissertation to do before 4.5 years of slog will finally come to an end. I get to start my dissertation over the summer, too, so be prepared for lots of moaning about that!

As this is the first time I’ve posted in 2012, I should point out that this year is another Year of Adventure. This time it’s “The Year of Adventure 3: it’s not just a year, it’s a way of life!”.

A bit of a mouthful I’m sure you’ll agree! Happy adventuring all

x E

A bold new brand: when poor communication makes a bad situation worse

- December 16th 2011

(Unfortunately, this is not a nice blog post about hiking, knitting or cake. If that’s where your interests lie, please excuse me for now and be sure to call back within within the next few days for outdoorsy, woolly and cakey updates. I promise: we did Helvellyn last weekend and I’m hosting a Christmas Crafternoon tomorrow. I will take photos!)

I like to think I’m a pretty easygoing kind of girl. Generally speaking, I can shrug off poor service and bad behaviour with a couple of minutes of incredulous muttering. I struggle to understand people who choose to complain about every little injustice they are served: it seems futile to get yourself all riled up over things that, in the grand scheme of things, don’t really matter very much at all. However, this week I’ve felt compelled to complain to my university and NatCen Social Research (“Britain’s leading independent social research organisation”) following what I believe to be a breach of the Data Protection Act by the former and repeated unsolicited contact by email, letter and telephone by the latter.

The saga started on Tuesday afternoon when I received two phone calls in as many minutes to my personal mobile phone from an unidentified caller. Thinking “call centre” I ignored the first. Fearing “police or hospital about improbable family tragedy” I answered the second.

By chance I was actually in university at the time, albeit in a loud cafe queuing for a cup of tea. I could hear the caller asking “Emily? Emily?” as I made my way to a quieter corner. I confirmed that yes, it was Emily speaking. The caller identified herself as a caller from NatCen, and asked had I received an email from them about the Student Income and Expenditure survey which was being conducted by NatCen “on behalf of the Department for Education,”.

I asked which address the email had gone to. She told me it would have gone to my university address. I told her that I barely check that account, and would most likely have deleted the email without reading it. She asked had I received their letter. I said not that I could recall. It turns out I had received their letter, but due to my (admittedly unusual) habit of only opening exciting-looking post on the day I receive it and saving the dull stuff until the next weekend, when I can be bothered to deal with it, I had yet to read it.

Most likely realising she had drawn the short straw with my phone number, she asked if I wanted to take part in the survey on the phone, or online. There was no question of whether or not I actually wanted to take part.

Starting to feel more than a little annoyed and wanting to enjoy my cup of tea without someone harping on in my ear being over familiar (it’s Miss Lawty to you, thanks very much), I told the caller that I would complete the survey online. She asked if I had a pen and paper. I rifled through my handbag for a ballpoint, grumbling. She gave me a web address and unique password - both of which I took great pains to copy down incorrectly - and began to tell me about the survey.

“[It] is in two parts,” she said. “The first part is a series of questions. For the second part, we are asking you to keep a diary of what you spend over the next seven days.”

Cough. Pardon?

“Absolutely not,” said I. “I’m not happy to do that, at all. I’m not a full-time student. I don’t receive any funding from the government, and it’s absolutely none of their business what I spend my money on.”

In fairness to the caller, she didn’t put up a fight. I ended the call.

I sat with my cup of tea, scowling. Some people might not mind keeping a spending diary. To be honest, I wouldn’t really mind people knowing what I spend my money on, but keeping a note of every transaction I make for seven days seems such an insurmountable chore, and to what end? So that David Cameron (who I saw described on Twitter, brilliantly, as “a naan bread with a side parting”) can say that students have plenty of money, actually, so let’s put fees up by another few grand? Surely, any spending diary kept in the week before Christmas would not provide an accurate portrayal of any person’s spending habits, anyway.

I went to my lecture. I considered filling NatCen’s precious spending diary with fictitious transactions (Expenditure: £300 on accommodation for a week’s stalking Kirstie Allsopp. Income: £50 for turning tricks at the ferry port at North Shields) but thought no, that would be childish and petty. Instead I checked my university email address. As expected, NatCen’s email languished in my deleted items folder, unread. An earlier email from them had suffered the same fate.

(I should point out that I don’t delete every email I get, just the vast majority. I do take notice of mail I receive from my lecturers and classmates, and from the library, too.)

Seeing the emails sparked my memory. I’d received the same one to my personal email address, too. My spam filter had caught it and deleted it: I remembered seeing that subject line in my trash folder. Most likely, there had been another before it, too.

I grew increasingly annoyed. Three (or four) emails, and a phone call? NatCen had obviously been given my contact details by my university, York St John. I considered contacting them publicly through Twitter. I opted not to. I told myself it was no big deal and headed home. I live a good 50 miles from my university so had plenty of time to get all steamed up about it on the drive home.

The next day I took to the internet. Not to spout off on Twitter but to complain formally to York St John about their decision to release my personal details to a third party organisation without my knowledge. I looked for a ‘complaints’ link and found nothing. I looked under ‘information for students’ and found nothing related to complaints, but a brilliantly useful document entitled “Student Confidentiality Policy (Contact by 3rd Parties)” which basically provides the university with enough rope to hang itself. Frustrated, I turned to the website’s search feature, looking first for “COMPLAIN” and then “COMPLAINTS PROCEDURE”.

The search did not result in a handy webpage complete with useful contact details as I had hoped, but instead provided me with a list of Word documents which I had to open and read individually. Luckily, I use iWork with Pages, which can open Word documents: the accessibility of the documents would have been greatly improved had they been PDFs.

I found an email address, hammered out my complaint, and pressed send.

On Thursday morning as I was drying my hair before work, I had a vision of an envelope with the NatCen logo on it. I galloped downstairs and recklessly broke my only-exciting-letters-midweek rule, locating the envelope in my basket o’ post. The letter explained the survey. It offered a £20 gift voucher for taking part. It told me that NatCen had received my contact information from university. I fumed.

Again logging on to my university email address, I prepared to send a second email to York St John: in my first email I complained about them giving my personal email address and phone number to NatCen. I wanted to submit a second, berating them for releasing my home address, too.

I was quite calm. I had shiny hair and a glass of Tropicana, after all. There was an email from Microsoft Outlook sitting in my inbox re: the email I’d sent the day before. The email address I’d sent it to, Outlook told me, did not exist.

That’s when things turned bad. I work in the public sector, I know what it’s like. People complain a lot, often about things most people wouldn’t even blink at. On the other side of the coin, there are who people definitely have something to complain about. I personally take great care in making sure all of our contact information, complaints procedures and any other feedback forms are as easy as possible to find on our site. It’s tricky, because the site is controlled by an inflexible content management system and information must be sorted using the Local Government Category List. You’ll never get it right for everybody, but chances are, making complaints procedures and contact information easy to find can make a complainant less annoyed. Making it hard to find and not bothering to check the contact details you giver out will make the situation worse.

I emailed York St John again, explaining the rigamarole involved in finding the correct contact details. I received no confirmation of receipt which I admit I had not asked for, but would have thought a logical response to my complaints. I casually mentioned their breaching the Data Protection Act on Twitter, once or twice. It took some time, but the person behind the university Twitter account emailed me (I think they should have contacted me through Twitter, as that’s how I contacted them, but I’ll let that one slide) asking who I had complained to and offering to chase things up: lovely. I tweeted my thanks and shortly afterwards I received another email from the university, apologising for the trouble I’d had finding the appropriate contact details on their site and assuring me that someone would be in touch.

I have also lodged a complaint with NatCen. That was almost 24 hours ago and I’m yet to receive any sort of acknowledgement from them. Again, I understand that you can’t go round holding people to ransom and demanding replies within short timescales, but even an automated confirmation of receipt would have put a bit of a halt to my gallop.

On exploring NatCen’s website I discovered their Twitter feed. Most of their tweets publicise their work - fair enough. One of their tweets invites followers to “check out our bold new brand”. Annoyingly, despite both tweeting to plug a new blog post published that morning, neither @NatCen nor their Chief Executive @PennyYNatCen have bothered to respond to the question I tweeted to them late last night, asking how they were paying for the £20 Amazon vouchers they’re offering to students taking part in the survey. Hopefully they’re sponsored in some way and are not being paid for by our allegedly cash-strapped government.

I’ve attached copies of my complaint emails to both York St John at NatCen below. I tried to remain objective but did allow myself a few ‘crazy-lady’ indulgences.

So, NatCen: your brand can be as bold as you can make it, but if you refuse to acknowledge complaints or queries from your customers, it’s worthless.

Copies of complaint emails

What a difference a wiggle makes

- October 17th 2011

Townsville House logo with static hand

I work in a social care department which provides services for both adults and children, and it’s my job to come up with ways of communicating with our different client groups.

Over the summer I began to get involved with a new project. The manager of a home providing short breaks for children with challenging behaviour wanted to produce good-quality information about the home which she could distribute to existing and potential clients.

I knew that this would not be a straight forward, quick project. The home provides care for both boys and girls aged from 5 to 17 years, all of whom have quite profound communication difficulties. Anything I produced would need to be understood by and of benefit to children and families already attending the centre, and those families considering using the centre’s services.

My manager and I met with staff and the children at the centre on several occasions. A shared interest between all of the children was, of course, the computer room. After several discussions we decided the best way forward was for me to produce a website-style information pack which we could load on to memory sticks for distribution. The kids’ part of the site would be bright and colourful and very interactive, utilising sound and animation to help convey messages to the children. A more straightforward ‘grown-ups’ section would provide essential information to parents and carers.

I was very keen to develop a logo for the site (referred to here as ‘Townsville House’ - not its real name). The children at Townsville House are fond of the centre and the people who work there, and I felt it was important to convey that to families considering using the centre. I thought that a badge-style logo could help foster a feeling of belonging, almost like a club logo. The finalised logo could of course also be used alongside our corporate brand on other forms of communication.

Wanting to give the children the opportunity to be involved with and take some ownership of the project, I designed a simple circular frame (with a banner for text) as an outline for the logo. I sent this image to support staff at the home and asked them to encourage the children to create their own logo for Townsville House, with the understanding that Emily might have to make some small changes to it to make it “computer-friendly”.

The winning design, coloured with pencil, was of a waving hand. Letters spelling out the word ‘hello’ were written across the hand’s five fingers. I set to work creating a rough draft on the computer:

I wasn’t overly happy with the end result. While the child’s hand-drawn version looked cheery and welcoming, I felt my interpretation was giving the message “keep back!”.

Thinking I may have been reading too much in to it I trotted to my manager’s desk, laptop in hand, and showed her the logo. She felt the same.

We talked about ways I could change it and whether colour or moving the name banner would make much difference. We reconsidered the other logos the children had sent. We were disappointed to have reached a stumbling block: I wanted to create a thick black outline version of the winning logo so that it was in keeping with the rest of the site and clearer to those with visual impairments. However, my draft logo looked plain unfriendly:

Townsville House logo with static hand

“How about…” I said, selecting the pen tool and marking out a bezier curve around the index finger of the hand on the logo. “Adding some wiggles?”

I quickly added a second line, curving close to the first. I repeated the curves around the thumb, and close to the pinky finger.

My manager looked a bit confused. “As though it’s waving?” I thought out loud.

I coloured the lines black to match the outline of the hand. We couldn’t believe the difference they made.

Townsville House logo with waving hand

What do you think? I think those six curved lines make the hand appear completely different. Much more “Aloha!” than “Get back, keep away!”.

I’m looking forward to tidying this up and producing the final version this week and finding out what the kids make of it: perhaps the wiggles will be meaningless to them and I’ll have to come up with something different!

Comments are currently disabled but you’re very welcome to tweet me @besottied.

(Also note, that is not Comic Sans. It is a font called Qarmic Sans by Joanne Taylor: a very good alternative to one of my least favourite fonts!)