Stagnation is fine for some jobs—when I was a dishwasher at The Earth Kitchen vegetarian restaurant, I enjoyed shutting off my brain and focusing on the rhythmic scrubbing of burnt pans, the slosh and swirl of peas and carrots in a soapy drain—but professionals, particularly web professionals, are either learning and growing or, like the love between Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, becoming a dead shark. If you’ve stopped learning on the job, it’s past time to look around.
MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.
The two principles are:
- Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
- Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.
The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.
“The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.
A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:
I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.
And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:
It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.
I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)
To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.
I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)
Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”
SUMMER is halfway over. Have you hid out for a day of reading yet? Grab a shady spot and a picnic blanket (or just park it in front of the nearest AC unit), turn off your notifications, and unwrap this tasty treat: our 2015 summer reader.
Refresh your mind, heart, and spirit with this curated list of articles, videos, and other goodies from the recent past—from A List Apart and across the web.
Our 2015 compilation of articles, blogs, and other gems from across the web: perfect summer reading, poolside and beyond.
TURN visitors into committed community members, and decision makers into ardent advocates of web performance. It’s easy, with the info in today’s A List Apart for people who make websites:
by Lara Hogan
The technical aspects of performance optimization are indisputably important. But the social work—convincing peers, managers, and clients that performance optimization merits their attention—often gets short shrift. Lara Hogan shows us how we can go beyond charts, graphs, and numbers to show performance rather than merely tell it—and effect a genuine culture shift in the process.
by Rick Pastoor
Attracting—and keeping—new users is a delicate dance. Too many obstacles and people don’t sign up; too little interaction and they don’t come back. The ideal onboarding process turns potential users into loyal ones—by thoughtfully identifying new users, teaching them to use your product, and giving them a reason to return. Rick Pastoor shares his onboarding framework and what he’s learned about the difference between a good onboarding process and a great one.
WHETHER the topic is responsive CSS or content that responds to the right user at the right time, Issue ? 423 of A List Apart is all about finding the path forward:
by Mat Marquis
Media queries have been the go-to tool in building responsive sites, allowing us to resize and recombine modules to suit multiple contexts, layouts, and viewports. But relying on fixed viewport sizes can quickly twist stylesheets into Gordian knots. We still need a future-friendly way to manage responsive CSS. Mat Marquis explores the problem and the progress toward the solution—and issues a rallying call.
by Meghan Casey
Content projects need a sense of direction: something to help you and your team provide the right content to the right people at the right time. Enter the content compass—centered on your strategy and supported by your messaging—to keep your content efforts on track. In this excerpt from Chapter 11 of The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey explains her methodology for developing a core strategy statement and messaging framework.
ISSUE ? 422 of A List Apart for people who make websites is all about working with the human element:
By Johanna Bates
Structured, automatic systems are great at managing content efficiently—but not so great at accommodating humans changes in that content. On the other hand, free-for-all WYSIWYGs lead to inconsistency and breakdowns. Stakeholders and content administrators need flexibility and control, especially where the all-important homepage is concerned. What’s a website to do? Johanna Bates suggests embracing a people-friendly homepage solution within our robot-driven architectures.
By Kelsey Lynn Lundberg
Validating emotions isn’t a glorified psychological process; part of our work is to hear our colleagues and clients out. Kelsey Lynn Lundberg shows us how we can identify the underlying needs—security, freedom, identity, worth—that drive emotional responses, and how to translate those needs into productive discussions to keep our teams moving forward.
Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.
Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.
Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code
THERE’S GREAT reading for people who make websites in Issue No. 421 of A List Apart:
by Justin Dauer
Forget Air Hockey, Zen Gardens, and sleep pods: a true “dream” company invests in its people—fostering a workplace that supports dialogue, collaboration, and professional development. From onboarding new hires to ongoing engagement, Justin Dauer shares starting points for a healthy office dynamic and confident, happy employees. ?
by Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek
Every product has a personality—is yours by design? Meg Dickey-Kurdziolek shows you how Weather Underground solved its personality problems by creating a design persona, and teaches you collaborative methods for starting a personality adjustment in your company. ?
FIFTEEN years ago this month, a plucky ALA staffer wrote “Much Ado About 5K,” an article on a contest created by Stewart Butterfield that challenged web designers and developers to build a complete website using less than five kilobytes of images and code.
As one group of modern web makers embraces mobile-first design and performance budgets, while another (the majority) worships at the altar of bigger, fatter, and slower, the 5K contest reminds us that a byte saved is a follower earned.
IN ISSUE ? 420 of A List Apart:
by ANDREW GRIMES
Does the internet ever stop you in your tracks? Does it sometimes make you pause and think about what you’re doing? Andrew Grimes calls such moments meta-moments. He walks us through why meta-moments are occasionally necessary and how we might build them into the experiences we design. ?
by COLIN EAGAN
Experience management systems are making it easier than ever to customize content for your visitors—but are you using your newfound personalizing powers for good (or for creepy)? Colin Eagan shows that personalization can be done, thoughtfully, using the same tools you would apply to any content strategy conundrum: by asking why, being deliberate, and putting users first. ?
IN ISSUE ? 419 of A List Apart:
by JOSCELIN COOPER
From ATMs to Siri to the button text in an application user interface, we “talk” to our tech—and our tech talks back. Often this exchange is purely transactional, but newer technologies have renegotiated this relationship. Joscelin Cooper reflects on how we can design successful human-machine conversations that are neither cloying nor overly mechanical. ??
by SENONGO AKPEM
The web operates in ways that can conflict with our traditional view of what a “story” is. Content is chunked, mixed, and spread across channels, devices, and formats. How do we understand story lines, characters, interactions, and the role of the audience, given this information sprawl? Cue nonlinear narratives—Senongo Akpem guides us past basic “scrolly-telling” to immersive, sometimes surprising experiences. ?
A LIST APART Issue ? 393 is about documenting design patterns with a style guide and creating new ones with the z-axis.
by SUSAN ROBERTSON
A style guide, also referred to as a pattern library, is a living document that details the front-end code for all the elements and modules of a website or application. It also documents the site’s visual language, from header styles to color palettes. In short, a proper style guide is a one-stop guide that the entire team can reference when considering site changes and iterations. Susan Robertson shows us how to build and maintain a style guide that helps everyone from product owners and producers to designers and developers keep an ever-changing site on brand and on target.
by WREN LANIER
For years we’ve seen the web as a two-dimensional space filled with pages that sit side by side on a flat, infinite plane. But as the devices we design for take on an increasingly diverse array of shapes and sizes, we must embrace new ways of designing up and down. Designing on the z-axis means incorporating three-dimensional physics into our interface designs. Wren Lanier explains how, by using the z-axis to place interface elements above or below one another, we can create better design systems that are more flexible and intuitive to use—and create new patterns that point the way to future interactions.
WE ARE PLEASED to present an excerpt from Sass For Web Designers by Dan Cederholm, available now from A Book Apart.
by JESSICA ENDERS
Though some decry flat user interfaces as pure fashion, or as the obvious response to skeuomorphic trends, many designers have embraced the flat approach because the reduction in visual styling (such as gradients, drop shadows, and borders) creates interfaces that feel simpler and cleaner. Trouble is, most flat UIs are built with a focus on the provision of content, with transactional components (i.e., forms) receiving very little attention. So what happens when flat UIs and forms collide? User experiences can, and often do, suffer. Keep your flat forms from failing by using controlled redundancy to communicate difference.
by PERRY HEWITT
Digital projects begin in high spirits and tip quickly into miscommunication and crisis. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Extend your early kickoff meeting harmony throughout the life of your projects. By understanding your client’s organizational drivers and key players before the sticky note sessions even begin, you can establish the momentum needed to keep the extended team focused on goals. And by managing stakeholder communications throughout the job, you can avoid land mines, save time and effort in the long run, and deliver a project that satisfies stakeholders, agency, and users alike.
IN ISSUE No. 381 of A List Apart for people who make websites:
by AARRON WALTER
Your inbox overflows with customer emails suggesting features and improvements. Instead of benefiting, you feel overwhelmed by an unmanageable deluge. You conduct usability tests, user interviews, and competitive analyses, creating and sharing key insights. Yet within months, what you learned has been lost, forgotten, or ignored by someone in a different department. What if you could sift, store, and share all your customer learning in a way that breaks down silos, preserves and amplifies insights, and turns everyone in your organization into a researcher? MailChimp’s user experience director Aarron Walter tells how his team did it. You can, too.
by LOU ROSENFELD
Silos: good for grain, awful for understanding customer behavior. Just as we favor the research tools that we find familiar and comfortable, large organizations often use research methods that reflect their own internal selection biases. As a result, they miss out on detecting (and confirming) interesting patterns that emerge concurrently from different research silos. And they likely won’t learn something new and important. IA thought leader Lou Rosenfeld explains how balance, cadence, conversation, and perspective provide a framework enabling your research teams to think across silos and achieve powerful insights even senior leadership can understand.