Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”


Also published in Medium.

Design Is A Relationship

Mike Monteiro

MIKE MONTEIRO is a man on a mission. He wants to improve design by fixing the core of it, which is the relationship between designer and client. Too many of us fear our clients—the people whose money keeps our lights on, and who hire us to solve business problems they can’t solve for themselves. And too many clients are even more frustrated and puzzled by their designers than the designers are by the clients.

It’s the designer’s job to fix this, which is why Mike first wrote Design Is A Job, and spent two years taking the message into conference halls and meeting rooms from New Zealand to New York.

I wish every designer could read this book. I can’t tell you how many friends of mine—many of whom I consider far better designers than I am—struggle every day with terrible anxieties over how a client will react to their work. And the problem isn’t limited to web and interaction designers. Anybody who designs anything burns cycles in fear and acrimony. I too waste hours worrying about the client’s reaction—but a dip into Mike’s first book relaxes me like a warm milk bath, and reminds me that collaboration and persuasion are the essence of my craft and well within my power to execute.

If the designer’s side of things were the only part of the problem Mike had addressed, it would be enough. But there is more:

  • Next Mike will help clients understand what they should expect from a designer and learn how to hire one they can work with. How he will do that is still a secret—although folks attending An Event Apart San Francisco this week will get a clue.
  • Design education is the third leg of the chair, and once he has spread his message to clients, Mike intends to fix that or die trying. As Mike sees it (and I agree) too many design programs turn out students who can defend their work in an academic critique session among their peers, but have no idea how to talk to clients and no comprehension of their problems. We are creating a generation of skilled and talented but only semi-employable designers—designers who, unless they have the luck to learn what their expensive education didn’t teach them, will have miserably frustrating careers and turn out sub-par work that doesn’t solve their clients’ problems.

We web and interaction designers are always seeking to understand our user, and to solve the user’s problems with empathy and compassion. Perhaps we should start with the user who hires us.

Proposed standards for the care and feeding of user generated content

THIS MORNING Contents Magazine launched the beginning of something both good and important: a set of guidelines that could lead to a safer world for user-created content.

Contents believes (and I agree) that products and services which make a business of our stuff—the photos, posts, and comments that we share on their platforms—need to treat our content like it matters. Not like junk that can be flushed the moment a product or service gets acquired or goes under.

On the web, popularity waxes and wanes; beloved services come and go. AOL was once mighty. MySpace was unstoppable. Nobody expected Geocities, Delicious, or Gowalla to just disappear, taking our stories, photos, and memories with them. But that’s what happens on the web. Tomorrow it could be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr. We can continue to blindly trust these companies with our family histories, and continue to mourn when they disappear, taking our data with them. Or we can demand something better.

Contents and its small team of advisors have devised three simple rules customer-content-driven services and apps should follow to respect and protect our content:

  • Treat our data like it matters. Keep it secure and protect our privacy, of course—but also maintain serious backups and respect our choice to delete any information we’ve contributed.
  • No upload without download. Build in export capabilities from day one.
  • If you close a system, support data rescue. Provide one financial quarter’s notice between announcing the shutdown and destroying any user-contributed content, public or private, and offer data export during this period. And beyond that three months? Make user-contributed content available for media-cost purchase for one year after shutdown.

You may see this as a pipe dream. Why should a big, successful company like Facebook listen to us? But citizen movements have accomplished plenty in the past, from bringing web standards to our web browsers, to peacefully overthrowing unpopular governments.

I’m on board with the new Contents guidelines and I hope you will be, too. If enough of us raise enough of a sustained fuss over a sufficient period, things will change.

More at Special Report #1: Data Protection — Contents Magazine.

An Event Apart Austin 2012

FOLLOW THE ACTION at An Event Apart Austin – three days of design, code, and content for people who make websites, now taking place in Austin, TX.

A Feed Apart

Just the tweets.

Content First

“In his opening keynote at An Event Apart in Austin, TX 2012 Jeffrey Zeldman talked about the need to keep content front and center in websites and the web design process.” Enjoy Luke Wroblewski’s notes on my presentation, “Content First.”

Responsive Design Workflow

“In her presentation at An Event Apart in Austin, TX 2012 Sarah Parmenter talked about the changes responsive web design requires of web designers.” Enjoy Luke Wroblewski’s notes from her talk on “Responsive Design Workflow.”

On Web Typography

Jason Santa Maria “outlined the current state of web fonts and how to approach typography online.” Luke Wroblewski’s notes on the talk.

Mobile To The Future

My notes on Luke Wroblewski’s AEA Austin presentation.

Content Strategy Roadmap

“In her Content Strategy Roadmap presentation at An Event Apart in Austin TX 2012 Kristina Halvorson talked about how to integrate content strategy into a typical web design workflow.” Enjoy Luke Wroblewski’s notes from her talk.

Rolling Up Our Responsive Sleeves

In this presentation, Ethan Marcotte walks through ways to tackle thorny issues in responsive design layouts, media, advertising, and more. Here are Luke Wroblewksi’s notes on the talk.

The Spirit of the Web

“With the explosion of web-enabled devices of all shapes and sizes, the practice of web design and development seems more complex than ever. But if we can learn to see below this overwhelming surface to the underlying web beneath, we can learn to make sites not for specific devices but for the people using them. This presentation will demonstrate how tried and tested principles like REST and progressive enhancement are more important than ever. By embracing the spirit of the web, you can ensure that your websites are backwards compatible and future friendly.” – Jeremy Keith

Bringing A Knife to a Gunfight (1)

All the links from Andy Clarke’s amazing AEA Austin presentation.

Bringing A Knife to a Gunfight (2)

“Andy Clarke talked about the changing processes in web design and shared a number of tools and techniques that can help designers make transition to a more modern workflow.” Luke Wroblewski’s notes from the talk.

The Real Me (1)

At An Event Apart in Austin TX 2012, Aarron Walter shared why having a personality and story matters for companies. Notes by Luke Wroblewski.

The Real Me (2)

Articles and books cited in the Aarron Walter talk; compiled by AW himself.

Conference Photos

Enjoy the Flickr pool of photos from the three-day web design conference event now being held in Austin, TX.

Watch this space!

More to come.

Today at 5PM | Go Forth & Make Awesomeness: Core Values & Action | SXSW Interactive 2012

LESLIE JENSEN-INMAN (@jenseninman), Assistant Professor, The University of Tennessee, created this panel and graciously invited me to be her guest. An alternate name for the panel could be Quit Bitching and Go Make Cool Shit. It’s about personal creative empowerment via sweat, the internet, and the communities it engenders.

Discover how to: embrace your passion, define your purpose, foster your promise, and engage your pursuit. Find out how to do this in a creative environment that encourages collaboration.

HASH TAG
#GoForth
WHEN
Time 5:00pm–6:00pm CST
Date 11th March 2012
WHERE
Ballroom A, Austin Convention Center
Austin, TX
INTERVIEW
Happy Cog Interview
LANYRD LISTING
Go Forth & Make Awesomeness: Core Values & Action at SXSW Interactive 2012 | Lanyrd

Selling Design – an online reading list

TOMORROW, WHICH IS also my birthday, I begin teaching “Selling Design” to second-year students in the MFA Interaction Design program at School of Visual Arts, New York. Liz Danzico and Steve Heller created and direct the MFA program, and this is my second year teaching this class, whose curriculum I pull out of my little blue beanie.

In this class we explore collaboration and persuasion for interaction designers. Whether you work in a startup, studio, or traditional company; whether you design print, products, purely digital experiences, or any combination thereof; whether you’re the sole proprietor, part of a tightly focused team, or a link in a long chain of connected professionals, it is only by collaborating skillfully with others—and persuading them tactfully and convincingly when points of view differ and yours is right—that you can hope to create designs that make a dent in the universe.

During this spring semester, we’ll explore collaboration and persuasion from many points of view, and hear from (and interact with) many accomplished designers who will serve as special guest speakers. For our opening get-acquainted session, we’ll focus on texts that explore the some of the most basic, traditional (and rarely taught) aspects of design professionalism from the worlds of web, interaction, and print design:

Demystifying Design

by Jeff Gothelf – A List Apart

  1. Draw together
  2. Show raw work (frequently)
  3. Teach the discipline
  4. Be transparent
  5. Take credit for your wins

Design Criticism and the Creative Process

by Cassie McDaniel – A List Apart

  • Critique as collaborative tool
  • Presenting designs
  • What is good feedback?
  • Negotiate criticism
  • The designer as collaborator

Personality in Design

by Aarron Walter – A List Apart

  • Personality is the platform for emotion
  • A history of personality in design
  • Personas
  • Creating a design persona for your website [or other project]
  • Tapbots: Robot love
  • Caronmade: octopi, unicorns, and mustachios
  • Housing Works: a name with a face
  • The power of personality

Design Professionalism

by Andy Rutledge

You should read this entire brief book, but for now, sample these bits:

Do You Suck at Selling Your Ideas?

by Sam Harrison – HOW Magazine

Dyson is used as an example of a product that currently dominates the market, even though nobody initially believed in the inventor’s idea. Lessons:

  1. Tell a personal story
  2. Create emotional experiences for decision makers
  3. See what’s behind rejections

How to sell your design effectively to the client

by Arfa Mirza, Smashing Magazine

  1. Understand the nature of your client
  2. Have a rationale for every part of your design
  3. Show the best design options only
  4. Defend your design, but don’t become defensive
  5. Solicit good feedback and benefit from it

Money: How to sell the value of design – an email conversation

by Jacob Cass – Just Creative

Narrative of standing up to new-client pressure to do something against the designer’s self-interest, or which devalues design. Story told here is about money but it could be about any designer/client conflict in which the designer needs to gently educate the client. (Some designer/client conflicts require the client to educate the designer, but that’s another matter.)

How to choose a logo designer

by Jacob Cass – Just Creative

Basic article outlines ten background materials any designer (not just logo designers) should prepare to encourage confidence on the client’s part:

  1. Experience
  2. Positive testimonials
  3. A thorough design process
  4. Awards won/published work
  5. A strong portfolio
  6. Price
  7. Design affiliations
  8. Great customer service
  9. Business Professionalism
  10. Appropriate questions

Take two minutes to stop SOPA before it passes this week

THE MOST IMPORTANT THING you can do today: help STOP SOPA once and for all.

The Stop Online Piracy Act could pass this week. U.S. friends reading this, call your Representatives now to be heard before the bill is finalized and voted on. Fightforthefuture.org makes it easy. Go there and do this.

We thank you.