The area above Madison Square Park in Manhattan is in a condo- building frenzy. Of course all of Manhattan (and Brooklyn and Queens) is in a condo-building frenzy. But above Madison Square Park there is a particularly feverish keenness to the activity, as the glamor of the Flatiron District moves north to a zone that was formerly best known for its gaudy wig and cheap lingerie wholesalers.
The richie rich are buying, and who can blame them? Proximity to Madison Square Park and the chic shops south of 23rd Street makes for an elegance that is almost Parisian—or at least suggests the possibility of such a way of life.
Huge signs affixed to newly rising high-rises and condo converted prewar office buildings trumpet the glory of living here. But there are other signs, as well.
Barely noticed in the builders’ gold rush, the poorest poor, pushed off the benches of Madison Square Park, take shelter in the very construction sites that signify their doom. When this building is finished, the rich will sleep here. ‘Til then, it’s the poor who do so. And what do they dream?
Apple.com has never lacked for panache. It has always looked more stylish, more elegant, more beautifully designed than most business sites. The site’s combination of utility, seduction, and understated beauty is practically unique—in keeping with the company’s primary point of product differentiation.
But while its beauty and usability have always run ahead of the pack, its underlying source code has not always kept pace. Now the online Apple Store’s inside is as beautiful as its exterior—and as far ahead of the mainstream in web development as a company like Apple needs to be.
One day, all sites will be built like this. View Source for an inspiring glimpse of how semantic and accessible even a grid-based, image-intensive, pixel-perfect site can be.
And next time your boss, client, or IT director annoyingly proclaims that you can’t have great looks and good markup, point them at store.apple.com. Who knows? They might buy you an iPhone or MacBook as a token of thanks.
Opinions are no longer being solicited, but you can read the 101 comments that were shared before we closed the iron door.
To be of use to others is the only true happiness. Although a 160 GB iPhone would also be nice.
I was hoping Apple would announce a new generation of iPhones with hard drives sufficient to hold an entire music collection plus a handful of videos. Failing that, I was hoping Apple would announce a new generation of iPods that were exactly like iPhones (sans the phone), with hard drives sufficient to hold an entire music collection plus a handful of videos. What Apple announced was an iPhone without the phone.
So I bought a 160 GB iPod Classic. I already have an iPhone, and you can borrow it when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers.
The Classic holds my digital music collection (currently, 31 GB) plus five or six movies digitized at high enough quality to play on a Cinema Screen, and has acres of drive space to spare. I feel that I will never fill it up, although I’ve thought that about every hard drive I’ve ever owned, and I soon filled them all.
The Classic is new and shiny and I almost never use it because the classic iPod interface feels prehistoric after using an iPhone. (Indeed, half the things I do on a computer feel awkward compared to doing them on an iPhone. Click on a friend’s street address in your iPhone. Wow! Now do the same thing on your computer. Ick.)
There are about five movies my toddler loves on the Classic, but she won’t watch them on the Classic. She wants the iPhone and asks for it by name, like cats do for Meow Mix.
The Classic is good for plugging your whole music collection into your stereo. Or it will be when the dock arrives. The Classic does not ship with a dock, and no dock is made for it, but you can order a $50 Universal Dock from Apple. The order takes four weeks to process plus another week to ship. Be kind and call those five weeks a month. A month after unpacking my new Classic I will be able to hook it into my stereo and charge it at the same time—something I expected to be able to do on the day it arrived.
The frustration of that wish is not tragic, but it is not particularly smart marketing, either. This, after all, is a product for people who ardently wish to carry their entire music collection plus a handful of movies in their pocket. Wish fulfillment is the product’s whole reason for being. (Well, wish fulfillment plus the execrable state of air travel, which can turn a jaunt between Chicago and New York into an odyssey of despair and boredom. Carry a Classic and those five hour delays fly by, even when nothing else is flying.)
The guaranteed nightmare of even the shortest business trip aside, what do you do with the Classic? Well, I sometimes bring it to the gym. Because sometimes at the gym, it takes a while to find the right groove. The iPhone’s 7.3 GBs aren’t enough to hold a sufficient musical selection to ensure a great workout.
On the other hand, I can’t answer a business call on my iPod. So even though the Classic gives me lots more music to choose from, I mostly bring my iPhone to the gym.
No iPod is an island, or should be.
Did I mention that the iPhone has a gorgeous, high-resolution screen and the iPod does not? Then there’s the whole gesturing with your fingertips business. How nice that feels, and how weird and slow and un-Apple-like it now feels to go back to the clickwheel that once felt so poshly smart and modern.
I tell you this. If Apple can put a capacious, chunked-out hard drive on the iPhone—even if doing so makes the phone a tad clunkier—the company will have on its hands its hottest convergent technology box yet. And I’ll be the first in line.
In Issue No. 245 of A List Apart, for people who make websites: Sarah B. Nelson of Adaptive Path shows how to create collaborative work sessions that actually work, and Iconfactory’s Craig Hockenberry concludes his remarkable two-part series on designing and coding with the iPhone and its new brethren in mind.
What is Art Direction (No. 9)
This outdoor ad, newly posted on a phone kiosk, arrested me as I strolled down Lexington Avenue last night. Its explicit content can be summarized as follows:
A young woman, facing the viewer, holds what appears to be a prosthetic arm—her own prosthetic arm, one infers. The young woman is casually dressed in a sweater and jeans. Her expression borders on neutral. Where her right arm should be, the sweater has been pinned back. The poster also contains words advertising a new HBO documentary, executive-produced by James Gandolfini, concerning the difficulties faced by a new generation of American war veterans returning home from Iraq.
That is a pictorial inventory, but the poster contains more content than I have listed. Most of that content is externally located. For this poster has been framed and shot, and its subject styled and posed, almost exactly like an American Gap ad.
Consciously or unconsciously, an American viewer will almost certainly make an uncomfortable connection between the disfigurement and sacrifice portrayed in this ad, and the upbeat quality of the Gap’s long-running, highly successful clothing slash lifestyle campaign.
That connection is content. And the non-verbal information that triggers that content in the viewer’s mind is art direction.
Wordless and full of meaning
What is the art direction saying? What is it adding to the content that is already there? Surely the sight of an attractive young woman who has lost her arm fighting in Iraq is loaded enough as an image. Surely a non-combatant, far from Iraq, safe at home, already feels plenty of complex emotions when confronted with this one veteran and at least some of the visual evidence of her sacrifice. What additional statement is being made by the art director’s decision to style this poster like a Gap ad?
Here is a possible reading:
While many Americans are well aware that their country is at war, many others are doing their best to blot that thought out of their minds. In this effort at collective amnesia they are abetted by many retail advertisers and TV programmers, including not a few TV news programmers. Ratings-wise, the war is a bummer. Sales-wise, it is a drag. America wants to shop and move on. (Interestingly, the fashion industry is the one segment of America’s consumer culture that is paying attention. The 691 pages of the new September Vogue are filled with skirts, shoes, dresses, and jackets that obviously resemble armor or in other ways clearly invoke awareness of war and warriors.)
In conceiving the way this poster would be shot and styled, the art director was not holding the Gap responsible for the war in Iraq. Nor was he or she blaming the viewer. But by carefully echoing the imagery of an ad that epitomizes our comfortably shallow consumer lifestyle, the art director does indict the complacent among us and challenge us to think about something besides our next new sweater or iPod.
The placement of type ensures that the words are the last thing we see on the poster. We absorb and are discomfited by the rich, non-verbal text for several beats before our eyes take in the explicit, written content announcing a documentary.
That is art direction. It is not art. It is not design. It is something else. It makes us feel. It makes us think. It holds up the mirror to our desires, our regrets, ourselves.
Our agency receives its share of RFPs, and sometimes these requests stipulate that our proposal include layouts. Even if the project looks promising, we just say no.
There are good reasons never to design on spec:
It’s a lot of unpaid work.
Design is only partly decoration. Mainly it is problem solving. Unless the RFP spells out site goals and user needs in phenomenal detail, you can’t create an appropriate design because you don’t yet know what problems need to be solved. (Even if the RFP spells out goals and needs, it’s unlikely that the people who wrote it know what all their site’s problems are. Most times you need to talk to people who use the site and study how they use it to get a handle on what works and doesn’t. It also helps to interview stakeholders. Doing that at your own expense is risky business at best.)
It’s unsafe for agency and potential client alike. The annals of the AIGA are filled with stories like this one:
Per Acme Anvil Co.’s request, Joe’s agency designs comps on spec in hopes of winning the Acme redesign project.
Acme Anvil Co. informs Joe’s agency that someone else got the job.
Six months later, Acme Anvil Co. launches its redesigned website. Joe’s VP of new business visits the site and discovers that it looks similar to one of the supposedly rejected designs Joe’s agency had submitted.
Joe’s agency calls Joe’s attorneys. A nasty lawsuit ensues. No matter who wins the suit, it will be costly and annoying — a drag on resources and morale — for all. If Joe’s agency wins, word goes out that they are the kind of agency that sues if they don’t get a job. If Joe’s agency loses, they may have to lay off staff or close their doors. All because they were willing to design on spec.
“No work on spec” was an advertising mantra until the mid-1990s. When we left advertising, it was routine for ad agencies to compete by presenting clients with free print campaigns, TV animatics, and sometimes even branded caps, match packs, or other promotional tie-ins. Agencies would temporarily add award-winning freelancers to their staff, spending thousands on these spec campaigns. Agencies that did not get the account almost always laid off fulltime staff to make up for the money they lost. We do not know if this is still a standard practice in advertising. Fortunately it is not standard practice in web design.
The AIGA strongly advises its members never to design on spec, and we know of no professional web agency that disregards that advice. Most potential clients who’ve initially requested that we submit designs along with our proposals understand our reasons for saying no. Those who insist on getting free designs anyway are simply advertising the fact that they would not be good clients to work for.
If business is slow, especially if you are a freelance web designer/developer, you may be tempted to say yes to unfair requests for free layouts. Designer, beware: the risks outweigh the potential benefits.
In BusinessWeek, senior writer for Innovation & Design Jessie Scanlon has just published “Jeffrey Zeldman: King of Web Standards.” By any standards (heh heh), it is an accurate and well researched article. By the standards of technology journalism, it is exceptional. It might even help designers who aren’t named Jeffrey Zeldman as they struggle to explain the benefits of web standards to their bosses or clients. At the least, its publication in Business Week will command some business people’s attention, and perhaps their respect.
Avoiding the twin dangers of oversimplification that misleads, and pedantry that bores or confuses, Scanlon informs business readers about the markup and code that underlies websites; what went wrong with it in the early days of the web; and how web standards help ensure “that a Web site can be used by someone using any browser and any Web-enabled device.”
Scanlon communicates this information quickly, so as not to waste a business reader’s time, and clearly, without talking down to the reader. This makes her article, not merely a dandy clipping for my scrapbook, but a useful tool of web standards evangelism.
Contributing to the article with their comments are Jeff Veen, manager of user experience for Google’s web applications and former director of Hotwired.com; NYTimes.com design director, subtraction.com author, and grid-meister Khoi Vinh; and Dan Cederholm, founder of SimpleBits and author of Bulletproof Web Design. Dave Shea’s CSS Zen Garden features prominently as well, and rightfully so.
hCard couldn’t do it. Basecamp couldn’t do it. Web apps from Google and Yahoo that integrate seamlessly with Apple’s iCal, Address Book, and Mail couldn’t do it. My iPhone has done it.
My iPhone has made me stop using calendar, contact, and e-mail applications I’ve used day and night for over a decade, and switch to the free—and in some ways less capable—applications that come bundled with Macintosh OS X.
Changing years of work habits is not easy. Migrating data, in some cases by hand, takes time I don’t have to spare. Yet I’m making these changes of my own will, and happily.
In short, Apple has finally copied something from Microsoft. Or, if you prefer, Apple has learned the marketing psychology lesson that Microsoft got first. For many consumers, convenience is of greater value than choice. A platform built of parts that work together seamlessly beats a self-curated collection of apps that don’t.
That syncing feeling
Microsoft knows this, Adobe knows it, and Apple had learned it by the time they launched the iTunes/iPod cartel. The iPhone creates a similar value proposition for OS X’s bundled communication, contact, and calendar apps.
Maybe all Windows users won’t switch to Macs, but many Mac users will dump Entourage, Eudora, and the like once they sync an iPhone to their computers. What “free” wasn’t enough to achieve, “seamless” just might be. If I can change work habits, anyone can.
Victory is suite
As part of a sexy, seamless software/hardware package, Apple Mail triumphs over more sophisticated e-mail applications for much the same reason Word beat WordPerfect and Adobe Illustrator trumped Macromedia Freehand. (True: Adobe bought Macromedia and chose to discontinue Freehand. But they’re burying Freehand due to lack of resources, not because they fear it.) Word is part of the must-have suite for business professionals, and Illustrator is part of the must-have suite for creative and visual professionals, and you can’t beat the suite. That is what Apple has learned.
What no one can teach Apple is how to make user experience beautifully intuitive and elegant, lending a spirit of fun to even the most mundane task, such as getting contact phone numbers into a phone. With Address Book and an iPhone, it’s not only automatic, it’s a near-physical pleasure.
Nobody does user experience as well as Apple, and nobody but Apple in the consumer market combines beautiful software with drool-inducing hardware. Except during the cloning years, when Apple lay in the abyss, Apple has always combined hardware and software. It killed them during the 1990s OS wars, but it worked like nobody’s business for the iPod and a similar synergy is driving the iPhone.
That I could be persuaded to spend money on an iPhone is unremarkable. After all, the phone shows websites and I’m a web designer; it’s tax-deductible research. What is remarkable to anyone who knows me is that I’m willing to abandon long-used tools and shortcuts to capture these new synergies. This suggests a longer and deeper market for the iPhone than just the gadget-obsessed and early adopters with sufficient disposable income. It’s even possible that, with continued use, the beauty and utility of the iPhone will help sell Macintosh computers to PC users.
It helps that the interface is beautiful as well as intuitive, and that many of the alternatives are neither.
An interface only a mother could love
Discontinued Eudora, the program I’ve abandoned in favor of Mail, is the crone of e-mail, with an interface only a mother could love. Now Up-To-Date and Contact are overly complicated, underly beautiful, and have long showed their age. None of these programs closely follows Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines (HIG). Never mind that the Aqua HIG is incoherent, that many of Apple’s own programs violate or ignore it, and that it neglects to offer modern UI designs and controls, prompting independent developers to create a new set of Human Interface Guidelines to supplement Apple’s. The point is, even in the Classic OS days of mandatory HIG compliance, the three programs I’ve mentioned did not work as Macintosh programs were supposed to. They were cross-platform and proud of it, and a Mac user had to meet them halfway. Nevertheless, they did things other programs couldn’t do, and I used them for that reason.
I continued to use them as time and change and market share conspired against them. I worked like a farmer who refuses to accept that his field has gone fallow.
When Basecamp sent work schedules to my iCal, I manually copied the dates into Now Up-To-Date. When my own web pages spat out standard contact information via hCard, I siphoned the data into Address Book, and then manually copied it into Now Contact, line by line. (Since the fields between programs didn’t match, I could not automate the process via scripting. Now Software made a free mini-application that used to port data between Now Contact and Address Book, but it never worked all that well, and it stopped working altogether in Tiger.)
Computers are supposed to make our lives easier, but everyone knows they do the opposite, and I was so deep into my rut I thought of it as a groove.
The incredible lightness of e-mailing
Change begets change. For years, in Eudora, I kept every e-mail message I received. I kept them all in tidy, named folders and wrote filter rules to automatically sort messages as they were received. Every client, every employee, every friend, every project had its own folder and its own set of filters. I spent at least an hour a day simply managing my e-mail, which is different from reading or responding to it. When the number of open folders became overwhelming, I dragged messages into a new folder called “urgent” or “deal with this” (and then failed to deal with them).
And now? So far, in Mail, I’m answering messages as they come in, and deleting all but the most salient. A client letter outlining technical requirements, I’ll keep. A bunch of messages asking whether we should meet at 9:00 or 10:00, I delete. I feel ten pounds lighter already. I’d like to thank God and the Academy.
We are still crunching numbers on the Web Design Survey—with over 32,000 responses to 36 questions, there’s a lot to crunch. But in one area, preliminary data supports what anecdotal experience led us to expect: almost no one who makes websites works in their company or organization’s web division. That’s because almost no company or organization has a web division. And that void on the org chart is one reason we have so many bloated, unusable failures where we should be producing great user experiences.
Ponder. No matter how critical the web experience may be to the organization’s mission, the people who design and build those mission-critical sites work in divisions that have nothing to do with the web, and report to leaders whose expertise is unrelated to web design and development.
It’s a startling fact with profound implications—and as such has gone unnoticed by the business community and press.
IT or marketing
From law firms to libraries, from universities to Fortune 500 companies, the organization’s website almost invariably falls under the domain of the IT Department or the Marketing Department, leading to turf wars and other predictable consequences. While many good (and highly capable) people work in IT and marketing, neither area is ideally suited to craft usable websites or to encourage the blossoming of vital web communities.
Competent IT departments handle a dazzling array of technical challenges requiring deep, multi-leveled expertise. But tasks such as equipping 20,000 globally dispersed employees with appropriately configured PCs, or maintaining corporate databases and mail gateways, don’t necessarily map to the skills required to design great user experiences for the web.
Large-scale systems expertise takes a different mindset than what’s needed to write usable guide copy, finesse markup semantics, or design an easy-to-understand user interface employing the lightest and fewest possible graphic images. Moreover, nimble development and support for open standards are not the hallmarks of large IT departments (although undoubtedly there are noble exceptions). Additionally, developers with a background in IT (again, with some exceptions) tend to create from the point of view of technology, rather than that of the user.
What about Marketing?
Organizations that don’t entrust their website to IT tend to hand it to Marketing. The rationale for doing so is easy to see: Marketing has been briefed on the organization’s business goals (at least for the next quarter), and the division is staffed by communications specialists who know at least something about writing and art direction. If nothing else, they know who to hire to write their copy, and they are comfortable telling the in-house graphic designers to make the logo bigger.
Like IT, Marketing has valuable organizational knowledge (plus certain skills) to contribute to any serious web enterprise. The leaders of Marketing, like the leaders of IT, should be frequently consulted in any web effort. But the skills of Marketing, like the skills of IT, don’t necessarily map to what is needed to create great web experiences.
For one thing, as anyone reading this knows, the web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue. It can be a great monologue—for examples of which, see The One Show Winners or the AIGA Design Archives. But a monologue and conversation are not the same, as an hour spent with your windy Uncle Randolph will remind you.
And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.
If not them, then who?
Business and non-profit decision makers, for your users’ good, consider this request. Stop separating the members of your web team. Cease distributing them among various (often competitive) divisions led by people with limited web expertise. Let the coders, designers, writers, and others charged with creating and maintaining your web presence work together. Put them in a division that recognizes that your site is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be web divisions.
[tags]webdesign, webdevelopment, design, development, web divisions[/tags]
“Maybe” is one option too many
When I’m planning an event, and I use a web service like evite® to send invitations, that web service offers three choices:
Yes, I’ll come
No, I won’t
Maybe—I’m not sure
“Maybe” is one option too many. As a best practice, we should dispense with it, just as we should replace five-star rating systems with four-star ones.
The problem with five-star rating systems
Let users choose from five stars, and they nearly always pick three. Three is the little bear’s porridge, neither too hot nor too cold. Three is neutral—a safe place to hide. Even in the virtual world, where nothing more consequential is being asked than an opinion, many people would rather equivocate than commit.
But present these same users with a four-star spread and you leave them no cover. Two stars out of four is not neutral. Neither is three stars out of four. Any star rating they choose will reflect an actual opinion. There is no place to hide. When there is no place to hide, courage arises out of necessity. Force people out of the brush, and they develop the backbone needed to state an opinion.
The trouble with “maybe”
As data, “maybe” is as useless as a three-star rating in a five-star system—and as hypnotically compelling to users. “Maybe” is a button that begs to be pushed.
Maybe is a magnet for neuroses. It salves guilt complexes and incites passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors.
“Maybe” sometimes means maybe, but it can also mean, “I’m not coming but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Or even, “I plan to come but I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute if something better comes along.” Some people even use maybe to mean, “I won’t make dinner but I’ll come for dessert.”
When you invite twelve people to a restaurant dinner via a web service, at least four will say maybe. Do you reserve a table for twelve? When eight show up and range themselves at opposite ends of the table (“because other people might be joining us”) you have an awkward table filled with gaps. The empty seats haunt the meal, suggesting social failure.
But if you call the restaurant at the last minute to change the reservation to eight, two of the maybes will show up, like ants at a picnic. They’ll have nowhere to sit, and they’ll blame you. (“I told you I might come.”)
How can you know what “maybe” means? In the context of a web service, you can’t. All you can do is phone people and ask whether they’re leaning toward coming or not—in other words, try to move them from a five-star three to a four-star two or three. If they’re the passive-aggressive type, they will continue to evade the snare of commitment. “I’m probably coming,” they’ll say.
What is the solution? Use web services that offer a binary choice: “I’m coming” or “I’m not coming.” If you can’t find such a service, build one. If you run a web service that includes “maybe,” offer an optional two-choice (“no-maybe”) version.
When demand an outright yes or no, people generally supply it. They only equivocate when handed the means to do so. Form is content.