That Busted GIF Feeling

That busted GIF feeling.

Has this happened to you? You’re using the iLike social music discovery network and things are humming along nicely. Then one day, because of a brief iLike.com server hiccup, the iLike Sidebar for iTunes is unable to download and refresh your friends’ photos. Instead of your music pals’ smiling faces, you see the classic “busted GIF” icon that web browsers use to denote “image file not found.”

Here is a screenshot of the iLike Sidebar with missing images.

Here is a screenshot, a few days later, with all friend images missing.

It’s what my iLike sidebar has looked like for the past two weeks. It may be what it will look like forever. Has anyone else encountered this problem? Anybody found a solution? Nothing I’ve tried works.

  • Refreshing the sidebar by clicking the semi-circular “refresh” icon to the right of the label, “Recently played by your friends,” does not solve the problem.
  • Hiding and re-showing the sidebar does not solve the problem.
  • Waiting days, or even weeks, for the problem to correct itself does not solve the problem. The problem never corrects itself.
  • Downloading a fresh copy of the iLike Sidebar and reinstalling does not solve the problem.

iLike’s FAQ does not address the problem. When you encounter a problem iLike’s FAQ does not address, you are supposed to contact iLike. I contacted iLike last week. I’ve also written to Dick Cheney. I haven’t heard back from either one. I’m more likely to hear from Cheney. Cheney doesn’t have a Facebook application and he isn’t adding 300,000 users a day.

Like every other recent website, iLike identifies itself as a beta. When you identify yourself as a beta, and you’re adding 300,000 users a day, it’s to be expected that your technology may be imperfect, and it’s also understandable that you may not have time to respond to every user who contacts you about a problem. Hell, I’m not a beta (and I’m not adding 300,000 users a day) and I can’t respond to everyone who contacts me. I get it.

In the scheme of things, a broken feature in a free web app is no big deal. I still like iLike. But if anyone knows how to squash this bug, I’d like it even better.

[tags]iLike, sidebar, bug[/tags]

Let there be web divisions

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]

An Event Apart Seattle sells out

An Event Apart Seattle has sold out. It happened yesterday. In all the excitement, I forgot to write about it.

If you have already secured a seat for this remarkable two-day web design conference, get ready to have a good time with Tim Bray, Andy Budd, Mike Davidson, Shawn Henry, Shaun Inman, Jason Santa Maria, Khoi Vinh, Jeffrey Veen, and your hosts, Eric Meyer and me.

If you missed the opportunity to join us in Seattle, I’m sorry we couldn’t accommodate you.

Our next show will be An Event Apart Chicago, August 27–28, 2007, featuring Dan Cederholm, Lou Rosenfeld, Liz Danzico, Jeremy Keith, Jim Coudal, Luke Wroblewski, Derek Featherstone, Jason Santa Maria, and the same old Eric Meyer and me.

Tickets for An Event Apart Chicago go on sale Monday, May 21. Look for an announcement at aneventapart.com or subscribe to the Event Apart RSS feed.

[tags]aneventapart, design, webdesign, bestpractices, conferences, events[/tags]

Conference speaker’s pledge

WEARING this attractive six-pointed star on my sleeve signifies my pledge to abide by a code of conduct. Presently the code of conduct is a draft, but we hope, by working together, to one day turn it into a second draft.

While speaking to you from this podium, I pledge the following:

  • I will not yodel.
  • I will not introduce my first slide by saying, “Here is my first slide.”
  • I will not conclude the discussion of my first slide by asking, “Any questions about my first slide?”
  • I will not ridicule my fellow presenters, not even the shallow idiots.
  • I will not become a womb of light.
  • I will not guess the weight of randomly selected audience members.
  • I will wear comfortable slacks.
  • I will not activate an under-seat “tingler” at the moment of greatest suspense.
  • I will not reveal the ending of the final Harry Potter novel, or that the lady in “The Crying Game” is a dude.
  • When I think about you, I will not touch myself.

Of course, sometimes, I might need to yodel, or even touch myself. Wearing the Gallagher Hammer-and-Watermelon Badge signifies that my presentation will be “anything goes.” You folks in the first five rows, button up your overcoats.

[tags]code of conduct[/tags]

Web Design Survey closes soon

I took it! And so should you. The Web Design Survey, 2007.

As it turns out, the profession that dare not speak its name has a lot to say for itself. Over 30,000 people have taken a few minutes to help create the first (soon-to-be) publicly available data about people who make websites. And you?

If you haven’t yet filled out The Web Design Survey, now is the time: the survey closes on 22 May. Our thanks to all who have already participated.

[tags]webdesign, survey, web design survey, ala, alistapart, design, development[/tags]

Comments are the lifeblood of the blogosphere

I spent the latter half of last week with my dad (photos). I did not bring a laptop, nor did I use any of his computers to access the internet. The trip was about dad, not about dad between e-mails.

When I returned to New York City, 193 comments awaited me in the moderation queue. 191 were spam. Some concerned a young lady. Others promoted medications. Two of the 193 comments were actually relevant to my site’s content, although they were trackbacks, not comments. (By the way, Wikipedia, which is it? TrackBack, with an intercap, or Trackback, without? Wikipedia’s trackback entry has it both ways.)

I use Askimet to control comment spam, and although it missed the 191 spam comments previously mentioned, it did flag as spam an additional ten comments, eight of which were spam. The other two were actual reader comments—the only real comments that came in while I was away. Askimet works for most users. Nothing works for me. But I digress.

Executive Summary: Of 203 comments received in a three-day period, two were comments (falsely flagged as spam), two others were trackbacks, and the rest were spam, although 191 of them were not identified as such. If comments are a site’s lifeblood, my site is having a stroke. (Which, by the way, was a popular verb in 42 of the spam comments I received.)

If I wrote more frequently, I would not get less spam, but I would enjoy a higher proportion of actual comments. I wrote every day, several times a day, for years here before comment systems, let alone blogging tools, were available. These days I have less time to write here or anywhere. But I will write more, promise.

I would get much less spam if my site were less frequently linked to and visited, but who wants a less-linked, less-visited site?

I would get no spam if I turned off comments, but I would also get no comments. And comments, real comments, are good.

Or so they tell me.

Comments off.

Kidding.

[tags]blogs, blogging, blogosphere, comments, spam, commentspam[/tags]

Web 2.0 Buyouts: Butchers vs. Farmers

As Web 2.0 Buying Season winds down, it is pleasant to consider what was different about it. This time, for the most part, the buyers have been farmers, not butchers. They bought to nurture, not to kill.

The merger years

Before the web, I worked in advertising. I survived the Merger Years. Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the art collectors, were among several groups scooping up ad agencies as investments. Not infrequently, incompatible shops were jammed together to see what stuck. My first New York ad job was at one of these misbegotten unions; I started on the very day more than half the staff got canned as a direct result of the merger.

The new owners had performed unholy matrimony, forcing a dewy-eyed little shop in Minneapolis to love and cherish a dull, aging cash cow in New York. They probably imagined that the cold New York joint would warm to the creative touch of its young spouse, while the Minneapolis branch would somehow grow as lucrative as the boring but high-earning Gotham shop. It wasn’t meant to be. Clients ran screaming; staff were kicked out after them.

Behind the iron doors

“Oh, boy, my first New York job!” I said aloud as I approached the iron doors.

I walked into a tragedy. Women wept, carrying boxes. Ashen-faced middle-aged copywriters with bad portfolios—parents of young children—suddenly realized that they were unemployable.

The floor on which I was to work was being frantically redecorated to match the corporate colors of Minneapolis as almost everyone who worked there was laid off within a space of hours. “Pardon Our Appearance, We Are Redecorating” proclaimed a happy illustrated painter on a large sign. His was the only grin to be seen. Someone eventually drew an executioner’s hood over the happy painter’s head, and replaced his brush with an axe. Okay, that was me.

Over the next few years, the Saatchis brought in one brilliant outside creative director after another to try to make the merger work. I learned from all of them. The place was great for me in that way. It was also a fine source of drinking buddies. Almost nobody could handle the daily surrealism sober.

I worked at other places over the years. The great ones were small and created their own cultures. The not-so-great ones had almost always been good until they got too big.

Web for sale

Years later, I was a web designer doing independent content on the side. Some of my friends were also doing independent content. Some of them sold their sites to corporate buyers.

I was glad to see creative people get a paycheck, but suspicious because of what I had seen of mergers in my previous career. I feared that the buyers might not understand what they had bought, and might try to make it something it was not. And that indeed is what happened, every time.

Stay cool

In one instance, a married couple and their friend built up one of the first great educational sites for web developers. Everybody who knew the acronym HTML read this site in the mid- to late 1990s. It was informative, opinionated, and leading-edge. The writers were front-line web developers. They weren’t just ahead of the curve, they were helping to shape it. And they weren’t just technology writers, they were personalities. Huge personalities.

They also knew how to keep readers coming back, and and how to turn readers into a community. One way they did both these things was by honoring a different website every weekday. Hundreds of thousands of web professionals tuned in Monday through Friday to find out what site was being put forward as cool, and to argue passionately about whether it deserved such kudos.

It all changed the moment a traditional publisher bought the site, for what, by later standards, was surely a mere chest of shells and beads.

Out went the big personalities. (Literally. The founders were so frustrated, they soon quit.) Front-end web development articles focused on sponsoring companies’ technologies instead of JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, and were written with anonymous professionalism instead of character. The site’s point of view disappeared, and with it, so did most people’s interest in reading it. The daily cool site became a random shot over the bow instead of demonstrating a philosophy about emerging web content. At times one suspected the daily site was picked because of some back-room deal or misbegotten partnership arrangement.

What the publishers got for their investment, after destroying everything else about it, was residual search engine juice. Maybe that was enough for them.

Fortunately, the new buyers want more.

Born to run

When a famous old-school stock photography concern bought iStockphoto, some of us feared that it spelled the end for that independent photo community. Not so. iStockphoto is still iStockphoto, only now it has money. Likewise, Yahoo! bought flickr as flickr—not as a list of users to exploit or a URL to slap ads on. It bought del.icio.us as del.icio.us; all the purchase did (besides generate paychecks) was integrate the social bookmarking tool into other Yahoo! properties (like flickr). Similarly, Dodgeball is still Dodgeball despite its purchase by Google.

One could list these buyouts all day, but it would soon grow tedious. The point is, buyers now buy to own, not to run (and ruin).

Are today’s buyers smarter? Or are they just too busy to meddle? What do you think?

[tags]web2.0, buyouts, mergers, saatchi[/tags]

Independent content is the new web app

Attending SXSW Interactive not only tunes us in to web trends and ideas we may have missed, it also makes clear where we are in the life cycle of developments with which we are familiar. Thus in 2001, if you weren’t already aware of it, a quick scan of panels and parties made it manifestly obvious that blogging had peaked. The spread of web standards was the previous year’s meme: practically everyone I met in 2000 apologized that their blog didn’t validate “yet.”

Two years ago, everyone I talked to at SXSW Interactive asked what app I was working on. I felt painfully unhip to still be doing content and design—like I’d shown up for a punk gig in disco drag.

But times change. Even the quickest scan of this year’s parties and sponsors made it obvious (if it wasn’t already) that the Web 2.0 “get bought” window is closing fast. If your tag management app isn’t out of alpha by next week, don’t bother—unless you actually wanted to create a tag management app, and weren’t building it to finance a Sean John lifestyle.

I came away this year with two impressions:

  1. Possibly because “Web 2.0” has pumped money into the field, people care about the craft again.
  2. Web 1.0 is the new Web 2.0.

As the second point is more interesting, I’ll focus on it.

SWSX Interactive is about zeitgeist, and what’s on people’s business cards can tell you as much about the industry as what’s being discussed on the panels. Last year people’s business cards told you that AOL, Google, Apple and Yahoo were hiring everyone with a nice blog, a SXSW panel, and an A List Apart article to their credit. This year’s business cards are about (drumroll) content.

The kind of content we used to create on personal/independent sites like {fray} and afterdinner.com, many of us are creating again (not that we ever stopped). But this time, we are creating it at the behest of companies like AOL, Google, and Yahoo.

Ficlets, for example, is a collaborative fiction site put together by Cindy Li and her colleagues. It’s awesomely cool. But instead of being something Cindy and her colleagues do at night, after their day job, Ficlets is their day job. And it’s not a long-shot day job at an underfunded startup. It’s a day job at America On-Line (and the content is part of the AIM.com network).

Not long ago, giants like AOL were buying startups like Brian Alvey and Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc. network. That was smart. Now the giants are creating their own startups and networks. That’s also smart, and it’s doubtless more cost-efficient than hunting and buying.

What is the trend? First, big companies (excluding AOL) ignored the web. Then they hired professionals who didn’t understand the web to design their sites and other professionals who didn’t understand the web to create their content. Last year, or maybe two years ago, these companies began hiring smart, experienced web designers who understand usability and web standards. Now they are hiring smart, experienced web content creators. Web 1.0 is the new Web 2.0. Long live Web 3.0.

[tags]sxsw, sxswi, web1.0, web2.0, independentcontent, webdesign, aol, google[/tags]

Register for An Event Apart Boston

Registration is now open for An Event Apart Boston 2007. Enjoy two amazing days of design and code plus meals, a party, and a bag of swag for a mere $795 (reg. $895) while early bird savings last. Attend for as little as $745 with a discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers.

Learn by day, party by night

On An Event Apart’s website, you’ll now find a detailed schedule describing the presentations with which our superstar speakers hope to entertain and enlighten you. From “Web Standards Stole My Truck!” to “Redesigning Your Way out of a Paper Bag,” it’s two stimulating days of best practices and fresh ideas in design, usability, accessibility, markup and code.

Check out that schedule. I’ll wait.

Lest you be overwhelmed by learning too much too soon, we’ll help you unwind (and do a little networking) at the Opening Night Party sponsored by Media Temple. You might even win a prize, courtesy of Adobe, New Riders, or Media Temple.

Hotel savings

Our Boston Events page also includes notes to help you book your hotel room at a specially negotiated discount price.

Located in beautiful and historic Back Bay, the Boston Marriott Copley Place provides in-room, high-speed internet access; laptop safes and coolers; 27-inch color TV with cable movies; luxurious bedding and linens, and more. Best of all, it’s the site of the conference. You can walk out of your room and into the show!

Save more with discount code

During the early bird period, the price for this two-day event is $795. But you can nab an extra $50 off with this discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers:

AEAZELD

Just enter AEAZELD in An Event Apart’s shopping cart to enjoy those savings immediately. During our early bird period, you’ll pay just $745 for the two days and everything that comes with them.

After February 26, 2007, when the early bird savings ends, the price goes up to $895, and you’ll pay $845 with the discount. Still pretty good for two days with some of the sharpest minds and greatest talents in web design. But why pay more? Book An Event Apart Boston as soon as you can.

Unlimited creativity, limited seating

An Event Apart Boston will be the best conference Eric Meyer and I have yet put together. It will also be this year’s only East Coast Event Apart. Don’t miss it.

Join Eric and me, along with Steve Krug, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Molly Holzschlag, Cameron Moll, Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, and Jason Santa Maria, for what we modestly believe may be the most exciting and enlightening show in modern web design.

Hurry! Seating is limited and early bird savings end Feb. 26, 2007.

[tags]aneventapart, boston, aneventapartboston07[/tags]

Return of the Son of XHTML Fist

Issue No. 227 of A List Apart, For People Who Make Websites,™ heralds the revivification and expansion of the A List Apart Store and T-Shirt Emporium.

Redesign/Realign shirt

We are now offering new T-shirt designs that tell the world you are a rebel, a maverick, an original in a world of copies (and you know HTML): Web 2.0, -9999px, and Redesign/Realign. We’ve also stocked gently remixed classics: Warning Sign and XHTML Fist AKA Six Fingers of Doom. And, yes, traditionalists can still stock up on timeless, unchanged ALA logo shirts, avec wreath.

When you’ve donned your shirt, strike a pose in our spanking new (and hard-to-pronounce) A List Apart Shirts Flickr Group.

Testing proves testing works

As you can imagine, choosing the right T-shirt production and fulfillment partner required a massive mental effort, supported by modern research methodologies. We studied all the production and fulfillment companies out there, analyzing market data and poring over spreadsheets. But we didn’t stop there.

We completed a 72-hour card-sorting exercise (with no bathroom breaks), ran double-blind focus groups, and even hired our friends who used to call themselves information architects.

Sure, it was work—weeks of it. But it was worth it. Our grueling, science-based efforts paid off by revealing, as no sloppy shortcuts could have, the best possible choice of vendors. In short, we hired Jason’s wife’s company (also Nif’s!). They are awesome. (More shirt coverage is available at Jason Santa Maria dot com.)

All this … and content, too!

But this issue of A List Apart is not merely about re-opening our store’s doors. It’s about opening your mind. And in this issue, Rob Swan and Matthew O’Neill help us do just that:

In Defense of Difficult Clients

by Rob Swan

We’ve all had bad clients. All too rarely do we find ourselves working for someone who understands what we do, respects our craft, and defers to our judgement. But do bad clients get a bad rap? Can we turn bad client relationships into good learning experiences? Can our worst clients help us better understand and articulate our highest beliefs about our calling? Well, anyway, Rob Swan thinks so. Read this and see what you think.

Super-Easy Blendy Backgrounds

by Matthew O’Neill

Gradients and bevels, bevels and gradients. Bevels, bevels, bevels. Gradients, gradients, gradients. And sometimes, drop-shadows. But mostly, and especially, gradients. Nothing says “Buy me, Google,” like a nice gradient background—especially in a navigation bar. Wouldn’t it be swell if you could get all that goodness without opening Photoshop every time you needed a little gradient bliss? Matthew O’Neill explains how you can. Happy coding and selling out!