Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Introducing studio.zeldman

STUDIO.ZELDMAN is open for business. It’s a vision I’ve been cooking up, a new studio supported by some of the most talented people in our industry and everything I’ve learned in two-plus decades of web and interaction design. And now it’s here. studio.zeldman designs digital experiences and provides strategic consulting. We don’t have a portfolio yet, but we landed our first client before we launched. Come on down!

The Design

Heading in this direction meant leaving the studio I founded in 1999 (we’re on the best of terms, and it’s an excellent company in great hands). My rise to an almost purely strategic position there taught me a lot about my business—but it also kept me from designing new projects. And I’ve been itching to get back to my roots. Three factors shaped my design for the new studio’s website:

  1. I wanted to try something different: something that was conceptual and art directional. Jen Simmons’s An Event Apart presentations (like this one from last year) inspired me to break out of the columnar rut of current design and create something that didn’t look like it came pre-baked in a framework.
  2. Because I am contrary, I thought it might be fun to allude to an outdated design approach (like, say, skeuomorphism) in a responsive web layout—if the content supported such a gambit.
  3. Most of all, my design had to come out of content.

Let’s unpack that third point a bit more. Normally, design studio websites discuss the customer’s business problems and posit design (and their particular skills) as the solution. It’s a strategy David Ogilvy pioneered for print advertising in the 1950s (“problem/solution”).

Every mention of an achievement or capability exists to show how it solved a client’s business problem: “our redesign increased conversion by 20%” or “our testing and iterative process reduced shopping cart abandonment by 37%,” and so on. Such sites talk about the company’s expertise, positioning it within a framework of client needs. Almost every design studio says the same two or three things at the top of their home page, leaving the real selling to their site’s case studies section. But studio.zeldman is new. No portfolio yet; no company history.

But first, a little something about me

With no portfolio, our strategy—at least for the launch—couldn’t be about our body of work. At least for now, it had to be about me: what I believe, what I’ve done. I came to that realization very reluctantly: I wanted to create a studio that was bigger than any one person. (My original name for the company was simply “studio,” and my plan for the design was that it should be as clean and basic as water.)

But Jason Fried of Basecamp, who is one of my smartest friends, persuaded me that what was unique about this new studio was me, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Jason convinced me to write simply and directly, in my own voice, about what I believe design is and does—and to support that message by showing some of the things I’ve done that reach beyond my portfolio.

As if I were sitting down to send you a personal note about this new company I’m starting, the best way to express those thoughts on the site was in a letter. That was the strategy. The letter was the idea. And the idea shaped the design.

A new angle on an old design idea

In 2007, if I were designing a site that began with a letter to the reader, I would have used drop shadows and paper textures to suggest that context. Back in 1995, I’d have made an image of a letter on a table or desk top, and the letter would have been at a slight angle, as if the writer had just left it there. Could I allude to these old-fashioned ideas in a way that was subtle and modern?

The 1995 technique of a photorealistic letter was out. But a slightly angled “paper” was feasible; Jen Simmons had shown me and hundreds of other people how this kind of thing could be achieved in modern CSS.

Of course, whether something is possible in modern browsers and whether it actually reads well can be two different things. So while I was comping in pen and paper and in Photoshop, we also ran tests. My collaborator Roland Dubois set up a CSS3 font-smoothing test for angled text in JSFiddle, while my friend Tim Murtaugh of MonkeyDo put together a quick prototype of the top portion of my initial design. Everything checked out.

Once I knew an angled letter could work, I made the angled placement and angular cropping of images a guiding principle and unifying idea for the rest of the design. On the calendar, it took me from January through April of this year to land on a design idea I liked. But once I had it, the site seemed to design itself in just days.

I confess: yes, I designed in Photoshop. (Don’t tell anyone, but I even started with a grid.) And, yes, to your horror, on this project I designed for big screens first, because that’s where these particular design ideas could be most impactful. I knew we could make the design sing on any size screen, but designing for big-screen-first brought this particular project’s biggest coding challenges to the fore and provided the excitement I needed to get to the finish line. Nothing brings a smile to a designer’s lips like seeing your web idea completely fill a 27-inch screen (and do it responsibly, even).

The best part

The best part of the page is the part I didn’t design. Roland did. It’s that magical form. I could play with that thing forever, and I hope potential clients feel the same.

Some folks who checked out the beta asked why we didn’t focus on specific capabilities or budget ranges. Fair question. We certainly could have launched as, say, a redesign shop, or a web-only studio, or a content-focused studio. Any of those would have been credible, coming from me, and differentiating ourselves right out of the gate would not have been a stupid move. We really thought about it.

But we decided it would be more interesting to be less specific and find out what our potential clients are actually looking for. Consider it research that might sometimes lead to a gig.

studio.zeldman thanks you

Mica McPheeters and Jason Fried checked out my copy and kept me honest. Tim Murtaugh coded an early prototype of the site. Roland Dubois coded the final from scratch. Noël Jackson set up the repository and CDN, and ran sophisticated tests that uncovered everything from bugs to performance issues, rebuilding and re-coding with Roland to squeeze every byte of performance we could out of a site with full-screen Retina images. An article by Roland and Noël on the experiments and techniques they used to code this site would be infinitely more interesting than what you’ve just read.

Hoefler & Co. designed the reliable letter font which you will all recognize as Sentinel; DJR created Forma, which I think of as sexy Helvetica, and let us use it even though it is still in beta. Before launch, to save bandwidth, we tried recreating the site design using system fonts. Wasn’t the same. (And with WOFF and CDNs and subsetting, we were able to deliver these wonderful faces without choking your pipes.)

Our thanks to the beta testers: Andrew Kirkpatrick (above and beyond the call of duty on matters of web accessibility), Rachel Andrew, Jen Simmons again, Anna Debenham, Jeremy Seitz, and Nicholas Frota. And to Anil Dash, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand, and Khoi Vinh, who gave us design feedback prior to launch.

Most of all, thanks to the “Royal Advisors” who put up with my endless changes of mind, and who always acted as if they were pleased to check out my newest brainstorm, or listen to my latest circular argument: Sarah Parmenter, Jason Fried, Fred Gates, Jen Simmons, and Mike Pick.

Has Design Become Too Hard? – transcription

What follows is a transcription of Has Design Become Too Hard?, which I wrote for Communication Arts in June 2016. I transcribe it here against the day CA takes down its content.

 

WE DESIGNERS love to complain. It’s our nature. After all, if we were satisfied with the way things work, feel, and look, we wouldn’t have become designers in the first place. But lately, particularly among web and interaction designers, our griping has taken on a grim and despairing flavor. Digital design is not what it used to be, we say. The fun has gone out of it. An endless deluge of frameworks and technologies has leached the creativity out of what we make and do, and replaced the joy of craft with a hellish treadmill of overly complicated tools to master.

Many of us feel this way, but is it true?

Consider responsive web design, proposed six years ago (video) by Ethan Marcotte at An Event Apart, and subsequently turned into an article and then a book. In twenty-plus years, I’ve never seen a design idea spread faster, not only among designers but even clients and entire corporations. Companies brag about having responsive designs for advertising, for crying out loud. Yet, after a euphoric honeymoon, designers soon began complaining that responsive design was too hard, that we’d never faced such challenges as visual people before. But haven’t we?

In the early days of web design, beginning in 1995, pixels were not standardized between PC and Macintosh; monitor aspect ratios were not standardized, period; and when we got a standardized layout language for the web, every browser supported it differently for years.

We tried “liquid layout” to work around the fact that every monitor was different. Our clients demanded we put everything above the fold, and we acted as if there was one—a consensual hallucination, when there were as many folds as there were screens, browsers, and user-adjustable settings.

Later, when standards were better supported in browsers, some of us pretended that “everybody” had a 600 x 400 monitor (and then an 800 x 600, and then 1024 x 768), but these too were consensual hallucinations. And even in those rose-colored fixed-width days, there was always a client or a QA tester whose user preference settings, outdated browser, or wonky operating system blew our carefully constructed fixed-width layouts to hell.

THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT WORK
Good design was never easy. The difference between now and then is that today, instead of pretending or wishing that everyone used the same platform with the same settings to view print-perfect digital masterpieces, we acknowledge that people will access our content however they choose, and with whatever device they have close at hand—and we design accordingly. For the first time since people first argued over how to pronounced “GIF,” we’re designing with the medium instead of against it.

Designers say, “okay, I’m down with responsive design—in a world of phones and watches, I have to be—but today’s code is too hard.” Yet is it? And was it ever easy?

At the web’s beginning, we wrote gibberish markup, using table cells, spacer pixel GIFs, and chicken wire to rig our digital design experiences together. Then came what many think of as a golden age, when browsers supported web standards well enough that we could use them—and nothing much changed in the browser universe for years, meaning that once we had mastered our CSS, HTML, and maybe a little JavaScript, our education in the front-end design department was complete, and we would not have to learn much of anything new.

DESIGNING INVISIBLE STRUCTURES
That has changed, to be sure, but not the way you may think, and not for the worse. Certainly there are a few new elements in HTML5 to learn—elements that add structural semantics to our content precisely when we need them. New elements like aside and article are perfect for a world in which we aren’t designing “pages” so much as systems, and where we’re taking an increasingly modular approach to design as well as content. New standard tools like Flexbox enable designers to separate content from presentation at the atomic level, which can be extremely beneficial to our clients and (more importantly) to the people who want to read and interact with their content. For an example of how this works, turn, again, to our friend Ethan Marcotte, who wrote about this very thing in November of last year.

You should read Ethan’s article, but here’s a quick summary of what he did. In redesigning a large content site, he first focused on creating a host of tiny, reusable patterns—such as headline, deck, and thumbnail. Several of these headline, deck, and thumbnail units were combined into a “teaser” module that promoted internal content elsewhere in the site, a common design pattern on media sites. Ethan then wrote markup based on the pattern he had visually designed—just like we all do.

But then came the fresh insight: what if a user doesn’t access the site’s content the same way Ethan does? For instance, what about blind or low-vision users who navigate web content as non-visual hypertext? Would the HTML structure Ethan had designed work perfectly for them? Or could it be improved?

It turned out the design of the HTML structure could be modified to better serve folks who browse content that way. As a plus—and this almost always happens when we design with the “stress case” user in mind—the site also worked better for other kinds of users, such as folks who access content via watches (on the high end) or not-so-smartphones (on the low end). In the same way you design visual elements to guide people through an experience, you can (and should) design your markup to create a compatible experience, even when this means the HTML does not follow the same order as the visual stream. HTML5 and Flexbox helped Ethan make better design decisions.

THAT FEELING OF INADEQUACY
Okay. So HTML is a bit richer than it used to be. And CSS is more powerful. But does a designer need to learn a lot more than that? Must you master Sass? Must you use Bootstrap or other frameworks? (For this is the source of many designers’ anxiety.) The answer is maybe … and maybe not.

Maybe if you’re specializing more and more in front-end code, it makes sense for you to learn Sass, as it gives your CSS superpowers and makes updating your code easier. For instance, when a client changes their brand colors, it may be easier to change one instance in Sass (and have Sass update all your code), rather than hunt-and-peck your way through hundreds of lines of CSS. Obviously, many designers have adopted Sass because of these benefits. Less obviously, some equally brilliant designers have not. We judge designers by their work, not by the tools they use to do that work, right? If learning something new excites you, go for it. If it’s causing undue anxiety, don’t force yourself to learn it now. You are still a good person.

As to frameworks like Bootstrap, they’re great if prototyping is part of your team’s design process—and in the world of apps, it surely should be. Such frameworks make it very easy to quickly launch a working design and test it on real human beings. But after a few iterations have improved your design, it’s time to dump Boostrap and code from scratch.

That’s because launching sites and applications based on Bootstrap or any other heavy framework is like using Microsoft Word to send a text message. Lean, performant sites—the kind smartphone users love (and desktop users love, too)—rely on tight, semantic markup and progressive enhancement: a fancy phrase that means everything works even in crummy browsers or when there is no JavaScript. And progressive enhancement is just not baked into any popular framework. The frameworks are huge, and heavy, and come with an expectation that the user has access to “the right” browser or device, and that everything works. Whereas in the real world, something is always breaking. So whether you use a framework as part of your design process or not, when it’s time to go public, nothing will ever beat lean, hand-coded HTML and CSS.

That’s a truth that hasn’t changed in 20 years, and probably won’t change in our lifetimes.

So relax. Quit tearing yourself down for not knowing every framework that’s out there. Stop worrying about where the fun went. And go design something useful and beautiful. Same as you always have.

Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) is the co-founder of An Event Apart design conference; founder and publisher of A List Apart magazine; and the author of Designing With Web Standards.

Has Design Become Too Hard? | Jeffrey Zeldman in Communication Arts

Digital design is not what it used to be, we say. The fun has gone out of it. An endless deluge of frameworks and technologies has leached the creativity out of what we make and do, and replaced the joy of craft with a hellish treadmill of overly complicated tools to master. Many of us feel this way, but is it true?

Has Design Become Too Hard?—Jeffrey Zeldman in Communication Arts

Position Wanted: Front-End Director

WE have creative directors and design directors, but we don’t seem to have any front-end directors. And maybe we should.

For years at big companies, people in different silos have written CSS with no information or understanding about each other’s work. This results in huge, sloppy files that have a negative impact on site performance, as folks write more and more complex rules trying to override pre-existing ones … or “solve” the problem by adding dozens or even hundreds of classes to their CSS and markup.

Professionals with serious front-end chops have tried to solve the problem by coming up with complex rules and systems which, by the time they filter their way down to less experienced developers, get turned into dogma. Every time I see a front-end article’s comments section rapidly fill with absolute statements about whether it’s okay or not to use id, I recognize that someone’s good idea has turned into somebody else’s religion.

And while I commend my colleagues who craft approaches to CSS that help avoid the inevitable problems large-scale enterprises encounter when many coders in many silos work on many components without talking to each other, I think there may be another way to look at the problem.

We all know having many people in many silos write CSS any old way doesn’t work, unless you consider bloat and poor performance working.

And while restricting how you allow people to write code solves some of these problems, it introduces others: too many class names is just another word for bloat.

So how about following the example of other creative endeavors, and putting a single mind in charge? After all, no matter how many disparate photographers, teamed with how many art directors, work on a given issue of a periodical, there’s always a lead art director who advises, helps plan shoots, and ultimately approves the work. Every orchestra requires a conductor. And no matter how many animators work on a film, there’s always a director. There’s a reason for that.

Imagine shooting a film with no director and no storyboards, in which each scene was written by a different screenwriter, and nobody knew the shape of the overall story. It wouldn’t make a coherent movie, much less a good one. Yet that’s how too many big organizations still approach front-end design and development.

So here’s a thought, big orgs. Instead of throwing a thousand front-end developers at your problem and seeing what sticks, consider creating a front-end director position as empowered as any other director at your organization.

Abandon Hope!

THE FILTHIEST men’s room in New York is on the 8th floor of 291 Broadway. You would think the men’s room at Penn Station or the bus terminal would beat any other for filth and stench but you’d be wrong. 291 Broadway’s is worse. There are five years of crushed insects on the walls. They never get scraped or cleaned away. There is stranger’s urine in every porcelain receptacle in the place. Weeks of it. It never gets flushed. You can try flushing it, sure, but it never goes down. Men urinate fresh streams atop gallons of other men’s stale urine in perpetuity ad infinitum. It sickens the soul. Chills the blood. Is enough to make the pope doubt God’s existence.

This bathroom is not in a slum. It is not in a poor third world favela. This bathroom is in a fancy NYC skyscraper, a stone’s throw from the historic Woolworth Building. I visit this bathroom once a week from the waiting room of a fancy office where, this being New York, I drop $250 per session. This is a court appointed specialist so I can’t choose another—say, one in a building with a clean and functioning restroom. This specialist deals with serious human misery. The kind that comes when families are torn apart. She does a good job of helping people. I doubt she has visited the men’s room here. If she had been to it, even once, even just for a moment, I doubt she could find the will to carry on in her good works. There are many filthy places in New York. Places that breed addiction, crime, and despair. Places no sane person would willingly go. Cesspools of the human spirit. Places where hope dies and light is extinguished. They are all better than the men’s room on the eighth floor at 291 Broadway. 

Shopify Partners Program wants you—and so do I!

Partner Studio

AS MUCH as I love reading (and writing and publishing) books and articles about design, I’ve never learned as much from a book as I’ve picked up over time while rubbing shoulders with colleagues who share my work space.

It’s why, even though NYC office rents are ludicrously expensive, I opened a shared design studio space in gently trending NoMad, Manhattan in January of 2012. And why, just three short months ago, I leaped at the chance to help launch the Shopify Partners Studio Program—a coworking space and casual mentoring program for exceptionally talented freelance ecommerce designers and developers.

The first six participants included a web developer and social media consultant; a visual experience designer; a freelance web developer and blogger; two freelance designer/developers; and a copywriter/marketing consultant. Three of them sought feedback from me on exciting business and product ideas they’d come up with; two asked me for career guidance and business advice. All taught me more than I taught them, and inspired me to look at my own work and career with fresh eyes.

Most or all of these lovely and talented people will be moving on soon, as the next phase of Shopify Partner Studio begins. Which brings us to you.

Apply now to join the next round of Shopify Partner Studio! If selected for residency, you’ll gain access to a suite of opportunities to kickstart your business, including:

  • Free rent and high-speed Internet for three months in my studio on lower Madison Avenue.
  • Mentorship from your humble narrator, Shopify executives, and “other industry icons.” (I put the quotations around Shopify’s phrase to not sound like a complete egomaniac.)
  • Fast-tracked access to the Shopify Experts Marketplace, where Shopify sends its 243,000 merchants looking for help with store, theme, and app builds.
  • A free Shopify store to build your portfolio website.
  • A free ticket to Smashing Conference NYC.

So what are you waiting for? Join me and some of your smartest colleagues in an experience that just might help make your career. Apply now to the Shopify Partners Studio Program.

Getting to the heart of users’ deepest needs

Book excerpt

IN TODAY’S A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Design for Real Life

by Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Eric Meyer

We say we’re crafting personas to fit the needs of “real” people—yet we easily revert to abstractions when raw emotions enter the picture. Common human experiences aren’t “edge” cases; we don’t get to dismiss what seems uncomfortable or different to us. In this excerpt from Design for Real Life, Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher take on the elephant in the room—the tendency to look the other way.

Design for Real Life – An interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

by Mica McPheeters, Sara Wachter-Boettcher

A List Apart’s managing editor Mica McPheeters speaks with Sara Wachter-Boettcher about getting to the heart of users’ deepest needs.

Good intentions can easily blind us to bad ideas—accidentally awful outcomes that alienate and distress our users. It’s time to take a hard look at our processes, to recognize and work through our biases toward idealized users in ideal situations. In this interview with managing editor Mica McPheeters, Sara Wachter-Boettcher talks about what she learned while writing Design for Real Life.

Pinterest giveth, and Pinterest taketh away

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)
AS MY design career has taken on more and more strategic and managerial freight, I’ve done less and less hands-on design. This year, I decided to change that. As part of my reimmersion, I found myself reading less, and absorbing visual information more. Enter Pinterest.

I’d played with the app when it first came out—who didn’t?—but it didn’t stick with me the way a handful of apps do. It didn’t become an obsession, and so I gradually forgot about it. That’s just how apps work for me. They’re heroin, or they’re nothing.

But the moment my days began filling with sketching, and coding, and Photoshop comping, the genius of Pinterest, and the addictive high it provides when used obsessively and compulsively, was revealed to me.

In borderline religious ecstasy, I became a Pinterest junkie, compelled to collect and catalog every artist I’ve ever loved—every type designer, illustrator, filmmaker, social absurdity, comic book character, and book designer; every half-forgotten cartoonist; every city or nation I’ve visited.

Using Pinterest not only revived long-dead visual design brain cells, it created new ones. Work-related layouts and color schemes came easier as I spent more and more “downtime” collecting and cataloging half-forgotten styles, genres, and artists—and discovering new ones.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

I ♥ Pinterest

As part of this work—for work it is; call it “research” if you prefer—I spent hours rearranging Boards on my profile for maximum aesthetic effect and rhythm. And more hours choosing and replacing the cover illustration for each Board. (If you don’t use Pinterest, here’s a summary: it lets you pin any image you find on the web, or on your own computer desktop or mobile device, to a virtual whiteboard. Pinterest calls each whiteboard you create a “Board,” and each image you affix to it a “Pin.” Part of the fun comes from sequencing Boards on your profile for aesthetic or educational reasons; choosing the featured image for each Board is likewise important and fun.)

Until a few days ago, you could edit and re-edit the featured image for each Board whether you were using Pinterest on the web (that is, via desktop computer), your phone, or your tablet. Doing these things worked differently on the different devices—choosing the featured image was actually faster and less tedious on iPhone and iPad than it was on the web—but the functionality was available in all three places, because Pinterest recognized that brands exist between devices, and that folks interact with your service on different devices at different times, as they choose.

Likewise, until a few days ago, you could change the order of Boards on your profile via drag and drop whether you were using Pinterest on the web or your tablet. (Likely because of screen space constraints, this functionality was not available on iPhone, where the display of Board content necessarily differs from the more desktop-design-focused method used on the web and on iPad.) Users like me changed the order of Boards to create visual interest, set up ironic contrasts, create visual rhythms up and down the screen, and so on. I’m a designer. I have my ways. These details are important to me—and, I imagine, to many other users, since Pinterest is a drug for visual obsessives.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

An unexpected change

Then, a few days ago, Pinterest released an update that removed this functionality from the iPhone and iPad (and, I’m assuming, from Android as well). There was no blog post announcing the change. And no rationale offered for taking away features that mattered a lot to users like me. Pinterest knows these features matter, because Pinterest has our data. That’s the difference between making a digital product folks interact with via the internet, and making, say, a toilet plunger. If I manufacture toilet plungers, I can make assumptions about how folks use my product, but I probably don’t have much real data. If I make an application people use via http, I know everything.

Now, it’s not like people were complaining about the ability to edit their Boards: “We have too much freedom! This software provides too many delightful functions. Please remove two of them. But only from my mobile device.”

No. The features are still there on the website. So Pinterest knows people like these features.

And it’s not like the features are too difficult to put into mobile devices, since they already existed in those mobile devices.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

A failure to communicate

You may ask why I’m telling you all this instead of telling it to Pinterest. Good question. The answer is, I tried telling Pinterest, but they don’t provide a forum for it. And that is the biggest problem. A company that makes products people love should have a way to communicate with those people. Not grudgingly offer them a few character-limited form fields on a “survey” page that isn’t even referenced in the site’s navigation.

When the features stopped working on my iPhone and iPad, I assumed something had gone wrong with my apps, so I deleted and reinstalled them. (Remember, there was no announcement; but then why would any company announce that it was taking away loved features for no apparent reason?)

When deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, I sought help and contact pages on Pinterest (and was only able to find them via third-party search engine).

In trying to file a bug report, I ended up in a pleasant (but confusing) conversation with a very nice Pinterest employee who explained that I wasn’t experiencing a bug: the software engineers had made a conscious decision to remove the functions I use every day … and had no intention of restoring them. She wasn’t able to tell me why, or point me to a URL that would offer a rationale, but she did tell me I could use Pinterest’s “Recommend a feature” form to “recommend” that the software engineers put those features back.

Since “Recommend a feature” is hidden from site navigation, the kindly person with whom I was in dialog provided a link where I could type in a few characters requesting that Pinterest restore the “drag Board order” functionality. There wasn’t room in the form fields to explain why I thought the feature should be restored, but at least I was able to make the request. The form asked if I was a Business account user, which I am. I don’t remember when or why I bought the Business tier of service. Maybe for the analytics. Maybe just because, as someone who makes stuff myself, I choose to pay for software so I can support the good people who make it, and do what I can to help their product stick around.

(It’s the same reason I remained a Flickr Pro user even after Yahoo gave the whole world 2GB of photo storage space for free. If everything is free, and nobody pays, services you love tend to go away. Half of web history is great services disappearing in the night after investors were dissatisfied with only reasonable profits.)

I don’t know why my paid status mattered to Pinterest, but I couldn’t help feeling there would be a prejudice in favor of my comment if I checked the box letting them know I was a paying customer. Even though it was information they requested, checking the box made me feel dirty. I also wondered why they were asking me. I mean, don’t they know? I gave them the email address they use for my login. I was logged in. They know my status. Are they just checking to see if I know it, too?

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

There can only be one (feature request)

But I digress. Because here is the main point. The moment I submitted the tiny, inadequate form requesting the restoration of a recently removed feature, the site set a cookie and sent me a message thanking me for completing the “survey.” It wasn’t a survey, but I guess one task completion message is as good as another.

Then I tried to use the inadequate form to report my second concern—the one about the removal of the ability to choose a featured image for my Board. The way this had always worked on the tablet was far superior to the tedious, painstaking way it works on my desktop. On the tablet, you could scroll through all your images with the flick of a finger, select the image you wanted, and complete the task in a few seconds. On the desktop, you had to click your way through every image on your Board in reverse chronological order. It’s the difference between flicking through a calendar, and clicking backwards from today, to yesterday, to the day before yesterday, and so on. The tablet version was fast, easy, intuitive—you interact directly with your content; you can see all relevant content at a glance. The desktop version is cumbersome and 1999-ish. If I had to pick which platform must lose the functionality I relied on, I would not have chosen the tablet. No customer who used the feature in both places would.

But I wasn’t able to share even a few characters of this thought with Pinterest, because once you submit a “survey” requesting a feature, a steel wall in the guise of a cookie slams down, and you cannot make a second feature suggestion.

Not even the next day. (Which is today. Which I just tried.)

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

This is a love letter

And that is why, as a hardcore fan and user of Pinterest, a service I love and use compulsively, I am using the public web rather than Pinterest’s somewhat unhelpful help center, to share my request with the brilliant software engineers who create this fabulous product.

And with designers, because these are the mistakes we all make when we create products and content sites. We think we are all about the people who use what we create. But we are probably frustrating the pants off them with our arbitrary design decisions and inadequate customer feedback mechanisms.


Also published on Medium.

Grid Layout & Flexbox City

CSS GRID LAYOUT is nearly finalized. Which means it’s time for designers and front-end developers to set the flags enabling their browsers to support the new specification, put CSS Flexbox through its paces by using it to create layouts, and see if anything breaks. This way, if anything does break, we’ll have time to tell the framers of CSS Grid Layout what happened, and get the spec (and browser support) fixed before it is released. Once Grid is finalized, it will be too late to fix oversights.

The links below can help you (and me) get up to speed with the new tech:

CSS Grid Layout and CSS Flexbox Links

Thank You

Additional link curation by Rachel Andrew, author of Get Ready for CSS Grid Layout from A Book Apart, and speaker extraordinaire at An Event Apart Nashville, a three-day conference that wrapped yesterday. For a ton of great web resources, see AEA Resources: Articles, Links, and Tools From An Event Apart Nashville 2016.