LOUIS C.K.’s 2008 viral rant on Conan O’Brien be damned. Seven years later, in-flight Wi-Fi is still maddeningly slow, expensive, and unreliable.
ISSUE № 426 of A List Apart reframes the design process:
by Alla Kholmatova
Goodbye, pages; hello, systems! When we break things down into atomic units, design elements become more scalable and replaceable, easier to test, and quicker to assemble. Alla Kholmatova emphasizes that a shared vocabulary should be the jumping-off point for teams who want to adopt a modular design approach. Let’s start with language, not interfaces.
by Jessica Harllee
Showing your in-progress designs can be scary, but there’s no better way to keep your product in line with your users’ needs. Research and testing aren’t just boxes to be checked off; they’re methodologies to be integrated into the entire design process—and the more, and the more diverse, the merrier. Jessica Harllee explains how Etsy shares their work with users every step of the way—and the benefits (and surprises) that follow.
GET READY for Lara Hogan, author of Designing For Performance, as she shares pretty much about everything you’ll need to know to design optimally performant front-end web experiences. It’s one of twelve essential sessions that make An Event Apart Austin 2015 the Southwest’s don’t-miss web design and development event of 2015.
Stagnation is fine for some jobs—when I was a dishwasher at The Earth Kitchen vegetarian restaurant, I enjoyed shutting off my brain and focusing on the rhythmic scrubbing of burnt pans, the slosh and swirl of peas and carrots in a soapy drain—but professionals, particularly web professionals, are either learning and growing or, like the love between Annie Hall and Alvy Singer, becoming a dead shark. If you’ve stopped learning on the job, it’s past time to look around.
I’M ALWAYS telling my colleagues and students that a designer who wants to make a difference and enjoy a long career must master writing and public speaking. I’ve seen way too many designers with far greater natural gifts than I possess struggle in early, mid-, and late career, because, despite their great talent and the thoughtful rigor of their work, they lack the practiced, confident communications ability that every designer needs to sell their best work.
Few designers currently working better exemplify the designer-as-communicator than Mike Monteiro, co-founder of Mule Design and author of two great design books (so far). If you’ve heard Monteiro speak, or if you’ve read his books, you already know this. If you haven’t, you’re in for a treat: last month, because he loves designers and clients, and with the blessing of his publisher, Mike posted an entire chapter of his latest book, You’re My Favorite Client, for your free reading pleasure; now he has done the same thing with his best-selling first book, Design Is A Job.
Chapter 1 of Design Is A Job, posted for free last night on Medium, poses the question, just what exactly is a designer, anyway? After dispensing with the myth of the magical pixie creative and explaining why it is destructive, Mike settles in to explain what a good designer actually does—and why design, in its role as societal gatekeeper, is a high calling with a tough ethical mandate.
Reading good writing about design, by someone who actually works as a designer, is a rare pleasure. What are you waiting for? Enjoy Chapter 1 of Design Is A Job.
(And, heck, if you want more, you can always buy the book.)
Top animation by Mike Essl for Mike Monteiro.
MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.
The two principles are:
- Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
- Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.
The conflict between these two principles is best summarized, as is often the case, by the wonderfully succinct Jeremy Keith (author, HTML5 For Web Designers). In his 27 July post, “On The Verge,” Jeremy takes us through prior articles beginning with Nilay Patel’s Verge piece, “The Mobile Web Sucks,” in which Nilay blames browsers and a nonexistent realm he calls “the mobile web” for the slow performance of websites built with bloated frameworks and laden with fat, invasive ad platforms—like The Verge itself.
“The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.
A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:
I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.
And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:
It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.
I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)
To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.
I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)
Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”
SUMMER is halfway over. Have you hid out for a day of reading yet? Grab a shady spot and a picnic blanket (or just park it in front of the nearest AC unit), turn off your notifications, and unwrap this tasty treat: our 2015 summer reader.
Refresh your mind, heart, and spirit with this curated list of articles, videos, and other goodies from the recent past—from A List Apart and across the web.
Our 2015 compilation of articles, blogs, and other gems from across the web: perfect summer reading, poolside and beyond.
MOVE from the nightmare of design by committee to the joys of design collaboration.
In this 60-minute video captured live at An Event Apart Orlando: Special Edition, Kevin M. Hoffman explains how service design thinking, lean approaches to user experience, and co-design processes offer an alternative to the usual (expensive) design project frustrations, and deliver experiences to delight your users.
FAST COMPANY writes:
Apple, like Facebook, has entered into a standoff with the publishing industry and the open, if for-profit, web. And it’s being done under the aegis of design: choose a better reading experience on our curated platform, they offer, or let us clean up that pesky advertising on the open web.
N.B. This is not the first time this conversation has arisen, nor will it be the last. Off the top of my head, see also:
- The Death of the Open Web, New York Times 2010
- The Web Is Dead, Wired 2010
- The Web Is Dead, Long Live The Internet, Wired 2010
- Orbital Content A List Apart 2011
- Readability 2.0 is Disruptive Two Ways, zeldman.com 2011
- This Is A Website, zeldman.com 2013
- Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Medium? zeldman.com 2015
- The Web Is Not Poor Man’s Native, in progress 2015
⇛ Is the web under threat? Will Facebook or Apple kill or save journalism? Share your thoughts or your favorite links on the subject. Bonus points for older articles.
IN “HOW DROPBOX Remains Relevant,” Khoi Vinh explains why Dropbox owes much of its success to subtly faceted, user-focused design:
Even in an age when the biggest operating systems in the world actively eschew file hierarchies, Dropbox is thriving—its service matters deeply to countless users. Why? In part it’s because the company works hard at making file hierarchies useful, that they focus on the outcomes of file management and not just on the files and folders.
Absolutely. Dropbox sweats the user experience details as commendably as it masters the considerable engineering challenges required to reliably sync files everywhere a user may need them.
But there’s another reason Dropbox succeeds. And it isn’t despite its emphasis on old-fashioned file hierarchies. It’s because of that emphasis.
⇛ ALTHOUGH Khoi may well be right that “smart passive management of design assets and working files seems inevitable,” I, for one, do not look forward to the day I no longer have direct access to my files and the ability to control where and how they are stored. To my way of thinking, passive management of file assets is okay for screwing around with iPads, where we’re mainly watching TV on Netflix or obsessive-compulsively checking the popularity of our Instagram uploads. But for real work, and even for passionate hobby work (like managing family photos), give me files and folders any day.
Stay with photos a moment. Consider snapshots. For my money, apps like Photos (and, formerly, iPhoto) that “save” me from the “inconvenience” of knowing where my images are do me no favors. Thanks, but no thanks. Let me save photos where I want to save them, not where the system thinks I should save them—typically on a laptop’s rapidly filling solid state hard drive with minimal storage capacity.
Dropbox, with its emphasis on good old-fashioned hierarchies, is superb at automatically saving one original of each photo I take, whether shot with a phone or a fancy camera. No loops, no duplicates, no confusion. In contrast, Photo’s cloud sync options, designed to spare the user the trouble of thinking, always trip me up. Like when, after syncing my phone to my home desktop computer, I tell Photos to delete the photos I’ve just sync’d from my phone. Photos obeys my command, and then instantly restores the photos to my phone from the “cloud.”
Why would a system expect a user who has deleted files to want those files restored a moment later? In what universe of scenarios can that possibly be what the user expects? [Your system may work differently from mine. Your deletes may stick. If so, good on you. You may have checked a different box in a hidden drawer of a preferences dialog, possibly in the app preferences you can set in the app itself, or possibly in the app preferences you set in the phone’s Settings app, or possibly online—say, in iCloud, or possibly in the iCloud settings in the phone’s Settings app. This is simplicity?]
Because my phone and iCloud restore photos as soon as they’re deleted, my Camera Roll is an unwieldly monster—despite my applying common sense, logic, years of design and computer using experience, and hours of conversation with a rapidly dwindling circle of friends—not to mention the hours I’ve spent scouring the web for hints. The whole situation reminds me of an article I saw on the cover of PC World years ago: “Plug ‘n Play: How To Make It Work.” (Hint: If you have to learn how to make it work, it ain’t plug ‘n play. And that’s kind of how I feel about the current state of passive file management.)
⇛ SYSTEMS designed to relieve you of thinking too often end up forcing you to think, and think, and think, without ever solving the problems their supposed simplicity has created for you. How much easier would photo maintenance on my phone be if Photos, like Dropbox, used file hierarchies? I could solve the problem myself in a second, with the click of a checkbox, if only Apple weren’t committed to chasing a future where nobody needs to know anything about how their computer works—and, as a result, some of us have no clue what to do when the computer doesn’t work quite right.
⇛ I UNDERSTAND that these are difficult problems to solve, and that confusion and frustration are the price consumers pay for innovation that may benefit them in the long run, once all the kinks are out. I’m not anti-innovation or anti-Apple.
But I’m a web person. I like files. I like editing a CSS file without necessarily having to edit an HTML file. I like fixing a problem by replacing a corrupted file with a clean one. Maybe I’m set in my ways, but I don’t consider it a hardship to open a folder or replace a file. I wouldn’t be quite as happy with a web where I didn’t “need” to “bother” writing CSS.
In the same way, I like deciding where files go—saving an image for Project A in a Project A folder, a text document for Project B in a Project B folder (and all of it in Dropbox). I’m glad Adobe Lightroom maintains a picture of my photo folder hierarchy in a sidebar of its interface, enabling me to see where my files live, and instantly choose a group of photos by date (instead of, say, scrolling through thousands of files visually). When it’s time to get dressed in the morning, I don’t throw myself into a giant room full of clothes. I pull socks from my sock drawer and shirts from my shirt drawer. I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. It’s not a challenge.
Khoi ends his excellent Dropbox piece thusly:
Maybe we’re all just set in our ways, but people seem at least resigned, and more likely just plain comfortable with managing their files. It may not be what future workflows are built around, but for working designers, the future is hypothetical, and Dropbox works today.
To which I say Amen. And add the hope that, so long as my career lasts, I can keep using a workflow I find easy and comprehensible.
“Don’t make me think.” Absolutely. But, equally, don’t treat me like an idiot. Folders über alles.