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.



The feed is gone

Over the weekend, I added my Ma.gnolia bookmarks feed to my blog post template, such that every post would be followed by links to and descriptions of the last five external web pages to have caught my fancy. Inserting the feed into the template was easy and took all of three minutes.

This morning, I removed the feed.

Why I inserted the feed

From 1995 until around the time Happy Cog worked on the Ma.gnolia design project, one of the things I wrote about here was other people’s websites. I did it because I was passionate about web design, and so were the people who read this site. And of course, writing about other people’s sites also provided a ready form and steady stream of content. From 1995 until about 2001, I wrote here several times a day, and had millions of readers.

Then married life, and a business that grew in spite of my lifelong effort to avoid commercial success, ate into my blogging time. Today I write less frequently and have fewer readers. In an effort to provide linkage even when I don’t have time to write posts, I added my Ma.gnolia feed to my site’s sidebar in 2006. (It’s still there, on my front page. You may need to scroll down to see it.)

A flaw in the design

Not everyone notices the Ma.gnolia feed in my sidebar, due to a flaw—one of many—in the way I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004. (I used to redesign this site several times a year, but haven’t touched it since Spring of 2004.)

When I redesigned zeldman.com in 2004, I thought it would be “neat” to make my sidebar’s linked text almost the same color as the background until you hovered over it. The idea being that the focus was on the site’s content, not all the little crap in the sidebar. The sidebar was like sand, and you, the reader, were like a beachcomber with a metal detector. Hover the metal detector over the sand, and you might find a quarter. Hover over my sidebar, and you might find additional content.

Like most “neat” ideas that aren’t entirely practical, this one required compromise in the execution. The result is a conventional sidebar with low-contrast text. Because of the low contrast, lots of people (including people with certain kinds of dyslexia) pay little attention to the sidebar’s content. So I need to redesign.

But meantime, slipping the Ma.gnolia feed out of the sidebar (on blog posts) and into the body of posts itself seemed like another neat idea. People who’d ignored the Ma.gnolia feed in the sidebar would now, finally, bask in its glory. Every post would end with the last five third-party links I’d reviewed. Neat, neat, neat.

Why I removed the feed

This morning I removed the feed from the body of the blog posts for a technical reason and a design/usability reason.

Technically, as we all know, it’s not a great idea to pull content from a third-party site. The third-party site can be slow. It can get hacked. It can even go down, causing one’s own pages not to finish rendering. (As I write this, Ma.gnolia’s server appears to be taking a little nap—an infrequent occurrence, although the server is often slow. As for my embedded Twitter feed, like yours, it suffers from near-constant narcolepsy.)

And from a design usability perspective, the idea just didn’t gel. For one thing, people would dig up old posts and write comments on them about sites newly added to the Ma.gnolia feed. Owing to the age of the posts, those comments were unlikely to be found by other readers. And as soon as the feed updated, the comments would become nonsensical, because they discussed content no longer found in the post.

So the feed is gone.

[tags]design, usability, ma.gnolia, zeldman.com, happycog, links[/tags]