Better Know a Speaker: Steve Krug

You may have heard that An Event Apart is expanding. 2007 will see big, two-day shows in fine, fancy towns like Boston, New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco—with more great speakers than before and at a lower ticket price per day.

Steve Krug

Take Boston, and consider but one of our nine featured speakers, Mr. Steve Krug (biography, business website), author of the game-changing usability tome Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, now in its second edition. I can’t believe we got him. I’m still awed that he said yes.

If not for Steve Krug, I wouldn’t so much as speak the word “usability” in the privacy of my home, let alone bandy it about in mixed company. Curt Cloninger memorably expressed what many of us felt when he wrote “Usability experts are from Mars, graphic designers are from Venus” in the July 28, 2000 issue of A List Apart.

Stop and smell the brimstone

Like many design professionals, I rejected usability when I first encountered it. That’s mainly because I first encountered it as a series of rules, put forward by business-oriented, lab-coat-wearing experts who were hostile to the aesthetic component of user experience. Later, the rules would soften. “Only use blue, underlined links” would give way to gentler and more flexible guidelines.

And even before this softening, there was much in the early, fire-and-brimstone approach to usability that was actually of value to web designers. I should have been open-minded enough to benefit from the helpful bits and wink at the rest. But I was too busy defending my creative turf (not to mention reliving old battles with badly run focus groups and cocky account execs) to look closer and see that usability mainly means designing for the people who use my site.

And then along came Mary

Don’t Make Me Think. Starting with his book’s very title, Steve Krug made me see. Advancing from one low-key, guilt-free, common-sense premise to the next, Don’t Make Me Think made me think. And think. Above all, it made me rethink.

Icon from archived Happy Cog projects page (non-hover state).

Consider an archived Happy Cog portfolio page. Ignore the problem of orange-on-orange, which falls more under accessibility than usability. Focus on the page’s unusual means of presenting written content. When you click an icon, relevant text emerges. Click again, and it disappears. For instance, when you gently tap Cate Blanchett, you get text about the Charlotte Gray website we designed for Warner Bros.

It’s nifty stuff—at least for a non-Flash, pre-Ajax site. Or is it? I had fun designing it; other designers had fun reverse-engineering it and adding the same show and hide effects to their pages. I even shared the code in the first edition of Designing With Web Standards, mainly to prove how easy it was to use CSS, JavaScript, and the DOM to create playful interfaces that roughly mimicked the behavior of applications and kiosk-based presentations.

But the page’s usability is awful. How could a visitor possibly know that she is supposed to click an icon to reveal pertinent hidden text? She couldn’t. Hence the explanatory text at the top of the page. If you have to explain how your interface works, maybe you need to rethink the whole thing.

Steve Krug didn’t drop by my house to tell me my design was overwrought and under-thought. And he wouldn’t have put it that way, anyway. He’s way too nice a guy, not to mention way too experienced a consultant, to base his tutelage on insults. But his book woke my conscience and reshaped how I approach my craft.

His book, which you can read during a business flight, makes a convincing case for studying your audience, learning their needs, creating pathways of experience that you hope will meet those needs, and then testing, testing, testing.

Krug convinces because he is witty, and charming, and humble, and mostly because his ideas make sense and ring true. Boiled down, the essence of usability is the same as the essence of all good design: Think more so your users don’t have to think at all.

Design, after all, is about solving problems. Start with your user’s.

Please come to Boston

An Event Apart Boston 2007

My Event Apart co-host Eric Meyer and I don’t know exactly what Steve Krug will talk about on March 26 or 27 on our stage at Marriott Copley Place. We only know we will be privileged to be among his listeners. Registration for An Event Apart Boston 2007 will open in January, 2007. (A lot) more information about the show will be available very soon.

In coming weeks, in these pages, I’ll share what each of our exciting speakers means to me. Meanwhile, enough about me and Steve Krug. What does Steve Krug mean to you?

[tags]aneventapart, Steve Krug, usability, design, webdesign, boston, conferences[/tags]

Happy Cog Philadelphia

Our letterhead isn’t finished. Our aging website doesn’t provide a clue. Ordinarily an announcement like this one would wait until a site redesign was complete, new business cards were slipped into wallets, and expertly prepared press materials had been carefully seeded in the fields of journalism and the lonely rooms of the blogosphere. But for reasons which will become apparent soon, we can’t wait to relate the news that Happy Cog™ is expanding.

In addition to its original New York flavor, Happy Cog now also comes in a delicious new Philadelphia blend, under the leadership of Happy Cog Philadelphia president Greg Hoy. Both offices provide high-level design and user experience consulting services. They share a vision. They share methods. They even share team members (some Cog personnel divide their time between New York and Philly).

More detailed and more meaningful announcements—not to mention an expanded and redesigned site—will come soon. Meanwhile, welcome, Jason, Rob, Daniel, Heather, Jon, Mark, and Robert Roberts-Jolly.

[tags]happycog, design, philadelphia, nyc, newyork[/tags]

An Event Apart Seattle

Join Kelly Goto, Erin Kissane, Jason Santa Maria, Eric Meyer and me for a jam-packed day of design and code on glorious Puget Sound.

The Time and Place

Monday 18 September 2006, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Bell Harbor International Conference Center
2211 Alaskan Way, Pier 66, Seattle, WA 98121 (Map)

Beautifully situated at Pier 66 on the downtown Seattle waterfront, Bell Harbor provides stunning views of the city and across Elliott Bay to Mt Rainier, plus easy walking proximity to the shops and restaurants of world-famous Pike Street Market.

The Schedule

Doors open at 8:00 am and the fun starts at 9:00:

9:00 am Hardcore CSS [Eric Meyer]
An in-depth exploration of what makes CSS work, how it works the way it does, and how you can make it work harder for you.
10:00 am These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For [Zeldman]
Selling design, accessibility, and web standards to tough clients, stubborn bosses, and unconvinced colleagues.
11:00 am BREAK!
11:15 Solving (Re)Design Problems [Jason Santa Maria]
Visually repositioning a beloved brand (namely, A List Apart). Design as problem solving. Knowing which problems to solve.
12:00 pm “One True Layout” [Eric Meyer]
Incredible stroke of genius or gross hack to be shunned? Eric analyzes this new “miracle” CSS layout technique and examines the pros and cons, both immediately and into the future.
1:00 pm Lunch
2:00 pm Sponsor Giveaways
Free software and services courtesy of Adobe, AIGA, Media Temple, Mozilla, and New Riders.
2:10 pm Textism (Writing the User Interface) [Zeldman]
Better design, better branding, and better usability through word choice. Editing for designers.
3:00 pm Designing for Lifestyle [Kelly Goto]
As design migrates from the web to mobile devices, our approach must also shift. Learn how companies are using ethnographic-based research to design smarter interfaces.
4:00 pm BREAK!
4:10 pm CRITIQUES [Kelly Goto, Erin Kissane, Eric Meyer, Jason Santa Maria, Zeldman]
A rip-snortin’ romp through the design, code, and content of sites created by some of the smartest people in the world — namely, the attendees of An Event Apart Seattle

The Afterglow

Join us after the event for a Happy Hour and a Half featuring free cocktails, sponsored by Blue Flavor.

6:00 pm – 7:30 pm
The Alibi Room
85 Pike St Ste 410
Seattle, WA 98101-2001
(206) 623-3180

[tags]aneventapart, an event apart, seattle[/tags]

We hold most of these truths

A copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is on public view at The New York Public Library. Accompanying it are several of the very first printed versions known to have survived.

Standing in the presence of these yellowing pages is like glimpsing the face of God, for they are the foundation of American democracy, and their core idea underlies all human rights struggles, liberation movements, and emergent democracies around the world.

The version in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is fascinating not only because it’s in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, but also because it contains passages that would have ended slavery at the birth of the American nation. But those passages had to be deleted before the Declaration could be signed by representatives of states where slavery was practiced.

Put another way, the client bought a document intended to liberate all humanity, but demanded changes that kept part of humanity in chains. It would take another 100 years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before slavery ended, and the tragic legacy of African enslavement plagues the U.S. to this day. (At The New York Times: a slide show of Freedom Rider portraits, a work in progress by my friend Eric Etheridge.)

So the next time a client requests changes that make your work less beautiful, less usable, or less smart, remember that greater people than you have lost bigger battles over far more important matters.

The Declaration of Independence is on view at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue now through 5 August and admission to the Library is of course free. If you’re in New York City this summer, the exhibit is worth a look. (Plug: And if you’re in town next week for An Event Apart, the Library is just a few blocks away from the Scandinavia House venue.)

Friends in Need

Joe Kral Needs Help
Type designer and Test Pilot Collective founder Joe Kral recently survived emergency surgery. Now his medical bills are killing him. (Like millions of Americans, Joe is uninsured.) Visit Joe Kral Needs Help to contribute, if you can — or buy one of Joe’s fonts from Veer.com. (Veer will send all revenue to Joe.)
Digital Web needs an editor
When I’m not reading A List Apart, I read Digital Web Magazine. It’s a wonderful and deep resource of information about web design and user experience. In the past few years it’s grown particularly wonderful, in large part thanks to Editor-in-Chief Krista Stevens‘s ability to recruit great thinkers and writers. Alas for Digital Web, Krista will step down at the end of 2006. If you have what it takes to replace her, Digital Web needs you.

zefrank or zebeans

A man who needs no introduction is joining a line-up that has no equal. New media satirist/superstar zefrank, creator of the show, is coming to An Event Apart NYC. (zefrank replaces Adam Greenfield, author of Everyware.)

Join Tantek Çelik, zefrank, Aaron Gustafson, Jason Santa Maria, Khoi Vinh, Eric Meyer, and Jeffrey Zeldman for two days of design and code in the heart of New York City. Hurry! Early Bird Savings end Friday. Register today.

Of writing and rosters

Events called me away, but I return, bringing news.

Tantek Çelik joins An Event Apart NYC roster
Tantek Çelik has joined the roster of An Event Apart NYC, where he will bring unparalleled insights on microformats and web standards to Code Day, July 11. Tantek is chief technologist at Technorati, co-founder of the microformats movement, creator of the Tasman rendering engine and the Box Model Hack, a contributor to the CSS and XHTML specs, and more. Come meet and learn from the man Meyer and Zeldman call “Master.”
A List Apart 216: Making Time, Sharpening Skills
Issue 216 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, features great articles from Derek Powazek and Ryan Carson. Mr Powazek’s Calling All Designers: Learn to Write! explains why it’s important for user-interface designers to sharpen up their writing skills. And Mr Carson’s Four-Day Week Challenge offers an approach to getting more done in less time. It’s a treat to publish Powazek again and a delight to welcome Carson.

May Day, May Day

Every year or two a fresh crop of internet blowhards decides design doesn’t matter. Indeed, they proclaim that bad design is good. Not merely is it good, it is the secret to internet wealth and success, they tell us. Whereas, they assure us, user-friendly, brand-appropriate, professional graphic design — or even mere competence — is the royal road to Failureville.

I don’t understand the siren song of this demonstrably idiotic claim. I don’t know why it seduces a new crop of assh*les each year. I only know it does. And then, just as predictably, all the year’s hot young new media designers get in a huff defending design against the fools who attacked it.

Seems to me it might be better to let the anti-design dummies rant themselves out and roll along their happy ignorant path in search of new things to attack. Such as air. Or babies.

Maybe I am jaded. Or maybe it’s hard to get exercised over inanity you’ve seen recur so many times. The assertion that “bad design is good internet” has been made by one set of dorks after another since at least 1995. One prominent consultant aside, nobody can remember who these blowhards were. They charged full bore into obscurity, as dolts generally do.

So to this year’s hot (under the collar) web designers, remember: next year, you will still be designing beautiful websites. And the people who claim that bad design is good? If they’re lucky, they will be selling apples on the street corner.

In other news

  • It’s May Day. Immigrants protest, and rightfully so.
  • It’s May Day. And that means a reboot.
  • It’s May Day. And that means a reboot.
  • It’s May Day. A day that honors worker’s rights. So it is only fitting that May Day was also the day of the Canadian Union of Public Employees website reboot. Happy May Day! Happy workers! Happy Canadians! Happy Cog redesigned this site.

In other, other news

Registration is now open for An Event Apart NYC.

In other, other, other news

An Event Apart Chicago has sold out. Whee.

Hi, Mom!

MONDAY WOULD HAVE BEEN my mother’s birthday.

In 1993, her brother, my uncle, took me to lunch. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. I was newly sober and raw as a razor burn, but pleased to be coherent and in his company. After some minutes of chit-chat, he leaned forward and said, “I think your mother has Alzheimer’s.”

People emerge from addiction like newborns. I got sober for this? was my immediate, shameful thought. And then:

“Yes,” That Voice Inside Me replied, “you were saved, in part, so you could be present for your mother in her illness.”

And was I present enough? Thirteen years on from my rebirth and my mother’s death sentence, six years on from her passing, I am as confused as any survivor who loves and cannot save.

It is a lousy disease. Especially when you know you’ve got it.

There’s realizing, by the strained smiles that greet you, that you must have said the same thing more than once.

There’s the stage where you’re upset but can’t say why, and people who love you are looking at you with pity, and their pity frightens you and hurts your pride.

You fabricate conflicts with old friends until they stop seeing you, so they will not be there to witness your decline.

Later there is running out of the house, pursued by ghosts.

Then forgetting your grown children’s names. And your husband’s.

Then comes a hideous second infancy.

Then you don’t eat.

At that point you must be placed in a facility. The transition from your home to a “home” is accompanied by the grief, guilt, mourning, rage, and regret of those still actively living. But you are not aware of it.

Or so I hope.

I do not live in the same city as my parents, so showing up involved air travel and schedule coordination — afflictions of the living.

Sometimes my mother came to my city.

The misery was like a layer cake.

There was the time I arrived at the unveiling of my dear aunt’s tombstone to find my mother and father already at the graveside. My mother was crying but did not seem to know for whom.

“Look,” said my father, pointing in my direction in hopes of cheering her up.

My mother looked right at me.

“I know that man,” she said.

A year later she could not talk.

Finally she was like someone in a near-coma. She could sit up. You could wheel her around. That was about it.

“Look, it’s spring,” you would tell her.

“Look, it’s fall, the leaves are changing,” you would tell her.

Near the very end, her hair turned white and she bloated after a lifetime of elegant thinness.

About a month before she died suddenly in her sleep I was visiting her in the Home. She had not spoken for a long time. She did not look you in the eye or notice if you were there. She had stopped eating the ice cream and other treats my father was always bringing her, which she used to eat like a baby from his hands.

Her stereo from home was in the room — another of my father’s ideas — and I popped in a CD she had owned and loved when it was an LP, Frank Sinatra’s “Wee Small Hours.” Not that it would do any good. But you keep trying.

There’s this haunting bluesy saxaphone riff on one of the tracks — a sad, brief volley of notes. Suddenly, as it played, my mother gripped my arm. Then she was gone again. Had it even happened?

Maybe one day I will see her and maybe she will be able to tell me.

She died before September 11th, 2001, and I remember thinking, Well, at least she did not have to see this.

It is a lousy disease, and one of the lousiest things about it is the way it displaces the memories one would prefer to hold onto. My mother was shrewd, smart, compassionate, hilarious, political, artistic, lively — and loved her family almost to a fault. Those are the things I want to remember, and do, when the damned disease isn’t obliterating all memories not related to death and decline.

I am blessed with a wife and daughter. My mother, who would have adored them, does not know them. My daughter resembles me as I resemble my mother. My daughter’s hands and feet are like my mother’s. Her face is like a bust of my mother my grandfather made. I never knew my grandfather although his photograph smiled opaquely at me from my mother’s piano. A painting of my mother adorns one wall of our apartment.

Will my daughter know my mother as anything besides a painting and a ghost? I think so. For there are things I will teach my daughter that only my mother’s son could teach.

A dollar short and two days late, happy birthday, Mom.