Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.”

Also published in Medium.

No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart

Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.

Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.

Source: No Good Can Come of Bad Code

140 Characters is a Joke

THERE IS ALWAYS more to the story than what we are told. I am not omniscient. It is better to light a single candle than to join a lynch mob. Other people’s behavior is not my business. Truth is hard, epigrams are easy. Anything worth saying takes more than 140 characters. Blogging’s not dead. F____ the 140 character morality police.

Readlists: behind the scenes

FROM THE HOME PAGE of today’s newly announced, totally disruptive, completely free product powered by Readability: “What’s a Readlist? A group of web pages—articles, recipes, course materials, anything—bundled into an e-book you can send to your Kindle, iPad, or iPhone.”

For some time now, people who miss the point have seen Readability as an app that competes in the read-it-later space. That’s like viewing Andy Warhol as a failed advertising art director. Readability is a platform that radically rethinks how we consume, and who pays for, web content. It monetizes content for authors and its technology is available to all via the API. It scares designers, angers some advertisers. Its transformative potential is huge. Readlists are the latest free product to manifest some of that potential.

With Readlist, anyone can create ebooks out of existing web content. It’s easy. Sign in with your Readability account or sign up for one, and start making books of your favorite web articles.

There are still some bugs being worked out, but hey.

I was honored to beta test the product and create one of the first Readlists, along with Erin Kissane, Anil Dash, Aaron Lammer, David Sleight, and Chris Dary.

Disclaimer: I am on the advisory board of Readability and cofounded The Deck advertising network with Jim Coudal and Jason Fried. Readability removes clutter (including ads) from the reading experience; The Deck sells ads. Conflict of interest? Here’s another: I design content websites so as to make Readability unnecessary (because I design for readers); yet I strongly support Readability as a platform and above all as a web idea that is at least 15 years overdue. Either designers will design for their end-users, or third-party apps will remove designers from the transaction. As a designer, I’m not afraid of that. Rather, it inspires me.

Enjoy Readlists.

A List Apart: Responsive Images: How they Almost Worked and What We Need

RESPONSIVE WEB DESIGNERS, don’t miss Mat Marquis’ essential article in today’s A LIST APART, for people who make websites: Responsive Images: How they Almost Worked and What We Need. Mat shows why responsive images as we currently use them don’t quite cut it – and shares a way forward that involves the creation of a shiny new HTML element.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

State of the web: of apps, devices, and breakpoints

IN The ‘trouble’ with Android, Stephanie Rieger points out the ludicrous number of Android screen sizes on a typical UK client’s website and comes to this conclusion:

If … you have built your mobile site using fixed widths (believing that you’ve designed to suit the most ‘popular’ screen size), or are planning to serve specific sites to specific devices based on detection of screen size, Android’s settings should serve to reconfirm how counterproductive a practice this can be. Designing to fixed screen sizes is in fact never a good idea…there is just too much variation, even amongst ‘popular’ devices. Alternatively, attempting to track, calculate, and adjust layout dimensions dynamically to suit user-configured settings or serendipitous conditions is just asking for trouble.

I urge you to read the entire article—it’s brief yet filled with rich chocolatey goodness.

Responding to it, Marc Drummond concludes that responsive web design default breakpoints are dead and urges designers to “use awkwardness as your guideline, not ephemeral default device widths” and return to fluid design. (I believe he may actually be thinking of liquid layout—the kind we practiced back in the early mid-1990s when cross-platform and multi-manufacturer desktop screen sizes and pixel-per-inch ratios—not to mention strong user font, size, and color preference options—made fixed-width layout design challenging if not impossible. As I understand fluid design, it is merely another word for responsive design, in that it relies on CSS3 media queries set to breakpoints.)

We’ve lost our compass

Rieger and Drummond are hardly alone in feeling that “our existing standards, workflows, and infrastructure” cannot support “today’s incredibly exciting yet overwhelming world of connected digital devices” ( and that something new must be done to move the web forward. And of course ppk has been warning us about the multiplicity of platforms and viewports on mobile since 2009.

Agreed: that is an exciting and challenging time; that fixed width layouts do not address, and adaptive layouts (multiple fixed-width layouts set to common breakpoints) do not go far enough in addressing, the challenges posed by our current plethora of mobile screen sizes, zoom settings, embedded views (i.e. “browser” windows inside app windows, often with additional chrome) and what Rieger calls “the unintended consequences” that occur as these various settings clash in ways their creators could not have anticipated.

As consumers, we’ve all had the experience of seeing the wrong layout at the wrong time. (Think of a site with both mobile and desktop versions—whether these versions are triggered by CSS3 media queries or JavaScript and back-end magic is beside the point because technology is beside the point—good user experience is all this is supposed to be about. On a Twitter app on a mobile device, the user follows a link; the link opens in the browser built into the Twitter app. Which version of the site does the user see? The mobile one or the desktop? Often it is the desktop, and that can be a problem if the app’s version of the browser does not permit zoom. Even if it is a mobile version, it may be the wrong mobile version, or it may not fit comfortably inside the app’s browser window.) Considering our own experiences and reviewing Rieger’s chart, it is easy to share Drummond’s conclusion that breakpoints are dead and that all sites should be designed as minimally as possible.

If breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead

Of course, if breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead, because responsive design relies on breakpoints both in creative workflow and as a key to establishing user-need-and-context-based master layouts, i.e. a minimal layout for the user with a tiny screen and not much bandwidth, a more fleshed-out one for the netbook user, and so on.

But responsive design is not dead; it has only begun. It is not a panacea but was never intended to be. It is simply the beginnings of an approach.

I respect those colleagues who say breakpoints are dead, understand how they reached this conclusion, and am eager to see where it takes them in the coming months as they experiment with new methods, perhaps developing wonderful and unforeseen best practices. I hope design will be a brilliant part of these new methods, not something that gets abandoned to create a bland but workable lightweight experience for all.

But I also believe it is possible to draw a different conclusion from the same data. It is even possible, I believe, to say the present data doesn’t matter—at least not in the long run.

Tale of the chart

There was a time in the late 1990s when industrious web designers showed how atrocious CSS support was in browsers. Eric Meyer’s Master Compatability Chart for Web Review, formerly at, was one of the best, but is no longer available for your historical viewing pleasure—not even at the mighty Wayback Machine. That’s too bad, as it would have perfectly illustrated my point. The chart used a variety of colors to show how each detail of the entire CSS specification was or was not supported (and if supported, whether it was supported correctly and completely, partially and correctly, partially and somewhat incorrectly, or completely incorrectly) in every browser which was available at the time, including, if memory serves, close to a dozen versions of Netscape, Explorer, and Opera.

Looking at that chart induced nausea and vertigo. It was easy to draw the conclusion that CSS wasn’t ready for primetime. (That was the correct conclusion at the time.) It was also easy to look at the table and decide that table layouts and font tags were the way to go.

That’s what most designers who even bothered looking at Eric’s chart decided, but a few (Eric and me included) drew a completely other inference. Instead of trying to memorize all the things that could go wrong in each browser, we created general rules for what worked across all browsers (e.g. font-size in px, floats for layout) and advocated design based on the things that work. This, I believe, is exactly what the and Move the Web Forward folks are doing now: trying to figure out commonalities instead of bogging down in details. (This is why some in our community have labeled and Move the Web Forward “WaSP II.”)

The other inference Eric, I, and others in the 1990s drew from Eric’s chart was that browser makers must be petitioned to support CSS accurately and correctly. We and many of you reading this engaged in said petitioning, and thanks largely to help from with the browser engineering community (from people like Tantek Çelik and Chris Wilson and organizations like Mozilla) it came to pass.

Of mice and markets

We cannot, of course, petition all the makers of, say, Android devices to agree to a set of standard breakpoints, because there are over 500 different Android devices out there, many of which will fail in the coming months—or if not outright fail, simply be replaced in the course of planned obsolescence AKA upgrading that drives the hardware segment. And each new product will in turn introduce new incompatibilities (AKA “features”).

In the short run it’s going to be hell, just as the browser wars and their lack of support for common standards were hell. But it is the short run.

500 standards is no standard. Give a consumer 500 choices and the price-driven consumer picks what comes with her plan, while the selective consumer begins gravitating toward a handful of emerging market leaders. Eventually this nutty market will stabilize around a few winning Android platforms (e.g. Kindle Fire) and common breakpoints will emerge. What The Web Standards Project achieved with browser makers, the market will achieve with phones.

Until that time, designers certain can abandon breakpoints if they can find a way to do good design under purely fluid conditions—design that pleases the user, satisfies the client, and moves the industry forward aesthetically. But designers who persist in responsive or even adaptive design based on iPhone, iPad, and leading Android breakpoints will help accelerate the settling out of the market and its resolution toward a semi-standard set of viewports. This I believe.

When I see fragmentation, I remind myself that it is unsustainable by its very nature, and that standards always emerge, whether through community action, market struggle, or some combination of the two. This is a frustrating time to be a web designer, but it’s also the most exciting time in ten years. We are on the edge of something very new. Some of us will get there via all new thinking, and others through a combination of new and classic approaches. Happy New Year, web designers!

Say No to SOPA!

A LIST APART strongly opposes USHR 3261 AKA the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), an ill-conceived lobbyist-driven piece of legislation that is technically impossible to enforce, cripplingly burdensome to support, and would, without hyperbole, destroy the internet as we know it.

SOPA approaches the problem of content piracy with a broad brush, lights that brush on fire, and soaks the whole web in gasoline. Learn why SOPA must not pass, and find out what you can do to help stop it.

A List Apart: Articles: Say No to SOPA.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

“Mobile” versus “Small Screen”

As we try to become more responsive with our designs, a lot of attention has been focused on providing “mobile” styles. We’ve all been adding viewport meta tags to our templates and @media screen and (max-device-width: 480px) to our stylesheets.

It’s very tempting (and scope-friendly) to tell a client that we can adjust their site for mobile users, when much of the time what we’re actually doing is simply adjusting a design for small screens.

…Simply adjusting a design for a smaller screen and calling it “mobile” does a disservice to both mobile users and developers. Making link targets bigger and image sizes smaller does help the mobile user, but it only addresses the surface issues of usability and readability. It doesn’t address their need to do things easily and quickly.

via It’s the Little Things – “Mobile” versus “Small Screen”.

320 and up—a device agnostic stylesheet for responsible responsive design

320 and Up prevents mobile devices from downloading desktop assets by using a tiny screen’s stylesheet as its starting point. … Inspired by Using Media Queries in the Real World by Peter Gasston, ‘320 and Up’ is a device agnostic, one web boilerplate.”

320 and up by Malarkey

You are all in publishing!

ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.

So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”

A few hands were gently raised.

Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”

Every right hand in the room shot up.

“You are all in publishing,” I explained.

Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.

But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.