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.
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.”
ON ITS 150th anniversary, The Nation (“a magazine of ideas and values”) relaunches its website, created in partnership with Blue State Digital and Diaspark. As one would expect of an editorially focused web entity in 2015, the new site is responsive, and uses big type and clean layouts designed for readability. It also incorporates social media innovations first seen in Medium, such as the ability to tweet or email any brief passage of text you select.
Executive Editor Richard Kim’s mini-article introducing the new site explains how the editorial process has changed—and how it has stayed the same—since the launch of the magazine’s first site in 1997:
Back then, writing for the magazine was a comparatively monastic experience. You’d work for weeks on an article, defend its arguments against vigorous but loving critiques from the editors, and gratefully accept changes from fact-checkers and copy editors. Finally, the issue would ship to the printer. And then: the vast silence. If you were lucky, a few weeks later, someone might approach you at a party and say how much they liked (or hated) your piece. Some letters from impassioned subscribers would eventually come in via the Postal Service, but encounters with actual readers were rare and cherished events.
We continue to publish the print magazine under these rigorous standards, and it will remain an essential part of our identity, offering readers a considered and curated take on matters of critical interest. The digital revolution, however, has allowed us to connect to vastly more people, and to get to know them better. Today, The Nation publishes about 70 articles a week online, which go out to more than 420,000 Twitter followers, almost 290,000 Facebook fans, and 200,000 e-mail subscribers. And believe me, we always hear back from you….
There’s also a multi-tiered approach to reading and commenting:
For the next few months, there’s no paywall: All of our articles will be free to everyone—our gift to you in The Nation’s 150th-anniversary year. Later, we’ll introduce a metered system that continues to put The Nation in front of new readers, but also asks our regular visitors to contribute to the cost of independent journalism. Finally, only subscribers will be able to leave comments—and they’ll be asked to identify themselves with a first and last name. We realize this will be controversial to some, but keeping the comments free of trolls and bots has taken an increasing amount of effort. We think it’s only fair that commenters stand by what they write, and give something to the community in return.
WHETHER the topic is responsive CSS or content that responds to the right user at the right time, Issue № 423 of A List Apart is all about finding the path forward:
by Mat Marquis
Media queries have been the go-to tool in building responsive sites, allowing us to resize and recombine modules to suit multiple contexts, layouts, and viewports. But relying on fixed viewport sizes can quickly twist stylesheets into Gordian knots. We still need a future-friendly way to manage responsive CSS. Mat Marquis explores the problem and the progress toward the solution—and issues a rallying call.
by Meghan Casey
Content projects need a sense of direction: something to help you and your team provide the right content to the right people at the right time. Enter the content compass—centered on your strategy and supported by your messaging—to keep your content efforts on track. In this excerpt from Chapter 11 of The Content Strategy Toolkit, Meghan Casey explains her methodology for developing a core strategy statement and messaging framework.
IT WAS FIVE years ago today, Ethan Marcotte taught the web to play…nicely with all kinds of devices in all kinds of contexts. And he did it live on stage at An Event Apart Seattle 2010. Watch the video that changed the web forever.
In What We Mean When We Say “responsive” and Defining Responsiveness, Lyza Danger Gardner and Jason Grigsby cut to the heart of a disagreement I had three years ago with Ethan Marcotte, the creator of Responsive Web Design and author of Responsive Web Design, a book I published in 2011.
Ethan told the world that Responsive Web Design required, and was defined by, fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries. All three elements had to be present. If they weren’t using all three, you might be doing something interesting, but you were most definitely not doing Responsive Web Design.
Ethan invented all of this. Without him, we would likely be arguing whether it was time to consider 1280 pixels the new default fixed width for all desktop websites, and sending anything that wasn’t a desktop browser to a function- and content-limited “mobile site” whose URL began with the letter m. Ethan is a brilliant, multi-talented innovator; I am but the shadow of a hack. And yet, before he began creating his book, midway through the writing, and even a year after I published it, I continued to urge Ethan to rethink #RWD as “a bigger idea”—a concept rather than a single set of techniques.
I’m no genius. What I meant by “bigger idea” was limited to the notion that we’d one day be able to create responsive layouts with different techniques—so let’s not restrict the concept to a particular execution. I wasn’t thinking about other meanings of responsive, wasn’t considering problems of responsive content, and so on. I’m not that forward-thinking and it was three freaking years ago, come on.
I lost my gentle argument with Ethan, so the industry is having it now. And that’s just as it should be. Everything worked out for the best. Here’s why:
If Ethan hadn’t included three simple executional requirements as part of his definition, the concept might have quickly fallen by the wayside, as previous insights into the fluid nature of the web have done. The simplicity, elegance, and completeness of the package—here’s why, and here’s how—sold the idea to thousands of designers and developers, whose work and advocacy in turn sold it to hundreds of thousands more. This wouldn’t have happened if Ethan had promoted a more amorphous notion. Our world wouldn’t have changed overnight if developers had had too much to think about. Cutting to the heart of things and keeping it simple was as powerful a creative act on Ethan’s part as the “discovery” of #RWD itself.
We’ve only become ready to think about things like “responsible” responsive design, adaptive content, and a standard approach to responsive images now that we have built our share of first-generation responsive sites, and encountered the problems that led to the additional pondering. Baby steps. Brilliant baby steps.
Some commenters want to use initial-capped Responsive Web Design to mean responsive design as Ethan first defined it, and lowercase responsive design to mean an amorphous matrix of exciting and evolving design thinking. Lyza says soon we’ll stop saying Responsive altogether, a conclusion Andy Clarke reached three years ago.
Me, I like that Ethan stuck to his guns, and that the classical definition will always be out there, regardless of how web design evolves thanks to it. Kind of like there’s HTML 5, a defined and scoped W3C specification, and HTML living standard, an evolving activity. Our industry needs roots and wings, and, lucky us, we’ve got ’em both.
THE GOAL of a “responsive images” solution is to deliver images optimized for the end user’s context, rather than serving the largest potentially necessary image to everyone. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been quite so simple in practice as it is in theory.
In Big Web Show № 112, I sit down with Mat Marquis, chair of the W3C Responsive Images Community Group, to discuss guidelines for responsive images in multi-device design. We talk about the history, theory, and multi-leveled challenge of responsive images, the path to standardization, and what browsers will do next.
URLs in this Episode
DESIGNERS. WE LOVE CANVASES. It’s what we know. Even the cave wall had predictable, fixed dimensions. On the web, in the past few years, we’ve finally had to acknowledge that the canvas is not fixed, that each user’s canvas is different, and that fixed-width design—while safe and comfortable because it’s what we know—really doesn’t make sense in the world of HTML, and probably never did. We’ve spent the past two or three years rapidly learning (and sharing) new ways of designing.
But while we were unwrapping ourselves from the notion of a fixed canvas on the web, many of us were gleefully tucking into a fixed canvas in Apple’s world of the iPhone and iPad. True, the iPad had more pixels than the original iPhone—an advantage also enjoyed by later iPhone models with their Retina displays. But they shared easily interchanged aspect ratios (4:3 for the iPad and 3:2 for the iphone), enabling designers to design right to the canvas.
Apple’s fixed canvas wasn’t just a designer’s security blanket. It enabled us to craft a certain kind of polished experience right to the device. We laughed (or cried) at the Android with its 500 “standard” breakpoints and counting. Apple had given us a fixed-width sandbox and we built castles in it.
Well, goodbye to all that.
The end of fixed aspect ratios
With the iPhone 5’s switch to a 16:9 aspect ratio, and given the unknown aspect ratio of the upcoming iPad mini, “we’re going to see a big change in a certain type of iOS app—the one designed for the device,” Craig Grannell predicts in today’s reverttosaved.com:
[Veteran developer John] Pickford summed it up by stating his approach would no longer depend heavily on screen shape, and I’ve heard similar from other developers, both of apps and games although especially the latter. In a sense, this could be a good thing—freeing up iOS from the constraints of specific screen shapes opens up developers to whatever Apple throws at them next and should also make apps simpler to port to competing platforms. But it also impacts heavily on those tightly crafted experiences that were designed just for your iPad or just for your iPhone. Having all the action take place only in the very centre of a screen, because a developer cannot guarantee what device you’re using, or, worse, carving out a viewport and surrounding it with a border, could cheapen iOS games and apps in a big way.
Perhaps I’m being pessimistic, but pre-iPhone 5, indies were already feeling the pinch. With that device and perhaps a new, smaller iPad to contend with, the shift towards more fluid and less device-specific apps seems inevitable.—Craig Grannell, iOS screen fragmentation points to a shift in app development
I share Craig’s assessment of what the change in aspect ratios portends for application design. But I believe that designers will rise to the challenge, as we have on the web; and that bright app designers will find ways to design experiences which, even if they are actually flexible behind the scenes, still feel like they were custom crafted for the device in your hand.
IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.
“NOT EVERYTHING always works in your favor when you design for the screen. Interaction design is engineering: it’s not about finding the perfect design, it’s finding the best compromise.”