Category Archives: spec

Tweak This!

99designs, the Australian company that has made a fortune soliciting spec work (“crowd sourced graphic design”) from naive designers, and selling $99 logo customizations to small businesses, has just invested $460,000 in a new service:

Tweaky, “the marketplace for website customization,” is the ultimate connector between companies that need quick, simple adjustments to their websites, and designer/developers seeking extra income via no-brainer side work.

The premise is simple: Want to add a subscription come-on to your site but don’t know the first thing about HTML, and don’t have the budget to hire a designer or studio? Tweaky will change your site for $25. Need to update the copyright information in your footer, but don’t know how to do it? Tweaky will handle it for you for $25. Need to add a sidebar to your website? Tweaky will do it for $25. Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger.

Tweaky sounds like the perfect service for the harried small business owner who needs to make one or two quick adjustments to an existing website, has limited time and means, and needs the changes to be made professionally. The last bit is most important: there’s a difference between hiring a designer to make your logo bigger, and doing it yourself when you’re not a designer, don’t own Photoshop, aren’t expert in HTML and CSS, and so on. Tweaky’s promise is that only qualified designer/developers will be hired to make your $25 tweaks. My guess is that, at least initially, Tweaky will draw on the same community that currently participates in 99designs’s “design contests” (spec work), or at least it will solicit designers from that pool.

Crowd sourcing design is unethical (read Design Is A Job and Design Professionalism if you’re unfamiliar with the standards of conduct in a professional designer/client relationship—or, for now, just read this tweet, and read these two great books later), so I disapprove of 99designs, but its new child appears to have been born sinless. While some designers, possibly including the authors of the aforementioned texts, will dislike the notion of Tweaky on principle, I don’t think designers or studios will lose customers to a $25 tweak service. I don’t think it’s exploitation to accept $25 to change a link in a footer (assuming the designer gets the bulk of the fee). And I don’t think a client with an existing website should have to pay several thousand dollars engaging a designer simply to make a wee adjustment to her site. Tweaky offers customers access to real designers for quick jobs, and offers designers a work and revenue stream. That seems okay to me.

Caveat emptor: I haven’t hired Tweaky (no need), don’t know how they evaluate designer/developers before admitting them to their freelance labor pool, don’t know how much of a customer’s $25 ends up in a designer’s pocket, and can’t speak to the quality of their concierge service and follow-through. But I find their business model unobjectionable and intelligent—it fills a designer’s need for extra work and a customer’s need for quick turnaround on no-brainer mini-projects. Truth to tell, I’ve heard talk of similar networks in the works, and would not be surprised to see competitors to Tweaky sprout up soon enough. It’s the economy, smarty.

Tantek Çelik on Mozilla & Microformats: Big Web Show

TANTEK ÇELIK is my guest on Episode No. 68 of The Big Web Show (“everything web that matters”).

Currently web standards lead at Mozilla, Tantek is one of the founders of both the microformats.org open standards community and the Global Multimedia Protocols Group, and an invited expert to the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Cascading Style Sheets working group.

Tantek has played a key role in the development and popularization of practical social network portability technologies such as the hCard and XFN microformats. In 2003, Tantek collaborated with Eric Meyer and Matt Mullenweg in the invention of the XHTML Friends Network (XFN), which has since become the most popular decentralized social relationship format in the history of the Web. In 2004 Tantek proposed hCard for representing people and organizations, which has since similarly become the most popular user profile format on the web.

During his years as Technorati’s Chief Technologist, Tantek played an active role in refining and evangelizing hCard, bringing it from a wiki proposal to one that’s endorsed and supported by individuals, numerous small organizations, major companies ranging from AOL to Yahoo, and implemented for over a hundred million user identities and business listings on the web.

At Microsoft, Tantek led the development of Internet Explorer 5 for Macintosh and its Tasman rendering engine, which was the most standards-compliant layout engine of its time. He was also an early member of The Web Standards Project, and is the creator of the Box Model Hack, the first IE hack that let developers work around the incorrect box model in old versions of Internet Explorer.

Listen to Episode 68: Tantek Çelik on Mozilla and Microformats.

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An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

CSS3: Love vendor prefixes, resize full-screen backgrounds

A List Apart Issue No. 309. Illustration by Kevin Cornell.

Learn to love vendor prefixes and create full-screen backgrounds that resize to fit the viewport in Issue No. 309 of A List Apart for people who make websites:

Prefix or Posthack

by ERIC MEYER

Vendor prefixes: Threat or menace? As browser support (including in IE9) encourages more of us to dive into CSS3, vendor prefixes such as -moz-border-radius and -webkit-animation may challenge our consciences, along with our patience. But while nobody particularly enjoys writing the same thing four or five times in a row, prefixes may actually accelerate the advancement and refinement of CSS. King of CSS Eric Meyer explains why.

Supersize that Background, Please!

by BOBBY VAN DER SLUIS

Background images that fill the screen thrill marketers but waste bandwidth in devices with small viewports, and suffer from cropping and alignment problems in high-res and widescreen monitors. Instead of using a single fixed background size, a better solution would be to scale the image to make it fit different window sizes. And with CSS3 backgrounds and CSS3 media queries, we can do just that. Bobby van der Sluis shows how.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

Real Fonts and Rendering: The New Elephant in the Room

My friend, the content strategist Kristina Halvorson, likes to call content “the elephant in the room” of web design. She means it’s the huge problem that no one on the web development team or client side is willing to acknowledge, face squarely, and plan for….

Without discounting the primacy of the content problem, we web design folk have now birthed ourselves a second lumbering mammoth, thanks to our interest in “real fonts on the web“ (the unfortunate name we’ve chosen for the recent practice of serving web-licensed fonts via CSS’s decade-old @font-face declaration—as if Georgia, Verdana, and Times were somehow unreal).…

Put simply, even fonts optimized for web use (which is a whole thing: ask a type designer) will not look good in every browser and OS.

Zeldman

Jeffrey Zeldman, Real Fonts and Rendering: The New Elephant in the Room
22 December, 2009
24 ways: The Advent Calendar for Web Developers


Short URL: zeldman.com/?p=3319

Fonty font font

It’s the Fonty-Fresh™ thang! UPDATE: Now with further explanations and Mr Zeldman’s specific concerns for web designers, web users, and the future of type on the web.


Short URL: zeldman.com/?p=2782

Chicago Deep Dish

Dan Cederholm and Eric Meyer at An Event Apart Chicago 2009. Photo by John Morrison.

For those who couldn’t be there, and for those who were there and seek to savor the memories, here is An Event Apart Chicago, all wrapped up in a pretty bow:

AEA Chicago – official photo set
By John Morrison, subism studios llc. See also (and contribute to) An Event Apart Chicago 2009 Pool, a user group on Flickr.
A Feed Apart Chicago
Live tweeting from the show, captured forever and still being updated. Includes complete blow-by-blow from Whitney Hess.
Luke W’s Notes on the Show
Smart note-taking by Luke Wroblewski, design lead for Yahoo!, frequent AEA speaker, and author of Web Form Design: Filling in the Blanks (Rosenfeld Media, 2008):
  1. Jeffrey Zeldman: A Site Redesign
  2. Jason Santa Maria: Thinking Small
  3. Kristina Halvorson: Content First
  4. Dan Brown: Concept Models -A Tool for Planning Websites
  5. Whitney Hess: DIY UX -Give Your Users an Upgrade
  6. Andy Clarke: Walls Come Tumbling Down
  7. Eric Meyer: JavaScript Will Save Us All (not captured)
  8. Aaron Gustafson: Using CSS3 Today with eCSStender (not captured)
  9. Simon Willison: Building Things Fast
  10. Luke Wroblewski: Web Form Design in Action (download slides)
  11. Dan Rubin: Designing Virtual Realism
  12. Dan Cederholm: Progressive Enrichment With CSS3 (not captured)
  13. Three years of An Event Apart Presentations

Note: Comment posting here is a bit wonky at the moment. We are investigating the cause. Normal commenting has been restored. Thank you, Noel Jackson.

Short URL: zeldman.com/?p=2695

Loving HTML5

Half of standards making is minutia; the other half is politics. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve long suspected that Atom was born, not of necessity, but because of conflicts between the XML crowd and the founders of RSS. Likewise, rightly or wrongly, I reckoned HTML5 was at least partly Hixie’s revenge against XHTML served as text/html.

And then a funny thing happened. Some friends and I gathered at Happy Cog’s New York studio to hash out the pros and cons of HTML5 from the perspective of semantic-markup-oriented web designers (as opposed to the equally valid perspectives of browser engineers and web application developers—the two perspectives that have primarily driven the creation of HTML 5).

Our first task was to come to a shared understanding of the spec. During the two days and nights we spent poring over new and changed semantic elements, we discovered that many things we had previously considered serious problems were fixable issues related to language.

Easy language problems

Some of these language problems are trivial indeed. For instance, on both the WHATWG and W3C sites, the specification is sometimes called “HTML 5″ (with a space) and sometimes called “HTML5″ (with no space). A standard should have a standard name. (Informed of this problem, Hixie has removed the space everywhere in the WHATWG version of the spec.)

Likewise, as an end-user, I found it confusing to be told that there is an “HTML5 serialization of HTML 5,” let alone an “XHTML 5 version of HTML5.” I requested that the two serializations be referred to as “HTML” and “XHTML”—emphasizing the distinction between the two kinds of syntax rather than drawing needless attention to version numbers. (Again, Hixie promptly updated the spec.)

Names and expectations

Some language problems are tougher—but still eminently fixable, because they are language problems that mar the presentation of good ideas, not bad ideas that require rethinking.

For example, in order to choose suitable names for the new semantic elements in HTML 5, Hixie analyzed classnames on thousands of websites to see what web designers and developers were already doing. If many designers and developers use classnames like “header” and “footer” to contain certain kinds of content, then HTML 5 should use these labels, too, Hixie and his colleagues reasoned. Doing so would make the purpose of the new elements intuitively obvious to working web professionals, removing the learning curve and encouraging proper element use from the get-go.

It’s a beautiful theory that comes straight out of Bert Bos’s W3C Design Principles. There’s just one problem. Header, and especially footer, behave differently from what their names will lead web designers and developers to expect. Developers will use it for the footer of the page—not for the footer of each section. And they will be frustrated that the footer in HTML5 forbids navigation links. After all, the footer at the bottom of web pages almost always includes navigation links.

To avoid misuse and frustration, the content model of footer should change to match that of header, so that it may be used concurrently as a template level element (the expected use) and a sub-division of section (the new use). Alternately, the element’s name should be changed (to almost anything but “footer”). Expanding the content model is clearly the better choice.

For the love of markup

HTML5 is unusual in many ways. Chiefly, it is the first HTML created in the time of web applications. It is also the first to be initiated outside the W3C (although it now develops there in parallel).

Not surprisingly in a specification that goes on for 900 pages, there are at least a dozen places in HTML5 where a thoughtful standardista might request clarification, suggest a change, or both. My friends and I have taken a stab at this ourselves, and will soon publish our short list of recommendations and requests for clarification.

Nevertheless, the more I study the direction HTML5 is taking, the better I like it. In the words of the HTML5 Super Friends, “Its introduction of a limited set of additional semantic elements, its instructions on how to handle failure, and its integration of application development tools hold the promise of richer and more consistent user experiences, faster prototyping, and increased human and machine semantics.”

Update

[4:47 PM EST] Calling all cars! The HTML5 Super Friends declaration of support is now live, as is the Super Friends Guide to HTML5 Hiccups (i.e. our technical recommendations).

ShortURL: zeldman.com/?p=2438

Why Standards Fail

Back in 2000, CSS co-creator Bert Bos set out to explain the W3C’s design principles—“to make explicit what the developers in the various W3C working groups mean when they invoke words like efficiency, maintainability, accessibility, extensibility, learnability, simplicity, [and] longevity….”

Eventually published in 2003, the essay, although ostensibly concerned with explaining W3C working group principles to the uninitiated, actually articulates the key principle that separates great design from the muck we normally wade through. It also serves as a warning to Bert’s fellow W3C wizards not to seek the dark magic of abstract purity at the expense of the common good. Tragically for these wizards, and for we who use their technologies, it is a warning some developers of W3C specifications continue to overlook.

Design is for people

In his introduction, Bert summarizes the humanistic value that is supposed to be at the core of every web standard:

Contrary to appearances, the W3C specifications are for the most part not designed for computers, but for people. … Most of the formats are in fact compromises between human-readability and computer efficiency….

But why do we want people to read them at all? Because all our specs are incomplete. Because people, usually other people than the original developers, have to add to them….

For the same reason we try to keep the specifications of reasonable size. They must describe a useful chunk of technology, but not one that is too large for an individual to understand.

Over the succeeding 25 web pages (the article is chunked out in pamphlet-sized pages, each devoted to a single principle such as “maintainability” and “robustness”) Bert clearly, plainly, and humbly articulates a series of rather profound ideas that are key to the web’s growth and that might apply equally admirably to realms of human endeavor beyond the web.

For instance, in the page entitled “Use What Is There,” Bert says:

The Web now runs on HTML, HTTP and URLs, none of which existed before the ’90s. But it isn’t just because of the quality of these new formats and protocols that the Web took off. In fact, the original HTTP was a worse protocol than, e.g., Gopher or FTP in its capabilities….

And that fact shows nicely what made the Web possible at all: it didn’t try to replace things that already worked, it only added new modules, that fit in the existing infrastructure. …

And nowadays (the year 2000), it may look like everything is XML and HTTP, but that impression is only because the “old” stuff is so well integrated that you forget about it: there is no replacement for e-mail or Usenet, for JPEG or MPEG, and many other essential parts of the Web.

He then warns:

There is, unfortunately, a tendency in every standards organization, W3C not excluded, to replace everything that was created by others with things developed in-house. It is the not-invented-here syndrome, a feeling that things that were not developed “for the Web” are somehow inferior. And that “we” can do better than “them.” But even if that is true, maybe the improvement still isn’t worth spending a working group’s resources on.

Shrinkage and seduction

In his gentle way, Bert seems to be speaking directly to his W3C peers, who may not always share his and Håkon‘s humanism. For, despite what designers new to CSS, struggling for the first time with concepts like “float” and the box model may think, Bert and Håkon designed the web’s layout language to be easy to learn, teach, implement, maintain, and (eventually) extend. They also designed CSS not to overwhelm the newcomer with advanced power at the cost of profound complexity. (“CSS stops short of even more powerful features that programmers use in their programming languages: macros, variables, symbolic constants, conditionals, expressions over variables, etc. That is because these things give power-users a lot of rope, but less experienced users will unwittingly hang themselves; or, more likely, be so scared that they won’t even touch CSS. It’s a balance.”)

This striving to be understood and used by the inexperienced is the underlying principle of all good design, from the iPhone to the Eames chair. It’s what Jared Spool would call usability and you and I may consider the heart of design. When anything new is created, be it a website, a service, or a web markup language, there is a gap between what the creator knows (which is everything about how it’s supposed to work), and what you and I know (which is nothing). The goal of design is to shrink this ignorance gap while seducing us into leaping across it.

What were once vices are now habits

You can see this principle at work in CSS, whose simplicity allowed us to learn it. Although we now rail against the limitations of CSS 1 and even CSS 2.1, what we are really complaining about is the slow pace of CSS 3 and the greater slowness with which browser makers (some more than others) adopt bits of it.

Note that at one time we would have railed against browser makers who implemented parts of a specification that was still under development; now we admire them. Note, too, that it has taken well over a decade for developers to understand and browsers to support basic CSS, and it is only from the perspective of the experienced customer who craves more that advanced web designers now cry out for immediate CSS 3 adoption and chafe against the “restrictions” of current CSS as universally supported in all browsers, including IE8.

If CSS had initially offered the power, depth, and complexity that CSS 3 promises, we would still be designing with tables or Flash. Even assuming a browser had existed that could demonstrate the power of CSS 3, the complexity of the specification would have daunted everyone but Eric Meyer, had CSS 1 not come out of the gate first.

The future of the future of standards

It was the practical simplicity of CSS that enabled browser engineers to implement it and tempted designers to use (and then evangelize) it. In contrast, it was the seeming complexity and detachment from practical workaday concerns that doomed XHTML 2, while XHTML 1.0 remains a valid spec that will likely still be working when you and I have retired (assuming retirement will be possible in our lifetime—but that’s another story).

And yet, compared to some W3C specs in progress, XHTML 2 was a model of accessible, practical, down-to-earth usability.

To the extent that W3C specifications remain modular, practical, and accessible to the non-PhD in computer science, they will be adopted by browser makers and the marketplace. The farther they depart from the principles Bert articulated, the sooner they will peter out into nothingness, and the likelier we are to face a crisis in which web standards once again detach from the direction in which the web is actually moving, and the medium is given over to incompatible, proprietary technologies.

I urge everyone to read “What is a Good Standard?“, and I thank my friend Tantek for pointing it out to me.

[tags]W3C, design, principles, bertbos, maintainability, accessibility, extensibility, learnability, simplicity, specs, standards, css, markup, code, languages, web, webdesign, webstandards, webdevelopment, essays[/tags]