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Design Kickoff Meetings

Posted here for posterity:

Design kickoff meetings are like first dates that prepare you for an exciting relationship with a person who doesn’t exist.

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On Teaching (plus Monday links)

TEACHING is a great way to find out what you know, and to connect with other human beings around a shared passion. It’s an energy exchange as well as an information one, and the energy and information flow both ways.

I’ve been a faculty member in the MFA in Interaction Design program at New York’s School of Visual Arts since my colleague Liz Danzico cofounded the program with Steven Heller in 2009. As with all programs and departments at School of Visual Arts, the MFA IXD  program is run by a faculty of busy, working professionals who teach one three-hour class per week, one semester per year.  It’s the kind of gig that doesn’t interfere with your full-time job, and even makes you better at it.

(Fun facts: In 1988, I moved back to New York, the city of my birth, specifically so my then-girlfriend could study computer graphics at SVA; the highlight of my advertising career, which preceded my ascension into web and UX design, was spent working for top SVA advertising instructor Sal DeVito; and I subsequently enjoyed a long romantic relationship with an artist who’d moved to New York to study painting at SVA. So you could say that my eventually  teaching at the place was overdetermined. When Liz told me of her new program and invited me to teach in it, it was as if half the prior events in my life had been whispers from the future. But I digress.)

Helping students have better careers

Since the program began, I’ve taught a class called “Selling Design,” which helps students completing their Masters thesis  decide what kind of work they’d like to do when they leave with their MFA, a few months after the class begins. There are so many opportunities now for people who design experiences, digital or otherwise. What should they do? Where will they be happiest? Inside a big company or a small one? A product company or an agency/studio? Should they start their own business?

And there are so many kinds of workplaces. In some, it’s your work that matters most. In others, it’s politics. How can you tell the difference before taking a job? We illuminate the right questions to ask and the clues in a student’s own personality that can lead to a great career or a blocked one.

The main teaching method is discursive: I invite designers who’ve had interesting and varied careers to come into the studio and have a conversation in front of the class. Mainly I ask questions and the guest speaker answers; then the class asks questions. Over time the speakers’ experiences and the takeaways I synthesize from them for the class create a picture of everything from how to tell if someone’s lying to you in a job interview to the signs that you’ve come to the right place.

A blaze of glory

Photo of Alexis Lloyd. Head shot, dark background.

This Thursday, May 2nd, at 10:00 AM, I teach my last class of the year, and I’m thrilled that my guest speaker will be Alexis Lloyd, Head of Design Innovation at Automattic, and previously Chief Design Officer at Axios, and Creative Director of The New York Times R&D Lab. In my initial months at Automattic, I’ve reached out to Alexis many times for help and insight, and she’s always generous, patient, and illuminating. It will be an honor and a pleasure to end my teaching year in what will surely be a great conversation with this experienced design leader.

For more about the MFA IXD program at School of Visual Arts, follow @svaixd on Twitter and visit https://interactiondesign.sva.edu/ . And for those who don’t yet know Alexis, here are some points of reference:

And now for something completely different

This being Monday, here are some additional links for your pleasure, having nothing to do with the above:

Yeah, but can you dance to it?

Animators, find the musical beats for your animation. A Twitter mini-tutorial, with some usefully illuminating comments. (Hat tip: Val Head’s UI Animation Newsletter. Subscribe here: https://uianimationnewsletter.com/.)

From the same source, this cute Earth Day animation

Accessibility Insights

The “Top 5 Questions Asked in Accessibility Trainings,” by Carie Fisher of Deque, is a wonderful, inclusively written introduction to digital accessibility. From “what’s WCAG, even?” to why the “first rule of ARIA is: do not use ARIA” (use supported HTML elements instead), answers to just about all your questions may be found here. (Hat tip: David A Kennedy.)

And if you like that, Deque has plenty of other great accessibility articles, including a whole series by the great Glenda Sims.

Solve the Right Problem: Derek Featherstone on Designing for Extremes” is a two-minute read that tells the famous “map for the blind” story—one of my favorite UX parables ever (not to mention a great #a11y insight). Thanks to Michelle Langston for reminding me about this 2016 post.

A man cradles his newborn.

Everything means something to me

Every once in a while, life gifts you with a genuine moment. “>Here’s my friend designer/author Justin Dauer and his newborn, exchanging important information during, of all things, a business conference call. (By the way, Justin is now hard at work on the second edition of his book, Cultivating a Creative Culture, which I recommend for anyone leading a team: www.the-culturebook.com/.)

For your viewing pleasure…

Jen Simmons giving a lecture.

We’re standing at the threshold of an entirely new era in digital design—one in which, rather than hacking layouts together, we can actually describe layouts directly. The benefits will touch everything from prototyping to custom art direction to responsive design. In this visionary talk, rooted in years of practical experience, Jen Simmons shows you how to understand what’s different, learn to think through multiple stages of flexibility, and let go of pixel constraints forever.

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed” by Jen Simmons (60-minute video, captioned).

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Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report from Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2

Poynter style guide

THIS year’s Poynter Digital Newspaper Design Challenge was an attempt by several designers and pundits, working and thinking in parallel, to save real news via design. In Part 1 of my report from Poynter, I discussed the questions driving the challenge, and talked about the design work done in response to it by my colleagues Kat Downs Mulder, Mike Swartz, Lucie Lacava, and Jared Cocken. Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss my own work and the approach we took at my studio. But we begin with a quick look back at the past designs that brought us to this point:

Experiment 1: The Deck

During the past decade and a half, as both a publication designer and a publisher, I watched in horror as our publications became reader-hostile minefields of intrusive ads, overlays, and popups. The first thing I tried to do about this (besides removing the web equivalent of chart junk from my magazine) was to offer an alternative approach to advertising via The Deck, an ad network I cofounded with Jim Coudal of coudal.com and Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The Deck permitted only one appropriately targeted ad per each page of content viewed. As primary instigator Jim Coudal put it:

A buy in The Deck reaches the creative community on the web in an uncluttered, controlled environment, far more valuable than a standard banner or a single text ad among dozens of others.

Jim, Jason, and I hoped that our cost-per-influence model would replace the CPM race to the bottom, and that our quasi-religious use of whitespace would be widely imitated by the smartest publications online.

But that didn’t happen. Advertising just got more intrusive. The Deck succeeded as a small business supporting a network of interesting small publications, but not at all as a primary influencer on the direction taken by advertising that supports web content.

Experiment 2: Readability

Then about seven years ago, my friend Rich Ziade and his engineers created Readability, an app that sat between you and the ugly site you were trying to read, the way screen readers sit between visual websites and blind web users. Readability grabbed an article page’s primary content, removed the junk, and replaced the cluttered and illegible layout with a clean, readable page inspired by the clarity of iBooks and Kindle, which were just taking off at the time.

Rich released Readability 1.0 as open source; Apple immediately absorbed it into the Safari browser, where it continues to provide Safari’s built-in “reader” mode. (Safari’s “reader” mode was Apple’s first step in decluttering the web and returning it to the people who use it; “content blocking” would be the second step.)

Moreover, Readability 2.0, released by Rich’s then-company Arc90 the following year, added automatic payment for content creators slash publishers, as I explained at the time to anyone who would listen. Had Readability been allowed to continue the experiment, content monetization might have been less of a problem than it is today, and publication brands (the notion that it matters who publishes what we read) would be in exactly the same pickle they’re in anyway—except that readers would get their news in Readability’s attractive and customizable format, instead of from Apple News, Facebook, and the like.

I used to go around the world on lecture tours, warning my fellow designers that if we didn’t figure out how to declutter and compellingly brand sites, apps like Readability would do it for us. I still go around on lecture tours, but I’ve moved on to other issues. As for Readability, it was killed by a digital lynch mob after one powerful blogger, misunderstanding the motivation behind it, issued the digerati equivalent of a fatw?. But that’s another story.

Experiment 3: Big Type Revolution

In 2012, inspired by Readability and frustrated by the industry’s determination to make ever less legible, ever more cluttered sites full of tracking and popups and everything except what readers need, I bet big on large type:

This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)

Writing in Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner saw the future in my initially crude experiment:

If you want to know where the web is going, one clue is to look at the personal sites of top-tier web designers. And one trend that just bubbled to the surface is large body type—the kind you don’t have to command-plus to read.

Jeffrey Zeldman…made a particularly strong point about it in his “Web Design Manifesto 2012,” that he published yesterday.

Large Type: One Web Designer Puts Content First in a Big Way

Not to brag (okay, too late), but he wasn’t wrong. It was the future.

(Also, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only designer at the time who reacted against tiny type and cluttered anti-user layouts by stripping pages down to only their most necessary elements, and boosting the type size to enforce a more relaxed reading posture. The idea was in the air.)

The experiment becomes the norm

In any case, soon enough, readable (big type and plenty of whitespace) layouts starting popping up everywhere. At medium.com. In Mike Pick’s redesign of A List Apart. In article pages for The New York Times, Washington Post, Vox, Newsweek, The New Yorker, and, eventually, many other publications.

An uncluttered page focused on the reading experience (reminder: big type and plenty of whitespace) is now the default at several leading news publications. But many smaller publications, struggling just to survive, have not kept up. And so we have a perfect crisis:

Publications that do not encourage reading, loyalty, or repeat visits are struggling to survive at the very moment real news is under attack from an authoritarian president. What to do?

 

A two-up from the Poynter challenge

My response to the Poynter Design Challenge

There are many ways to respond to an existential crisis like the one facing most news publications. You can rethink the relationship between reader and publication. Rethink the job of the publication. Make news work more like a lifestyle app. Make it more immersive. My colleagues followed those paths out brilliantly (as described in Part 1).

But I went for the low-hanging fruit. The thing any publisher, no matter how cash-strapped, could do. The thing I had seen working since I started yelling about big type in 2012. I went for a clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded page. Authoritative because this isn’t fake news. Branded because the source matters.

The easiest, fastest, most readily attainable path to clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded design is through typography.

 

Sample reader layout from the Poynter challenge

Any publication can be readable

Any newspaper, however poor, can afford better typography. Any newspaper with a designer on staff can attain it, if the paper stops treating design as a lackey of marketing or editorial or advertising, and sets designers free to create great reading experiences.

In my work, which is still underway (and will continue for some time), I focused on creating what I call “reader” layouts (and probably other designers call them that too; but I just don’t know). Layouts that are branded, authoritative, clean, uncluttered, and easy to read.

I played with type hierarchies and created simple style guides. Most of my little pages began as Typecast templates that I customized. And then Noël Jackson from my studio cleaned up the HTML and CSS to make it more portable. We put the stuff up on GitHub for whoever wants to play with it.

These are only starting points. Any designer can create these kinds of layouts. There’s nothing special about what I did. You can do the same for your paper. (And if you can’t, you can hire us.)

The work I share here is the start of a project that will continue at our studio for a long time. #realnews for the win!

Additional reading

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Kiss My Classname

SORRY. I disagree. Nonsemantic classnames that refer to visual styles will always be a bad idea.

I’m sure you’re a good coder. Probably much better than I am these days. I know most of you weren’t around for the standards wars and don’t know how much damage non-semantic HTML and CSS did to the web.

I’ve worked on big sites and I understand how bloated and non-reusable code can get when a dozen people who don’t talk to each other work on it over a period of years. I don’t believe the problem is the principle of semantic markup or the cascade in CSS. I believe the problem is a dozen people working on something without talking to each other.

Slapping a visually named class on every item in your markup may indeed make your HTML easier to understand for a future developer who takes over without talking to you, especially if you don’t document your work and create a style guide. But making things easier for yourself and other developers is not your job. And if you want to make things easier for yourself and other developers, talk to them, and create a style guide or pattern library.

The codebase on big sites isn’t impenetrable because developers slavishly followed arbitrary best practices. The codebase is broken because developers don’t talk to each other and don’t make style guides or pattern libraries. And they don’t do those things because the people who hire them force them to work faster instead of better. It starts at the top.

Employers who value quality in CSS and markup will insist that their employees communicate, think through long-term implications, and document their work. Employers who see developers and designers as interchangable commodities will hurry their workers along, resulting in bloated codebases that lead intelligent people to blame best practices instead of work processes.

The present is always compromised, always rushed. We muddle through with half the information we need, praised for our speed and faulted when we stop to contemplate or even breathe. Frameworks built on newish worst practices seem like the way out, but they end up teaching and permanently ingraining bad habits in a generation of web makers. Semantics, accessibility, and clarity matter. Reusability is not out of reach. All it takes is clarity and communication.

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To Save Real News

IN a world where newspapers are dying and half the public believes fake news, what online news experiences need is design that is branded, authoritative, and above all, readable:

Branded, because we need to convert the current hummingbird model (where readers flit from flower to flower) back to the idea that your news source matters—and that it is worth your time to return to a source you trust.

Brand helps the social-media-driven seeker notice that they’re returning time and again to a certain resource, facilitating a mental model shift back toward destination web browsing. When every site looks the same, it’s easy to see all content as equal—all spun from the same amorphous mass. A strong brand, which is individual to the given newspaper, can cut through that amorphousness, which is the first step in building (or rebuilding) loyalty.

Authoritative, because combating fake news means visually cueing the reliability of a particular source—one staffed by real journalists and editors, with real sources in real countries. In the coming years this will be more important than ever.

Readable, because an informed public needs to grasp stories that can’t always be reduced to headlines or sound bytes. Readability means even longer articles actually get read, sometimes even all the way through. Readability requires a combination of typeface, type size, leading, measure, hierarchy, contrast, etc.—as well as the introduction of visual information, both to break up the flow of text, and to further illuminate what is being said.

Related news keeps readers reading

Additionally, this branded, authoritative, readable content needs to become (to use an ancient word) sticky: through a combination of editing and algorithms, related content must be presented at the appropriate time in the reading experience, to engage the visitor in continued reading.

Currently two publications—nytimes.com and medium.com—achieve all these goals better than any other publications on the web. One is the newspaper of record; the other is a vehicle for anyone’s content. Yet both really do the job all newspapers will need to do to survive—and to help the Republic survive these next years. I particularly admire the way both publications surface related content in a way that practically demands additional reading.

Design won’t solve all the problems facing newspapers, but it will help. And unlike more “immersive” approaches such as WebVR, original full-screen imagery, and original embedded video, the basics of solid, readable design should not be out of budgetary reach for even the most cash-strapped news publisher—budget being a problem for any business at any time, but especially for newspapers now.

In my studio, we’ve been pondering these problems for content sites of all types (not only newspapers). At the Poynter Digital Design Challenge next month, I hope to share designs that nudge the conversation along just a bit further.

Simultaneously published in Medium.

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From climate change to Swedish hip hop

Peyo AlmqvistI SPENT yesterday with my Swedish friend Pär (“Peyo”) Almqvist, who returned from LA Sunday morning and headed home to Sweden Sunday night. We met in Stockholm in 1999, when Peyo was 19, and have been close ever since. In 2000, Peyo wrote “Fragments of Time” for A List Apart. Reading it, you can see how thoughtful he is as a creative person.

A few years ago, Peyo cofounded OMC Power, a start-up that brought affordable solar power to rural villages in India—profoundly poor villages where, until that time, folks had relied on dirty gasoline-powered generators to get what little electricity they could.

National Geographic TV covered OMC’s work just this week in their special, “Years of Living Dangerously;” in the video clip on their site, you can watch David Letterman interview one of Peyo’s co-founders about what they’ve accomplished so far, and why it matters.

Letterman went to India to cover the threat of climate change and what’s being done to fight it. OMC Power is providing clean energy and a model for India to electrify itself without adding to the pollution that contributes to climate change. OMC started in India because folks in India needed the power and therefore welcomed them; and also because, by working with small rural villages, they encountered less violent opposition from the oil companies than they would have if they had attempted the experiment in Europe or North America. When the power grid fails in the west, folks in India will still have power—an irony of developed nations’ dependence on dirty fossil fuels.

In a time when so many of us feel helpless about climate change, and others, at the behest of corporate masters, cynically deny that it exists, it is good to know people who are making a difference and earning a living in doing so.

While Peyo remains an advisor to OMC Power, he has since co-founded a music startup, which I can’t talk about yet, but which I believe will meet real a need in music and may even change how some music gets made. (Like me, Peyo has a musical background, although, unlike me, as a producer and composer he has had hits in Sweden.)

It was his new music start-up music business that brought Peyo to New York and LA during the past week. I missed the chance to spend the week with him as I was in San Francisco doing the final AEA conference of 2016. It was great to spend a day together in New York, talking about our families, our businesses, and the world.

Also published in Medium.

 

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Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

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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.

 

 

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Pinterest giveth, and Pinterest taketh away

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)
AS MY design career has taken on more and more strategic and managerial freight, I’ve done less and less hands-on design. This year, I decided to change that. As part of my reimmersion, I found myself reading less, and absorbing visual information more. Enter Pinterest.

I’d played with the app when it first came out—who didn’t?—but it didn’t stick with me the way a handful of apps do. It didn’t become an obsession, and so I gradually forgot about it. That’s just how apps work for me. They’re heroin, or they’re nothing.

But the moment my days began filling with sketching, and coding, and Photoshop comping, the genius of Pinterest, and the addictive high it provides when used obsessively and compulsively, was revealed to me.

In borderline religious ecstasy, I became a Pinterest junkie, compelled to collect and catalog every artist I’ve ever loved—every type designer, illustrator, filmmaker, social absurdity, comic book character, and book designer; every half-forgotten cartoonist; every city or nation I’ve visited.

Using Pinterest not only revived long-dead visual design brain cells, it created new ones. Work-related layouts and color schemes came easier as I spent more and more “downtime” collecting and cataloging half-forgotten styles, genres, and artists—and discovering new ones.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

I ? Pinterest

As part of this work—for work it is; call it “research” if you prefer—I spent hours rearranging Boards on my profile for maximum aesthetic effect and rhythm. And more hours choosing and replacing the cover illustration for each Board. (If you don’t use Pinterest, here’s a summary: it lets you pin any image you find on the web, or on your own computer desktop or mobile device, to a virtual whiteboard. Pinterest calls each whiteboard you create a “Board,” and each image you affix to it a “Pin.” Part of the fun comes from sequencing Boards on your profile for aesthetic or educational reasons; choosing the featured image for each Board is likewise important and fun.)

Until a few days ago, you could edit and re-edit the featured image for each Board whether you were using Pinterest on the web (that is, via desktop computer), your phone, or your tablet. Doing these things worked differently on the different devices—choosing the featured image was actually faster and less tedious on iPhone and iPad than it was on the web—but the functionality was available in all three places, because Pinterest recognized that brands exist between devices, and that folks interact with your service on different devices at different times, as they choose.

Likewise, until a few days ago, you could change the order of Boards on your profile via drag and drop whether you were using Pinterest on the web or your tablet. (Likely because of screen space constraints, this functionality was not available on iPhone, where the display of Board content necessarily differs from the more desktop-design-focused method used on the web and on iPad.) Users like me changed the order of Boards to create visual interest, set up ironic contrasts, create visual rhythms up and down the screen, and so on. I’m a designer. I have my ways. These details are important to me—and, I imagine, to many other users, since Pinterest is a drug for visual obsessives.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

An unexpected change

Then, a few days ago, Pinterest released an update that removed this functionality from the iPhone and iPad (and, I’m assuming, from Android as well). There was no blog post announcing the change. And no rationale offered for taking away features that mattered a lot to users like me. Pinterest knows these features matter, because Pinterest has our data. That’s the difference between making a digital product folks interact with via the internet, and making, say, a toilet plunger. If I manufacture toilet plungers, I can make assumptions about how folks use my product, but I probably don’t have much real data. If I make an application people use via http, I know everything.

Now, it’s not like people were complaining about the ability to edit their Boards: “We have too much freedom! This software provides too many delightful functions. Please remove two of them. But only from my mobile device.”

No. The features are still there on the website. So Pinterest knows people like these features.

And it’s not like the features are too difficult to put into mobile devices, since they already existed in those mobile devices.

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

A failure to communicate

You may ask why I’m telling you all this instead of telling it to Pinterest. Good question. The answer is, I tried telling Pinterest, but they don’t provide a forum for it. And that is the biggest problem. A company that makes products people love should have a way to communicate with those people. Not grudgingly offer them a few character-limited form fields on a “survey” page that isn’t even referenced in the site’s navigation.

When the features stopped working on my iPhone and iPad, I assumed something had gone wrong with my apps, so I deleted and reinstalled them. (Remember, there was no announcement; but then why would any company announce that it was taking away loved features for no apparent reason?)

When deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, I sought help and contact pages on Pinterest (and was only able to find them via third-party search engine).

In trying to file a bug report, I ended up in a pleasant (but confusing) conversation with a very nice Pinterest employee who explained that I wasn’t experiencing a bug: the software engineers had made a conscious decision to remove the functions I use every day … and had no intention of restoring them. She wasn’t able to tell me why, or point me to a URL that would offer a rationale, but she did tell me I could use Pinterest’s “Recommend a feature” form to “recommend” that the software engineers put those features back.

Since “Recommend a feature” is hidden from site navigation, the kindly person with whom I was in dialog provided a link where I could type in a few characters requesting that Pinterest restore the “drag Board order” functionality. There wasn’t room in the form fields to explain why I thought the feature should be restored, but at least I was able to make the request. The form asked if I was a Business account user, which I am. I don’t remember when or why I bought the Business tier of service. Maybe for the analytics. Maybe just because, as someone who makes stuff myself, I choose to pay for software so I can support the good people who make it, and do what I can to help their product stick around.

(It’s the same reason I remained a Flickr Pro user even after Yahoo gave the whole world 2GB of photo storage space for free. If everything is free, and nobody pays, services you love tend to go away. Half of web history is great services disappearing in the night after investors were dissatisfied with only reasonable profits.)

I don’t know why my paid status mattered to Pinterest, but I couldn’t help feeling there would be a prejudice in favor of my comment if I checked the box letting them know I was a paying customer. Even though it was information they requested, checking the box made me feel dirty. I also wondered why they were asking me. I mean, don’t they know? I gave them the email address they use for my login. I was logged in. They know my status. Are they just checking to see if I know it, too?

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

There can only be one (feature request)

But I digress. Because here is the main point. The moment I submitted the tiny, inadequate form requesting the restoration of a recently removed feature, the site set a cookie and sent me a message thanking me for completing the “survey.” It wasn’t a survey, but I guess one task completion message is as good as another.

Then I tried to use the inadequate form to report my second concern—the one about the removal of the ability to choose a featured image for my Board. The way this had always worked on the tablet was far superior to the tedious, painstaking way it works on my desktop. On the tablet, you could scroll through all your images with the flick of a finger, select the image you wanted, and complete the task in a few seconds. On the desktop, you had to click your way through every image on your Board in reverse chronological order. It’s the difference between flicking through a calendar, and clicking backwards from today, to yesterday, to the day before yesterday, and so on. The tablet version was fast, easy, intuitive—you interact directly with your content; you can see all relevant content at a glance. The desktop version is cumbersome and 1999-ish. If I had to pick which platform must lose the functionality I relied on, I would not have chosen the tablet. No customer who used the feature in both places would.

But I wasn’t able to share even a few characters of this thought with Pinterest, because once you submit a “survey” requesting a feature, a steel wall in the guise of a cookie slams down, and you cannot make a second feature suggestion.

Not even the next day. (Which is today. Which I just tried.)

Jeffrey Zeldman's Pinterest (excerpt)

This is a love letter

And that is why, as a hardcore fan and user of Pinterest, a service I love and use compulsively, I am using the public web rather than Pinterest’s somewhat unhelpful help center, to share my request with the brilliant software engineers who create this fabulous product.

And with designers, because these are the mistakes we all make when we create products and content sites. We think we are all about the people who use what we create. But we are probably frustrating the pants off them with our arbitrary design decisions and inadequate customer feedback mechanisms.


Also published on Medium.

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The Year in Design

  • Mobile is today’s first screen. So design responsively, focusing on content and structure first.
  • Websites and apps alike should remove distractions and let people interact as directly as possible with content.
  • 90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.
  • Boost usability and pleasure with progressive disclosure: menus and functions that appear only when needed.
  • One illustration or original photo beats 100 stock images.
  • Design your system to serve your content, not the other way around.
  • Remove each detail from your design until it breaks.
  • Style is the servant of brand and content. Style without purpose is noise.
  • Nobody waits. Speed is to today’s design what ornament was to yesterday’s.
  • Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

Also published in Medium

Translated into German (also here) by Mark Sargent

Translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Sachsé

Translated into Turkish by omerbalyali.

Translated into Spanish by Tam Lopez Breit.

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Ad Blocking Phase II

screenshot of Choice app from Been, Inc.

THE WORLD has finally caught up with Been, Inc. Three years ago, this tiny start-up company shared my studio space in New York. Their product idea was remarkably original: instead of passively accepting the data collection and loss of privacy that comes with most ad networks on the web, what if people had a choice—to either block ads and third-party trackers entirely, or earn rewards for letting ads through?

The initial web-based product, playfully designed by Monkey Do, took the scariness and complexity out of tracking issues, and returned the decision making power to the consumer. Unfortunately, the mainstream web wasn’t ready for ad blocking, and consumers en masse either weren’t ready to think about privacy, or simply didn’t know the company’s value proposition because of its nonexistent marketing budget. (The only thing that kills products faster than no marketing is poor execution—although a handful of products have survived both.)

To stay afloat in the face of mass indifference, the company temporarily pivoted, using a portion of their technology to facilitate sharing of web content between consumers, much like the late lamented Ma.gnolia or Pocket’s new Recommended section. But where Ma.gnolia and Pocket were/are text-powered, the pivoted Been app was primarily visual, which helped it gain traction in the eduation market. Grade-school teachers and kids loved using the app for research projects—and their support helped the company stay in business long enough for the internet to catch up with their ideas.

Version 2.0 of their Choice app for iOS is the product of years of work on user privacy, data ownership, and control. iOS fans can download it at www.been.mobi/getv2edu.

The company’s site explains the push-button mechanics through which you can choose to block ads and third-party trackers in your apps and Safari, or earn rewards by letting ads through and sharing (strictly non-personal) information with Been. (Earn Mode is limited to US users for now.)

When I foolhardily put down my deposit on a New York studio that was larger and more costly than what I needed, my hope was that it would attract a like-minded community of designers and tech companies from whom I would learn and be inspired. That was certainly the case with my friends at Been! I wish them great success at helping to bring the changes our web needs.

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Responsive times two: essential new books from Ethan Marcotte & Karen McGrane

Responsive Design times two! New books from the geniuses, Ethan Marcotte and Karen McGrane.

IT WAS the early 2000s. The smoke from 9/11 was still poisoning my New York.

Karen McGrane was a brilliant young consultant who had built the IA practice at Razorfish while still in her early 20s, and was collaborating with my (now ex-)wife on some large, exciting projects for The New York Public Library. Ethan Marcotte was a Dreadlocks-hat-sporting kid I’d met in Cambridge through Dan Cederholm, with whom he sometimes collaborated on tricky, standards-based site designs. The first edition of my Designing With Web Standards was in the can. I figured that, like my previous book, it would sell about 10,000 copies and then vanish along with all the other forgotten web design books.

Nothing happened as I expected it to. The only thing I got right besides web standards was the desire to some day work with Karen, Ethan, and Dan—three dreams that, in different ways, eventually all came true. But nothing, not even the incredible experience of working with these luminaries, could have prepared me for the effect Ethan and Karen and Dan would have on our industry. Even less could I have guessed back then the announcement it’s my pleasure to make today:

Ethan Marcotte’s Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Karen McGrane’s Going Responsive are now available in our A Book Apart store.

It was thrilling to bring you Ethan and Karen’s first industry-changing A Book Apart books. Being allowed to bring you a second set of absolutely essential works on responsive design from these two great minds is a gift no publisher deserves, and for which I am truly grateful.

Building on the concepts in his groundbreaking Responsive Web Design, Ethan now guides you through developing and using design patterns so you can let your responsive layout reach more devices (and people) than ever before.

Karen McGrane effortlessly defined the principles of Content Strategy for Mobile. She’s helped dozens of teams effectively navigate responsive projects, from making the case to successful launch. Now, she pulls it all together to help you go responsive—wherever you are in the process.

Ebooks are available immediately and paperbacks ship next week. Buy Responsive Design: Patterns and Principles and Going Responsive together and save 15%! (Learn more.)

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Zen & The Art of iTunes Failure 

REBUILDING iTunes library from scratch over two days got app working again. Fine use of lazy weekend.

Had to sacrifice all custom playlists dating back to 2002, including An Event Apart playlists and delivery room mix from Ava’s birth.

Playlists still exist on old iPod but can’t be copied from it back to iTunes. (All software I’ve tried freezes & fails.)

Playlists still exist as code snippets inside .itl file in old iTunes folder, but numerous trials prove iTunes can’t launch from that folder any more. Thus I can’t temporarily launch from old folder, export playlists, switch back to safe new folder, and import them, thereby saving them.

And iTunes can’t import old .itl files. I Googled. I tried anyway.

13 years of custom playlists. From before, during, and after my marriage. Including one my daughter called “princess music” and danced to when she was three. Gone.

But, really, so what? Over time we lose everything. This loss is nothing. Attachment is futile. Always move forward, until you stop moving.

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Web Performance Today

WEB DESIGNERS have cared about web performance since the profession’s earliest days. When I started, we saved user bandwidth by employing GIF images that had the fewest possible colors—with no dithering, when possible, and by using actual web text instead of pictures of web text. (Kids, ask your parents about life before CSS enabled, type designers created formats for, browsers finally supported, and Typekit quickly popularized web fonts.)

Later, we learned to optimize JPEGs and blur their backgrounds: the blurrier large swathes of a JPEG image can be, the lower the bandwidth requirements for the image. We found the optimally performant size for repeating background tiles (32 x 32 and 64 x 64 were pretty good) and abandoned experiments like single-pixel-wide backgrounds, which seemed like a good idea but slowed browsers, servers, and computers to a crawl.

We developed other tricks, too. Like, when we discovered that GIF images optimized better if they possessed repeating patterns of diagonal lines, we worked diagonal background images into a design trend. It was the trend that preceded drop shadows, the wicked worn look, and skeuomorpic facades, which were themselves a retro recurrence of one of the earliest styles of commercial web design; that trend, which was always on the heavy side, performance-wise, eventually gave way to a far more performant grid-driven minimalism, which hearkened back to classic 1940s Swiss graphic design, but which our industry (sometimes with little knowledge of design history) called “flat design” and justified as being “born digital” despite its true origins going back to pixels, protractors, and a love of Greek mathematics.

All of this nostalgia is prelude to making the obvious comment that web design today is far more complex than it was in those golden years of experimentation; and because it is so much more complex, front-end performance is also far more complicated. You didn’t need an engineering degree to run DeBabelizer and remove needless elements from your markup, but, boy, does front-end design today feel more and more like serious coding.

All of which is to say, if you’re a front-end designer/developer, you should probably read and bookmark Nate Berkopec’s “Ludicrously Fast Page Loads – A Guide for Full-Stack Devs.” While you’re at it, save it to Pocket, and as a PDF you can read on your tablet.

I cannot verify every detail Nate provides, but it is all in line with recommendations I’ve heard over and over at top conferences, and read in articles and books by such performance mavens as Jake Archibald, Lara Hogan, Scott Jehl, and Yesenia Perez-Cruz.

You should also pick up these great books on performance:

(It’s not why I wrote this post, but if you order Scott’s book today, you can save 10% when you enter discount code ABAHARVEST at checkout.)

Even the most complex site should work in any device that reads HTML. It should work if stylesheets fail to load or the device doesn’t recognize CSS. It should work if JavaScript fails to load or the device doesn’t recognize JavaScript. The principles of standards-based design will never change, no matter how complex our web becomes. And as it becomes more complex (and, arguably, much richer), it behooves us to squeeze every byte of performance we can.

Websites can never be too rich or too thin.

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You’re welcome: cutting the mustard then and now.

EVERY TIME I hear a young web developer cite the BBC’s forward-thinking practice of “cutting the mustard,” by which they mean testing a receiving web device for certain capabilities before serving content, I remember when my team and I at The Web Standards Project invented that very idea. It’s a million web years ago, by which I mean fourteenish human years ago, so nobody remembers but me and some other long toothed grayhairs, plus a few readers of the first edition of Designing With Web Standards. But I like you, so I will tell you the story.

Back then in those dark times, it was common practice for web developers to create four or more versions of the same website—one for each browser then in wide use. It was also a typical (and complementary) practice to send server-side queries to figure out which browser was about to access a site’s content, and then send the person using that browser to the site version that was configured for her browser’s particular quirks, proprietary tags, and standards compliance failings.

The practice was called “browser detection.” Nobody but some accessibility advocates had ever questioned it—and the go-go dot-com era had no time or care for those folks.

But we at The Web Standards Project turned everything on its head. We said browsers should support the same standards instead of competing to invent new tags and scripting languages. We said designers, developers, and content folks should create one site that was accessible to everyone. In a world like that, you wouldn’t need browser detection, because every browser and device that could read HTML would be able to feast on the meat of your site. (And you’d have more meat to share, because you’d spend your time creating content instead of crafting multiple versions of the same site.)

To hasten that world’s arrival, in 2001 we launched a browser upgrade campaign. Those who participated (example participant here) employed our code and content to send their users the message that relatively standards-compliant browsers were available for every platform, and inviting them to try one. Because if more people used relatively standards-compliant browsers, then we could urge more designers and developers to create their sites with standards (instead of quirks). And as more designers and developers did that, they’d bump against still-unsolved standards compliance conundrums, enabling us to persuade browser makers to improve their standards compliance in those specific areas. Bit by bit, stone by stone, this edifice we could, and would, erect.

The code core of the 2001 browser upgrade campaign was the first instance of capability detection in place of browser detection. Here’s how it worked. After creating a valid web page, you’d insert this script in the head of your document or somewhere in your global JavaScript file:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}

We even provided details for various flavors of markup. In HTML 4 or XHTML 1 Transitional documents, it looked like this:

<script type="text/javascript" language="javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->
</script>

In STRICT documents, you’d either use a global .js file, or insert this:

<script type="text/javascript">
<!-- //
if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.webstandards.org/upgrade/"
}
// -->

You could also just as easily send visitors to an upgrade page on your own site:

if (!document.getElementById) {
window.location =
"http://www.yourdomain.com/yourpage.html"
}

Non-WaSP members (at the time) J. David Eisenberg, Tantek Çelik, and Jim Heid contributed technical advice and moral support to the effort. WaSP sysadmin Steven Champeon, the inventor of progressive enhancement, made it all work—under protest, bless him. (Steve correctly believed that all web content should always be available to all people and devices; therefore, in principle, he disliked the upgrade campaign, even though its double purpose was to hasten the arrival of truly standards-compliant browsers and to change front-end design and development from a disrespected world of hacks to a sustainable and professional craft. ((See what I did there? I’m still respectfully arguing with Steve in my head.)))

Discovering rudimentary DOM awareness or its absence in this fashion was the first time web developers had tested for capabilities instead of chasing the dragon in a perpetual and futile attempt to test for every possible browser flavor and version number. It was the grandparent, if you will, of today’s “cutting the mustard.” And it is analogous as well to the sensible responsive design practice of setting breakpoints for the content, instead of trying to set appropriate breakpoints for every possible device out there (including all the ones that haven’t been invented yet).

Which reminds us that the whole point of web standards was and is forward compatibility—to create content that will work not only in yesterday’s and today’s browsers and devices, but in all the wonderful devices that have yet to be invented, and for all the people of the world. You’re welcome.

—CHICAGO, Westin Chicago River Hotel, 1 September 2015


Hat tip: John Morrison