The Lords of Vendorbation

Vendorbation
ven·dor·ba·tion
/ˈvendər-ˈbā-shən/

noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.

Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.

Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.

Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.

Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).

Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.

Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?

Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.

Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”


Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.

Chicago, Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Photos of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

AN EVENT APART Chicago—a photo set on Flickr. Pictures of the city and the conference for people who make websites.

Notes from An Event Apart Chicago 2013—Luke Wroblewski’s note-taking is legendary. Here are his notes on seven of the ten presentations at this year’s An Event Apart Chicago.

#aeachi—conference comments on Twitter.

Chicago (Foursquare)—some of my favorite places in the city.

An Event Apart Chicago—sessions, schedule, and speaker bios for the conference that just ended.

AEA Chicago 2013 on Lanyrd—three days of design, code, and content on the social sharing platform for conferences.


THE NEXT AEA event takes place in Austin and is already sold out (although a few spaces are still available for the full-day workshop on multi-device design).

A handful of seats are available for the final event of the year, An Event Apart San Francisco at the Palace Hotel, December 9–11, 2013. Be there or be square.


Cloudtastrophe

Screenshot of erroneous error message

A VIRUS spoofing my return email address has apparently been emailing many people. I know this because some of these viral email messages bounce back to my Gmail account as undeliverable. Mistaking these reports for actual messages sent by me, Gmail has decided I’m too active a user, and forbidden me to send any more mail today.

I’m a Google Apps user with a multi-gigabyte Gmail account and I’ve sent less than a dozen actual messages today because I am home sick with a cold. But Gmail doesn’t know that. And Gmail doesn’t care. Because Gmail isn’t real, not even in the David Sleight sense. It’s a set of equations programmed by fallible human beings, and it controls my life and yours.

There is no one to talk to at Google about my service problem because there is no there there. The services I pay for are delivered by robot magic in the cloud. When something goes wrong, it just goes wrong. There’s nobody to track down the virus’s origin and make it stop. There’s nobody to say, “This user hasn’t actually sent these messages.” (I keep marking the returned mails as “spam,” but Google hasn’t caught on, probably because customer service problems aren’t supposed to be reported by inference.)

My friend wears a shirt that says “The Cloud Is A Lie,” but that isn’t quite the truth. More like, the cloud is a customer service problem. One I just found myself on the wrong end of.

Google to customer: Go fuck yourself. In the cloud.

Curse of the Zeldman Curse

I HAVEN’T GRIPED about a run of bad luck with Apple products for some time, because I haven’t experienced such a run in years. So I was due. So pretty much all the Apple products I own are now malfunctioning, each in its own special way—a way that interacts cunningly with the malfunction in another Apple product I own to prevent me from, say, accessing internet content, or getting photos out of my camera and onto a device where I can view and edit them.

The interlocking details of these curiously synchronous malfunctions are of little general interest, but the cultural assumptions surrounding their discussion may merit some small call on your attention.

People used to talk about the Zeldman Curse, meaning things went wrong with my Apple software or hardware that didn’t go wrong with anyone else’s. But that was never true, of course. Google any problem I wrote about back then, and you’d find lots of other people having the same problem, usually quietly, on an out-of-the-way Apple message board, which only rarely contained an actual, working solution.

Media-wise, Apple was always mum on these subjects—the one exception being 2010’s notorious iPhone 4 antenna problem which supposedly doomed Apple and the iPhone and of course did neither because it wasn’t really a big problem and it was easy to fix.

But those other things that sometimes went wildly wrong for some users of some Apple products? Those things, nice people didn’t talk about. As a community, Apple fans were Victorians when it came to malfunctions of the hardware or software body, and those who complained—like Victorians seeking sexual information—were to be shunned.

This ban on complaint never stopped me because my filters are different from yours, and because I needed the psychological release that came with writing more than I needed your approval.

The real meaning of Apple design

Now, we all know Apple is smart. Their sales pitch is design, but not in the “pretty” sense people who don’t know what design is think I mean when I say the word “design.”

Their stuff is pretty, but that surface prettiness is merely an objective correlative—an indicator, if you will—for the beauty and emotional satisfaction of a generally seamless computing experience. It’s the comparative ease of creating and managing a music library, not the attractiveness of the surrounding chrome, that makes people connect personally with iTunes. Like the best websites, Apple products anticipate what you will need to do, and make it easy for you to do it, thereby enabling you to focus your attention on the content with which you are engaged, instead of on the interface that facilitates your interaction. Interaction design. Experience design. That’s what Apple is brilliant at.

And even when the hardware is visually gorgeous—like the MacBook Air, my road machine as a frequent speaker—the real selling point isn’t that visual beauty; it’s the fact that this powerful computer weighs little more than a pad of paper. You can toss it in your handbag or backpack and run out the door. That whole deskbound computing experience? The Air freed you from it even before the iPad came along.

Ingenious

If a brand’s whole essence is bound up with good experience, it makes sense for the brand to handle bad experiences quietly and with skill. This Apple does in its stores. If something goes wrong with a piece of hardware, or if an individual piece of software is malfunctioning in ways you can’t fix after fifteen minutes with the Googles, you walk into the Apple store, and a smiling initiate fixes the software for you, or replaces your bum iPhone with a free new one. Walking out with a free new iPhone kind of makes you forget that you were angry at Apple for the problems of the iPhone you walked in with.

The house that Jack wired

But you can’t lug your apartment or your whole network routing setup to the Apple store when your MacBook Air says it can’t connect to the internet because another device is using its IP address (even though no device is). And you can’t plug into ethernet because the Air doesn’t support it. And if you bought that ethernet converter enabling you to plug an ethernet cable into your Air, that’s when you find out that most ethernet cables don’t actually fit into that thing Apple sold you for $50. You can’t bring the Air into the Apple store to be diagnosed and fixed because it connects beautifully to the internet over Wi-Fi everywhere but in your home. And that happened suddenly, after you hadn’t changed anything about your network.

And it’s not just you, because your colleague gets the same error message on his Apple computer in the design studio you share. And it isn’t the way you configured your networks, because you hired a guy to configure the one in your studio, while you configured the home one yourself, using only Apple hardware and software. And the guy you hired to wire your studio is competent, because that is what he does for a living, and has done for 20 years, as his bald head attests.

And you want the Air to connect to the internet because you want to get photos off your camera, and you can’t do that with your desktop Apple computer (an iMac) because iPhoto will not open in that computer. iPhoto will not open in that computer because your iPhoto library is corrupted, and the usual secret fixes for that problem (Command-Option open) do not work. Besides, the iPhoto library on your MacBook Air is also corrupted.

Your iMac is set to open Aperture when you connect your camera to it, but Aperture shares iPhoto’s library, so if you plug your camera into your iMac, Aperture spins uselessly and stops responding, just like iPhoto does.

You can sometimes force iPhoto to open on the Air by holding down Command-Option on launch, but if you did that, the photos would just sit there, because the Air cannot connect to the internet in your home. So you couldn’t share the photos on Flickr or Instagram or Facebook, and what would be the point of having taken them? And besides, the Air has no room for photos because the Air has no room on its little bitty drive. And you can’t edit photos on your Air because it’s a “light” computer by design. So even if iPhoto wasn’t broken on your Air, and even if it had room on its itty bitty drive, the best you could hope to do would be dump a bunch of photos into it and then not edit or share them.

The iMac has internet access, but neither Aperture nor iPhoto will work on it because of the aforesaid corruption problem.

So I’ve bought iPhoto Library Manager to fix the corruption in my library, and I believe it will do that, but it’s been working on the problem for fourteen hours so far and it is not even halfway finished. Yes, I have a large library. By tomorrow night, if the software has worked, I may be able to access my photos—although there is the very strong possibility that when I connect the camera, Aperture will open, and will freeze, because it doesn’t know that iPhoto Library Manager has built an entirely new photo library, because that’s how iPhoto Library Manager solves the problem. So tomorrow night, when iPhoto Library Manager finally stops grinding away at my corrupted photo library, I may need to uninstall Aperture just to get the photos off my camera.

I also can’t access internet content outside my living room because my walls are thick and my network no longer recognizes my Airport Extreme (so I’m waiting for Apple to deliver another one) but that would be a third kvetch in the same post, and two is all you get.

So I think maybe Apple is telling me to go out and spend time with my friends on this cold but sunny morning, and to only use computers in my studio, where they and the internet magically work. Only, why would Apple tell me that? How does that message get me to buy more of their stuff? It doesn’t, logically. And yet I know I will buy more and more of their stuff. I’m probably buying some right now.

I should acquire an unfaithful mistress and lavish her with jewelry I can’t afford. At least then people would understand.

Communication Breakdown

REDUNDANT MECHANISMS that fail to communicate with one another can make using Mac OS X Lion more confusing than it should be.

Consider the screenshot shown here. While Apple’s Software Update knows that I have downloaded the latest version of iPhoto (“Your software is up to date”), Apple’s App Store, pulling from a different database, does not know that I have already installed iPhoto. It only knows that a new version is available.

Because the App Store’s left hand doesn’t know what Software Update’s right hand has already downloaded and installed, the App Store flashes a red download alert badge, urging me to download 500MB of Apple software that Apple’s OS has already installed on my Apple machine.

Suppose I don’t bother to check Software Update and verify that the App Store’s “Update” tab is urging me to take a nonsensical action. Suppose I actually go ahead and click “UPDATE” in the App Store’s “Update” tab. What will happen?

The software, all 500 MB of it, will download again, and install itself again. That’s what will happen.

And the cream of the jest? After installing the software again, if I click into the “Purchases” tab of the App Store, the “Purchases” tab will inform me that an iPhoto update is available, and urge me to install it. And if I have been huffing nitrous all day and take Apple’s advice, the 500 MB package will download for a third time and install itself a third time.

And you thought Retina images were tough on bandwidth.


(A friend tells me that Mountain Lion resolves this clustercuss by removing Software Update from the equation. I suspect that those of us still using Lion are receiving unintended anal leakage from UI decisions that make sense in Mountain Lion but are idiotic in Lion. #imisssteve)

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

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.

Product Management for the Web; Beyond Usability Testing

IN ISSUE NO. 357 of A List Apart for people who make websites:

Beyond Usability Testing

by DEVAN GOLDSTEIN

To be sure we’re designing the right experience for the right audience, there’s no substitute for research conducted with actual users. Like any research method, though, usability testing has its drawbacks. Most importantly, it isn’t cheap. Fortunately, there are other usability research methods at our disposal. The standouts, expert review and heuristic evaluation, are easy to add to a design and development process almost regardless of budget or resource concerns. Explore these techniques, learn their advantages and disadvantages, and get the low-down on how to include them in your projects.

Product Management for the Web

by KRISTOFER LAYON

Whether we prototype, write, design, develop, or test as part of building the web, we’re creating something hundreds, thousands, or maybe even millions of people will use. But how do we know that we’re creating the right enhancements for the web, at the right time, and for the right customers? Because our client or boss asked us to? And how do they know? Enter product management for the web—bridging the gap between leadership and customers on one side, and the user experience, content strategy, design, and development team on the other. Learn to set priorities that gradually but steadily make your product (and the web) better.


SINCE 1998, A List Apart has explored the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices.

Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart Magazine.

Facebook goes native

“IF I WERE advising them on these decisions, I would have had them look at what people actually want from Facebook — fast access to their friends’ photos and posts — and … helped them design an HTML5 web experience that actually works for mobile.”

.net magazine: Facebook iPhone app to go native By Tanya Combrinck on June 28, 2012

Web Design Manifesto 2012

THANK YOU for the screen shot. I was actually already aware that the type on my site is big. I designed it that way. And while I’m grateful for your kind desire to help me, I actually do know how the site looks in a browser with default settings on a desktop computer. I am fortunate enough to own a desktop computer. Moreover, I work in a design studio where we have several of them.

This is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. Designers with personal sites should experiment with new layout models when they can. Before I got busy with one thing and another, I used to redesign this site practically every other week. Sometimes the designs experimented with pitifully low contrast. Other times the type was absurdly small. I experimented with the technology that’s used to create web layouts, and with various notions of web “page” design and content presentation. I’m still doing that, I just don’t get to do it as often.

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind—although nobody until you has suggested I simply didn’t have access to a computer and therefore didn’t know what I was designing. This design may be good, bad, or indifferent but it is not accidental.

A few people who hate this design have asked if I’ve heard of responsive web design. I have indeed. I was there when Ethan Marcotte invented it, I published his ground-breaking article (and, later, his book, which I read in draft half a dozen times and which I still turn to for reference and pleasure), and I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ethan lecture and lead workshops on the topic about 40 times over the past three years. We’ve incorporated responsive design in our studio’s practice, and I’ve talked about it myself on various stages in three countries. I’m even using elements of it in this design, although you’d have to view source and think hard to understand how, and I don’t feel like explaining that part yet.

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.)

This redesign is deliberately over the top, but new ideas often exaggerate to make a point. It’s over the top but not unusable nor, in my opinion, unbeautiful. How can passages set in Georgia and headlines in Franklin be anything but beautiful? I love seeing my words this big. It encourages me to write better and more often.

If this were a client site, I wouldn’t push the boundaries this far. If this were a client site, I’d worry that maybe a third of the initial responses to the redesign were negative. Hell, let’s get real: if this were a client site, I wouldn’t have removed as much secondary functionality and I certainly wouldn’t have set the type this big. But this is my personal site. There are many like it, but this one is mine. And on this one, I get to try designs that are idea-driven and make statements. On this one, I get to flounder and occasionally flop. If this design turns out to be a hideous mistake, I’ll probably eventually realize that and change it. (It’s going to change eventually, anyway. This is the web. No design is for the ages, not even Douglas Bowman’s great Minima.)

But for right now, I don’t think this design is a mistake. I think it is a harbinger. We can’t keep designing as we used to if we want people to engage with our content. We can’t keep charging for ads that our layouts train readers to ignore. We can’t focus so much on technology that we forget the web is often, and quite gloriously, a transaction between reader and writer.

Most of you reading this already know these things and already think about them each time you’re asked to create a new digital experience. But even our best clients can sometimes push back, and even our most thrilling projects typically contain some element of compromise. A personal site is where you don’t have to compromise. Even if you lose some readers. Even if some people hate what you’ve done. Even if others wonder why you aren’t doing what everyone else who knows what’s what is doing.

I don’t think you will see much type quite this big but I do think you will see more single-column sites with bigger type coming soon to a desktop and device near you. For a certain kind of content, bigger type and a simpler layout just make sense, regardless of screen size. You don’t even have to use Typekit or its brothers to experiment with big type (awesome as those services are). In today’s monitors and operating systems, yesterday’s classic web fonts—the ones that come with most everyone’s computer—can look pretty danged gorgeous at large sizes. Try tired old Times New Roman. You might be surprised.

The present day designer refuses to die.