Okay, that last one isn’t a web design link and the Apple comment could go either way, but that’s how I roll. Follow me on Twitter for more snarkeractive funucation!
Dueling messages (or, content strategy matters)
“UPDATED SERVICE ADVISORY – EAST RIVER FERRY CAPACITY LIMITS – PLEASE CLICK HERE TO READ,” the top banner on the East River Ferry’s website nervously advises. Immediately below this warning comes the gentle and slightly vacuous headline, “Relax. We’ll Get You There.” The two headlines tell contrasting stories that completely contradict each other. No print art director would place these two messages on the same page, let alone in such close proximity or with treatments that compete for the reader’s attention. Yet this is how we treat content on the web.
Elsewhere on the page, care has been taken. An interactive map! With rollovers! Be still, my heart.
But when it came time to determine a content strategy, no one was in charge (or the wrong people were). Instead of the kind of headline that actually works on the web, a committee approved a soft print advertising headline—the kind that might appear in a quarter-page ad in the back of the playbill for a regional theater company’s production of Guys and Dolls. No thought was given to how that headline would play if the ferry developed service problems. Apparently no substitute, contingency headline was created. And not much thought (if any) was given to how the design might change if a problem arose.
Thus at the last minute a slightly hysterical “over capacity” headline that makes the “Relax” headline look ridiculous was jammed on top of the primary headline, using design techniques that give the warning primacy of place, and add shrillness by using all caps, only to defeat their own urgency with a low-contrast teal-on-blue color scheme that is difficult for people with normal vision to read and may be invisible to people with certain kinds of color-blindness.
This is what we do. We have meetings, we reach consensus, we make templates, we approve inoffensive headlines and copy, and we fumble contingencies. Avoiding these problems is what content strategy and user experience design are all about.
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:
SOME IDEAS SEEM inevitable once they arrive. It’s impossible for me to conceive of the universe before rock and roll or to envision Christmas without Mr Dickens’s Carol, and it’s as tough for my kid to picture life before iPads. So too will the internet users and designers who come after us find it hard to believe we once served web content in boxy little hardwired layouts left over from the magical but inflexible world of print.
I remember when the change came. We were putting on An Event Apart, our design conference for people who make websites, and half the speakers at our 2009 Seattle show had tumbled to the magic of media queries. One after another, CSS wizards including Eric Meyer and Dan Cederholm presented the beginnings of an approach to designing content for a world where people were just as likely to be using smart, small-screen devices like iPhone and Android as they were traditional desktop browsers.
Toward the end of the second day, Ethan Marcotte took what the other speakers had shared and amped it to 11. Suddenly, we had moved from maybe to for sure, from possible to inevitable. Ethan even gave us a name for his new approach to web design.
That name appears on the cover of this book, and this book represents the culmination of two years of design research and application by Ethan and leading-edge design practitioners around the world. Armed with this brief book, you will have everything you need to re-imagine your web design universe and boldly go where none have gone before. Happy reading and designing!
Progressive enhancement: all you need to know is here
ONE GLORIOUS AFTERNOON in March, 2006, as a friend and I hurried past Austin’s Downtown Hilton Hotel to catch the next session of the SXSW Interactive Festival, a young stranger arrested our progress. With no introduction or preliminaries, he announced that he was available to speak at An Event Apart, a conference for web designers that Eric Meyer and I had launched three months previously. Turning to my companion with my best impression (which is none too good) of Mr Burns of “The Simpsons,” I asked, “Who is this brash young upstart, Smithers?”
The brash young upstart quickly became an essential colleague. In the months and years that followed, Aaron Gustafson created dazzling front- and back-end code for some of my agency’s most demanding clients. Just as importantly, he brilliantly tech-edited the second and third editions of Designing With Web Standards. The job largely consists of alerting Ethan Marcotte and me to the stuff we don’t know about web standards. I’ll let you think about that one. For five years now, Aaron has also been a tough but fair technical editor for A List Apart magazine, where he helps authors succeed while ensuring that they are truly innovative, that their methods are accessible and semantic, and (thanks to his near-encyclopedic knowledge) that they give all prior art its due. Moreover, Aaron has written seminal pieces for the magazine, and, yes, he has lectured at An Event Apart.
Given my experiences with the man and my admiration for his knowledge and abilities, I was thrilled when Aaron told me the premise of this book and began letting me look at chapters. This isn’t just another web design book. It’s an essential and missing piece of the canon. Our industry has long needed a compendium of best practices in adaptive, standards-based design. And with the rise of mobile, the recent significant improvements in desktop and phone browsers, and the new capabilities that come with HTML5, CSS3, and gestural interfaces, it is even more vital that we who make websites have a reliable resource that tells us how to take advantage of these new capabilities while creating content that works in browsers and devices of all sizes and widely differing capabilities. This book is that resource.
The convergence of these new elements and opportunities is encouraging web professionals to finally design for the web as it always should have been done. Adaptive design is the way, and nobody has a wider command than Aaron of the thinking and techniques required to do it well. In these pages you will find all that thinking and those methods. Never again will you lose a day debating how to do great web design (and create great code) that works for everyone. I plan to give this book to all my students, and to everyone I work with. I encourage you to do likewise. And now, enough preliminaries. Dive in, and enjoy!
Jeremy Keith quite effectively live-blogs my opening keynote on the particular opportunities of Now in the field of web design, and the skills every designer needs to capitalize on the moment and make great things.
Related to my talk: Jeremy Keith’s original write-up on a notorious but all-too-common practice. If your boss or client tells you to design this pattern, just say no. Design that does not serve users does not serve business.
“As a consultant, [Whitney] spends a lot of time talking about UX and inevitably, the talk turns to deliverables and process but really we should be establishing a philosophy about how to treat people, in the same way that visual design is about establishing a philosophy about how make an impact. Visual design has principles to achieve that: contrast, emphasis, balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, texture, harmony and unity.” In this talk, Whitney proposed a set of 10 principles for UX design.
“In his presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jared Spool detailed the importance and role of links on Web pages.” No writer can capture Jared Spool’s engaging personality or the quips that produce raucous laughter throughout his sessions, but Luke does an outstanding job of noting the primary ideas Jared shares in this riveting and highly useful UX session.
Luke W: “In his All Our Yesterdays presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Jeremy Keith outlined the problem of digital preservation on the Web and provided some strategies for taking a long term view of our Web pages.”
Although it is hard to pick highlights among such great speakers and topics, this talk was a highlight for me. As in, it blew my mind. Several people said it should be a TED talk.
Luke: “In his Idea to Interface presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Aarron Walter encouraged Web designers and developers to tackle their personal projects by walking through examples and ways to jump in. Here are my notes from his talk.”
Compiled by the speaker, links include Design Personas Template and Example, the story behind the illustrations in the presentation created by Mike Rhode, Dribble, Huffduffer, Sketchboards, Mustache for inserting data into your prototypes, Keynote Kung Fu, Mocking Bird, Yahoo Design Patterns, MailChimp Design Pattern Library, Object Oriented CSS by Nicole Sullivan and more!
“In his Smoke Gets In Your Eyes presentation at An Event Apart in Boston, MA 2011 Andy Clarke showcased what is possible with CSS3 animations using transitions and transforms in the WebKit browser.” Write-up by the legendary Luke Wroblewski.
Fascinating article by Anton Peck (who attended the show). Proposed: a solution to a key problem with CSS transitions. (“Even now, my main issue with transitions is that they use the same time-length value for the inbound effect as they do the outbound. For example, when you create a transition on an image with a 1-second duration, you get that length of time for both mousing over, and mousing away from the object. This type of behavior should be avoided, for the sake of the end-user!”)
Some of our best talks were not captured by note-takers, at least not to my knowledge. They include:
Eric Meyer: CSS Anarchist’s Cookbook
Mark Boulton: Outing the Mind: Designing Layouts That Think for You
Jeff Veen: Disaster, DNA, and the Fathomless Depth of the Web
It’s possible that the special nature of these presentations made them impossible to capture in session notes. (You had to be there.)
There are also no notes on the two half-day workshop sessions, “Understand HTML5 With Jeremy Keith,” and “Explore CSS3 With Ethan Marcotte.”
What have I missed?
Attendees and followers, below please add the URLs of related educational links, write-ups, and tools I’ve missed here. Thanks!
“Mobile” versus “Small Screen”
As we try to become more responsive with our designs, a lot of attention has been focused on providing “mobile” styles. We’ve all been adding viewport meta tags to our templates and @media screen and (max-device-width: 480px) to our stylesheets.
It’s very tempting (and scope-friendly) to tell a client that we can adjust their site for mobile users, when much of the time what we’re actually doing is simply adjusting a design for small screens.
…Simply adjusting a design for a smaller screen and calling it “mobile” does a disservice to both mobile users and developers. Making link targets bigger and image sizes smaller does help the mobile user, but it only addresses the surface issues of usability and readability. It doesn’t address their need to do things easily and quickly.
ON SUNDAY, while leading a discussion on the future of web design and publishing, I noticed a slightly confused look appearing on some faces in the audience. The discussion had been billed as “Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel,” and I thought perhaps there was a disconnect for some in the audience between “design” and such topics as where content comes from and who pays for it.
So I asked, “Who here is in publishing?”
A few hands were gently raised.
Uh-huh. “And how many of you work on the web?”
Every right hand in the room shot up.
“You are all in publishing,” I explained.
Now, I like a good rounded corner talk as much as the next designer. I’ve given my share of them. Also of line height and measure, color and contrast, how to design things that don’t work in old versions of Internet Explorer, and so on. In the practice of web and interaction design, there will always be a place for craft discussions—for craft is execution, and ideas without execution are songs without music, meaningless.
But right now (and always) there is a need for design to also be about the big strategic issues. And right now, as much as design is wrestling with open vs. proprietary formats and the old challenges of new devices, design is also very much in the service of applications and publishing. Who gets content, who pays for it, how it is distributed (and how evenly), the balance between broadcast and conversation, editor and user—these are the issues of this moment, and it is designers even more than editors who will answer these riddles.