In Defense of Font Size Widgets

A discussion on Twitter“You don’t get to decide which platform or device your customers use to access your content: they do.”—Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile

“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”—Louis C.K.

“Discomfort with others’ burdens has no place in good design.”—Mica McPheeters

“Historically, teams simply have not been trained to imagine their users as different from themselves—not really, not in any sort of deep and empathetic way.”—Sara Wachter-Boettcher

 

“USER CUSTOMIZATION” on the web hearkens back to the deluded old days of portals, when companies imagined you’d start your daily “net browsing” session by “logging on” to their website’s homepage. Customization was among the chief (largely imaginary) inducements for you to return to their “start” page and not others.

The thought was that changing the fonts and color scheme would make their page feel more like your home. After all, Windows 3.1 users seemed to enjoy switching their home computers to “Black Leather Jacket” or other personalized settings—if only as an escape from the computer environment at work, where their bosses enforced a rigid conformist look and feel, and dictated which software and fonts were allowed on your workstation. Surely, the thinking went, pioneering web explorers would demand custom accommodations as plush as those found in the best-selling operating system.

MySpace … and beyond!

Dropdown style switcher from adactio.com – a memory of the way we were.This fetish for pointless customization—customization for its own sake—persisted through the MySpace era, where it actually made sense as an early mass offering of page owner personal branding. Its descendants are the WordPress, Tumblr, and Squarespace themes that create a professional appearance for the websites of individuals and small businesses. This is a positive (and inevitable) evolution, and a perfect denouement for the impulse that began life as “user customization.”

But, except on a few quirky personal sites like Jeremy Keith’s adactio.com, where sidebar customization widgets live on as a winking look back to the early days of personal content on the web, user customization for its own sake has long been out of favor—because experience, referrer logs, and testing have long shown that visitors don’t bother with it.

Perhaps that’s because people don’t really visit websites any more. They drop in quickly on a page found by search or referred by social media, scan quickly and incompletely, and leave, mostly never to return.

When you use Google, Bing, or Duck Duck Go to find out what a knocking sound in your radiator or a pang in your gulliver might mean, you scan for the information you sought, find it (if you’re lucky), and leave. The notion that most sites could get you to come back by offering you the ability to change fonts or colors is self-evidently absurd. Why bother?

Readability and font customization

Ah, but there’s another kind of user customization that I’m hoping and betting will make a comeback: a subtle, inclusive sort of customization that doesn’t exist for its own sake, but rather to serve.

Our glowing, high-density screens are great for watching Westworld, but a bit too bright and backlit for prolonged reading compared to the paper they’re intended to replace. But screens have one advantage over printed books (besides storage and portability): namely, they offer accessibility features a printed book never could.

I once received an architecture book written by an important scholar, but I was never able to read it, because the layout was terrible: the type was too small, the leading too tight, and (most of all) the measure far too wide to be readable. If an ebook version had been available, I’d have purchased it; but this was before the mass market availability of ebooks, and the tome is now out of print. I own it, but I shall never be able to read it.

It wouldn’t be a problem with an ebook, because all ebooks offer readers the ability to alter the contrast and the basic theme (white text on black, black text on white, dark text on a light background); all ebooks offer the ability to adjust font size; and most include the ability to change fonts. Why do Kindle and iBooks offer this flexibility? Because it helps readers who might otherwise not be able to read the text comfortably—or at all. This isn’t customization for its own sake. It’s customization for the sake of inclusion.

The grey lady and user customization

The font size widget at nytimes.comNow notice who else provides some of this same inclusive customization function: the mighty New York Times.

People in our industry tend to repeat things they’ve heard as if they are eternal verities—when the real truth is that each digital experience is different, each person who engages with it is different, and each device used to access each experience brings its own strengths and limitations.

A font size widget may smell like the pointless old-fashioned “user customization” to be found on half the unvisited sites in the Wayback Machine, but it is the very opposite of such stuff. Even mighty responsive design benefits from offering a choice of font sizes—because there are just too many complications between too many screen sizes and device features and too many pairs of eyes to ensure that even the best designer can provide a readable experience for everyone without adding a simple text size widget.

Most of the sites we’ve designed in the past few years have not had a text size widget, but I believe this was due to our privileged assumptions and biases, and not to the reality of the needs of those we serve. Going forward on client projects at studio.zeldman, and in my publications like A List Apart, I hope to correct this—and I hope you will think about it, too.

 

Also published to A List Apart: Medium.

Big Web Show № 150: Giant Paradigm Shifts and Other Delights With Brad Frost

Brad Frost, photographed at An Event Apart by Jeffrey Zeldman.

BOY, was this show overdue. For the first time ever on The Big Web Show, I chat with my friend, front-end developer extraordinaire Brad Frost, author of the spanking new book, Atomic Design.

We have fun. We go way over time. We kept talking after the show stopped. There was just so much to discuss—including Pattern Lab and style guides, being there for the iPad launch, working with big brands, how to say no and make the client happy you said it, avoiding antipatterns, mobile versus “the real web” (or the way we saw things in 2009), dressing for success, contributing to open source projects, building a community, the early days of Brad’s career, and that new book of his.

Listen to Episode № 150 on the 5by5 network, or subscribe via iTunes. And pick up Brad’s book before they sell out!

Sponsored by Braintree and Incapsula.

Brad Frost URLS

@brad_frost
http://bradfrost.com
http://patternlab.io/
http://bradfrost.com/blog/
http://bradfrost.github.com/this-is-responsive/
http://wtfmobileweb.com/
http://deathtobullshit.com/
http://wtfqrcodes.com/
http://bradfrost.com/music
http://bradfrost.com/art

This year more than ever, Blue Beanie Day matters

Donald Trump mocks reporter with disability. Photo: CNN.

AT FIRST GLANCE, November 2016 has bigger fish to fry than a small, cult holiday celebrated by web developers and designers.

Each day since November 8, 2016 has brought new, and, to some of us, unimaginable challenges to the surface. Half of America is angry and terrified. The other half is angry and celebrating. At a time like now, of what possible use is an annual holiday celebrated mainly on social media by a tiny posse of standards- and accessibility-oriented web developers and designers?

From Blue Beanies to Black Hats

Many web developers have “moved on” from a progressive-enhancement-focused practice that designs web content and web experiences in such a way as to ensure that they are available to all people, regardless of personal ability or the browser or device they use.

Indeed, with more and more new developers entering the profession each day, it’s safe to say that many have never even heard of progressive enhancement and accessible, standards-based design.

For many developers—newcomer and seasoned pro alike—web development is about chasing the edge. The exciting stuff is mainly being done on frameworks that not only use, but in many cases actually require JavaScript.

The trouble with this top-down approach is threefold:

Firstly, many new developers will build powerful portfolios by mastering tools whose functioning and implications they may not fully understand. Their work may be inaccessible to people and devices, and they may not know it—or know how to go under the hood and fix it. (It may also be slow and bloated, and they may not know how to fix that either.) The impressive portfolios of these builders of inaccessible sites will get them hired and promoted to positions of power, where they train other developers to use frameworks to build impressive but inaccessible sites.

Only developers who understand and value accessibility, and can write their own code, will bother learning the equally exciting, equally edgy, equally new standards (like CSS Grid Layout) that enable us to design lean, accessible, forward-compatible, future-friendly web experiences. Fewer and fewer will do so.

Secondly, since companies rely on their senior developers to tell them what kinds of digital experiences to create, as the web-standards-based approach fades from memory, and frameworks eat the universe, more and more organizations will be advised by framework- and Javascript-oriented developers.

Thirdly, and as a result of the first and second points, more and more web experiences every day are being created that are simply not accessible to people with disabilities (or with the “wrong” phone or browser or device), and this will increase as  standards-focused professionals retire or are phased out of the work force, superseded by frameworkistas.

#a11y is Code for “Love Your Neighbor”

This third point is important because people with disabilities are already under attack, by example of the U.S. president-elect, and as part of of a recent rise in hate crimes perpetrated by a small but vocal fringe. This fringe group of haters has always been with us, but now they are out of the shadows. They are organized and motivated, and to an unmeasured degree, they helped Donald Trump win the White House. Now that he’s there, people of good will ardently hope that he will condemn the worst bigots among his supporters, and fulfill his executive duties on behalf of all the people. I’m not saying I expect him to do this today. I’m saying I hope he does—and meantime it behooves us to find ways to do more than just hope. Ways to make change.

One small thing designers and developers can do is to make accessibility and usability Job 1 on every project. And to take a broad view of what that means. It means taking people’s messy humanity into account and designing for extreme ends of the bell curve, not just following accessibility authoring guidelines. (But it also means following them.)

In doing those things, we can love our neighbors through action. That—and not simply making sure your HTML validates—is what designing with web standards was always about.

On November 30, I will put on my blue hat and renew my commitment to that cause. Please join me.

 

Also published on Medium.

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.

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.

 

 

Helvetica With Curves—And Other Updated Classics

Keynotesnaps001

Title card from ‘Designing With Web Standards in 2016,’ An Event Apart presentation by Jeffrey Zeldman. Text is set in Forma, an upcoming face from Font Bureau.


NOT UNLIKE what Mattel has done with Barbie, the typographic geniuses at The Font Bureau are working on a humanist geometric sans-serif that could almost be thought of as Helvetica with curves.

Forma is the name of the as-yet unreleased font family, and you can get a peek at one weight of it in the above image, which is taken from my slide deck for “Designing With Web Standards in 2016,” which is the presentation I’ll premiere next month at An Event Apart Nashville.

This new presentation examines the seemingly ever-deepening complexity of designing for our medium today—a complexity that has driven some longtime web designers I know to declare that web design has become “too hard,” or that “the fun has gone out of it”—and asks what our traditions of designing with web standards can teach us about crafting web experiences for a multi-device, mobile-first world.

Given that my original (unpublished) title for Designing With Web Standards was going to be Forward Compatibility—and given that Forward Compatibility is not so different in concept from today’s phrase, Future-Friendly—I’m guessing that structured, semantically marked-up content, progressive enhancement, and the separation of style from structure and behavior still have a huge role to play in today’s day-to-day web design work.

Oh, dear, I hope that wasn’t a spoiler.

I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in greater detail at An Event Apart. Now celebrating our tenth year of bringing great ideas to our community, and creating a space where the smartest folks in web design and development can meet, mingle, bond, network, and learn together. Follow @aneventapart for show announcements, links to useful web resources, and free giveaways on the 10th of every month in 2016. (This month’s giveaway, ten beautiful fleece comforters monogrammed with the A Decade Apart logo, went to ten lucky winners on February 10th. Keep watching the skies.)

CSS Grid Layout with Rachel Andrew: Big Web Show

Rachel Andrew

RACHEL ANDREW—longtime web developer and web standards champion, co-founder of the Perch CMS, and author of Get Ready For CSS Grid Layout—is my guest on today’s Big Web Show. We discuss working with CSS Grid Layout, how Grid enables designers to “do something different” with web layout, why designers need to start experimenting with Grid Layout now, how front-end design has morphed into an engineering discipline, learning HTML and CSS versus learning frameworks, and the magic of David Bowie, RIP.

Enjoy Episode № 141 of The Big Web Show.

Sponsored by A List Apart and An Event Apart.

URLs

rachelandrew.co.uk
Get Ready for CSS Grid Layout
Perch CMS
Writing by Rachel Andrew
Books by Rachel Andrew
@rachelandrew

Of Patterns and Power: Web Standards Then & Now

IN “CONTENT Display Patterns” (which all front-end folk should read), Dan Mall points to a truth not unlike the one Ethan Marcotte shared last month on 24 ways. It is a truth as old as standards-based design: Construct your markup to properly support your content (not your design).

Modular/atomic design doesn’t change this truth, it just reinforces its wisdom. Flexbox and grid layout don’t change this truth, they just make it easier to do it better. HTML5 doesn’t change this truth, it just reminds us that the separation of structure from style came into existence for a reason. A reason that hasn’t changed. A reason that cannot change, because it is the core truth of the web, and is inextricably bound up with the promise of this medium.

Separating structure from style and behavior was the web standards movement’s prime revelation, and each generation of web designers discovers it anew. This separation is what makes our content as backward-compatible as it is forward-compatible (or “future-friendly,” if you prefer). It’s the key to re-use. The key to accessibility. The key to the new kinds of CMS systems we’re just beginning to dream up. It’s what makes our content as accessible to an ancient device as it will be to an unimagined future one.

Every time a leader in our field discovers, as if for the first time, the genius of this separation between style, presentation, and behavior, she is validating the brilliance of web forbears like Tim Berners-Lee, Håkon Wium Lie, and Bert Bos.

Every time a Dan or an Ethan (or a Sara or a Lea) writes a beautiful and insightful article like the two cited above, they are telling new web designers, and reminding experienced ones, that this separation of powers matters.

And they are plunging a stake into the increasingly slippery ground beneath us.

Why is it slippery? Because too many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.

As Maimonides, were he alive today, would tell us: he who excludes a single user destroys a universe. Web standards now and forever.

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.

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.