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.

A List Apart Issue No. 367: Apple’s Vexing Viewport

In A List Apart Issue No. 367, Peter-Paul Koch, Lyza Danger Gardner, Luke Wroblewski, and Stephanie Rieger explain why Apple’s new iPad Mini creates a vexing situation for designers and developers who create flexible, multi-device experiences.

Each week, new devices appear with varying screen sizes, pixel densities, input types, and more. As developers and designers, we agree to use standards to mark up, style, and program what we create. Browser makers in turn agree to support those standards and set defaults appropriately, so we can hold up our end of the deal. This agreement has never been more important.

That’s why it hurts when a device or browser maker does something that goes against our agreement—especially when they’re a visible and trusted friend of the web like Apple. Read Vexing Viewports and contribute to the discussion.

This issue of the magazine also marks the departure of Jason Santa Maria as creative director after seven years of brilliant design and support.

Jason’s elegant redesign of A List Apart and its brand in 2005, together with the master stroke of bringing in Kevin Cornell as illustrator, brought the magazine new fame, new readers, and new respect. Over seven great years, his attention to detail, lack of pretension, and cheerful, can-do attitude has made working on ALA a pleasure. Jason was also a key member of the strategic team that envisioned ALA’s upcoming content expansion—about which, more will be revealed when the site relaunches in January.

Jason will continue at ALA as a contributing writer and as designer of A Book Apart (“brief books for people who make websites”), of which he is also a co-founder.

In Search of a Genuine Web Aesthetic & Designing For High Density Displays

IN A VERY special issue of A List Apart for people who make websites, Paul Robert Lloyd asks us to put the “design” back in “responsive design” and seek out a genuine web aesthetic. And Dave Rupert shares ways to be thoughtful, not knee-jerk, about high-pixel-density displays, in Mo’ Pixels Mo’ Problems.


Illustration by Kevin Cornell for A List Apart

Insites: The Book Honors Web Design, Designers

“INSITES: THE BOOK is a beautiful, limited edition, 256-page book presented in a numbered, foil-blocked presentation box. This very special publication features no code snippets and no design tips; instead, 20 deeply personal conversations with the biggest names in the web community.

“Over the course of six months, we travelled the US and the UK to meet with Tina Roth Eisenberg, Jason Santa Maria, Cameron Moll, Ethan Marcotte, Alex Hunter, Brendan Dawes, Simon Collison, Dan Rubin, Andy McGloughlin, Kevin Rose and Daniel Burka, Josh Brewer, Ron Richards, Trent Walton, Ian Coyle, Mandy Brown, Sarah Parmenter, Jim Coudal, Jeffrey Zeldman, Tim Van Damme, and Jon Hicks.

“We delved into their personal journeys, big wins, and lessons learned, along with the kind of tales you’ll never hear on a conference stage. Each and every person we spoke to has an amazing story to tell — a story we can all relate to, because even the biggest successes have the smallest, most humble of beginnings.” — Insites: The Book


I am honored to be among those interviewed in this beautiful publication.


Insites: The Book is published by Viewport Industries in association with MailChimp.

Unsung Heroes of Web and Interaction Design: Derek Powazek

WE TAKE the two-way web for granted today, but it wasn’t always this way, and the democratizing power of HTML wasn’t manifested overnight. Derek Powazek is one of the pioneering designers who helped bring the two-way web into being.

Informed web designers admire Derek’s now-defunct 1996 personal storytelling site {fray} as one of the first (the first?) examples of art direction on the web, and it certainly was that. Each {fray} story or set of stories was different; each had its own design and layout. Often the site made then-cutting-edge technologies part of the story—as in one tale about the theater, which was told via draggable framesets. (At the conclusion of each page, the user dragged on “theater curtains” made of Netscape frames to reveal the next page, or stage, of the story.) {fray} and Derek are justly famous for promoting true storytelling art direction on the web, in an era when most websites followed strict rules about inverted-L layouts and other now-happily-forgotten nonsense.

But while many fondly remember the site for its art directional achievements, what goes unnoticed is that {fray}, in 1996, was a massive leap forward into the two-way web we take for granted today. The democratizing web that makes everyone an author and publisher, whether on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or WordPress, thereby fulfilling Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s vision for HTML; this web we alternately joke about and fiercely defend; this web in which we spend half our lives (whether on desktop or mobile); this global town hall in which we share the most mundane details of our lives, as well as those things about which we are most passionate—this two-way web would not exist today if not for pioneering interaction designs that showed the way. And Derek Powazek’s {fray} was among the first and most important of those pioneering designs.

Now, web design had been “interactive” since Sir Tim invented HTML. Clicking blue underlined links to explore content is by definition interactive. And the first commercial websites, contrary to what the previous decade’s “Web 2.0” evangelists would have had you believe, were not one-way communications. The Batman Forever site my first web partners and I worked on in 1995 pushed design and content out to the masses, to be sure—but the site also had discussion forums, where individuals could contribute their viewpoints. Sites before ours had sported such discussion forums; sites after ours would, too.

What Derek did with {fray}, though, took the two-way web to a whole new level. Instead of siloing content by producer (“official” web content here, “user” discussion forums there), Derek integrated the reader’s response directly into the content experience.

I don’t know if {fray} was the first site to do this, but it was the first site I saw doing it—the first site I know of that not only made the entire reading community an equal content authoring partner with the site’s own writers, designers, and developers, but also underscored the point by putting the site’s content and the readers’ content in the same place visually (and therefore conceptually). Fray.com wasn’t just about showing off Derek and his talented partners’ brilliance. It was about encouraging you to be brilliant.

Today we take embedded article/blog post comments for granted, but they wouldn’t exist without a memorable precursor like fray.com. Your blog’s comments may not owe their existence to a flash of insight you personally experienced while reading {fray}, but you can bet that the convention was grandfathered by a designer who was influenced by a designer who was influenced by it.

In the nearly two decades since {fray} debuted, Derek has worked on many things, most of them community driven. Cute-Fight is his latest. Here’s to our democratic, personal web, and to one of the champions who helped make it that way.

Lawson on picture element

Those eager to bash Hixie and the WHATWG are using the new spec as if it were a cudgel; “this is how you deal with Hixie and WHATWG” says Marc Drummond. I don’t think that’s productive. What is productive is the debate that this publication will (hopefully) foster.

Bruce Lawson’s personal site: On the publication of Editor’s draft of the element.

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.

HTML Marches On

IN A LETTER dated July 19, 2012, WHATWG leader and HTML living standard editor (formerly HTML5 editor) Ian Hickson clarifies the relationship between activity on the WHATWG HTML living standard and activity on the W3C HTML5 specification. As my dear Aunt Gladys used to say, you can’t ride two horses with one behind.