The Power of Positive Whining

I recently had a bad experience on a good website and wrote about it here. Writing about experiences is not the same as writing about facts. A company might spend $40,000 to ensure that its navigation labels can be clearly understood by all users. That they spent the money and conducted the tests is the fact. Yet some users might not understand the labels anyway. That would be the experience of those users. Fact versus experience: not the same thing.

Most professionals who create websites want to know when a user has a bad experience. Most professionals who create websites worry about bad experiences. Most professionals who understand the craft of user experience design spend much of their time thinking about the user. That’s why they call it user experience design.

Thinking about the user means listening and trying and testing and changing. When you are lucky you get it right for a lot of your users. But there will always be some people you fail. When you are lucky, you hear about the failures.

The user is never wrong

If web design were not an art, then we would always get every part right. But it is an art, and, like all arts, it deals with the subjective. The subjective is something you can never get 100% right.

As a web professional, I value user feedback even when it’s exactly what I was afraid of hearing. As a web professional, I value user feedback even when the user is “wrong.” Like, when the user misses the giant red headline and the big fat subhead and the clearly stated error message and the grotesquely large exclamation point icon in the unpleasantly intrusive “warning” triangle.

A user can miss everything you put in his path, and call you on it, and the user is never wrong, even if there is nothing more you could have done to help him understand. The user is never wrong because experience is experience, not fact.

Paths and walls

As a designer I am always collecting data on what went wrong for one user or another. It helps me do better on the next round.

As a designer who interacts with websites, airport and subway signage, nasty little cell phone interfaces, and other variously successful communication attempts by designers and engineers (in short, as a user), I not infrequently write about my user experience—especially when my experience is not what the designers and engineers intended.

I do this not as complaint, which is of no use to anyone, but as critique and information-sharing. It is critique when, by examining a specific case, it illuminates a point of interest or failure in many designs. When it’s less broad in implication it still has value as data about a particular path that hit a particular wall.

If the designers and engineers see what I’ve written, they may think about their product in a different way that is helpful to them and to some of their other users. If other designers and engineers see it, they may think differently about their own designs, especially if their designs are informed by the site or product I’m writing about. Write about a usability error at Amazon, and 100 sites that copy Amazon will improve.

Why we fight

I am a walking edge case. If an operating system upgrade goes smoothly for everyone I know, some part of it will go wrong for me. The written directions from Manhattan to Rye may convey you safely and serenely between those locations, but the way I read the same words, I will end up on the dodgy side of Yankee Stadium. I suffer so you don’t have to.

Writing critiques is a thing I sometimes do on my site. I’ve been sometimes doing it on my site for eleven years and will keep at it. Some of these posts can be characterized as pointless, misinformed grousing, while others contain spelling errors. A few have had mildly beneficial effects in the wider world, and that’s good enough for me.

An Event Apart NYC Schedule

A detailed schedule of An Event Apart NYC has been posted at aneventapart.com and reproduced below for your convenience. Join Tantek Çelik, Ze Frank, Aaron Gustafson, Jason Santa Maria, Khoi Vinh, Eric Meyer, and Jeffrey Zeldman for two days of design and code in the heart of New York City:

9am – 5pm, Monday 10 July & Tuesday 11 July
Scandinavia House
Victor Borge Hall — Level A
58 Park Avenue, New York City, NY 10016
Map | Hotel info

Victor Borge Hall is located on Level A, one floor below ground. Enter at the front door on Park Avenue and take the elevator located at the rear of the entrance hall, across from the ground-floor Gift Shop. Wheelchair-friendly restrooms are located on Level B, accessible via the elevator.

Seating is lecture-style, in a comfortable and exquisitely designed theater space, and doors open at 8:00 am. There is no Wi-Fi at this venue, but we will provide downloadable files the night before the show for those who wish to follow along on their laptops.

Schedule

An Event Apart NYC runs from 9:00 am – 5:00 pm. We have a lot to cover, so the event will start promptly. Arrive early to get a good seat! Doors open at 8:00 am; for best results, plan to show up between 8:00 am and 8:30 am. Here is what you can expect over the two days of this conference:

DAY I – DESIGN DAY

9:00 am Welcome and Housekeeping [Zeldman]
9:05 am Textism (Writing User Experience) [Zeldman]
Better design and better usability through word choice. Editing for designers.
10:05 am BREAK!
10:15 am Solving (Re)Design Problems [Jason Santa Maria]
Visually repositioning a beloved brand (namely, A List Apart). Design as problem solving. Knowing which problems to solve.
11:00 am Bringing A List Apart Together [Eric Meyer]
How someone like Eric Meyer takes a design and turns it into a living, breathing web page.
12:00 pm Lunch
1:00 pm Sponsor Giveaways
Adobe, Media Temple, New Riders and AIGA Press will hand out valuable software, services, and books for free.
1:15 pm A Day in the Life of a Design Director [Khoi Vinh]
From sun-up until the stroke of midnight, Khoi Vinh will take us through a typical day inside the NYTimes.com design group.
2:15 pm What’s the Story? [Zeldman]
Finding brand narratives that set your site apart from others like it. Seizing inspiration from limited budgets.
2:50 pm BREAK!
3:00 pm Web 0.2 [Ze Frank]
A personal, down-in-the-trenches view of how the technology revolution impacts the way we communicate with a mass audience.
4:00 pm DESIGN CRITIQUES [Jason Santa Maria, Khoi Vinh, Ze Frank, Zeldman]
A rip-snortin’ romp through the design and architecture of sites created by some of the smartest people in the world (namely, the attendees of An Event Apart NYC).

DAY II – CODE DAY

9:00 am Welcome and Housekeeping [Eric Meyer]
9:10 am Hard-Core CSS [Eric Meyer]
An in-depth exploration of what makes CSS work, how it works the way it does, and how you can make it work harder for you.
10:10 am BREAK!
(You’ll need it)
10:30 am Microformats [Tantek Çelik]
What are microformats, and how can they transform the web? Tantek Çelik, co-founder of the microformats movement, tells us what’s already happening and what comes next.
11:30 am “One True Layout” overview [Eric Meyer]
Incredible stroke of genius or gross hack to be shunned? Eric analyzes this new CSS layout technique and examines the pros and cons, both immediately and into the future.
12:30 pm Lunch
1:30 pm Sponsor Giveaways
1:45 pm So you want to be a DOM Star [Aaron Gustafson]
What does it take to be a great front-end developer in today’s marketplace? Aaron Gustafson lays it all on the line.
2:40 pm BREAK!
3:00 pm Web Standards Second Edition [Zeldman]
What a long, strange trip it’s been.
4:00 pm Code critiques [Eric Meyer, Aaron Gustafson, Tantek Çelik]
A fast-paced, rough-and-tumble review of markup, style, and scripting on a select group of sites created and submitted by attendees.

Food

Catering is by Restaurant Aquavit, the country’s premier Scandinavian restaurant, and includes vegetarian choices.

Lunch

  • July 10: Gravlax Club, Grilled Scandinavian Shrimp, and Roasted Mushroom sandwiches. Salad and potato salad.
  • July 11: Smoked Salmon, Spice Roasted Pork Loin, and Roasted Mushroom sandwiches. Salad and pasta salad.

All Day Long

Freshly Brewed Coffee, Decaffeinated Coffee, Selection of Teas, Assorted Soft Drinks and Sparkling Water.

Afternoon Pick-Me Up

  • July 10: Assorted Cookies
  • July 11: Basket of Fruit

Details

It’s a non-smoking event. Sorry, smokers! Still photography is permitted, but audio and video recording are forbidden, except by our official videographer, Mister Ian Corey. Sorry, recordists and videographers! As always, please be considerate when taking pictures. And speaking of pictures…

Flickr Group

We’ve established a Flickr group for those of you who want to share your photos with the world: flickr.com/groups/aeanyc2006.

Disclaimer

This schedule is subject to change. We’ll do our best to make the experience live up to what we’ve mentioned here, but cannot guarantee a perfect 1:1 correspondence. We thank you in advance for understanding any changes we may be forced to make due to events, people, and other stuff beyond our control.

New York 2006 news

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[tags]an event apart, aneventapart, design, code, conference, web design, webdesign[/tags]

DWWS 2e Cover Preview

Today, with a couple of minor corrections not shown in the following sneak preview, we approved front and back cover art (PDF, 161 KB) for Designing With Web Standards, 2nd edition. And with that, the last bit o’ the book flew off to the press. Somewhere a bell bonged and an angel got his wings.

You may notice that the second edition’s cover is green, and may recall that the cover of the first edition was orange. Boy, was it ever orange. Boy, is the second edition ever green. Peachpit, editor Erin and I discussed all kinds of possible cover art makeovers, but in the end I decided to change only the color.

Actually in the beginning I decided to change only the color. Then I pretended to keep an open mind while alternatives were discussed—my favorite being the Dorian Gray notion that my photo would age while the rest of the cover stayed the same.

Writing this second edition showed me that when it comes to web standards, some things have changed and others haven’t.

Things change, things stay the same

Since I wrote the first edition, the community of standards-aware designers has mushroomed. Better best practices have emerged, replacing the second-best practices with which we launched the revolution. More designers, developers, and content people preach and practice accessibility, and more clients request it. You find semantic markup, unobtrusive scripting, and CSS layout where you never expected to find them, and increasingly you find them coupled with good design, good usability, and even (eek!) good writing.

Without much hoopla and with even less press, web standards are powering findability and the “Web 2.0” applications that have made the web hot again for investors and shallow journalists.

All this is new and most of it is good, yet too many sites are still inaccessible, and too many clients and bosses (not to mention too many designers), if they know about standards and accessibility at all, still have it dead wrong. It is for them, even more than for you, that I wrote this book.

Today someone asked how she could persuade a colleague to include accessibility and standards compliance in the requirements for a major site redesign. I can’t meet with every hostile boss and nay-sayer on the planet, gently persuading each of them to see the light. But I can talk to them through the quiet pages of DWWS 2e, if you would like me to.

The pitch

Save 37% off the cover price when you pre-order Designing With Web Standards, 2nd edition at Amazon. Please note that Amazon’s listing currently shows the wrong cover art, the wrong table of contents, and the wrong excerpts. Not to worry. It’s the right book (and Amazon will correct the error soon).

[tags]zeldman, dwws2e, webstandards, web standards, newriders, peachpit, designing with web standards[/tags]

My Count of Monte Cristo

Summer means warm lemonade, sunburned shoulders, and Field-Tested Books at Coudal Partners — with reviews by a double dozen writers who “read a certain book in a certain place.”

The Count of Monte Cristo, field-tested on Mohawk Mountain, Connecticut, is my contribution to this year’s collection.

You can buy an elegantly designed 2006 Field-Tested PDF “book”, including all field-tested reviews from this year and years past, cross-indexed and formatted for portability and printability.

Wrapping Chicago

An Event Apart Chicago has wrapped. It felt like the best one yet. Everything clicked.

There were as many designers as coders in attendance, as many Chicagoans as out-of-towners, as many agency people and freelancers as in-house folks, and nearly as many women as men. They engaged at “good morning” and stayed involved all day, asking shrewdly penetrating questions and sharing their own insights and experiences. Energy flowed not only between the floor and the seats but also from one seat to another. It felt like community.

This was the third time out for Eric, Jason, and me. Our talks were sharper and shorter — looser and more relaxed, yet also more focused than before. The rhythm was better. The balance between technical and aesthetic subjects, how much time was alloted to each, the way one theme flowed into another — the music of the day — felt tighter and truer than at events past.

Thanks to our sponsors at Adobe, AIGA, New Riders, and Media Temple, we were able to give away thousands of dollars worth of software, books, and services. (We’ll be doing the same at An Event Apart NYC next month.)

Guest speaker Jim Coudal‘s leisurely stories were like little grenades of inspiration. He tossed them out casually; moments later, they detonated.

The day formally ended with lively critiques of sites submitted by attendees. We tried this once before, at An Event Apart Philadelphia, with mixed results. This time it felt like it really worked. The day informally ended at Timothy O’Toole’s pub, with a mixer sponsored by Jewelboxing.

Time, and the blog posts of those who attended, will tell if the event was as good for you as it was for us. Sincere thanks to all who attended. Thanks also to Dawson, John Gruber, Amy Redell, Michael Nolan, and Orrin Fink.

And a reminder: the Early Bird Rate for An Event Apart NYC ends June 9th. That’s a week from today! On June 10th, the price will increase by $100. So if you’re thinking of attending An Event Apart NYC — two days of design and code — please register soon.

All in

Three Saturdays ago, my father had a heart attack. Last Saturday, we rushed our baby daughter to the emergency room. In-between, my wife had to undergo scary and uncomfortable medical tests.

Everybody is fine, even my dad (truth in advertising: aspirin really can save your life) but my once-brown goatee has gone shock-white.

Everybody is fine, so take a deep breath and savor the unusually high pollen count.

Something else took place in these same tense two weeks: I finished my book. Designing With Web Standards, 2nd Edition (DWWS 2e) left my hands last night and will reach shelves this summer.

When I agreed to write DWWS 2e, I mistook the job for a quick spruce-up. After all, what I’d said in the first edition about the benefits of standards-based design was still true: accessibility and semantics make your content easier to find and faster and cheaper to distribute. And the browser most people used when I wrote the first edition hadn’t changed in five years, so how tough a rewrite could I be facing? I figured I was looking at an updated screenshot or two, a changed URL, and maybe a couple of sticky notes.

About four months into the grueling (but also magically riveting) process, I realized that what I was doing was writing a book.

A lot of 2e will be familiar to the book’s fans, but a lot is new. And new is work. New is infinite wash-loads of work. Messy, exhausting. At some point in the infinite rinsing and lathering I was told the book had to be finished by last night. And so it has been.

I wouldn’t have made it alone. Erin and Ethan were right in there, carrying me.

I finished. I finished while grappling with sudden existential crises involving the people I love most. But then, my mother died while I was finishing my first book. Books kill.

This is me being cheerful after completing a rather strong second edition.

2e! 2e! My father and daughter and wife are well. My book is good. My song is sung.

Style vs. Design

With our blessing, the newly launched Adobe Motion Design Center has resurrected our famous article, “Style vs. Design,” originally published in 2000. A few words and references have changed to bring the piece “up to date,” but it is essentially the same article it was five years ago.

First published when web design, buoyed by dot-com dollars, was at its most self-indulgent, the article dared to suggest …

  • That trendy elements are not the same as design
  • That design is communication
  • That most web design is meant to be used
  • That most web design should therefore be usable

It still makes these points and they are still true.

The good news is that in the five years since the article was new, responsible web design has emerged as a practice. And it is being practiced by many people who are first and foremost designers.

The bad news is that college and university design curricula are still mostly about everything but information architecture, usability, application design, user-focused design, accessibility, and web standards.

[tags]zeldman, adobe, style vs. design[/tags]

I feel pretty

Another lecture season kicks off this week with my lunchtime keynote address at Active Insights, WebSideStory’s two-day user forum on best practices in digital marketing. Catch me if you can: Thursday, 10 November, the Grand Ballroom, the Roosevelt Hotel, Madison Avenue at 45th Street, New York City.

A List Apart 207

In Issue No. 207 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, we highlight a few unexpected consequences — both positive and negative — of common interface design and accessibility choices.

High Accessibility Is Effective Search Engine Optimization
by Andy Hagans
It’s no coincidence that search engines love highly accessible websites; in fact, by designing for accessibility, you’re already using effective search-engine optimization techniques. Andy Hagans explains yet another reason to pay attention to accessibility.
Design Choices Can Cripple a Website
by Nick Usborne
Do you test your designs? If not, Nick Usborne wants you to take responsibility for your design choices and the very quantifiable effect they can have on websites that are built for business.

Talk is free, fonts are cheap

Talk is free, fonts are cheap, and it’s time to refresh your stock (icon) portfolio in today’s Report.

On beyond podcast

AIGA, the professional association for design, kicks off a weekly series of Event Apart-themed interviews with podcast the first, in which AIGA’s Liz Danzico drills your humble narrator on the whos, what, whens, and whys of our upcoming conference. Tune in next week for podcast the second, featuring a man called Meyer.

For the type nerd on your Kwanza list

Indie Fonts, a fantastic showing of 2000 faces from the likes of Chank, Garage Fonts, Test Pilot Collective, and 15 other hot indie foundries (plus 33 fonts on CD) is normally a steal at US $39.95. But if you buy by 14 November it’s available at the ridiculously cheap price of US $19.95.

But wait, there’s more. For $40 you can get Indie Fonts 1 and Indie Fonts 2, featuring work by Mark Simonson Studio, Jukebox, Atomic Media, and many more. Ho, ho, ho!

Pretty business

The corporate world can be ugly. But it just got prettier with 52 finance and commerce icons covering capitalist concepts like transactions, credit, and interest. Newly available from Stockicons at a CFO-friendly US $179 are two add-on sets: Harmony and Contour.

Stockicon sets are designed to be used in commercial works, software projects, and websites, and are brought to you by The Iconfactory.