We hold most of these truths

A copy of the Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is on public view at The New York Public Library. Accompanying it are several of the very first printed versions known to have survived.

Standing in the presence of these yellowing pages is like glimpsing the face of God, for they are the foundation of American democracy, and their core idea underlies all human rights struggles, liberation movements, and emergent democracies around the world.

The version in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand is fascinating not only because it’s in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand, but also because it contains passages that would have ended slavery at the birth of the American nation. But those passages had to be deleted before the Declaration could be signed by representatives of states where slavery was practiced.

Put another way, the client bought a document intended to liberate all humanity, but demanded changes that kept part of humanity in chains. It would take another 100 years and hundreds of thousands of deaths before slavery ended, and the tragic legacy of African enslavement plagues the U.S. to this day. (At The New York Times: a slide show of Freedom Rider portraits, a work in progress by my friend Eric Etheridge.)

So the next time a client requests changes that make your work less beautiful, less usable, or less smart, remember that greater people than you have lost bigger battles over far more important matters.

The Declaration of Independence is on view at 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue now through 5 August and admission to the Library is of course free. If you’re in New York City this summer, the exhibit is worth a look. (Plug: And if you’re in town next week for An Event Apart, the Library is just a few blocks away from the Scandinavia House venue.)

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.

My friend Flickr

My Flickr Pro account has returned, along with the vanished photos and sets. Welcome back, photos! I’ve also learned a few things:

  • Flickr emails users before their accounts expire. They therefore emailed me, although the message didn’t reach me. (Using Flickr mail in addition to traditional email would help avoid heartache.)
  • As a Pro account nears its expiration date, Flickr posts warnings on your home page, advising you of the coming purge and suggesting you top off the account before it ends. I didn’t see these warnings because I never log into my home page; I go straight to my photo page. You never know what a user will do.
  • Discreet warnings were also placed on the photo page, I’m told. I didn’t notice them, possibly because their posting coincided with big changes to the Flickr interface. The designer who formatted the warnings may also have erred on the side of understatement. Designing error and warning messages is tough. Make them too big and users gripe; too small, and nobody sees them.

It will be interesting to see if Flickr changes the way it reacts to a lapsed Pro account in the future. Here’s hoping.

Most sites I use (and a few I’ve had a hand in creating) cause frustration because of poorly considered usability and design decisions. A very few sites, products, and applications delight us precisely because their design and usability are so good. Flickr is one of these rare delights. Like Apple, it is a company whose occasional lapses (or seeming ones) bug us, even as we forgive (or barely notice) the screwups and mediocrity of other companies. We hold these companies to a higher standard. But, hey, they’re the ones who set it.

Flick’d Away

Until 22 June I had a Flickr Pro account, through which I posted hundreds of photos (most of which were visible only to friends and family) in carefully crafted and lovingly maintained sets. On the morning of 22 June my Pro account expired without notice, and all but the most recent 200 photos were flushed off the site—like that!

The minute I discovered my “Pro” status had expired, I placed a two-year reorder. That was six days ago, and the upgrade is still pending. See, Flickr likes you to pay with PayPal—there doesn’t seem to be any other way to pay—and PayPal can take a week or more to slowly leech the funds from your bank.

Although it’s not the best of all possible user experiences, I guess I’m okay with the sudden, unannounced bump-down of my account status. And I’m semi-sanguine about waiting a week for PayPal to transfer the funds, although they ought to provide methadone while you wait. But the unceremonious dumping without notice or warning of hundreds of family photos feels rough, and wrong, and if I may say so, unFlickr-like.

For this is a program that nearly always understands how people feel. It knows why we take pictures. It knows how we share with each other. Flickr is the warmest and most human web application I know. Thus it is not only upsetting but also out of brand character for Flickr to trash a member’s family albums without so much as a warning.

I feel like the landlord busted down the door to my apartment and set my family albums on fire (all but the most recent 200 pictures) for nonpayment of rent he didn’t tell me was due. I expect utility and insurance companies to bully and bluster and break my heart. But I and you and we expect more and better of Flickr—and the program almost never lets down. A user experience mistake like this feels quadruply wrong precisely because user experience is what Flickr typically gets so right. (It’s like Apple, that way; and we all know what happens when Apple makes the smallest misstep.)

Of course Flickr is a nice way to stay close to far-away friends and family. But it’s also much more than that. For us, it’s the primary tool we’ve used to save our family’s history during our daughter’s first two years of life. And I’ve got to tell you, it kills me that our trip to Spain (where our kid saw The Simpsons for the first time—in Spanish!), a magical day at a Manhattan flea market, her first experience of an ice arena, and more, are simply gone. Using iPhoto, with about ten hours of work, I can probably recreate fair semblances of some of the discarded photosets. But not the texts and the comments by friends and family.

So to my gifted friends at Flickr, who have given us a product many of us can’t imagine living without, this small request: Please notify members early and often as their Pro accounts near their expiration date, and allow a grace period of at least a few days before removing the fragile and irreplaceable human constructions with which we have entrusted you. Thanks.

Updated 10 am ET, 28 June 2006

Ah. Saith Flickr: “If your Pro account expires, don’t panic! None of your photos have been deleted.” Thank you, Suzanne Carter-Jackson (and over 100 other readers) for locating this hidden piece of reassurance.

I contend that I’ve still stumbled onto a problem—that this is one of the very, very, very few things Flickr gets exactly wrong.

Thought. Instead of apparently deleting all but 200 of a user’s photos, sets, and comments, and then hiding the fact that they aren’t really gone on an obscure Flickr Help page, wouldn’t it be better to simply keep the pictures up?

It’s not a question of storage: Flickr claims to be storing the photos anyway. So why send a user into panic by hiding pictures you have every intention of showing again once a PayPal payment clears?

For that matter, why hide the pictures at all? Even if a user deliberately let their Pro account lapse and had no intention of becoming a “Pro” user again, didn’t the Pro account they paid for the first year ensure them the right to keep the photos they uploaded during their Pro period online?

Shouldn’t the “penalty” for ending a “Pro” account be that you can’t upload boatloads of photos any more? Isn’t that sufficient motivation to make most folks re-up their Pro accounts? It was for me. I re-upgraded long before I knew that Flickr had removed almost all of my photos from the site.

While I’m deeply relieved to know that the family photo treasure trove I spent two years building is still intact somewhere on a Flickr server and will be shown again once Yahoo gets its hands of my small, greasy wad of virtual dough, I’m disappointed at being put through a somewhat user-hostile experience on a site I consider among the smartest and best ever mounted on the web. I will keep this post up to remember that nothing, not even Flickr, is perfect, and in hopes that my colleagues there will rethink this bit of architecture.

It’s really pretty simple:

  • Let people know their Pro account is about to expire. Notify them by email and RSS and do it more than once.
  • If a Pro account lapses, keep the photos online that were posted while the account was active.

Over 100 Flickr users wrote to me (a testament to Flickr’s popularity) and I am grateful to all. Several suggested that Flickr had probably tried contacting me to alert me to the expiration, and that its message had gotten trapped in SPAM filters. This is possible, although I filter for Flickr way ahead of filtering for Trash, and I receive dozens of Flickr messages every day, from people who want to become contacts. Flickr messages always seem to reach me, is my point.

I also checked Flickr’s online message board to see if there was notice there, and found none. So it appears that no automated expiration notices were sent to my account, but who can say for sure?

A Fine Day to Quit Sniffing Glue

Last night, some weird instinct made me post a duplicate Event Apart NYC schedule here, and it’s a good thing I did. For this morning, An Event Apart dot com was gone. In its place was a smiling “coming soon” placeholder, courtesy of domain registrar GoDaddy. I was not notified that the domain was about to elapse. I was not notified that it had elapsed.

Now, GoDaddy is run by smart people, and notifying customers by email that their account is about to expire is undoubtedly something they do. I’m sure they tried to contact me. There at least a dozen ways one or more email messages intended to reach me could have gone astray. Not their fault. And, although I cringed with shame at this technological depantsing, not really my fault, either. Only someone with an obsessive-compulsive disorder would log in to a registrar every few days just to be sure one of their domains wasn’t about to expire. The problem isn’t people, it’s email.

A suggestion to GoDaddy and similar businesses: given that email has become extraordinarily unreliable, especially for people who receive vast quantities of it; and given too that many customers change email accounts from time to time, and in so doing, may become unreachable; wouldn’t it make sense (and be kind of cool) to offer your customers RSS feeds in addition to email notification? An RSS feed might send a notice when a customer registers, another when the account is set to expire in 60 days, still another when the expiration date is 30 days away, and so on.

Most people who do what I do don’t see half their mail, but they always check their RSS reader. Is my freely shared thought.

So, back to my briefly elapsed domain (which, thank goodness and American Express, is once again online). Did I mention that I am a walking usability test? I’m sure I’ve told you that, but maybe just not lately. What works fine for the average user almost never works for me. By the way, the average user was recently spotted in Northville, Michigan, purchasing 10 lbs. of potting soil and a garden hose.

Anyway, An Event Apart is back.

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

An Event Apart RSS feed

Subscribe and keep track of all the comings and goings of An Event Apart.

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

ALA 218: Beauty, behavior, and power

In a triple issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

Prettier Accessible Forms

by Nick Rigby

Forms are a pain. Either you can make them pretty, make them accessible, or go a little crazy trying to achieve both. Nick Rigby offers a happy solution.

Behavioral Separation

by Jeremy Keith

Breaking up is hard to do. But in web design, separation can be a good thing. As Jeremy Keith explains, structure, presentation, and behavior all deserve their own space.

How to Plan Manpower on a Web Team

by Shane Diffily

Just how many people does it take to properly manage a website? It depends on the website. Author Shane Diffilly offers some suggestions on determining your site’s manpower needs.

[tags]a list apart, alistapart, 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]

Friends in Need

Joe Kral Needs Help
Type designer and Test Pilot Collective founder Joe Kral recently survived emergency surgery. Now his medical bills are killing him. (Like millions of Americans, Joe is uninsured.) Visit Joe Kral Needs Help to contribute, if you can — or buy one of Joe’s fonts from Veer.com. (Veer will send all revenue to Joe.)
Digital Web needs an editor
When I’m not reading A List Apart, I read Digital Web Magazine. It’s a wonderful and deep resource of information about web design and user experience. In the past few years it’s grown particularly wonderful, in large part thanks to Editor-in-Chief Krista Stevens‘s ability to recruit great thinkers and writers. Alas for Digital Web, Krista will step down at the end of 2006. If you have what it takes to replace her, Digital Web needs you.

An Event Apart Seattle

It’s de-lightful, it’s de-lovely, it’s the city on Puget Sound. Join Eric Meyer, Jason Santa Maria, and Jeffrey Zeldman on Monday 18 September 2006 at Bell Harbor International Conference Center for An Event Apart Seattle, a concentrated, creative learning session that could change the way you approach web design. Save $50 when you register by August 18th, 2006.