Measure Customer Time, Not Organization Time: Gerry McGovern

Gerry McGovern12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 1: Gerry McGovern was the 12th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended yesterday. His session Top Task Management: Making it Easier to Prioritize tackled the firehose of content and interactions web and interaction designers and developers are called upon to support.

Gerry shared example after example of cases where most of this stuff didn’t matter at all to the person using the site or service, and drew the commonsense—but too rare in the corporate world—conclusion that if we spend our time making stuff that matters to our organization instead of stuff that matters to our customer, we will lose our customer. (“Nobody reads your annual report.”)

One of my favorite takeaways from Gerry’s session was about performance, but not in the way you probably think. Gerry pointed out that, in organizations, we are always measuring our own performance: how quickly did we turn that project around? Did we launch on time? Instead of dressing up our navel gazing with analytics that are about our tasks, we should measure our customers’ speed. How quickly do our sites and products help our customers achieve their goals? How can we identify and remove additional obstacles to completion, so our customers achieve their goals faster and faster?

We need to manage speed on the page, not just the speed of the page load. Manage the customer’s time on task. We won’t become customer-centric until we change our metrics—focusing on customers’ time to complete tasks, not on internal speed, and not just on the mechanical speed of page load—although page load speed (and perceived page load speed) are also terribly important, of course, and are part of improving the customer’s time to complete their task.

“If you solve the customer’s problem, they’ll solve your problem.” When you understand your customer’s top task, and focus relentlessly on helping them achieve it, you build a relationship that works for organization and customer alike.

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.

 

Also shared 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.

News of the World

OUR UBER DRIVER must be hard of hearing, because he plays his right-wing talk radio morning show LOUD. It’s not your erudite, intellectual morning show. It’s hosted by Morning Zoo-type personalities: braying, hyper-testicular fellows, as subtle as a Cuban tie.

To illustrate some local New York story about a Hassidic synagogue, they play a nerve-shattering recording of an air raid siren. They talk over each other, like men do when they’re excited, and segue seamlessly into sponsor messages about homes for the aged, and medical recovery facilities for seniors. Then right back to the entertainment portion of the program: the two men, cross-talking in stereophonic sound, sharing revealing fragments of the public and personal between sound effect blasts and explosions of machine-gun laughter.

If you had just one minute to live, you’d want to hear this, because it would make your final earthly moments last longer. Okay, to be fair, I’d toss a coin to decide between this and root canal. My fellow passenger farts silently, which I consider a reasonable response. Soon. Soon I will get out of this car.

We learn that both show hosts live in Long Island. The super-aggressive one tells a story about taking his daughter to soccer practice and then taking his son to soccer practice while his wife borrows the car, but we never hear the denouement, because the dominant guy, who is even more aggressive, keeps interrupting.

The news continues. An unfinished story about taking the subway to eat at a famous pizza parlor in Brooklyn. Something about the Muslim call to prayer. It seems the secret service doesn’t want to protect Hillary Clinton because she is such a nasty woman. The polls are looking up for Donald Trump.

Spotify to music subscribers: drop dead

SINCE AT LEAST 2010, subscribers to Spotify’s paid music service have asked the company to include the ability to sort playlists alphabetically in the desktop player. It’s the sort of drop-dead obvious feature that should have been built into the player while it was still in alpha. Yet, after six years of requests by paying customers, the feature still does not exist. Many good people work at Spotify and take pride in working to create the best possible music service. But the management in charge of feature requests does not seem to care about or respect customers.

Spotify subscribers organize their music in playlists. Any serious music listener will soon have dozens, if not hundreds, of playlists. They appear in the sidebar in reverse chronological order of the date of their creation. From a programmatic standpoint, the order is random. The inability to sort playlists alphabetically soon makes listening to one’s entire collection problematic. You ignore most of your playlists because you can’t find them, and waste time recreating existing playlists because you’ve forgotten they exist—or can’t find them.

For years, Spotify users have taken to the company’s message boards to request that this basic, rudimentary, obviously necessary feature be added. And for years, Spotify’s official message-keepers have strung users along. Reading these message boards is a study in corporate indifference. In this board, for example, which began in 2012, one customer after another explains why the ability to alphabetize their list of playlists is necessary if they are to continue using the service. It’s almost comical to watch the customer support folks react to each post as if it is a new idea; or attempt to pacify the customer by assuring her that staff is “working around the clock to implement this feature.” That last comment was made in 2015, three years into the thread; there’s been no word about the feature since.

The desktop player does let users change the order of a given playlist by dragging it up or down. That feature would suffice for someone who had three playlists. It might even work for someone with a dozen playlists. But for someone with several dozen or more playlists, manual drag and drop is not only no solution, it’s actually insulting.

What Spotify has done is create an all-you-can-eat buffet, and equipped its customers with a toothpick in place of a knife and fork or chopsticks.

The problem can’t be that difficult to solve, as Spotify has added alphabetization of playlists to its phone and tablet apps. Yet the desktop, a primary source for folks who listen to music while working, remains as primitive as it was in 2010.

Six years of alternately pretending not to know that your paying customers require a basic tool to manage their subscriptions, and pretending to be working on a solution, shows a basic disregard for the paying customer. Which kind of goes along with a disregard for the working musician, who isn’t exactly getting rich off the Spotify royalties that have replaced CD sales.

Apple Music has rubbed me the wrong way since Apple first crammed it into their increasingly dysfunctional iTunes player (whose poor usability is what drove me to Spotify in the first place). I hate that Apple Music shows up on all my Apple devices, even though I don’t subscribe to it, and even after I’ve turn it off in Settings. In this regard, Apple today is like Microsoft in the 1990s. And I don’t mean that in a good way.

But, as obnoxious and overdesigned as it is, there’s one thing I like about Apple Music: it just may drive the complacent management at Spotify to actually start listening to their customers.

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.

 

 

Speaking Most Clearly When Not Speaking At All

Writing brain and speaking brain verbalize differently for me, I have found. I’m considered a passable conference speaker, and, from friendly conversations to client meetings, I’m rarely at a loss for words. But the ideas I’m able to articulate with my mouth are nothing, absolutely nothing, to those I can sometimes share while writing.

In writing I have clarity of vision and authority of tone that I almost completely lack when speaking with more than one person at a time. This is why I often find meetings stressful and frustrating.

Now, meetings are essential to design and business. And they’re great for listening and learning. But when I have a strong point of view to put across, or when am trying to align folks around an important rallying point, conversation with more than one person just doesn’t cut it for me.

Rooms hurt.

The more of my businesses and projects I can wrap around written communication, the more optimistic I am that those businesses and projects will grow in meaning, deepening their connection to people and serving them better and better. And the more the business of running a business relies on person-to-person talk, the tougher it gets for me to be sure things are progressing toward clear and meaningful goals.

I sense that probably many designers feel this way.

Oddly, I probably don’t come across as one of these designers, because I do okay in a meeting. I’m not the cliched tongue-tied designer in the corner. My relative articulateness as a designer has been a cornerstone of my success, such as it is. In meetings I may even speak too much. Not from lack of interest in what others have to say, but out of fear that an idea not expressed will be lost. This anxiety that drives me to verbalize probably makes me appear confident. Maybe even over-confident.

But my seeming ease in meetings is nothing to the comfort, clarity, and articulateness I feel when alone at a keyboard.

I speak for myself now. This is just me. This is not a law of design or business. Not a rule. Not a lesson. For some folks—including some of my smartest and most productive collaborators—the hack of emitting sounds through flapping jaws is how the best ideas are birthed. And more power to them.

Learning to be okay with their process is part of my challenge as a worker and person. It’s a challenge because it’s a surrender of control as well as confidence. We are all here to share something. In writing, I know what I must say and how to say it. In a room, I’m a person struggling to focus, my monkey mind sabotaging me as it tries to claw its way out of the room.

I would not have figured this out about myself if I didn’t have a gifted child who is also ADHD and dyslexic, calling my attention to how completely differently different individuals can process written and spoken English, and making me realize that, like my daughter’s, my brain is also more comfortable in some verbal environments than others.

I acknowledge that part of what makes written communication work for me is the solitude. Perhaps I’m more narcissistic than I hope. Or maybe it’s just that silence is the place where I can hear whatever it is that I’m meant to share.

Sometimes a cigar is a penis

Beach photo

MANY NIGHTS I have these dreams where I lose my daughter while traveling. We’re about to board a flight, and suddenly she has vanished. In other parts of these same dreams, still traveling, I’m doing something amazing—like hiking the Alps—when I realize I’ve forgotten to check in on my app. Although the two distresses are in no way equivalent in life, in the dream sudden heart-stopping panic attends them both. It’s as if my unconscious is warning me I place too high a value on my illusory digital life.

There’s also baggage in these dreams. Literal baggage. As in, before boarding the flight with my daughter, I need to pack all our household possessions, so they can fly with us to a new home. In reality, we live in a two-bedroom apartment. In the dreams, the possessions fill a huge, rambling house. They are mostly dirty and broken: a cracked hobbyhorse, a single-octave air-powered toy organ with chord buttons. Halfway through wrapping these smashed globes, armless dolls, and hand-me-down suitcases that cannot be closed, I wonder why I must drag all this baggage with us.

In my 20s, I had a different recurring dream. In that one, I was at the beach with my father the moment before an immense tidal wave came crashing down, annihilating all life. I would see us from an overhead omniscient point of view—all of us beachgoers gazing up wordlessly at the power that was about to smash us out of the universe. Then, from my own point of view, I would gaze for an endless moment at the peaking wave, which seemed to hang suspended for a miniature eternity. Unable to bear my terror, I would turn to my father and bury my face in his chest. The last thing I experienced in the dream was my father’s hand cradling the back of my head.

I had that dream over and over. At the time, it seemed to me an omen of imminent tragedy. Now I think it was simply the disguised expression of a wish to know my father’s love and feel close to him.

My father is of that generation that doesn’t hug and doesn’t easily share its feelings. Today he is finally old enough, and sentimental enough, to say, “Ditto, kid,” when I tell him I love him at the end of our phone calls. We speak more now than we did all the years I was growing up. Night school, and two jobs, and other things kept him away far more than he was home.

Now in life I am a father, living alone with my daughter, two cats, and four hamsters, in an apartment that, on good days, looks like a dozen children must live there. On bad days, it looks like the Gestapo came through. Come to think of it, at age twelve I had recurring dreams about hiding from the Gestapo.

There’s the surface world, where we worry about work and bills and if our kid is getting enough nutrition. And why some people we like don’t like us. And why some people we were kind to hurt us. And whether we are kind enough. But mainly about work and bills and food.

And then there is the dream world, where our true fears stand naked, telling us who we are, and what we value.


Also published in “Let Me Repost That For You” on Medium.

Help Carolyn Wood

Carolyn Wood needs your help.ONE OF THE NICEST web professionals I’ve ever worked with desperately needs and deserves our community’s help, compassion, and kindness.

Many of you, whether you knew it or not, have benefited from Carolyn Wood’s work on A List Apart, Digital Web, The Manual, and Codex: the journal of typography. For two decades, she has been a tireless, egoless motive force of great projects—always eager to help, never seeking the spotlight.

Now she needs our help. Like nobody ever needed help before. Catastrophic medical problems, together with lack of support from the insurance system, have left Carolyn in a life-or-death crisis. Only by our whole community pulling together can we hope to raise the huge sums Carolyn will need to survive.

Please help by donating what you can, and by sharing Carolyn’s support page with anyone in your network who is compassionate and will listen.

Life is often unfair. But a network of caring, compassionate web folk can send a ray of light into Carolyn’s undeserved lonely darkness. I know we can do it!

Please donate, and please share Carolyn’s page with your Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and the actual human beings you know: www.youcaring.com/carolyn-wood-585895.

Introducing studio.zeldman

STUDIO.ZELDMAN is open for business. It’s a vision I’ve been cooking up, a new studio supported by some of the most talented people in our industry and everything I’ve learned in two-plus decades of web and interaction design. And now it’s here. studio.zeldman designs digital experiences and provides strategic consulting. We don’t have a portfolio yet, but we landed our first client before we launched. Come on down!

The Design

Heading in this direction meant leaving the studio I founded in 1999 (we’re on the best of terms, and it’s an excellent company in great hands). My rise to an almost purely strategic position there taught me a lot about my business—but it also kept me from designing new projects. And I’ve been itching to get back to my roots. Three factors shaped my design for the new studio’s website:

  1. I wanted to try something different: something that was conceptual and art directional. Jen Simmons’s An Event Apart presentations (like this one from last year) inspired me to break out of the columnar rut of current design and create something that didn’t look like it came pre-baked in a framework.
  2. Because I am contrary, I thought it might be fun to allude to an outdated design approach (like, say, skeuomorphism) in a responsive web layout—if the content supported such a gambit.
  3. Most of all, my design had to come out of content.

Let’s unpack that third point a bit more. Normally, design studio websites discuss the customer’s business problems and posit design (and their particular skills) as the solution. It’s a strategy David Ogilvy pioneered for print advertising in the 1950s (“problem/solution”).

Every mention of an achievement or capability exists to show how it solved a client’s business problem: “our redesign increased conversion by 20%” or “our testing and iterative process reduced shopping cart abandonment by 37%,” and so on. Such sites talk about the company’s expertise, positioning it within a framework of client needs. Almost every design studio says the same two or three things at the top of their home page, leaving the real selling to their site’s case studies section. But studio.zeldman is new. No portfolio yet; no company history.

But first, a little something about me

With no portfolio, our strategy—at least for the launch—couldn’t be about our body of work. At least for now, it had to be about me: what I believe, what I’ve done. I came to that realization very reluctantly: I wanted to create a studio that was bigger than any one person. (My original name for the company was simply “studio,” and my plan for the design was that it should be as clean and basic as water.)

But Jason Fried of Basecamp, who is one of my smartest friends, persuaded me that what was unique about this new studio was me, and that I shouldn’t be afraid to say so. Jason convinced me to write simply and directly, in my own voice, about what I believe design is and does—and to support that message by showing some of the things I’ve done that reach beyond my portfolio.

As if I were sitting down to send you a personal note about this new company I’m starting, the best way to express those thoughts on the site was in a letter. That was the strategy. The letter was the idea. And the idea shaped the design.

A new angle on an old design idea

In 2007, if I were designing a site that began with a letter to the reader, I would have used drop shadows and paper textures to suggest that context. Back in 1995, I’d have made an image of a letter on a table or desk top, and the letter would have been at a slight angle, as if the writer had just left it there. Could I allude to these old-fashioned ideas in a way that was subtle and modern?

The 1995 technique of a photorealistic letter was out. But a slightly angled “paper” was feasible; Jen Simmons had shown me and hundreds of other people how this kind of thing could be achieved in modern CSS.

Of course, whether something is possible in modern browsers and whether it actually reads well can be two different things. So while I was comping in pen and paper and in Photoshop, we also ran tests. My collaborator Roland Dubois set up a CSS3 font-smoothing test for angled text in JSFiddle, while my friend Tim Murtaugh of MonkeyDo put together a quick prototype of the top portion of my initial design. Everything checked out.

Once I knew an angled letter could work, I made the angled placement and angular cropping of images a guiding principle and unifying idea for the rest of the design. On the calendar, it took me from January through April of this year to land on a design idea I liked. But once I had it, the site seemed to design itself in just days.

I confess: yes, I designed in Photoshop. (Don’t tell anyone, but I even started with a grid.) And, yes, to your horror, on this project I designed for big screens first, because that’s where these particular design ideas could be most impactful. I knew we could make the design sing on any size screen, but designing for big-screen-first brought this particular project’s biggest coding challenges to the fore and provided the excitement I needed to get to the finish line. Nothing brings a smile to a designer’s lips like seeing your web idea completely fill a 27-inch screen (and do it responsibly, even).

The best part

The best part of the page is the part I didn’t design. Roland did. It’s that magical form. I could play with that thing forever, and I hope potential clients feel the same.

Some folks who checked out the beta asked why we didn’t focus on specific capabilities or budget ranges. Fair question. We certainly could have launched as, say, a redesign shop, or a web-only studio, or a content-focused studio. Any of those would have been credible, coming from me, and differentiating ourselves right out of the gate would not have been a stupid move. We really thought about it.

But we decided it would be more interesting to be less specific and find out what our potential clients are actually looking for. Consider it research that might sometimes lead to a gig.

studio.zeldman thanks you

Mica McPheeters and Jason Fried checked out my copy and kept me honest. Tim Murtaugh coded an early prototype of the site. Roland Dubois coded the final from scratch. Noël Jackson set up the repository and CDN, and ran sophisticated tests that uncovered everything from bugs to performance issues, rebuilding and re-coding with Roland to squeeze every byte of performance we could out of a site with full-screen Retina images. An article by Roland and Noël on the experiments and techniques they used to code this site would be infinitely more interesting than what you’ve just read.

Hoefler & Co. designed the reliable letter font which you will all recognize as Sentinel; DJR created Forma, which I think of as sexy Helvetica, and let us use it even though it is still in beta. Before launch, to save bandwidth, we tried recreating the site design using system fonts. Wasn’t the same. (And with WOFF and CDNs and subsetting, we were able to deliver these wonderful faces without choking your pipes.)

Our thanks to the beta testers: Andrew Kirkpatrick (above and beyond the call of duty on matters of web accessibility), Rachel Andrew, Jen Simmons again, Anna Debenham, Jeremy Seitz, and Nicholas Frota. And to Anil Dash, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand, and Khoi Vinh, who gave us design feedback prior to launch.

Most of all, thanks to the “Royal Advisors” who put up with my endless changes of mind, and who always acted as if they were pleased to check out my newest brainstorm, or listen to my latest circular argument: Sarah Parmenter, Jason Fried, Fred Gates, Jen Simmons, and Mike Pick.

Has Design Become Too Hard? – transcription

What follows is a transcription of Has Design Become Too Hard?, which I wrote for Communication Arts in June 2016. I transcribe it here against the day CA takes down its content.

 

WE DESIGNERS love to complain. It’s our nature. After all, if we were satisfied with the way things work, feel, and look, we wouldn’t have become designers in the first place. But lately, particularly among web and interaction designers, our griping has taken on a grim and despairing flavor. Digital design is not what it used to be, we say. The fun has gone out of it. An endless deluge of frameworks and technologies has leached the creativity out of what we make and do, and replaced the joy of craft with a hellish treadmill of overly complicated tools to master.

Many of us feel this way, but is it true?

Consider responsive web design, proposed six years ago (video) by Ethan Marcotte at An Event Apart, and subsequently turned into an article and then a book. In twenty-plus years, I’ve never seen a design idea spread faster, not only among designers but even clients and entire corporations. Companies brag about having responsive designs for advertising, for crying out loud. Yet, after a euphoric honeymoon, designers soon began complaining that responsive design was too hard, that we’d never faced such challenges as visual people before. But haven’t we?

In the early days of web design, beginning in 1995, pixels were not standardized between PC and Macintosh; monitor aspect ratios were not standardized, period; and when we got a standardized layout language for the web, every browser supported it differently for years.

We tried “liquid layout” to work around the fact that every monitor was different. Our clients demanded we put everything above the fold, and we acted as if there was one—a consensual hallucination, when there were as many folds as there were screens, browsers, and user-adjustable settings.

Later, when standards were better supported in browsers, some of us pretended that “everybody” had a 600 x 400 monitor (and then an 800 x 600, and then 1024 x 768), but these too were consensual hallucinations. And even in those rose-colored fixed-width days, there was always a client or a QA tester whose user preference settings, outdated browser, or wonky operating system blew our carefully constructed fixed-width layouts to hell.

THAT’S WHY THEY CALL IT WORK
Good design was never easy. The difference between now and then is that today, instead of pretending or wishing that everyone used the same platform with the same settings to view print-perfect digital masterpieces, we acknowledge that people will access our content however they choose, and with whatever device they have close at hand—and we design accordingly. For the first time since people first argued over how to pronounced “GIF,” we’re designing with the medium instead of against it.

Designers say, “okay, I’m down with responsive design—in a world of phones and watches, I have to be—but today’s code is too hard.” Yet is it? And was it ever easy?

At the web’s beginning, we wrote gibberish markup, using table cells, spacer pixel GIFs, and chicken wire to rig our digital design experiences together. Then came what many think of as a golden age, when browsers supported web standards well enough that we could use them—and nothing much changed in the browser universe for years, meaning that once we had mastered our CSS, HTML, and maybe a little JavaScript, our education in the front-end design department was complete, and we would not have to learn much of anything new.

DESIGNING INVISIBLE STRUCTURES
That has changed, to be sure, but not the way you may think, and not for the worse. Certainly there are a few new elements in HTML5 to learn—elements that add structural semantics to our content precisely when we need them. New elements like aside and article are perfect for a world in which we aren’t designing “pages” so much as systems, and where we’re taking an increasingly modular approach to design as well as content. New standard tools like Flexbox enable designers to separate content from presentation at the atomic level, which can be extremely beneficial to our clients and (more importantly) to the people who want to read and interact with their content. For an example of how this works, turn, again, to our friend Ethan Marcotte, who wrote about this very thing in November of last year.

You should read Ethan’s article, but here’s a quick summary of what he did. In redesigning a large content site, he first focused on creating a host of tiny, reusable patterns—such as headline, deck, and thumbnail. Several of these headline, deck, and thumbnail units were combined into a “teaser” module that promoted internal content elsewhere in the site, a common design pattern on media sites. Ethan then wrote markup based on the pattern he had visually designed—just like we all do.

But then came the fresh insight: what if a user doesn’t access the site’s content the same way Ethan does? For instance, what about blind or low-vision users who navigate web content as non-visual hypertext? Would the HTML structure Ethan had designed work perfectly for them? Or could it be improved?

It turned out the design of the HTML structure could be modified to better serve folks who browse content that way. As a plus—and this almost always happens when we design with the “stress case” user in mind—the site also worked better for other kinds of users, such as folks who access content via watches (on the high end) or not-so-smartphones (on the low end). In the same way you design visual elements to guide people through an experience, you can (and should) design your markup to create a compatible experience, even when this means the HTML does not follow the same order as the visual stream. HTML5 and Flexbox helped Ethan make better design decisions.

THAT FEELING OF INADEQUACY
Okay. So HTML is a bit richer than it used to be. And CSS is more powerful. But does a designer need to learn a lot more than that? Must you master Sass? Must you use Bootstrap or other frameworks? (For this is the source of many designers’ anxiety.) The answer is maybe … and maybe not.

Maybe if you’re specializing more and more in front-end code, it makes sense for you to learn Sass, as it gives your CSS superpowers and makes updating your code easier. For instance, when a client changes their brand colors, it may be easier to change one instance in Sass (and have Sass update all your code), rather than hunt-and-peck your way through hundreds of lines of CSS. Obviously, many designers have adopted Sass because of these benefits. Less obviously, some equally brilliant designers have not. We judge designers by their work, not by the tools they use to do that work, right? If learning something new excites you, go for it. If it’s causing undue anxiety, don’t force yourself to learn it now. You are still a good person.

As to frameworks like Bootstrap, they’re great if prototyping is part of your team’s design process—and in the world of apps, it surely should be. Such frameworks make it very easy to quickly launch a working design and test it on real human beings. But after a few iterations have improved your design, it’s time to dump Boostrap and code from scratch.

That’s because launching sites and applications based on Bootstrap or any other heavy framework is like using Microsoft Word to send a text message. Lean, performant sites—the kind smartphone users love (and desktop users love, too)—rely on tight, semantic markup and progressive enhancement: a fancy phrase that means everything works even in crummy browsers or when there is no JavaScript. And progressive enhancement is just not baked into any popular framework. The frameworks are huge, and heavy, and come with an expectation that the user has access to “the right” browser or device, and that everything works. Whereas in the real world, something is always breaking. So whether you use a framework as part of your design process or not, when it’s time to go public, nothing will ever beat lean, hand-coded HTML and CSS.

That’s a truth that hasn’t changed in 20 years, and probably won’t change in our lifetimes.

So relax. Quit tearing yourself down for not knowing every framework that’s out there. Stop worrying about where the fun went. And go design something useful and beautiful. Same as you always have.

Jeffrey Zeldman (@zeldman) is the co-founder of An Event Apart design conference; founder and publisher of A List Apart magazine; and the author of Designing With Web Standards.