ABOUT A YEAR ago, around the time I launched my new design studio, I moved nearly all business-related communications to Basecamp 3, the latest evolution of the web-based project and communications management tool from my Chicago designer friends who used to be called 37signals.
One of Basecamp 3’s nicest features is the ability to set up automatic check-ins, such as asking all team members “What did you work on today?” at 5:00 pm daily.
On the surface, it’s intended as a way of letting everyone know what their teammates are working on, thereby deleting needless meetings from everyone’s schedules. But the feature can go much deeper, as I’ve discovered to my great pleasure. A day at a time, it can build community and help you design your career and your life. It even brings back some of the joy we once derived from the days of the personal web.
What did you work on today?
Over the years, I’ve started or cofounded several web-related businesses. Rather than limit my new studio.zeldman Basecamp exclusively to the designers, developers, and UX specialists who make up my studio, I decided to include everyone from allthebusinessesI touch.
Naturally, I’m mindful of people’s bandwidth, so anyone who doesn’t wish to participate can opt out or selectively block threads or projects that don’t interest them. I also refrained from inviting two staffers from one of my businesses who, for whatever reason, have just never hit it off with Basecamp. (Evangelizing any tool, however much one personally loves it, is like trying to convince a carnivore to go vegan. It accomplishes nothing, and leaves everyone feeling hurt.)
Save those two folks, with whom I collaborate through other methods, everyone else I work with on a daily or weekly basis, across all my little businesses, has access to a shared Basecamp. And every day at 5:00 pm Eastern Time, Basecamp asks all of us, “What did you work on today?”
The evolution of open sharing
At first, those who chose to participate took the question literally, sharing the work-related tasks we’d accomplished that day. But, over time, we began something sharing else. We began sharing our lives.
As if in a Unitarian church group, or an AA meeting, we share daily joys and sorrows, hopes and aspirations. One of us has a child leaving the nest; another’s child may have had a tough day at school. One of us is writing a book, another has begun physical therapy. Some of us comment on each other’s shares; others use Basecamp’s “applause” feature to indicate that we read and appreciated what was shared. Some folks write essays; others share via bulleted lists.
Hearkening back to the old, personal web
Sharing and reading other people’s posts has become a highlight of my day. Of course it helps me get my work done, but more importantly, it also lets me focus on my life and professional goals—and those of my friends. I love getting to know people this way, and I deeply appreciate how respectful and safe our sharing space feels—partly because Basecamp designed the space well, and partly because I work with people who are not only talented and bright, but also kind and empathetic.
If we all sat together in the same office space, I doubt we would let down our guard as much as we do when responding to Basecamp’s automatic check-in. Indeed, far less personal sharing goes on with the non-remote colleagues in my NYC studio space—probably because we are all there to work.
It reminds me of what life was once like on the old web, where people shared honestly on their personal sites without fear of being harassed. I’m not the only old-timer who misses that old web; in recent years, several of my internet friends who once blogged blithely have switched to opt-in newsletters, sharing only with subscribers. Although I mourn the personal, open-hearted web we once shared, I understand this impulse all too well. Sharing with my colleague/friends on Basecamp restores some of the joy I used to take from sharing and listening on the old open web. You might try it.
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.
I’M pretty much done with Instagram. I never loved it, but it’s where most of my friends looked for my photos, so I made peace with it as a platform—and continued to use poor, old, widely unloved Flickr for more serious photo sharing. Now, though, for all I care, Instagram can get bent.
There’s a lot you can’t do with Instagram natively, but clever third-party programmers have made the platform useful and enjoyable for people who wanted more. And now, that’s over.
Instagram lowers the boom
On June 1, Instagram severely restricted what any third-party Instagram application can do. Not only can third-party apps no longer provide the features Instagram’s API supports but Instagram itself doesn’t offer; they can’t even compete with the restricted feature set Instagram natively provides.
The change in rules applies to all Instagram apps, on every mobile and desktop platform you can think of. Among the new restrictions:
Third-party apps can no longer display the Instagram feed.
They can no longer display “popular.”
They can’t show the follows or followers of any user profile.
Or let you download images.
Or let you like or comment on several images at once.
Or let you block tags and users of your choosing.
Most users didn’t need these features to enjoy Instagram, but they made it a far richer program for those who did. Nor does it look like Instagram intends to provide the functions it has just prevented the third-party apps from offering. The old Twitter gambit—learn from third-party apps; change your own offerings to match theirs; then change your API—looks positively user- and business-friendly by comparison. (More on the Twitter comparison in a moment.)
Instagram: success through limitation
Now, I have no problem with Instagram offering a limited feature set. Most great apps reach mass appeal precisely by focusing on a restricted feature set, designed for one or two use cases. And clearly Instagram knows how to reach mass appeal.
Instagram’s lack of feature depth has not prevented it from serving its core base of teenage celebrity photo followers. It doesn’t prevent entertainers and brands from using the platform as a publicity and marketing vehicle. It doesn’t stop amateur swimsuit models and photographers from building fan bases on the fringe of mainstream use. Those are the users and use cases Instagram was built to serve, and it serves them well. Its lack of additional features has never hurt it with these users, and its decision to kill off third-party apps shouldn’t cost Instagram a single customer from among the target user types I’ve just identified.
But it bugs me enough to make me walk away.
There’s two things here: one, the functionality Instagram has taken away mattered to me as a user. And two, I don’t like what this giant, ludicrously successful company just did to a bunch of small companies run by independent developers. I mean, it’s not like these third-party companies stole the API from Instagram. Instagram offered it—and for the reason every successful product does: to let other companies extend its capabilities and increase its passionate fan base.
Makes Twitter look like sweethearts
Twitter, again, is the perfect example. In 2006, it began building a following among people like you and me, while offering a very limited feature set. In the next few years, it extended its functionality by learning from its users and by monitoring the innovations pioneered by third-party products like Twitterific, Tweetbot, TweetDeck, and Hootsuite—innovations that made Twitter more popular and more essential to marketers, journalists, and other professional users. Eventually Twitter bought one of the third-party apps and incorporated its features (along with features developed by other third-party apps) into its core product.
Today, with Twitter’s offerings more robust as a consequence of this third-party development history, there’s arguably less need for some third-party Twitter apps. That is to say, even power users can have pretty feature-rich Twitter experiences while using Twitter’s native app or its website. Nonetheless, the third-party apps still exist, still offer experiences Twitter doesn’t, and still earn revenue for their designers and developers.
As an extremely active Twitter user for personal and business reasons, I sometimes find Twitter’s website or native app sufficient to my needs; and at other times, I need the power a third-party app provides. I know that Twitter hasn’t always made it easy for third-party developers—and I was personally chagrined when significant changes to Twitter’s API killed a little free product a design conference I co-founded built strictly for the pleasure of our attendees. But, Twitter didn’t murder its third-party ecosystem, and it didn’t obliterate features that matter to secondary but passionate users.
And Instagram just did.
Goodbye to all that
Instagram certainly won’t miss me, and its decision makers won’t read this. Nor, if they read it, would they care. So this is about me. And a slightly sick feeling in my stomach.
Not because I even really need those extra Instagram features. Flickr, while it yet lives, provides me with far richer layers of experience and capability than even the most tricked-out third-party Instagram app could dream of. I always used Instagram under protest, as a poor cousin. I used it because people were there, not because I liked it. I like Flickr, even though posting my photos there is kind of like leaving flowers at the grave of someone whose name I’ve forgotten.
No, I feel queasy because I can’t decide whether Instagram is just a bully that decided to beat up the small fry independent developers, or (more likely) a clumsy, drunken giant that doesn’t feel the bodies squashing under its feet.
And we thought Instagram was over when they changed the logo last month.
Even in an age when the biggest operating systems in the world actively eschew file hierarchies, Dropbox is thriving—its service matters deeply to countless users. Why? In part it’s because the company works hard at making file hierarchies useful, that they focus on the outcomes of file management and not just on the files and folders.
Absolutely. Dropbox sweats the user experience details as commendably as it masters the considerable engineering challenges required to reliably sync files everywhere a user may need them.
But there’s another reason Dropbox succeeds. And it isn’t despite its emphasis on old-fashioned file hierarchies. It’s because of that emphasis.
? ALTHOUGH Khoi may well be right that “smart passive management of design assets and working files seems inevitable,” I, for one, do not look forward to the day I no longer have direct access to my files and the ability to control where and how they are stored. To my way of thinking, passive management of file assets is okay for screwing around with iPads, where we’re mainly watching TV on Netflix or obsessive-compulsively checking the popularity of our Instagram uploads. But for real work, and even for passionate hobby work (like managing family photos), give me files and folders any day.
Stay with photos a moment. Consider snapshots. For my money, apps like Photos (and, formerly, iPhoto) that “save” me from the “inconvenience” of knowing where my images are do me no favors. Thanks, but no thanks. Let me save photos where I want to save them, not where the system thinks I should save them—typically on a laptop’s rapidly filling solid state hard drive with minimal storage capacity.
Dropbox, with its emphasis on good old-fashioned hierarchies, is superb at automatically saving one original of each photo I take, whether shot with a phone or a fancy camera. No loops, no duplicates, no confusion. In contrast, Photo’s cloud sync options, designed to spare the user the trouble of thinking, always trip me up. Like when, after syncing my phone to my home desktop computer, I tell Photos to delete the photos I’ve just sync’d from my phone. Photos obeys my command, and then instantly restores the photos to my phone from the “cloud.”
Why would a system expect a user who has deleted files to want those files restored a moment later? In what universe of scenarios can that possibly be what the user expects? [Your system may work differently from mine. Your deletes may stick. If so, good on you. You may have checked a different box in a hidden drawer of a preferences dialog, possibly in the app preferences you can set in the app itself, or possibly in the app preferences you set in the phone’s Settings app, or possibly online—say, in iCloud, or possibly in the iCloud settings in the phone’s Settings app. This is simplicity?]
Because my phone and iCloud restore photos as soon as they’re deleted, my Camera Roll is an unwieldly monster—despite my applying common sense, logic, years of design and computer using experience, and hours of conversation with a rapidly dwindling circle of friends—not to mention the hours I’ve spent scouring the web for hints. The whole situation reminds me of an article I saw on the cover of PC World years ago: “Plug ‘n Play: How To Make It Work.” (Hint: If you have to learn how to make it work, it ain’t plug ‘n play. And that’s kind of how I feel about the current state of passive file management.)
? SYSTEMS designed to relieve you of thinking too often end up forcing you to think, and think, and think, without ever solving the problems their supposed simplicity has created for you. How much easier would photo maintenance on my phone be if Photos, like Dropbox, used file hierarchies? I could solve the problem myself in a second, with the click of a checkbox, if only Apple weren’t committed to chasing a future where nobody needs to know anything about how their computer works—and, as a result, some of us have no clue what to do when the computer doesn’t work quite right.
? I UNDERSTAND that these are difficult problems to solve, and that confusion and frustration are the price consumers pay for innovation that may benefit them in the long run, once all the kinks are out. I’m not anti-innovation or anti-Apple.
But I’m a web person. I like files. I like editing a CSS file without necessarily having to edit an HTML file. I like fixing a problem by replacing a corrupted file with a clean one. Maybe I’m set in my ways, but I don’t consider it a hardship to open a folder or replace a file. I wouldn’t be quite as happy with a web where I didn’t “need” to “bother” writing CSS.
In the same way, I like deciding where files go—saving an image for Project A in a Project A folder, a text document for Project B in a Project B folder (and all of it in Dropbox). I’m glad Adobe Lightroom maintains a picture of my photo folder hierarchy in a sidebar of its interface, enabling me to see where my files live, and instantly choose a group of photos by date (instead of, say, scrolling through thousands of files visually). When it’s time to get dressed in the morning, I don’t throw myself into a giant room full of clothes. I pull socks from my sock drawer and shirts from my shirt drawer. I’ve been doing this since I was five years old. It’s not a challenge.
Khoi ends his excellent Dropbox piece thusly:
Maybe we’re all just set in our ways, but people seem at least resigned, and more likely just plain comfortable with managing their files. It may not be what future workflows are built around, but for working designers, the future is hypothetical, and Dropbox works today.
To which I say Amen. And add the hope that, so long as my career lasts, I can keep using a workflow I find easy and comprehensible.
“Don’t make me think.” Absolutely. But, equally, don’t treat me like an idiot. Folders über alles.
THIS MORNING Contents Magazine launched the beginning of something both good and important: a set of guidelines that could lead to a safer world for user-created content.
Contents believes (and I agree) that products and services which make a business of our stuff—the photos, posts, and comments that we share on their platforms—need to treat our content like it matters. Not like junk that can be flushed the moment a product or service gets acquired or goes under.
On the web, popularity waxes and wanes; beloved services come and go. AOL was once mighty. MySpace was unstoppable. Nobody expected Geocities, Delicious, or Gowalla to just disappear, taking our stories, photos, and memories with them. But that’s what happens on the web. Tomorrow it could be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Flickr. We can continue to blindly trust these companies with our family histories, and continue to mourn when they disappear, taking our data with them. Or we can demand something better.
Contents and its small team of advisors have devised three simple rules customer-content-driven services and apps should follow to respect and protect our content:
Treat our data like it matters. Keep it secure and protect our privacy, of course—but also maintain serious backups and respect our choice to delete any information we’ve contributed.
No upload without download. Build in export capabilities from day one.
If you close a system, support data rescue. Provide one financial quarter’s notice between announcing the shutdown and destroying any user-contributed content, public or private, and offer data export during this period. And beyond that three months? Make user-contributed content available for media-cost purchase for one year after shutdown.
You may see this as a pipe dream. Why should a big, successful company like Facebook listen to us? But citizen movements have accomplished plenty in the past, from bringing web standards to our web browsers, to peacefully overthrowing unpopular governments.
I’m on board with the new Contents guidelines and I hope you will be, too. If enough of us raise enough of a sustained fuss over a sufficient period, things will change.
WITH RETINA DISPLAY technology on the verge of ubiquity and some of today’s best web design minds rightfully fretting about it (see PPK, Stephanie Rieger, Brad Frost, and Stuntbox if you’ve missed this latest Topic Of Concern), it seems to this old web slinger that web type is poised to replace photography as the dominant element of web design aesthetic appeal in the next few years.
But type is type is type, and the higher the resolution of the device, the better that type will look, with no bandwidth overhead.
In that spirit, although we haven’t yet worked with it ourselves, we welcome the launch of TypeButter. Developed by David Hudson and designed by Joel Richardson, TypeButter is a plug-in that “allows you to set optical kerning for any font on your website.”
Soon, CSS and browsers will let us set type properly without the need for widgets and plug-ins. Until then, widgets and plug-ins fill the gap. Thank you, David and Joel, and all you beautiful web type designers and polyfill wizards.
IN The ‘trouble’ with Android, Stephanie Rieger points out the ludicrous number of Android screen sizes on a typical UK client’s website and comes to this conclusion:
If … you have built your mobile site using fixed widths (believing that you’ve designed to suit the most ‘popular’ screen size), or are planning to serve specific sites to specific devices based on detection of screen size, Android’s settings should serve to reconfirm how counterproductive a practice this can be. Designing to fixed screen sizes is in fact never a good idea…there is just too much variation, even amongst ‘popular’ devices. Alternatively, attempting to track, calculate, and adjust layout dimensions dynamically to suit user-configured settings or serendipitous conditions is just asking for trouble.
I urge you to read the entire article—it’s brief yet filled with rich chocolatey goodness.
Responding to it, Marc Drummond concludes that responsive web design default breakpoints are dead and urges designers to “use awkwardness as your guideline, not ephemeral default device widths” and return to fluid design. (I believe he may actually be thinking of liquid layout—the kind we practiced back in the early mid-1990s when cross-platform and multi-manufacturer desktop screen sizes and pixel-per-inch ratios—not to mention strong user font, size, and color preference options—made fixed-width layout design challenging if not impossible. As I understand fluid design, it is merely another word for responsive design, in that it relies on CSS3 media queries set to breakpoints.)
Agreed: that is an exciting and challenging time; that fixed width layouts do not address, and adaptive layouts (multiple fixed-width layouts set to common breakpoints) do not go far enough in addressing, the challenges posed by our current plethora of mobile screen sizes, zoom settings, embedded views (i.e. “browser” windows inside app windows, often with additional chrome) and what Rieger calls “the unintended consequences” that occur as these various settings clash in ways their creators could not have anticipated.
If breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead
Of course, if breakpoints are dead, responsive design is dead, because responsive design relies on breakpoints both in creative workflow and as a key to establishing user-need-and-context-based master layouts, i.e. a minimal layout for the user with a tiny screen and not much bandwidth, a more fleshed-out one for the netbook user, and so on.
But responsive design is not dead; it has only begun. It is not a panacea but was never intended to be. It is simply the beginnings of an approach.
I respect those colleagues who say breakpoints are dead, understand how they reached this conclusion, and am eager to see where it takes them in the coming months as they experiment with new methods, perhaps developing wonderful and unforeseen best practices. I hope design will be a brilliant part of these new methods, not something that gets abandoned to create a bland but workable lightweight experience for all.
But I also believe it is possible to draw a different conclusion from the same data. It is even possible, I believe, to say the present data doesn’t matter—at least not in the long run.
Tale of the chart
There was a time in the late 1990s when industrious web designers showed how atrocious CSS support was in browsers. Eric Meyer’s Master Compatability Chart for Web Review, formerly at http://www.webreview.com/pub/wr/style/mastergrid.html, was one of the best, but is no longer available for your historical viewing pleasure—not even at the mighty Wayback Machine. That’s too bad, as it would have perfectly illustrated my point. The chart used a variety of colors to show how each detail of the entire CSS specification was or was not supported (and if supported, whether it was supported correctly and completely, partially and correctly, partially and somewhat incorrectly, or completely incorrectly) in every browser which was available at the time, including, if memory serves, close to a dozen versions of Netscape, Explorer, and Opera.
Looking at that chart induced nausea and vertigo. It was easy to draw the conclusion that CSS wasn’t ready for primetime. (That was the correct conclusion at the time.) It was also easy to look at the table and decide that table layouts and font tags were the way to go.
That’s what most designers who even bothered looking at Eric’s chart decided, but a few (Eric and me included) drew a completely other inference. Instead of trying to memorize all the things that could go wrong in each browser, we created general rules for what worked across all browsers (e.g. font-size in px, floats for layout) and advocated design based on the things that work. This, I believe, is exactly what the futurefriend.ly and Move the Web Forward folks are doing now: trying to figure out commonalities instead of bogging down in details. (This is why some in our community have labeled futurefriend.ly and Move the Web Forward “WaSP II.”)
The other inference Eric, I, and others in the 1990s drew from Eric’s chart was that browser makers must be petitioned to support CSS accurately and correctly. We and many of you reading this engaged in said petitioning, and thanks largely to help from with the browser engineering community (from people like Tantek Çelik and Chris Wilson and organizations like Mozilla) it came to pass.
Of mice and markets
We cannot, of course, petition all the makers of, say, Android devices to agree to a set of standard breakpoints, because there are over 500 different Android devices out there, many of which will fail in the coming months—or if not outright fail, simply be replaced in the course of planned obsolescence AKA upgrading that drives the hardware segment. And each new product will in turn introduce new incompatibilities (AKA “features”).
In the short run it’s going to be hell, just as the browser wars and their lack of support for common standards were hell. But it is the short run.
500 standards is no standard. Give a consumer 500 choices and the price-driven consumer picks what comes with her plan, while the selective consumer begins gravitating toward a handful of emerging market leaders. Eventually this nutty market will stabilize around a few winning Android platforms (e.g. Kindle Fire) and common breakpoints will emerge. What The Web Standards Project achieved with browser makers, the market will achieve with phones.
Until that time, designers certain can abandon breakpoints if they can find a way to do good design under purely fluid conditions—design that pleases the user, satisfies the client, and moves the industry forward aesthetically. But designers who persist in responsive or even adaptive design based on iPhone, iPad, and leading Android breakpoints will help accelerate the settling out of the market and its resolution toward a semi-standard set of viewports. This I believe.
When I see fragmentation, I remind myself that it is unsustainable by its very nature, and that standards always emerge, whether through community action, market struggle, or some combination of the two. This is a frustrating time to be a web designer, but it’s also the most exciting time in ten years. We are on the edge of something very new. Some of us will get there via all new thinking, and others through a combination of new and classic approaches. Happy New Year, web designers!
RECENTLY A COMPANY CALLED Touristeye has been emailing Gowalla users, encouraging them to migrate their data to Touristeye now that the Gowalla service is closing down. The emails tell you how a Gowalla friend (who is named) has just migrated her/his data to Touristeye and invite you to join her or him. Although Touristeye does not claim to be a Gowalla partner, there is a strong implication that the migration is seamless and that it was authorized by Gowalla. Not so.
Gowalla has not created a migration tool for Touristeye or released any migration tool as yet; the Austin-based check-in tool has no affiliation with Touristeye, and did not authorize Touristeye to reach out to Gowalla customers.
I can’t fault Touristeye for trying to increase its customer base by reaching out to the abandoned Gowalla community, and I have no opinion on Touristeye’s service, as I haven’t tried it. If Touristeye appeals to you, by all means check it out. Personally, I have replaced my Gowalla fix with (yes, four) four apps: Foursquare (for social check-ins and tips about places), Instagram (for photos and seamless Foursquare integration), Path (for the aesthetic rush I miss), and Facebook (because my people who don’t know from Foursquare, Instagram, and Path are there; and Facebook’s new Timeline even makes it fun).
An official Gowalla migration tool is coming is coming soon.
“DESIGN GURU Jeffrey Zeldman, says while he likes Muse for its ease of creating layouts, it still doesn’t answer his plea for a better Internet. ‘Software can’t generate HTML that is search-engine friendly, accessibility-friendly, and portable between desktop and mobile,’ he says. ‘Only web design professionals who understand semantic markup, responsive and adaptive web layout, and mobile user interface can do that.’”