2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugs, worrying 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.
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 one, two, three, or four, have a look back.
Big Web Show № 142: Information Architecture is Still Very Much a Thing, with Abby Covert
Today’s Big Web Show guest is Abby Covert, Information Architect; curator of IA Summit; co-founder of World IA Day; president of IA Institute; teacher in the Products of Design MFA program at New York’s School of Visual Arts; and author of How To Make Sense of Any Mess, a “brilliant introduction to information architecture” (Peter Morville) that is frequently purchased at Amazon with Don’t Make Me Think and The Design of Everyday Things, the two classics of usable design.
Discussed: why IA matters now more than ever, the difference between IA and content strategy (IA is building the vehicle, CS is putting fueling it and making sure it won’t run out of gas), writing and designing a book, building agreement among stakeholders, “not having opinions, not having ideas of one’s own,” IA’s origins in language and structure, the fun of the IA Summit, the creation and growth of World IA Day, the joy of teaching, and more.
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.
The list is not limited to buildings. After all, some of New York’s greatest architectural experiences include crossing Brooklyn Bridge on foot; walking for miles along 5th Avenue north of 59th Street; and observing the shifting dynamics of nature versus culture when exploring the city-ringed, human-designed masterpiece that is Central Park. Friends visiting New York often ask what they should see. Here is a partial answer. More to come.
Keep your site’s type right; let users work offline
IN ISSUE No. 350 of A List Apart for people who make websites: keep your web type looking right across browsers, platforms, and devices; let users do stuff on your site even when they’re offline.
Browsers can do terrible things to type. If text is styled as bold or italic and the typeface family does not include a bold or italic font, browsers will compensate by trying to create bold and italic styles themselves. The results are an awkward mimicry of real type design, and can be especially atrocious with web fonts. Adobe’s Alan Stearns shares quick tips and techniques to ensure that your @font-face rules match the weight and styles of the fonts, and that you have a @font-face rule for every style your content uses. If you’re taking the time to choose a beautiful web font for your site, you owe it to yourself and your users to make certain you’re actually using the web font — and only the web font — to display your site’s content in all its glory.
We’re better connected than we’ve ever been, but we’re not always connected. ApplicationCache lets users interact with their data even when they’re offline, but with great power come great gotchas. For instance, files always come from the ApplicationCache, even when the user is online. Oh, and in certain circumstances, a browser won’t know that that the online content has changed — causing the user to keep getting old content. And, oh yes, depending on how you cache your resources, non-cached resources may not load even when the user is online. Lanyrd’s Jake Archibald illuminates the hazards of ApplicationCache and shares strategies, techniques, and code workarounds to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain for user and developer alike. All this, plus a demo. Dig in.
WHILE ABC has conspicuously begun to celebrate the early jet age, the Port Authority has begun to tear it down.
Terminal 6 at Kennedy International Airport — a crisp island of aesthetic tranquility by the master architect I. M. Pei — is being demolished. The boarding gates are already piles of rubble. The main pavilion, whose white steel roof seems to float ethereally over cascades of diaphanous green glass, is expected to come down by the end of October.
Brian is CEO of Crowd Fusion, a publishing platform that combines popular applications like blogging, wikis, tagging and workflow management, and a leader in the content management world. He co-founded Weblogs, Inc.—home to Engadget, Autoblog, TUAW and more—and built the Blogsmith platform, both of which were acquired by Aol and are essential to their current strategy. Brian has been putting big brands on the web since 1995 when he designed the first TV Guide website and helped BusinessWeek leap from Aol to the web.
Brian built database-driven web applications and content management systems for many large companies in the 1990’s including Intel, J.D. Edwards, Deloitte & Touche and The McGraw-Hill Companies. His 1999 Tech-Engine site was a “skinnable HotJobs” which powered over 200 online career centers including XML.com, Perl.com, O’Reilly & Associates Network, DevShed, and Computer User magazine.
He has been the art director of three print magazines (I met him in 1995 when he was art director for “Net Surfer” or something like that) and was the Chief Technology Officer of Rising Tide Studios where he developed The Venture Reporter Network, which is now a Dow Jones property.
In 2003, Brian invented and launched Blogstakes, a sweepstakes application for the blogging community. He is a former Happy Cog partner of mine; at Happy Cog, Brian built content management systems for customers including Capgemini, A List Apart, and the Kansas City Chiefs. He was also the creator and host of the Meet The Makers conference, a series of talk show-style events that were so compelling, they helped inspired me to create An Event Apart with Eric Meyer.
And I’ll stop there. Ladies and gentlemen, a legend and true creative force in this medium. Please join us at tomorrow on 5by5.tv/live for a lively and wide-ranging discussion.
The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”) records live every Thursday at 12:00 PM Eastern. Edited episodes can be watched afterwards, often within hours of recording, via iTunes (audio feed | video feed) and the web. Subscribe and enjoy!
OUR LIBRARY IS BURNING. Copyright extension has banished millions of books to the scrapheap. Digital permanence is a tragically laughable ideal to anyone who remembers the VHS format wars or tries to view Joshua Davis’s 1990s masterpieces on a modern computer. Digital archiving is only as permanent as the next budget cycle—as when libraries switched from microfilm to digital subscriptions and then were forced to cancel the subscriptions during the pre-recession recession. And of course, my digital work vanishes the moment I die or lose the ability to keep hosting it. If you really want to protect your family photos, take them off Flickr and your hard drive, get them on paper, and store them in an airtight box.
Though bits are forever, our medium is mortal, as all but the most naive among us know. And we accept that some of what we hold digitally dear will perish before our eyes. But it irks most especially when people or companies with more money than judgement purchase a thriving online community only to trash it when they can’t figure out how to squeeze a buck out of it. Corporate black thumb is not new to our medium: MGM watered down the Marx Bros; the Saatchis sucked the creative life and half the billings out of the ad agencies they acquired during the 1980s and beyond. But outside the digital world, some corporate purchases and marriages have worked out (think: Disney/Pixar). And with the possible exception of Flickr (better now than the day Yahoo bought it), I can’t think of any online community or publication that has improved as a result of being purchased. Whereas we can all instantly call to mind dozens of wonderful web properties that died or crawled up their own asses as a direct result of new corporate ownership.
My colleague Mandy Brown has written a moving call to arms which, knowingly or unknowingly, invokes the LOCKSS method (“Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe”) of preserving digital content by making copies of it; she encourages us all to become archivists. Even a disorganized ground-level effort such as Mandy proposes will be beneficial—indeed, the less organized, the better. And this is certainly part of the answer. (It’s also what drives my friend Tantek’s own your data efforts; my beef with T is mainly aesthetic.) So, yes, we the people can do our part to help undo the harm uncaring companies cause to our e-ecosystem.
But there is another piece of this which no one is discussing and which I now address specifically to my colleagues who create great digital content and communities:
Stop selling your stuff to corporate jerks. It never works. They always wreck what you’ve spent years making.
Don’t go for the quick payoff. You can make money maintaining your content and serving your community. It won’t be a fat fistful of cash, but that’s okay. You can keep living, keep growing your community, and, over the years, you will earn enough to be safe and comfortable. Besides, most people who get a big payoff blow the money within two years (because it’s not real to them, and because there are always professionals ready to help the rich squander their money). By contrast, if you retain ownership of your community and keep plugging away, you’ll have financial stability and manageable success, and you’ll be able to turn the content over to your juniors when the time comes to retire.
Our library is burning. We didn’t start the fire but we sure don’t have to help fan the flames. You can’t sell out if you don’t sell. Owning your content starts with you.