Categories
business Community Design development industry project management Standards

Let there be web divisions

We are still crunching numbers on the Web Design Survey—with over 32,000 responses to 36 questions, there’s a lot to crunch. But in one area, preliminary data supports what anecdotal experience led us to expect: almost no one who makes websites works in their company or organization’s web division. That’s because almost no company or organization has a web division. And that void on the org chart is one reason we have so many bloated, unusable failures where we should be producing great user experiences.

Ponder. No matter how critical the web experience may be to the organization’s mission, the people who design and build those mission-critical sites work in divisions that have nothing to do with the web, and report to leaders whose expertise is unrelated to web design and development.

It’s a startling fact with profound implications—and as such has gone unnoticed by the business community and press.

IT or marketing

From law firms to libraries, from universities to Fortune 500 companies, the organization’s website almost invariably falls under the domain of the IT Department or the Marketing Department, leading to turf wars and other predictable consequences. While many good (and highly capable) people work in IT and marketing, neither area is ideally suited to craft usable websites or to encourage the blossoming of vital web communities.

Competent IT departments handle a dazzling array of technical challenges requiring deep, multi-leveled expertise. But tasks such as equipping 20,000 globally dispersed employees with appropriately configured PCs, or maintaining corporate databases and mail gateways, don’t necessarily map to the skills required to design great user experiences for the web.

Large-scale systems expertise takes a different mindset than what’s needed to write usable guide copy, finesse markup semantics, or design an easy-to-understand user interface employing the lightest and fewest possible graphic images. Moreover, nimble development and support for open standards are not the hallmarks of large IT departments (although undoubtedly there are noble exceptions). Additionally, developers with a background in IT (again, with some exceptions) tend to create from the point of view of technology, rather than that of the user.

What about Marketing?

Organizations that don’t entrust their website to IT tend to hand it to Marketing. The rationale for doing so is easy to see: Marketing has been briefed on the organization’s business goals (at least for the next quarter), and the division is staffed by communications specialists who know at least something about writing and art direction. If nothing else, they know who to hire to write their copy, and they are comfortable telling the in-house graphic designers to make the logo bigger.

Like IT, Marketing has valuable organizational knowledge (plus certain skills) to contribute to any serious web enterprise. The leaders of Marketing, like the leaders of IT, should be frequently consulted in any web effort. But the skills of Marketing, like the skills of IT, don’t necessarily map to what is needed to create great web experiences.

For one thing, as anyone reading this knows, the web is a conversation. Marketing, by contrast, is a monologue. It can be a great monologue—for examples of which, see The One Show Winners or the AIGA Design Archives. But a monologue and conversation are not the same, as an hour spent with your windy Uncle Randolph will remind you.

And then there’s all that messy business with semantic markup, CSS, unobtrusive scripting, card-sorting exercises, HTML run-throughs, involving users in accessibility, and the rest of the skills and experience that don’t fall under Marketing’s purview.

If not them, then who?

Business and non-profit decision makers, for your users’ good, consider this request. Stop separating the members of your web team. Cease distributing them among various (often competitive) divisions led by people with limited web expertise. Let the coders, designers, writers, and others charged with creating and maintaining your web presence work together. Put them in a division that recognizes that your site is not a bastard of your brochures, nor a natural outgrowth of your group calendar. Let there be web divisions.

[tags]webdesign, webdevelopment, design, development, web divisions[/tags]

Categories
business Design Tools

“Maybe” is one option too many

When I’m planning an event, and I use a web service like evite® to send invitations, that web service offers three choices:

  1. Yes, I’ll come
  2. No, I won’t
  3. Maybe—I’m not sure

“Maybe” is one option too many. As a best practice, we should dispense with it, just as we should replace five-star rating systems with four-star ones.

The problem with five-star rating systems

Let users choose from five stars, and they nearly always pick three. Three is the little bear’s porridge, neither too hot nor too cold. Three is neutral—a safe place to hide. Even in the virtual world, where nothing more consequential is being asked than an opinion, many people would rather equivocate than commit.

But present these same users with a four-star spread and you leave them no cover. Two stars out of four is not neutral. Neither is three stars out of four. Any star rating they choose will reflect an actual opinion. There is no place to hide. When there is no place to hide, courage arises out of necessity. Force people out of the brush, and they develop the backbone needed to state an opinion.

The trouble with “maybe”

As data, “maybe” is as useless as a three-star rating in a five-star system—and as hypnotically compelling to users. “Maybe” is a button that begs to be pushed.

Maybe is a magnet for neuroses. It salves guilt complexes and incites passive-aggressive avoidance behaviors.

“Maybe” sometimes means maybe, but it can also mean, “I’m not coming but I don’t want to hurt your feelings.” Or even, “I plan to come but I reserve the right to change my mind at the last minute if something better comes along.” Some people even use maybe to mean, “I won’t make dinner but I’ll come for dessert.”

When you invite twelve people to a restaurant dinner via a web service, at least four will say maybe. Do you reserve a table for twelve? When eight show up and range themselves at opposite ends of the table (“because other people might be joining us”) you have an awkward table filled with gaps. The empty seats haunt the meal, suggesting social failure.

But if you call the restaurant at the last minute to change the reservation to eight, two of the maybes will show up, like ants at a picnic. They’ll have nowhere to sit, and they’ll blame you. (“I told you I might come.”)

How can you know what “maybe” means? In the context of a web service, you can’t. All you can do is phone people and ask whether they’re leaning toward coming or not—in other words, try to move them from a five-star three to a four-star two or three. If they’re the passive-aggressive type, they will continue to evade the snare of commitment. “I’m probably coming,” they’ll say.

What is the solution? Use web services that offer a binary choice: “I’m coming” or “I’m not coming.” If you can’t find such a service, build one. If you run a web service that includes “maybe,” offer an optional two-choice (“no-maybe”) version.

When demand an outright yes or no, people generally supply it. They only equivocate when handed the means to do so. Form is content.

[tags]design, usability, invitations, fourstar, fivestar, rating systems[/tags]

Categories
business Design HTML mail industry Standards work

E-mail is not a platform for design

All these years of internet use later, HTML mail still sucks. You may think I mean “HTML mail doesn’t work properly in some e-mail clients.” And that statement is certainly true. Companies spend hours crafting layouts that may not work in Eudora or Gmail, or may no longer work in Outlook.

Even in programs that support the crap code used to create these layouts, all that hard visual work will go unseen if the user has unchecked “View HTML Mail” in their preferences.

As for CSS, it is partially supported in some e-mail applications and in web apps like Gmail, but only if you author in nonsemantic table layouts and bandwidth-wasting inline CSS. Which is like using a broken refrigerator to store food at room temperature.

But when I say HTML mail still sucks, I don’t mean it sucks because support for design in e-mail today is like support for standards in web browsers in 1998.

I mean it sucks because nobody needs it. It impedes rather than aids communication.

E-mail was invented so people could quickly exchange text messages over fast or slow or really slow connections, using simple, non-processor-intensive applications on any computing platform, or using phones, or hand-held devices, or almost anything else that can display text and permits typing.

That’s what e-mail is for. That’s why it’s great.

E-mail is not a platform for design. Unlike the web, which also started as an exchange medium for text messages but which benefited from the inclusion of images and other media, e-mail works best when used for its original purpose, as the most basic of content exchange systems.

“Designed” e-mail is just a slightly more polished version of those messages your uncle sends you. Your uncle thinks 18pt bright red Comic Sans looks great, so he sends e-mail messages formatted that way. You cluck your tongue, or sigh, or run de-formatting scripts on every message you receive from him. When your uncle is the “designer,” you “get” why styled mail sucks. It sucks just as much when you design it, even if it looks better than your uncle’s work in the two e-mail programs that support it correctly.

Even though it doesn’t work right in many e-mail applications, and even though many users dislike it, HTML appeals to clients because it’s another place to stick their logo. And it appeals to the kind of designer who thinks everything, even a bullet hurtling toward his own skull, would improve if decorated. I hate that kind of designer almost as much as I hate people who hate design. That kind of designer gives all designers a bad name, and is chiefly responsible for the slightly amused contempt with which many business people view designers, art directors, and “creative” people generally.

Say it with me: HTML is for websites. CSS is for websites. GIFs and JPEGs are for websites.

ASCII means never having to say you’re sorry.

Discussion closed

The conversation has moved on. Feel free to contribute to the follow-up posts.

Related posts

When is e-mail like a bad website?

Nokia sent a friend an HTML e-mail message. I’ve broken it into five screen shots, because it won’t fit on one. E-mail, as a medium, really doesn’t want to carry all this freight.

Eight points for better e-mail relationships

Okay, so under the right circumstances, when people have requested it, e-mail can be a platform for design. Here are eight ways to make it work better (and avoid pissing off people who hate HTML mail).

[tags]HTML mail, e-mail, marketing, internet marketing, design[/tags]

Categories
A List Apart business Design project management

ALA 237: client school

Generally, Issue 237 of A List Apart, for people who make websites, is all about education. Specifically, it’s about educating bosses and clients to approve good design and make better strategic decisions.

Stand and Deliver

by David Sleight

You’ve got thirty seconds to sell your work to the well dressed nemesis who’s paying you. Handle the next few moments gracefully, and the project will be one you can be proud of. Flub an answer, and you can kiss excellence goodbye. Are you prepared? Can you deliver?

David Sleight is the Deputy Creative Director of BusinessWeek.com, and writes about design, the web, and anything else that strikes his fancy at Stuntbox. When he’s not pushing pixels or punching code he can be found exploring the wilds of New York.

Educate Your Stakeholders!

by Shane Diffily

Who decides what’s best for a website? Highly skilled professionals who work with the site’s users and serve as their advocates? Or schmucks with money? Most often, it’s the latter. That’s why a web designer’s first job is to educate the people who hold the purse strings.

Shane Diffily is author of The Website Manager’s Handbook and webmaster with one of Ireland’s largest companies. He also publishes regular features about the challenges of website administration on www.diffily.com.

A List Apart explores the design, development, and meaning of web content, with a special focus on web standards and best practices. Explore our articles or find out more about the magazine.

[tags]selling design, design, development, webdesign, webdevelopment, education, client education, project management, alistapart[/tags]

Categories
A List Apart An Event Apart business Design industry Women's Studies work

The Web Design Survey

A few days back, we remarked on the strange absence of real data about web design and the designers, developers, IAs, writers, project managers, and other specialists and hybrids who do this work. In all the years people have been creating websites, nobody bothered to gather statistics about who does this work, using what skills, under what conditions, and for what kinds of compensation.

In the absence of statistics specific to our field, commissioning research got us only so far. It was time to take the next step.

I took it! And so should you. The Web Design Survey, 2007.

Presenting A List Apart’s first annual web design survey. The information it collects will help us form a long overdue picture of the ways web design is really practiced around the globe. The more people who complete the survey, the richer and more detailed the picture will become.

Depending on how you answer it, the survey has up to 37 questions, nearly all of them multiple choice. A fluent English speaker should be able to complete the survey in ten minutes or less.

In structuring the sections on employment, we patterned certain questions along the lines established by previous surveys undertaken by AIGA and The Information Architecture Institute. The similarity will afford easier comparisons across the three surveys. This comparability will be useful because some “web designers” are also (or primarily) designers, and thus also fall under AIGA’s umbrella, while other “web designers” are primarily information architects.

Hosted by An Event Apart, the survey will remain open until 22 May, 2007. After we close it, we’ll slice and dice the data and present our findings in a future issue of A List Apart.

Help us increase accurate knowledge about—and deepen respect for—the profession of web design. Take the survey and spread the word. (You might even win a free ticket to An Event Apart, a 30GB video iPod, an Event Apart jump drive, or a funky A List Apart T-shirt.)

Also in this issue of A List Apart, for people who make websites:

The Long Hallway

by Jonathan Follett

In the virtual conference room, no one can hear you scream. Social networking enables knowledge workers like us to build virtual companies with no office space and little overhead. But can we make them succeed? Follett dissects the skills required to create, manage, and grow the virtual firm.

Contrast and Meaning

by Andy Rutledge

Yes, Virginia, design does matter. Better web page layouts aren’t only about aesthetics. A layout with clear hierarchies can turn scanners to readers, and readers to members. Learn how visual contrast can turn lifeless web pages into sizzling calls to action.

[tags]webdesign, survey, design, development, compensation, business, alistapart, AndyRutledge, JonathanFollett, longhallway, thelonghallway[/tags]

Categories
business Community industry Publishing

Web 2.0 Buyouts: Butchers vs. Farmers

As Web 2.0 Buying Season winds down, it is pleasant to consider what was different about it. This time, for the most part, the buyers have been farmers, not butchers. They bought to nurture, not to kill.

The merger years

Before the web, I worked in advertising. I survived the Merger Years. Charles and Maurice Saatchi, the art collectors, were among several groups scooping up ad agencies as investments. Not infrequently, incompatible shops were jammed together to see what stuck. My first New York ad job was at one of these misbegotten unions; I started on the very day more than half the staff got canned as a direct result of the merger.

The new owners had performed unholy matrimony, forcing a dewy-eyed little shop in Minneapolis to love and cherish a dull, aging cash cow in New York. They probably imagined that the cold New York joint would warm to the creative touch of its young spouse, while the Minneapolis branch would somehow grow as lucrative as the boring but high-earning Gotham shop. It wasn’t meant to be. Clients ran screaming; staff were kicked out after them.

Behind the iron doors

“Oh, boy, my first New York job!” I said aloud as I approached the iron doors.

I walked into a tragedy. Women wept, carrying boxes. Ashen-faced middle-aged copywriters with bad portfolios—parents of young children—suddenly realized that they were unemployable.

The floor on which I was to work was being frantically redecorated to match the corporate colors of Minneapolis as almost everyone who worked there was laid off within a space of hours. “Pardon Our Appearance, We Are Redecorating” proclaimed a happy illustrated painter on a large sign. His was the only grin to be seen. Someone eventually drew an executioner’s hood over the happy painter’s head, and replaced his brush with an axe. Okay, that was me.

Over the next few years, the Saatchis brought in one brilliant outside creative director after another to try to make the merger work. I learned from all of them. The place was great for me in that way. It was also a fine source of drinking buddies. Almost nobody could handle the daily surrealism sober.

I worked at other places over the years. The great ones were small and created their own cultures. The not-so-great ones had almost always been good until they got too big.

Web for sale

Years later, I was a web designer doing independent content on the side. Some of my friends were also doing independent content. Some of them sold their sites to corporate buyers.

I was glad to see creative people get a paycheck, but suspicious because of what I had seen of mergers in my previous career. I feared that the buyers might not understand what they had bought, and might try to make it something it was not. And that indeed is what happened, every time.

Stay cool

In one instance, a married couple and their friend built up one of the first great educational sites for web developers. Everybody who knew the acronym HTML read this site in the mid- to late 1990s. It was informative, opinionated, and leading-edge. The writers were front-line web developers. They weren’t just ahead of the curve, they were helping to shape it. And they weren’t just technology writers, they were personalities. Huge personalities.

They also knew how to keep readers coming back, and and how to turn readers into a community. One way they did both these things was by honoring a different website every weekday. Hundreds of thousands of web professionals tuned in Monday through Friday to find out what site was being put forward as cool, and to argue passionately about whether it deserved such kudos.

It all changed the moment a traditional publisher bought the site, for what, by later standards, was surely a mere chest of shells and beads.

Out went the big personalities. (Literally. The founders were so frustrated, they soon quit.) Front-end web development articles focused on sponsoring companies’ technologies instead of JavaScript, CSS, and HTML, and were written with anonymous professionalism instead of character. The site’s point of view disappeared, and with it, so did most people’s interest in reading it. The daily cool site became a random shot over the bow instead of demonstrating a philosophy about emerging web content. At times one suspected the daily site was picked because of some back-room deal or misbegotten partnership arrangement.

What the publishers got for their investment, after destroying everything else about it, was residual search engine juice. Maybe that was enough for them.

Fortunately, the new buyers want more.

Born to run

When a famous old-school stock photography concern bought iStockphoto, some of us feared that it spelled the end for that independent photo community. Not so. iStockphoto is still iStockphoto, only now it has money. Likewise, Yahoo! bought flickr as flickr—not as a list of users to exploit or a URL to slap ads on. It bought del.icio.us as del.icio.us; all the purchase did (besides generate paychecks) was integrate the social bookmarking tool into other Yahoo! properties (like flickr). Similarly, Dodgeball is still Dodgeball despite its purchase by Google.

One could list these buyouts all day, but it would soon grow tedious. The point is, buyers now buy to own, not to run (and ruin).

Are today’s buyers smarter? Or are they just too busy to meddle? What do you think?

[tags]web2.0, buyouts, mergers, saatchi[/tags]

Categories
business Design events fashion Happy Cog™ Philadelphia Redesigns work

Happy Cog redesigns, 2/7/2007

Mr Mancini, my high school science teacher, grew a mustache when he began to dye his grey hair black. The dye job progressed by degrees. He was a little grey, then less grey. Nobody noticed; his mustache mesmerized us.

On the day Mr Mancini went all black, he shaved his mustache. All we noticed when he bounced into the classroom was his big, smooth-shaven face. He had to tell us that he’d changed his hair. As a man, he wanted to protect the secret of his vanity, but as a science teacher he felt morally obliged to explain the psychological trick he’d played on us.

Good redesigns work like my teacher’s hair. They are always an opportunity to fix or change a lot of things that aren’t obvious on the pretty new surface. Happy Cog has just redesigned.

It started with a sentence

The new version of Happy Cog’s website had to better convey how our agency’s business has diversified. We are first and always designers for hire. We are also publishers, whose micro-empire is expanding. And we have lately co-founded a high-profile event series.

The old site told the “design for hire” story. The redesign had to tell all three stories.

Usually this would be done by creating a navigation bar with labels like “We design,” “We publish,” and “We present.” But labels don’t connect; they separate. Navigation labels could point to three separate story-lines, but they would not make the case that ours was a holistic enterprise—that our conference, our publications, and our client services business were one.

For some time, I’ve been thinking about the primacy of words in the user interface. A sentence, I felt, could present our three businesses, and by its very nature, connect them in the reader’s mind.

The primary navigation interface had to be a sentence. And so it is.

The drawing board

One sentence led to another. I found it easy to write the new Happy Cog and easy to spin an organic architecture out of the opening sentence. But hell if I could design the thing.

I’d always designed Happy Cog; it was my baby; but every time I opened Photoshop or took crayon to paper, the results were a muddle. Maybe it was because my brain was barreling along on architecture and copy. Or maybe there are only so many times a single designer can take a new look at the same site.

I tapped Jason Santa Maria (or maybe he tapped me). Jason has one of the keenest minds and two of the freshest eyes in the business. He makes legibility beautiful. What the Ramones did with three chords, he does with two system fonts. His designs always spring from the user and the brand proposition.

His first effort sucked. (I was secretly relieved.)

A month later, Jason came back with pretty much the design you now see at happycog.com. (I rejoiced.) The painting at the top, which makes the design, is by A List Apart illustrator Kevin Cornell.

The group

We fleshed out all the pages in Photoshop or as “copy wireframes” and then called on Happy Cog’s Daniel Mall to create lean, semantic markup, beautifully optimized style sheets, and all required PHP and JavaScript contraptions. Dan also set up the WordPress blog.

Dan is as good as anyone I’ve worked with. He is super-fast yet also deeply thoughtful. We spent many a mini-session debating such things as whether the About page and its subsidiaries should include microformats. We decided not.

Mark Huot migrated the new site, a job that involved considerable strategy as well as expertise. Rob Weychert contributed additional art direction and Jon Aldinger offered additional programming.

The redesign tells our story and gives us room to breathe and grow. It is also (I think) quite pretty and thoroughly appropriate. We hope you like it, and we invite you to subscribe to Happy Cog’s RSS feed to stay abreast of all matters Coggish.

Other perspectives

Jason Santa Maria and Daniel Mall have written their perspectives on the Happy Cog redesign. They’re swell! Jason’s writeup includes information about the Happy Cog Philadelphia Open House, featuring the live music of Comhaltas. If you’re around, please visit.

[tags]happycog, design, redesigns, webdesign, jasonsantamaria, danielmall, danmall, zeldman[/tags]

Categories
Accessibility An Event Apart better-know-a-speaker Boston business cities Community Design development events industry Redesigns Standards Tools

Register for An Event Apart Boston

Registration is now open for An Event Apart Boston 2007. Enjoy two amazing days of design and code plus meals, a party, and a bag of swag for a mere $795 (reg. $895) while early bird savings last. Attend for as little as $745 with a discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers.

Learn by day, party by night

On An Event Apart’s website, you’ll now find a detailed schedule describing the presentations with which our superstar speakers hope to entertain and enlighten you. From “Web Standards Stole My Truck!” to “Redesigning Your Way out of a Paper Bag,” it’s two stimulating days of best practices and fresh ideas in design, usability, accessibility, markup and code.

Check out that schedule. I’ll wait.

Lest you be overwhelmed by learning too much too soon, we’ll help you unwind (and do a little networking) at the Opening Night Party sponsored by Media Temple. You might even win a prize, courtesy of Adobe, New Riders, or Media Temple.

Hotel savings

Our Boston Events page also includes notes to help you book your hotel room at a specially negotiated discount price.

Located in beautiful and historic Back Bay, the Boston Marriott Copley Place provides in-room, high-speed internet access; laptop safes and coolers; 27-inch color TV with cable movies; luxurious bedding and linens, and more. Best of all, it’s the site of the conference. You can walk out of your room and into the show!

Save more with discount code

During the early bird period, the price for this two-day event is $795. But you can nab an extra $50 off with this discount code exclusively for zeldman.com readers:

AEAZELD

Just enter AEAZELD in An Event Apart’s shopping cart to enjoy those savings immediately. During our early bird period, you’ll pay just $745 for the two days and everything that comes with them.

After February 26, 2007, when the early bird savings ends, the price goes up to $895, and you’ll pay $845 with the discount. Still pretty good for two days with some of the sharpest minds and greatest talents in web design. But why pay more? Book An Event Apart Boston as soon as you can.

Unlimited creativity, limited seating

An Event Apart Boston will be the best conference Eric Meyer and I have yet put together. It will also be this year’s only East Coast Event Apart. Don’t miss it.

Join Eric and me, along with Steve Krug, Andrew Kirkpatrick, Molly Holzschlag, Cameron Moll, Dan Cederholm, Ethan Marcotte, and Jason Santa Maria, for what we modestly believe may be the most exciting and enlightening show in modern web design.

Hurry! Seating is limited and early bird savings end Feb. 26, 2007.

[tags]aneventapart, boston, aneventapartboston07[/tags]