I HADN’T heard from her in years. Suddenly, there she was in my in-box. Tentatively proposing coffee. Maybe lunch. A dam broke inside me, releasing a flood of warm memories. Our first, tentative contact ten years or more ago. Getting to know each other. Endless, happy discussions about where this thing was going. Coming together on goals and brand; on voice and tone. Finally, the joy of designing and launching her website. And then, abruptly, the last invoice and the hurried departure.
My former client. She had a new job now. She wanted to catch up. And, sheepishly, she admitted, she might want something more. Advice about a design problem.
Over an unassuming wooden table laden with summer lunch—mine was Ramen, hers was salad—we shared personal updates. Kids, relationships, projects. And then we got down to the real agenda: an issue at work that was stumping her. Desire for an outside perspective.
Former clients often feel slightly embarrassed about reaching out for a little free advice. They shouldn’t. As a designer, one of my greatest joys is to reconnect with good people whose projects I loved working on. Design is a job, but it’s also a relationship. When design is going well, the exchange of ideas is almost addictively exciting. And then, all too soon, the project ends, and, if you’re a consulting designer, and you’re lucky enough to have a steady stream of business, you move on to the next gig.
We designers have built-in forgetters: super powers that enable us to care passionately about the problem we’re solving and the people we’re solving it for, and then, absurdly, to discard those feelings as we move on to the next client and design problem.
Clients have a built-in forgetter too. They forget that our relationship, although partly monetary, was also very real. Many clients are self-conscious about reconnecting personally and asking for a small favor in the same breath. But I couldn’t welcome that more. If I can help people, it’s a joy to me. Collaborating on the discovery and solution to a problem isn’t just a stimulating mental exercise and a profession: it’s also a codependent rush.
Between the cracks of my studio’s bigger projects, I’m always looking for ways to help people. So, in the spirit of Ask Dr Web, I’m taking this opportunity to issue an invitation to folks located in or visiting New York. If you’re someone in my network—a former client or old friend or both—with a design problem to mull over, you don’t have to do the mulling alone. Ping me. And let’s do lunch.
Big Web Show № 159: If You Can’t Stand the Heatmaps, Stay Out of the Conversion, with @nickd
NICK Disabato (@nickd) and I discuss heat maps, conversion rates, design specialization, writing for the web, Jakob Nielsen, and the early days of blogging in Episode № 159 of The Big Web Show – “everything web that matters.” Listen and enjoy.
We’ve got some exciting news to share. Web and interaction design studio.zeldman is moving, from our digs at 148 Madison Avenue to a new location on Fifth Avenue. As of June 1, we’ll be designing, creating, and consulting out of our beautiful new studio space at The Yard: Flatiron North.
But we’re tired of playing landlord. Instead of debugging the internet router, tending to the recycling, hiring HVAC repair people, and seeking suitable replacement studio mates when a company moves out, we’d rather spend our time solving our clients’ design problems and making cool stuff like A List Apart, A Book Apart, The Big Web Show, and An Event Apart. And The Yard’s the perfect place for us to ply our trade and make our goods. (Plus we still get to rub shoulders with other creative business folk.)
We can’t take it with us: furnish your office with our stuff!
Running a co-working studio space meant buying a lot of furniture and equipment. Beautiful stuff, still in great condition. Elegant stuff, because we’re designers. Stuff we won’t need any more, now that we’re moving to new digs where somebody else does landlord duty. So we’re selling it, for a lot less than we paid. And that’s where (maybe) you come in.
Most everything must go, including our famous Eero Aarnio (style) ball chair (if its red cushions could talk!), custom Bo Concept shelving, Eames Desk Units from Design Within Reach, Herman Miller Aeron chairs (ditto), midcentury tulip table and side chairs, black glass desks, Nespresso espresso maker, file cabinets, icemaker, microwave oven, see-through glass mini-fridge, and more. These are beautiful things that inspire good design, and they deserve good homes.
Big Web Show № 158: Old Men Shake Fists at the Cloud – with Jim Coudal
IN Big Web Show № 158: internet veterans Jim @Coudal & Jeffrey @Zeldman on the death of blogging, the birth of Field Notes, the virtues of a subscription model, and much more. Begins in tears, ends in triumph. One of the most fun (and inspiring) episodes ever. Sponsored by Hotjar & Blue Apron.
AS THE HEAD of a newish design studio, I spend a fair amount of time writing proposals. And here’s how I like to do it.
I do it like a conversation, and that’s how we start: with phone calls and emails to one or two key decision makers, followed by a research period of about two to three weeks. And when I say research, what I’m really talking about—besides the usual competitive analysis, analytics, and testing—is even more conversations, but this time with a wider net of stakeholders and customers.
Some studios do this for free, and other studios only do it if the client has signed off on a huge project and paid the first big deposit. But we do this research for a fee. A small, reasonable, consulting fee. If the client then hires us to do the job, we deduct the research fee from the project cost. If they don’t, they’ve gained a lot of great information at a fair cost. (So far, they’ve never not hired us to go on and do the project.)
From intake to ideas
About two and half weeks into the research project, we have a strong idea of what matters most to the business and its customers, and we begin to have visions of solutions and innovations, large and small. We can’t help it. We’re interaction designers and it’s how our minds work.
After soaking in a potential client’s world for two-plus weeks, we can’t help beginning to invent designs that solve some of their big and small problems, and that enhance what’s already great about the client and their product. This happens in our heads whether we want it to or not.
At first, we are merely neutral listeners, forcing ourselves not to solve, not to imagine, but only to truly hear and understand. But within about fifteen days, we can’t help but begin imagining little modules and big sections, huge themes and tiny, innovative enhancements, which might please and help our client, their customers, or their staff. And so long as those ideas come from the product, come from what the client and their customers have told us, we feel free to begin sharing them.
The first design is written
We do that by writing a report where we share with the client what we’ve begun learning and thinking about their business. Although this report is structured like a business document, we think of it as the first part of design—the first written rough draft of articulating what the client’s business needs to do, and how design might help.
Because it’s a business document, and because we’re workers, not magical pixies, we share facts and data and things stakeholders and customers have said that ring true and that harmonize with other things other stakeholders and customers have said. But all that mustering of facts and data is in the service of a shared creative awakening to the design’s possibilities.
Start ugly to stay honest
Now let me tell you how we present our findings: we present them in a Google Doc that the client can access, share, and comment on. We know that many design studios spend much energy visually tarting up even their most basic client communications. Thus, even a humble invoice comes dressed for the prom.
But we don’t do that. We save aesthetics and beauty for the site design. We keep communications open and plain, like an Amish shirt. And we keep communications editable, because this is collaboration, this is conversation, this is not a dead artifact, a take-it-or-leave-it. And Google Docs is the perfect vehicle for it. Just as the traditionally formatted typewritten screenplay is the perfect, neutral vehicle for a writer to share with a director.
This initial research report, this poem of business, this first, rough, written design, presented to the client via the homey simplicity of Google Docs, elicits more client/designer conversation, more emails, more Basecamp posts, more internal discussions in the studio.
And then, after about a week, we present the client with our proposal. Which is clearly the product of all our conversations, and particularly of all the important agreements we reached during that research period. By the time our clients receive the proposal, they are already nodding, as if they always knew what it contained. Because, in a way, they did. Because, if we did our research right, we’ve merely externalized and articulated what they already felt but had not expressed.
And even now, when we’re asking for serious money to do a serious job, we submit our proposal via Google Docs—because prettified, overly branded proposals are about the studio that produces them, whereas our work is about the client and their product. Because even the most painstakingly researched and written proposal, if it is too pretty and too studio-branded, feels like boilerplate, whereas an ugly Google Doc is clearly just work, to be modified or agreed to or argued about.
This is just what we do at our studio. You can try it or not. Personally, I like this approach and I’ve never had a client complain. I’ve always felt a little dirty when presenting a pitch that was too visually polished, and I’ve never won a single gig with boilerplate. Every job has to be earned by studying and understanding and knowing how to share what you’ve understood. At least, that’s how we do it.
CHICAGO. Spent my Sunday writing a contract for the ________ design. I find I really enjoy writing proposals. It gives me a chance to see the whole project clearly in my mind, and to demonstrate to clients not just competency but genuine concern for their products and a vision of how to help their business.
Turns out proposal writing can be as creative as anything else we do in design. The only obstacle to overcome is the angry kid inside who doesn’t want to do his homework. If I think of writing the proposal as a damned nuisance, then it is one. But if I view it as an opportunity to test design ideas, that’s what it becomes.
TEN great links to launch your weekend:
If you missed Gerry McGovern’s brilliant An Event Apart talk on “Top Task Management,” the video’s here for your pleasure.
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.
Digital newspaper design challenge: a report from Poynter, part 1
CAN design create a better user experience that engages readers and drives revenue? Can it fight fake news and help save real journalism at a time when news organizations large and small are underfinanced and under attack?
The challenge began October 17–18 in New York, with five pundits and five designers, of whom I was honored to be one, workshopping a project brief during a two-day conference event at the Columbia Journalism School. (You can watch videos of all these sessions courtesy of Fora.tv.)
The next phase took place yesterday in St. Petersburg, Florida, as the four other designers and I presented our work to a live audience. In this short piece, I’ll talk about the designs my colleagues presented; in the next, I’ll discuss my own.
Reconnecting with the people: the challenge for digital news
Roger Black described the difficulties facing digital news publications:
The challenge is serious. Fake news crowds real news. Numbers no longer add up for publishers. Readers jump from site to site without knowing where they are, or staying for long. You can see the brief for this project here.
Can design help? Well, as a I designer, I think it can. I mean, the design of most news pages is not what you’d call attractive. But the solutions proposed at Poynter will be much more strategic than cosmetic. And they’re strategies that can be combined.
—Five design answers that add up, Roger Black, January 20, 2017
“A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit”
Between us, we designers had about a century of experience designing digital publications—internally, as consultants, or both. This means that, even though an open “design challenge” brief necessarily omits an unknown number of the specific requirements any actual publication design assignment would include, all of us were aware of, and to some degree addressed, typical news publication requirements not included in our brief.
Kat Downs Mulder, Graphics Director at The Washington Post, shared a prototype for a big-brand news site. Kat had just given birth to a healthy baby boy (congratulations!), so her work was presented by two of her colleagues from The Post. Kat did not design with the avid, committed news reader in mind (since those folks are not the problem for most publications). Instead, she pondered how to engage the typically fragmented attention of today’s distracted and passive news reader:
“A big-brand news site [should be] aware that people have a lot more to do in their lives than read the news,” Kat posited. Thus, “A news publication might think a bit more like Fitbit. That is, it should make you feel like it’s working for you. A reader should say, ‘I’m reading everything I need to know.’”
Keep that dopamine pumping
Kat presented a multi-paned prototype. The wider pane on the right contained news content; the narrower pane at left was navigation. As I’ve just described it, this isn’t much different from the current Post website, but Kat’s prototype was very different, because it prized reader control over editorial director control; kept track of what you read; encouraged extra reading the way Fitbit encourages extra steps, and rewarded it the same way Fitbit does, with an accumulation of points that give the reader dopamine hits and create the perception that the “news app” is working for her—as a rewarding part of her busy lifestyle.
An Operating System for your city
Mike Swartz, Partner at Upstatement, a design and engineering studio in Boston, took on the challenge to smaller publications (such as his original hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette) which lack the resources of a Washington Post or New York Times.
Mike’s presentation, “information OS for a city: redefining the opportunity for local media,” turned the journalistic prowess of a good local paper into a superpower, connecting readers to their city the way the “terrible towel” stunt concocted in desperation by radio announcer Myron Cope in 1975 reconnected Pittsburghers to their hometown football team, and helped the Steelers win Super Bowl X over the Dallas Cowboys.
There’s a potential for an operation like the [Post Gazette] to rebrand itself as more of an “informational operating system” for its city. With different types of products that are focused and useful and not necessarily bundled into a traditional news format, we can create more enjoyable experiences and more useful products readers will love.
Building reader interest and finding a way to pay for it all
Where the rest of us avoided the elephant in the room, in her design Lucie Lacava, president of Lacava Design Inc., boldly confronted the challenges of advertising and monetization. Algorithm-driven advertising frustrates users, who, in desperation, block it. Choked for income as a result, publications and advertisers create more and more intrusive forms of unwanted advertising. Nobody wins.
And while subscription models have worked, at least partly, for some of the very top news publications, such models are not likely to help most news publications in the near term.
Digital publication as digital application
Lucie’s design addressed these challenges by recasting the news as a hyper-customized application targeted at younger users, who get to choose news streams and ads that are relevant to them. “The elusive millennial” was Lucie’s target. I cannot do her idea justice with a couple of paragraphs and a single screen shot.
Affordable, immersive VR is here
Jared Cocken, brand and product designer for hire and co-founder of STYLSH.co., approached the “attention war” by showing how any size publication could create “video or VR driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Because VR video is immersive, it holds viewer attention. Because it is reality-based, it fights fake news. (It’s hard to call bullshit on a scene you can explore from any angle.) VR also, potentially, builds compassion. It’s one thing to read about conditions in a Syrian refugee camp, another to visually experience them in VR.
Until now VR and video have been cost-prohibitive, but, working (and co-presenting) with VR startup founder Anna Rose and Hollywood producer/actor Banks Boutté, Jared showed how even woefully under-financed newsrooms can use newly designed, super-affordable tools to create “video or VR-driven stories that enrich a user’s understanding of the world around them.”
Blogging about a conference is like tweeting about a sexual experience. You had to be there. I wanted to record and share the outlines of what my fellow designers presented, but these few paragraphs should in no way be considered authentically representative of the deep thinking and work that went into every presentation.
You may see holes in some of the arguments presented here. In some cases, I might agree with you—some ideas, while dazzlingly creative, did not seem to me like the right way to save news. But in most cases, if an idea seems wrong, blame my telling. If you had been there and heard and seen everything, the value of the proposal would have far more apparent than it can be here.
I love that each of us took on a quite different aspect of the problem, and addressed it using very different tools. I’ll be back soon with a short write-up of the design approach I took. Meanwhile, I want to thank all the pundits, designers, and attendees in New York and St. Petersburg—and the Poynter Institute, Roger Black, and William R. Hearst III for making it all possible.
When I first met Lara, she was touring behind her excellent O’Reilly book Designing For Performance, a topic she brought to life at An Event Apart in 2016. But, as important as performance is, I was even more excited to publish her new A Book Apart book, Demystifying Public Speaking, because, for nearly 20 years, I’ve impressed on my design/development colleagues and students the vital importance of public speaking to the success of their projects and careers—and now there’s finally a book that tells them how to do it.
I believe in public speaking (and writing) because a person who is comfortable sharing ideas and communicating to groups can evangelize designs, principles, and best practices. This in turn helps build consensus, support collaboration, and keep everyone’s eyes focused on what’s best for users—instead of, say, which colors a powerful committee member dislikes, or how much bigger we could make a button or logo.
Those who communicate comfortably, even when opinions vary and the subject is contentious, spread reassurance, which means the project not only focuses on the right things, but does so in a positive and supportive environment. Effective communicators inspire their groups to dig deeper and try more things—to work, and ponder, harder. This generally leads to more successful iterations (and, ultimately, projects), spreading good work in the community and leading as well to greater career success and longevity. Whew!
That’s why I speak. And why I strongly encourage my students and work mates to speak. Thanks to Postlight and to everyone who attended last night’s event.