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.
Sometimes a cigar is a penis
MANY NIGHTS I have these dreams where I lose my daughter while traveling. We’re about to board a flight, and suddenly she has vanished. In other parts of these same dreams, still traveling, I’m doing something amazing—like hiking the Alps—when I realize I’ve forgotten to check in on my app. Although the two distresses are in no way equivalent in life, in the dream sudden heart-stopping panic attends them both. It’s as if my unconscious is warning me I place too high a value on my illusory digital life.
There’s also baggage in these dreams. Literal baggage. As in, before boarding the flight with my daughter, I need to pack all our household possessions, so they can fly with us to a new home. In reality, we live in a two-bedroom apartment. In the dreams, the possessions fill a huge, rambling house. They are mostly dirty and broken: a cracked hobbyhorse, a single-octave air-powered toy organ with chord buttons. Halfway through wrapping these smashed globes, armless dolls, and hand-me-down suitcases that cannot be closed, I wonder why I must drag all this baggage with us.
In my 20s, I had a different recurring dream. In that one, I was at the beach with my father the moment before an immense tidal wave came crashing down, annihilating all life. I would see us from an overhead omniscient point of view—all of us beachgoers gazing up wordlessly at the power that was about to smash us out of the universe. Then, from my own point of view, I would gaze for an endless moment at the peaking wave, which seemed to hang suspended for a miniature eternity. Unable to bear my terror, I would turn to my father and bury my face in his chest. The last thing I experienced in the dream was my father’s hand cradling the back of my head.
I had that dream over and over. At the time, it seemed to me an omen of imminent tragedy. Now I think it was simply the disguised expression of a wish to know my father’s love and feel close to him.
My father is of that generation that doesn’t hug and doesn’t easily share its feelings. Today he is finally old enough, and sentimental enough, to say, “Ditto, kid,” when I tell him I love him at the end of our phone calls. We speak more now than we did all the years I was growing up. Night school, and two jobs, and other things kept him away far more than he was home.
Now in life I am a father, living alone with my daughter, two cats, and four hamsters, in an apartment that, on good days, looks like a dozen children must live there. On bad days, it looks like the Gestapo came through. Come to think of it, at age twelve I had recurring dreams about hiding from the Gestapo.
There’s the surface world, where we worry about work and bills and if our kid is getting enough nutrition. And why some people we like don’t like us. And why some people we were kind to hurt us. And whether we are kind enough. But mainly about work and bills and food.
And then there is the dream world, where our true fears stand naked, telling us who we are, and what we value.
THE FILTHIEST men’s room in New York is on the 8th floor of 291 Broadway. You would think the men’s room at Penn Station or the bus terminal would beat any other for filth and stench but you’d be wrong. 291 Broadway’s is worse. There are five years of crushed insects on the walls. They never get scraped or cleaned away. There is stranger’s urine in every porcelain receptacle in the place. Weeks of it. It never gets flushed. You can try flushing it, sure, but it never goes down. Men urinate fresh streams atop gallons of other men’s stale urine in perpetuity ad infinitum. It sickens the soul. Chills the blood. Is enough to make the pope doubt God’s existence.
This bathroom is not in a slum. It is not in a poor third world favela. This bathroom is in a fancy NYC skyscraper, a stone’s throw from the historic Woolworth Building. I visit this bathroom once a week from the waiting room of a fancy office where, this being New York, I drop $250 per session. This is a court appointed specialist so I can’t choose another—say, one in a building with a clean and functioning restroom. This specialist deals with serious human misery. The kind that comes when families are torn apart. She does a good job of helping people. I doubt she has visited the men’s room here. If she had been to it, even once, even just for a moment, I doubt she could find the will to carry on in her good works. There are many filthy places in New York. Places that breed addiction, crime, and despair. Places no sane person would willingly go. Cesspools of the human spirit. Places where hope dies and light is extinguished. They are all better than the men’s room on the eighth floor at 291 Broadway.
Pinterest giveth, and Pinterest taketh away
AS MY design career has taken on more and more strategic and managerial freight, I’ve done less and less hands-on design. This year, I decided to change that. As part of my reimmersion, I found myself reading less, and absorbing visual information more. Enter Pinterest.
I’d played with the app when it first came out—who didn’t?—but it didn’t stick with me the way a handful of apps do. It didn’t become an obsession, and so I gradually forgot about it. That’s just how apps work for me. They’re heroin, or they’re nothing.
But the moment my days began filling with sketching, and coding, and Photoshop comping, the genius of Pinterest, and the addictive high it provides when used obsessively and compulsively, was revealed to me.
In borderline religious ecstasy, I became a Pinterest junkie, compelled to collect and catalog every artist I’ve ever loved—every type designer, illustrator, filmmaker, social absurdity, comic book character, and book designer; every half-forgotten cartoonist; every city or nation I’ve visited.
Using Pinterest not only revived long-dead visual design brain cells, it created new ones. Work-related layouts and color schemes came easier as I spent more and more “downtime” collecting and cataloging half-forgotten styles, genres, and artists—and discovering new ones.
I ♥ Pinterest
As part of this work—for work it is; call it “research” if you prefer—I spent hours rearranging Boards on my profile for maximum aesthetic effect and rhythm. And more hours choosing and replacing the cover illustration for each Board. (If you don’t use Pinterest, here’s a summary: it lets you pin any image you find on the web, or on your own computer desktop or mobile device, to a virtual whiteboard. Pinterest calls each whiteboard you create a “Board,” and each image you affix to it a “Pin.” Part of the fun comes from sequencing Boards on your profile for aesthetic or educational reasons; choosing the featured image for each Board is likewise important and fun.)
Until a few days ago, you could edit and re-edit the featured image for each Board whether you were using Pinterest on the web (that is, via desktop computer), your phone, or your tablet. Doing these things worked differently on the different devices—choosing the featured image was actually faster and less tedious on iPhone and iPad than it was on the web—but the functionality was available in all three places, because Pinterest recognized that brands exist between devices, and that folks interact with your service on different devices at different times, as they choose.
Likewise, until a few days ago, you could change the order of Boards on your profile via drag and drop whether you were using Pinterest on the web or your tablet. (Likely because of screen space constraints, this functionality was not available on iPhone, where the display of Board content necessarily differs from the more desktop-design-focused method used on the web and on iPad.) Users like me changed the order of Boards to create visual interest, set up ironic contrasts, create visual rhythms up and down the screen, and so on. I’m a designer. I have my ways. These details are important to me—and, I imagine, to many other users, since Pinterest is a drug for visual obsessives.
An unexpected change
Then, a few days ago, Pinterest released an update that removed this functionality from the iPhone and iPad (and, I’m assuming, from Android as well). There was no blog post announcing the change. And no rationale offered for taking away features that mattered a lot to users like me. Pinterest knows these features matter, because Pinterest has our data. That’s the difference between making a digital product folks interact with via the internet, and making, say, a toilet plunger. If I manufacture toilet plungers, I can make assumptions about how folks use my product, but I probably don’t have much real data. If I make an application people use via http, I know everything.
Now, it’s not like people were complaining about the ability to edit their Boards: “We have too much freedom! This software provides too many delightful functions. Please remove two of them. But only from my mobile device.”
No. The features are still there on the website. So Pinterest knows people like these features.
And it’s not like the features are too difficult to put into mobile devices, since they already existed in those mobile devices.
A failure to communicate
You may ask why I’m telling you all this instead of telling it to Pinterest. Good question. The answer is, I tried telling Pinterest, but they don’t provide a forum for it. And that is the biggest problem. A company that makes products people love should have a way to communicate with those people. Not grudgingly offer them a few character-limited form fields on a “survey” page that isn’t even referenced in the site’s navigation.
When the features stopped working on my iPhone and iPad, I assumed something had gone wrong with my apps, so I deleted and reinstalled them. (Remember, there was no announcement; but then why would any company announce that it was taking away loved features for no apparent reason?)
When deleting and reinstalling didn’t help, I sought help and contact pages on Pinterest (and was only able to find them via third-party search engine).
In trying to file a bug report, I ended up in a pleasant (but confusing) conversation with a very nice Pinterest employee who explained that I wasn’t experiencing a bug: the software engineers had made a conscious decision to remove the functions I use every day … and had no intention of restoring them. She wasn’t able to tell me why, or point me to a URL that would offer a rationale, but she did tell me I could use Pinterest’s “Recommend a feature” form to “recommend” that the software engineers put those features back.
Since “Recommend a feature” is hidden from site navigation, the kindly person with whom I was in dialog provided a link where I could type in a few characters requesting that Pinterest restore the “drag Board order” functionality. There wasn’t room in the form fields to explain why I thought the feature should be restored, but at least I was able to make the request. The form asked if I was a Business account user, which I am. I don’t remember when or why I bought the Business tier of service. Maybe for the analytics. Maybe just because, as someone who makes stuff myself, I choose to pay for software so I can support the good people who make it, and do what I can to help their product stick around.
(It’s the same reason I remained a Flickr Pro user even after Yahoo gave the whole world 2GB of photo storage space for free. If everything is free, and nobody pays, services you love tend to go away. Half of web history is great services disappearing in the night after investors were dissatisfied with only reasonable profits.)
I don’t know why my paid status mattered to Pinterest, but I couldn’t help feeling there would be a prejudice in favor of my comment if I checked the box letting them know I was a paying customer. Even though it was information they requested, checking the box made me feel dirty. I also wondered why they were asking me. I mean, don’t they know? I gave them the email address they use for my login. I was logged in. They know my status. Are they just checking to see if I know it, too?
There can only be one (feature request)
But I digress. Because here is the main point. The moment I submitted the tiny, inadequate form requesting the restoration of a recently removed feature, the site set a cookie and sent me a message thanking me for completing the “survey.” It wasn’t a survey, but I guess one task completion message is as good as another.
Then I tried to use the inadequate form to report my second concern—the one about the removal of the ability to choose a featured image for my Board. The way this had always worked on the tablet was far superior to the tedious, painstaking way it works on my desktop. On the tablet, you could scroll through all your images with the flick of a finger, select the image you wanted, and complete the task in a few seconds. On the desktop, you had to click your way through every image on your Board in reverse chronological order. It’s the difference between flicking through a calendar, and clicking backwards from today, to yesterday, to the day before yesterday, and so on. The tablet version was fast, easy, intuitive—you interact directly with your content; you can see all relevant content at a glance. The desktop version is cumbersome and 1999-ish. If I had to pick which platform must lose the functionality I relied on, I would not have chosen the tablet. No customer who used the feature in both places would.
But I wasn’t able to share even a few characters of this thought with Pinterest, because once you submit a “survey” requesting a feature, a steel wall in the guise of a cookie slams down, and you cannot make a second feature suggestion.
Not even the next day. (Which is today. Which I just tried.)
This is a love letter
And that is why, as a hardcore fan and user of Pinterest, a service I love and use compulsively, I am using the public web rather than Pinterest’s somewhat unhelpful help center, to share my request with the brilliant software engineers who create this fabulous product.
And with designers, because these are the mistakes we all make when we create products and content sites. We think we are all about the people who use what we create. But we are probably frustrating the pants off them with our arbitrary design decisions and inadequate customer feedback mechanisms.
I NEVER take my daughter to pet stores, because she always wants to save all the animals. But our babysitter didn’t get the memo. Last week at a filthy pet store near school, Ava fell in love with a neglected hamster. Once the internet had assured me our cats wouldn’t kill the hamsters, I gave Ava permission to bring home the hamster, and gave the babysitter money to take care of the purchase.
Ava came home with two hamsters: a lady and a gentleman.
In less than a week, the lady gave birth to seven naked pink babies. It looked like mama hamster was going to eat her babies—distressing my daughter no end—but, days later, they are still alive, and their fur is beginning to grow in.
It’s a school day, but Ava has another virus—her second in two weeks—and is home from school for the second day in a row; I’m home watching her and attempting to do my work.
This morning while I was having coffee on the couch, Ava put the daddy hamster on my tummy. He slipped around behind me, and somehow disappeared.
We spent an hour on hands and knees amid Ava’s used Kleenexes, spilled hamster food, cedar chips, and other detritus, searching for the missing hamster. The cats could not find him either. (Giovannia, our vigilant tuxedo cat, actually looked for the missing hamster; gimlet-eyed Snow White licked her paws, oblivious.)
It soon became obvious that the hamster had somehow crawled into the family couch.
When little incisions under the cushions failed to reveal the missing rodent, I painstakingly destroyed the entire seating area in hopes of finding him. Insider tip: when destroying a couch from ABC Carpet & Warehouse, a scissor works better than a kitchen knife.
It was a beautiful couch before our sick dog Emile (RIP) had his way with it, and before Giovannia and Snow White converted it to a cat manicure device, and before Ava and I gave up and had all our meals on it, and before Ava decided that her favorite meal was soup.
Before I destroyed it, it looked like the Gestapo had held sex parties on it, but at least it was a couch.
Destroying the couch did not produce the hamster. We’ve left a trail of hamster food outside the ripped-apart couch. Probably he will come out at night, hamsters being nocturnal.
Anyone more experienced in this area, please share tips.
We Remember Mama
It’s the 15th anniversary of our mother’s death from Alzheimer’s.
Zen & The Art of iTunes Failure
REBUILDING iTunes library from scratch over two days got app working again. Fine use of lazy weekend.
Had to sacrifice all custom playlists dating back to 2002, including An Event Apart playlists and delivery room mix from Ava’s birth.
Playlists still exist on old iPod but can’t be copied from it back to iTunes. (All software I’ve tried freezes & fails.)
Playlists still exist as code snippets inside .itl file in old iTunes folder, but numerous trials prove iTunes can’t launch from that folder any more. Thus I can’t temporarily launch from old folder, export playlists, switch back to safe new folder, and import them, thereby saving them.
And iTunes can’t import old .itl files. I Googled. I tried anyway.
13 years of custom playlists. From before, during, and after my marriage. Including one my daughter called “princess music” and danced to when she was three. Gone.
But, really, so what? Over time we lose everything. This loss is nothing. Attachment is futile. Always move forward, until you stop moving.
SOMETIME in the night, maybe around 4:00 AM, my new iPhone, which is my only alarm clock, and which was plugged into the wall and fully charged, powered itself down and went black. Maybe it just happened. Maybe Snow White, my restless night ghost cat, accidentally triggered the shutdown by stepping daintily on the phone.
Sometime in the night, maybe around 4:00 AM, I woke up. I’m no longer in the habit of waking in the middle of the night, and I don’t know what made me do it this morning. Maybe it was Snow White, silently walking on my chest, and fleeing just before her action produced the desired result of waking me, so that I thought I woke on my own. Maybe it was a preternatural connection between my central nervous system and the iPhone—like something out of Cronenberg—responding to the phone’s silent shutdown. (Wake up! I’ve died! the iPhone cried.)
Or maybe it was the anxieties of the day before catching up with me. A hugely important business meeting yesterday, yada yada. Something odd and unsettling my daughter’s teacher had said in school the day before (if my daughter’s report of what happened was accurate). An argument my daughter had yesterday with her best friend, and her conviction (voiced to me only) that they were drifting apart forever. Or maybe I just drank too much water before going to sleep. Whatever the cause, I lay there awake. And lay there. Giovanni, the tuxedo cat, on my arm. Snow White, who sleeps in my daughter’s room, suddenly in my room, standing on my chest.
After about an hour of anxious thoughts and idle fur stroking, I reached for the phone to see what time it was. And that’s how I discovered that the device was strangely cold, except around the lightning port, which felt unnaturally hot. The screen was black. My button pushing, which began desultorily and grew ever more urgent, had no effect. The device would not come on. It was cold. Off. Maybe dead!
And suddenly I was out of bed, because that’s what happens when your mobile device stops working. You spring into action like a firefighter at a burning building. Flicking on living room lights, brewing a Nespresso (sorry), plugging things in, pushing buttons with the methodical calm of an ER surgeon.
Never fear, O my friends of the internet, the device came back to life. Yes.
What’s strange is that, if I hadn’t woken up early, I would have slept right through, because the alarm would not have gone off, and without it (for instance on Saturdays) I sleep in hard.
And if I had slept right through, I would have missed my daughter’s “publishing party” at school today (that’s what the school calls it when the kids read stories aloud that they have written), and she would have been late to school one too many times this year. I would also have missed my appointment at the Apple store in Grand Central—the first Apple store appointment I’ve made in years, to fix an iPad Mini which mysteriously stopped taking a charge two weeks ago and is now, essentially, a large, awkward guitar pick.
Is my phone jealous of my iPad? Did it shut down so I’d sleep through my appointment at the Apple store?
Did I wake from family worries? Business concerns?
Was it because I knew my phone needed me?
Or was it just the cats?
Happy birthday, Maurice
MY DAD is 88 today.
Publishing v. Performance—or, The Soul of the Web
MY SOUL is in twain. Two principles on which clued-in web folk heartily agree are coming more and more often into conflict—a conflict most recently thrust into relief by discussions around the brilliant Vox Media team, publishers of The Verge.
The two principles are:
Building performant websites is not only a key differentiator that separates successful sites from those which don’t get read; it’s also an ethical obligation, whose fulfillment falls mainly on developers, but can only happen with the buy-in of the whole team, from marketing to editorial, from advertising to design.
Publishing and journalism are pillars of civilized society, and the opportunity to distribute news and information via the internet (and to let anyone who is willing to do the work become a publisher) has long been a foundational benefit of the web. As the sad, painful, slow-motion decline of traditional publishing and journalism is being offset by the rise of new, primarily web-based publications and news organizations, the need to sustain these new publications and organizations—to “pay for the content,” in popular parlance—is chiefly being borne by advertising…which, however, pays less and less and demands more and more as customers increasingly find ways to route around it.
“The Verge’s Web Sucks,” by Les Orchard, quickly countered Nilay’s piece, as Jeremy chronicles (“Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking”). Jeremy then points to a half-humorous letter of surrender posted by Vox Media’s developers, who announce their new Vox Media Performance Team in a piece facetiously declaring performance bankruptcy.
A survey of follow-up barbs and exchanges on Twitter concludes Jeremy’s piece (which you must read; do not settle for this sloppy summary). After describing everything that has so far been said, Mr Keith weighs in with his own opinion, and it’s what you might expect from a highly thoughtful, open-source-contributing, standards-flag-flying, creative developer:
I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. …
Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. …
For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.
Me, I’m torn. As a 20-year-exponent of lean web development (yes, I know how pretentious that sounds), I absolutely believe that the web is for everybody, regardless of ability or device. The web’s strength lies precisely in its unique position as the world’s first universal platform. Tim Berners-Lee didn’t invent hypertext, and his (and his creation’s) genius doesn’t lie in the deployment of tags; it subsists in the principle that, developed rightly, content on the web is as accessible to the Nigerian farmer with a feature phone as it is to a wealthy American sporting this year’s device. I absolutely believe this. I’ve fought for it for too many years, alongside too many of you, to think otherwise.
And yet, as a 20-year publisher of independent content (and an advertising professional before that), I am equally certain that content requires funding as much as it demands research, motivation, talent, and nurturing. Somebody has to pay our editors, writers, journalists, designers, developers, and all the other specialtists whose passion and tears go into every chunk of worthwhile web content. Many of you reading this will feel I’m copping out here, so let me explain:
It may indeed be a false dichotomy that “either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising” but it is also a truth that advertisers demand more and more for their dollar. They want to know what page you read, how long you looked at it, where on the web you went next, and a thousand other invasive things that make thoughtful people everywhere uncomfortable—but are the price we currently pay to access the earth’s largest library.
I don’t like this, and I don’t do it in the magazine I publish, but A List Apart, as a direct consequence, will always lack certain resources to expand its offerings as quickly and richly as we’d like, or to pay staff and contributors at anything approaching the level that Vox Media, by accepting a different tradeoff, has achieved. (Let me also acknowledge ALA’s wonderful sponsors and our longtime partnership with The Deck ad network, lest I seem to speak from an ivory tower. Folks who’ve never had to pay for content cannot lay claim to moral authority on this issue; untested virtue is not, and so on.)
To be clear, Vox Media could not exist if its owners had made the decisions A List Apart made in terms of advertising—and Vox Media’s decisions about advertising are far better, in terms of consumer advocacy and privacy, than those made by most web publishing groups. Also to be clear, I don’t regret A List Apart’s decisions about advertising—they are right for us and our community.
I know and have worked alongside some of the designers, developers, and editors at Vox Media; you’d be proud to work with any of them. I know they are painfully aware of the toll advertising takes on their site’s performance; I know they are also doing some of the best editorial and publishing work currently being performed on the web—which is what happens when great teams from different disciplines get together to push boundaries and create something of value. This super team couldn’t do their super work without salaries, desks, and computers; acquiring those things meant coming to some compromise with the state of web advertising today. (And of course it was the owners, and not the employees, who made the precise compromise to which Vox Media currently adheres.)
Put a gun to my head, and I will take the same position as Jeremy Keith. I’ll even do it without a gun to my head, as my decisions as a publisher probably already make clear. And yet, two equally compelling urgencies in my core being—love of web content, and love of the web’s potential—make me hope that web and editorial teams can work with advertisers going forward, so that one day soon we can have amazing content, brilliantly presented, without the invasive bloat. In the words of another great web developer I know, “Hope is a dangerous currency—but it’s all I’ve got.”