No Good Can Come of Bad Code: Ask Dr Web in A List Apart
Remember: the future will come whether you design for it or not. If your company charges $300,000 for a website that won’t work on next week’s most popular device, your company won’t be able to stay competitive in this business. It might not even be able to stay in the business, period. After all, clients who pay for sites that break too soon will look elsewhere next time—leaving your company perpetually hunting for new clients in a downward spiral of narrowing margins and diminishing expectations.
Your company’s survival is tied to the ability of the products it makes to work in situations you haven’t imagined, and on devices that don’t yet exist. This has alwaysbeen the challenge of web design. It’s one A List Apart has taken seriously since we began publishing, and our archives are filled with advice and ideas you can boil down and present to your bosses.
MY WEBSITE is 20 years old today. I’m dictating these remarks into a tiny handheld device, not to prove a point, but because, with gorgeously ironic timing, my wired internet connection has gone out. It’s the kind of wired connection, offering the kind of speed, ‘most everyone reading this takes for granted today—a far cry from the 14.4 modem with which I built and tested the first version of this site, shipping it (if you could call it that) on May 31, 1995.
I’m no longer dictating. I’m pecking with my index finger. On the traditional computer keyboard, I’m a super-fast touch typist. I mastered touch typing in high school. I was the only boy in that class. All the other boys took car repair. They laughed at me for being in a class full of girls, which was weird and stupid of them on at least five levels. Maybe they wanted to work in an auto body shop. I wanted to be a writer and an artist. Learning to type as quickly as I could think was a needed skill and part of my long self-directed apprenticeship.
My first typewriter cost me $75. I can’t tell you how many hours it took me to earn that money, or how proud I was of that object. I wrote my first books on it. They will never be published but that’s all right. Another part of the apprenticeship.
After touch typing at the speed of thought for decades, I found it tough learning to write all over again, one finger letter at a time, in my first iPhone, but I’m fluent today. My right index finger is sending you these words now, and probably developing early onset arthritis as a result, but I am also fairly fluent with with my left thumb when situations compel me to work one-handed. The reduced speed of this data entry ritual no longer impedes my flow.
And since WordPress is an app on my phone, and my AT&T 4E connection never fails me, even when the cable modem internet connection is out, today I can update my site leagues faster than when I was chained to a desk and wires and HTML and Fetch and static files—20 years ago, before some of you were born.
I wanted to launch a redesign on this 20th anniversary—in the old days I redesigned this site four or five times a year, whenever I had a new idea or learned a new skill—but with a ten year old daughter and four businesses to at least pretend to run (businesses that only exist because I started this website 20 years ago today and because my partners started theirs), a redesign by 31 May 2015 wasn’t possible.
So I’ll settle for the perfectly timed, gratitude-inducing, reflection-prompting failure of my cable modem on this of all days. That’s my redesign for the day: a workflow redesign.
Boy, is my finger tired. Too tired to type the names of all the amazing and wonderful people I’ve worked with over the past 20 years. (Just because a personal site is personal doesn’t mean it could have happened without the help and support and love of all you good people.)
When I started this site I wrote in the royal “we” and cultivated an ironic distance from my material and my gentle readers, but today this is just me with all my warts and shame and tenderness—and you. Not gentle readers. People. Friends.
I launched this site twenty years ago (a year before the Wayback Machine, at least two years before Google) and it was one of the only places you could read and learn about web design. I launched at a tilde address (kids, ask your parents), and did not think to register zeldman.com until 1996, because nobody had ever done anything that crazy.
On the day I launched my pseudonymous domain I already had thousands of readers, had somehow coaxed over a million visitors to stop by, and had the Hit Counter to prove it. (If you remember the 1970s, you weren’t there, but if you remember the early web, you were.) Today, because I want people to see these words, I’ll repost them on Medium. Because folks don’t bookmark and return to personal sites as they once did. And they don’t follow their favorite personal sites via RSS, as they once did. Today it’s about big networks.
It’s a Sunday. My ten year old is playing on her iPad and the two cats are facing in opposite directions, listening intently to fluctuations in the air conditioning hum.
I’ve had two love relationships since launching this site. Lost both, but that’s okay. I started this site as a goateed chain smoker in early sobriety (7 June 1993) and continue it as a bearded, yoga practicing, single dad. Ouch. Even I hate how that sounds. (But I love how it feels.)
I started this site with animated gifs and splash pages while living in a cheap rent stabilized apartment. PageSpinner was my jam. I was in love with HTML and certain that the whole world was about to learn it, ushering in a new era of DIY media, free expression, peace and democracy and human rights worldwide. That part didn’t work out so well, although the kids prefer YouTube to TV, so that’s something.
My internet failure—I mean the one where an internet connection is supposed to be delivered to my apartment via cable—gets me off the hook for having to create a visual tour of “important” moments from this website over the past 20 years. No desktop, no visual thinking. That’s okay too. Maybe I’ll be able to do it for for this site’s 25th anniversary. That’s the important one, anyway.
Hand pecked into a small screen for your pleasure. New York, NY, 31 May 2015. The present day content producer etc.
20 Years Ago Today: Bill Gates Wakes Up And Smells The Internet.
TODAY marks the 20th anniversary of Bill Gates’s famous letter about the web, and my first website, batmanforever.com, created with Steve McCarron and Alec Pollak for Donald Buckley of Warner Bros and optimized for Netscape 1.1.
Gates’s memo to employees, published this day twenty years ago and entitled “The Internet Tidal Wave” accurately identified the web as a threat to its kingdom of binary desktop software, and set Microsoft on course to “own” the browser, thereby holding back the threat for about fifteen years. A transcript of Gates’s memo is available at petri.com, along with a mixed bag of then-and-now analysis. (Hat tip to Alan K’necht for the link.)
Today, of course, Microsoft embraces open web standards, while companies that didn’t exist at the time of the memo (like Google) or were insignificant competitors seemingly on their way to the grave (like Apple) enjoy the godlike position Microsoft once held—and used every trick in the book to hold onto.
The Batman Forever site was much shorter-lived and far less influential than the Gates memo, although we did manage to introduce web design ideas like animated entrance tunnels and metaphor-based navigation—things we later abjured. My partner Steve got out of web design and is a VP Creative Director director at Publicis. My partner Alec stuck with web and software design, but from the agency side. I stayed in web design, and I even still call it that…although I also sometimes just call it design. Our first web client Donald Buckley is a huge deal at Showtime.
“Jeffrey Zeldman Presents” turns 20 on May 31.
Progressive Enhancement FTW with Aaron Gustafson
IN EPISODE № 130 of The Big Web Show (“Everything Web That Matters”), I interview long-time web standards evangelist Aaron Gustafson, author of Adaptive Web Design, on web design then and now; why Flipboard’s 60fps web launch is anti-web and anti-user; design versus art; and the 2nd Edition of Aaron’s book, coming from New Riders this year.
ON THIS year’s Blue Beanie Day, as we celebrate web standards, we also celebrate our community’s remarkable diversity—and pledge to keep things moving in a positive, humanist direction.
Racism, sexism, misogyny and other forms of foolish, wrongful pre-judging have no place in our beautiful community. As hard as we work to make sure our websites work for everyone, let’s work twice as hard to be certain we are just as open-hearted and welcoming to our peers as our designs are to our users.
Ethan told the world that Responsive Web Design required, and was defined by, fluid layouts, flexible images, and media queries. All three elements had to be present. If they weren’t using all three, you might be doing something interesting, but you were most definitely not doing Responsive Web Design.
Ethan invented all of this. Without him, we would likely be arguing whether it was time to consider 1280 pixels the new default fixed width for all desktop websites, and sending anything that wasn’t a desktop browser to a function- and content-limited “mobile site” whose URL began with the letter m. Ethan is a brilliant, multi-talented innovator; I am but the shadow of a hack. And yet, before he began creating his book, midway through the writing, and even a year after I published it, I continued to urge Ethan to rethink #RWD as “a bigger idea”—a concept rather than a single set of techniques.
I’m no genius. What I meant by “bigger idea” was limited to the notion that we’d one day be able to create responsive layouts with different techniques—so let’s not restrict the concept to a particular execution. I wasn’t thinking about other meanings of responsive, wasn’t considering problems of responsive content, and so on. I’m not that forward-thinking and it was three freaking years ago, come on.
I lost my gentle argument with Ethan, so the industry is having it now. And that’s just as it should be. Everything worked out for the best. Here’s why:
If Ethan hadn’t included three simple executional requirements as part of his definition, the concept might have quickly fallen by the wayside, as previous insights into the fluid nature of the web have done. The simplicity, elegance, and completeness of the package—here’s why, and here’s how—sold the idea to thousands of designers and developers, whose work and advocacy in turn sold it to hundreds of thousands more. This wouldn’t have happened if Ethan had promoted a more amorphous notion. Our world wouldn’t have changed overnight if developers had had too much to think about. Cutting to the heart of things and keeping it simple was as powerful a creative act on Ethan’s part as the “discovery” of #RWD itself.
Some commenters want to use initial-capped Responsive Web Design to mean responsive design as Ethan first defined it, and lowercase responsive design to mean an amorphous matrix of exciting and evolving design thinking. Lyza says soon we’ll stop saying Responsive altogether, a conclusion Andy Clarke reached three years ago.
Me, I like that Ethan stuck to his guns, and that the classical definition will always be out there, regardless of how web design evolves thanks to it. Kind of like there’s HTML 5, a defined and scoped W3C specification, and HTML living standard, an evolving activity. Our industry needs roots and wings, and, lucky us, we’ve got ’em both.
Big Web Show № 109: Bring Me The Head of Tim Berners-Lee
IN BIG WEB SHOW № 109, Robin Berjon and I enjoy a calm, rational conversation about EME, DRM, the MPAA, and the W3C. Enjoy.
The episode was sponsored by Squarespace. Links mentioned:
IN A RECENT article on his website, Web Standards Killed the HTML Star, designer Jeff Croft laments the passing of the “HTML and CSS ‘guru’” as a viable long-term professional position and urges his fellow web design generalists to “diversify or die.”
The reason the Web Standards Movement mattered was that the browsers sucked. The stated goal of the Movement was to get browser makers on board with web standards such that all of our jobs as developers would be easier.
What we may not have realized is that once the browsers don’t suck, being an HTML and CSS “guru” isn’t really a very marketable skillset. 80% of what made us useful was the way we knew all the quirks and intracries of the browsers. Guess what? Those are all gone. And if they’re not, they will be in the very near future. Then what?
Evangelizing true compliance, not mastering workarounds for compliance failures, was always the point. Evangelizing was key. Browsers weren’t going to stay standards compliant if nobody made use of that compliance; likewise, W3C specifications weren’t going to advance unless designers seized hold of technologies like CSS to push type and layout on the web as far as they could go—and then complain that they didn’t go far enough.
It took a village of passionate browser engineers, designers, front-end developers, and generalists to bring us to the web we have today. Does the movement’s success mean that many of those who led it will become jobless, like Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution?
Jeff Croft is correct when he says “the goal of the Web Standards Movement was for it to not have to exist.” But we should take this a step further. The goal of the web standards movement was to remove needless complexity and absurdity from the process of creating websites so we could focus our attention where it should be: on design, content, and experience. Evangelizing standards to browser makers and our fellow designers was not a career path, and was never intended to be—any more than aiding a wounded buddy turns a soldier into a physician.
HTML “gurudom” was never a career path for anyone, aside, maybe, from a couple of talented authors. Same thing with CSS trickery. Doing black magic with CSS3 can get you a slot on a web design conference stage, but it’s not a career path or proper goal for most web designers.
Fascinatingly, to me, anyway, while many of us prefer to concentrate on design, content, and experience, it continues to be necessary to remind our work comrades (or inform younguns) about web standards, accessibility, and progressive enhancement. When a site like Facebook stops functioning when a script forgets to load, that is a failure of education and understanding on the part of those who created the site; all of us have a stake in reaching out to our fellow developers to make sure that, in addition to the new fancy tricks they’ve mastered, they also learn the basics of web standards, without which our whole shared system implodes.
This doesn’t mean “go be an HTML guru.” It does mean cherish the lessons of the recent past, and share them with those who missed them (or missed the point). Wisdom is not a job, but it is always an asset.
Never fear, web design generalists: many companies and organizations require your services and always will—from universities still seeking “webmasters,” to startups seeking seasoned folks with multiple areas of understanding to direct and coordinate the activities of younger specialists. But if jack-of-all web work is feeling stale, now may be the time to up your game as a graphic designer, or experience designer, or front end developer. “Diversify or die” may be overstating things a bit. But “follow the path you love” will always be good advice.
Blue Beanie Day is Coming!
ALL IT TAKES is a toque and a dream.
Join your fellow web designers and developers around the world on Saturday, 30 November 2013, as we march in virtual solidarity in support of web standards.
The countdown to this worldwide celebration begins today, with the opening of the Blue Beanie Day 2013 photo pool on good old Flickr.com. Read more at the new official home of Blue Beanie Day online, bluebeanieday.tumblr.com.
The Lords of Vendorbation
noun : Unusable web-based intranet software foisted on large populations of users who have no say in the matter. For example, the “dynamic” website for your kid’s school, on which you can never find anything remotely useful—like her classroom or the names and email addresses of her teachers. Merely setting up an account can be a Borgesian ordeal minus the aesthetics.
Tried updating a driver’s license, registering a name change after a marriage, or accomplishing pretty much any task on a local, state, or federal website? Congratulations! You’ve been vendorbated. In ad sales? In publishing? Travel agent? Work in retail? Y’all get vendorbated a hundred times a day. Corporate America runs, not very well, on a diet of dysfunctional intranets sold by the lords of vendorbation.
Terrible food kills a restaurant. Terrible music ends a band’s career. But unspeakably terrible software begets imperial monopolies.
Wholesale contractual vendor lock-in between vendors of artless (but artfully initially priced) web software and the technologically unknowing who are their prey (for instance, your local school board) creates a mafia of mediocrity. Good designers and developers cannot penetrate this de-meritocracy. While they sweat to squeeze through needle’s eye after needle’s eye of baffling paperwork and absurd requirements, the vendorbators, who excel at precisely that paperwork and those requirements, breeze on in and lock ‘er down.
Vendorbation takes no heed of a user’s mental model; indeed, the very concept of a user’s mental model (or user’s needs) never enters the minds of those who create vendorbatory software. I say “create” rather than “design,” because design has less than nothing to do with how this genre of software gets slapped together (“developed”) and bloated over time (“updated”).
Vendorbatory product “design” decisions stem purely from contingencies and conveniences in the code framework, which itself is almost always an undocumented archipelago of spaghetti, spit, and duct tape started by one team and continued by others, with no guiding principle other than to “get it done” by an arbitrary deadline, such as the start of a new school year or the business cycle’s next quarter.
Masturbation, or so I have read, can be fun. Not so, vendorbation. It is a nightmare for everyone—from the beleaguered underpaid lumpen developers who toil in high-pressure silos; to the hapless bureaucrats who deserve partners but get predators instead; from the end users (parents, in our example) who can never do what they came to do or find what they want, and who most often feel stupid and blame themselves; to the constituents those users wish to serve—in our example, the children. Will no one think of the children?
Cha-ching! Like a zombie-driven un-merry-go-round spinning faster and faster as the innocents strapped to its hideous horses shriek silently, the vendorbation cycle rolls on and on, season after bloody season, dollar after undeserved dollar, error after error after error after error in saecula saeculorum.
Think it’s bad now? Wait till the lords of vendorbation start making their monstrosities “mobile.”
Doff of the neologist’s toque to Eric A. Meyer, whose cornpensation helped crystalize what to do with the bad feelings.