MOST mornings my daughter Ava and I easily navigate the path across and down Manhattan to her middle school. This morning was not most mornings.
There was the bus driver who chose to block 35th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. Followed by the congestion of every car on 1st Avenue trying to take 37th Street instead. And the dead eyes of the bored, white city worker who pulled over every vehicle that did so—because someone at City Hall decided this morning that it’s now illegal to turn onto 37th Street from 1st Ave. Or use the right lane. Or something. The nature of the crime wasn’t clear.
The street was filled with cars that had been pulled over, and drivers who had exited their vehicles and were standing around in the cold, awaiting punishment of some kind. Most were people of color. After five minutes, we apologetically paid our cab driver, even though he hadn’t really taken us anywhere, and sprinted across to 2nd Avenue, hoping to beat the late bell of Ava’s school, two miles downtown from and west of us. We had eight minutes to get there.
“This is a little adventure,” I said to Ava, as we stepped into a fresh cab.
“Not to the driver,” Ava said sadly, looking back.
Inspired by Dori Smith’s recent Facebook post about old-school blogging and the possibility of a “20th Anniversary of Blogging” unconference/relaxacon, I thought it might be fun to poke through the old blog a bit with you, gentle reader. My blog began in 1995, but, for now, you can only page through the entries as far back as August, 1997, as I seem to have neglected to build “previous” page links before that, and may also have overwritten my earliest entries (not realizing, at the time, that you and I might ever want to look back at any of this).
Below, I begin the retrospective in 2004 and work backwards to 1997. (After 2004, I stopped hand-coding each entry and began using WordPress, resulting in this sort of thing. Also after 2004, I stopped redesigning the site every few months, partly, but not exclusively, because I got busier designing other people’s sites. I also stopped redesigning the site every few months because I had become more strategic about design—more interested in design as problem solving, less as making pretty pages. Say, remember when we designed “pages”? But I digress.)
Here, for your pleasure, are some pages from the past:
Silence and Noise — “Now that some of us have helped bring standards into the mainstream, wouldn’t it be best to keep them there?” — 12 August 2004 (the iconic green design) http://www.zeldman.com/daily/0804b.shtml
Typical blog entries — on web performance and “the new Samaritans” (designers who recode other people’s sites to be standards-compliant) — 28 July 2004 (the iconic green design) http://www.zeldman.com/daily/0704e.shtml
My Glamorous Life: The True Story of My Thanksgiving
TRAVELED 1400 miles to end up in the same place.
Flew my daughter Ava from NYC Laguardia to Chicago Midway in the morning so she could spend Thanksgiving with her mom. To expedite boarding, Southwest Airlines does not assign seats, and there is only one class—Coach. The sooner you board, the better your chance of securing a decent seat; the more you pay for your ticket, the better your boarding position.
Additionally, line position depends on how quickly you check in online the day before your flight. Check in the first moment you can, and you’ll be first in line. Check in a minute later, and someone else may be in front of you. Hours later, you’re at the end of the line.
I love a pointless challenge. You can bet I’d set alarms to go off 24 hours before our flight so I could be the first to check in. And you know Ava and I were at the front of the line, so we could sit in the front row. I love an aisle seat, but I sat in the middle so Ava could sit by the window. It’s the little things that give you the chance to show someone how much you love them.
Southwest got us to Chicago 40 minutes early. Ava’s mom kindly met us at the gate, and off they went. I turned around to go home. My flight back to Laguardia was not scheduled to leave for another four and a half hours, but Southwest let me switch to an earlier flight with no penalty. There was just enough time to suck down some rice and beans at a fast food burrito stand in the airport’s food court—my first meal of the day—and dash to the gate in time for boarding. I flew back to New York on the same jet I’d flown in on, with the same crew, and sat in the same row: aisle seat this time.
Back home by 3:00, I fed the cats, watched “Jaws” on my iPad (somehow I’d never seen it), and fell asleep during the climactic fight to the death that ends the picture. Hours later, I woke up, confused, and made myself the traditional feast: leftover tofu on quinoa.
JOIN An Event Apart’s Eric Meyer on a journey through the inner workings of CSS Grid as he tests various techniques to build a tic-tac-toe board filled with content. Hearkening back to the early days of CSS and A List Apart, these playful hacks rekindle a spirit of experimentation.
A liquid page will resize to fit whatever size browser window (within reason) that the user has available. … the real goal in building a website is to provide the user with a seamless interface to information. The site should not intrude on the user’s thought processes, but should gently guide them to their desired destination. If a site doesn’t look right because it doesn’t fit the user’s browser window, then the design has become intrusive to the user. — Glenn Davis, quoted in 15 Minutes, sometime in 1997.
TWO DECADES before Responsive Web Design, we dipped our toes in Liquid Layout — a similar but necessarily less refined concept. Glenn Davis of Project Cool fame coined the phrase in 1995 or 1996. (Glenn also came up with“Ice” to describe fixed-width layouts, and “Jello” for layouts that combined some fixed with some flexible elements.)
Liquid Layout was mainly what John Allsopp had in mind when he wrote A Dao of Web Design for A List Apart (quite possibly the most influential article we ever published). The most famous paragraph in that famous article explains…
The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility. But first, we must “accept the ebb and flow of things.”
Everything new is old
Modern designers look back at Allsopp’s article and think John must have been a time traveler who had seen the future of responsive design and mobile devices. In fact, though, John was simply a highly skilled (and extremely articulate) mainstream developer. As such, he was familiar with Liquid Design and frequently used it in his work, along with other ideas mentioned in “Dao,” such as not forcing users to see a particular type size or typeface. To a good developer in those days, what mattered was making something that worked for everyone. (That should still be what good developers care most about, right?)
Liquid design was part of a “works for everyone” approach to web design, but it had limitations. For one thing, breakpoints hadn’t been invented. CSS layout was in its infancy, used by almost no one, except in experimental work. The ability to separate content and behavior from presentation was nonexistent, unless you limited “presentation” to setting type in a single column, letting the user override the type setting, and letting the column reshape itself to fit any viewport.
With so few controls available, Liquid design tended to become unusable in certain settings, and was almost always ugly.
Liquid design was Responsive design’s rough draft
Liquid design was immediately popular with developers when they were given permission to just make stuff — i.e. when they weren’t constrained by overly rigid Photoshop layouts. Designers almost never used Liquid design because the layouts moved so quickly into ugliness and unusability — too wide to read, or too narrow, or with overlapping columns in early CSS layouts. Designers also disdained Liquid layouts because most of us see our job as imposing brilliant order on ugly chaos, and fixed proportions always seemed to be part of that order.
Fig 1. The Web Standards Project: a liquid layout as seen on a wide computer screen. Designed by Andy Clarke in the early 2000s.
Fig 2. The Web Standards Project: a liquid layout as seen on a narrow computer screen. On the narrow screen, type overlaps and the page becomes unusable.
Ugly on one side. Unusable on the other. It took a special breed of designer to forge ahead with Liquid Layout anyway.
Were it were not for the iPhone and the phones and tablets that rose quickly in its wake, the W3C would likely not have invented breakpoints. And without breakpoints, there could be no Responsive Web Design. And without Responsive Web Design, created by a visually gifted designer and with tools to satisfy his peers, the idea that drove Liquid design back in the 1990s would not, at long last, have caught on.
It’s easy to view our current design thinking as more evolved than what we practiced in the past. And in some ways, it is. But if you read between the lines, it’s fair to say that our thinking was always advanced. It’s only now that our tools are beginning to catch up.
Start by asking questions. Sketch, share your sketches, ask more questions. Don’t be precious with your work. Don’t hurry to finish.
Why don’t nonprofit sites convert?
Living in New York and working in media, I talk to nonprofit organizations a lot. Big or small, they all say the same. No matter how much work they put into their apps and websites, they just don’t get enough new members. No matter how many expensive redesigns they undertake, they still don’t convert. Why is this?
Generally, it’s the same reason any site with a great product doesn’t convert: the organization spends too much time and effort on the pages and sections that matter to the organization, and too little on the interactions that matter to the member. (“Member” is NGOese for customer.)
Of course there are sites that don’t convert because they have a crappy product. Or an inappropriately priced product. Or because their content attracts people who are never going to be their customers, and gets missed by people who might want what they’re selling. Or because their content attracts nobody. Failure has a thousand fathers, and most businesses fail, so the fact that a website doesn’t convert could mean almost anything. (To know what it actually means, you need data, and you need to watch users interact with it.)
But with nonprofit sites, the product is almost always great, and the person visiting is almost always interested. So what goes wrong?
Never mind the user, here’s the About page
What goes wrong is that nonprofit stakeholders are so passionate about their mission—a passion that only deepens, the longer they work there—that they design an experience which reflects their passion for the mission, instead of one which maps to a member’s mental model.
NGOs lavish attention on their About page and mission statement and forget to work on their members’ immediate, transactional needs. And this is true even for those members who are as passionate about the cause, in their own way, as the stakeholders are in theirs. In the wake of a hurricane, a passionate member thinks of your site in hopes of donating food or giving blood. But nothing on the site calls out to that member and addresses her needs. All she sees are menus, headlines, and buttons trying to lead her to what matters to the organization — namely, the things it says about itself.
How to satisfy the user and convert at the same time
First, decide what one single action you, as the organization, want the user to perform. Should they sign up for your mailing list? Make a donation? Keep it singular, and make it simple. One form field to fill out is better than two; two is better than four.
Next, put yourself in the member’s shoes. What does that member wish to achieve on your website? Have you created transactions and content that allow her to do what she came to do? Have you designed and written menus, links, and headlines that help her find the content that matters to her? Forget the organization, for now. Pretend the only thing that matters is what the user wants. (Because, ultimately, it is.)
Do these things, and weave your singular, simple conversion opportunity into each screen sequence with which your user interacts. To optimize your chance of success, place the conversion opportunity at the very point where the user successfully finishes transacting the business that mattered to her. Not before (where it is only a distraction). Not in another part of the site (which she has no interest in visiting). She’s a lot likelier to sign up for your mailing list after you’ve helped her donate food to her neighbors than she is to sign up in an unsolicited popup window.
Thank you, Captain Obvious
All the above suggestions are obvious common sense, and have been known since transactional web design was in its infancy in the 1990s. And yet, because of organizational dynamics, internal politics, and our getting so close to our own material that our eyes go out of focus, we forget these simple ideas more often than we use them—and fail when success is so easy, and so close to hand.
Medium to pay writers; program similar to Readability
INTERESTING. Medium will now pay writers. The revenue to pay writers will derive, not from advertising—Medium scorns it—but from member contributions.
How Medium will pay writers
Medium now publishes two kinds of content: public content, viewable by anyone; and private, members-only content. Medium members pay a small monthly fee; in return they get access to members-only content.
As in the past, writers who write public content will not be paid, but they will have access to a potentially large audience. Only writers who write members-only content will have the potential to earn.
Payments will be based on “claps,” a UI experiment Medium introduced seemingly only a few days ago; readers are supposed to indicate how much they like a story by how hard (or how long) they press on the clap widget. None of this is explained to readers in context, but it’s pretty easy to figure out. At least, it is easy to figure out that clapping indicates approval, and that the longer you lean on the clapper, the higher the numeric approval level you can share.
The “clap” widget also appears on public stories, where it has no effect on how much the author will get paid—since writers of public stories will not get paid. On public stories, it’s just there for fun, and/or the make the author feel good. You can’t clap for your own story, which helps prevent the most obvious types of system gaming.
Initially, the payment program will be open only to a select group of writers, but if it succeeds, more and more writers will be included.
Why it matters
As the publisher of A List Apart, which has relied on advertising revenue in the past but is about to stop doing that; as a writer, reader, and passionate devotee of web-delivered content; and as a blogger at zeldman.com since 1995, I will be watching this experiment and hoping for its success. I became a Medium member as soon as the publication offered it, even though I have no interest in reading “exclusive,” members-only content. I did it to support Medium, which I see as one web pioneer’s attempt to keep the web a vital content ecosystem.
It’s the same reason I cheered for the Readability app invented by my friend Rich Ziade and his team, back in the day. I even served on Readability’s advisory board, for which I was paid—and asked—nothing. I did it because I believed in Readability’s mission to find a way to pay for content. That particular experiment died, but in many ways its spirit lives on in Medium, whose readable visual layout Readability helped to inspire.
I will not apply to be a paid Medium writer since I have my own magazine’s content and finances to figure out, and since I choose to publish my content publicly. But I applaud what Ev and his teammates are doing, and I will be watching.
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.