WHEN my daughter Ava was much younger—about seven—I took her to Toys R Us in Times Square one Saturday that was also Saint Patrick’s Day. You couldn’t ask for a more chaotic location and crowd. After stocking up on a sufficient number of Barbie accessories (Ava was in a girly phase at the time), we headed out of the store and toward home.
It was a hot March that year. Unseasonably sweltering. The streets were unwalkable—thickly thronged with drunks and tourists—and there were no cabs to be seen. So we ended up hiring a bike rickshaw to take us home. I’d recently done the same thing in Austin, where the ride cost $10. The sign on the New York rickshaw also said $10. Unfortunately, it meant $10 per city block—as I discovered to my cost, and horror, upon trying to exit when we finally reached our destination.
But the ludicrous overcharge was worth it, because the trip created a memory.
Ava is half Irish Catholic and Bohemian on her mother’s side, half Ukranian and Russian Jewish on my side. At the time, she identified Irishness with her mother’s qualities, such as intelligence, warmth, and elegance. She did not know that Saint Patrick’s Day in major U.S. cities is mainly an excuse for high school and college students from out of town to come fall down drunk in the street.
As our rickshaw driver pedaled his way to the bank, we passed wave after wave of staggering, shouting, woohooing greenclad coeds, accompanied by slightly less inebriated predator dates. The women shrilled “hey” at us. They stumbled into the crosswalk. They vomited between parked cars and then made out with their companions.
Hammering down 38th Street in the shuddering rickshaw, Ava got up on her hind legs. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!” she shouted.
A drunken collegiate, making eye contact with the child while not necessarily understanding her words, shouted, “Woo-hoo!” and belched.
I think of it every Saint Patrick’s Day in New York. The righteously indignant little girl, the sweating Asian immigrant bicyclist, and the sea of drunken adolescents out of Trenton and Staten.
Mainly I think whimsically of those words. “You’re a disgrace to the Irish!”
Automatic check-ins and the old, personal web
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.
Authoritative, Readable, Branded: Report from Poynter Design Challenge, Part 2
THIS year’s Poynter Digital Newspaper Design Challenge was an attempt by several designers and pundits, working and thinking in parallel, to save real news via design. In Part 1 of my report from Poynter, I discussed the questions driving the challenge, and talked about the design work done in response to it by my colleagues Kat Downs Mulder, Mike Swartz, Lucie Lacava, and Jared Cocken. Here in Part 2, I’ll discuss my own work and the approach we took at my studio. But we begin with a quick look back at the past designs that brought us to this point:
Experiment № 1: The Deck
During the past decade and a half, as both a publication designer and a publisher, I watched in horror as our publications became reader-hostile minefields of intrusive ads, overlays, and popups. The first thing I tried to do about this (besides removing the web equivalent of chart junk from my magazine) was to offer an alternative approach to advertising via The Deck, an ad network I cofounded with Jim Coudal of coudal.com and Jason Fried of Basecamp (formerly 37signals). The Deck permitted only one appropriately targeted ad per each page of content viewed. As primary instigator Jim Coudal put it:
A buy in The Deck reaches the creative community on the web in an uncluttered, controlled environment, far more valuable than a standard banner or a single text ad among dozens of others.
Jim, Jason, and I hoped that our cost-per-influence model would replace the CPM race to the bottom, and that our quasi-religious use of whitespace would be widely imitated by the smartest publications online.
But that didn’t happen. Advertising just got more intrusive. The Deck succeeded as a small business supporting a network of interesting small publications, but not at all as a primary influencer on the direction taken by advertising that supports web content.
Experiment № 2: Readability
Then about seven years ago, my friend Rich Ziade and his engineers created Readability, an app that sat between you and the ugly site you were trying to read, the way screen readers sit between visual websites and blind web users. Readability grabbed an article page’s primary content, removed the junk, and replaced the cluttered and illegible layout with a clean, readable page inspired by the clarity of iBooks and Kindle, which were just taking off at the time.
Rich released Readability 1.0 as open source; Apple immediately absorbed it into the Safari browser, where it continues to provide Safari’s built-in “reader” mode. (Safari’s “reader” mode was Apple’s first step in decluttering the web and returning it to the people who use it; “content blocking” would be the second step.)
Moreover, Readability 2.0, released by Rich’s then-company Arc90 the following year, added automatic payment for content creators slash publishers, as I explained at the time to anyone who would listen. Had Readability been allowed to continue the experiment, content monetization might have been less of a problem than it is today, and publication brands (the notion that it matters who publishes what we read) would be in exactly the same pickle they’re in anyway—except that readers would get their news in Readability’s attractive and customizable format, instead of from Apple News, Facebook, and the like.
I used to go around the world on lecture tours, warning my fellow designers that if we didn’t figure out how to declutter and compellingly brand sites, apps like Readability would do it for us. I still go around on lecture tours, but I’ve moved on to other issues. As for Readability, it was killed by a digital lynch mob after one powerful blogger, misunderstanding the motivation behind it, issued the digerati equivalent of a fatwā. But that’s another story.
Experiment № 3: Big Type Revolution
In 2012, inspired by Readability and frustrated by the industry’s determination to make ever less legible, ever more cluttered sites full of tracking and popups and everything except what readers need, I bet big on large type:
This redesign is a response to ebooks, to web type, to mobile, and to wonderful applications like Instapaper and Readability that address the problem of most websites’ pointlessly cluttered interfaces and content-hostile text layouts by actually removing the designer from the equation. (That’s not all these apps do, but it’s one benefit of using them, and it indicates how pathetic much of our web design is when our visitors increasingly turn to third party applications simply to read our sites’ content. It also suggests that those who don’t design for readers might soon not be designing for anyone.)
Writing in Forbes, Anthony Wing Kosner saw the future in my initially crude experiment:
If you want to know where the web is going, one clue is to look at the personal sites of top-tier web designers. And one trend that just bubbled to the surface is large body type—the kind you don’t have to command-plus to read.
Not to brag (okay, too late), but he wasn’t wrong. It was the future.
(Also, I’m fairly sure I wasn’t the only designer at the time who reacted against tiny type and cluttered anti-user layouts by stripping pages down to only their most necessary elements, and boosting the type size to enforce a more relaxed reading posture. The idea was in the air.)
An uncluttered page focused on the reading experience (reminder: big type and plenty of whitespace) is now the default at several leading news publications. But many smaller publications, struggling just to survive, have not kept up. And so we have a perfect crisis:
Publications that do not encourage reading, loyalty, or repeat visits are struggling to survive at the very moment real news is under attack from an authoritarian president. What to do?
My response to the Poynter Design Challenge
There are many ways to respond to an existential crisis like the one facing most news publications. You can rethink the relationship between reader and publication. Rethink the job of the publication. Make news work more like a lifestyle app. Make it more immersive. My colleagues followed those paths out brilliantly (as described in Part 1).
But I went for the low-hanging fruit. The thing any publisher, no matter how cash-strapped, could do. The thing I had seen working since I started yelling about big type in 2012. I went for a clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded page. Authoritative because this isn’t fake news. Branded because the source matters.
The easiest, fastest, most readily attainable path to clean, uncluttered, authoritative, branded design is through typography.
Any publication can be readable
Any newspaper, however poor, can afford better typography. Any newspaper with a designer on staff can attain it, if the paper stops treating design as a lackey of marketing or editorial or advertising, and sets designers free to create great reading experiences.
In my work, which is still underway (and will continue for some time), I focused on creating what I call “reader” layouts (and probably other designers call them that too; but I just don’t know). Layouts that are branded, authoritative, clean, uncluttered, and easy to read.
I played with type hierarchies and created simple style guides. Most of my little pages began as Typecast templates that I customized. And then Noël Jackson from my studio cleaned up the HTML and CSS to make it more portable. We put the stuff up on GitHub for whoever wants to play with 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.
So reads the headline of a January 15 news story in The Washington Post. Saying that she’d been sexually abused by a family member, 12-year-old Katelyn Nicole Davis, of Polk County, Georgia, hanged herself, broadcasting the suicide via a 40-minute live stream seen worldwide.
While YouTube immediately removed the video, it “lingered on Facebook for nearly two weeks,” according to the Post’s reporting of Buzzfeed and other unspecified “media reports.”
First, it just hurts
I keep rereading the short article and its headline as if it will make sense or stop hurting on the next scan-through. As a human being, I can’t fully process the horror and sadness of this tragedy.
I was initially going to write “as a human being and the father of a 12-year-old girl,” but that last part shouldn’t matter. You don’t need to be the parent of a child Katelyn’s age and sex to feel the feelings.
Nor does there need to be someone in your life who was raped or molested—although, whether they’ve told you about it or not, there almost surely is. Statistically there are likely multiple someones in your life who have suffered unspeakably, too frequently at the hands of people whose main job in life was to protect them. I’m sorry to have to write these words, and I hope reading them doesn’t rip open wounds.
But the point is, even if you and everyone in your circle has lived a magical life untouched by too-common crimes and horrors, it is still unbearable to contemplate too closely what Katelyn must have felt, and what she did about it, and what watching what she did must have done to those who watched the video—both the empathetic majority, and the hopefully small minority of viewers who, because of their own damage, may have gotten off on it, edging just that much closer to some future sociopathic acting-out.
A designer’s job
On a personal level, I’m good citing horror and sadness as a reaction to this ugly story. But as a web and product designer, I can’t help but see it as another instance of what Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher warn about in their book, Design For Real Life. Namely:
For every wonderfully fresh use of the internet’s social power we conceive, we must always ask ourselves, how might this be used to make our world more hurtful, less loving, less kind? What unforeseen dangers might our well intentioned innovation unleash?
I published Design For Real Life, but I don’t cite Katelyn’s story or repeat Sara and Eric’s moral here to sell copies. I do it to remind us all that what we make matters. Our design decisions matter. The little qualms that might float through our minds while working on a project need to be examined, not suppressed in the interest of continued employment. And the diversity of our workforce matters, because it takes many different minds to foresee potential abuses of our products.
Streaming suicide, monitoring content
Live.me isn’t the first live streaming app, and, as a category, live streaming likely does more good than harm. The existence of a live streaming app didn’t drive a girl to kill herself, although, in despair at not being listened to, she might have found solace and an appeal in the idea that her suicide, witnessed globally, could lead to an investigation and eventual justice.
Similarly, when Facebook began allowing its customers to perform live streaming (or, in Nicole’s case) to post video streams from third parties, use cases like pre-teen suicide or the torture of a mentally disabled teenager most likely did not factor into those business decisions. But here we are.
And, as much content as Facebook produces in a day, you can’t really fault them for not always being johnny-on-the-spot when some of that content violates their guidelines. But surely they can do better.
Invention is a mother
There’s no closing Pandora’s box, nor would we wish to. But we who create websites and applications must remain mindful, honest, and vigilant. We must strive to work in diverse teams that are better than homogenous groups at glimpsing and preparing for the unforeseen. More than ever, we must develop design practices that anticipate the horrible and tragic—not to mention the illegal and authoritarian.
And in life, as well as design, we must do a better job of asking ourselves what we are not seeing—what struggles the people we meet may be hiding from us, and how we can help them before it is too late.
SORRY. I disagree. Nonsemantic classnames that refer to visual styles will always be a bad idea.
I’m sure you’re a good coder. Probably much better than I am these days. I know most of you weren’t around for the standards wars and don’t know how much damage non-semantic HTML and CSS did to the web.
I’ve worked on big sites and I understand how bloated and non-reusable code can get when a dozen people who don’t talk to each other work on it over a period of years. I don’t believe the problem is the principle of semantic markup or the cascade in CSS. I believe the problem is a dozen people working on something without talking to each other.
Slapping a visually named class on every item in your markup may indeed make your HTML easier to understand for a future developer who takes over without talking to you, especially if you don’t document your work and create a style guide. But making things easier for yourself and other developers is not your job. And if you want to make things easier for yourself and other developers, talk to them, and create a style guide or pattern library.
The codebase on big sites isn’t impenetrable because developers slavishly followed arbitrary best practices. The codebase is broken because developers don’t talk to each other and don’t make style guides or pattern libraries. And they don’t do those things because the people who hire them force them to work faster instead of better. It starts at the top.
Employers who value quality in CSS and markup will insist that their employees communicate, think through long-term implications, and document their work. Employers who see developers and designers as interchangable commodities will hurry their workers along, resulting in bloated codebases that lead intelligent people to blame best practices instead of work processes.
The present is always compromised, always rushed. We muddle through with half the information we need, praised for our speed and faulted when we stop to contemplate or even breathe. Frameworks built on newish worst practices seem like the way out, but they end up teaching and permanently ingraining bad habits in a generation of web makers. Semantics, accessibility, and clarity matter. Reusability is not out of reach. All it takes is clarity and communication.
To Save Real News
IN a world where newspapers are dying and half the public believes fake news, what online news experiences need is design that is branded, authoritative, and above all, readable:
Branded, because we need to convert the current hummingbird model (where readers flit from flower to flower) back to the idea that your news source matters—and that it is worth your time to return to a source you trust.
Brand helps the social-media-driven seeker notice that they’re returning time and again to a certain resource, facilitating a mental model shift back toward destination web browsing. When every site looks the same, it’s easy to see all content as equal—all spun from the same amorphous mass. A strong brand, which is individual to the given newspaper, can cut through that amorphousness, which is the first step in building (or rebuilding) loyalty.
Authoritative, because combating fake news means visually cueing the reliability of a particular source—one staffed by real journalists and editors, with real sources in real countries. In the coming years this will be more important than ever.
Readable, because an informed public needs to grasp stories that can’t always be reduced to headlines or sound bytes. Readability means even longer articles actually get read, sometimes even all the way through. Readability requires a combination of typeface, type size, leading, measure, hierarchy, contrast, etc.—as well as the introduction of visual information, both to break up the flow of text, and to further illuminate what is being said.
Related news keeps readers reading
Additionally, this branded, authoritative, readable content needs to become (to use an ancient word) sticky: through a combination of editing and algorithms, related content must be presented at the appropriate time in the reading experience, to engage the visitor in continued reading.
Currently two publications—nytimes.com and medium.com—achieve all these goals better than any other publications on the web. One is the newspaper of record; the other is a vehicle for anyone’s content. Yet both really do the job all newspapers will need to do to survive—and to help the Republic survive these next years. I particularly admire the way both publications surface related content in a way that practically demands additional reading.
Design won’t solve all the problems facing newspapers, but it will help. And unlike more “immersive” approaches such as WebVR, original full-screen imagery, and original embedded video, the basics of solid, readable design should not be out of budgetary reach for even the most cash-strapped news publisher—budget being a problem for any business at any time, but especially for newspapers now.
In my studio, we’ve been pondering these problems for content sites of all types (not only newspapers). At the Poynter Digital Design Challenge next month, I hope to share designs that nudge the conversation along just a bit further.
“You don’t get to decide which platform or device your customers use to access your content: they do.”—Karen McGrane, Content Strategy for Mobile
“When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”—Louis C.K.
“Discomfort with others’ burdens has no place in good design.”—Mica McPheeters
“Historically, teams simply have not been trained to imagine their users as different from themselves—not really, not in any sort of deep and empathetic way.”—Sara Wachter-Boettcher
“USER CUSTOMIZATION” on the web hearkens back to the deluded old days of portals, when companies imagined you’d start your daily “net browsing” session by “logging on” to their website’s homepage. Customization was among the chief (largely imaginary) inducements for you to return to their “start” page and not others.
The thought was that changing the fonts and color scheme would make their page feel more like your home. After all, Windows 3.1 users seemed to enjoy switching their home computers to “Black Leather Jacket” or other personalized settings—if only as an escape from the computer environment at work, where their bosses enforced a rigid conformist look and feel, and dictated which software and fonts were allowed on your workstation. Surely, the thinking went, pioneering web explorers would demand custom accommodations as plush as those found in the best-selling operating system.
MySpace … and beyond!
This fetish for pointless customization—customization for its own sake—persisted through the MySpace era, where it actually made sense as an early mass offering of page owner personal branding. Its descendants are the WordPress, Tumblr, and Squarespace themes that create a professional appearance for the websites of individuals and small businesses. This is a positive (and inevitable) evolution, and a perfect denouement for the impulse that began life as “user customization.”
But, except on a few quirky personal sites like Jeremy Keith’s adactio.com, where sidebar customization widgets live on as a winking look back to the early days of personal content on the web, user customization for its own sake has long been out of favor—because experience, referrer logs, and testing have long shown that visitors don’t bother with it.
Perhaps that’s because people don’t really visit websites any more. They drop in quickly on a page found by search or referred by social media, scan quickly and incompletely, and leave, mostly never to return.
When you use Google, Bing, or Duck Duck Go to find out what a knocking sound in your radiator or a pang in your gulliver might mean, you scan for the information you sought, find it (if you’re lucky), and leave. The notion that most sites could get you to come back by offering you the ability to change fonts or colors is self-evidently absurd. Why bother?
Readability and font customization
Ah, but there’s another kind of user customization that I’m hoping and betting will make a comeback: a subtle, inclusive sort of customization that doesn’t exist for its own sake, but rather to serve.
Our glowing, high-density screens are great for watching Westworld, but a bit too bright and backlit for prolonged reading compared to the paper they’re intended to replace. But screens have one advantage over printed books (besides storage and portability): namely, they offer accessibility features a printed book never could.
I once received an architecture book written by an important scholar, but I was never able to read it, because the layout was terrible: the type was too small, the leading too tight, and (most of all) the measure far too wide to be readable. If an ebook version had been available, I’d have purchased it; but this was before the mass market availability of ebooks, and the tome is now out of print. I own it, but I shall never be able to read it.
It wouldn’t be a problem with an ebook, because all ebooks offer readers the ability to alter the contrast and the basic theme (white text on black, black text on white, dark text on a light background); all ebooks offer the ability to adjust font size; and most include the ability to change fonts. Why do Kindle and iBooks offer this flexibility? Because it helps readers who might otherwise not be able to read the text comfortably—or at all. This isn’t customization for its own sake. It’s customization for the sake of inclusion.
The grey lady and user customization
Now notice who else provides some of this same inclusive customization function: the mighty New York Times.
People in our industry tend to repeat things they’ve heard as if they are eternal verities—when the real truth is that each digital experience is different, each person who engages with it is different, and each device used to access each experience brings its own strengths and limitations.
A font size widget may smell like the pointless old-fashioned “user customization” to be found on half the unvisited sites in the Wayback Machine, but it is the very opposite of such stuff. Even mighty responsive design benefits from offering a choice of font sizes—because there are just too many complications between too many screen sizes and device features and too many pairs of eyes to ensure that even the best designer can provide a readable experience for everyone without adding a simple text size widget.
Most of the sites we’ve designed in the past few years have not had a text size widget, but I believe this was due to our privileged assumptions and biases, and not to the reality of the needs of those we serve. Going forward on client projects at studio.zeldman, and in my publications like A List Apart, I hope to correct this—and I hope you will think about it, too.
Big Web Show № 150: Giant Paradigm Shifts and Other Delights With Brad Frost
BOY, was this show overdue. For the first time ever on The Big Web Show, I chat with my friend, front-end developer extraordinaire Brad Frost, author of the spanking new book, Atomic Design.
We have fun. We go way over time. We kept talking after the show stopped. There was just so much to discuss—including Pattern Lab and style guides, being there for the iPad launch, working with big brands, how to say no and make the client happy you said it, avoiding antipatterns, mobile versus “the real web” (or the way we saw things in 2009), dressing for success, contributing to open source projects, building a community, the early days of Brad’s career, and that new book of his.