10 Commandments of Web Design by Jeffrey Zeldman

I’m at An Event Apart in Atlanta, the first show of the year.

Jeffrey is opening the show with a talk called 10 Commandments of Web Design. He jokes that the W3C asked him to change it to 10 Recommendations of Web Design.

1. Thou Shalt Entertain

Have fun. We spend a lot of time thinking about accessibility, usability, performance, all that good stuff …but we sometimes forget about making it delightful and entertaining—the kind of thing that TV people have to think of all the time.

Take Panic Software, for example. Their logos—designed by Icon Factory—look beautiful, unlike your typical logo. Think about every website you’ve ever visited with a corporate philosophy or mission statement that nobody reads or is interested in …well, Panic’s personality is embodied in their design, their typeface choices, and their icons.

A List Apart uses Kevin Cornell’s illustrations to make technical-sounding articles into something more fun. It’s a lesson learned from the advertising world: the headline and the visual play together (and don’t forget: James Thurber wasn’t a good illustrator, but his work became immensely popular and is often emulated).

Jeffrey shows an example of a 404 page from Rdio, which doesn’t entertain. It just states the facts: page not found. Not very fun. Style-architects, on the other hand, refer to their missing page as a wardrobe malfunction. You don’t have to be Louis C.K., but try to be a bit witty. A Canadian political party’s 404 page states: “Ottawa’s broken. And so is this link. We’re working to fix both.” Nice. The New York Daily News website has a great illustration for its 404 page.

Gnu bars are fibre bars …that help you go to the bathroom. This could have been the worst website assignment ever, but they worked hard to get the joy of going to the bathroom in there. They have a Gnusletter (groan). On their serious medical pages, however, the tone isn’t so playful.

Flickr has its greeting in different languages. There’s no real point to this feature apart from providing some delight. A little touch, a little detail that didn’t need to be there, but it’s fun. But you probably wouldn’t want to do it on a military site about how to launch atomic weapons.

2. Test Everything (including assumptions)

“Who here has a test suite of devices?”, asks Jeffrey. You need one. Brad Frost has written a great post to get you started. There’s also technology like Remote Preview. Ryan Irelan wrote an article about putting together the Happy Cog device lab by getting a bunch of used equipment.

But let’s also test our assumptions. On the redesign of An Event Apart, there were some decisions that went against the accepted best practices. So they wrote about why they made those decisions, such as deciding to have empty alt text on photos in author bios because the author’s name (which would have been the alt text) is already in the headline. There were lots of comments, and many of them were really angry.

To get meta, Cennydd wrote a post about challenging the assumption that we should challenge our assumptions. Inception! Sort of. It was challenging the accepted wisdom that user-centred design is always the superior approach (compared to, for example, genius design). So, if Luke Wroblewski is putting a form together, given his years of experience, maybe he doesn’t need to test every little thing this time. Pushing user-centred design was important in the wild-west days of the web, but now we’re in a position to question it.

3. Thou Shalt Iterate

The website for A List Apart looks quite different from the original design ideas. Milton Glaser once said that the way he designs is by “moving stuff around on the page until it looks right.”

A List Apart used to have sharing links at the bottom of its articles. Logical, right? Who would want to share before reading the article? In the new design, those links are at the top of the page, and they got rid of the pretty buttons. You’d think they’d get less usage. In fact, they get much more usage: the Twitter link is just a simple link with pre-filled text. It turns out that users share and retweet before reading—they want to be the first to share. Jeffrey jokes that, as an experiment, he’d like to put something awful half-way through an article just to see if everyone would still share it (and I’m sitting next to Rey Bango who says, “That’s my fear!” “You share before reading?”, I ask him. He nods).

Amazon is constantly iterating, but in very small, subtle ways. And they test those changes.

4. Thou Shalt Ship

Good is the enemy of great …but great is the enemy of shipping. Sometimes we get so hung up on making something great, it gets in the way of shipping.

Jeffrey used to work at a company that had a perfectionist as a president, which is good in some ways, but they never shipped their product. Then the competition shipped. The company went out of business. They were so concerned about being great, they forgot to ship.

A friend of Jeffrey’s raises his rates when his clients don’t ship. The client questions, “Why does this now cost this much?” “Because you were supposed to have launched by now — and that’s preventing me from moving on to the next project.”

5. Engage Thy Community

Instagram did a poor job of relating their change of terms of service. This was actually pretty good for Flickr, who had just launched their great iPhone app.

Big companies buy small companies to get the cachet that the small companies have. “Isn’t that right?”, Jeffrey asks Rey. “Yes.”

Fonts.com are beginning to get more playful and engage with the type community. It’ll never be as cool as something like Dribbble (because fonts.com is a big company) but they can still push things forward.

The Happy Cog website has comments via Twitter (because, hey, who comments on blogs anymore?). A List Apart has embeddable comments: you can take a comment with you and embed it on your own website.

6. Love Thy User As Thyself

The first five commandments are really about this: knowing your user, and making sure they have a good experience, regardless of browser or device. Be responsive — not just in the technical definition of responsive web design, but in your mindset. Don’t make dumb assumptions just because someone is using a phone.

7. Remember The Content

Jeffrey brings up my blog post about Content First. And, of course, Mark has been writing about A Richer Canvas. Jeffrey took our words and wrote about them thusly: put the content first always. Instead of asking “Where should we put the sidebar?”, ask “Do we need a sidebar?”

Karen McGrane talks about content strategy for mobile and how it is literally becoming the law of the land: governments are mandating that content must be accessible on mobile. You don’t want to be the test case in a law suit.

8. Ignore Workflow At Thy Peril

Instagram nailed the workflow of sharing images. It starts uploading the picture in the background, even while you’re still futzing around with titles and descriptions. There are other things they don’t do particularly well, and it was more of a walled garden for a long time, but they prioritised the workflow of uploading images. Which leads us nicely to…

9. Thou Shalt Prioritize

Github allows you to label bugs and to-dos according to how important they are. That helps you nail the most important stuff without stopping you from shipping.

Kevin Hoffman wrote a great article about meetings, of all things. It’s all about coming to agreement on priorities.

10. To Thine Own Self Be True

Ah, the old Hay.net site: have hay, need hay. The site has since changed, but it’s still about hay. It didn’t “pivot.”

Smart talented people get promoted to being directors, but they might not be as good or as happy at that.

11. Think For Yourself

A bonus eleventh commandment. Don’t be a lemming.

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