Archive: January 19th, 2016

Paint

I was in London again today. A team from Clearleft have their sprint playbacks every second Tuesday at the client’s offices on The Strand. I tag along for the ride, and to marvel at the quality of the work being produced in each sprint. Then I duck out when it’s time for them to plan the next sprint—I don’t want to be the extra cook that spoils that particular broth.

Usually I would just head straight back to Brighton, nice and early, avoiding the after-work rush. But today was such a beautiful, crisp, clear winter’s day that I tarried a while. Instead of hopping on the tube back to Victoria, I perambulated.

At Trafalgar Square, I marvelled at the fact that the National Gallery is right there, free to the public. I could just walk right in and admire one of the world’s finest collections of art. So I did.

One minute I was on a typical London street, complete with obligatory Pret a Manger and Costa Coffee. The next I was standing in front of a Caravaggio, marvelling once again at his use of light—like Renaissance film noir.

Turner, Van Gogh, Seurat, Cézanne; all there for everybody to enjoy. As I stood in front of the Holbein—stepping between the school children to find just the right spot for the skull’s optical illusion—I remembered a conversation I had with Alla just last week.

We were discussing responsive design. I was making the case that there should be parity between small screens and large when it came to accessing content. “But”, said Alla, “what about the emotional impact?” Is it even possible to get the same “wow” factor on a handheld screen that you can get with a wider canvas? She asked me if I had ever had an emotional response to seeing something in an art gallery. I smiled, because her question made her point perfectly. Then I told her about the first time I ever went to the Louvre.

It was my first time ever being in Paris. I wasn’t even supposed to be there. It was the early nineties and I was hitch-hiking around Europe, trying my best to avoid big cities—they’re less than ideal when you have no place to sleep. But through a series of circumstances that probably involved too much wine, I found myself taking a ride into the capital and getting dropped in the middle of the city.

It all worked out okay though. Through an astronomical coincidence, I met someone I knew who put me up for a few nights.

I was standing in Châtelet metro station in the middle of rush hour. Whatever effect that wine had on me was wearing off, and I was beginning to realise what a terrible mistake I had made in coming to Paris. I was studying a city map on the wall, looking for areas of green where I might unroll a sleeping bag in peace, when I heard someone shout “Jeremy!” It was a girl from back home in Cork that I knew through a mutual friend in art college. She was working at Euro Disney for the summer and having finished her day’s work, she missed her metro stop and was switching trains. She just happened to be there at just the right time to take me in.

But that’s not the story I told Alla. I told Alla about what happened during that time in Paris when I busked up enough money to go the Louvre.

I walked in and saw Géricault’s The Raft Of The Medusa. I felt like somebody had punched me in the chest. I was genuinely winded. It was one thing to see a reproduction in a book, but the sheer scale of the thing …I had no idea.

I’ve never had quite the same physical reaction to a piece of art since, but I sometimes feel echoes of it. I think that’s probably one of the reasons why I stepped into the National Gallery today. I was trying to recapture a fragment of that feeling.

Well, that and the fact that it’s free …which really is quite amazing in a city as expensive as London.

A Flag for No Nations | booktwo.org

This a magnificent piece of writing from James …all about pieces of metal fabric.

A single technology – the vacuum-deposition of metal vapour onto a thin film substrate – makes its consecutive and multiple appearances at times of stress and trial: at the dawn of the space age, in orbit and on other planets, at the scene of athletic feats of endurance, in defence and offence in the mountains of the Hindu Kush, on the beaches of the European archipelago. These are moments of hope as well as failure; moments when, properly utilised, technological progress enables us to achieve something which was beyond our capabilities before. And yet: we are still pulling bodies from the water wrapped in material which was meant to send us into space.

Hamburger, hamburger, hamburger

Andy’s been playing Devils Advocate again, defending the much-maligned hamburger button. Weirdly though, I think I’ve seen more blog posts, tweets, and presentations defending this supposed underdog than I’ve seen knocking it.

Take this presentation from Smashing Conference. It begins with a stirring call to arms. Designers of the web—cast off your old ways, dismiss your clichés, try new things, and discard lazy solutions! “Yes!”, I thought to myself, “this is a fantastic message.” But then the second half of the talk switches into a defence of the laziest, most clichéd, least thought-through old tropes of interface designs: carousels, parallax scrolling and inevitably, the hamburger icon.

But let’s not get into a binary argument of “good” vs. “bad” when it comes to using the hamburger icon. I think the question is more subtle than that. There are three issues that need to be addressed if we’re going to evaluate the effectiveness of using the hamburger icon:

  1. representation,
  2. usage, and
  3. clarity.

Representation

An icon is a gateway to either some content or a specific action. The icon should provide a clear representation of the content or action that it leads to. Sometimes “clear” doesn’t have to literally mean that it’s representative: we use icons all the time that don’t actually represent the associated content or action (a 3.5 inch diskette for “save”, a house for the home page of a website, etc.). Cultural factors play a large part here. Unless the icon is a very literal pictorial representation, it’s unlikely that any icon can be considered truly universal.

If a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to a list of items, then it’s fairly representative. It’s a bit more abstract than an actual list of menu items stacked one on top of the other, but if you squint just right, you can see how “three stacked horizontal lines” could represent “a number of stacked menu items.”

If, on the other hand, a hamburger icon is used as the gateway to, say, a grid of options, then it isn’t representative at all. A miniaturised grid—looking like a window—would be a more representative option.

So in trying to answer the question “Does the hamburger icon succeed at being representative?”, the answer—as ever—is “it depends.” If it’s used as a scaled-down version of the thing its representing, it works. If it’s used as a catch-all icon to represent “a bunch of stuff” (as is all too common these days), then it works less well.

Which brings us to…

Usage

Much of the criticism of the hamburger icon isn’t actually about the icon itself, it’s about how it’s used. Too many designers are using it as an opportunity to de-clutter their interface by putting everything behind the icon. This succeeds in de-cluttering the interface in the same way that a child putting all their messy crap in the cupboard succeeds in cleaning their room.

It’s a tricky situation though. On small screens especially, there just isn’t room to display all possible actions. But the solution is not to display none instead. The solution is to prioritise. Which actions need to be visible? Which actions can afford to be squirrelled away behind an icon? A designer is supposed to answer those questions (using research, testing, good taste, experience, or whatever other tools are at their disposal).

All too often, the hamburger icon is used as an excuse to shirk that work. It’s treated as a “get out of jail free” card for designing small-screen interfaces.

To be clear: this usage—or misusage—has nothing to do with the actual icon itself. The fact that the icon is three stacked lines is fairly irrelevant on this point. The reason why the three stacked lines are so often used is that there’s a belief that this icon will be commonly understood.

That brings us to last and most important point:

Clarity

By far the most important factor in whether an icon—any icon—will be understood is whether or not it is labelled. A hamburger icon labelled with a word like “menu” or “more” or “options” is going to be far more effective than an unlabelled icon.

Don’t believe me? Good! Do some testing.

In my experience, 80-90% of the benefit of usability testing is in the area of labelling. And one of the lowest hanging fruit is the realisation that “Oh yeah, we should probably label that icon that we assumed would be universally understood.”

Andy mentions the “play” and “pause” symbols as an example of icons that are so well understood that they can stand by themselves. That’s not necessarily true.

I think there are two good rules of thumb when it comes to using icons:

  1. If in doubt, label it.
  2. If not in doubt, you probably should be—test your assumptions.

Results

Now that we’ve established the three criteria for evaluating an icon’s effectiveness, let’s see how the hamburger icon stacks up (if you’ll pardon the pun):

  1. Representation: It depends. Is it representing a stacked list of menu items? If so, good. If not, reconsider.
  2. Usage: it depends. Is it being used as an excuse to throw literally all your navigation behind it? If so, reconsider. Prioritise. Decide what needs to be visible, and what can be tucked away.
  3. Clarity: it depends. Is the icon labelled? If so, good. If not, less good.

So there you go. The answer to the question “Is the hamburger icon good or bad?” is a resounding and clear “It depends.”

Popped in to see Caravaggio and Holbein.

Popped in to see Caravaggio and Holbein.

Shadows of London.

Shadows of London.

Best bus seat.

Best bus seat.