Web Directions @media 2010 Hot Topics Panel
A panel I moderated at Web Directions @media in London in June 2010.
- Listen to the audio recording of this panel.
The following was recorded at Web Directions @media in London on June the 10th, 2010. For more materials from this conference series, please visit webdirections.org. This podcast is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Sharealike 3.0 license. Please include this audio license notice with any copy or derivative work of the podcast that you distribute.
Welcome to Jeremy Keith’s hot topics panel.
Jeremy Keith: Hello everyone, and welcome to the hot topics panel, or Talk Bollocks as I like to call it. Some of you have submitted questions, and that’s excellent, but we will be opening this up to the audience fairly quickly to find out what burning topics are on your mind.
Let me introduce you to the panelists today.
I am your host, Jeremy Keith.
This is John Allsopp, he is one of your co-hosts for the two days. John has been doing web stuff for a very long time, including writing probably my favourite piece of writing ever on the web which is “A Dao of Web Design” which is ten years ago. John is just awesome.
And we have Hannah Donovan from Last.fm and Hannah will be speaking tomorrow, you should definitely check that out.
Simon Willison, currently at The Guardian, but about to be of no fixed abode as he wanders the world.
Simon Willison: A vagrant.
Jeremy: A vagrant, righting wrongs like Cain in Kung-Fu.
And we have Christian Crumlish who was at Yahoo!, curating a pattern library, and now he’s at AOL. An expert in all things social software, so if you have questions about social software, Christian is your man.
Thank you, panelists, for agreeing to be on this panel. Some had very short notice. I tapped Simon on the shoulder 15 minutes ago and asked him to pop in.
I am going to kick it off with some of these questions you’ve been kind enough to ask. This is an interesting one, I’m actually going read it out verbatim, because I quite like it. “According to the BBC’s genius of design series, design is about physical stuff. Not software, no web pages, games apps. So should we cancel or rename tomorrow’s design sessions?”
A frivolous question, but I think it speaks to a larger point. We’ve divided the sessions here into design and development, and I find it sometimes tough to figure out what is — HTML5 CSS are you talking about backend development and when it comes to design, you mean literally pixels on the screen which is visual design, or do you mean design like the kind Christian has been doing at Yahoo. Hannah, you’re a designer right?
Hannah Donovan: Yes.
Jeremy: What do you do?
Hannah: I design stuff. I don’t know, what do you want?
Jeremy: Would you consider yourself a designer because you work in graphical design programs. Or because you put ideas on paper, or perhaps some other tool? What would you call design? Big D design, little D design?
Hannah: I actually hate this question because I find people talking about it all the time, even at work where they don’t really even know how to express themselves when they’re talking about design and we end up saying, is it design or design, the interaction design versus visual design? Is it information architecture? Is it UX? Where do all these things overlap, and how does that fit with front end? etc. It all comes under the canopy of design.
I think at the end of the day, a designer is someone who can communicate visually, and that’s kind of what it’s all about. You’re making something that’s for other people to use, not for yourself. Doing that visually. That’s how I describe my role as a designer.
Jeremy: See, I have this theory about the whole field of UX. Which is that because the word design got co-opted to mean visual design — pixels, icons, that kind of thing — they couldn’t use the word design to describe what they do. So they come up with this new term UX. I’ve yet to hear a definition of UX that doesn’t apply to design. Would anybody like to take that? What’s the difference between UX and design, big “D” design? Christian, would you call yourself a designer?
Christian Crumlish: They put designer on my business card at some point, so I guess I’m a designer. When I was at Yahoo, we talked about user experience design. So we said the “D” word even in that context. At AOL where I am now, they have UI design, sort of the equivalent thing, just the older terminology for the same idea. I really would challenge the idea that design has to be working with the physical media. I think that we are living in a quasi-virtual universe now, and design has to be with a medium. I think you have to work with a substance but it doesn’t have to be a physical substance. There were sound designers 50 years ago working in Hollywood or wherever, clearly not putting matter together literally in that sense.
Some people say a designer is a problem solver, but I think that’s too vague because most interesting jobs involve solving problems. I don’t think you get too far from the visual part of it. I think there’s something intrinsic in design that is visual even when you’re not a graphic designer. I’m not a graphic designer, but I sketch a lot. My ideas have to go on paper even when I’m doing information architecture.
A lot of the time I’m trying to visualise an information space. It might be a concept map or a flow, but I’m trying to put things in a way that they can be communicated to other people and understood. I’m not really answering the question, but I think all those elements orbit the concept of design. I think user experience work is usually design work, but if you’re doing research you might be feeding the user experience process and you might not see yourself as a designer. Some people bridge research and design as well.
Hannah: I think it’s really hard to draw lines between it because at the end of the day, whatever box you try to put people in — actually this reminds me of the talk we just heard about trying to create order out of chaos — it’s just really impossible because the UX person is going to like, “Well, I was thinking it would look like this.” And the visual designer might say, “Well, I was hoping the flow would go like that.” And people end up stepping on each other’s toes or not or just blurring the lines. I think that’s totally OK. I’m all for a multi-disciplinary approach, and a holistic view to design where you try and do it all or learn about as many of those things we just talked about as possible.
Jeremy: Do you think it’s an advantage maybe to be a lone gun who does a bit of everything, because you get to do a bit of everything?
Hannah: Well, it’s hard for me to answer that question because I think I am a bit of that. So it’s hard for me to see it from any other perspective. It’s certainly been very helpful for me in my design work to be forced into doing a bit of everything.
Jeremy: Simon, if I were to ask you, if you were a designer, you’d probably say no…
Simon: Actually no, I’m willing to make quite a bold claim here. I believe I’m the least qualified person on this panel to talk about design…
John Allsopp: No, I think I am.
Simon: I don’t know, I have the visual design skills of a horse.
Nevertheless, I believe Steve Jobs said
design is how it works. I build things, and they don’t look very pretty, but I think very hard about what the thing is, the overall scope of what the thing is, how it’s going to work. And also what the user interface for interacting with that thing is. It may look awful, but I think very carefully about what questions I’m asking people and how that all fits together, and what pages there are and what URLs there are.
So actually I would claim that too is a design on that front. It’s not visual design, but I think there’s something about figuring out what product you’re building and also the URLs and the bits on the page and what the thing is that’s very important.
Jeremy: You’re a systems designer.
Simon: Yeah, maybe.
Jeremy: That works.
Simon: Systems designer I think is more about how it works in the background. Databases and all of that. But I am actually talking about user facing stuff, what the user sees, what the screens are, what the URLs are, that kind of thing. So I do that, but I’d never call myself a visual designer in a million years.
Jeremy: And John, you’re also disavowing visual design.
John: I’m terrible at it!
Jeremy: But when it comes to understanding the medium and talking about how design has to work in the medium, I think you have a better understanding of the medium of the web than anybody.
John: That’s very touching, and thank you, the check is in the mail.
When it comes to design, I actually had this revelation in the last nine months or so. I’m the sort of person that when I go the airport, I just get infuriated by the way people get lost, and how systems don’t work. And I actually have to sit down and work out how I would improve this.
I’ve been doing this all my life, and it infuriates my wife. They say, “You know what! They should just shut up about it.” Constantly — I had this experience in Japan recently, checking in on United that I’ve got to write a book about. The most shockingly bad experience that flowed into everybody’s user experience. All of these people were turning up at the airport, almost missing their planes, the queue’s a mile long, etc. Anyway, this has been an obsession for most of my life, or certainly for years, and there’s a name for this. It’s called service design. How many people have heard the term, or whether it’s widely used now.
The idea is that all these products, these sites, all these things we build are actually just part of a broader thing, this thing called a service that we’re building. So to my mind, I’m really used to that idea, how you build an overall experience. Whether it’s going into a bank, whether it’s if you’re traveling, from booking your ticket through to getting to the airport, through to getting on the plane, through to getting off the plane and getting your baggage. All of those things. You look at that experience, I don’t see too many people actually doing that sort of design.
Jeremy: Service design is totally hot. It’s the new UX. We’re all getting our business cards…
Hannah Donovan: Can I interject something here? I think this whole trying to put design into a bunch of different boxes is pretty bullshit. Because, well for one thing, some of the developers that I work with on a regular basis are some of the best designers I’ve ever come into contact with. They might not be designers with a capital “D”, but like Simon just said, they think through the way things should work very carefully and it’s amazing to work with them and bring their influences into the fold.
I have this theory that designers have a bit of a chip on their shoulder sometimes about being designers. I don’t know where they get this from, but they are always kind of maybe put down about being a designer or something?
Jeremy: Designers are the drummers of the team.
Hannah: They’re kind of like… designers are wankers for the most part. And they actually really piss me off most of the time. And it’s like they’re constantly trying to qualify their work as being designers or as being something more than just what it is. And it’s like that’s why they need to give it a different name and this year it’s service design and then next year it’s something else and now it’s UX and it’s like you can’t just call yourself a designer. You can’t just say that you communicate things and help people do stuff. And actually you’re sort of bottom of the food chain. You’re just trying to make the service work better or the product work better so that people can use it.
And I don’t know, I don’t like this all star, rock star mentality of I need to give myself a bigger name tag so that people will take me more seriously now.
Jeremy: More important they pay you with money.
Christian: A lot of it is fighting for resources in business contexts. And if you just say “Oh, I help people and I do good stuff,” that may not get your budget fulfilled for that year.
Hannah: It’s true.
Christian: So you sometimes need to present it as something valuable that other people understand.
Jeremy: I think that’s a very good point. I always hate it when other people ask me what are you, what’s your role. I like speaking in terms of what I do, I say, I make websites. But when it comes to a job title I have no idea.
And I actually started micro-blogging through my job title. It was Lineman for the County for a while. I think it’s currently Nerf Herder. Or your Standard Pleasure Model, because the job titles don’t really mean anything. There is actually a twitterbot that grabs my job title.
John, I was interested to see you come alive when you talked about your frustration with things in the world. Because I was chatting to Aral not 20 minutes ago. Where is Aral? Go “woop” Aral if you there. There he is, over there. And he’s got a little 3G dongle thing that’s really badly designed and I was able to escape fairly quickly, but he was talking my ear off.
And he was really getting upset just as you were getting upset.
John: Oh, yes, I just cannot believe someone didn’t sit down and think “You know, we can do this a bit better.” Especially airlines. Airlines you think are about planes, right? They have nothing to do with them. They’re about the experience of people getting from one point to the other. Some people are on their holiday, some people are going to a funeral, some people are going to work.
And it seems that no one sits down and thinks “What are we really doing here? What’s the point of this entire industry?”
So I think that there are two industries that are… I just can’t believe they exist. One of them is banking. God Almighty. Is there anybody who likes the experience associated with their banking at all? Ironically it’s incredibly wealth generating by all accounts. Well, occasionally there are little dips.
And the other is airlines, right? No one enjoys. How about the airline ads, “Our beautiful flat beds will fly,” it’s like for the one percent of people who fly first and business. For the 99 percent of us back in coach, it’s, like “Nyaah, nyaah!”
It’s like everything about it, everything from the advertising — the whole experience is designed to make you life horrible. You can tell I spend a lot of time on airplanes.
Simon: Have you read The Design of Every Day Things?
Simon: That book ruined doors for me. Norman doors, suddenly you see them everywhere and doors become your enemy.
John: Especially the handle, push.
Jeremy: The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman. Don lived in the UK for a while. All the examples of bad design are from when he was in the UK. Like the taps, could we get the taps right? No. The doors on the trains where you have to stick your hand out to open it? All the classic examples of bad design. I have a theory in this country we like to grumble about things, but we don’t like to actually fix them.
Christian: We like tradition.
Jeremy: Yes, we put up with a lot.
Christian: It’s always been that way. It was good enough for my dad, you know. But also I think the thing John said, maybe what distinguishes a designer from everybody else is that when you have a terrible experience at the airport, you end up sitting down with paper and trying to figure out how it should work better.
There’s that idea that things are made. You sort of understand that the stuff isn’t just immanent and existing, but that someone put it together whether intentionally or not. And so you have the mentality of a maker of things and a person who believes that things could be made better whether or not you have the expertise in that particular area. And that there’s a small amount of hubris that probably is useful to dig in around stuff that you have no business doing and try to improve it.
Jeremy: A blessing and a curse, the curse being that everything in your life is frustrating and it wasn’t before.
Christian: Exactly, and I have a background before the web in publishing and editorial. And there’s sort of a joke about once you’ve been trained as a copy editor, it’s really hard to look at menus after that and other kind of signage. Because the mind is always trying to catch those errors and fix them and you have no power to do it.
Jeremy: Simon, is anger a motivating… frustration, is frustration a motivating factor when you decide I’ve got to build an app? I’ve got to build something to fix this and make my life better.
Simon: Yes, I think so. And that’s why I love things like Greasemonkey for example. And Firefox Extensions. I kind of think it’s the difference between geeks and the general population. It’s understanding when a problem is solvable. And it’s like the most important thing about computer literacy they should be teaching in schools isn’t how to use Microsoft Word and Excel. It is how to spot a problem that could be solved by a computer and then find someone who can solve it for you.
Jeremy: That’s interesting you bring that up. Because John has been doing a lot of thinking about this. About essentially the next step in literacy being…
John: Now you’ve put me on the spot.
Jeremy: …programming as a skill in the same way that reading and writing is a skill that’s expected today. Is programming going to be something that you will need to know in order to empower yourself, to make your life better?
John: Well I think so. I genuinely feel that, and I could bore people for hours and I won’t this time, next time maybe, I generally feel that everybody can program. I think that what programming is, and I could go on for hours. The basic idea is a kind of a logical flow of instructions.
It doesn’t have to mean writing word processors or operating systems. I think the human brain is actually well-adapted to that. Probably much better, frankly, than reading and writing. We should, I think it’s a really good thing for people to be able to do.
And I think we will. I think the idea of someone who is essentially illiterate in 20 or 30 years time if they can’t program. I really feel that.
And I think that will also open up some extraordinary opportunities in our civilisation the way mass literature and literacy did. Don’t ask me exactly what. But I think it has a lot to do with for example, we’ve got these open data stuff, government transparency and a lot of really good work happening in the UK. The US and Australia as well.
But of course if you have an illiterate society an Encyclopedia Britannica is not much use. In the same way I think if you’ve got tons of data coming out of government for example, and other sources, and no one can really access it by writing little programs to swipe it and see what’s going on. It’s like having an encyclopedia in the 15th century. You still wouldn’t get in any danger even if people had that, because no one could read the thing.
So that’s one of the areas where programming, that ability to program, is going to have a profound impact on our civilization is how we can manage these huge torrents of data that we’re getting that are unstructured. Getting a signal out of that noise is a challenge. It’s one of my little current obsessions.
Jeremy: Hannah, have you started to notice this with the young folks, the kids these days?
Hannah: Well I was actually going to ask, do you think that this is already starting to happen?
John: I guess more people can… I studied computer science in the mid-1980s and you were a pretty geeky person to do that back then. I got my first computer in 1981 or 1982, like a TRS-80. You were a pretty hard-core geek then.
I think there’s been a quite significant democratisation in this stuff, in programming or whatever you want to call it. I think the web is driving that. But I look at my four year old, and I think about when she’s five, six, and seven. She’s starting to read and write now. Now she may be 13, 14, 15 before she can program in any sense, but that’s kind of a decade later than reading and writing. There’s no reason she’s not mentally equipped for it. If you can read and write…
Christian: Maybe we need a new hypercard or something that makes learning to program something that’s more graspable when you’re young.
John: Well that’s why I’m thinking about how. I’m thinking about the how as well as the…
Hannah: He’s the Kadai of programming for little kids or something. I have five younger sisters, and I think like all of them can write like basic HTML. And no one taught them in school, they just learned from being social online. I think it’s like something that every kid just needs to have now.
John: We can thank MySpace for that.
Hannah: Exactly. MySpace and LiveJournal and every other single one out there. I mean you have to be able to write a couple lines of that. It’s cool in a way.
Jeremy: Getting back to design and needing to understand the medium for design. It seems there’s one medium that seems to be cropping up a lot, especially this year, which is mobile. Which is a pretty big term. It covers many things.
If you saw John Ressig’s slides earlier, you realise just how broad mobile is. But I have a question, here. It is in one way quite specific, but it also goes to a choice that I think a lot of people are facing.
Someone writes, “We have a property search site, with a lot of imagery and complex functionality. Should we go the route of creating a mobile site or use media queries?”
I think this is the kind of question that’s on a lot of people’s minds. I guess this is kind of coming down to the question of one web versus application-specific, or device-specific sites.
Hannah, at Last.fm you were doing something recently with the Xbox?
Jeremy: Tell us about that.
Hannah: So we have an application on the Xbox that’s basically a version, sort of, of our visual radio experience. So if any of you have used Last.fm/radio and gone to that page and listened to radio online, it’s a little bit similar to that. It’s a different experience than the website. And it made total sense to make a different experience because it’s for a bloody Xbox.
Jeremy: Was it liberating? Designing for something you know exactly what the user running. You know exactly what they’ll be viewing it on?
Hannah: I guess so. It’s also kind of scary to as well. Because it’s like so different than what you’re used to. And you’re dealing with a lot of other different problems. Like, what do people’s TVs look like? How good are they? What’s the contrast? How far away are they sitting from them? All that other kind of stuff. So, I don’t know if it’s easier necessarily. It’s just trading some problems for some other problems.
Jeremy: Scary but exciting? Yeah, I think that’s the way a lot of people are feeling about mobile devices. Scary but exciting. The potentials are large.
So this whole question of one web versus devices…
Simon: In the case you just described, I would actually go for the separate mobile edition. Or the mobile optimised edition. It’s not because of technology stuff, it’s because of the context that you’re using the site in.
If you’re at a desktop device with a full sized browser window, you’re researching. You’re going to want to open up a lot of tabs. You are going to want to compare different houses.
If you are on a mobile phone, maybe you’ve just seen this for sale sign, and you want to geo-locate and see the price on the house that you’re standing outside right now. That’s something that doesn’t make any sense at all on a desktop, because you’re in your home. But actually, when you’re out and about, it makes a lot of sense.
Jeremy: So the context.
Hannah: I really agree with Simon on this. We’ve done different contexts. Different bits. Different versions of Last.fm for different devices for exactly this reason. It depends on the kind of phone you’re using too. If I have an iPhone, you can do almost anything with it, but if you don’t, then it’s a different context and you might just want to do one or two things.
Simon: It’s crucial that you’ve got the option to see the desktop version on your phones. It’s so frustrating when you can’t.
Jeremy: This came up in Jonathan’s talk, which was superb—he’s totally sold me on JQtouch. I’m going to give it a shot. Create a JQtouch version of a site.
But do I redirect people using the mobile desktop? Do I redirect them automatically? And then with the link that they can get back to the desktop? Or do I detect it and on the desktop version, show a link…
Simon: My preferred thing.
Jeremy: I got into an argument with Remy about this and he was actually convinced that it was the other way around.
Simon: It depends on how heavy your page is. If your page is like 500 kilobytes of crap then having someone load that on their mobile device just so they can click the “give me the mobile version”, is quite frustrating.
Christian: You probably want to remember what they chose in the past and default to that in the future.
I think part of this, like you say context, it’s your stories, your user stories or your scenarios where you have to think through, what is a person really going to be doing?
And I think it comes down to service design as well. I think ultimately, even if you have a completely different experience on the hand-held device, from what you have on let’s say the laptop or the desktop — I think laptops are the new desktop at this point, something like that — on one level you can take it a step back and say, we’re designing an entire service and it manifests in different ways and different contexts.
It’s almost like there’s a layer behind the specific rendering on the device where you have to have a coherent idea of what are you doing for your customers, your users, your readers, or whoever they are. Then in the end it always comes down to build versus buy, or kind of resource — do you want to interpret on the fly? Or do you want to do things manually?
But there’s no universal right answer to those questions. It has a lot to do with the specifics of the case.
Jeremy: It depends.
Christian: I will never say it depends but yes.
Simon: I’d like to plug. I talked about this site Wildlife Near You in my crowdsourcing talk earlier. We do actually have a mobile optimised alternative called owlsnearyou.com. If you go there in your geo-location enabled device, your iPhone for example. You go to owlsnearyou.com, it will say, can I use your GPS? You say yes, and it will tell you where your nearest owl is. That, I think is a killer app for mobile web.
Jeremy: Thank God. Finally. Finally.
John: We actually run events. The Australian government late last year called Gov Hack. Because our government is all about, the Australian government at least, and the UK government to some extent, kind of wanting to get people to take government out, and do cool stuff with it.
So they ran some competitions, and we ran this event. And one of the really successful apps took all the public toilet data that the government owns and basically built a web interface to that so that you could find the nearest public toilet.
But what I really liked about the way the person built this was — and this is where I would definitely make the mobile version the one on your phone by default — is it didn’t even have to ask you where you are.
Because as with yours, it knows where you are, and it’s just, here’s the nearest toilet. So it’s magical. You literally [inaudible], and suddenly you’ve got the nearest toilet.
Let’s face it, if you’re going through the trouble of looking it up on your phone you probably really need that toilet. So the little as possible you have to interact with the phone — because, your hands are probably shaking.
So you basically go, bang, there it is, right, I’m off.
Jeremy: Apart from owls and toilets…
Simon: We’ve got education.
Jeremy: Media queries. They’re really coming of age.
John: Oh I love them.
Jeremy: I was going to say…
John: I have a whole chapter in my book on media queries which is geeky.
Jeremy: I mentioned your article on A Dao of Web Design, it’s 10 years old. But you’ve been talking for years about the importance of understanding the medium and delivering the experience. Media queries.
John: More like the embodiment of that philosophy. So for all of you who probably weren’t even born when I wrote that article in the late ’90s, there was a thing called — David Siegel had a book called Creating Killer Websites.
Who remembers Creating Killer Websites? Oh, so there are a few old people in the house. So the irony was, he came up with this revolutionary technique — you had tables and spacer gifs — the irony is that if you have to look at the site because you can still look at… they’re horrible looking things. This was this revolution. And this is where table based layouts really came from.
I guess there were a few of us at the time who were aghast at this and we sort of fought this decade long battle against…
Simon: To be fair on that chap, he did then get involved…
John: Oh yeah, he wrote a famous article called, The Web is Dead, and I Killed it. A little bit self-serving.
So my philosophy was this — at the time it was, how do I control… like you’d be on the newsgroups — remember those things? — for CSS things. How do I control the typeface? How can I control it? And this word control, control, it just came back time and again.
Jeremy: It was print design thinking.
John: Yeah. Exactly. Because in print design the medium is fixed. You don’t have to control it. It is a fixed medium.
So my argument was, and this is very old hat, now, but it is not a bug of the medium that the user can resize text or resize it. It’s actually a feature and I have to work with that feature. But at the time it was a challenge. Because mostly what you had to do was basically design your stylesheet based site in such a ways that whatever the user did, it kind of still worked.
Media queries changed all that. And if you haven’t played around with them… so if you’ve got a two screen set up, which most of you will do, and you have a media query set up, so when the monitor or the device is this width, do this, and when it’s that width, do that.
That’s just ridiculous. Whereas this is an event-driven model, effectively. But you don’t even have to worry. You don’t have to do anything with the DOM, you just literally write a little subset in your style sheet that says, if these characteristics of the medium are such, then use these properties of CSS. It’s magical.
Jeremy: CSS media queries is an amazing tool but I think there is an issue here which is a lot of the people who are supposed to be designing for the web aren’t using tools such as media queries, they’re using desktop tools such as Fireworks, Photoshop, that have a very rigid sort of frame.
I mean, do you see this as a problem that you’re designing in one medium, something like Photoshop, and then eventually it gets sort of converted? How do you possibly show things like resizing text, changing the browser window, interaction flows within the medium? How quickly do you get out of Photoshop?
Hannah: It totally depends on the job. I sometimes don’t even use Photoshop. If it’s something that’s highly visual and has a lot of layout and lots of fixed images and stuff like that, like our anonymous home page, then yeah, you have to use Photoshop for that.
But actually most of the things that we work on are really modular, and a lot of the time I’ll just sketch something, and then work with the developer, and we’ll move some stuff around with Firebug, and decide how it’s going to work. I mean, it depends. Sometimes at that point I might run back to my machine and be like, yeah, I need to sort some colours out or do some fine detailed typography or something like that, and then I do open Photoshop and use it.
But it totally depends on how big the job and how much of the visual end of the stick it is versus just like the interaction design end of the stick. We are putting these things in boxes again.
I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot of people talk about designing in the browser. I personally find it still too much of a… I think that, to design well you need to be using something where the tool isn’t obstructing your ability to get it done.
A pen and paper is obviously the easiest way because it’s such an easy tool to use. But I can use Photoshop in my sleep whereas I can’t design in the browser in my sleep. And I think that it just kind of depends on what you’re most comfortable with, and whatever you can get the job done with, really, as long as you can think that way.
Jeremy: As long as the tool doesn’t constrain you.
Hannah: Yeah. As long as the tool doesn’t constrain you. Yeah.
Christian: But if you were telling somebody who was just starting off to learn to design in Photoshop and then convert it. Or to learn to design in the browser, what would you tell them?
Hannah: I’d tell them to use pen and paper. I tell people to do that all the time. I cannot tell you how many younger designers I’ve seen open up Photoshop or open up a browser, and just start right in there. It just drives me absolutely nuts. It’s like, put all of your tools away and just take out your sketch book, and decide what you want to communicate first. And then go talk to some people about it, and usually you can get the job done a lot faster that way I think.
Jeremy: I mean, I think that’s pretty great that we are even talking about having the choice. Right? Like, oh, what will I do? Will I open Photoshop, like open up a browser and start using these amazing tools we now have at our disposal?
But, even with these amazing tools like media queries and other things coming out of CSS3, even now in 2010, we have this shadow still looming over us.
And somebody has asked a question, “If customers insist on IE6 support especially corporate apps, is it practical to charge a little bit extra?”
Again, that’s a very specific question but the point is, it’s 2010, and people are still concerned about IE6 because they claim customers, corporate situations.
Simon: When can we be rid of it?
Jeremy: Simon, any strategies for…
Simon: Yeah, Google Chrome Frame is looking pretty good these days.
Jeremy: You like that?
Simon: I’m fascinated by it. I’m sure everyone here has seen Google Chrome Frame. It’s a plugin for IE that basically embeds the whole of Chrome into Internet Explorer. And your web page can have a special meta tag at the top that says, hey, if you’ve got Google Chrome Frame installed, switch into Chrome Mode.
And the idea is that companies that can’t switch browsers because all of their Internet apps rely on Internet Explorer can install Chrome Frame and all their crappy old apps will still run with IE. And cool new apps they they’re deploying, again even if they’re just deploying them internally, can use new features from Chrome.
And it’s really fascinating. One of the reasons I think it’s got legs is that the principal engineer behind it is Alex Russell who I am pretty sure has spoken at @media in years past.
Prior to Chrome Frame, he was working on things like the Dojo toolkit. He always ends up being right but he’s right two or three years before everyone else. So it may take two or three years for the rest of us to catch up and realise…
Jeremy: That’s why he’s so angry.
Simon: That’s why he’s so frustrated with the world, yeah, because he’s constantly living just two or three years ahead.
Jeremy: He is from the future.
Christian, you worked at small start-ups: Yahoo!, AOL. So even a small percentage of people on an older browser like IE6 equates to a lot of users. Does that equate to a lot of money in terms of catering for those people?
Christian: Well I think it does. At AOL, where I’m just getting my legs there because I’ve only be there a month so far. AOL has a large legacy install base of users who are old generally speaking, I mean, not always but, demographically, they tend to be older. So unless the grandkid comes home from the holidays and upgrades their browser and changes their start page. Right, exactly. They frequently are still using what we would consider legacy interfaces, or tools at a higher percentage rate than sort of the web at large.
And also, their remaining paying customers are the ones who are paying consistently a monthly fee. So while, in some ways, AOL is learning to ween itself from dependency on the revenue stream, not just yet. It’s like St. Augustine. Like make me pure, but not just yet.
And so there is a certain amount of effort that has to go into catering or making sure that things at least degrade or progressively enhance in such a way that there’s a decent acceptable experience even in the bowels of old versions of IE. But not at the expense of giving modern customers something useful to look at.
I think everybody would like to be shut of that, and not have to do it anymore. I mean, somebody was today saying, I forget. Maybe it was John?
Jeremy: Brendan Eich talked about Windows.
Christian: Somebody was saying that there was probably expected… oh yes, that’s right. There would be kind of sharp cutoff point where suddenly IE6 died and I would dance a jig if that happened.
Jeremy: Of course, John, we’ve been here before, right? I mean, Netscape 4, that’s gone on for quite a while.
John: Oh it did. That was probably the last one that really got us like that.
It’s interesting, I think one of the net apps or one of those stats from last month, IE6 was under five percent for the first month. I mean that really is… even to a year ago, it was much higher than that. We are talking about five percent. I mean, yes, it’s a large number of people, probably most of whom live in Korea. Apparently in order to use the Korean banking system you have to use IE 6.
Christian: At some point those old PCs will stop working I suppose.
John: Well that’s it. Yeah. Exactly, right.
Simon: I would be interested to know what experiencing the web with IE 6 is like today. Like how many sites acutely work?
John: That’s a very good question.
Jeremy: Do you know your demographic of IE 6 users? Do you think about them?
Hannah: Yeah. I should know this. I have written this down at some point. Yeah, we do think about them. I know that we do. Make sure that things work. But it’s in our second tier browser category which means that it doesn’t need to have a perfect experience. I can have a passable… things need to work. You need to be able to do stuff. It basically can’t break.
Jeremy: Yeah. And we haven’t actually answered the specific question, which is it practical to charge a little bit extra for client work.
John: No, charge them a lot more extra.
Jeremy: A lot extra.
John: Can I just tell you a funny story about Netscape 4?
So Netscape 4 was released in about ‘98? Maybe. In 2007 we did a conference in a big convention centre in Australia. And they have the system where they kind of rotate the slides and so on for all the screens like you see here. I wouldn’t be surprised if this system isn’t similar. It had a browser. It was Netscape 4. And this was not a legacy system, it was still being sold. This company was shipping this kind of a spoke system, still wanting Netscape 4 as its browser. I think with Flash 3 on it. They said, yeah, we can do Flash stuff. Can you give us a Flash 3 file?
So these systems, they kind of last forever. They really do last forever. They’re like zombies. The undead.
Christian: I think charging more is the exact right thing. You don’t want to hide the cost of doing that. You want to put it into the system so that it’s painful and there’s an incentive to move away from…
Simon: You’re doing a favour to your client by giving them the option of having it cheaper, quite frankly.
Jeremy: That’s true. Actually, whoever asked that question talk to Andy Clarke. I believe he has quite a few strategies about that very thing.
The whole thing of dealing with clients has come up in a few of these questions. Here’s one: “How do you deal with a client that barely understands the web medium, and their solution and what they expect is so far from what you believe they should have. Contents, structure, presentation level. How do you deal with that?”
They shouldn’t even be talking about the technology level. That’s that answer.
Just build a website. You don’t need permission to use this stuff.
Simon: He or she is actually talking about their boss at some big bank. That’s the thing. That level of ignorance.
Jeremy: Tell them to go play golf.
John: Well, true. Good point.
Jeremy: Here’s another. It’s phrased in terms of how to talk to clients, but raises a question. You knew this was going to be coming. “To sell HTML5, CSS3 to clients, we need a new buzz word.”
John: We’ve got one.
Jeremy: Not HTML5.
John: It’s HTML5.
Jeremy: Not HTML5.
John: That a lost cause.
Man: It is now.
John: That one’s, that’s happened, it’s dominated. We’ve got to get over it. HTML5 is the word. That’s what I…
Simon: It’s annoying. Now HTML5 doesn’t mean anything particularly useful anymore, because people are bundling every technology under the sun.
John: Is that really a bad thing? Why is it a bad thing?
Simon: It’s frustrating, as someone who always knows what these things mean.
John: Imagine once upon a time it was DHTML.
Simon: I saw DHTML5 being bandied around recently.
Christian: I want to know what happens to the next version of HTML5. Is it going to be HTML5 version two?
John: X. Yeah, we tried that one, didn’t we? This sort of thing comes up every time. People keep saying geolocation is not in HTML. Who cares?
Jeremy: We’ve been here before.
[laughter and applause]
Jeremy: And we were here before Ajax.
Christian: At lunch at the workshop yesterday, somebody mentioned that one of their clients has now essential done a search and replace to put HTML5 in place of Web 2.0.
Christian: Was that you?
Jeremy: Yeah. A client was on the phone and where you would normally say Web 2.0 they just say HTML5 now. They said — I shit you not — “We want to have an HTML5 tag cloud.”
John: The front page of the major newspaper in Australia had the word HTML5 on it a few weeks ago. That’s for the win. We’re taking over the world one word at a time.
Christian: When it appears on page six that will be the real deal.
Jeremy: What do you do when you actually want to talk about HTML5? How do you specify, I want to talk about HTML5: the specification called HTML5.
Christian: Call it HTML5 proper.
Jeremy: HTML5 proper.
Simon: To whom to you really need to have that conversation with?
Jeremy: We were doing the workshops the other day, and one of the workshops was about HTML5. Then you have to clarify what you mean when you say HTML5.
Christian: That blurs the line, but there’s a distinction between insider cant and the way you talk to professionals who are in the guild. Who need to have precise communication about what we’re actually doing.
Talking to clients, and talking to the business world and talking to the market, those are two different things. I think they can be divergent. I think that’s OK.
Jeremy: The problem is not so much talking to the clients about HTML5. It’s when the clients come to you, or when the boss comes to you and starts throwing this word HTML5 around and they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Simon: What do they really mean? Because when you give them what they…
John: It means doesn’t run in IE 6. There you go.
John: Yeah, there you go.
Jeremy: There you go.
Jeremy: IE6 doesn’t support HTML5. Therefore…
John: Problem solved. Yeah, we’ve done it. That’s the way..
Jeremy: Sure. Let’s say the definition of HTML5 is “doesn’t work in IE6”. That way, when the boss comes and says it has to be in HTML5, we say…
John: “You do know it doesn’t work in IE 6, boss?”
Jeremy: We have something…
John: HTML5 versus IE 6. The cage match.
Jeremy: You people probably have some ideas on this, because I do see this topic coming up a lot. I would like to open it up to the floor, to the seating area. Raise you hand and Natalie has a microphone and Anna has a microphone. They will bring the microphones to you. Oh no.
Simon: Here’s trouble. He knows all about HTML5.
Doug Scheppers: Speaking as somebody from W3C, we also use HTML5 to mean this open web platform. Whatever flavor of the day. It doesn’t really matter. We know people mean.
Only people in standards care about what’s the specification, and what is in what specification. Nobody cares about that. And I’m in standards. Nobody cares about that. HTML5 is just Ajax.
Jeremy: So it’s like being pedantic about whether it’s web or Internet, right? Only a pedant cares.
Simon: That matters!
Remy Sharp: I had a client phone me last week and said “We want to make this application HTML5 instead of Flash.” I wanted to get into the semantics of the word HTML5 with him, but I was like, “Yeah, fine. Whatever you want. You don’t really know what HTML5 is, so yeah, I can do that.”
I don’t do Flash, so that’s fine. HTML5 can be whatever the client wants it to be, as long as between us techies and us geeks, we know what’s inside the HTML5 spec. If someone says have a look at the spec, you know which one to look at.
But otherwise, for the rest of the world, it doesn’t matter what they call it. If we can give it to them, then we can give it to them.
[applause from Doug Scheppers]
Jeremy: The sound of one W3C member clapping.
John: That’s the Dao of the Web right there!
Jeremy: You use a different language when you’re talking to your fellow geeks, your colleagues, than you do when you’re talking to…
Christian: It’s called code shifting. and…
Jeremy: Right, the same word can mean different things.
John: When you or I refer to the interwebs, it’s very different from when my mother refers to the interwebs…
Jeremy: We all know it’s a series of tubes.
Jeremy: Was there another question? Did somebody have a…
Audience Member 3: It’s not actually a question, but rather a comment on a topic you had earlier about front ends and which strategy to use when having different target platforms. I think there is one other architectural approach you didn’t mention, which could be provocatively expressed as don’t build any front end at all.
For example, Twitter has its own front end, but who really is using the Twitter web front end. From time to time we do it, but there are thousands of other front ends we use on different devices.
I think one other modern approach is just to provide the right APIs and then let other people do the work. Maybe have some default web front end, and then whoever wants the iPhone front end can build the iPhone front end. He can’t even do a native app or whatever he wants.
Jeremy: I think that’s a very good point. This is something that Tom Coates has been talking a lot about. Your website is not your product. Designing a website is actually quite narrow, but designing the data that you have can open up untold possibilities.
Twitter is a really good example of that. Talking about the kind of design you do is also in that vein of opening it up to other people. I want to mention another aspect to that, which is the topic of accessibility.
Generally in the past when we’ve come across something that’s inaccessible our attitude has been let’s bitch and moan about it until they fix it. However, people are designing systems of data like that, where you have APIs, or some way of getting in there.
Instead of bitching and moaning about it, and wasting our breath doing that, we can fix it ourselves by building our own tools. This does go back to Greasemonkey and other ways of extending the web.
You see something that you want, and you build it yourself rather than having to rally against the owners of the website. It does require a change of mindset, right, to realise your website is not even going to be the primary way that people are going to interact with your data. The Last.fm API is a classic example of that.
Simon: Plus, anyone who hasn’t seen the Guardian’s new content API, though, there was an interesting thing the other day where a chap called Phil Gyfford produced something called Today’s Guardian, a completely alternative interface for reading the Guardian website. It’s actually all on one page. You see an article, you click next, you see another article. Very, very fast and smooth, and designed completely differently from the Guardian’s main website. But that’s that same kind of —
Jeremy: I love stuff like that. I love anything that makes it clear, it’s your web. It’s your data. You read it how you want to. Instapaper. The Readability bookmarklet. And now in Safari, you get the option to get rid of all the clutter and read it the way you want to.
I think that’s great. I think it really enforces that what design is, is not designing this frame on a screen that you’re going to look at something. It’s designing the content, the data that people have come to see. Do you know how many people use API versus using the site on Last.fm?
Hannah: No, I am not sure exactly, but I do know that it is a lot. Especially with the scrobbling requests. A lot of them are coming in from other places.
Hannah: It’s great. I mean, it keeps us on our toes. I think it is the best way to make sure that you are constantly being challenged, is by just letting other people do it.
And also, talking about design and taking yourself out of it and not controlling it, and letting it be totally responsive. I think how you design the system, and also visually for people, so that developers have the right assets and the right tools to be able to do it. Like, knock something together, and grab this and that, is an increasingly important part of a designer’s role. I think Twitter has done a pretty good job of it. It is definitely a new thing.
It is like, how do you give them a sort of pick-and-mix plate of stuff that they can use and make something for you with.
Jeremy: Yeah, So let’s put the tools out there and wait for somebody to build cool stuff with it.
John: So, there actually was one of the most extraordinary experiments related to that. In the last two or three weeks, the Guardian said here is our platform. Here is APIs, you get all the data, correct me if I am wrong, and charge for it.
Simon: The idea is that we serve ads up with the API. So you can take our content elsewhere, but you have to take our ads with it.
John: But then I am allowed to go and kind of build something with a charge for it. Yeah. So that’s happened, I think it launched two or three weeks ago.
Simon: The publicly available one. It’s been in beta for about a year.
John: At the same time, the Times have gone behind a paywall, almost simultaneously. So interestingly, we have an experiment to see which approach is ultimately the future of content.
Christian: It has been very heartening to see newspapers have developer networks, code API pages and things like that. The New York Times is doing that as well. But you guys seem to be leading the way there. I think that shows awareness that the core value is not the face of the thing, but the substance inside it.
Jeremy: And, of course, this does go back to what we were talking about earlier about the idea of information literacy. You know, they are more programming savvy currently, but some way of manipulating data will become more and more valuable as the data itself is the product rather than the data within some frame.
Exciting times. Do we have some more questions? Yes, Aral has something to say.
Aral Balkan: Just on the flip side of that, I know we love to talk about open data and Web 2.0 and it’s like a hippy love fest sometimes. Here’s our data do whatever you want, but there’s also sometimes a darker side to it where it’s just pop up around. How are you gonna use our data?
Like recently the pulse app on the iPad, for example, was in the Apple Keynote and then it got pulled from the app store because the New York Times said “Oh, you used our RSS feed in a commercial application. That’s a no-no. We want that app off of there.”
And for APIs as well, like what rights you have as developers. I think is very important and a topic that we’re going to have to discuss more prominently as APIs become central because even if they’re free, developers spend and invest in API building apps and invest in platforms building apps for them so… Just wanted to raise that subject.
Jeremy: Well it sounds like you’re speaking from experience, possibly?
Aral: Quite possibly.
Jeremy: Has an API bitten you on the ass recently?
Aral: Quite possibly. Definitely not Facebook.
Jeremy: OK. Good point. It will be messy for a while people figure this stuff out. We have a question down here. A comment?
Hannah: That’s you.
Audience member: More of a comment, really. Most of the APIs that we’ve come into contact with tend to be re-purposing existing content from a site like Guardian or maybe Last.fm. Do we have any good examples of where there’s quite a heavy transactional website that offers that kind of flexibility with an API?
Jeremy: Well, actually Last.fm’s an interesting case because it’s not just about getting the data out. As I was saying, Last.fm is in some senses most useful when you’re not at the computer. And Dopplr is kind of a similar thing, when Matt talked a bit about a website you never have to visit because people want to get the data in there any other way.
Audience member: I’m thinking quite specific…
Jeremy: You mean in terms of money?
Audience member: Yes, I’m thinking about sort of an e-commerce transaction.
Jeremy: You were talking about filthy lucre. You want to get…
Audience member: Absolutely.
Simon: I don’t know the stats but eBay makes an absolute killing against their APIs. I don’t know if it’s more money made through the API that not through the API. But certainly things like the eBay iPhone apps, the iPhone apps that have been built against the eBay APIs have all done very well for themselves.
Christian: Well I mean, the required embedding of ads is a monetization engine for the API.
Simon: That’s the idea.
Jeremy: I think money is a fad. It’s not going to last.
Christian: But it’s a gift economy now, right?
Jeremy: Indeed. A reputation economy.
Audience member: So the whole discussion about APIs, to me, brings up the question about why are we using APIs and rather why not use XML and a standard templating language? We talked about web standards, but there’s a W3 standard called XSLT, which does an amazing job at parsing XML data.
Jeremy: Right, you are talking about the Tower of Babel problem.
Audience member: Yeah, if not everyone is using XML data, it falls apart.
Jeremy: Well, it’s not necessarily the best data format for everything.
Simon: Well it’s more… XSLT requires you to think in sort of 90 degrees to how regular programming goes in my experience. I know, it’s interesting. It fits some people’s brains, but it doesn’t necessarily fit other people’s brains. So, I’m not an XSLT convert and I have tried.
Audience member: I’m a designer and I work with CSS a lot and I actually think CSS is just sort of a starting point for thinking about XSLT because it’s about using selectors in a different way and actually being able to have a lot of control over your data.
Jeremy: So shouldn’t the developer be able to use whatever selectors they want? If they want to use XPath, they use XPath. If they want to use CSS selectors, they use CSS selectors. The point is they can get at your data. I mean, how they choose to do it… I take the point of the Tower of Babel, I think that’s more about the vocabularies.
Audience member: Yeah.
Jeremy: Your music sharing site, there’s another music sharing site and you don’t collaborate on a vocabulary that is a problem.
Audience member: It more comes from a frustration as a designer but also a developer where I’m working with a team of developers, they have their own little pet scripting languages and none of them are actually working together in the same way. So you actually have to have different ways of working.
Jeremy: But be careful what you wish for because you’re asking for one unified language, it might not be XSLT, right? It might be something else.
Christian: Well, there’s things like YQL, too, which is sort of trying to normalise, I think, in a sense. Whether you want to run everything through Yahoo or not is a different question, but…
Jeremy: A distant problem we’re trying to solve.
Christian: Yeah. But it’s an interesting model, I think, because it has some traction with the open tables.
Simon: And on the flip side, I have noticed that many of the APIs I work with now are launching in JSON only. The XML option is… it used to be that all API’s would provide an XML option, and I don’t think that is necessarily the case for everything, these guys.
Jeremy: I think there is time for maybe one more question. We have got five more minutes, so who has…?
John:Women? Women asking questions? A single lady?
Audience member: Hi. We were just doing an application recently where we were trying to pull together lots of different API’s. And we were sort of having an internal discussion about what would be the best way to do this sort of geolocation thing.
And we looked at Fusion Tables, which is something Google has just released, and we looked at the MapData API. And we kind of went through Geoplanet, was it Yahoo, or another one?
We went through various different ones, and there were so many, I thought, God, it is kind of getting a flood of APIs, you know? And it sort of feels like in one sense, Google is constantly releasing them, and is doing really good things there, and so is Yahoo.
Will we get to point, perhaps in a few years’ time, where we sort of have a mirroring of the operating system APIs. Where eventually, you have these really big players that have a single platform that everybody starts to use? And a splintering of these different web services gets merged into two or three big competing platforms, basically.
Jeremy: Yeah. It is essentially a very Darwinian situation. You put a lot of players out there, and the best ones float to the top. Splintering is a danger, but convergence is also something that will happen.
Simon: I also think, this is the web. The thing about the web is, you can have APIs from 30 different providers, and they have all got URLs, and it is all decentralised and so actually, it works. Whereas with operating systems, you have got one that your computer is running on, barring virtual machines and those sort of things. And you are kind of stuck in that one ecosystem.
And that is why I love working with the web as a developer. I love the fact that it is this sort of equal playing field, where sure, some of the APIs will flourish: Amazon EC2, with the sort of economies and scale of things.
But everything, at the end of the day, is a URL, and if you can talk to it, you can glue it together with other things. That is what makes this platform different from Windows or Mac, or any of the other platforms we have seen before.