Tags: aeabos



Speaking my brains in Boston

I was in Boston last week to give a talk. I ended up giving four.

I was there for An Event Apart which was, as always, excellent. I opened up day two with my talk, The Way Of The Web.

This was my second time giving this talk at An Event Apart—the first time was in Seattle a few months back. It was also my last time giving this talk at An Event Apart—I shan’t be speaking at any of the other AEAs this year, alas. The talk wasn’t recorded either so I’m afraid you kind of had to be there (unless you know of another conference that might like to have me give that talk, in which case, hit me up).

After giving my talk in the morning, I wasn’t quite done. I was on a panel discussion with Rachel about CSS grid. It turned out to be a pretty good format: have one person who’s a complete authority on a topic (Rachel), and another person who’s barely starting out and knows just enough to be dangerous (me). I really enjoyed it, and the questions from the audience prompted some ideas to form in my head that I should really note down in a blog post before they evaporate.

The next day, I went over to MIT to speak at Design 4 Drupal. So, y’know, technically I’ve lectured at MIT now.

I wasn’t going to do the same talk as I gave at An Event Apart, obviously. Instead, I reprised the talk I gave earlier this at Webstock: Taking Back The Web. I thought it was fitting given how much Drupal’s glorious leader, Dries, has been thinking about, writing about, and building with the indie web.

I really enjoyed giving this talk. The audience were great, and they had lots of good questions afterwards. There’s a video, which is basically my voice dubbed over the slides, followed by a good half of questions afterwards.

When I was done there, after a brief excursion to the MIT bookstore, I went back across the river from Cambridge to Boston just in time for that evening’s Boston CSS meetup.

Lea had been in touch to ask if I would speak at this meet-up, and I was only too happy to oblige. I tried doing something I’ve never done before: a book reading!

No, not reading from Going Offline, my current book which I should encouraging people to buy. Instead I read from Resilient Web Design, the free online book that people literally couldn’t buy if they wanted to. But I figured reading the philosophical ramblings in Resilient Web Design would go over better than trying to do an oral version of the service worker code in Going Offline.

I read from chapters two (Materials), three (Visions), and five (Layers) and I really, really liked doing it! People seemed to enjoy it too—we had questions throughout.

And with that, my time in Boston was at an end. I was up at the crack of dawn the next morning to get the plane back to England where Ampersand awaited. I wasn’t speaking there though. I thoroughly enjoyed being an attendee and absorbing the knowledge bombs from the brilliant speakers that Rich assembled.

The next place I’m speaking will much closer to home than Boston: I’ll be giving a short talk at Oxford Geek Nights on Wednesday. Come on by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Name That Script! by Trent Walton

Trent is about to pop his AEA cherry and give a talk at An Event Apart in Boston. I’m going to attempt to liveblog this:

How many third-party scripts are loading on our web pages these days? How can we objectively measure the value of these (advertising, a/b testing, analytics, etc.) scripts—considering their impact on web performance, user experience, and business goals? We’ve learned to scrutinize content hierarchy, browser support, and page speed as part of the design and development process. Similarly, Trent will share recent experiences and explore ways to evaluate and discuss the inclusion of 3rd-party scripts.

Trent is going to speak about third-party scripts, which is funny, because a year ago, he never would’ve thought he’d be talking about this. But he realised he needed to pay more attention to:

any request made to an external URL.

Or how about this:

A resource included with a web page that the site owner doesn’t explicitly control.

When you include a third-party script, the third party can change the contents of that script.

Here are some uses:

  • advertising,
  • A/B testing,
  • analytics,
  • social media,
  • content delivery networks,
  • customer interaction,
  • comments,
  • tag managers,
  • fonts.

You get data from things like analytics and A/B testing. You get income from ads. You get content from CDNs.

But Trent has concerns. First and foremost, the user experience effects of poor performance. Also, there are the privacy implications.

Why does Trent—a designer—care about third party scripts? Well, over the years, the areas that Trent pays attention to has expanded. He’s progressed from image comps to frontend to performance to accessibility to design systems to the command line and now to third parties. But Trent has no impact on those third-party scripts. That’s very different to all those other areas.

Trent mostly builds prototypes. Those then get handed over for integration. Sometimes that means hooking it up to a CMS. Sometimes it means adding in analytics and ads. It gets really complex when you throw in third-party comments, payment systems, and A/B testing tools. Oftentimes, those third-party scripts can outweigh all the gains made beforehand. It happens with no discussion. And yet we spent half a meeting discussing a border radius value.

Delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough: I also need to consider the impact of third-party scripts.

Trent has spent the last few months learning about third parties so he can be better equiped to discuss them.

UX, performance and privacy impact

We feel the UX impact every day we browse the web (if we turn off our content blockers). The Food Network site has an intersitial asking you to disable your ad blocker. They promise they won’t spawn any pop-up windows. Trent turned his ad blocker off—the page was now 15 megabytes in size. And to top it off …he got a pop up.

Privacy can harder to perceive. We brush aside cookie notifications. What if the wording was “accept trackers” instead of “accept cookies”?

Remarketing is that experience when you’re browsing for a spatula and then every website you visit serves you ads for spatula. That might seem harmless but allowing access to our browsing history has serious privacy implications.

Web builders are on the front lines. It’s up to us to advocate for data protection and privacy like we do for web standards. Don’t wait to be told.

Categories of third parties

Ghostery categories third-party providers: advertising, comments, customer interaction, essential, site analytics, social media. You can dive into each layer and see the specific third-party services on the page you’re viewing.

Analyse and itemise third-party scripts

We have “view source” for learning web development. For third parties, you need some tool to export the data. HAR files (HTTP ARchive) are JSON files that you can create from most browsers’ network request panel in dev tools. But what do you do with a .har file? The site har.tech has plenty of resources for you. That’s where Trent found the Mac app, Charles. It can open .har files. Best of all, you can export to CSV so you can share spreadsheets of the data.

You can visualise third-party requests with Simon Hearne’s excellent Request Map. It’s quite impactful for delivering a visceral reaction in a meeting—so much more effective than just saying “hey, we have a lot of third parties.” Request Map can also export to CSV.

Know industry averages

Trent wanted to know what was “normal.” He decided to analyse HAR files for Alexa’s top 50 US websites. The result was a massive spreadsheet of third-party providers. There were 213 third-party domains (which is not even the same as the number of requests). There was an average of 22 unique third-party domains per site. The usual suspects were everywhere—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Adobe—but there were many others. You can find an alphabetical index on better.fyi/trackers. Often the lesser-known domains turn out to be owned by the bigger domains.

News sites and shopping sites have the most third-party scripts, unsurprisingly.

Understand benefits

Trent realised he needed to listen and understand why third-party scripts are being included. He found out what tag managers do. They’re funnels that allow you to cram even more third-party scripts onto your website. Trent worried that this was a Pandora’s box. The tag manager interface is easy to access and use. But he was told that it’s more like a way of organising your third-party scripts under one dashboard. But still, if you get too focused on the dashboard, you could lose focus of the impact on load times. So don’t blame the tool: it’s all about how it’s used.

Take action

Establish a centre of excellence. Put standards in place—in a cross-discipline way—to define how third-party scripts are evaluated. For example:

  1. Determine the value to the business.
  2. Avoid redundant scripts and services.
  3. Fit within the established performance budget.
  4. Comply with the organistional privacy policy.

Document those decisions, maybe even in your design system.

Also, include third-party scripts within your prototypes to get a more accurate feel for the performance implications.

On a live site, you can regularly audit third-party scripts on a regular basis. Check to see if any are redundant or if they’re exceeding the performance budget. You can monitor performance with tools like Calibre and Speed Curve to cover the time in between audits.

Make your case

Do competitive analysis. Look at other sites in your sector. It’s a compelling way to make a case for change. WPO Stats is very handy for anecdata.

You can gather comparative data with Web Page Test: you can run a full test, and you can run a test with certain third parties blocked. Use the results to kick off a discussion about the impact of those third parties.

Talk it out

Work to maintain an ongoing discussion with the entire team. As Tim Kadlec says:

Everything should have a value, because everything has a cost.

Building More Expressive Products by Val Head

It’s day two of An Event Apart in Boston and Val is giving a new talk about building expressive products:

The products we design today must connect with customers across different screen sizes, contexts, and even voice or chat interfaces. As such, we create emotional expressiveness in our products not only through visual design and language choices, but also through design details such as how interface elements move, or the way they sound. By using every tool at our disposal, including audio and animation, we can create more expressive products that feel cohesive across all of today’s diverse media and social contexts. In this session, Val will show how to harness the design details from different media to build overarching themes—themes that persist across all screen sizes and user and interface contexts, creating a bigger emotional impact and connection with your audience.

I’m going to attempt to live blog her talk. Here goes…

This is about products that intentionally express personality. When you know what your product’s personality is, you can line up your design choices to express that personality intentionally (as opposed to leaving it to chance).

Tunnel Bear has a theme around a giant bear that will product you from all the bad things on the internet. It makes a technical product very friendly—very different from most VPN companies.

Mailchimp have been doing this for years, but with a monkey (ape, actually, Val), not a bear—Freddie. They’ve evolved and changed it over time, but it always has personality.

But you don’t need a cute animal to express personality. Authentic Weather is a sarcastic weather app. It’s quite sweary and that stands out. They use copy, bold colours, and giant type.

Personality can be more subtle, like with Stripe. They use slick animations and clear, concise design.

Being expressive means conveying personality through design. Type, colour, copy, layout, motion, and sound can all express personality. Val is going to focus on the last two: motion and sound.

Expressing personality with motion

Animation can be used to tell your story. We can do that through:

  • Easing choices (ease-in, ease-out, bounce, etc.),
  • Duration values, and offsets,
  • The properties we animate.

Here are four personality types…

Calm, soft, reassuring

You can use opacity, soft blurs, small movements, and easing curves with gradual changes. You can use:

  • fade,
  • scale + fade,
  • blur + fade,
  • blur + scale + fade.

Pro tip for blurs: the end of blurs always looks weird. Fade out with opacity before your blur gets weird.

You can use Penner easing equations to do your easings. See them in action on easings.net. They’re motion graphs plotting animation against time. The flatter the curve, the more linear the motion. They have a lot more range than the defaults you get with CSS keyword values.

For calm, soft, and reassuring, you could use easeInQuad, easeOutQuad, or easeInOutQuad. But that’s like saying “you could use dark blue.” These will get you close, but you need to work on the detail.

Confident, stable, strong

You can use direct movements, straight lines, symmetrical ease-in-outs. You should avoid blurs, bounces, and overshoots. You can use:

  • quick fade,
  • scale + fade,
  • direct start and stops.

You can use Penner equations like easeInCubic, easeOutCubic and easeInOutCubic.

Lively, energetic, friendly

You can use overshoots, anticipation, and “snappy” easing curves. You can use:

  • overshoot,
  • overshoot + scale,
  • anticipation,
  • anticipation + overshoot

To get the sense of overshoots and anticipations you can use easing curves like easeInBack, easeOutBack, and easeInOutBack. Those aren’t the only ones though. Anything that sticks out the bottom of the graph will give you anticipation. Anything that sticks out the top of the graph will give you overshoot.

If cubic bezier curves don’t get you quite what you’re going for, you can add keyframes to your animation. You could have keyframes for: 0%, 90%, and 100% where the 90% point is past the 100% point.

Stripe uses a touch of overshoot on their charts and diagrams; nice and subtle. Slack uses a bit of overshoot to create a sense of friendliness in their loader.

Playful, fun, lighthearted

You can use bounces, shape morphs, squashes and stretches. This is probably not the personality for a bank. But it could be for a game, or some other playful product. You can use:

  • bounce,
  • elastic,
  • morph,
  • squash and stretch (springs.

You can use easing equations for the first two, but for the others, they’re really hard to pull off with just CSS. You probably need JavaScript.

The easing curve for elastic movement is more complicated Penner equation that can’t be done in CSS. GreenSock will help you visual your elastic easings. For springs, you probably need a dedicated library for spring motions.

Expressing personality with sound

We don’t talk about sound much in web design. There are old angry blog posts about it. And not every website should use sound. But why don’t we even consider it on the web?

We were burnt by those terrible Flash sites with sound on every single button mouseover. And yet the Facebook native app does that today …but in a much more subtle way. The volume is mixed lower, and the sound is flatter; more like a haptic feel. And there’s more variation in the sounds. Just because we did sound badly in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do it well today.

People say they don’t want their computers making sound in an office environment. But isn’t responsive design all about how we don’t just use websites on our desktop computers?

Amber Case has a terrific book about designing products with sound, and she’s all about calm technology. She points out that the larger the display, the less important auditive and tactile feedback becomes. But on smaller screens, the need increases. Maybe that’s why we’re fine with mobile apps making sound but not with our desktop computers doing it?

People say that sound is annoying. That’s like saying siblings are annoying. Sound is annoying when it’s:

  • not appropriate for the situation,
  • played at the wrong time,
  • too loud,
  • lacks user control.

But all of those are design decisions that we can control.

So what can we do with sound?

Sound can enhance what we perceive from animation. The “breathe” mode in the Calm meditation app has some lovely animation, and some great sound to go with it. The animation is just a circle getting smaller and bigger—if you took the sound away, it wouldn’t be very impressive.

Sound can also set a mood. Sirin Labs has an extreme example for the Solarin device with futuristic sounds. It’s quite reminiscent of the Flash days, but now it’s all done with browser technologies.

Sound is a powerful brand differentiator. Val now plays sounds (without visuals) from:

  • Slack,
  • Outlook Calendar.

They have strong associations for us. These are earcons: icons for the ears. They can be designed to provoke specific emotions. There was a great explanation on the Blackberry website, of all places (they had a whole design system around their earcons).

Here are some uses of sounds…

Alerts and notifications

You have a new message. You have new email. Your timer is up. You might not be looking at the screen, waiting for those events.

Navigating space

Apple TV has layers of menus. You go “in” and “out” of the layers. As you travel “in” and “out”, the animation is reinforced with sound—an “in” sound and an “out” sound.

Confirming actions

When you buy with Apple Pay, you get auditory feedback. Twitter uses sound for the “pull to refresh” action. It gives you confirmation in a tactile way.

Marking positive moments

This is a great way of making a positive impact in your user’s minds—celebrate the accomplishments. Clear—by Realmac software—gives lovely rising auditory feedback as you tick things off your to-do list. Compare that to hardware products that only make sounds when something goes wrong—they don’t celebrate your accomplishments.

Here are some best practices for user interface sounds:

  • UI sounds be short, less than 400ms.
  • End on an ascending interval for positive feedback or beginnings.
  • End on a descending interval for negative feedback, ending, or closing.
  • Give the user controls to top or customise the sound.

When it comes to being expressive with sounds, different intervals can evoke different emotions:

  • Consonant intervals feel pleasant and positive.
  • Dissonant intervals feel strong, active, or negative.
  • Large intervals feel powerful.
  • Octaves convey lightheartedness.

People have made sounds for you if you don’t want to design your own. Octave is a free library of UI sounds. You can buy sounds from motionsound.io, targetted specifically at sounds to go with motions.

Let’s wrap up by exploring where to find your product’s personality:

  • What is it trying to help users accomplish?
  • What is it like? (its mood and disposition)

You can workshops to answer these questions. You can also do research with your users. You might have one idea about your product’s personality that’s different to your customer’s. You need to project a believable personality. Talk to your customers.

Designing for Emotion has some great exercises for finding personality. Conversational Design also has some great exercises in it. Once you have the words to describe your personality, it gets easier to design for it.

So have a think about using motion and sound to express your product’s personality. Be intentional about it. It will also make the web a more interesting place.

Why Design Systems Fail by Una Kravets

I’m at An Event Apart Boston where Una is about to talk about design systems, following on from Yesenia’s excellent design systems talk. I’m going to attempt to liveblog it…

Una works at the Bustle Digital Group, which publishes a lot of different properties. She used to work at Watson, at Bluemix and at Digital Ocean. They all have something in common (other than having blue in their logos). They all had design systems that failed.

Design systems are so hot right now. They allow us think in a componentised way, and grow quickly. There are plenty of examples out there, like Polaris from Shopify, the Lightning design sytem from Salesforce, Garden from Zendesk, Gov.uk, and Code For America. Check out Anna’s excellent styleguides.io for more examples.

What exactly is a design system?

It’s a broad term. It can be a styleguide or visual pattern library. It can be design tooling (like a Sketch file). It can be a component library. It can be documentation of design or development usage. It can be voice and tone guidelines.


When Una was in College, she had a print rebranding job—letterheads, stationary, etc. She also had to provide design guidelines. She put this design guide on the web. It had colours, heading levels, type, logo treatments, and so on. It wasn’t for an application, but it was a design system.

Design tooling

Primer by Github is a good example of this. You can download pre-made icons, colours, etc.

Component library

This is where you get the code. Una worked on BUI at Digital Ocean, which described the interaction states of each components and how to customise interactions with JavaScript.

Code usage guidelines

AirBnB has a really good example of this. It’s a consistent code style. You can even include it in your build step with eslint-config-airbnb and stylelint-config-airbnb.

Design usage documentation

Carbon by IBM does a great job of this. It describes the criteria for deciding when to use a pattern. It’s driven by user experience considerations. They also have general guidelines on loading in components—empty states, etc. And they include animation guidelines (separately from Carbon), built on the history of IBM’s magnetic tape machines and typewriters.

Voice and tone guidelines

Of course Mailchimp is the classic example here. They break up voice and tone. Voice is not just what the company is, but what the company is not:

  • Fun but not silly,
  • Confident but not cocky,
  • Smart but not stodgy,
  • and so on.

Voiceandtone.com describes the user’s feelings at different points and how to communicate with them. There are guidelines for app users, and guidelines for readers of the company newsletter, and guidelines for readers of the blog, and so on. They even have examples of when things go wrong. The guidelines provide tips on how to help people effectively.

Why do design systems fail?

Una now asks who in the room has ever started a diet. And who has ever finished a diet? (A lot of hands go down).

Nobody uses it

At Digital Ocean, there was a design system called Buoy version 1. Una helped build a design system called Float. There was also a BUI version 2. Buoy was for product, Float was for the marketing site. Classic example of 927. Nobody was using them.

Una checked the CSS of the final output and the design system code only accounted for 28% of the codebase. Most of the CSS was over-riding the CSS in the design system.

Happy design systems scale good standards, unify component styles and code and reduce code cruft. Why were people adding on instead of using the existing sytem? Because everyone was being judged on different metrics. Some teams were judged on shipping features rather than producing clean code. So the advantages of a happy design systems don’t apply to them.


It’s like going to the gym. Small incremental changes make a big difference over the long term. If you just work out for three months and then stop, you’ll lose all your progress. It’s like that with design systems. They have to stay in sync with the live site. If you don’t keep it up to date, people just won’t use it.

It’s really important to have a solid core. Accessibility needs to be built in from the start. And the design system needs ownership and dedicated commitment. That has to come from the organisation.

You have to start somewhere.


Communication is multidimensional; it’s not one-way. The design system owner (or team) needs to act as a bridge between designers and developers. Nobody likes to be told what to do. People need to be involved, and feel like their needs are being addressed. Make people feel like they have control over the process …even if they don’t; it’s like perceived performance—this is perceived involvement.

Ask. Listen. Make your users feel heard. Incorporate feedback.


Good communication is important for getting buy-in from the people who will use the design system. You also need buy-in from the product owners.

Showing is more powerful than telling. Hackathans are like candy to a budding design system—a chance to demonstrate the benefits of a design system (and get feedback). After a hackathon at Digital Ocean, everyone was talking about the design system. Weeks afterwards, one of the developers replaced Bootstrap with BUI, removing 20,000 lines of code! After seeing the impact of a design system, the developers will tell their co-workers all about it.

Solid architecture

You need to build with composability and change in mind. Primer, by Github, has a core package, and then add-ons for, say, marketing or product. That separation of concerns is great. BUI used a similar module-based approach: a core codebase, separate from iconography and grid.

Semantic versioning is another important part of having a solid architecture for your design system. You want to be able to push out minor updates without worrying about breaking changes.


Use the same convention in your design files, like Sketch.

What about tech stack choice? Every company has different needs, but one thing Una recommends is: don’t wait to namespace! All your components should have some kind of prefix in the class names so they don’t clash with existing CSS.

Una mentions Solid by Buzzfeed, which I personally think is dreadful (count the number of !important declarations—you can call it “immutable” all you want).

AtlasKit by Atlassian goes all in on React. They’re trying to integrate Sketch into it, but design tooling isn’t solved yet (AirBnB are working on this too). We’re still trying to figure out how to merge the worlds of design and code.

Reduce Friction

This is what it’s all about. Using the design system has to be the path of least resistance. If the new design system is harder to use than what people are already doing, they won’t use it.

Provide hooks and tools for the people who will be using the design system. That might be mixins in Sass or it might be a script on a CDN that people can just link to.

Start early, update often. Design systems can be built retrospectively but it’s easier to do it when a new product is being built.

Bugs and cruft always increase over time. You need a mechanism in place to keep on top of it. Not just technical bugs, but visual inconsistencies.

So the five pillars of ensuring a successful design system are:

  1. Investment
  2. Communication
  3. Buy-in
  4. Solid architecture
  5. Reduce friction

When you’re starting, begin with a goal:

We are building a design system because…

Then review what you’ve already got (your existing codebase). For example, if the goal of having a design system is to increase page performance, use Web Page Test to measure how the current site is performing. If the goal is to reduce accessibility problems, use webaim.org to measure the accessibility of your current site (see also: pa11y). If the goal is to reduce the amount of CSS in your codebase, use cssstats.com to test how your current site is doing. Now that you’ve got stats, use them to get buy-in. You can also start by doing an interface inventory. Print out pages and cut them up.

Once you’ve got buy-in and commitment (in writing), then you can make technical decisions.

You can start with your atomic elements. Buttons are like the “Hello world!” of design systems. You’ve colours, type, and different states.

Then you can compose elements by putting the base elements together.

Do you include layout in the system? That’s a challenge, and it depends on your team. If you do include layout, to what extent?

Regardless of layout, you still need to think about space: the space between base elements within a component.

Bake in accessibility: every hover state should have an equal (not opposite) focus state.

Think about states, like loading states.

Then you can start documenting. Then inform the users of the system. Carbon has a dashboard showing which components are new, which components are deprecated, and which components are being updated.

Keep consistent communication. Design and dev communication has to happen. Continuous iteration, support and communication are the most important factors in the success of a design system. Code is only 10% of a sytem.

Also, don’t feel like you need to copy other design systems out there. Your needs are probably very different. As Diana says, comparing your design system to the polished public ones is like comparing your life to someone’s Instagram account. To that end, Una says something potentially contraversial:

You might not need a design sytem.

If you’re the only one at your organisation that cares about the benefits of a design system, you won’t get buy-in, and if you don’t get buy-in, the design system will fail. Maybe there’s something more appropriate for your team? After all, not everyone needs to go to the gym to get fit. There are alternatives.

Find what works for you and keep at it.

Talking and travelling

I’m in America. This is a three-week trip and in those three weeks, I’m speaking at four conferences.

That might sound like a fairly hectic schedule but it’s really not that bad at all. In each place I’m travelling to, travel takes up a day, the conference portion takes up a couple of days, but I still get a day or two to just hang out and be a tourist, which is jolly nice.

This sojourn began in Boston where I was speaking at An Event Apart. It was—as ever—an excellent event and even though I was just speaking at An Event Apart in Seattle just a few weeks ago, there were still plenty of fresh talks for me to enjoy in Boston: Paul talking about performance, Lea talking about colour in CSS, Dan talking about process, and a barnstorming talk from Bruce on everything that makes the web great (although I respectfully disagree with his stance on DRM/EME).

My own talk was called The Long Web and An Event Apart Boston was its final outing. I first gave it at An Event Apart DC back in August—it’s had a good nine-month run.

My next appearance at An Event Apart will be at the end of this American trip in San Diego. I’ll be presenting a new talk there. Whereas my previous talk was a rambling affair about progressive enhancement, responsive design, and long-term thinking, my new talk will be a rambling affair about progressive enhancement, responsive design, and long-term thinking.

Sooner or later people are going to realise that I keep hammering home the same message in all my talks and this whole speaking-at-conferences gig will dry up. Until then, I’ll keep hammering home that same old message.

I have two opportunities to road-test this new talk before An Event Apart San Diego (for which, by the way, tickets still remain: use the code AEAKEITH when you’re booking to get $100 off).

I’ll be speaking at Bmoresponsive in Baltimore at the end of this week. Before that, I have the great pleasure (and pressure) of opening the show tomorrow at the Artifact conference here in good ol’ Austin, Texas (and believe it or not, you can still get a ticket: this time use the code ADACTIO100 when you’re booking to get $100 off).

Until then, I have some time to wander around and be a tourist. It is so nice to be here in Austin when it’s not South by Southwest. I should probably fretting over this talk but instead I’m spending my time sampling tacos and beers in the sunshine.

Jared Spool: The Secret Lives of Links

The final speaker of the first day of An Event Apart in Boston is Jared Spool. Now, when Jared gives a talk …well, you really have to be there. So I don’t know how well liveblogging is going to work but here goes anyway.

The talk is called The Secret Lives of Links. He starts by talking about one of the pre-eminent young scientists in the USA: Lisa Simpson. One day, she lost a tooth, put it in a bowl and when she later examined it under a microscope, she discovered a civilisation going about its business, all the citizens with their secret lives.

The web is like that.

Right before the threatened government shutdown, Jared was looking at news sites and how they were updating their links. Jared suggests that CNN redesign its site to simply have this list of links:

  1. The most important story.
  2. The second most important story.
  3. The third most important story.
  4. An unimportant, yet entertaining story.
  5. The Charlie Sheen story.

But of course it doesn’t work like that. The content of the links tells the importance. Links secretly live to drive the user to their content.

Compare the old CNN design to the current one. The visual design is different but the underlying essence is the same. The links work the same way.

All the news sites were reporting the imminent government shutdown with links that had different text but were all doing the same thing.

Jared has been working on the web since 1995. That whole time, he’s been watching users use websites. The pattern he has seen is that the content speaks to the user through the links. Everything hinges on the links. They provide the scent of information.

This goes back to a theory at Xerox PARC: if you modelled user behaviour when searching for information, it’s very much like a fox sniffing a trail. The users are informavores.

We can see this in educational websites. The designs may change but links are the constant.


We’ve all felt the pain of battling the site owner who wants to prioritise content that the users aren’t that interested in.

The Walgreens site is an interesting example. One fifth of the visitors follow the “photo” link. 16% go to search. The third most important link is about refilling prescriptions. The fourth is the pharmacy link. The fifth most used links is finding the physical stores. Those five links add up to 59% of the total traffic …but those links take up just 3.8% of the page.

This violates Fitts’s Law:

The speed that a user can acquire a target is proportional to the size of the target and indirectly proportional to the distance from the target.

Basically, the bigger and closer, the easier to hit. The Walgreens site violates that. Now, it would look ugly if the “photo” link was one fifth of the whole page, but the point remains: there’s a lot of stuff being foisted on the user by the business.

Another example of Fitts’s Law are those annoying giant interstitial ads that have tiny “close” links.

Deliver users to their desired objective. Give them links that communicate scent in a meaningful way. Make the real estate reflect the user’s desires.

Let’s go back to an educational web site: Ohio State. People come to websites for all sorts of reasons. Most people don’t just go to a website just to see how it looks (except for us). People go to the Ohio State website to get information about grades and schedules. The text of these links are called trigger words: the trigger an action from the user. When done correctly, trigger words lead the user to their desired goal.

It’s hard to know when your information scent is good, but it’s easy to know when your information scent is bad. User behaviour will let you know: using the back button, pogo-sticking, and using search.

Jared has seen the same patterns across hundreds of sites that he’s watched people using. They could take all the clickstreams that succeeded and all the clickstreams that failed. For 15 years there’s a consistent 58% failure rate. That’s quite shocking.

One pattern that emerges in the failed clickstreams is the presence of the back button. If a user hits the back button, the failure rate of those clickstreams rises to above 80%. If a user hits the back button twice, the failure rate rises to 98%.

The back button is the button of doom.

The user clicks the back button when they run out of scent, just like a fox circling back. But foxes succeed ‘cause rabbits are stupid and they go back to where they live and eat, so the fox can go back there and wait. Users hit the back button hoping that the page will somehow have changed when they get back.

Pay attention to the back button. The user is telling you they’ve lost the scent.

Another behaviour is pogo-sticking, hopping back and forward from a “gallery” page with a list of links to the linked pages. Pogo-sticking results in a failure rate of 89%. There’s a myth with e-commerce sites that users want to pogo-stick between product pages to compare product pages but it’s not true: the more a user pogo-sticks, the less likely they are to find what they want and make a purchase.

Users scan a page looking for trigger words. If they find a trigger word, they click on it but if they don’t find it, they go to search. That’s the way it works on 99% of sites, although Amazon is an exception. That’s because Amazon has done a great job of training users to know that absolutely nothing on the home page is of any use.

Some sites try to imitate Google and just have a search box. Don’t to that.

A more accurate name for the search box would be B.Y.O.L.: Bring Your Own Link. What do people type into this box: trigger words!

Pro tip: your search logs are completely filled with trigger words. Have you looked there lately? Your users are telling you what your trigger words should be. If you’re tracking where searches come from, you even know on what pages you should be putting those trigger words.

The key thing to understand is that people don’t want to search. There’s a myth that some people prefer to search. It’s the design of the site that forces them to search. The failure rate for search is 70%.

Jared imagines an experiment called the 7-11 milk experiment. Imagine that someone has run out of milk. We take them to the nearest 7-11. We give them the cash to buy milk. There should be a 100% milk-purchasing result.

That’s what Jared does with websites. He gives people the cash to buy a product, brings them to the website and asks them to purchase the product. Ideally you should see a 100% spending rate. But the best performing site—The Gap—got a 66% spending. The worst site got 6%.

The top variables that contributed to this pattern are: the ratio of number of pages to purchase. Purchases were made at Gap.com in 11.9 pages. On the worst performers, the ratio was 51 pages per purchase. You know what patterns they saw in the worst performers: back button usage, pogo-sticking and search.

Give users information they want. Pages that we would describe as “cluttered” don’t appear that way to a user if the content is what the user wants. Clutter is a relative term based on how much you are interested in the content.

It’s hard to show you good examples of information scent because you’re not the user looking for something specific. Good design is invisible. You don’t notice air conditioning when it’s set just right, only when it’s too hot or too cold. We don’t notice good design.

Links secretly live to look good …while still looking like links. There was a time when the prevailing belief was that links are supposed to be blue and underlined. We couldn’t have made a worse choice. Who decided that? Not designers. Astrophysicists at CERN decided. As it turns, blue is the hardest colour to perceive. Men start to lose the ability to perceive blue at 40. Women start to lose the ability at 55 …because they’re better. Underlines change the geometry of a word, slowing down reading speed.

Thankfully we’ve moved on and we can have “links of colour.” But sometimes we take it far, like the LA Times, where it’s hard to figure out what is and isn’t a link. Users have to wave their mouse around on the page hoping that the browser will give them the finger.

Have a consistent vocabulary. Try to make it clear which links leads to a different page and which links perform on action on the current page.

We confuse users with things that look like links, but aren’t.

Links secretly live to do what the user expects.

Place your links wisely. Don’t put links to related articles in the middle of an article that someone is reading.

Don’t use mystery meat navigation. Users don’t move their mouse until they know what they’re going to click on so don’t hide links behind a mouseover: by the time those links are revealed, it’s too late: users have already made a decision on what they’re going to click. Flyout menus are the worst.

Some of Jared’s favourite links are “Stuff our lawyers made us put here”, “Fewer choices” and “Everything else.”

In summary, this is what links secretly want to do:

  • Deliver users to their desired objective.
  • Emit the right scent.
  • Look good, while still looking like a link.
  • Do what the user expects.

Ethan Marcotte: The Responsive Designer’s Workflow

The next talk here at An Event Apart in Boston is one I’ve really, really, really been looking forward to: it’s a presentation by my hero Ethan Marcotte. I’ll try to liveblog it here…

The talk is called The Responsive Web Designer’s Workflow but Ethan begins by talking about his grandmother. She was born in 1910 and she’s still in great shape. This past Christmas she gave Ethan a gift of three battered and worn books that were her father’s diaries from the 1880s. They’re beautiful. The front is filled with almanac data but the most fascinating part is the short updates, mostly about the weather. They’re imperfect with crossing out and misspelling but they’re very visceral.

Stories are important. Passing on stories is an important part of what makes us human. Ethan illustrates this by showing some of my tweets about eating toast.

Newspapers are an odd paradox. For one day they are filled with the most important stories but just a day later they lose that immediate value. Take the Boston Globe, for example. It has a long history. Looking at old copies, the artefact itself is quite lovely.

But it’s a changing industry. This year nearly half of American adults will receive their news through mobile devices. The industry is trying to catch up with various strategies: separate mobile sites, iPad apps, and so on.

Ethan’s response last year was to talk about Responsive Web Design, which breaks down into three parts:

  • flexible grids,
  • flexible images and media and
  • media queries.

The idea has taken hold and lots of very talented designers have adopted a responsive approach.

Well, today you can add one more site to the list: The Boston Globe, relaunching with a responsive design this Summer.

Up ‘till now, responsiveness has been about layout—that’s different to design. As Paul Rand wrote:

Design is the method of putting form and content together.

There were three firms involved in the Globe redesign: The Boston Globe itself, Upstatement, and Filament Group. Ethan was in that third group. Everyone’s got a wide range of skills. It’s tempting to divide skills into visual design and interaction design. But that distinction is often a reflection of the job roles at design agencies.

Is the traditional design agency process part of the problem? We have this linear approach: discover, design, develop, deliver—like a relay race. But for a responsive site, you can never really say what the final deliverable is. You could try to come up with Photoshop comps for all possible layouts but that just doesn’t scale.

Then there’s the tools. The first thing you do when you open up Photoshop is to create a fixed canvas size in pixels. This is what Jason was railing against in his quest for a real web design application.

For the responsive workflow, what’s needed is …design-o-velopment (no, not really).

The group convenes. The designers introduce the comp, explaining their decisions. The developers ask lots of questions. Where does content come from? How does the user interact with it? And the important one: how is going to look on a smaller screen? How should it adapt? They discuss the various input modes: mouse, touch, keyboard, voice. The questions are more important than any particular answers at this point.

“What value does this content have for our mobile users?” That question can be best answered by adopting Luke’s Mobile First approach. Narrow screens force us to focus.

Look at an article on AOL. The mobile version is great. The desktop version is cluttered. We drown the content. “Mobile” has become a synonym for “Less” and “Desktop” has become a synonym for “More.”

If you were asked to describe a mobie user, you might think of someone on the go, easily distracted. Whereas you may imagine a desktop user as sitting comfortably with plenty of screen size and attention. But it’s not that simple. People use their mobile devices in all sorts of environments at all sorts of times.

Making decisions about what people want based simply on the device they are using is a little bit like telepathy. Context doesn’t necessarily determine the user’s intent.

Even a good mobile experience, like Flickr’s, gets things wrong. Content is withheld from visitors with mobile devices. Lots of people click on that “desktop version” link because they feel they are missing out.

When you practice Mobile First, you’re making a commitment to the content. Everything that’s displayed on the page deserves to be there. Mobile First really means Content First.

Now you prototype like wild. A pixel-based tool like Photoshop is limited in what it can convey so you need to start making prototypes from the outset.

Figuring out the proportions for a flexible grid is fairly straightforward: target divided by context equals result. Slot in your pixel values to that equation and you get a percentage that you can declare in your stylesheet. Now you’ve got a liquid layout.

Resizing images is simple:

img { max-width: 100%; }

For important large images you can use Scott Jehl’s script to swap out the image src attribute based on the viewport size. It defaults to the smaller-sized image.

Finally, there’s the media queries. There’s a lot of devices to test on. Fortunately the Filament Group are involved with jQuery Mobile so they’ve already got a lot of devices. But rather than designing for specific devices, they searched instead for commonalities, like screen sizes. These are common breakpoints so they are what’s used in the media queries.

There’s very good browser support for media queries but there are still some laggards. Scott Jehl’s other script, Respond, bootstraps media query support using JavaScript.

It’s worth pointing out that they don’t have comps for all these breakpoints: they’re designing in the browser at this point. But they take these prototypes back to the designers so that they can vet them. They ask more questions. How well does the layout adapt? Do individual elements still feel usable? Most importantly, do any page elements need additional design work?

The masthead of the Boston Globe was a tricky problem. The result from prototyping wasn’t satisfactory so the designers came up with a different solution. As the layout shrinks, the masthead functionality changes. This solution wouldn’t have been possible without reconvening to review the prototype. So they’re designing in the browser but what they’re designing are design recommendations.

A responsive site isn’t flipping between a set of fixed layouts. It’s liquid. Breakpoints that you haven’t thought of will still work.

You have to figure out what is the most appropriate experience for what device. Stephen Hay wrote a great post called There Is No Mobile Web. His point is that the rise of mobile should encourage to revisit our principles of accessibility and progressive enhancement for everyone.

When responsive design meets Mobile First—starting with the narrowest width and building up from there—what you’re doing is progressive enhancement. You’ll even see this layering in the way that the stylesheets are structured.

The basic experience is still very attractive. The next step is enhancing for browsers that support media queries …and Internet Explorer. They get an enhanced stylesheet.

There are other things you can test for: are touch events supported, for example. So an iPad has the screen size of a laptop but it also supports touch events. They get some enhanced JavaScript functionality.

A really tricky question is “is this key content, or is it simply an enhancement for some users?” Web fonts are good example of this grey area. For the Boston Globe, they decided to make a hard cut-off point and only serve up web fonts to viewports above a certain size.

Conditional loading in JavaScript is very useful for serving up the right functionality to the right devices.

Let’s pull back a bit before we wrap up.

Just as there has been discussion “Mobile” and “Desktop”, there has also been discussion of “Mobile” and “Responsiveness.” A lot of the discussion is around butting heads between idealism and realism. Ultimately the decision about whether to make “Mobile” site or a “Responsive” site is more about the designer’s philosophy than about devices.

This has been quite a day for announcements. As well as the forthcoming Boston Globe redesign, Ethan also has a publishing date for his book: Responsive Web Design will be published by A Book Apart on June 7th.

Luke Wroblewski: Mobile Web Design Moves

Next up at An Event Apart in Boston is Luke Wroblewski. Let’s see if I can liveblog just some his awesomeness.

Luke begins with some audience interactivity. We’ve all got to stand up. Now we learn a few small moves. Put them all together and what have you got? The Thriller dance!

There’s a point to this: his talk is called Mobile Web Design Moves. Small moves can add up to very big things.

But why learn new moves? Well, Mobile changes things:

  • Mobile web growth and
  • Mobile is different.

Mobile web growth

A few years ago, Morgan Stanley published a report in which they predicted that somewhere in 2012 more mobile devices would be shipped than PCs. Well, it happened two years earlier than predicted. As Eric Schmitt has said, everything to do with mobile happens faster. There’s been a 20% drop in PC usage, with the slack taken up by tablets and smartphones. But as Luke points out, the term PC—Personal Computer—is actually better suited to a mobile device; the device you have with you on your person. The way we interact online, email, etc., is shifting to mobile devices.

But is all this usage happening in native apps? No, as it turns out. 40% of Twitter’s traffic comes from mobile, of which 78% is from the mobile website. Mobile browser users increased over 300%. What people forget is that growth of native apps also drives growth of mobile web use.

In a nutshell, more people are going to be accessing your websites with a mobile device than with a desktop device. Find one study of mobile usage that doesn’t show exponential growth.

Even if you have native apps, like Gowalla with a client for iOS, Android, Blackbery, etc., people will still post links in your native app and where does that take you? To a browser.

Anyway, it doesn’t have to be either a native app or a mobile web site. You can hedge your bets and do both …so you’re protected if Steve Jobs pulls the rug out from under you.

Mobile is different

When you’re sitting at a computer at home, you’re sitting comfortably with a keyboard, mouse, chair and coffee mug. The mobile experience involves a small screen, short battery life, an inconsistent network, fingers and sensors. This tactile experience makes it intensely personal.

Where do people use these devices? There’s the sterotypical picture of the businessman on the move, walking down the street. But 84% of mobile usage happens at home; watching TV, for example. 74% of people use them standing in line. People use them in the toilet.

What about when people use these devices? All throughout the day, as it happens. That’s quite different to desktop use. iPad users do a lot of reading on the couch in the evening and in bed at night.

Mobile devices have different technical capabilities and limitations and there are also some distinct times and behaviours associated with their usage.

By now you should be convinced: I need new moves!

Organise yourself

Try to understand why someone would pull out their mobile device. What is that device good at? Try to marry that up with your content. Luke breaks down mobile behaviours into these categories:

  • Lookup/Find — usually location-related.
  • Explore/Play — often related to reading.
  • Check in/Status
  • Edit/Create — email, for example.

Think about organising your structure to fit these tasks. Luke shows a college site that prioritises campus information less than marketing fluff. But you know, this isn’t just about mobile users. That useful information—like a campus map—is useful for everyone, regardless of their device. So if you go through this process of prioritising for mobile, you will also be prioritising for desktop.

Mobile forces you to prioritise. Screen space is tight. Attention is short. Apply the same prioritisation to desktop users.

Here’s a good rule of thumb: content first, navigation second. Give people what they’re looking for first.

Don’t try to port all of your content to mobile. Instead use this as an opportunity to prune your content and get rid of the crap that people aren’t interested in.

What people want to do on mobile is the same as what people want to do on the desktop. For some reason, Yelp only allowed mobile users to point “mini” reviews …at the very time when people are in the place they are reviewing!

Don’t dumb it down for mobile.

Use your head

Content first, navigation second; yes, but navigation is still important. Facebook’s mobile version originally had 13 navigation elements, which is a bit much. YouTube puts the navigation on a different screen. The pro is that this saves screen estate. The con is that you lose context. ESPN’s mobile site has a navigation that you pull down. There’s also navigation at the end of the page. That’s better than what YouTube does: when you get to the end of the page on YouTube, it’s a dead end. One of the challenges with the ESPN site is that the navigation is duplicated (the pull-down nav and the footer nav). A potential solution is to have that nav link at the top point to the navigation at the bottom of the page.

What about fixed position menus? The iPhone has permanent software buttons on screen in the browser, right? But to do fixed positioning on mobile you have to use some hacky JavScript. And even if you get it working, it’s eating up valuable screen real estate. On the Android device, there’s the problem of the proximity to hardware buttons: people will accidentally mis-tap the hardware controls trying to use on-screen navigation anchored to the bottom of the screen.

So don’t just slavishly copy iOS conventions. Don’t put a back button in your site. It makes sense in an app but on a website, the browser provides a back button already.

Take it in

Input is interesting topic on mobile. The traditional advice is to avoid text input on mobile ….and yet billions of text messages are sent every day. So let’s reverse the traditional advice. Let’s encourage people to input on mobile.

The workhorses of input on the web have been checkboxes, radio buttons, drop-down lists, etc. Using these standards on mobile means you can type into the device interface features, like the select UI on the iPhone. But the constraints of the smaller screen on a mobile device introduces some challenges even if you use these standard controls. If you make your own interface elements, you can given them touch target sizes.

The stuff that we have to programme for ourselves today will become standard declarative features in the future. That’s already happening with HTML5 input types like date. But even small things can make a big difference. Use input types like url, number, email, etc. to get an appropriate on-screen keyboard on iOS. Make use of new input types and attributes. Every little bit helps.

Input masks—confining what’s allowed in a form field—can be very useful on mobile devices. Right now we have to do it programmatically but again, it should become declarative in the future.

Avoid the gradual reveal, where you format as people are typing but in a different format to what the placeholder text displayed. Beware with placeholder text: people can interpret it as the form field already being filled in. Phrase them as questions if you can.

There’s a lot of really exciting things happening on the input side of things with mobile devices. More and more device APIs and sensors are being exposed.

Ask for it

Input is the way we gather answers from people but we also have to think about how we ask the questions.

Many mobile browsers try to optimise desktop-specific sites to help mobile users by using zoom. In that situation, right-aligned form field labels are problematic: when you zoom in on the form field, you can’t see the label. Top-aligned labels work better …and there are many other advantages to top-aligned labels that Luke has talked about in the past.

Some people are trying to use placeholder text as labels. But the problem there is that as soon as you tap in there, it disappears. Again, watch out when putting labels within input fields: it’s not clear if the form field is already filled in or not.

Make your moves

Here’s an opportunity. Mobile is growing so quickly and it’s all new. Now is our chance to come up with new innovative stuff. This stuff hasn’t been figured out yet. More and more devices are coming online every day and they’ve all got web browsers.

We can push towards natural user interfaces where the content is the user interface. Minor rant: our design processes are more about designing navigation instead of focusing on the content and designing that. It’s a challenge. As Josh Clark put it:

Buttons are a hack.

So make your own moves. Yes, it’s a scary time; there’s so much to learn about, but also also a huge opportunity.

Keep an eye out for Luke’s book from A Book Apart called Mobile First coming out in Summer 2011.

Veerle Pieters: The Experimental Zone

The next speaker at An Event Apart in Boston is Veerle Pieters. I’m going to try liveblogging some of what she’s got to say.

Veerle’s talk is called The Experimental Zone and it’s all about experimentation in web design. People often ask her how she comes up with, say, certain colour combinations but she doesn’t really have a straightforward answer—a lot of it is down to experimentation. So it’s good to learn how to experiment better. Pablo Picasso said:

Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.

Spirographs seem complex but they are a perfect example of how experimenting with really simple fundamental rules and shapes can lead to a beautiful result: start with a simple, translucent square and start applying the same transform multiple times e.g. scaling 85% and rotate -10 degrees. Object: transform: transform again.

You can also experiment with colours in spirographs. Start with a translucent triangular shape, copy and rotate it by 18 degrees but before that, change the colour values. Try different blending modes and see what comes out. Combine different layer modes with different scaling values e.g. 115%. Try different rotation angles to see how they turn out. An extreme value like 48 degrees applied to translucent circular shapes of different colours leads to some interesting results.

Transparency. Blending. Scale. Rotation. Colour. Experiment with those combinations.

But why play around with this stuff? Well, Veerle used some of the results in client work for some background images on sites and on physical credit card designs.

Start with some circles in the colours defined by the client’s in-house style guide and start experimenting with combinations. It’s okay to try out a dozen versions. When you really need to have control, you can get in there and change the overlapping colour combinations manually.

Veerle also does small experiments not related to work; a little every day. She’s got a folder full of patterns and experiments that she hasn’t used yet but they might come in handy later on. Another example of experimentation was the Duoh Christmas card. She began with a star and started experimenting with repeating patterns. Those experimentations didn’t lead anywhere so she went back to the star and tried a different approach. That’s often the way things work out: you have a starting point, you experiment from there and if it doesn’t work out, return to the starting point and try a different direction. For the Christmas card, scaling the star to different sizes with different colours and opacity lead to the final result.

Logo design works in a similar way. The typeface is the starting point (in this example, Dessau Pro Regular). Veerle tweaked the letter shapes and started experimenting with shapes within the shapes. In this example, Veerle took the bowl of the letter A and starting duplicating and rotating, getting some really nice results. You’re playing around and then suddenly you go “Oh, that’s it: that’s what I was looking for.”

Veerle sketches her ideas down. For her own blog, she started sketching variations based around the letter V but she didn’t like any of the results so she left the sketchbook and jumped into Illustrator. Sometimes it’s a bit of both that works: experiments in a sketchbook and in Illustrator.

If time permits, Veerle likes to leave a design (like a logo) alone for a while. Then come back to it and see if you still like it. For her blog, the initial logo she created didn’t stand up to this test. So she went back to the starting point, the letter V, and went in a different direction, keeping the elements she liked from the previous attempt—like the colours—but experimenting with shapes.

Mood boards can be useful for getting started. For the book cover of Aaron’s forthcoming book Adaptive Web Design, she began with her scrapbook-like collection of images and started putting some together into a mood board, trying to visualise the concept of progressive enhancement. The first design direction was ruled to be a bit too abstract. So the simple cubes were ditched in favour of something more sophisticated. The end result is the chameleon on the cover—it’s built of abstract shapes and many colours, but the result is something recognisable.

“Let’s experiment,” says Veerle.

As Erik Spiekermann has said, you can be inspired by something but you can’t just copy it wholesale. But Veerle likes to begin by reproducing something side-by-side and then, maybe a few days later, try to reproduce it without the original. The result is stamped with your own take on the original. She did this with the book cover for Imaginary Cities.

She started sketching it from memory. Her version turned out different; more cube-based. She imported that sketch into illustrator and started making outlines with the pen tool. Once the tracing is done, she started filling in shapes with translucent colours. She used the colour picker to take colours from some of the overlapping shapes for use in a different layer with a different mode: the resulting colour fill is very different. She didn’t know what the end result would be but she just tried things out. Once the colours have been gathered together, she created some gradients with them and applied them to some of the cubes. Then she added some dashed lines that she recalled from original cover. Finally, she upped the contrast.

But let’s go a step further. Let’s try to do this with CSS.

Alex Walker’s article The Cicada Principle is all about introducing pseudo-randomness into tiled multiple background images: the image sizes are all based on different prime numbers. The result looks random. For the curtain example, a ruffle is the base unit: the first image has 1 unit, the second image has 3 units, the third has 7 units.

Veerle takes this idea and applies to her cube-based design. She went with multiples of 3: 300 pixels, 600 pixels, 900 pixels. The result is a great backdrop of overlapping cubes and no matter how wide your browser window, you won’t see the repeat. You can see in action at http://www.duoh.com/varia/cicada.

Veerle has some practical tips to finish with.

  • Name your layers. Turn off that preference in Photoshop that says “Add ‘copy’ to copied layers”.
  • If you rotate a bitmap, you sometimes end up with odd shifting pixels that look blurry. Change the point of origin of the rotation: use one of the corners instead of the centre.
  • If you paste from Illustrator to Photoshop the result can be blurry. Before pasting, select exactly the size you want to paste in. Experiment to find the right size to avoid blurring.
  • Tychpanel by Reimund Trost is a very handy tool for calculating sizes.
  • Another useful tool is a plugin called Guide Guide by Cameron McEfee which is particularly useful for grids.
  • Extensible baseline grids by Mike Precious is also really handy technique for creating a baseline grid.
  • When tweaking letter shapes and spacing, for a logo, for example, try turning the letters upside down to get a different perspective. It can be clearer what needs to be tweaked.
  • Colour management is tricky. Some people turn sRGB off for exporting to the web to avoid colour shifting. Actually you need to set up your environment the right way. Calibrate your screen. Then set up colour management for Adobe Creative Suite. Veerle chose the Adobe RGB environment: she works in print as well as web, so just using sRGB isn’t going to work for her. Have your environment set up to have a wide gamut; you can always narrow it down for specific exports like for the web, for example.
  • When importing, assign a profile rather than converting to a profile. Converting is a destructive process whereas assigning a colour profile doesn’t actually alter the image file.

Veerle likes to start by forgetting about technical constrains and just experimenting in a free-form way. That can lead to more creative, new ideas instead of limiting yourself. Of course you can’t go too far, but still, there’s a good zone for experimentation.

Whitney Hess: Design Principles — The Philosophy of UX

The second speaker at this mornings An Event Apart in Boston is Whitney Hess. Here goes with the liveblogging…

Whitney’s talk is about design principles. As a consultant, she spends a lot of time talking about UX and inevitably, the talk turns to deliverables and process but really we should be establishing a philosophy about how to treat people, in the same way that visual design is about establishing a philosophy about how make an impact. Visual design has principles to achieve that: contrast, emphasis, balance, proportion, rhythm, movement, texture, harmony and unity.

Why have these principles? It’s about establishing a basis for your design decisions, leading to consistency. It’s about having a shared vision and they allow for an objective evaluation of the outcome.

But good design doesn’t necessarily equate to a good experience. The Apple G4 Cube was beautifully designed but it was limited in where and how it could be used.

Good design can equal good experience. That’s why Whitney does what she does. But she needs our help. She’s going to propose a set of design principles that she feels are universally applicable.

  1. Stay out of people’s way. The Tumblr homepage does this. You can find out more about Tumblr further down the page, but it doesn’t assume that’s what you want to have thrust in your face. Instead the primary content is all about getting started with Tumblr straight away.
  2. Create a hierarchy that matches people’s needs. This is about prioritisation. Mint.com uses different font sizes to match the hierarchy of importance on its “ways to save” page. Give the most crucial elements the greatest prominence. Use hierarchy to help people process information.
  3. Limit distractions. Don’t put pregnancy test kits next to condoms. On the web, Wanderfly does this right: one single path, completely self-contained. Multi-tasking is a myth. Let people focus on one task. Design for consecutive tasks, not concurrent.
  4. Provide strong information scent. Quora does a great job at this with its suggested search options. It’s actively helping you choose the right one. People don’t like to guess haphazardly, they like to follow their nose.
  5. Provide signposts and cues. Labelling is important. The Neiman Marcus e-commerce site does this right. It’s always clear where you are: the navigation is highlighted. You’d think that in 2011 this would be standard but you’d be surprised. Never let people get lost, especially on the web where there’s a limitless number of paths. Show people where they came from and where they’re going.
  6. Provide context. A sign that says “Back in 30 minutes” isn’t helpful if you’re in a hurry—you don’t know when the sign was put up. On the web, AirBnB provides everything you need to know on a listing page, all in one place. It’s self-contained and everything is communicated up-front.
  7. Use constraints appropriately. Preventing error is a lot better than recovering from it. If you know there are restrictions ahead of time, stop people from going down that route in the first place.
  8. Make actions reversible. (illustrated with a misspelled Glee tattoo) Remember The Milk provides an “undo?” link with almost every action. There’s no such thing as perfect design; people will make errors, so you should have a contingency plan. Undo is probably the most powerful control you can provide to people.
  9. Provide feedback. How do you know when you’re asthma inhaler is empty? You don’t. You won’t find out until the worst moment. On the web, loading indicators provide useful feedback. Tell people that a task is underway. Design is a conversation, not a monologue.
  10. Make a good first impression. Vimeo has one of the best first-time user experiences: “Welcome. You’re new, aren’t you?” Establish the rules, set expectations about the relationship you’re about to initiate on your site.

The basis for all of these principles are Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: logos, ethos and pathos—the rhetorical triangle.

Are universal principles enough? Probably not. Every company is different. Some companies publicly share their principles. Take Google’s “Ten Principles That Contribute to a Googley User Experience” as an example, or Facebook’s design principle …or Windows design principles for a good laugh. Look beyond the tech world too, like Charles and Ray Eames or Burning Man’s design principles.

So what are your company’s principles? Without principles, we don’t know what we’re trying to achieve. Here are some guiding ideas:

  1. Research available principles from elsewhere.
  2. Gather, list and print out the business goals and user needs.
  3. Brainstorm with key collaborators.
  4. Narrow down to no more than 10, preferably 7.
  5. Make sure they don’t overlap.
  6. Make them peppy.

Use the design principles at kickoff meetings, when your prioritising features, brainstorming sessions, design critiques, stakeholder presentations, resolving conflict, postmortems and web metric analysis: evaluating the success of the feature or product.

Remember, user experience is the establishment of a philosophy of how to treat people. Help people make their lives better.

Jeffrey Zeldman: What Every Web Designer Should Know — A Better You At What You Do

I’m at An Event Apart in Boston where Jeffrey Zeldman is about to kick things off. I figured I’d try my hand at a little bit of good ol’ fashioned liveblogging…

Jeffrey’s talk is called What Every Web Designer Should Know—A Better You At What You Do. He asks “what does it mean to be a designer when everyone is calling themselves a designer?” 15 years ago, Jeffrey thought everyone would learn HTML and be a web designer. That didn’t happen but what did happen is social media, which is democratising online publishing. His 6-year old daughter uses an iPad like a natural, figuring out the interfaces of drawing tools.

The rules are changing. You may not be in control of the user’s visual experience. (those are direct quotes from his slides—he’s delivering pre-formatted tweets for the audience’s benefit)

Here’s the website of Roger Ebert. He’s a great guy and his website is full of links but it really isn’t set up well for reading. But that’s okay. Jeffrey uses Readability (and there’s also Instapaper) to format the content.

It used to be that the client or boss was in charge of the brand but that’s changing. There was always a minority of web users—using older devices, say—that wouldn’t see what you intended, but nowadays every user has the power to manipulate the output. Sure, us geeks always used user stylesheet to hide ads, but now it’s mainstream.

Readability is open source and it’s also the underlying code behind Safari’s Reader functionality

Definitions are in flux, discussion is contentious. A List Apart runs a survey every year. They ask “what is your job title?” They get a lot of different job titles that sound like they’re doing the same thing. At a university you might be called a “webmaster” whereas at an agency you might be called a “creative director” and yet you’d be doing the same work.

We geeks love to argue about definitions. See, for example, Whitney’s recent post called You’re Not A UX Designer If… A lot of people loved what she wrote; a lot of people didn’t. Luke wrote on Twitter:

Happy to find I’m not a UX designer.

Jeffrey responded:

Me neither. That’s why I hire them.

There are different kinds of creative people. That’s why Jeffrey likes to have a mix of people at his agency—the intuitive creative types along with the researchers.

Design that does not serve people does not serve business. It used to be that designers would respond to client feedback with their opinions; “here’s what I think…” and we could present data and research. It’s really important to think about the user first and foremost.

For example, apps that auto-spam people on Twitter sounds like a great idea to the client …but of course users hate it. It’s an anti-user pattern. Anti-user patterns are anti-business.

As Jeffrey was getting ready this morning, he want on Facebook and announced he was about to give a talk. He found thousands and thousands of spammy updates from some automated app. It’s embarrassing for the users who have been taken advantage of.

Content precedes design. Design without content is decoration. Jeffrey wrote that on Twitter, which is a great way of planting an idea in people’s minds Inception-style.

Remember Blogger? When Google bought it, they hired a bunch of people—including the viking-like Jeff Veen’s Adaptive Path—to retool the user experience of signing up for Blogger to make it accessible for everyone. They turned to Douglas Bowman. He reached out to a bunch of his designer friends, asking them to design templates. It was a really, really hard design job because there was no content to design with. Jeffrey feels that he himself failed at the task but somehow Doug managed to do it. He created a really nice template that worked for everyone. It has stood the test of time remarkably well. In his fifteen years of designing websites, this is the only example Jeffrey can think of of a good design created in the absence of content.

On a related note, 37 Signals have famously declared war on lorem ipsum placeholder text. All websites are based around content—including web apps. Take this link call-out to their first million-selling book Defensive Design in the sidebar. You need to know how long the blurb is going to be to make sure it works with the design.

You can’t solve the problem until you define it. You probably can’t solve it alone.

If you can’t solve a problem alone and you need to some user testing—not that we’re testing users; it’s design testing with users—one of the ways to do that is with Silverback. But like Jeffrey said, there’s always dissent. Naz Hammid said:

User testing is great but it can also be a crutch when what you really want to be doing is changing behaviour and thought patterns.

Take for example the “pull down to refresh” gesture from Tweetie. That was an innovation that wasn’t based on user testing. It worked though, and apps that didn’t use that pattern started to feel old-fashioned and dated.

Then there’s Tweetbot. Some people feel that the interface is excessive but they’re trying out new stuff like swiping left on a tweet to see a whole conversation and swiping right to see related tweets.

So you can innovate and get the innovation to go viral.

He not busy being born is busy dying. The three books from A Book Apart are quite different, from HTML5 to content strategy. What’s surprising is that the same people are buying all the books. We need to know a bit of everything in this industry. Maybe I’m not going to be a content strategist, but I need to know about content strategy.

It’s remarkable how nice is everyone is in this line of work. We all blog and share our ideas and techniques. That’s not the norm in other disciplines.

RIGHT NOW is the best time in more than a decade to create websites and applications. There are new opportunities: Webkit and Mobile, HTML5 and CSSS3, UX and Content Strategy. The landscape has changed in a good way. It’s bringing up a lot of challenges, for instance…

A Mobile and Small Screen Strategy: what’s the difference? A lot of time we say “mobile” when what we really mean is “small screen.” Is the “mobile” version of A List Apart really mobile? No. It doesn’t do any location-based cleverness. Instead it’s a layout optimised for a small-screen. So ask yourself, do you need a mobile site or do you need a small-screen site?

For some sites, especially content-driven sites, small-screen optimisation is the smartest strategy. For other sites, especially those with a location pivot, a mobile strategy is what you need.

Real web designers write code. Always have, always will. That’s another controversial little soundbite that Jeffrey put out on Twitter to spark discussion, like Whitney’s post. You don’t to code to the level of say, Ethan Marcotte, but you do need to know what’s possible with markup and CSS.

Progressive enhancement is a universal smart default. This is the watchword of the web standards movement. We’re okay with everyone not have the same experience as long as everyone has a good experience. Be sure to check out Adaptive Web Design by Aaron Gustafson. (note: seriously, this book is going to be amazing: I’ve had a sneak peek)

Some more soundbites:

Semantic markup is a fundamental skill.

UX and design are not antonyms.

A quick look at HTML5 Design Principles. We can learn a lot from ideas like “Pave the cowpaths.” Fail predictably. That’s a really, really, really important part of HTML5: consistent error handling. Beyond outline documents. Audio, video, articles, sections …HTML5 has new features that people want. If people are publishing video, shouldn’t HTML5 allow that?

Happy Cog wrote an article about strategies for using HTML5. Jenn Lukas did some research into how many sites are switching to HTML5. There are a lot of big sites switching their doctype: Google, Yahoo, etc. It’s kind of crazy the way that HTML5 has become a mainstream meme. Like, for example, Steve Jobs publishing his letter the day before HTML5 For Web Designers came out (good timing, Steve).

HTML5 DOCTYPE using limited HTML elements and ARIA roles. You can tailor your HTML5 strategy.

HTML5 + CSS3 = vector art in browsers. Experiment with things like RGBa.

There’s more that Jeffrey would like to cover, like Responsive Web Design, but the other speakers—like Ethan—are going to cover this stuff and time is up so that’s it, folks.