Journal tags: communication

6

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Overlay gap

I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.

Around about the six minute mark she starts talking about gaps and overlaps.

Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.

Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.

This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).

When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:

Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.

I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.

Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:

There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.

How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?

PM/Legal/Marketing made me do it

I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.

It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:

Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.

Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.

So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.

I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.

Because the web can’t survive like this.

Telling the story of performance

At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right nowCrux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.

Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

Cat encounters

The latest episode of Ariel’s excellent Offworld video series (and podcast) is all about Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.

I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.

Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.

This is a timely discussion. There’s a new book by Daniel Oberhaus published by MIT Press called Extraterrestrial Languages:

If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?

You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:

Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.

Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.

It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.

But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.

The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:

This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:

  1. Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
  2. Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.

This is the raycat solution.

Toast

Shockwaves rippled across the web standards community recently when it appeared that Google Chrome was unilaterally implementing a new element called toast. It turns out that’s not the case, but the confusion is understandable.

First off, this all kicked off with the announcement of “intent to implement”. That makes it sounds like Google are intending to, well, …implement this. In fact “intent to implement” really means “intend to mess around with this behind a flag”. The language is definitely confusing and this is something that will hopefully be addressed.

Secondly, Chrome isn’t going to ship a toast element. Instead, this is a proposal for a custom element currently called std-toast. I’m assuming that should the experiment prove successful, it’s not a foregone conclusion that the final element name will be called toast (minus the sexually-transmitted-disease prefix). If this turns out to be a useful feature, there will surely be a discussion between implementators about the naming of the finished element.

This is the ideal candidate for a web component. It makes total sense to create a custom element along the lines of std-toast. At first I was confused about why this was happening inside of a browser instead of first being created as a standalone web component, but it turns out that there’s been a fair bit of research looking at existing implementations in libraries and web components. So this actually looks like a good example of paving an existing cowpath.

But it didn’t come across that way. The timing of announcements felt like this was something that was happening without prior discussion. Terence Eden writes:

It feels like a Google-designed, Google-approved, Google-benefiting idea which has been dumped onto the Web without any consideration for others.

I know that isn’t the case. And I know how many dedicated people have worked hard on this proposal.

Adrian Roselli also remarks on the optics of this situation:

To be clear, while I think there is value in minting a native HTML element to fill a defined gap, I am wary of the approach Google has taken. A repo from a new-to-the-industry Googler getting a lot of promotion from Googlers, with Googlers on social media doing damage control for the blowback, WHATWG Googlers handling questions on the repo, and Google AMP strongly supporting it (to reduce its own footprint), all add up to raise alarm bells with those who advocated for a community-driven, needs-based, accessible web.

Dave Cramer made a similar point:

But my concern wasn’t so much about the nature of the new elements, but of how we learned about them and what that says about how web standardization works.

So there’s a general feeling (outside of Google) that there’s something screwy here about the order of events. A lot discussion and research seems to have happened in isolation before announcing the intent to implement:

It does not appear that any discussions happened with other browser vendors or standards bodies before the intent to implement.

Why is this a problem? Google is seeking feedback on a solution, not on how to solve the problem.

Going back to my early confusion about putting a web component directly into a browser, this question on Discourse echoes my initial reaction:

Why not release std-toast (and other elements in development) as libraries first?

It turns out that std-toast and other in-browser web components are part of an idea called layered APIs. In theory this is an initiative in the spirit of the extensible web manifesto.

The extensible web movement focused on exposing low-level APIs to developers: the fetch API, the cache API, custom elements, Houdini, and all of those other building blocks. Layered APIs, on the other hand, focuses on high-level features …like, say, an HTML element for displaying “toast” notifications.

Layered APIs is an interesting idea, but I’m worried that it could be used to circumvent discussion between implementers. It’s a route to unilaterally creating new browser features first and standardising after the fact. I know that’s how many features already end up in browsers, but I think that the sooner that authors, implementers, and standards bodies get a say, the better.

I certainly don’t think this is a good look for Google given the debacle of AMP’s “my way or the highway” rollout. I know that’s a completely different team, but the external perception of Google amongst developers has been damaged by the AMP project’s anti-competitive abuse of Google’s power in search.

Right now, a lot of people are jumpy about Microsoft’s move to Chromium for Edge. My friends at Microsoft have been reassuring me that while it’s always a shame to reduce browser engine diversity, this could actually be a good thing for the standards process: Microsoft could theoretically keep Google in check when it comes to what features are introduced to the Chromium engine.

But that only works if there is some kind of standards process. Layered APIs in general—and std-toast in particular—hint at a future where a single browser vendor can plough ahead on their own. I sincerely hope that’s a misreading of the situation and that this has all been an exercise in miscommunication and misunderstanding.

Like Dave Cramer says:

I hear a lot about how anyone can contribute to the web platform. We’ve all heard the preaching about incubation, the Extensible Web, working in public, paving the cowpaths, and so on. But to an outside observer this feels like Google making all the decisions, in private, and then asking for public comment after the feature has been designed.

Shadows and smoke

When I wrote about a year of learning with Charlotte, I made an off-hand remark in parentheses:

Hiring Charlotte was an experiment for Clearleft—could we hire someone in a “junior” position, and then devote enough time and resources to bring them up to a “senior” level? (those quotes are air quotes—I find the practice of labelling people or positions “junior” or “senior” to be laughably reductionist; you might as well try to divide the entire web into “apps” and “sites”).

It breaks my heart to see so many of my colleagues prefix their job titles “senior” (not least because it becomes completely meaningless when every single Visual Designer is also a “Senior Visual Designer”).

I remember being at a conference after-party a few years ago chatting to a very talented front-end developer. She wasn’t happy with where she was working. I advised to get a job somewhere else After all, she lived and worked in San Francisco, where her talents are in high demand. But she was hesitant.

“They’ve promised me that in a few more months, my job title would become ‘Senior Developer’”, she said. “Ah, right,” I said, “and what happens then?” “Well”, she said, “I get to have the word ‘senior’ on my resumé.” That was it. No pay rise. No change in responsibilities. Just a word on a piece of paper.

I had always been suspicious of job titles, but that exchange put me over the edge. Job titles can be downright harmful.

Dan recently wrote about the importance of job titles. I love Dan, but I couldn’t disagree with him more in this instance.

He cite two situations where he believes job titles have value:

Your title tells your colleagues how to interact with you.

No. Talking to your colleagues tells your colleagues how to interact you. Job titles attempt to short-cut that. They do a terrible job of it.

What you need to know are the verbs that your colleagues are adept in: designing, developing, thinking, communicating, facilitating …all of that gets squashed down into one reductionist noun like “Copywriter” or “Designer”.

At Clearleft, we’ve recently started kicking off projects with an exercise called “Fuzzy Edges” that Boxman has been refining. In it, we look ahead to all the upcoming project roles (e.g. “Who will lead playbacks and demos?”, “Who will run stakeholder interviews?”, “Who will lead design direction?”). Together, everyone on the project comes to a consensus on who has which roles.

It’s really, really important to clarify these roles at the start of each project, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that can’t be summed up in a job title. In fact, the existence of job titles can lead to harmful assumptions like “Oh, I figured you were leading playbacks and demos!” or “Oh, I assumed they were running stakeholder interviews!”, or worse: “Hey, you can’t lead design direction because that’s not in your job title!”

The role assignments can vary hugely from project to project, which is great. People are varied and multi-faceted. Trying to force the same people into the same roles over and over again would be demoralising and counter-productive. I fear that’s exactly what job titles do—they reinforce barriers.

Here’s the second reason Dan gives for the value of job titles:

Your title tells your clients how to interact with you.

Again, no. Talking to your clients tells your clients how to interact with you.

Dan illustrates his point by recounting a tale of deception, demonstrating that a well-placed lie about someone’s job title can mollify the kind of people who place great stock in job titles. That’s not solving the real problem. Again, while job titles might appear to be shortcuts to a shared understanding, they’re actually more like façades covering up trapdoors.

In recounting the perceived value of job titles, there’s an assumption that the titles were arrived at fairly. If someone’s job title is “Senior Designer” and someone’s job title is “Junior Designer”, then the senior person must be the better, more experienced designer, right?

But that isn’t always the case. And that’s when job titles go from being silly pointless phrases to being downright damaging, causing real harm.

Over on Rands in Repose, there’s a great post called Titles are Toxic. His experience mirrors mine:

Never in my life have I ever stared at a fancy title and immediately understood the person’s value. It took time. I spent time with those people — we debated, we discussed, we disagreed — and only then did I decide: “This guy… he really knows his stuff. I have much to learn.” In Toxic Title Douchebag World, titles are designed to document the value of an individual sans proof. They are designed to create an unnecessary social hierarchy based on ego.

See? There’s no shortcut for talking to people. Job titles are an attempt to cut out one of the most important aspects of humans working together.

The unspoken agreement was that these titles were necessary to map to a dimwitted external reality where someone would look at a business card and apply an immediate judgement on ability based on title. It’s absurd when you think about it – the fact that I’d hand you a business card that read “VP” and you’d leap to the immediate assumption: “Since his title is VP, he must be important. I should be talking to him”. I understand this is how a lot of the world works, but it’s precisely this type of reasoning that makes titles toxic.

So it’s not even that I think that job titles are bad at what they’re trying to do …I think that what they’re trying to do is bad.

Communication for America

Mandy has written a great article about making remote teams work. It’s an oft-neglected aspect of working on a product when you’ve got people distributed geographically.

But remote communication isn’t just something that’s important for startups and product companies—it’s equally important for agencies when it comes to client communication.

At Clearleft, we occasionally work with clients right here in Brighton, but that’s the exception. More often than not, the clients are based in London, or somewhere else in the UK. In the case of Code for America, they’re based in San Francisco—that’s eight or nine timezones away (depending on the time of year).

As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, it worked out nicely. At the end of every day, we had a quick conference call, with two or three people at our end, and two or three people at their end. For us, it was the end of the day: 5:30pm. For them, the day was just starting: 9:30am.

We’d go through what we had been doing during that day, ask any questions that had cropped up over the course of the day, and let them know if there was anything we needed from them. If there was anything we needed from them, they had the whole day to put it together while we went home. The next morning (from our perspective), it would be waiting in our in/drop-boxes.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of Code for America, they were coming into the office every morning and starting the day with a look over our work, as though we had beavering away throughout the night.

Now, it would be easy for me to extrapolate from this that this way of working is great and everyone should do it. But actually, the whole timezone difference was a red herring. The real reason why the communication worked so well throughout the project was because of the people involved.

Right from the start, it was clear that because of time and budget constraints that we’d have to move fast. We wouldn’t have the luxury of debating everything in detail and getting every decision signed off. Instead we had a sort of “rough consensus and running code” approach that worked really well. It worked because everyone understood that was what was happening—if just one person was expecting a more formalised structure, I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone quite so smoothly.

So we provided materials in whatever level of fidelity made sense for the idea under discussion. Sometimes that was a quick sketch. Sometimes it was a fairly high-fidelity mockup. Sometimes it was a module of markup and CSS. Whatever it took.

Most of all, there was a great feeling of trust on both sides of the equation. It was clear right from the start that the people at Code for America were super-smart and weren’t going to make any outlandish or unreasonable requests of Clearleft. Instead they gave us just the right amount of guidance and constraints, while trusting us to make good decisions.

At one point, Jon was almost complaining about not getting pushback on his designs. A nice complaint to have.

Because of the daily transatlantic “stand up” via teleconference, there was a great feeling of inevitability to the project as it came together from idea to execution. Inevitability doesn’t sound like a very sexy attribute of a web project, but it’s far preferable to the kind of project that involves milestones of “big reveals”—the Mad Men approach to project management.

Oh, and we made sure that we kept those transatlantic calls nice and short. They never lasted longer than 10 or 15 minutes. We wanted to avoid the many pitfalls of conference calls.