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Designing for Touch by Josh Clark

Josh the Touchmaster is here at An Event Apart Atlanta to tell us about Designing for Touch.

Science! Science and web design. As Scott said, a lot of what we’re doing now is checking the nuances of things we’ve been doing all along. We’re testing our assumptions.

We had web standards. Then we had responsive design. Now there’s a new revelation: there is no one true input for the web.

There are lots of new input mechanisms coming down the pipe, but right now the biggest new one is touch. This talk is about designing for touch.

As of last month, 31% of US adults have tablets. A few years ago, it was zero. The iPad is the fastest-growing consumer product in the history of consumer products. But touch isn’t just for mobile phones and tablets. Touch is on the desktop now too. All desktop web designs have to be touch-friendly now.

The ugly truth is that we’ve thought of web design as primarily a visual design medium. But when you add touch into the mix, it gets physical. It’s no longer just about how your pixels look; it’s about how they feel too. You are not “just” a visual designer now. There are portions of industrial design in what you do: honest-to-goodness ergonomics. In a sense, you’re designing a physical device, because it will be explored by hands. Phones and tablets are blank slates. We provide the interface. How will it feel in the user’s hands? More specifically, how will it feel in one hand?

Phones

Thumbs are fantastic. The thumb, along with celebrity gossip, is what separates us from the beasts. There’s a natural thumb-resting area on the iPhone (coming from the bottom left to the centre). That’s why positioning conventions have evolved they way have on iOS—very differently to the desktop: navigation at the bottom instead of the top.

There’s an age-old principle in industrial design: content at the top; controls at the bottom. Now we see that in iOS. But in Android there are assistive buttons at the bottom (just as the industrial design maxim suggests). But now if you put your controls at the bottom too, you’ve got too much going on. So on Android you should be putting your controls at the top. But the drawback is that this is no longer in the thumb-sweeping area.

That’s iOS and Android. What about the web?

There are problems with pinning navigation to either the top or bottom. First of all, position: fixed is really screwy on mobile browsers. Secondly, in landscape (or other limited-height environments), the controls take up far too much room compared to the content. The third problem is also related to space: browser chrome.

Instead, a better pattern is to have a menu control that reveals navigation. The simplest version is when this is simply an internal link to navigation at the bottom of the page. As Luke says, forget HTML5: this is HTML1. Best of all, this pattern leads with the content and follows it with the navigation.

So that’s where things stand with touch navigation on phones:

  • iOS: Controls at screen bottom.
  • Android: Controls at screen top.
  • Web: Controls at page bottom.

Tablets

What about tablets? This is more likely to be a two-handed grip. Now having controls at the bottom would be really hostile to touch. The phone thumb-zone no longer applies, but thumbs still matter because they could be obscuring controls. Your thumbs are more likely to be on the sides, with easy reach to the top. So put controls in those regions where thumbs can come to rest: the side.

There are some cases where bottom navigation is okay: in an ebook where you’re showing a complicated control …or a map with a draggable interface below it. When you need a control to do browsing or preview for the content above it, the bottom is okay.

Hybrid

The unholy alliance: a laptop with a keyboard combined with a touch-enabled screen. There are lots of them coming down the line.

Mouse and trackpad usage drops off a lot on hybrid devices. There was always the fear of “gorilla arms” with hybrid devices but it turns out that people are gripping the sides of the screen (like a tablet) but when people are jabbing the screen, it’s more like a phone. If you overlay the thumb comfort zone of a hybrid laptop with the thumb comfort zone of a tablet, there’s one area that’s left out: the top …exactly where we put our navigation on laptop/desktop screens.

This is a headache for responsive design. We’ve been correlating small screens with touch. It turns out that screen size is a lousy way to detect a touchscreen. And it’s hard to detect support for touch. So, for now, we’re really just guessing.

But we have top men working on the problem. Top. Men. There’s a proposal in CSS4 for a pointer property. But even then, what will a hybrid device report if it supports trackpad, keyboard, mouse and touch?

Desktop

All desktop designs have to be touch-friendly. This is going to require a big change in our thinking. For a start, it’s time to bid farewell to hover events, certainly for crucial content …maybe it can be used for enhancements.

Given the thumb zones on tablets and hybrids, we can start putting frequent controls down the side—controls that stay in view even when the content is scrolled. Just to be clear: don’t put your main navigation there—put the controls that people actually use. Sorry, but people don’t actually use your main navigation. People use main navigation only as a last resort.

Quartz uses a very thumb-friendly layout. But how big should the touch targets be? It turns out …seven millimeters; the tip of a finger. Use nine millimeters if you really need to be safe.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not using millimeter as a unit in my CSS. But standards can help here. A pixel is defined in CSS2.1 to have a set millimeter size. But that doesn’t factor in the reality of dynamic viewports: zooming, pinching, scaling. Devices still report they’re actual physical size; the hardware pixels, that have nothing to do with the calculated web pixels.

On the iPhone we arrive at this magical 44 pixel number, which is repeated over and over throughout the UI. As long as one dimension is 44 pixels, you can squeeze the other dimension down to 29 pixels: 44x29 or 29x44. On iOS, that unit is repeated for a rhythm that just feels right: 44, 88, etc. The interface is designed not just for the hand, but of the hand. Use that rhythm, even on desktop screens.

That’s lovely and elegant. Digital watches are not. Touch targets need to be a certain size.

Now these optimisations mean there’s inevitably some constraint. But that can be a good thing: you might have to reduce what’s on your screen, and that means that your interface will be more focused. Clarity trumps density.

But simplicity isn’t always a good thing. Complexity has become a dirty word, but sometimes it’s needed. People don’t want a dumbed-down interface that won’t let them do everything.

And when you don’t have space constraints, that doesn’t mean you should fill up the space with crap. Aim for clarity, no matter what the size of the screen. On a smaller screen, that can be a more conversational, back-and-forth interaction, requesting and revealing information; question, answer; ask, receive. This progressive disclosure requires more taps, but that’s okay. Extra taps and clicks aren’t evil. When done right, they can actually be better because they provide clarity and invite conversation. As long as every tap is a quality tap that provides information, and helps complete a task, they are not evil.

But the long scroll …that is evil. That’s how kittens get killed.

Luke has documented the off-canvas pattern as a way of pushing some information off-screen. It’s kind of like a carousel. So instead of everything being stacked vertically, there can be sections that are navigated horizontally. That’s what Josh and Ethan did on the site for People magazine on small screens.

So for desktop interfaces, these are the points to remember:

  • Hover is an enhancement
  • Bottom left for controls.
  • Big touch targets.
  • 44px rhythm.
  • Progressive disclosure.

But even though Josh has been talking all about the touch interface, it’s worth remembering that sometimes the best interface is no interface at all. And we need to stop thinking about input mechanisms as singular things: they can be combined. Think about speech + gesture: it’s literally like magic (think: Harry Potter casting a spell). Aral’s hackday project—where he throws content from the phone to the Kinect—gets a round of applause. Now we’ve got Leap Motion on its way. These things are getting more affordable and available. So we could be bypassing touch completely. We can move the interface off the screen entirely. How can we start replacing clumsy touch with the combination of all these sensors?

Digital is growing more physical. Physical is growing more digital. Our job is becoming less about pixels on screens and more about interacting with the world. We have to be willing to challenge established patterns. We have to think. We have to use our brains.

Responsive and Responsible by Scott Jehl

Scott is here at An Event Apart in Atlanta to talk to us about being responsibly responsive. Scott works with Filament Group on large-scale responsive designs like the Boston Globe. They’ve always focused on progressive enhancement and responsive design feels like a natural evolution of that.

But responsive design is just a small part of what goes into responsible design. Responsible design isn’t just about layout, it’s about making sure that adding advanced features doesn’t inconvenience anyone. Mostly, we need to care; we need to care about people in situations other than our own.

This became very clear to Scott when he was travelling in southeast Asia, working remotely with his colleagues back in Boston. Most of the time he was accessing the web through a USB dongle over a cellular network. That’s how most people get online there. So don’t make assumptions about screen size and bandwidth.

Browsing via this dongle was frustrating. It was frustrating for Scott because, as a developer, he knew that there was no reason for the web to be so difficult to use on this connection.

It’s our fault. The average web page is over a megabyte in size. A megabyte! That breaks down to a lot of images, plenty of JavaScript, some HTML, and “other” …which means cat pictures. Sending 800K of images is a lot for any kind of device. Same with JavaScript: 200K is a lot. The benefits that we as developers get from that JavaScript is burdening our users.

When you prototype interactions, are you thinking about your own clock …or the user’s?

The average load time for the top 200 websites is between 6 and 10 seconds on a good connection.

Good performance is good design. Scott shows a graph of “webpage loading time” on one axis against “swear words” on the other. The graph trends upwards.

Now those 1MB webpages were probably desktop-specific sites, not responsive sites. But 86% of responsive sites send the same assets to all devices.

We have to design for new sizes and new input methods, but at the same time, the old contexts aren’t going away.

We’re moving from normalisation to customisation. We used to try to make things look and work the same in every browser. It was always a silly goal, but now it seems totally ridiculous. But content parity does not require experience parity. In fact, if things look and act the same across all devices, that might mean that we’ve missed a lot of opportunities.

We should avoid presumptions. We might be able to get the dimensions of a screen, but that could be different to the dimensions of the viewport. Instead of using pixels for breakpoints, we can use ems so that the user’s font size determines the layout changes.

Before we look at some responsible techniques, let’s look at the anatomy of a page load.

HTTP

We begin with typing a URL. That request goes to a DNS server. Then the request is sent to the right host. Then the host sends a response. But on a mobile device, there’s an extra step. You have to go through a tower first, before reaching the DNS server. That connection to the tower takes two seconds (for radio). That two-second delay only happens once, thankfully.

Once the connection is made, the HTML response sends more requests: CSS, JavaScript, pictures of cats. During this time, the browser holds off on rendering. This is the critical path.

After about eight seconds, the carrier drops the connection. That two-second connection needs to be made again. So we should try to get everything during that initial eight second period.

HTML

Network conditions can change. Every HTTP request is a gamble. Say you’ve embedded a third-party widget, like Twitter’s. If you’re in a country like China that blocks Twitter, the page will never load. Chrome will hang for thirty seconds.

We need to ensure that we’re delivering assets responsibly. Consider using conditional loading. On the Boston Globe, the home page has a lot of content. The headlines certainly belong there. But content from individual sections (that you can get to from the top navigation) is also being pulled into the homepage. We definitely want to provide the link to, for example, the sports section, but the latest content from the sports section could be conditionally loaded.

Scott mentions my 24 Ways article on conditional loading for responsive designs. At Filament Group, they abstracted this “link/conditional load” into a pattern. It uses HTML5 data attributes to indicate what should be pulled in via Ajax and where it should go.

CSS

Let’s look at how we deliver CSS. The way that we load CSS today is going to catch up with us. According to the HTTP Archive, the transfer size of CSS has the highest correlation to render time.

As a start, we should be using mobile-first media queries. That means starting with the styles for absolutely every device. Then we start adding our media queries for wider and wider viewport widths. This gives you a broadly-usable default. Those initial styles should go to everyone, but Scott likes to qualify them with an only all media query for some enhanced small-screen layout declarations. That makes sure that really old browsers won’t mess it up.

Generally mobile-first media queries work pretty well. But there’s a problem. We’re sending all the CSS to all the devices, even if they’ll never use half of it.

Would it be better to use multiple link elements with different media types? Alas, no. Browsers will download all stylesheets (even if the media type is set to “nonsense”) just in case they’ll need ‘em later. And unfortunately those requests are blocking. Modern WebKit browsers do a bit better. It still downloads all the stylesheets but it will render once it has the small-screen CSS.

The best approach is, unfortunately, to send just one CSS file but minify, compress, gzip and cache the shit out of it. CSS compresses really well. Gzip works by spotting redundant data—as soon as it notices a repeating segment, you get a gain. And CSS is full of repeated properties and declarations.

Images

Images are an interesting problem. Remember they were the worst offenders in page bloat. Fortunately they don’t block, but still—this problem will only get worse.

There are background images. They’re easy. Browsers have gotten very smart about only downloading the background images they need.

Foreground images aren’t so easy. There’s the compressive image technique that Luke mentioned. Make the JPEG bigger in size, but lower in quality. When it’s scaled down in the browser, it looks perfectly fine. A 1x image saved at 90% quality, it’s 95K. The same image at 2x with 0% quality is 44K.

But there’s a concern about the memory footprint of doing this on some devices. Filament Group are looking into this but it’s very hard to test.

With compressive images, you just have to point to them in one img element using the src attribute.

Responsive images are much trickier. There are two proposals.

The first is the picture element, which uses multiple source elements to specify different images for different breakpoints. There’s also a fallback image as a last resort for older browsers.

The second proposal is the srcset attribute. It’s particularly well-suited to different pixel densities. The advantage of this one is that the browser, rather than the author, gets the last say about which image should be displayed. There’s also talk about merging both proposals.

Neither proposal works today so Scott created Picturefill, a polyfill for the picture proposal, although it uses divs. The fallback image goes in a noscript element to prevent browsers from pre-fetching it.

Since picture and Picturefill work with media queries, perhaps you can default to standard definition but allow users to opt in to high definition versions.

Managing different images for different resolutions and pixel densities gets very tedious. Maybe we should abandon the pixel. Certainly for icons, SVG can be really useful. It’s well-supported today. It also compresses well, because it is text: it’s a markup language, like HTML. That means you can also edit the source of an SVG image in a text editor.

You can reference the SVG file directly in the src attribute of an img element. For older browsers, you could use onerror to replace it with a different image format.

You can also put SVG as a background image. And you use them as data-URLs and just write out the SVG in your stylesheet.

Building on that, there’s a tool called Grunticon that generates and regenerates CSS whenever you make changes to an image. It also generates a preview document for you.

JavaScript

Lastly, there’s JavaScript. The trick is to stay off the critical path. Load just as much as you need up front, so you can load more later on.

Scott uses a handful of variables to determine what needs to be loaded or not:

  1. Broad qualification. Does the browser support “only all”? Scott uses YepNope to test and if the test comes back positive, he loads in his global JavaScript.
  2. Browser features. Are touch events supported? Again, Scott uses YepNope to test before loading JavaScript that uses touch.
  3. Environmental conditions. Media queries, basically.
  4. Template type. Define in your markup what kind of page this is (using a meta element e.g. “shoppingcart”. Then test whether we need shoppingcart.js.

You can even load CSS with YepNope but be careful. You could use it for fonts, for example, after you’ve tested that @font-face is supported.

Dealing with third-party content is tricky—it’s blocking. The Twitter embed code for tweets now includes an async attribute. It’s pretty well supported in modern browsers.

On the Boston Globe, they had to deal with ads. Nightmare! They used iframes.

But the main idea here is: defend the critical path. Develop responsively and responsibly. Today we have the tools to build rich experiences without excluding anyone.

It’s a Write/Read Mobile Web by Luke Wroblewski

Luke is at An Event Apart in Atlanta to give his presentation: It’s a Write/Read Mobile Web. He begins by showing us where he lives in Los Gatos in Silicon Valley. Facebook is up the road in Palo Alto. Yahoo is down the road in Sunnyvale, next to a landfill. In between, there’s a little company called AOL. Then there’s Google and YouTube just off Highway One.

So you have a bunch of internet companies in close physical proximity. They are also the top sites in the US when it comes to time spent on the web, by a very wide margin. You would think that the similarities would end there, because they all provide very different services: social networking, email, messaging, search, and video. But they have something in common. They are all write/read experience. They don’t work unless people contribute content to them. You post updates, you send emails, you type in searches, you upload videos.

Tim Berners-Lee said that his original vision for the web was a place where we could all meet and read and write.

This isn’t just a US-centric thing. Looking at the worldwide list of most popular sites, you’ve got the ones mentioned already but also Twitter and Wikipedia, where all the content is contributed by their users. Even Amazon is powered by reviews. This is what makes the web so awesome. It’s not a broadcast medium. It’s a two-way street. It’s interactive.

So what’s the biggest factor that’s changing for all of these sites? Mobile. 67% of Facebook users and 60% of Twitter users are on mobile. If you look at the stats for Facebook, you can see that their growth is coming from mobile. Desktop usage is pretty flat: mobile usage is soaring. Facebook also has a growing segment of mobile-only users. Zuck has defined Facebook now as a mobile company.

When people hear about the growth in mobile, they assume it’s all about content consumption: reading status updates, watching videos, and so on. There’s a myth that small devices are not good for content creation. But if that were true, then wouldn’t that be a huge problem, given the statistics for growth? Facebook and Twitter would have almost no content. But it’s simply not true. Three hours worth of video are uploaded to YouTube every second from mobile devices.

People think that mobile devices are for games, social networking, and entertainment. And it’s true that those are popular activities. But that kind of usage is actually going down. Where is that time going? The fastest growing category is utilities: finding and buying things, financial management, health services, travel planning, etc. Basically, mobile is anything. So if mobile hasn’t effected you yet, it will.

How do we think about this write/read experience? We imagine that 100% of people are consumers: reading, browsing, etc. Then 10% are curators: liking, faving, etc. Finally there’s the 1% that actually create stuff. 1.8% of users provide almost all of Wikipedia’s content. So we naturally focus on the content consumption in our designs, because that’s the biggest number. But Luke thinks it makes sense to flip that on its head. That 1% are your most important users.

Facebook redesigned their content creation flow multiple times, trying to make that “write” experience as good as possible. Same with YouTube’s uploading interface. They both focused relentlessly on the content creation.

So as we shift our attention to mobile, we should be asking: how do we design for mobile creation?

1. One-handed use

Like Luke’s old adage about “one thumb, one eyeball”, this is literally about testing content creation with one thumb. For his startup, Polar, Luke tested the interface with one thumb and timed how long it took. It was tested and designed for a thumb.

“But Luke”, you cry, “Not everyone just uses their thumb on their mobile device screens!” Well, observing 1,333 people using mobiles on the street showed that they pretty much do.

Dan Formosa says we should design for extremes. In Objectified he talked about designing garden shears for someone with arthritis. If it works for that user, it will work well for everyone.

“But Luke”, you cry, “Aren’t you falling prey to the myth of the ‘mobile context’ where the user is in a hurry, using just one hand?” Well, it is true that lots of people use their devices in the home. But even when you’re not out on the street, you’re still using your thumb: using your phone while watching TV.

Focusing on this use case means you can rethink a lot of interactions. As a general principle, Luke advises “don’t let the keyboard come up.” That is, only provide a virtual keyboard as a last resort. Use smart defaults. Let people tap on links or checkboxes instead of typing. If the user needs to enter a location, they could do so by tapping on a map instead of typing in a place name. Provide a date-picker instead of making people type out dates. Let people use sliders for setting values.

When you design for one-handed use, you’re designing for an extreme case. It also forces you to challenge your assumptions.

2. Visually engaging

When you aim to avoid the keyboard, you often come up with more visual solutions, which can be a great opportunity.

Take Snapchat. People express themselves through photos. The Line app is chat, but with a huge amount of emoticons. Chat becomes visual.

The lesson here is not that society is collapsing into sexting, but that images are very powerful on mobile.

Hotel Tonight’s mobile experience is based around big beautiful images.

“But Luke”, you cry “Why are you advocating big images? Isn’t performance the most important thing on mobile?” Well, yes. But instead of just abandoning images, let’s get really creative about how we serve up images. Take, for example, the experimentation around increasing image dimensions while reducing quality, which results in much smaller files with no noticable loss of fidelity.

3. Focused flows

Dwelling on one-handed use and visually engaging imagery are techniques you can use, but you should really focus on simplifying the processes you put people through. Foursquare have drastically simplified their check-in process.

Creativity is all about focusing on something until you find the simplest way to do it.

The Boingo wireless service used to require 23 inputs. They got rid of 11 of them and increased conversion by 34%. That’s great, but they didn’t go far enough. You can always simplify even more.

Hotel Tonight got their flow down to three taps and a swipe. The CEO says that’s a competitive advantage. Just compare how long it takes to book a hotel with their competitors.

It takes big changes to go small.

When taking about forms and input, this might seem like standard design advice: focus and simplify. But keep focusing and simplifying even more.

4. Just-in-time actions

So we’ve seen three different ways to make things simpler, faster, and more focused. But isn’t that really hard on a small screen, with so little real estate?

Instead of providing intro tours (which are more like intro tests), why not provide introductory information only when it’s needed? Apply the same approach to actions. On Polar, there’s an option to hide the keyboard, but that action is only visible when the keyboard appears.

On long pages on Polar, people wanted a way to get back to the top. If you start scrolling upwards, the navbar from the top is overlaid. It detects that you might be trying to get back to the top, and provides the actions you want.

5. Cross-device usage

Everything Luke has talked about so far has been specifically focused on one kind of device: mobile. But we need to keep our eyes on the multi-device write/read web that is emerging. Creation is happening across devices …sequentially and simultaneously.

The simplest example is access. If you’re on a desktop browsing Luke’s site on Chrome, and then you move to Chrome on the iPhone, there’s Luke’s site.

The next cross-device pattern is flow. We want our processes to work across devices. So if I’m on my laptop and I do a search, then I pick up my phone, I want that last input to carry over. On Ebay, you can save a draft listing on the desktop and pick it up later on mobile. On Google Drive, editing is synced simultaneously between all your devices.

Control is another pattern: using one device to tell another device what to do.

Luke hates log-in forms; that’s no secret. Five years ago, he worked on Yahoo Projector which used a scanned barcode to take control of a TV screen with a phone. He wanted to use this to replace log in, but that never happened. But there’s a service called OneID which is tackling the same use case: you can control log-in across devices.

The last example of cross-device usage is push. Going back to that draft listing on Ebay: take a picture on your phone and have that picture show up on the desktop browser view.

People talk about mobile versus desktop, but these are all examples of these different devices working together.

This was just a taster. We’re just getting started with this stuff.

Billboards and Novels by Jon Tan

Jon is at An Event Apart in Atlanta to talk about Billboards and Novels. That means: impact vs. immersion.

Who in the audience has ever had to explain layout and design decisions? And who has struggled to do that? Jon has. That’s why he wants to talk about the differences between designing for impact—to grab attention—and immersion—to get out of the way and allow for absorbing involvement.

Jon examines the difference between interruption and disruption. You want to grab attention, but the tone has to be right. This is how good advertising works. So sometimes impact is a good thing, but not if you’re trying to read.

The web is reading.

Understanding how people read is a core skill for anyone designing and developing for the web. First, you must understand language. There’s a great book by Robert Bringhurst called What Is Reading For?, the summation of a symposium. Paraphrasing Eric Gill, he says that words are neither things, nor pictures of things; they are gestures.

Words as gestures …there are #vss (very short stories) on Twitter that manage to create entire backstories in your mind using the gestures of words.

A study has shown that aesthetics does not affect perceived usability, but it does have an effect on post-use perceived aesthetics. Even though a “designed” and “undesigned” thing might work equally well, our memory the the designed thing is more positive.

Good typography and poor typography appear to have no affect on reading comprehension. This was tested with a New Yorker article that was typeset well, and the same article typeset badly. The people who had the nicely typeset article underestimated how long it had taken them to read it. Objectively it had taken just as long as reading the poorly-typeset version, but because it was more pleasing, it put them in a good mood.

Good typography induces a good mood. And if you are in a good mood, you perform tasks better …and you will think that the tasks took less time. Time flies when you’re having fun.

What about type on screens?

  • David Berlow describes the web as “crude media.”
  • Jonathan Hoefler describes how he produces fonts differently for different media: the idea (behind the typeface) gives rise to a variety of forms.
  • Matthew Carter designed Bell Centennial to work at one size in one environment: the crappy paper of the telephone book. He left gaps in the letterforms for the ink to spread into.
  • The Siri typeface was redrawn anew as SiriCore specifically for the screen.

When Jon is evaluating typefaces, he is aware that some fonts are more optimised for the screen than others. He tests the smallest text first, in the most adverse environment: a really old HP machine running Windows XP. He also looks at language support, and features and variants like lining numerals: what are the mechanics of the font?

We take quiet delight in the smallest details of a typeface.

Legibility is so important. Kevin Larson analysed how we read. We take a snapshot of a bunch of letters, and our brains rearrange them into a word. We read by skipping along lines in “saccades” with pauses or “fixations” that allow us to understand a group of letters before reading on.

Jon tells the story of how Seb was fooled by a spoof Twitter account for the London Olympics. The account name was London20l2 (with a letter L), not London2012 (with the letter one). Depending on the typeface, that difference can be very hard to spot. Here’s a handy string:

agh! iIl1 o0

Stick that into Fontdeck and you’ll get a good idea of the mechanics of the font you’re looking at. You’re looking out for ambiguities that would interrupt the reader.

The same goes for typesetting: use the right quotes and apostrophes; not primes. Use ligatures when they help. But some ligatures are just showing off and they interrupt your reading. Typesetting should help reading, not interrupt or disrupt.

You can use text-rendering: optimizeLegibility but test it. You can use hyphens: auto but test it. You can add a non-breaking space before the last two words in a paragraph to prevent orphans. It will improve the mood.

A good example of interruption is the Ampersand 2012 website. There’s a span on the letter that should receive a flourish. But you can also use expert subsets. You can use Opentype features. There are common and discretionary ligatures. Implement them wisely. Use discretionary ligatures when you want to draw attention, like in a headline.

Scantastic readability. We wander around the page or screen in the same way as we read with saccades: our eyes jump around the place. Our scan path is a roughly Z-shaped pattern. You can design for this scan path: deliberately interrupt …but not disrupt. Jon uses the squint test when he is designing, to see what jumps out and interrupts.

Measure (line-length) is really important. Long lines tire us out. Bringhurst mentioned 45-75 character measures. But the measure is also bound to the prose: the content might be very short and snappy.

Contrast can give you careful, deliberate interruptions. Position, density, size …these are all tools we can use to interrupt without disrupting. The I Love Typography article on The Origins of ABC is a beautiful example of this. Compare it to the disruption of faddish parallax sites.

But there are no rules, just good decisions.

It’s all so emotional. Sometimes there are no words. Think of the masterful storytelling of the first twenty minutes of Wall-E.

We react incredibly quickly to faces. We can see and recognise a human face in 40 milliseconds, before we even consciously process that we’ve seen a face.

When we try to write about music, the result can be some really purple prose.

We have an emotional reaction to faces, colour, music …and type.

Jon demonstrates the effect on us that a friendly typeface has compared to a harsh typeface …even though the friendly typeface is used for the Malay word for “hate” and the harsh typeface is used for the Malay word for “love.” Our amygdala is reacting directly. It’s a physiological, visceral reaction we have before we even understand what we’re looking at.

Fonts are wayfinding apps for emotions. There’s a difference between designing places and designing postcards of places.

The Milwaukee Police News website is very impactful …but there’s no immersion. It doesn’t communicate beyond the initial reaction.

Places are defined by type and form: New York, London, Paris. A website for Barcelona or Brooklyn should reflect the flavour of those places.

All these things combine: impact, immersion, contrast, colour, type. We can affect people’s experiences. We can put them in a better mood.

Type shapes our experience. It paints pictures that echo in our memory long after we’ve left.

Eric Spiekermann said:

Details in typefaces are not to be seen, but felt.

Those details have to work in the greater context (of colour, contrast, layout).

Bruce Lee said:

Don’t think; feel.

Strong Layout Systems by Eric Meyer

Eric is at An Event Apart in Atlanta talking about Strong Layout Systems. Following on from Brother Jeffrey’s presentation, he begins with a reading…

In the beginning Sir Tim created the server and the browser. And the web was without form. And the face of Tim moved over the web. Tim said “Let there be markup.” And there was markup. And he saw that it was good. And he divided structure from appearance.

That decision is quite striking. Think about other mediums. The structure of a book is bound to its appearance.

Here’s a screenshot, courtesy of Grant Hutchinson, of the preferences in the original Mosaic browser. You could define the appearance of any HTML element …as a user. As an author, you couldn’t do that. HTML didn’t support that: it created structure.

As with all creations, there was a fall. As usual, a reptile was involved. In this case it was Mozilla, known by its ancient name of Netscape. They added presentational elements like prompt and presentational attributes e.g. on the hr element. And then there was the table element. Inevitably, it was used for layout. David Siegel wrote the book on this, Creating Killer Websites. It was tables all the way down: tables inside of tables inside of tables, all to create visual appearance.

The backlash came from the Web Standards Project. It got dogmatic there for a while. But we got past that, and we started using CSS. The promise of CSS was visual presentation, for authors and users. We talk about “controlling” presentation with CSS, but remember that theoretically that can be over-ridden by user styles.

But CSS was an appearance system; not a layout system. It wasn’t that complex. You could print out all of CSS1. The only thing in it in any way suited for layout was floats …and that’s not what they were created for: it was basically the CSS equivalent of the align attribute that Netscape had introduced to HTML. So we used floats because that’s all we had. It wasn’t a layout system but we made it one anyway. There were a lot of bugs, but we dealt them in clever—sometimes deranged—ways.

For CSS2, they realised that designers really liked to lay things out (who knew?) so they introduced positioning. But you have to be careful with positioning. It was great …sort of. You can indeed position an element wherever you want …and overlap them.

The first major site to launch with CSS for positioning was Doug’s redesign of Wired.com (it didn’t use floats). The limitations of positioning forced us into certain design patterns. Note the footer on the old Wired site: it sits at the bottom of the central column, not the whole page. That was to avoid overlap. But Eric remembers talking to Doug and it turns out they actually wanted a full-width footer, but they had to work with the tools they had. Positioning lacked the equivalent of clear that you get with floats.

These were hacks. Hacks aren’t a bad thing; they’re often very clever. But hacks limit us. Neither floats nor positioning had the concept of equal height (but tables did).

We’re now getting to the point where can start to revisit our assumptions about what is and isn’t possible with CSS.

We’ve got viewport units: vh and vw—viewport height and viewport width (in percentages relative to the viewport, not the parent element). This is really useful for handheld devices. There’s also the vmin unit that you can use on font sizes so that text scales in relation to viewport size.

Flexible boxes is more commonly called flexbox. Take a horizontal navigation (in an unordered list) and declare it as a flexible box. Then declare that the elements within should “flex” to each use an equal amount of space. There’s a variant justify-content: space-around which will share out the space between the elements equally.

Flexbox comes out of XUL, Gecko’s layout language for browser chrome. This is real layout. It’s not a hack. As an author, you’re declaring how you want things to be laid out, and the browser does it. It’s a good feeling.

You can also use flexbox to make sure that elements within a shared parent have the same height. In fact, that’s the default behaviour. You can also get your flexible boxes to reflow instead of being trapped on the same line. The new “line” will also share out space for the elements equally.

You can set your flexible boxes with whatever units you want, and mix and match them: percentages and ems, for example. You can have flexible and fixed elements together.

Remember The Holy Grail of Layout on A List Apart? It followed soon after the One True Layout. Now you could do it with just a few quick flexbox declarations.

<header></header>
<main>
 <nav></nav>
 <article></article>
 <aside></aside>
</main>
<footer></footer>

main { display: flex; }
nav { width: 13em; flex: none; }
article { width: auto; flex: none; }
aside { width: 20%; flex: none; }

You can also rearrange the visual ordering (using order). You could make the article appear as the third column within main even though it appears second in the markup. The structure is truly separated from the layout.

Flexbox alignments are really interesting, especially baseline, which will vertically align columns according to the first baseline in each column — very handy.

You aren’t restricted to horizontal layout: you can arrange things vertically. We finally get vertical centring.

Beyond flexbox, we have grids. They’re not quite as stable right now, but the basic idea is that you can set up grid lines to “control” page elements and the space between them: grid-definition-columns: (4em) gives you a repeating grid with a grid unit of four ems.

You can have flexbox inside grids and visa-versa: within a grid unit, you can still display: flex. Within a flexible box, you can define grid lines.

But please don’t go and read the grids specification right now. It’s an amalgamation of three different authors’ texts, one of whom has never written a spec before, and one of the examples is completely misleading about how grids work.

There’s a fraction unit—fr—that you can use to define widths, but you can also use it in combination with min-content which is based on the longest piece of content in a unit. This is complicated stuff and even Eric doesn’t quite get it completely. Maybe min-content is better for non-text content.

And remember you can mix and match these modules. Same with CSS regions. Regions aren’t here yet, but they will completely up-end the way we think about document structure: you put all of your content in one element, and you have some empty elements as well. Then you use CSS regions to define how the content from the first element flows into the others. Effectively your document has a structural portion and a skeleton layout portion.

These layout modules are truly new. You might think that we’re familiar with using CSS for layout, but that was always hacking: using tools for a purpose other than that for which they were created. This new modules were created specifically to allow us to create layouts. That really is new. And Eric can’t wait to see what we do with these new tools.

10 Commandments of Web Design by Jeffrey Zeldman

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

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

1. Thou Shalt Entertain

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Test Everything (including assumptions)

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

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

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

3. Thou Shalt Iterate

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

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

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

4. Thou Shalt Ship

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

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

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

5. Engage Thy Community

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

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

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

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

6. Love Thy User As Thyself

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

7. Remember The Content

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

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

8. Ignore Workflow At Thy Peril

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

9. Thou Shalt Prioritize

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

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

10. To Thine Own Self Be True

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

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

11. Think For Yourself

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

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.

http://xkcd.com/773/

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.

An Event Apart Boston, Day One

The first day of An Event Apart is wrapping up here in Boston. Dan is delivering his talk Implementing Design: Bulletproof A-Z which I’ve already liveblogged from a previous event so I can give my fingers a bit of rest now.

The liveblogging was kind of fun. By keeping myself busy, I was able to stop myself from getting too nervous about my own talk. I’m so glad it’s over and done with now. Feel free to download a PDF of the talk, Future Shock Treatment. Also, feel free to reuse it—it’s licensed under a Creative Commons attribution license.

I actually enjoyed giving the talk a lot. It was much rantier than I intended but nobody seemed to mind. One of the reasons why I was ranting so much was that I was somewhat taken aback by the audience reaction to a segment on progressive enrichment and IE6. My basic question was Do websites need to look the same in every browser? I expected a resounding No! from my peers but I got some pushback from some people. That surprised me, given the savviness of the audience. I think it surprised (and depressed) Malarkey too. He wrote recently about this attitude:

Has the last ten years all been for nothing? I fear for this industry.

I hear ya, Andy. I’m off to drown our collective sorrows at the after-party.

I kid. Most people here firmly agreed with me. The others …are wrong.

Here are all of today’s talks:

  1. Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon by Jared Spool.
  2. Content First by Kristina Halvorson.
  3. Thinking Small by Jason Santa Maria.
  4. Future Shock Treatment by me.
  5. Designing with Psychology in Mind by Joshua Porter.
  6. DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade (Without Calling In a Pro) by Whitney Hess.
  7. Implementing Design: Bulletproof A-Z by Dan Cederholm.

I’m not sure if I’ll do any liveblogging tomorrow. I may just soak up the excellent content.

DIY UX: Give Your Users an Upgrade (Without Calling In a Pro)

The wonderful Whitney Hess is speaking about DIY UX at An Event Apart in Boston.

We are all user experience designers. Our users are suffering. Let’s help them. Whitney says we can be bumbling DIY hobbyists or we can be professionals.

Meet the founders of Iridesco, based in New York. They make a product called Harvest, a time-tracking, invoicing and billing tool. Their customers have really nice things to say about them. They handle their own help and support. They tried using Get Satisfaction but they saw that not as many people used it. Instead, they use labels in Gmail to tag feature requests and issues. They built a tool for themselves to handle this: Kaizen. They don’t just take feedback at face value, they want to get to the underlying problems.

We don’t just want to patch; we want to address the core problem.

When customers ask for a feature, Iridesco get in touch to try to find out what the customer’s workflow is. That gets to the heart of the problem. For more on design research, read Mike Kuniavsky’s Observing the User Experience.

Iridesco also use web analytics:

We don’t believe in data-driven design, but data doesn’t lie.

(Whitney adds: sometimes it does …data tells you what people are doing but it doesn’t tell you why)

Once glance at Google Analytics shows that people mostly log at the beginning of the week and then there’s a drop-off at the weekend …as you’d expect for a time-tracking tool. But they also noticed fewer visits in the middle of the month. They also use Crazy Egg to find out where people are clicking. Google Website Optimizer lets you do A/B testing. For example, green and blue buttons tested much better than muted grey buttons. They resulted in a 10% improvement in conversion rates.

Meet Matthew Marco. He’s a visual designer working for the House of Representatives. He also uses a lot of the same tools as Iridesco. He worked on House.gov which leads to about 600 websites. His biggest impact was on their search infrastructure. He created a big-ass table of search queries. It took thirty minutes a week over the course of nine months, on his own initiative. What he found was staggering: the top search results had no document titles; searches were case-sensitive. He sent a memo …a fairly harsh memo. He blogged it.

One day he noticed three times the number of queries that he normally saw. This was when people had started talking about bailouts. Two days later, the server crashed. Even though he was low down on the totem pole and shouldn’t even had access to the search logs, he was the only one who saw this coming.

For more on web analytics, read Web Analytics: An Hour a Day by Avinash Kaushik.

Usability testing; how well does your stuff really work? Shawn from Iridesco tests prototypes on his wife. This goes against the accepted wisdom on user testing but he knows that his wife will be honest. He doesn’t tell her what the prototype is supposed to do; he doesn’t ask what do you think? He asks what are your general feelings about this? and then lets her talk. The worst feedback you can get is it looks good. You want harshness.

You need to have humility and listen. Users aren’t always right but you need to hear them.

For more on usability testing, read The Handbook of Usability Testing by Jeffrey Rubin and Dana Chisnell.

Experiment and iterate. This is the web; you can be nimble. Risk is okay as long as you are always testing. Here’s the Iridesco process for a new feature:

  1. Sketch
  2. Photoshop
  3. Test
  4. Static HTML prototype
  5. Test again
  6. Working prototype
  7. Test again
  8. Tweak
  9. Launch quietly
  10. Get Feedback
  11. Tweak
  12. Get Feedback
  13. Tweak
  14. Get Feedback
  15. Tweak…

Iterate constantly. You need a culture of experimentation.

Meet Roz Duffy. She works at Comcast interactive media on Comcast.net. Her team—the front-end team—has no access to the user experience professionals in other parts of the company. She starting organising design events like Refresh Philly in the company lounge. Her team started gaining new skills because designers were coming into their space; they came to see the value in sketching (just as Jason was saying earlier today). She also puts a bunch of books on her desk (about design, IA, etc.) and encourages her team to borrow them.

We aren’t always working on the most interesting stuff but we always want to work smarter.

Read Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton.

To summarise: Always be listening. Ask questions. Use data and anecdotes. Test your designs; try to break them. Complete the feedback loop. Never stop trying to make things better.

Make your users happy and they will thank you …just check out the @harvest feedback on Twitter.

Designing with Psychology in Mind

Josh is at An Event Apart in Boston to talk about Designing with Psychology in Mind.

He begin’s with ’s equation:

Behaviour is a function of a person and their environment.

That’s quite a modern view that clashed with the prevailing wisdom of the time. Lewin’s equation is applicable to design because although we can’t change the person we can influence behaviour by altering the environment on the web. We create the environment. We create a universe for our users. In a way, we are playing God.

One of the most infamous experiments that demonstrates how much environment and behaviour can influence people is the .

The Stanford Prison Experiment

This change in behaviour was described as The Lucifer Effect. We often assign actions to the nature of the person but we ignore the external influences. This is the fundamental attribution error.

On the web, we often try to change people’s behaviour. Amazon is trying to change people from offline buyers to online buyers. On his own blog, Josh is trying to change people’s behaviour from casual readers to subscribers. Web designers change behaviour. Well, that’s what psychology is. So now we have another hat to wear, that of psychologist.

Behaviour first, design second. What behaviour are you supporting with your design?

We can use the egocentric worldview. We can’t help but see ourselves as the centre of the world. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is useful. Personal value precedes network value (for users). Josh wrote about this as the Del.icio.us lesson. Even if the social value didn’t exist, Del.icio.us would still provide real, personal value. Hunch is making good use of this principle. You provide Hunch with tons of useful information but you do it for your benefit. It turns out that most people represent themselves truthfully online even though, famously, on the internet, no-one knows you’re a dog.

Now for a test …an awareness test.

Awareness test

Humans have a single locus of attention. We can actively think about only one thing at a time. Jef Raskin talks about The Humane Interface. We are often interrupted from our locus of attention. The iPhone is successful even though it doesn’t have a large screen. That doesn’t matter because it’s so task-focused. There’s only ever one activity on the screen. In almost every iPhone app, there is only one thing to do. People love these applications. People don’t want to do other things at the same time. Compare the “regular” Amazon site with the iPhone version; the iPhone version is much more focused. Don’t distract people. Apple pitch their fullscreen view as work without distractions. Just like Writeroom.

Social proof: show signs of life. Yelp feels vibrant and in use. So does Amazon. According to Dunacn Watts, network effects can lead to a feedback cycle of popularity. So social proof can literally control what becomes successful. Avatars are a great way of showing social proof. Porter’s Law:

Avatars increase in size and realism over time.

Positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and penalty are all behavioural influencers.

The behaviour you’re seeing is the behaviour you’ve designed for.

People are reacting to what you have designed. Tumblr has some great positive reinforcement in its sign-up process that’s carried through to your first couple of posts. Positive reinforcement works but it doesn’t work over the long term. Know when to stop giving positive reinforcement and switch over to passionate engagement. Design to get people into the flow. There’s a lot to learn from gaming:

One cannot enjoy doing the same thing at the same level for very long.

People get bored by social networks because they are not being challenged. The only task is to answer connection invitations. Keep adding things to keep challenging users. It’s a Red Queen arm’s race. This is what Kathy Sierra talks about; creating passionate users.

Wait. Isn’t this all a bit …evil?

Isn’t this manipulation? Facebook’s original Beacon interface was definitely manipulative, possibly even evil, enabled through the design. They redesigned to give users more power and knowledge …although it took a few iterations.

We must determine what success is. If people are using something, why are they using it? Are you making people happier with your product?

Thinking Small

Jason Santa Maria, AKA Stan, is the man. Here’s here at An Event Apart in Boston to talk about Thinking Small. He’s my warm-up man.

He begin in the 1980s; Christmas day in the Santa Maria household—Jason gets Castle Greyskull. One Christmas, his parents played a cruel joke on him. Instead of getting him toys, they got him books. But these books were better than regular books. They were choose-your-own-adventure books; classics like You Are A Shark and War With the Evil Power Master. The best part is that they are interactive. Of course you cheat. You go back and see what would have happened if you had made a different decision. Let’s look at the decisions we make when we are building website. Jason will show us seven small decisions that change the outcome of a finished website.

Be a thinker

Don’t just dive into moving shit around in Photoshop. Stop and figure out the problem before trying to come up with a solution. Take a look at the Enterprise car rental site. It’s not terrible but it’s also not exciting. It’s just bland.

Take a step back. Start with sketching. Sketching isn’t about being able to draw, it’s about being able to think. Jason started a Flickr group for people to upload one page from their sketch book, no matter how crappy it looks.

At the beginning of a project, get acquainted with it. Get a feel for the content.

Find the message

The difference between good design and great design is intelligence.

Sum up a website with a message, as if you were introducing a friend at a party—what’s important? Everything on the site should communicate that message. The White House website does this. So does A Working Library.

Be a reverse engineer

Come at things from a different angle. Jason played Layer Tennis recently with Derek Powazek. They decided to play around with the format by introducing three truths and a lie. This prompted new ways of thinking about what they were producing.

Take lessons from improv. Play the “yes” game in brainstorming sessions. Take what people are offering and add to it.

Plot it out

Jason comes from traditional graphic design background of grids and systems. Cue obligatory Vignelli quote. But how big should your grid be? Just because you can go to 960 pixels doesn’t mean you should. Don’t blindly approach grids from a set size. The space on the screen is a valuable design tool. You can use for your grid but you can also use it for whitespace. Brockman says:

The grid system is an aid not a guarantee.

There are other kinds of grids, not just columns. It’s about choice. How do you choose to fill that space? 960 pixels is not right for everyone. Stop and consider. Big Cartel feels small and approachable because it doesn’t go full width. That fits the message it wants to communicate.

Grids don’t necessarily have to be uniform. Yet most grid tools start from that assumption. It seems like a small decision but it effects everything further down the line.

Think horizontally, then vertically

Thing of the page as a delicious parfait. The design of Jason’s own site can adapt to the content. His grid is just some horizontal strips. The different sections can then work together or stand alone. Within each layer there are then sub-layers. Only then does Jason think about how things line up vertically.

Design systems, not pages.

Stop, modulate and listen

Jason wrote a 24 Ways article on modular layout systems. You can narrow page elements down to identifier, size and placement: what it is, how big it is and where it goes. You can then apply those things to class names. Have classes for identification, size and placement. Then combine those classes e.g. class="pic two left" or class="pic seven right". Clients like the self-documenting nature of this.

Be a matchmaker

The state of type on the web today is still questionable. The choice isn’t large. It’s as if Netflix only offered four films for you to choose from. But type on the web is going to change soon. The conversations are already happening. In the next six months to a year, you will see more of a push for understanding of type and how to use type. Jason has some rules of thumb when choosing typefaces:

  • Don’t use two script typefaces together. Or two sans-serifs together (or two serifs together), for that matter. One of each is a good rule of thumb.
  • Pair fonts from the same designer. Perpetua and Gill Sans go great together because they were both made by that loony Eric Gill.
  • Find harmony and structure. Bedoni and Futura are very different; one is serif and one is sans-serif. And yet they share geometric forms.
  • Conversely, look for contrast. Caslon and Garamond are too similar to use together.

Step by step, all those decisions add up. It’s like Stewart Brand says in How Buildings Learn. People don’t begin building a house and plan for adding an addition but over time, bit by bit, you add to the house. Buildings adapt over time. So do websites.

The small decisions add up even if you don’t realise it at the time.

Content First

Because it takes two people to replace Eric Meyer, Kristina Halvorson has stepped into the breach at An Event Apart in Boston. At last week’s UX London, Dan described her as the patron saint of content strategy. Her talk is called Content First. She begins by listing a bunch of Twitter hashtags and pointing out the excellent A Feed Apart.

Kristina started out as a Copy Writer and morphed into being a Web Writer. For a long time, there was no such role as Content Strategist. That meant that the Web Writer was divorced from the rest of the team. Everyone was talking about user experience but nobody was talking about the content. We’ve got user flows, mental models, eventually the site map. At this point, everyone’s happy. Then someone looks at the schedule. Copy writing (usually lumped in with SEO) is allocated a couple of weeks at most. They call in the Copy Writer, show the diagrams and functional specs and say, off you go! Now you’ve got two weeks (tops) to figure out the content requirements and deliver the content. How did we allow this to happen?

Content isn’t a three-step create, revise and approve process. It’s much more complex than that. And it’s never done.

Kristina quotes the origin of the phrase information architecture. Then Tufte came along. Designers took it upon themselves to craft information that was understandable and digestable. Then the web came along. To begin with, it was treated as a visual medium. Jesse James Garrett changed the emphasis to user experience. But where is content in Jesse’s diagram? It’s on the second level. Then it disappears. We were approaching content on the same level as functional specs; a feature than can be ticked off a list. But content is a living, breathing thing that evolves over time. Once you put it online, you are required to feed it and take care of it.

Content is almost always the last thing to be considered and the last thing to be deliverd. This is the Content Delay Syndrome. In Kelly’s book, she says Accept it. Plan for it. Charge for it. Kristina thinks that sucks. Content Strategy is a better way.

Content can be text, graphics, video and audio. Kristina mostly works with text.

Strategy is often seen as what we’re going to do. But most people conflate tactics with strategy. Strategy is actually about answering all those good journalistic questions, why are we doing this?, who is this for?, what do we have to work with?

Here’s the homepage for Quicken. First thing you see is the happy guy. Then you see four red boxes for four different products. Then you see price points; a consideration to be sure, but this is your financial well-being we’re talking about. This probably all looked great in a wireframe. The content got poured in to the layout at the end.

Mint has an awesome content strategy even though they don’t have much content. The content is focused on you.

Plan. Create. Publish. Govern.

Governance is important. The Swiffer “live” YouTube channel has been left to rot. People still leave comments but the last curator login was nine months ago.

Right now, the mind set is launch and leave it. But content is cyclical. It needs a process.

Audit. Analysis. Strategy.

  • Auditing content is usually thought of as cataloguing pages. That’s a quantitative audit. It tells you where? and how much? Qualitative audits are more useful by telling you how useful content is. There’s also specialised auditing such as dealing with metadata.
  • Analysis is one of the most important things that a content strategist can do but it’s also often overlooked. Don’t just jump into action. You might think you don’t have the time or budget for this part; invest in it. You need to consider brand and messaging, the channels you will be using to deliver content, user research… Kristina is aware that most people don’t have the budget for all of this but you can still start introducing it a little at a time. There’s a whole bucket of other stuff to consider; technical infrastructure, internal politics, stakeholder swoop’n’poop.
  • Finally you can put a strategy together. This is where the content strategist really takes ownership of the content. That’s often the problem with content, right? Nobody takes ownership of it. Maybe it’ll be the information architect, maybe it’ll be the user experience designer. The important thing is that someone is in charge of it. Always consider what will happen when the content is out there. Don’t launch a blog, for example, unless you’re willing to invest time in it.

The page stack symbol in IA diagrams will kick your ass. As far as the information architect is concerned, this is where the magic happens.

The page template, usually filled with lorem ipsum, is a useful tool but it only shows you structure. It doesn’t answer any questions about what your users need.

Page tables are a new tool. They identify structure, but also the details and, importantly, the implications. It also poses questions, who is in charge of this?, how will this be accomplished? This is dirty work but someone has to do it. Of course, if you have 1200 pages, you won’t build page tables for each one but you should build a page table for pages with specific objectives and specific user needs.

Content inventory involves mapping out what you’ve got and what you’re going to need. This is usually a spreadsheet.

This is all something we can do. Imagine having this instead of lorem ipsum …lorem ipsum must die!

Why do this? Think about why people go online. They want content. Support your users in their quest.

How can you start? The reality is probably that you can’t just hire a content strategist tomorrow. But you can change your mindset. When we talk about user experience, content is missing from the discussion. Let’s change that.

Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon

I’m at An Event Apart in Boston where Jared is kicking things off. He’s pinch hitting for Eric who can’t be here, alas. (Do you like the way I’m casually using baseball references like pinch hitting to ingratiate myself with the local audience?)

Jared’s talk is entitled Revealing Design Treasures from The Amazon and I’m guessing he’s not talking about the South American river. He begins by talking about milk. Two years ago, you could buy Tuscan whole milk on Amazon. The reviews are hilarious. Jared reads an over-the-top literary travel piece to everyone’s amusement. Another review is written as a romance novel. Another is written as Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. Another is in the style of a rock music review. Some of the shorter ones are hilarious too, Okay product, but you have to buy a glass to use it.

Here’s a comment that comes up at lots of planning meetings, I like the way that Amazon does this, why don’t we do it like Amazon? People don’t say that about QVC. What’s so special about Amazon? Well, for a start, it’s a very, very popular and successful site. Jared quotes the stats. But there are other little things that are almost invisible but are very appealing. For example, the search results tell you when something will be delivered—most sites provide this information on the product page, but not on the search results page. They also keep iterating lots of subtle little things like the add to shopping cart button. So it’s understandable that people want to do things like Amazon. But to do that, you need to know exactly what it is that Amazon does. Jared will now reveal all. Jared has spent a long time watching people shop on Amazon.

It all starts with the content. In the case of Amazon, that’s reviews. People read reviews on Amazon and then sometimes buy the product somewhere else. Amazon knows this and they’re okay with that. Jared compares two reviews of a Harry Potter book. One talks about the content of the book, another talks about the experience of getting the book delivered from Amazon.

As more and more reviews get added over time, quality reviews get pushed down the page. This isn’t good because reviews are so critical to purchasing decisions. Amazon solved this problem with a small, simple device. They added a little question, Was this review helpful to you? This small addition gained Amazon approximately 2.7 billion dollars in revenue. That vital little feature was rolled out without much fanfare. With that extra data, people can now view most valuable reviews, least valuable reviews, etc. It turns out that the only people who want to see reviews ordered by date are the author of the book and the people who wrote the reviews. It’s just not that valuable for customers.

For a lot of products, such as alarm clocks, you’re only going to write a review if you have a negative experience. How does Amazon get people to write reviews? Most people don’t leave reviews. About 0.7% of people who buy something leave a review. But because Amazon has such a huge amount of customers, that equates to quite a lot. So the next time someone says, we should have reviews; that works really well for Amazon, you can respond with sure, we should have customers too; that works really well for Amazon.

Frankly, review writers are the lunatic fringe of customers …and you need to encourage that lunatic fringe. This is what the discussions, listmania, and customers ultimately bought.. features try to do. Some of these ideas and experiments work but some of them don’t.

Remember the Amazon gold box that would wiggle at you from the top of the page? The idea was to show people products in a “treasure chest” to encourage people to buy those products. The goal was to let people know about all the other stuff that Amazon sells; they already know from your shopping history what you know about so they specifically showed you stuff you didn’t know about. People got really frustrated with this. People wanted to see things they were likely to want to buy but that wasn’t the goal of the gold box. After a while, people stopped clicking on the gold box.

Amazon added tags. Two of the most popular tags are book and dvd. Those aren’t very useful for navigation. Neither is a tag like not interested but people use that tag a lot.

One of the products Amazon sells is an ethernet cable selling for $500. Boing Boing picked up on this. People starting havig fun with the tags for the ludicrously overpriced product; snakeoil, IQ test, waste of money, etc. Well, try clicking the waste of money tag; there’s a lot tagged with that. Why would Amazon allow people to tag their products in this way? The tag defective by design is a protest tag for anything that uses DRM.

Here’s the lesson. If your people are saying we should be more like Amazon, that should really mean don’t fear new ideas. Experiment. Some experiments don’t work. Know when to drop the ones that aren’t working; you’ll need a good metrics system to know what’s working.

There are also lessons to be learned from the experience of using Amazon. Notice that they don’t ask you to log in with your password until you absolutely need to. That really matters. Some customers never need to give their password. Amazon has amazing security levels that they’ve put a lot of effort into:

  1. Amazon doesn’t know who you are (no cookie).
  2. Amazon knows you from a cookie—you can receive recommendations.
  3. Amazon wants to reveal something only you should know (password required).

There was a lot of negotiations with credit card companies to make the purchasing experience as good as it could be.

This is all about increasing Goal Time and reducing Tool Time. Struggling with security and remembering passwords is Tool Time. Finding the product that’s right for you is Goal Time.

Every time Amazon changes something, they are dabbling in changing the Tool Time. Amazon has changed a lot of over time. But most people don’t notice because the redesign happens slowly over time. This is in stark contrast to, say, Facebook’s sudden redesign. People don’t like it when things change suddenly. Amazon doesn’t have that problem even though it is constantly changing. Most users didn’t even notice when the mega dropdown was replaced with link list navigation. Here’s how they rolled it out:

  1. Show the new design to 5000 non-cookied visitors per day. That means switching on the new design for 45 seconds. These non-cookied visitors are the least risky; they haven’t visited Amazon before.
  2. After three weeks of that, show the new design to 1 in 5 non-cookied customers.
  3. After another three weeks, show 5000 cookied customers the new design.
  4. Show 1 in 5 cookied visitors.
  5. Show everyone.

That’s twelve weeks to roll out one change.

Search can be hard. How do you find the first Tom Clancy book to feature Jack Ryan? How do you find an inexpensive but high quality SLR camera? How do you find a good toy for your six-year old niece? How do you find all the novels by Nobel Prize winning authors?

Let’s say your new to Salsa music and you want to get the best Salsa artists. First you have to limit your search to music to avoid getting food products. Even then, you get greatest hits albums but you don’t know who the artists are. CD Baby handles this better than Amazon because they have curated content.

Finally, never forget the business. Jared will now share the secret of Amazon’s business.

You can buy an iPod nano on Apple, Best Buy, etc. for about $149. Amazon sells it for $134. That’s probably cost price. It turns out that Amazon can sell almost everything at cost price and still make a product because of volume. It’s all down to the Negative Operating Cycle. Amazon turns over its inventory every 20 days whereas Best Buy takes 74 days. Standard retail term payments take 45 days. So Best Buy is in debt between day 45 and day 74. Amazon, on the other hand, are sitting on cash between day 20 and day 45. In that time, they can invest that money. That’s where their profit comes from.

You have to start with a great business model to produce a great experience.

Jared leaves us with some homework. Visit the Amazon page for the Playmobil security checkpoint. Let that be a lesson to us.

  • Be careful when emulating features.
  • Some experiments don’t pan out.
  • Not every use case is the same.

PaperCamp

I’m up in London for . I arrive late to find Aaron Straup Cope in full flow. I saw Aaron at XTech two years ago talking about the idea of . Here we are today having a whole event devoted to it. His talk today sets the scene nicely, packed full of ideas.

Tom Taylor has an awesome analogue mashup. He bought a cheap little till printer, the small dinky kind that is used for printing off shop receipts. As he put it, If A4 is a blog, this is Twitter. He has hooked it up to an arduino board which connects to his computer which is connected to the internet. That’s the hardware side of the things. The software side of things is pretty simple. Every day at 8:00am, a programme pulls in data from various places: appointments from his calendar, the movements of his fellow travellers on Dopplr, and (of course). This gets output to a queue and a few seconds later, that gets output—via the arduino board—to the till printer. Tom now has a small slip of paper with all the little reminders he might need for the day. It is, as I said, awesome. I want one.

Till printer + arduino + laptop

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is talking about making stuff with paper. But enough talk. Let’s actually make stuff. We are all seated around a table covered with paper, pens, scissors, tape, stanley knives and other tools. We have fifteen minutes to make either a piece of furniture, a building or an object we love. I don’t know what to build so I look up at the ceiling and start trying to build a scale model of it. It was fun.

Chris Heathcote loves guidebooks. Venice for Pleasure is the ur-guidebook, beautifully written. Wallpaper do guide books for people who live a clichéd designer lifestyle and take taxis everywhere. In Japan they have the concept of mooks: magazine books. They aren’t replaced every month; a new one comes out every month but you can buy the previous mooks too. Guidebooks are getting smaller which is a good thing. Chris tends to rip things out of his guidebooks—they tend to be for one-time use. He does the same with maps. Like Aaron said, you don’t want to be the tourist with the big map. Moleskine make notebooks with maps and tracing paper. And of course now, thanks to the papernet, you can make your own foldable maps, turkish or otherwise.

Nick O’Leary is talking about graphs. He wants to represent them with paper rather than simply on paper. He came up with some code that generates an image including lines showing where to fold and cut. Print it out, cut it and fold it and voila!, 3D graphs. He holds up an example. It’s beautiful. He wants to make a pop-up book of statistics. Absolutely bloody brilliant! This is data porn and paper porn rolled into one. Aaron asks if Nick has thought about applying this idea to creating topographical maps which, let’s face it, would be really, really handy for somewhere like San Francisco.

Nick's creation

We break for lunch and a bunch of us gravitate towards a bar called Camino, the only place in the vicinity that shares its name with a web browser. Some of the people I know, some I don’t. The conversation turns to code and hacking. I start to mention one of my favourite hacks at HackDay, Above London. Turns out that the person sitting next to me is Paul Mison, one of the Above London hackers and also creator of the machine tag browser that I blogged about.

After lunch, Sascha Pohflepp talks about Export to World. This looks familiar. Ah yes, I remember this being presented as the dinner entertainment during Reboot last year. He’s been taking objects out of Second Life and modelling them in the real world.

Now everyone gathers around a laptop for a demo from Durrell Bishop and Tom Hulbert from Luckybite. They have a printed book based on their music collection. Each page of the book contains an image—usually an album cover—and a barcode. If you scan the barcode from a page in the book, the corresponding music will play on your computer (or your phone). The book is the UI. The wireless barcode reader is where the magic happens. If these guys can make a cheap version of this reader, it will fantastic …for all us. Right now the only expensive bit is the reading head but the price could come down as low as a dollar or two. Sign me up!

James Wheare now gives a quick demo. He’s making a daily physical lifestream. Overnight, it pulls in blog entries, Flickr pictures and twitter messages from his friends and in the morning, he prints out a foldable A4 page. He can fold this down into a little booklet to take with him when he leaves the house.

Lifestream booklet

Karsten Schmidt begins by talking about print on demand. He shows beautiful computer-generated algorithm-driven book covers from Faber Finds. He then shows the most gorgeous unique identifiers I’ve ever seen. These are printed on to postcards for the end of year show at the London College of Fashion—one per student. These cards are machine readable at interactive tables. But what about generating machine-readable identifiers without using a machine? Right now you still need a computer and a printer. What if you could use origami instead? If you think about it, that’s what’s going on with Edward James Olmos’s unicorn in Bladerunner. Take a piece of paper, configure it in a certain way; now it contains a machine-readable message.

At this stage, my mind is well and truly blown and we aren’t even finished yet. Sawa Tanaka is now going to show some of her work. Here’s a book called Spot Nocturnal Animals which is all white in the daylight but once it gets dark, you can shine a UV light on the paper to expose animal tracks and information. The Egg Book uses thermochromic ink. When you warm it up—Sawa blows on the page at this point—baby birds are revealed. Here’s the missing piece of the papernet puzzle: edibility. Sawa has made edible prints on rice paper: English breakfast, fish’n’chips, soba …this is making me hungry. She has also created a beautiful box of pictures of Hiroshima with pictures from 1945 burnt onto pictures from 2007. Every one of her projects is wonderful.

Sawa Tanaka

Next up is Beeker Northam who speaks about photographing paper. She doesn’t like throwing away books. She photographs her books. There’s something about photographing them that’s different to scanning them. She’d like to have some kind of web-based way for people to share those bits of books that have had an emotional impact on them but she hasn’t found it yet. There are book sharing sites out there but they all take a library-based approach.

I’m up next. I feel bad because, not only do I not have a demo or prototype to show, I don’t even have any slides. All I have is an idea. And ideas are a dime a dozen. It’s following through that counts. But still …I’m using PaperCamp as a real-world LazyWeb; running an idea up the flagpole; opening the kimono; attempting a landing on the Hudson.

I had this idea a while back of doing a location-based audio service. I heard about a site that offered user-generated audio guides for museums. Download the MP3, stick it on your iPod, go to the museum and press play. I thought it would be good to do the same thing for any kind of location. For example, I could walk around Brighton recording my thoughts about the architecture or talking about the best restaurants, and then I could upload that audio file and geotag it so that somebody else can later retrace my steps and hear my words. The problem I’ve found with this idea is the lack of good recording devices. We have ubiquitous listening devices—iPods—but the ubiquitous devices we talk into—mobile phones—aren’t the right fit for this, I fear.

So the idea of location-based shared audio languished on the back burner. Then I saw Aaron speaking at XTech about the papernet and I begin to think that words on paper might be a better medium than words in headphones. Paper is compact, durable and portable. Then Moleskine came out with their city guides and that’s when I joined the dots: what I want is a guide book that grows over time. It could work something like Book Crossing, with people passing the notebooks along to the next person visiting a place. To begin with, the notebooks are sparse, containing only maps but then they get filled with notes, stories, tips and recommendations.

It strikes me that the internet is superb for communication and collaboration over distance: Wikipedia, Flickr, blogs …physical distance collapses completely. Meanwhile, the physical world has an emotional immediacy and tactile feel that can’t be captured online. I’d like to bridge those worlds using guidebooks as the glue: physical objects in the real world that benefit from the collaborative environment of the internet. I’m not sure if Moleskine city guides are necessarily the best vessels. That would limit the potential places to just those cities that have guidebooks. A print-on-demand book containing maps from OpenStreetMap, photos from Flickr places and text from Wikipedia could make for an equally good starting point as long as the physical dimensions are notebook-like.

That’s my idea. I can foresee some serendipitous side-effects growing out of this infrastructure—games and treasure hunts, perhaps—but I can also imagine some challenges—like co-ordinating the physical shipping of the books from person to person (maybe drop-off points are a better idea). Then there’s the fact that all this information that’s being accumulated is stuck in a physical object that isn’t machine-readable without some scanning and OCR—it seems a shame that the information can’t easily flow back from the real world onto the internet.

I’m done pitching my idea and ask what people think. Aaron says he wants to help me build this. Yay! He also says that my worries about getting the information from book to internet shouldn’t be too much of a cause for concern. I agree: it’s certainly not a show-stopper. Alex likes the idea of the time-sensitive nature of recording thoughts about a place; the places that you visited when you were in a relationship, for example, will be coloured by how you felt in that relationship. I hadn’t thought about that, but yes, these notebooks could be vessels for messages from your past self to your present or future self. Denise reckons that this might not even be a technological undertaking at all: she mentions a notebook of sketches that was simply passed from designer to designer, filling up over time. I think that’s largely true but there’s also great potential in the social aspect of sharing the books: I’m going to want notebooks that have previously been used by people I know or whose opinion I trust. But yes, fundamentally all I’m proposing is a web-based admin system for co-ordinating the sharing.

With that, I’m done. I hand the floor over to Matt Ward who closes the event with his thoughts about everything he’s seen today. Keywords are augmentation, materiality and craft-bioinformatic-origami-unicorns.

The other Matt finishes by thanking us all for coming and turning a drunken conversation in the pub into something that will keep him thinking for all of 2009. Hear, hear! Thank you, Mr. Jones, for organising this inspiring gathering.

An Event Apart, Day One

The first day of An Event Apart is wrapping up in San Francisco. The quality of talks has been outstanding. Now I’m really bricking it about my talk tomorrow morning. The bar has been set ridiculously high.

I’ve done my best to liveblog throughout the day. Inevitably there will be mistakes and omissions in these second-hand reports but here they are:

  1. Understanding Web Design by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. The Lessons of CSS Frameworks by Eric Meyer
  3. Storytelling by Design by Jason Santa Maria
  4. Web Application Hierarchy by Luke W.
  5. Shepherding Passionate Users by Heather Champ
  6. The Framework Age by Liz Danzico
  7. Implementing Design: Bulletproof A-Z by Dan Cederholm

I’m kind of wiped out from all the typing. I probably won’t be able to manage a second day of liveblogging. I can’t wait to have my talk out the way and enjoy the rest of the speakers.