Tags: liveblogging

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Live-blogging An Event Apart Seattle

I tried do some live-blogging at An Event Apart Seattle. I surprised myself by managing to do all six talks on the first day. I even managed one or two after that, but that was the limit of my stamina. Torre, on the other hand, managed to live-blog every single talk—amazing!

Some of the talks don’t necessarily lend themselves to note-taking—ya kinda had to be there. But some of the the live-blogging I did ended up being surprisingly coherent.

Anyway, I figured it would be good to recap all the ones I managed to do here in one handy list.

  1. Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient by Jeffrey Zeldman. I think I managed to document the essence of what Jeffrey was getting at: for many sites, engagement isn’t the right metric to measure—the idea of a Content Performance Quotient is one alternative.
  2. Digital Marketing Strategies for the Busy “Web Master” by Sarah Parmenter. The structure of Sarah’s talk lent itself well to live-blogging, but I strongly disagreed with one or two of her suggestions (like encouraging people to install the disgusting abomination that is Facebook Pixel).
  3. Scenario-Driven Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz. This one was hard to live-blog because it was so packed with so many priceless knowledge bombs—an absolutely brilliant presentation, right up my alley!
  4. Graduating to Grid by Rachel Andrew. The afternoon sessions, with their emphasis on CSS, were definitely tricky to capture. I didn’t even try to catch most of the code, but I think I managed to get down most of Rachel’s points about learning new CSS.
  5. Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS by Eric Meyer. There was a fair bit of code in this one, and lots of gasp-inducing demos too, so my account probably doesn’t do it justice.
  6. Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons. There was no way I could document the demos, but I think I managed to convey the excitement in Jen’s talk.
  7. Navigating Team Friction by Lara Hogan. I only managed to do two talks on the second day, but I think they came out the best. Lara’s talk was packed full with great advice, but it was so clearly structured that I think I managed to get most of the main points down.
  8. Designing Progressive Web Apps by Jason Grigsby. I had a vested interest in the topic of Jason’s talk so I was scribing like crazy. Apart from a few missing diagrams, I think my notes managed to convey most of Jason’s message.

Of course the one talk I definitely couldn’t live-blog was my own. I’ve documented lists of links relating to the subject matter of my talk, but if you weren’t at An Event Apart Seattle, then the only other chance to see the talk is at An Event Apart Boston in June. That’s the only other time I’m giving it.

I thoroughly enjoyed giving the talk in Seattle, particularly when I treated the audience to a scoop: I announced my new book, Going Offline, during the talk (I had been scheming with Katel at A Book Apart and we co-ordinated the timing to a tee).

Designing Progressive Web Apps by Jason Grigsby

It’s the afternoon of the second day of An Event Apart Seattle and Jason is talking about Designing Progressive Web Apps. These are my notes…

Jason wants to talk about a situation you might find yourself in. You’re in a room and in walks the boss, who says “We need a progressive web app.” Now everyone is asking themselves “What is a progressive web app?” Or maybe “How does the CEO even know about progressive web apps?”

Well, trade publications are covering progressive web apps. Lots of stats and case studies are being published. When executives see this kind of information, they don’t want to get left out. Jason keeps track of this stuff at PWA Stats.

Answering the question “What is a progressive web app?” is harder than it should be. The phrase was coined by Frances Berriman and Alex Russell. They listed ten characteristics that defined progressive web apps. The “linkable” and “progressive” characteristics are the really interesting and new characteristics. We’ve had technologies before (like Adobe Air) that tried to make app-like experiences, but they weren’t really of the web. Progressive web apps are different.

Despite this list of ten characteristics, even people who are shipping progressive web apps find it hard to define the damn thing. The definition on Google’s developer site keeps changing. They reduced the characteristics from ten to six. Then it became “reliable, fast, and engaging.” What does that mean? Craigslist is reliable, fast, and engaging—does that mean it’s a progressive web app.

The technical definition is useful (kudos to me, says Jason):

  1. HTTPS
  2. service worker
  3. manifest file

If you don’t have those three things, it’s not a progressive web app.

We should definitely use HTTPS if we want make life harder for the NSA. Also browser makers are making APIs available only under HTTPS. By July, Chrome will mark HTTP sites as insecure. Every site should be under HTTPS.

Service workers are where the power is. They act as a proxy. They allow us to say what we want to cache, what we want to go out to the network for; things that native apps have been able to do for a while. With progressive web apps we can cache the app shell and go to the network for content. Service workers can provide a real performance boost.

A manifest file is simply a JSON file. It’s short and clear. It lists information about the app: icons, colours, etc.

Once you provide those three things, you get benefits. Chrome and Opera on Android will prompt to add the app to the home screen.

So that’s what’s required for progressive web apps, but there’s more to them than that (in the same way there’s more to responsive web design than the three requirements in the baseline definition).

The hype around progressive web apps can be a bit of a turn-off. It certainly was for Jason. When he investigated the technologies, he wondered “What’s the big deal?” But then he was on a panel at a marketing conference, and everyone was talking about progressive web apps. People’s expectations of what you could do on the web really hadn’t caught up with what we can do now, and the phrase “progressive web app” gives us a way to encapsulate that. As Frances says, the name isn’t for us; it’s for our boss or marketer.

Jason references my post about using the right language for the right audience.

Should you have a progressive web app? Well, if you have a website, then the answer is almost certainly “Yes!” If you make money from that website, the answer is definitely “Yes!”

But there’s a lot of FUD around progressive web apps. It brings up the tired native vs. web battle. Remember though that not 100% of your users or customers have your app installed. And it’s getting harder to convince people to install apps. The average number of apps installed per month is zero. But your website is often a customer’s first interaction with your company. A better web experience can only benefit you.

Often, people say “The web can’t do…” but a lot of the time that information is out of date. There are articles out there with outdated information. One article said that progressive web apps couldn’t access the camera, location, or the fingerprint sensor. Yet look at Instagram’s progressive web app: it accesses the camera. And just about every website wants access to your location these days. And Jason knows you can use your fingerprint to buy things on the web because he accidentally bought socks when he was trying to take a screenshot of the J.Crew website on his iPhone. So the author of that article was just plain wrong. The web can do much more than we think it can.

Another common objection is “iOS doesn’t support progressive web apps”. Well, as of last week that is no longer true. But even when that was still true, people who had implemented progressive web apps were seeing increased conversion even on iOS. That’s probably because, if you’ve got the mindset for building a progressive web app, you’re thinking deeply about performance. In many ways, progressive web apps are a trojan horse for performance.

These are the things that people think about when it comes to progressive web apps:

  1. Making it feel like a app
  2. Installation and discovery
  3. Offline mode
  4. Push notifications
  5. Beyond progressive web app

Making it feel like a app

What is an app anyway? Nobody can define it. Once again, Jason references my posts on this topic (how “app” is like “obscenity” or “brunch”).

A lot of people think that “app-like” means making it look native. But that’s a trap. Which operating system will you choose to emulate? Also, those design systems change over time. You should define your own design. Make it an exceptional experience regardless of OS.

It makes more sense to talk in terms of goals…

Goal: a more immersive experience.

Possible solution: removing the browser chrome and going fullscreen?

You can define this in the manifest file. But as you remove the browser chrome, you start to lose things that people rely on: the back button, the address bar. Now you have to provide that functionality. If you move to a fullscreen application you need to implement sharing, printing, and the back button (and managing browser history is not simple). Remember that not every customer will add your progressive web app to their home screen. Some will have browser chrome; some won’t.

Goal: a fast fluid experience.

Possible solution: use an app shell model.

You want smooth pages that don’t jump around as the content loads in. The app shell makes things seem faster because something is available instantly—it’s perceived performance. Basically you’re building a single page application. That’s a major transition. But thankfully, you don’t have to do it! Progressive web apps don’t have to be single page apps.

Goal: an app with personality.

Possible solution: Animated transitions and other bits of UI polish.

Really, it’s all about delight.

Installation and discovery

In your manifest file you can declare a background colour for the startup screen. You can also declare a theme colour—it’s like you’re skinning the browser chrome.

You can examine the manifest files for a site in Chrome’s dev tools.

Once you’ve got a progressive web app, some mobile browsers will start prompting users to add it to their home screen. Firefox on Android displays a little explainer the first time you visit a progressive web app. Chrome and Opera have add-to-homescreen banners which are a bit more intrusive. The question of when they show up keeps changing. They use a heuristic to decide this. The heuristic has been changed a few times already. One thing you should consider is suppressing the banner until it’s an optimal time. Flipkart do this: they only allow it on the order confirmation page—the act of buying something makes it really likely that someone will add the progressive web app to their home screen.

What about app stores? We don’t need them for progressive web apps—they’re on the web. But Microsoft is going to start adding progressive web apps to their app store. They’ve built a site called PWA Builder to help you with your progressive web app.

On the Android side, there’s Trusted Web Activity which is kind of like PhoneGap—it allows you to get a progressive web app into the Android app store.

But remember, your progressive web app is your website so all the normal web marketing still applies.

Offline mode

A lot of organisations say they have no need for offline functionality. But everyone has a need for some offline capability. At the very least, you can provide a fallback page, like Trivago’s offline maze game.

You can cache content that has been recently viewed. This is what Jason does on the Cloud Four site. They didn’t want to make any assumptions about what people might want, so they only cache pages as people browse around the site.

If you display cached information, you might want to display how stale the information is e.g. for currency exchange rates.

Another option is to let people choose what they want to keep offline. The Financial Times does this. They also pre-cache the daily edition.

If you have an interactive application, you could queue tasks and then carry them out when there’s a connection.

Or, like Slack does, don’t let people write something if they’re offline. That’s better than letting someone write something and then losing it.

Workbox is a handy library for providing offline functionality.

Push notifications

The JavaScript for push notifications is relatively easy, says Jason. It’s the back-end stuff that’s hard. That’s because successful push notifications are personalised. But to do that means doing a lot more work on the back end. How do you integrate with preferences? Which events trigger notifications?

There are third-party push notification services that take care of a lot of this for you. Jason has used OneSignal.

Remember that people are really annoyed by push notifications. Don’t ask for permission immediately. Don’t ask someone to marry you on a first date. On Cloud Four’s blog, they only prompt after the user has read an article.

Twitter’s progressive web app does this really well. It’s so important that you do this well: if a user says “no” to your push notification permission request, you will never be able to ask them again. There used to be three options on Chrome: allow, block, or close. Now there are just two: allow or block.

Beyond progressive web apps

There are a lot of APIs that aren’t technically part of progressive web apps but get bundled in with them. Like the Credentials Management API or the Payment Request API (which is converging with ApplePay).

So how should you plan your progressive web app launch? Remember it’s progressive. You can keep adding features. Each step along the way, you’re providing value to people.

Start with some planning and definition. Get everyone in a room and get a common definition of what the ideal progressive web app would look like. Remember there’s a continuum of features for all five of the things that Jason has outlined here.

Benchmark your existing site. It will help you later on.

Assess your current website. Is the site reasonably fast? Is it responsive? Fix those usability issues first.

Next, do the baseline. Switch to HTTPS. Add a manifest file. Add a service worker. Apart from the HTTPS switch, this can all be done on the front end. Don’t wait for all three: ship each one when they’re ready.

Then do front-end additions: pre-caching pages, for example.

Finally, there are the larger initiatives (with more complex APIs). This is where your initial benchmarking really pays off. You can demonstrate the value of what you’re proposing.

Every step on the path to a progressive web app makes sense on its own. Figure out where you want to go and start that journey.

See also:

Navigating Team Friction by Lara Hogan

It’s day two of An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Lara is here to tell us about Navigating Team Friction. These are my notes…

Lara started as a developer, and then moved into management. Now she consults with other organisations. So she’s worked with teams of all sizes, and her conclusion is that humans are amazing. She has seen teams bring a site down; she has seen teams ship amazing features; she has seen teams fall apart because they had to move desks. But it’s magical that people can come together and build something.

Bruce Tuckman carried out research into the theory of group dynamics. He published stages of group development. The four common stages are:

  1. Forming. The group is coming together. There is excitement.
  2. Storming. This is when we start to see some friction. This is necessary.
  3. Norming. Things start to iron themselves out.
  4. Performing. Now you’re in the flow state and you’re shipping.

So if your team is storming (experiencing friction), that’s absolutely normal. It might be because of disagreement about processes. But you need to move past the friction. Team friction impacts your co-workers, company, and users.

An example. Two engineers passively-aggressively commenting each other’s code reviews; they feign surprise at the other’s technology choices; one rewrites the others code; one ships to production with code review; a senior team member or manager has to step in. But it costs a surprising amount of time and energy before a manager even notices to step in.

Brains

The Hulk gets angry. This is human. We transform into different versions of ourselves when we are overcome by our emotions.

Lara has learned a lot about management by reading about how our brains work. We have a rational part of our brain, the pre-frontal cortex. It’s very different to our amygdala, a much more primal part of our brain. It categorises input into either threat or reward. If a threat is dangerous enough, the amygdala takes over. The pre-frontal cortex is too slow to handle dangerous situations. So when you have a Hulk moment, that was probably an amygdala hijack.

We have six core needs that are open to being threatened (leading to an amygdala hijacking):

  1. Belonging. Community, connection; the need to belong to a tribe. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense—we are social animals.
  2. Improvement/Progress. Progress towards purpose, improving the lives of others. We need to feel that we do matters, and that we are learning.
  3. Choice. Flexibility, autonomy, decision-making. The power to make decisions over your own work.
  4. Equality/Fairness. Access to resources and information; equal reciprocity. We have an inherent desire for fairness.
  5. Predictability. Resources, time, direction future challenges. We don’t like too many surprises …but we don’t like too much routine either. We want a balance.
  6. Significance. Status, visibility, recognition. We want to feel important. Being assigned to a project you think is useless feels awful.

Those core needs are B.I.C.E.P.S. Thinking back to your own Hulk moment, which of those needs was threatened?

We value those needs differently. Knowing your core needs is valuable.

Desk Moves

Lara has seen the largest displays of human emotion during something as small as moving desks. When you’re asked to move your desk, your core need of “Belonging” may be threatened. Or it may be a surprise that disrupts the core need of “Improvement/Progress.” If a desk move is dictated to you, it feels like “Choice” is threatened. The move may feel like it favours some people over others, threatening “Equality/Fairness.” The “Predictability” core need may be threatened by an unexpected desk move. If the desk move feels like a demotion, your core need of “Significance” will be threatened.

We are not mind readers, so we can’t see when someone’s amygdala takes over. But we can look out for the signs. Forms of resistance can be interpreted as data. The most common responses when a threat is detected are:

  1. Doubt. People double-down on the status quo; they question the decision.
  2. Avoidance. Avoiding the problem; too busy to help with the situation.
  3. Fighting. People create arguments against the decision. They’ll use any logic they can. Or they simply refuse.
  4. Bonding. Finding someone else who is also threatened and grouping together.
  5. Escape-route. Avoiding the threat by leaving the company.

All of these signals are data. Rather than getting frustrated with these behaviours, use them as valuable data. Try not to feel threatened yourself by any of these behaviours.

Open questions are powerful tool in your toolbox. Asked from a place of genuine honesty and curiosity, open questions help people feel less threatened. Closed questions are questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”. When you spot resistance, get some one-on-one time and try to ask open questions:

  • What do you think folks are liking or disliking about this so far?
  • I wanted to get your take on X. What might go wrong? What do you think might be good about it?
  • What feels most upsetting about this?

You can use open questions like these to map resistance to threatened core needs. Then you can address those core needs.

This is a good time to loop in your manager. It can be very helpful to bounce your data off someone else and get their help. De-escalating resistance is a team effort.

Communication ✨

Listen with compassion, kindness, and awareness.

  • Reflect on the dynamics in the room. Maybe somebody thinks a topic is very important to them. Be aware of your medium. Your body language; your tone of voice; being efficient with words could be interpreted as a threat. Consider the room’s power dynamics. Be aware of how influential your words could be. Is this person in a position to take the action I’m suggesting?
  • Elevate the conversation. Meet transparency with responsibility.
  • Assume best intentions. Remember the prime directive. Practice empathy. Ask yourself what else is going on for this person in their life.
  • Listen to learn. Stay genuinely curious. This is really hard. Remember your goal is to understand, not make judgement. Prepare to be surprised when you walk into a room. Operate under the assumption that you don’t have the whole story. Be willing to have your mind changed …no, be excited to have your mind changed!

This tips are part of mindful communication. amy.tech has some great advice for mindful communication in code reviews.

Feedback

Mindful communication won’t solve all your problems. There are times when you’ll have to give actionable feedback. The problem is that humans are bad at giving feedback, and we’re really bad at receiving feedback. We actively avoid feedback. Sometimes we try to give constructive feedback in a compliment sandwich—don’t do that.

We can get better at giving and receiving feedback.

Ever had someone say, “Hey, you’re doing a great job!” It feels good for a few minutes, but what we crave is feedback that addresses our core needs.

GeneralSpecific and Actionable
Positive Feedback
Negative Feedback

The feedback equation starts with an observation (“You’re emails are often short”)—it’s not how you feel about the behaviour. Next, describe the impact of the behaviour (“The terseness of your emails makes me confused”). Then pose a question or request (“Can you explain why you write your emails that way?”).

observation + impact + question/request

Ask people about their preferred feedback medium. Some people prefer to receive feedback right away. Others prefer to digest it. Ask people if it’s a good time to give them feedback. Pro tip: when you give feedback, ask people how they’d like to receive feedback in the future.

Prepare your brain to receive feedback. It takes six seconds for your amygdala to chill out. Take six seconds before responding. If you can’t de-escalate your amygdala, ask the person giving feedback to come back later.

Think about one piece of feedback you’ll ask for back at work. Write it down. When your back at work, ask about it.

You’ll start to notice when your amygdala or pre-frontal cortex is taking over.

Prevention

Talking one-on-one is the best way to avoid team friction.

Retrospectives are a great way of normalising of talking about Hard Things and team friction.

It can be helpful to have a living document that states team processes and expectations (how code reviews are done; how much time is expected for mentoring). Having it written down makes it a North star you can reference.

Mapping out roles and responsibilities is helpful. There will be overlaps in that Venn diagram. The edges will be fuzzy.

What if you disagree with what management says? The absence of trust is at the centre of most friction.

DisgreeAgree
CommitMature and TransparentEasiest
Don’t CommitAcceptable but ToughBad Things

Practice finding other ways to address B.I.C.E.P.S. You might not to be able to fix the problem directly—the desk move still has to happen.

But no matter how empathic or mindful you are, sometimes it will be necessary to bring in leadership or HR. Loop them in. Restate the observation + impact. State what’s been tried, and what you think could help now. Throughout this process, take care of yourself.

Remember, storming is natural. You are now well-equipped to weather that storm.

See also:

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

Alright! It’s time for the final talk of the day at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jen is wrapping up a CSStastic afternoon with her talk Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed. These are my notes…

Ready for another hour of layout in CSS? Well, Jen will be showing no code in this talk. She’s actually nervous about this particular talk. Is she really planning to say “Everything about web design just changed”? That sounds so clickbaity! But she really believes we’re at an inflection point. This may be the sixth such point in the history of the web. One of those points where everything changes and we swap out our techniques.

For the last few years, we’ve been saying that everything changed when mobile came along. But actually, the real fight has been going on for longer than that. It’s the battle between wanting art and dealing with how the web works.

There’s a seminal book called Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel from 1996. In it, he describes the first time he saw the same site in two different browsers. His reaction was panic. The web gave control to the user. David Siegel wanted more control. And that’s how we got spacer gifs and tables for layout.

What are the five major changes in the history of web design?

  1. Simple HTML. There was only one kind of layout: flow layout. There’s no CSS, but the browser is still thinking of everything has having a box. Text takes up as much space as it needs. Images take up as much space as their size. This is flow. There wasn’t much you could do until tables came along. They were created for tabular content but abused for layouts. The “We need art!” crowd used what was available to them at the time. Lots of slicing and dicing.
  2. Flash. It was hard to get HTML tables to work in multiple browsers. Flash seemed like an amazing chance to start over. And we could do things that were previously only possible in CD-ROMs. As a designer, you take an element and place it where you want to go on the stage (the UI tradition that goes all the way back to Xerox PARC). We made some crazy sites, explored a lot of possibilities, and got a lot of control. But the downside was the lack of accessibility. We went back to getting to grips with the web as its own medium. Jeffrey’s book, Designing With Web Standards, was a rallying cry to allow HTML to return to doing what it was meant to.
  3. Fluid Layouts. This was a return to the way the web always behaved—content takes up as much room as it needs to. But this time there’s a certain amount of control over how things are laid out. Still, we pretended that nobody has screens smaller than 640 pixels or bigger than 1024 pixels. We still live with the idea of fluid columns today.
  4. Fixed-Width Layouts. The “We need art!” crowd wanted more control than fluid layouts offered. We pretended that everyone’s screen was at least 640 pixels, or later 800 pixels, or later 1024 pixels.
  5. Responsive Web Design. Unveiled by Ethan at An Event Apart Seattle in 2011: flexible grid; flexible images; media queries. It’s a return to fluid layouts, but the addition of media queries gives us more control. The idea of fluid image was a bit radical. Up until that point, we thought of images as always being their intrinsic size. But something Ethan said that day was “It’s not just about layout.” And it’s true. For the last eight years, it’s been about more than layout. You set out to redesign your website and end up redesigning your whole business. Responsive web design is, frankly, what the web is now.

But let’s talk about layout. What’s next? Intrinsic Web Design.

Why a new name? Why bother? Well, it was helpful to debate fluid vs. fixed, or table-based layouts: having words really helps. Over the past few years, Jen has needed a term for “responsive web design +”.

Responsive web design has flexible images. Intrinsic web design has flexible images …or fixed images. Whichever you want.

Responsive web design has a fluid columns. Intrinsic web design has fluid columns and rows.

Responsive web design uses media queries. Intrinsic web design doesn’t necessarily need them.

The name comes from words that have been floating in the ether. In Rachel’s talk, the words “sizing” and “intrinsic” came up a lot. This is about the nature of the web.

Let’s look at images specifically. Before responsive web design, images overflow their container if they are bigger than the container. Fluid images (as used in responsive web design) shrink and grow depending on the size of their container. You can also make images fluid in a vertical direction. If we make the image fluid vertically and horizontally, the image looks distorted. But now if we use object-fit: cover we can specify how we want the image to react.

Fixed or fluid? With grid layout, you can mix fixed and fluid. You can make a layout fluid until it hits a minimum size, at which point it stays fixed.

There are four stages of squishiness:

  1. fixed
  2. fr units (fluid)
  3. minmax()(fluid until fixed)
  4. auto (a return to flow)

That’s a powerful set of tools that may take us years to explore.

We can do truly two-dimensional layouts: rows and columns. Every one of those four stages of squishiness works for rows as well as columns. This means we can create intentional white space. Jen made a video about this and got the response that this was always possible, but it’s different now: it’s more intentional. You can set heights and widths.

We can have nested contexts now:

  1. Flow
  2. Flexbox (formatting context)
  3. Grid (formatting context)
  4. Multicolumn (formatting context)

Floats never created a new formatting context, which is why used clearfix. Now we don’t need hacks. You can mix and match, choosing the best layout tool for the job at hand. You can have a grid layout that has flexbox items within it. The Firefox dev tools allow you to inspect each layout type separately. You can use the nightly build to get the latest tools.

Then we’ve got ways to contract and expand content. We have more options now. For a while, we’ve had the option to squish and grow (e.g. with fluid images). Another is wrapping and reflowing (like we can do with text). Another option now is to add and remove whitespace. Maybe the content size doesn’t need to change; the whitespace shrinks and grows instead. An even more radical option now is to have things slide behind one another and overlap deliberately.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use media queries (meaning we’ve effectively got container queries). But we can still use media queries, as needed, to tweak the details.

So intrinsic web design is:

  1. Fluid and fixed
  2. Stages of squishiness
  3. Truly two-dimensional layouts
  4. Nested contexts
  5. Expand and contract content
  6. Media queries, as needed

We have a whole new sandbox that we can play in. You can find examples at labs.jensimmons.com.

See also:

Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS by Eric Meyer

Time for even more CSS goodness at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Eric’s talk is called Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS. Here are my notes…

Eric isn’t going to dive quite as deeply as Rachel, but he is going to share some patterns he has used.

Feature queries

First up: feature queries! Or @supports, if you prefer. You can ask a browser “do you support this feature?” If you haven’t used feature queries, you might be wondering why you have to say the property and the value. Well, think about it. If you asked a browser “do you support display?”, it’s not very useful. So you have to say “do you support display: grid?”

Here’s a nice pattern from Lea Verou for detecting support for custom properties:

@supports (--css: variables)

Here’s a gotcha:

@supports (clip-path: polygon())

That won’t work because polygon() is invalid. This will work:

@supports (clip-path: polygon(0 0))

So to use feature queries, you need to understand valid values for properties.

You can chain feature queries together, or just pick the least-supported thing you’re testing for and test just for that.

Here’s a pattern Eric used when he only wanted to make text sideways, but only if grid is supported:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
        ...
    }
}

That’s functionally equivalent to:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
}
@supports (display:grid) and (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
    ...
}

Choose whichever pattern makes sense to you. More to the point, choose the pattern that makes sense to your future self when you revisit your code.

Feature queries need to work together with media queries. Sometimes there are effects that you only want to apply on larger viewports. Do you put your feature queries inside your media queries? Or do you put your media queries inside your feature queries?

  • MOSS: Media Outside Support Statements
  • MISO: Media Inside Supports Object

Use MOSS when you have more media switches than support blocks. Use MISO when you only have a few breakpoints but lots of feature queries.

That’s one idea that Eric has. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

And remember, CSS is still CSS. Sometimes you don’t need a feature query at all. You could just use hanging-punctuation without testing for it. Browsers that don’t understand it will just ignore it. CSS has implicit feature queries built in. You don’t have to put your grid layout in a feature query, but you might want to put grid-specific margins and widths inside a feature query for display: grid.

Feature queries really help us get from now to the future.

Flexbox

Let’s move on to flexbox. Flexbox is great for things in a line.

On the An Event Apart site, the profile pictures have social media icons lined up at the bottom. Sometimes there are just a few. Sometimes there are a lot more. This is using flexbox. Why? Because it’s cool. Also, because it’s flexbox, you can create rules about how the icons should behave if one of the icons is taller than the others. (It’s gotten to the point that Eric has forgotten that vertically-centring things in CSS is supposed to be hard. The jokes aren’t funny any more.) Also, what if there’s no photo? Using flexbox, you can say “if there’s no photo, change the direction of the icons to be vertical.” Once again, it’s all about writing less CSS.

Also, note that the profile picture is being floated. That’s the right tool for the job. It feels almost transgressive to use float for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.

On the An Event Apart site, the header is currently using absolute positioning to pull the navigation from the bottom of the page source to the top of the viewport. But now you get overlap at some screen sizes. Flexbox would make it much more robust. (Eric uses the flexbox inspector in Firefox Nightly to demonstrate.)

With flexbox, what works horizontally works vertically. Flexbox allows you to align things, as long as you’re aligning in one direction. Flexbox makes things springy. Everything’s related and pushing against each other in a way that makes sense for this medium. It’s intuitive, even though it takes a bit of getting used to …because we’ve picked up some bad habits. To quote Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” A lot of the barrier is getting over what we’ve internalised. Eric envies the people starting out now. They get to start fresh. It’s like when people who never had to table layouts see code from that time period: it (quite rightly) doesn’t make any sense. That’s what it’s going to be like when people starting out today see the float-based layouts from Bootstrap and the like.

Grid

That’s going to happen with grid too. We must unlearn what we have learned from twenty years of floats and positioning. What makes it worth is:

  1. Flexbox and grid are pretty easy to get used to, and
  2. It’s amazing what you can do!

Eric quotes from an article called How We adopted CSS Grid at Scale:

…we agreed to use CSS Grid at the layout level and Flexbox at the component level (arranging child items of components). Although there’s some overlap and in some cases both could be used interchangeably, abiding by this rule helped us avoid any confusion in gray areas.

Don’t be afraid to set these kind of arbitrary limits that aren’t technological, but are necessary for the team to work well together.

Eric hacked his Wordpress admin interface to use grid instead of floats for an activity component (a list of dates and titles). He initially turned each list item into a separate grid. The overall list didn’t look right. What Eric really needed was a subgrid capability, so that the mini grids (the list items) would relate to one another within the larger grid (the list). But subgrid doesn’t exist yet.

In this case, there’s a way to fake it using display: contents. Eric made the list a grid and used display: contents on the list items. It’s as though you’re saying that the contents of the li are really the contents of the ul. That works in this particular case.

The feature queries for that looked like:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (display: contents) {
        ...
    }
}

Eric is also using the grid “ASCII art” (named areas) technique on his personal site. This works independent of source order. For that reason, make sure your source order makes sense.

Using media queries, Eric defines entirely different layouts simply by using different ASCII art. He’s switching templates.

For a proposed redesign of the An Event Apart site, Eric used CSS grid as a prototyping tool. He took a PDF, sliced it up, exported JPGs, and then used grid to lay out those images in a flexible grid. Rapid prototyping! The Firefox grid inspector really helps here. In less than an hour, he had a working layout. He could test whether the layout was sensible and robust. Then he swapped out the sliced images for real content. That took maybe another hour (mostly because it was faster to re-type the text than try to copy and paste from a PDF). CSS makes it that damn easy now!

So even if you’re not going to put things like grid into production, they can still be enormously useful as design tools (and you’re getting to grips with this new stuff).

See also:

Graduating to Grid by Rachel Andrew

It’s time for a gridtastic afternoon at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Kicking it off is Rachel with her talk Graduating to Grid. Here are my notes…

When Rachel spoke at An Event Apart last year, grid layout was still on the horizon. Then in March 2017, Chrome, Safari, and Firefox all shipped within weeks of one another. Then at An Event Apart Seattle last year, Edge announced that they were shipping too. So within a very short time, CSS grid got really good browser support.

What’s it like being in the middle of a launch of a big new CSS feature? Very quickly, we had 90% browser support. Suddenly it wasn’t just Jen and Rachel talking about grid—everyone was talking about grid. It involved a lot of email. Alas, Rachel couldn’t answer all those questions (she has a job, after all) but she did start collecting those questions. She found that people were excited, confused, and scared. So much to learn!

Rachel put out a survey and asked “How do you feel when a new CSS feature is announced?” Responses included “Oh, no!” and “Tired.” Some of us in the audience can, no doubt, identify with that.

People started emailing Rachel asking for her blessing. Were they doing the right thing? But Rachel can’t tell you what to do. She’s not in your situation. But she can help you develop the skills to make those decisions yourself. She can offer you confidence. She wants everyone to be the amazing CSS layout person on their team. That’s what this talk is for.

First of all, you need to understand CSS. There’s no shortcut here. But that doesn’t mean you need to learn every single property and value by heart. That’s not what CSS is about. That’s like learning phrases in a foreign language—knowing the words for “coffee” or “beer” doesn’t help you grok the language. It’s the same for CSS. There are some core ideas that help CSS layout make sense. You probably have an understanding of them already, but maybe you don’t have the right words for them.

At the heart of this is the first word in the language we’re talking about: cascading. You need to understand the (much-maligned) cascade. And you can’t talk about the cascade without encountering specificity. The MDN page on the cascade and specificity is a good explanation.

Then there’s dimensions. In any language with a horizontal writing mode, the inline dimension runs left to right or right to left, and the block dimension runs down the page from top to bottom. In vertical writing mode, it’s different.

In grid, we talk about the inline axis as rows, and the block axis as columns.

Sizing matters. It has become obvious that no one understands how big anything is. We’re living in a world where you don’t control the size of things.

In older float-based systems, everything is given a percentage. As long as our percentages don’t exceed 100%, everything’s okay. And we’ve got wrappers to keep things within rows. We end up with something that looks like a grid. It involves us doing a lot of calculating. You can do this with flexbox too, but it’s much the same—figuring out percentages. These past layout methods create the appearance of a grid by lining things up.

With the new layout, we don’t have to do the calculations. We need to understand CSS intrinsic sizing and extrinsic sizing (say that ten times fast).

With a regular div, you’ve got a block-level element. The box will stretch as far as it will go, to the viewport width by default. You can specify an intrinsic size by saying, say, width: 500px. That makes 500 pixels wide in the inline direction.

However the content of the box has a size. The maximum size of a string of text is how much space it would take up if it never wrapped. The minimum size is the space it would take up if everything wrapped. Now in CSS we can say width: min-content or width: max-content.

Let’s say our div was in a container that had a width of 20em. The max-content of the contents of the div (which is more than 20 ems) is wider than the width of the div and so the content overflows.

In flexbox, let’s say we’ve got a flex container with four items and we’ve declared that each one should take up max-content. Each item takes up as much space as it needs. Each one uses max-content as its starting point, and then width is removed to make all four items fit in the container. flex: 1 1 auto will distribute space according to the content. flex: 1 1 0 will distribute the space equally (you’re effectively saying that the max-content is zero).

It’s similar with grid layout but with slight differences. Flexbox is starting from max-content and taking space away. Grid is starting from min-content and adding space.

Those content keywords aren’t well supported outside grid layout. They’re safe to use for track sizing.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, min-content);

That will make everything squished down.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, max-content);

That one will probably cause an overflow.

grid-template-columns: repeat(4, fit-content(15ch));

That one will make 15 characters an upper limit!

You can make a grid layout using fr units and grid-gap. No need for figuring out percentages. You can use percentages if you like though. You can use percentages for gaps, for example.

Remember, you don’t have to stick with a twelve column grid. Slack started with that because it was what they were used to. Then they realised they didn’t have to.

Imagine a media object pattern, where you don’t want the image to ever be bigger than 300 pixels.

grid-template-columns: fit-content(300px) 1fr

As Rachel creates more layouts with grid, she finds she’s using less and less CSS, which is great. The browser is doing the work. That matches the reality of the situation where you don’t know the size of your content in advance—long titles, and so on.

This is not exciting. But it will let you do exciting things. Learning about sizing is the CSS equivalent of eating your vegetables or getting enough sleep.

“Why is all of this so complicated?”, is something Rachel hears a lot. It’s like all software. People want all the features, and they also want it to be easy to use.

More capability and flexibility means more to learn. But it’s worth remembering that you don’t have to learn everything at once. Once you switch your mindset to the grid way of thinking (where you define things on the layout) it gets easier. It’s all just lines.

If you name your grid lines, e.g. “content-start” and “content-end”, you automatically get a named area called “content.”

It works the other way around too. If you create an area called “content”, you automatically get lines named “content-start” and “content-end”.

You don’t have to use any of that. You have real choice for the first time.

A lot of the assumptions we’ve had in the past about what isn’t possible don’t hold up any more. You can now ask, “what’s the best way to do this?” instead of asking “which patterns does our framework give us?”

Well, that’s fine, you might be thinking, for shiny new things. But what if you’re building things that have an old codebase? Rachel asked “How old is the oldest CSS in your project?” in her survey. People have code that’s over ten years old. But old CSS in your codebase doesn’t mean you can’t use new CSS. You can design components or a section of a page using a new technique. This is where understanding CSS comes in really useful—the cascade, especially.

Rachel shows an example of a page made with Bootstrap. She drops a grid component into that layout. It works fine. Nothing explodes. They coexist side by side.

You can create systems with new layout. You’ve got a lot of choice. You can start to make decisions about which layout method works best for different situation. Other layout methods still exist. Don’t try to recreate floats within grid—just use floats. It’s like when we moved from tables for layout, some people went too far and stopped using tables for tabular data. If you need content to flow around an element, float that element. Likewise, if you’re doing layout in just one dimension, you don’t have to use grid; use flexbox.

Off-the-shelf frameworks are designed to solve generic problems. We end up solving problems we don’t have. Do you want your project to inherit the CSS problems of the rest of the world? Solving your specific problems only will result in lighter, easier to understand code.

You don’t need to lean on somebody else’s framework to get reusable code for your project and your team.

What about working with less capable browsers? (these may not always be old browsers). Let’s go back to 2006 and Yahoo’s graded browser support matrix. It was updated quarterly. It was useful. A lot of discussion around browser support was happening with a lack of understanding on one side (bosses, clients) meeting a lack of confidence on the other (developers). Yahoo’s browser support matrix gave us ammunition. If it was okay for Yahoo to say that it was okay for certain browsers to not receive certain features, then that argument was easier to make.

A lot of the discussion now is about older Internet Explorer—IE11 comes up a lot. If IE10 and 11 are your oldest supported versions, you can use the ms- prefixed grid layout.

Some people are using devices that aren’t updating to new browsers. UC browser for Android is used a lot. It’s very popular in India (35% usage). Many browsers without grid support are mobile browsers, popular in areas where data is expensive.

People want a magical grid polyfill that will make grid work in non-supporting browsers. Please stop asking for that! Why, oh, why would you send more JavaScript to less-capable devices!

You can use feature queries to ask if a browser supports a feature before using it. The great thing about doing this is that you are future-proofing: as browsers get support for features, your code works automatically.

You can create complex layouts for browsers that support them with a few lines of CSS. Being able to do new cool stuff is great. Saving developer time is great. But making the web available to everyone …that’s exciting!

To wrap up, Rachel recounts some of the other responses to her survey. People said they were “Excited!”

See also:

Scenario-Driven Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition) taking notes during the talks. Here are my notes from Yesenia’s presentation…

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of change in web design as we have to adapt to so many viewports and platforms. We’ve gravitated towards design systems to manage this. Many people have written about the benefits of design systems, like AirBnB.

But how do you define a design system? You could say it’s a collection of reususable components.

Donella Meadows wrote Thinking in Systems. She said:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

A good design system inspires people to work with it. A bad system gets bloated and unusable. Yesenia has seen systems fail when there’s too much focus on the elements, and not enough focus on how they come together. Yesenia has learned that we should start our design systems, not with components, or modules, or legos, but with user scenarios.

Yesenia works at Vox Media. They have eight editorial networks. Two and a half years ago, they started a project to move all of their products to one codebase and one design system. Maintaining and iterating on their websites was getting too cumbersome. They wanted to shift away from maintaining discrete brands to creating a cohesive system. They also wanted to help their editorial teams tell stories faster and better.

It was hard. Each brand has its own visual identity, editorial missions, and content needs. So even though they wanted eight brands to use one design system, there needed to be enough flexibility to allow for unique needs.

There were some early assumptions that didn’t work. There was a hunch that they could take smaller modular components to address inconsistencies in design: layout, colour, and typography. They thought a theming system would work well. They started with layout modules, like three different homepage hero elements, or four different story blocks. They thought they could layer colour and typography over these modules. It didn’t work. They weren’t reflecting critical differences in content, tone, and audience. For example, Curbed and Recode are very different, but the initial design system didn’t reflect those difference.

That brings us back to Donella Meadows:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

They weren’t thinking about that last part.

They learned that they couldn’t start with just the individual components or patterns. That’s because they don’t exist in a vacuum. As Alla says:

Start with language, not systems.

They started again, this time thinking about people.

  • What’s the audience goal?
  • Is there a shared audience goal across all brands or are there differences?
  • What’s the editorial workflow?
  • What range of content should this support?

This led to a much better process for creating a design system.

Start with a fast, unified platform. It should load quickly and work across all devices. All patterns should solve a specific problem. But that doesn’t mean creating a one-size-fits-all solution. A design system doesn’t have to stifle creativity …as long as the variants solve a real problem. That means no hypothetical situations.

Identify scenarios. Brad uses a UI inventory for this. Alla talks about a “purpose-directed inventory”. Map core modules to user journeys to see how patterns fit together in the bigger picture. You start to see families of patterns joined together by a shared purpose. Scenarios can help at every level.

The Salesforce design system starts by saying “Know your use-case.” They have examples of different patterns and where to use them. Thinking in user-flows like this matches the way that designers are already thinking.

Shopify’s Polaris system also puts users and user-flows at the centre: the purpose of each pattern is spelled out.

The 18F Design System doesn’t just provide a type system; it provides an explanation of when and where to use which type system.

At Vox, “features” are in-depth pieces. Before having a unified system, each feature looked very custom and were hard to update. They need to unify 18 different systems into one. They started by identifying core workflows. Audience goals were consistent (consume content, find new content), but editorial goals were quite different.

They ended up with quite a few variations of patterns (like page headers, for example), but only if there was a proven content need—no hypothetical situations.

Brand expression for features is all about the details. They started with 18 very different feature templates and ended up with one robust template that works across device types but still allowed for expression.

The “reviews” pieces had a scorecard pattern. Initially there was one unified pattern that they thought would be flexible enough to cover different scenarios. But these scorecards were for very different things: games; restaurants, etc. So people’s needs were very different. In the end, instead of having one scorecard pattern, they created three. Each one highlighted different content according to the user needs.

Homepages were the most challenging to unify. Each one was very distinct. Identifying core workflows took a lot of work.

What’s the value of the homepage? Who is the audience? What are they looking for?

They talked to their users and distilled their findings down into three user goals for homepages:

  • What’s new?
  • What’s important?
  • What’s helpful?

Those needs then translated into patterns. The story feed is there to answer the question “What’s new?”

When it came to variations on the home page, they needed to make sure their design system could stretch enough to allow for distinctly different needs. There’s a newspaper layout, an evergreen layout, a morning recap layout.

Again, Alla’s advice to focus on language was really helpful.

In the process of naming an element, you work out the function as a group and reach agreement.

The last piece was to have a scalable visual design system. Brands need to feel distinct and express an identity. They did this by having foundational elements (type scale, colour system, and white space) with theming applied to them. Thinking of type and colour as systems was key: they need to cascade.

But how do you tell good variation from bad variation? Variation is good if there’s a specific problem that you need a new pattern to solve—there’s a user scenario driving the variation. A bad variation is visual variation on components that do the same thing. Again, the initial design system provided room for “visual fluff and flair” but they were hypothetical. Those variations were removed.

The combination of a scenario-driven system combined with theming allowed for the right balance of consistency and customisation. Previously, the editorial team were hacking together the layouts they wanted, or developers were creating one-off templates. Both of those approaches were very time-consuming. Now, the reporters can focus on telling better stories faster. That was always the goal.

There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s always a pendulum swing between consistency and variation. Sometimes the design system goes too far in one direction or the other and needs to be recalibrated. They want to be able to add more detailed control over typography and spacing.

To wrap up:

  1. Successful design patterns don’t exist in a vacuum.
  2. Successful design systems solve specific problems.
  3. Successful design systems start with content and with people.

See also:

Digital Marketing Strategies for the Busy “Web Master” by Sarah Parmenter

It’s time for the second talk at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Sarah is talking about Digital Marketing Strategies for the Busy “Web Master”. These are the notes I made during the talk…

Recently Sarah was asked for her job title recently and she found it really stressful. She wasn’t comfortable with “Art Director”. And, even though it would probably be accurate, “Social Media Expert” feels icky. A more fitting title would be “Social Media Designer” but that’s not a thing. Ironically the term “Web Master” probably fits us better than it did back in the ’90s.

We have a bit of a defeatist attitude towards social media at the moment. It feels like that space has been claimed and so there’s no point in even starting. But we’re still in the first 10,000 days in the web. There is no social media, Gary Vee says. It’s a slang term for a collection of apps and websites that now dominate attention in our society.

Sarah likes the term “consensual hallucination” (that I borrowed from William Gibson to describe how we did web design for years). It applies to social media.

Once upon a time we had to sell the benefits of just being online to our clients. Our businesses now need to get into the mindset of “How can I help you?” and “What can I do for you?” We’re moving away from being sales-y and getting down to being more honest. We’re no longer saying “Look at what I’ve got.”

The average time spent on social media per day is 1 hour and 48 minutes. The average time spent on the kind of sites we make is 15 seconds.

Quarterly design reviews are a good idea—strategically designing your social media campaigns, reviewing successes and failures.

The first thing to mention is vanity metrics. You might need to sit down and have “the talk” with your boss or client about this. It’s no different to having hit counters on our sites back in the ’90s. While we’re chasing these vanity metrics, we’re not asking what people really want.

Google brought a roadshow to Sarah’s hometown of Leigh-on-Sea a while back. There was a really irritating know-it-all chap in the audience who put his hand up when other people were asking about how to get followers on social media. “You need to post three times a day to all social media channels”, he said. “And you need to use the follow-unfollow method with a bot.” Sarah’s eyes were rolling at this point. Don’t beg for likes and follows—you’re skewing your metrics.

“What about this Snapchat thing?” people asked. Irritating guy said, “Don’t worry about—young people use it to send rude pictures to each other.” Sarah was face-palming at this point.

But this event was a good wake-up call for Sarah. We need to check our personal bias. She had to check her own personal bias against LinkedIn.

What we can do is look for emerging social networks. Find social networks that aren’t yet clogged. People still fixate on displayed numbers instead of the actual connection with people.

We all have a tendency to think of the more successful social networks as something that is coming. Like Snapchat. But if you’re in this space, there’s no time to waste. Sarah has been interviewing for social media people and it’s fascinating to see how misunderstood Snapchat is. One big misconception is that it’s only for youngsters. The numbers might be lower than Facebook, but there’s a lot of video on there. Snapchat’s weakness is “the olds”—the non-intuitive interface makes it cool with young people who have time to invest in learning it; the learning curve keeps the parents out. Because the moment that mums and grandmums appear on a social network, the younger folks get out. And actually, when it comes to putting ads on Snapchat, the interface is very good.

What can we do in 2018?

  • By 2019, video will account for 80% of all consumer internet traffic. If you’re not planning for this, you’re missing out.
  • Move to HTTPS.
  • Make your website mobile ready.

Let’s ban the pop-up. Overlays. Permission dialogs. They’re all terrible. Google has started to penalise websites “where content is not easily accessible.”

Pop-ups are a lazy fix for a complex engagement problem (similar to carousels). It’s a terrible user experience. Do we thing this is adding value? Is this the best way to get someone’s email address? They’re like the chuggers of the web.

Here’s an interesting issue: there are discount codes available on the web. We inform people of this through pop-ups. Then it when it comes to check-out, they know that a discount is possible and so they Google for discount codes. You might as well have a page on your own website to list your own discount codes instead of people going elsewhere for them.

There’s a long tail of conversions, particularly with more expensive products and services. Virgin Holidays has a great example. For an expensive holiday, they ask for just a small deposit up front.

Let’s talk about some specific social networks.

Facebook

Facebook Pixel should be on your website, says Sarah. It collects data about your customers. (Needless to say, I disagree with this suggestion. Stand up for your customers’ dignity.)

Facebook is a very cheap way to publish video. Organic Facebook engagement is highest on posts with videos. (I think I threw up in my mouth a little just typing the words “organic”, “Facebook”, and “engagement” all in a row.) Facebook Live videos have six times the engagement of regular videos.

Sarah just said the word synergy. Twice. Unironically.

Facebook changed its algorithm last year. You’re going to see less posts from business and more posts from people.

Facebook advertising does work, but if it doesn’t work for you, the problem is probably down to your creative. (We’re using the word “creative” as a noun rather than an adjective, apparently.)

Google

With Ad Words, measure success by conversions rather than impressions. You might get thousands of eyeballs looking at a form, but only a handful filling it out. You need to know that second number to understand how much you’re really paying per customer.

trends.google.com is useful for finding keywords that aren’t yet saturated.

Google My Business is under-used, especially if you have a bricks’n’mortar store. It can make a massive difference to small businesses. It’s worth keeping it up to date and keeping it updated.

Instagram

700 million active users (double Twitter, and three times WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger). A lot of people are complaining about the changed algorithm. Social networks change their algorithms to deal with the “problems of success.” Instagram needs to help people with the discoverability of posts, says Sarah (again, I strongly disagree—it disempowers the user; I find Instagram’s we-know-best algorithm to be insultingly patronising).

Hashtags are the plumbing of the social media ecosystem. They’re not there for users to read. They’re for discoverability. Eleven hashtags are optimal.

Instagram Stories are a funny one. People are trying to use them to get around the algorithm, posting screenshots of photos to a story.

Archiving is a handy feature of Instagram. For time-sensitive content (like being closed during a snowstorm), it’s very useful to be able to archive those posts after the fact.

Planoly is a great website for managing your Instagram campaign. You can visually plan your feed. Only recently did Instagram start allowing scheduled posts (as long as they’re square, for some reason).

Influencer marketing is a thing. People trust peer recommendations more than advertising. You can buy micro-influencers quite cheaply.

(Side note: I think I’ve seen this episode of Black Mirror.)

How much do influencers cost? Not as much as you think. The average sponsored post rate is $180.

Case study

We need to have a “Design once. Use Everywhere.” mindset. Others we’ll go crazy. Away is doing this well. They sell a suitcase with built-in USB chargers.

The brands dominating social media are those with the most agile teams with exceptional storytelling skills. Away are very brave with their marketing. They’ve identified what their market has in common—travel—and they’re aiming at the level above that. They’re playing the long game, bringing the value back to the user. It’s all about “How can I help you?” rather than “Look at what I’ve gone.” Away’s creative is compelling, quirky, and fun. They work with influencers who are known to create beautiful imagery. Those influencers were given free suitcases. The cost of giving away those bags was much less than a traditional marketing campaign.

Their product is not front and centre in their campaigns. Travel is front and centre. They also collaborate with other brands. Their Google Ads are very striking. That also translates to physical advertising, like ads on airport security trays.

On Facebook, and on all of the social networks, everything is very polished and art-directed. They’re building a story. The content is about travel, but the through-line is about their suitcases.

When things go bad…

To finish, a semi-amusing story. Cath Kidston did a collaboration with Disney’s Peter Pan. Sarah had a hunch that it might go wrong. On paper, the social campaigns seemed fine. A slow build-up to the Peter Pan product launch. Lots of lovely teasers. They were seeding Instagram with beautiful imagery the day before launch. There was a real excitement building. Then the coveted email campaign with the coveted password.

On the site, people put in their password and then they had to wait. It was a deliberately gated experience. Twenty minutes of waiting. Then you finally get to the store …and there’s no “add to cart” button. Yup, they had left out the most important bit of the interface.

Sarah looked at what people were saying on Twitter. Lots of people assumed the problem was with their computer (after all, the web team wouldn’t be so silly as to leave off the “add to cart” button, right?). People blamed themselves. Cath Kidston scrambled to fix the problem …and threw people back into the 20 minute queue. Finally, the button appeared. So Sarah looked at a few bits ad pieces, and when she hit “add to cart” …she was thrown back to the 20 minute queue.

Sarah reached out to try to talk to someone on the web team. No one wanted to talk about it. If you ever find someone who was on that team, put them in touch.

Anyway, to wrap up…

Ensure the networks you are pursuing make sense for your brand.

Find your story for social media longevity.

See also:

Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient by Jeffrey Zeldman

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jeffrey is kicking off the show with a presentation called Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient. I’m going to jot down some notes during this talk…

First, a story. Jeffrey went to college in Bloomington, Indiana. David Frost—the British journalist—came to talk to them. Frost had a busy schedule, and when he showed up, he seemed a little tipsy. He came up to the podium and said, “Good evening, Wilmington.”

Jeffrey remembers this and knows that Seattle and Portland have a bit of a rivalry, and so Jeffrey thought, the first time he spoke in Portland, it would be funny to say “Good morning, Seattle!” …and that was the last time he spoke in Portland.

Anyway …”Good morning, Portland!”

Jeffrey wants to talk about content. He spends a lot of time in meetings with stakeholders. Those stakeholders always want things to be better, and they always talk about “engagement.” It’s the number one stakeholder request. It’s a metric that makes stakeholders feel comfortable. It’s measurable—the more seconds people give us, the better.

But is that really the right metric?

There are some kinds of sites where engagement is definitely the right metric. Instagram, for example. That’s how they make money. You want to distract yourself. Also, if you have a big content site—beautifully art-directed and photographed—then engagement is what you want. You want people to spend a lot of time there. Or if you have a kids site, or a games site, or a reading site for kids, you want them to be engaged and spend time. A List Apart, too. It’s like the opposite of Stack Overflow, where you Google something and grab the piece of code you need and then get out. But for A List Apart or Smashing Magazine, you want people to read and think and spend their time. Engagement is what you want.

But for most sites—insurance, universities—engagement is not what you want. These sites are more like a customer service desk. You want to help the customer as quickly as possible. If a customer spends 30 minutes on our site, was she engaged …or frustrated? Was it the beautiful typography and copy …or because she couldn’t find what they wanted? If someone spends a long time on an ecommerce site, is it because the products are so good …or because search isn’t working well?

What we need is a metric called speed of usefulness. Jeffrey calls this Content Performance Quotient (CPQ) …because business people love three-letter initialisms. It’s a loose measurement: How quickly can you solve the customer’s problem? It’s the shortest distance between the problem and the solution. Put another way, it’s a measurement of your value to the customer. It’s a new way to evaluate success.

From the customer’s point of view, CPQ is the time it takes the customer to get the information she came for. From the organisation’s point of view, it’s the time it takes for a specific customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content.

We’re all guilty of neglecting the basics on our sites—just what it is it that we do? We need to remember that we’re all making stuff to make people’s live’s easier. Otherwise we end up with what Jeffrey calls “pretty garbage.” It’s aesthetically coherent and visually well-designed …but if the content is wrong and doesn’t help anyone, it’s garbage. Garbage in a delightfully responsive grid is still garbage.

Let’s think of an example of where people really learned to cut back and really pare down their message. Advertising. In the 1950s, when the Leo Burnett agency started the Marlboro campaign, TV spots were 60 seconds long. An off-camera white man in a suit with a soothing voice would tell you all about the product while the visuals showed you what he was talking about. No irony. Marlboro did a commercial where there was no copy at all until the very end. For 60 seconds they showed you cowboys doing their rugged cowboy things. Men in the 1950s wanted to feel rugged, you see. Leo Burnett aimed the Marlboro cigarettes at those men. And at the end of the 60 second montage of rugged cowboys herding steers, they said “Come to where the flavour is. Come to Marlboro Country.” For the billboard, they cut it back even more. Just “Come to Marlboro Country.” In fact, they eventually went to just “Marlboro.” Jeffrey knows that this campaign worked well, because he started smoking Marlboros as a kid.

Leaving aside the ethical implications of selling cigarettes to eight-graders, let’s think about the genius of those advertisers. Slash your architecture and shrink your content. Constantly ask yourself, “Why do we need this?”

As Jared Spool says, design is the rendering of intent. Every design is intentional. There is some intent—like engagement—driving our design. If there’s no intent behind the design, it will fail, even if what you’re doing is very good. If your design isn’t going somewhere, it’s going nowhere. You’ve got to stay ruthlessly focused on what the customer needs and “kill your darlings” as Hemingway said. Luke Wroblewski really brought this to light when he talked about Mobile First.

To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here?

Well, we prioritised meetings over meaning. Those meetings can be full of tension; different stakeholders arguing over what should be on the homepage. And we tried to solve this by giving everyone what they want. Having a good meeting doesn’t necessarily mean having a good meeting. We think of good meetings as conflict-free where everyone emerges happy. But maybe there should be a conflict that gets resolved. Maybe there should be winners and losers.

Behold our mighty CMS! Anyone can add content to the website. Anyone can create the information architecture …because we want to make people happy in meetings. It’s easy to give everyone what they want. It’s harder to do the right thing. Harder for us, but better for the customer and the bottom line.

As Gerry McGovern says:

Great UX professionals are like whistleblowers. They are the voice of the user.

We need to stop designing 2001 sites for a 2018 web.

One example of cutting down content was highlighted in A List Apart where web design was compared to chess: The King vs. Pawn Game of UI Design. Don’t start by going through all the rules. Teach them in context. Teach chess by starting with a checkmate move, reduced down to just three pieces on the board. From there, begin building out. Start with the most important information, and build out from there.

When you strip down the game to its core, everything you learn is a universal principle.

Another example is atomic design: focus relentlessly on the individual interaction. We do it for shopping carts. We can do it for content.

Another example on A List Apart is No More FAQs: Create Purposeful Information for a More Effective User Experience. FAQ problems include:

  • duplicate and contradictory information,
  • lack of discernible content order,
  • repetitive grammatical structure,
  • increased cognitive load, and
  • more content than they need.

Users come to any type of content with a particular purpose in mind, ranging from highly specific (task completion) to general learning (increased knowledge).

The important word there is purpose. We need to eliminate distraction. How do we do that?

One way is the waterfall method. Do a massive content inventory. It’s not recommended (unless maybe you’re doing a massive redesign).

Agile and scrum is another way. Constantly iterate on content. Little by little over time, we make the product better. It’s the best bet if you work in-house.

If you work in an agency, a redesign is an opportunity to start fresh. Take everything off the table and start from scratch. Jeffrey’s friend Fred Gates got an assignment to redesign an online gaming platform for kids to teach them reading and management skills. The organisation didn’t have much money so they said, let’s just do the homepage. Fred challenged himself to put the whole thing on the homepage. The homepage tells the whole story. Jeffrey is using this same method on a site for an insurance company, even though the client has a bigger budget and can afford more than just the homepage. The point is, what Fred did was effective.

So this is what Jeffrey is going to be testing and working on: speed of usefulness.

And for those of you who do need to use engagement as the right metric, Jeffrey covered the two kinds of metrics in an article called We need design that is faster and design that is slower.

For example, “scannability” is good for transactions (CPQ), but bad for thoughtful content (engagement). Our news designs need to slow down the user. Bigger type, typographic hierarchy, and more whitespace. Art direction. Shout out to Derek Powazek who designed Fray.com—each piece was designed based on the content. These days, look at what David Sleight and his crew are doing over at Pro Publica.

Who’s doing it right?

The Washington Post, The New York Times, Pro Publica, Slate, Smashing Magazine, and Vox are all doing this well in different ways. They’re bringing content to the fore.

Readability, Medium, and A List Apart are all using big type to encourage thoughtful reading and engagement.

But for other sites …apply the Content Performance Quotient.

See also:

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.

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.