Tags: content

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Monday, April 8th, 2019

User interfaces: hiding stuff should be a last resort by Adam Silver

When we hide content, there’s a greater risk the user won’t see it. There’s a higher reliance on digital literacy and it’s generally more labour intensive for the user.

Worse still, sometimes we kill off essential content.

Wednesday, March 20th, 2019

CSS custom properties in generated content

Cassie posted a neat tiny lesson that she’s written a reduced test case for.

Here’s the situation…

CSS custom properties are fantastic. You can drop them in just about anywhere that a property takes a value.

Here’s an example of defining a custom property for a length:

:root {
    --my-value: 1em;
}

Then I can use that anywhere I’d normally give something a length:

.my-element {
    margin-bottom: var(--my-value);
}

I went a bit overboard with custom properties on the new Patterns Day site. I used them for colour values, font stacks, and spacing. Design tokens, I guess. They really come into their own when you combine them with media queries: you can update the values of the custom properties based on screen size …without having to redefine where those properties are applied. Also, they can be updated via JavaScript so they make for a great common language between CSS and JavaScript: you can define where they’re used in your CSS and then update their values in JavaScript, perhaps in response to user interaction.

But there are a few places where you can’t use custom properties. You can’t, for example, use them as part of a media query. This won’t work:

@media all and (min-width: var(--my-value)) {
    ...
}

You also can’t use them in generated content if the value is a number. This won’t work:

:root {
    --number-value: 15;
}
.my-element::before {
    content: var(--number-value);
}

Fair enough. Generated content in CSS is kind of a strange beast. Eric delivered an entire hour-long talk at An Event Apart in Seattle on generated content.

But Cassie found a workaround if the value you want to put into that content property is numeric. The CSS counter value is a kind of generated content—the numbers that appear in front of ordered list items. And you can control the value of those numbers from CSS.

CSS counters work kind of like variables. You name them and assign values to them using the counter-reset property:

.my-element {
    counter-reset: mycounter 15;
}

You can then reference the value of mycounter in a content property using the counter value:

.my-element {
    content: counter(mycounter);
}

Cassie realised that even though you can’t pass in a custom property directly to generated content, you can pass in a custom property to the counter-reset property. So you can do this:

:root {
    --number-value: 15;
}
.my-element {
    counter-reset: mycounter var(--number-value);
    content: counter(mycounter);
}

In a roundabout way, this allows you to use a custom property for generated content!

I realise that the use cases are pretty narrow, but I can’t help but be impressed with the thinking behind this. Personally, I would’ve just read that generated content doesn’t accept custom properties and moved on. I would’ve given up quickly. But Cassie took a step back and found a creative pass-the-parcel solution to the problem.

I feel like this is a hack in the best sense of the word: a creatively improvised solution to a problem or limitation.

I was trying to display the numeric value stored in a CSS variable inside generated content… Turns out you can’t do that. But you can do this… codepen.io/cassie-codes/p… (not saying you should, but you could)

Monday, March 4th, 2019

Generation Style by Eric Meyer

It’s time for the afternoon talks at An Event Apart in Seattle. We’re going to have back-to-back CSS, kicking off with Eric Meyer. His talk is called Generation Style. The blurb says:

Consider, if you will, CSS generated content. We can, and sometimes even do, use it to insert icons before or after pieces of text. Occasionally we even use it add a bit of extra information. And once upon a time, we pressed it into service as a hack to get containers to wrap around their floated children. That’s all fine—but what good is generated content, really? What can we do with it? What are its limitations? And how far can we push content generation in a new landscape full of flexible boxes, grids, and more? Join Eric as he turns a spotlight on generated content and shows how it can be a generator of creativity as well as a powerful, practical tool for everyday use.

Wish me luck, ‘cause I’m going to try to capture the sense of this presentation…

So we had a morning of personas and user journeys. This afternoon: code, baby! Eric is going to dive into a very specific corner of CSS—generated content. For an hour. Let’s do it!

He shows the CSS Generated Content Module Level 3. Eric wants to focus on one bit: the pseudo-elements ::before and ::after. What does pseudo-element mean?

You might have used one of these pseudo-elements for blockquotes. Perhaps you’ve put a great big quotation mark in front of them.

blockquote:: after {
    content: "“";
    font-size: 4em;
    opacity: 0.67;
/* placement styles here */
}

Why is Eric using ::after? Because you can. You can put the ::after content wherever you want. But if your placement styles fail, this isn’t a good place for the generated content. So don’t do this. Use ::before.

Another example of using generated content is putting icons beside certain links:

a[href$=".pdf"]::after {
    content: url(i/icon.png);
    height: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
}

But these icons look yucky. But if you use larger images, they will be shown full size. You only have so much control over what happens in there. I mean, that’s true of all CSS: think of CSS as a series of strong suggestions. But here, we have even less control than we’re used to. Why isn’t the image 1em tall like I’ve specified in the CSS? Well, the generated content box is 1em tall but the image is breaking out of this box. How about this:

a[href]::after * {
    max-width: 100%;
    max-height: 100%
}

This doesn’t work. The image isn’t an element so it can’t be selected for.

The way around it is to use background images instead:

a[href$=".pdf"]::after {
    content: '';
    height: 1em; width: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
    background: center/contain;
    background-image: url(i/icon.png);
}

Notice there’s a right margin there. That stretches out the width of the whole link. That’s exactly the same as if there were an actual span in there:

a[href$=".pdf"] span {
    height: 1em; width: 1em;
    margin-right: 0.5em;
    vertical-align: top;
    background: center/contain;
    background-image: url(i/icon.png);
}

So why use generated content instead of a span? So that you don’t have to put extra spans in your markup.

Generated content is great for things that work great when they’re there, but still work fine if they’re not. It’s progressive enhancement.

You’ve almost certainly used generated content for the clearfix hack.

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: table;
    clear: both;
}

Ask your parents. It’s when we wanted to make the containing element for a group of floating elements to encompass the height of those elements. Ancient history, right? Well, Eric is showing an example of a certain large media company today. There are a lot of clearfixes in there.

Eric makes the clearfix visible:

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: table;
    clear: both;
    border: 10px solid purple;
}

It looks like a span: a 10 pixel wide box. Now change the display property:

.clearfix::after {
    content: '';
    display: block;
    clear: both;
    border: 10px solid purple;
}

Now it behaves more like a div than a span.

The big question here is: who cares?

Let’s say we’re making a site about corduroy pillows (I hear they’re really making headlines).

<header>
<h1>Corduroy pillows</h1>
<p>Lorum ipsum...</p>
</header>

We can add a box under the header:

header::after {
    content: " ";
    display: block;
    height: 1em;
}

You can do stuff with that extra content, like using a linear gradient:

header::after {
    content: " ";
    display: block;
    height: 1em;
    background: linear-gradient(to right, #DDD, #000, #DDD) center / 100% 1px no-repeat;
}

The colour stops are #DDD, #000, and #DDD. You get this nice gradiated line under the header. You can chain a bunch of of radial gradients together to get some nice effects. You could mix in some background images too. Now you’ve got some on-brand separators. You could use generated content to add some “under construction” separators.

By the way, ever struggled to keep track of the order of backgrounds? Think about how you would order layers in Photoshop.

How about if we could use generated content to make design tools?

div[id]::before {
    content: attr(id);
}

Now the generated content is taken from the id attribute. You can make it look like Firebug:

div[id]::before {
    content: '#' attr(id);
    font: 0.75rem monospace;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;
    background: #FFD;
}

You can even make the content cover the whole box with bottom and right values too:

div[id]::before {
    content: '#' attr(id);
    font: 0.75rem monospace;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    right: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;
    background: #FFD8;
}

(And yes, that is a hex value with opacity.)

Let’s make it less code-y:

div[id]::before {
    content: attr(id);
    font: bold 1.5rem Georgia serif;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    left: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    right: 0;
    border: 1px dashed red;
    padding: 0 0.25em;  
    background: #FFD8;
}

Throw in some text-shadow. Maybe some radial gradients. We’re at the wireframe stage. Let’s drop in some SVG images to show lines across the boxes.

How about automating design touches?

pre {
    padding: 0.75em 1.5em;
    background: #EEE;
    font: medium Consolas, monospace;
    position: relative;
}

Let’s say that applies to:

<pre class="css">
...
</pre>

You can generate labels with that class attribute:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Let’s align it to the top of it’s parent with negative margins:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    margin: -0.75em -1.5em 1em;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Or you can use absolute positioning:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    left: 0;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Now let’s change the writing mode:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Now the text is running down the side, but it’s turned on its side. You can transform it:

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    display: block;
    padding: 0.25em 0 0.15em;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    bottom: 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    transform: rotate(180deg);
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

But if you this, be careful. Your left margin is no longer on the left. Everything’s flipped around.

You could also update the generated content according to the value of the class attribute:

pre.css:: before {
    content: '{ CSS }';
}

pre.html::before {
    content: '< HTML >';
}

pre.js::before,
pre.javascript::before {
    content: '({ JS })();';
}

It’s presentational, so CSS feels like the right place to do this. But you can’t generate markup—just text. Angle brackets will be displayed in their raw form.

But positioning is so old-school. Let’s use CSS grid:

pre {
    display: grid;
    grid-template-columns: min-content 1fr;
    grid-gap: 0.75em;
}

pre::before {
    content: attr(class);
    margin: -1em 0;
    padding: 0.25em 0.1em 0.25em 0;
    writing-mode: vertical-rl;
    transform: rotate(180deg);
    font: bold 1em Noah, sans-serif;
    text-align: center;
    text-transform: uppercase;
}

Heck, you could get rid of the negative margins by putting the code content inside a code element and giving that a margin of 1em.

You can see generated content in action on the website of An Event Apart:

li.news::before {
    content: attr(data-cat);
    background-color: orange;
    color: white;
}

The data-cat attribute (which contains a category value) is displayed in the generated content.

Cool. That’s all stuff we can do now. What about next?

Well, suppose you had to put some legalese on your website. You could generate the numbers of nested sections:

h1 { counter-reset: section; }
h2 { counter-reset: subsection; }

Increment the numbers each time:

h2 { counter-increment: section; }
h3 { counter-increment: subsection; }

And display those values:

h2::before {
    content: counter(section) ".";
}
h2::before {
    content: counter(section) counter ":" (subsection, upper-roman);
}

Soon you’ll be able to cycle through a list of counter styles of your own creation with a @counter-style block.

But remember, if you really need that content to be visible for everyone, don’t rely on generated content: put it in your markup. It’s for styles.

So, generated content. It’s pretty cool. You can do some surprising things with it. Maybe ::before this talk, you didn’t think about generated content much, but ::after this talk ,you will.

Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein

The second talk of the first day of An Event Apart Seattle is from Margot Bloomstein. She’ll be speaking about Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World. The talk description reads:

Mass media and our most cynical memes say we live in a post-fact era. So who can we trust—and how do our users invest their trust? Expert opinions are a thing of the past; we favor user reviews from “people like us” whether we’re planning a meal or prioritizing a newsfeed. But as our filter bubbles burst, consumers and citizens alike turn inward for the truth. By designing for empowerment, the smartest organizations meet them there.

We must empower our audiences to earn their trust—not the other way around—and our tactical choices in content and design can fuel empowerment. Margot will walk you through examples from retail, publishing, government, and other industries to detail what you can do to meet unprecedented problems in information consumption. Learn how voice, volume, and vulnerability can inform your design and content strategy to earn the trust of your users. We’ll ask the tough questions: How do brands develop rapport when audiences let emotion cloud logic? Can you design around cultural predisposition to improve public safety? And how do voice and vulnerability go beyond buzzwords and into broader corporate strategy? Learn how these questions can drive design choices in organizations of any size and industry—and discover how your choices can empower users and rebuild our very sense of trust itself.

I’m sitting in the audience, trying to write down the gist of what she’s saying…

She begins by thanking us for joining her to confront some big problems. About ten years ago, A List Apart was the first publication to publish a piece of hers. It had excellent editors—Carolyn, Erin, and so on. The web was a lot smaller ten years ago. Our problems are bigger now. Our responsibilities are bigger now. But our opportunities are bigger now too.

Margot takes us back to 1961. The Twilight Zone aired an episode called The Mirror. We’re in South America where a stealthy band are working to take over the government. The rebels confront the leader. He shares a secret with them. He shows them a mirror that reveals his enemies. The revolution is successful. The rebels assume power. The rebel leader starts to use the same oppressive techniques as his predecessor. One day he says in his magic mirror the same group of friends that he worked with to assume power. Now they’re working to depose him, according to the mirror. He rounds them up and has them killed. One day he sees himself in the mirror. He smashes the mirror with his gun. He is incredibly angry. A priest walking past the door hears a commotion. The priest hears a gunshot. Entering the room, he sees the rebel leader dead on the ground with the gun in his hand.

We look to see ourselves. We look to see the truth. We hope the images coincide.

When our users see themselves, and then see the world around them, the images don’t coincide.

Internal truths trump external facts.

We used to place trust in brands. Now we’ve knocked them off the pedestal, or they’ve knocked themselves off the pedestal. They’ve been shady. Creeping inconsistencies. Departments of government are exhorting people not to trust external sources. It’s gaslighting. The blowback of gaslighting is broad. It effects us. An insidious scepticism—of journalism, of politics, of brands. This is our problem now.

To regain the trust of our audiences, we must empower them.

Why now? Maybe some of this does fall on our recent history. We punish politicians for flip-flopping and yet now Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump simply deny reality, completely contradicting their previous positions. The flip-flopping doesn’t matter. If you were a Trump supporter before, you continued to support him. No amount of information would cause you to change your mind.

Inconsistency erodes our ability to evaluate and trust. In some media circles, coached scepticism, false equivalency, and rampant air quotes all work to erode consensus. It offers us a cosy echo chamber. It’s comforting. It’s the journalism of affirmation. But our ability to evaluate information for ourselves suffers. Again, that’s gaslighting.

You can find media that bolsters your existing opinions. It’s a strange space that focuses more on hiding information, while claiming to be unbiased. It works to separate the listener, viewer, and reader from their own lived experiences. If you work in public services, this effects you.

Do we get comfortable in our faith, or confidentally test our beliefs through education?

Marketing relies on us re-evaluating our choices. Now we’ve turned away from the old arbiters of experts. We’ve moved from expertise to homophily—only listening to people like us. But people have recently become aware of their own filter bubbles. So people turn inward to narcissism. If you can’t trust anyone, you can only turn inward. But that’s when we see the effects of a poor information diet. We don’t know what objective journalism looks like any more. Our analytic skills are suffering as a result. Our ability to trust external sources of expertise suffers.

Inconsistency undermines trust—externally and internally. People turn inward and wonder if they can even trust their own perceptions any more. You might raise an eyebrow when a politician plays fast and loose with the truth, or a brand does something shady.

We look for consistency with our own perceptions. Does this fit with what I know? Does this make me feel good? Does this brand make me feel good about myself? It’s tied to identity. There’s a cycle of deliberation and validation. We’re validating against our own worldview. Referencing Jeffrey’s talk, Margot says that giving people time to slow down helps them evaluate and validate. But there’s a self-perpetuating cycle of belief and validation. Jamelle Bouie from Slate says:

We adopt facts based on our identities.

How we form our beliefs affects our reality more than what we already believe. Cultural predisposition is what give us our confirmation bias.

Say you’re skeptical of big pharma. You put the needs of your family above the advice of medical experts. You deny the efficacy of vaccination. The way to reach these people is not to meet them with anger and judgement. Instead, by working in the areas they already feel comfortable in—alternative medicine, say—we can reach them much more effictively. We need to meet a reluctant audience on their own terms. That empowers them. Empowerment reflects and rebuilds trust. If people are looking inward for information, we can meet them there.

Voice

The language a brand uses to express itself. You don’t want to alienate your audience. You need to bring your audience along with you. When a brand changes over time, it runs the risk of alienating its audience. But by using a consistent voice, and speaking with transparency, it empowers the audience.

A good example of this is Mailchimp. When Mailchimp first moved into the e-commerce space, they approached it from a point of humility. They wrote on the blog in a very personal vulnerable way, using plain language. The language didn’t ask more acclimation from their audience.

ClinicalTrials.gov does not have a cute monkey. Their legal disclaimer used to have reams of text. They took a step back to figure what they needed to provide in order to make the audience comfortable. They empowered their audience by writing clearly, avoiding the passive voice.

Volume

What is enough detail to allow a user to feel good about their choices? We used to think it was all about reducing information. For a lot of brands, that’s true. But America’s Test Kitchen is known for producing a lot of content. They’re known for it because their content focuses on empowering people. You’re getting enough content to do well. They try to engage people regardless of level of expertise. That’s the ultimate level of empathy—meeting people wherever they are. Success breeds confidence. That’s the ethos that underpins all their strategy.

Crutchfield Electronics also considers what the right amount of content is to allow people to succeed. By making sure that people feel good and confident about the content they’re receiving, Crutchfield Electronics are also making sure that people good and confident in their choices.

Gov.uk had to contend with where people were seeking information. The old version used to have information spread across multiple websites. People then looked elsewhere. Government Digital Services realised they were saying too much. They reduced the amount of content. Let government do what only government can do.

So how do you know when you have “enough” content? Whether you’re America’s Test Kitchen or Gov.uk. You have enough content when people feel empowered to move forward. Sometimes people need more content to think more. Sometimes people need less.

Vulnerability

How do we open up and support people in empowering themselves? Vulnerability can also mean letting people know how we’re doing, and how we’re going to change over time. That’s how we build a conversation with our audience.

Sometimes vulnerability can mean prototyping in public. Buzzfeed rolled out a newsletter by exposing their A/B testing in public. This wasn’t user-testing on the sidelines; it was front and centre. It was good material for their own blog.

When we ask people “what do you think?” we allow people to become evalangists of our products by making them an active part of the process. Mailchimp did this when they dogfooded their new e-commerce product. They used their own product and talked openly about it. There was a conversation between the company and the audience.

Cooks Illustrated will frequently revisit their old recommendations and acknowledge that things have changed. It’s admitting to a kind of falliability, but that’s not a form of weakness; it’s a form of strength.

If you use some of the recommendations on their site, Volkswagen ask “what are you looking for in a car?” rather than “what are you looking for in Volkswagen?” They’re building the confidence of their audience. That builds trust.

Buzzfeed also hosts opposing viewpoints. They have asides on articles called “Outside Your Bubble”. They bring in other voices so their audiences can have a more informed opinion.

A consistent and accessible voice, appropriate volume for the context, and humanising vulnerability together empowers users.

Margot says all that in the face of the question: do we live in a post-fact era? To which she says: when was the fact era?

Cynicism is a form of cowardice. It’s not a fruitful position. It doesn’t move us forward as designers, and it certainly doesn’t move us forward as a society. Cynics look at the world and say “it’s worse.” Designers look at the world and say “it could be better.”

Design won’t save the world—but it may make it more worth saving. Are we uniquely positioned to fix this problem? No. But that doesn’t free us from working hard to do our part.

Margot thinks we can design our way out of cynicism. And we need to. For ourselves, for our clients, and for our very society.

Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman

I’m at An Event Apart in Seattle, ready for three days of excellence. Setting the scene with the first talk of the event is the one and only Jeffrey Zeldman. His talk is called Slow Design for an Anxious World:

Most web pages are too fast or too slow. Last year, Zeldman showed us how to create design that works faster for customers in a hurry to get things done. This year he’ll show how to create designs that deliberately slow your visitors down, helping them understand more and make better decisions.

Learn to make layouts that coax the visitor to sit back, relax, and actually absorb the content your team works so hard to create. Improve UX significantly without spending a lot or chasing the tail lights of the latest whiz-bang tech. Whether you build interactive experiences or craft editorial pages, you’ll learn how to ease your customers into the experience and build the kind of engagement you thought the web had lost forever.

I’m going to attempt to jot down the gist of it as it happens…

Jeffrey begins by saying that he’s going to slooooowly ease us into the day. Slow isn’t something that our industry prizes. Things change fast on the internet. “You’re using last year’s framework!?” Ours is a newly-emerging set of practices.

Slow is negative in our culture too. We don’t like slow movies, or slow books. But somethings are better slow. Wine that takes time to make is better than wine that you produce in a prison toilet in five days. Slow-brewed coffee is well-brewed coffee. Slow dancing is nice. A slow courtship is nice. And reading slowly is something enjoyable. Sometimes you need to scan information quickly, but when we really immerse ourselves in a favourite book, we really comprehend better. Hold that thought. We’re going to come to books.

Fast is generally what we’re designing for. It’s the best kind of design for customer service designs—for people who want to accomplish something and then get on with their lives. Fast is good for customer service designs. Last year Jeffrey gave a talk last year called Beyond Engagement where he said that service-oriented content must be designed for speed of relevancy. Speed of loading is important, and so is speed of relevancy—how quickly can you give people the right content.

But slow is best for comprehension. Like Mr. Rogers. When things are a little bit slower, it’s kind of easier to understand. When you’re designing for readers, s l o w i t d o w n.

How do we slow down readers? That’s what this talk is about (he told us it would be slow—he only just got to what the point of this talk is).

Let’s start with a form factor. The book. A book is a hack where the author’s brain is transmitting a signal to the reader’s brain, and the designer of the book is making that possible. Readability is more than legibility. Readability transcends legibility, enticing people to slow down and read.

This is about absorption, not conversion. We have the luxury of doing something different here. It’s a challenge.

Remember Readability? It was designed by Arc90. They mostly made software applications for arcane enterprise systems, and that stuff tends not to be public. It’s hard for an agency to get new clients when it can’t show what it does. So they decided to make some stuff that’s just for the public. Arc90 Labs was spun up to make free software for everyone.

Readability was like Instapaper. Instapaper was made by Marco Arment so that he could articles when he was commuting on the subway. Readability aimed to do that, but to also make the content like beautiful. It’s kind of like how reader mode in Safari strips away superfluous content and formats what’s left into something more readable. Safari’s reader mode was not invented by Apple. It was based on the code from Readability. The mercury reader plug-in for Chrome also uses Readability’s code. Jeffrey went around pointing out to companies that the very existence of things like Readability was a warning—we’re making experiences so bad that people are using software to work around them. What we can do so that people don’t have to use these tools?

Craig Mod wrote an article for A List Apart called A Simpler Page back in 2011. With tablets and phones, there isn’t one canonical presentation of content online any more. Our content is sort of amorphous. Craig talked about books and newspapers on tablets. He talked about bed, knee, and breakfast distances from the body to the content.

  1. Bed (close to face): reading a novel on your stomach, lying in bed with the iPad propped up on a pillow.
  2. Knee (medium distance from face): sitting on the couch, iPad on your knee, catching up on Instapaper.
  3. Breakfast (far from face): propped up at a comfortable angle, behind your breakfast coffee and bagel, allowing hands-free news reading.

There’s some correlation between distance and relaxation. That knee position is crucial. That’s when the reader contemplates with pleasure and concentration. They’re giving themselves the luxury of contemplation. It’s a very different feeling to getting up and going over to a computer.

So Jeffrey redesigned his own site with big, big type, and just one central column of text. He stripped away the kind of stuff that Readability and Instapaper would strip away. He gave people a reader layout. You would have to sit back to read the content. He knew he succeeded because people started complaining: “Your type is huge!” “I have to lean back just to read it!” Then he redesigned A List Apart with Mike Pick. This was subtler.

Medium came along with the same focus: big type in a single column. Then the New York Times did it, when they changed their business model to a subscription paywall. They could remove quite a bit of the superfluous content. Then the Washington Post did it, more on their tablet design than their website. The New Yorker—a very old-school magazine—also went down this route, and they’re slow to change. Big type. White space. Bold art direction. Pro Publica is a wonderful non-profit newspaper that also went this route. They stepped it up by adding one more element: art direction on big pieces.

How do these sites achieve their effect of slowing you down and calming you?

Big type. We spend a lot of our time hunched forward. Big type forces you to sit back. It’s like that first moment in a yoga workshop where you’ve got to just relax before doing anything. With big type, you can sit back, take a breathe, and relax.

Hierarchy. This is classic graphic design. Clear relationships.

Minimalism. Not like Talking Heads minimalism, but the kind of minimalism where you remove every extraneous detail. Like what Mies van der Rohe did for architecture, where just the proportions—the minimalism—is the beauty. Or like what Hemingway did with writing—scratch out everything but the nouns and verbs. Kill your darlings.

Art direction. When you have a fancy story, give it some fancy art direction. Pro Publica understand that people won’t get confused about what site they’re on—they’ll understand that this particular story is special.

Whitespace. Mark Boulton wrote an article about whitespace in A List Apart. He talked about two kinds of whitespace: macro and micro. Macro is what we usually think about when we talk about whitespace. Whitespace conveys feelings of extreme luxury, and luxury brands know this. Whitespace makes us feels special. Macro whitespace can be snotty. But there’s also micro whitespace. That’s the space between lines of type, and the space inside letterforms. There’s more openness and air, even if the macro whitespace hasn’t changed.

Jeffrey has put a bunch of these things together into an example.

To recap, there are five points:

  1. Big type
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Minimalism
  4. Art direction
  5. Whitespace

There are two more things that Jeffrey wants to mention before his done. If you want people to pay attention to your design, it must be branded and it must be authoritative.

Branded. When all sites look the same, all content appears equal. Jeffrey calls this the Facebook effect. Whether it’s a noble-prize-winning author, or your uncle ranting, everthing gets the same treatment on Facebook. If you’re taking the time to post content to the web, take the time to let people know who’s talking.

Authoritative. When something looks authoritative, it cues the reader to your authenticity and integrity. Notice how every Oscar-worthy movie uses Trajan on its poster. That’s a typeface based on a Roman column. Strong, indelible letter forms carved in stone. We have absorbed those letterforms into our collective unconcious. Hollywood tap into this by using Trajan for movie titles.

Jeffrey wrote an article called To Save Real News about some of these ideas.

And with that, Jeffrey thanks us and finishes up.

Friday, March 1st, 2019

Content-based grid tracks and embracing flexibility

This is a really good explanation of the difference between context-aware layouts—that we’ve had up until now—and content-aware layouts, which are now possible with CSS grid:

With the min-content, max-content and auto keywords, we can size grid tracks based on their content. I think this is very cool. If we manage to embrace as much of the web’s flexibility as we can, we can get the most out of these tools, and let CSS help us with designing for the unknown.

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Creating distraction-free reading experiences — Adrian Zumbrunnen

It’s our job as designers to bring clarity back to the digital canvas by crafting reading experiences that put readers first.

Monday, October 8th, 2018

The Hurricane Web | Max Böck - Frontend Web Developer

When a storm comes, some of the big news sites like CNN and NPR strip down to a zippy performant text-only version that delivers the content without the bells and whistles.

I’d argue though that in some aspects, they are actually better than the original.

The numbers:

The “full” NPR site in comparison takes ~114 requests and weighs close to 3MB on average. Time to first paint is around 20 seconds on slow connections. It includes ads, analytics, tracking scripts and social media widgets.

Meanwhile, the actual news content is roughly the same.

I quite like the idea of storm-driven development.

…websites built for a storm do not rely on Javascript. The benefit simply does not outweigh the cost. They rely on resilient HTML, because that’s all that is really necessary here.

Monday, October 1st, 2018

Trix: A rich text editor for everyday writing

If you must add a rich text editor to an interface, this open source offering from Basecamp looks good.

Friday, September 28th, 2018

Thoughts on Offline-first | Trys Mudford

Service Workers have such huge potential power, and I feel like we (developers on the web) have barely scratched the surface with what’s possible.

Needless to say, I couldn’t agree more!

Trys is thinking through some of the implicatons of service workers, like how we refresh stale content, and how we deal with slow networks—something that’s actually more of a challenge than dealing with no network connection at all.

There’s some good food for thought here.

I’m so excited to see how we can use Service Workers to improve the web.

Sunday, August 12th, 2018

Let’s serve everyone good-looking content

A terrific piece by Hidde, about CSS grid, but also about a much bigger question:

I don’t think we owe it to any users to make it all exactly the same. Therefore we can get away with keeping fallbacks very simple. My hypothesis: users don’t mind, they’ve come for the content.

If users don’t mind, that leaves us with team members, bosses and clients. In my ideal world we should convince each other, and with that I mean visual designers, product owners, brand people, developers, that it is ok for our lay-out not to look the same everywhere. Because serving good-looking content everywhere is more important than same grids everywhere.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Accessibility for Teams

I really, really like the way that this straightforward accessibility guide is subdivided by discipline. As Maya wrote in the blog post announcing its launch:

Each person on a team, whether you’re a manager, designer, or developer, has a role to play. Your responsibilities are different depending on your role. So that’s how we structured the guide, with a separate section for each of five roles:

  • Product management
  • Content design
  • UX design
  • Visual design
  • Front-end development

Sunday, July 8th, 2018

Brutalist Web Design

A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Priority Guides: A Content-First Alternative to Wireframes · An A List Apart Article

It really, really bothers me that wireframes have evolved from being a prioritisation tool into a layout tool (disempowering UI designers in the process), so I’m happy to see an alternative like this—somewhat like Dan Brown’s Page Description Diagrams.

Friday, April 13th, 2018

Table of Contents for Going Offline

A few people on Twitter have asked about the table of contents for my new book about service workers, Going Offline. Fair enough—why not see the menu before placing your order?

  1. Introducing Service Workers Does what is says on the tin. It also talks about switching to HTTPS. This chapter is online at A List Apart so you can try before you buy.
  2. Preparing for Offline This chapter talks about how you register a service worker, and introduces the concept of promises in JavaScript.
  3. Making Fetch Happen Yes, this chapter title is a Mean Girls reference; fight me. The chapter explains fetch events and shows how a service worker can intercept them.
  4. Cache Me if you Can This puntastic chapter is all about caching, and shows you can use caches in your service worker script.
  5. Service Worker Strategies This is the heart of the book, where you get decide what kind of strategy you want to implement—when to go to the network, when to go a cache, and so on. And as a last resort, you can have a custom offline page.
  6. Refining Your Service Worker Building on the previous chapter, this one looks at how you can use different strategies for different kinds of files—images, pages, etc.
  7. Tidying Up This chapter is about good service worker hygiene like deleting old caches. It also introduces some more coding style options.
  8. The Offline Experience By this chapter, the service worker script is done. But there’s still plenty of room for enhancements on that custom offline page, including the use of offline storage.
  9. Progressive Web Apps The book finishes with an explanation of progressive web apps, and a step-by-step guide to creating your own web app manifest.

Sound good? Pre-order your copy of the book now and you’ll have it in your hands ten days from now.

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

How display: contents; Works

A really deep dive into display: contents from Ire.

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

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:

Friday, January 5th, 2018

Owning My Own Content - TimKadlec.com

Hell, yeah!

I write to understand and remember. Sometimes that will be interesting to others, often it won’t be.

But it’s going to happen. Here, on my own site.

Friday, July 14th, 2017

Patterns Day 2017: Ellen De Vries on Vimeo

The latest video from Patterns Day is up—Ellen’s superb philosophical presentation: Patterns in Language, Language in Patterns.

There’s so much packed into this one, it might take more than one viewing to take it all in.

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

Patterns in language and language in patterns. – Ellen de Vries – Medium

A transcript of the superb talk that Ellen delivered at Patterns Day. So good!