Baldur Bjarnason writes an immense treatise on the current sad state of software, grounded in the historical perspective of the past sad state of software.
Monday, August 30th, 2021
Monday, August 2nd, 2021
Businesses focus on efficiencies—doing the things that net them the most money for the least effort. By contrast, taxpayer-funded public programs are designed and expected to cover everyone—including, and especially, the most marginalized. That’s why they’re taxpayer-funded; so they don’t face existential risk be eschewing profit-driven decision-making. Does this work perfectly? No. But I think about it a lot when people shit on the bigness and slowness of government. That bigness & slowness is supposed to create space and resources to account for the communities, that a “lean,” fast approach deliberately ignores.
Friday, July 30th, 2021
I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.
If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.
There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.
My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.
I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.
I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.
I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.
Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.
Sunday, March 14th, 2021
Monday, September 28th, 2020
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Some good thought morsels from Robin on product design:
Bad product design is when folks talk more about the UI than what the UI is built on top of.
There’s a lot of talk about how great design is invisible—mostly boring conversations with little substance—but! I think that’s true when it comes to product design.
Bad product design is when your interface looks like your org chart.
Wednesday, March 11th, 2020
How design fiction was co-opted. A piece by Tim Maughan with soundbites from Julian Bleecker, Anab Jain, and Scott Smith.
Wednesday, September 18th, 2019
When your only tool seems like a smartphone, everything looks like an app.
Amber writes on Ev’s blog about products that deliberately choose to be dependent on smartphone connectivity:
We read service outage stories like these seemingly every week, and have become numb to the fundamental reality: The idea of placing the safety of yourself, your child, or another loved one in the hands of an app dependent on a server you cannot touch, control, or know the status of, is utterly unacceptable.
Monday, July 15th, 2019
A short, snappy web book on product development from Ryan Singer at Basecamp.
Like Resilient Web Design, the whole thing is online for free (really free, not “give us your email address” free).
Monday, July 1st, 2019
Tuesday, April 9th, 2019
We have a tendency in our line of work to assume that what benefits us as developers translates to a benefit for those who use what we make. This is an unsafe assumption.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
200 discarded objects from a dump in San Francisco, meticulously catalogued, researched, and documented by Jenny Odell. The result is something more revealing than most pre-planned time capsule projects …although this project may be somewhat short-lived as it’s hosted on Tumblr.
Monday, March 4th, 2019
Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
Following on from Jeffrey and Margot, the third talk in the morning’s curated content at An Event Apart Seattle is from Sarah Parmenter. Her talk is Designing for Personalities. Here’s the description:
Just as our designs today must accommodate differences of gender, cultural background, and other factors, it’s time to create apps, websites, and internal processes that account for still another strand of human diversity: our very different personality types.
In this new presentation, Sarah shares real-life case studies demonstrating how businesses and organizations large and small are learning to adjust the thinking behind their websites and processes to account for the wishes, needs, and comfort levels of all kinds of people.
We know that the world is full of different conventions—currency, measuring systems, and more—and our web forms address these differences. Let’s do the same for the emotional and psychological assumptions behind our customer profiles. Let’s learn to design for a palette of different personalities.
I’m going to do my best to write down some of what she says…
Sarah works with Adobe, and at a gathering last year, she ended up chatting with some of her co-workers about ancestry, for some reason. She mentioned that she had French and Norwegian roots. The French part is evident in her surname: parmentier means potato farmer. So Sarah did a DNA test. It turned out that Sarah had no French or Norwegian roots—everything in her ancestry came from within an eighty mile radius of her home. It was scary how much she strongly believed for years in something that just wasn’t true.
It’s like that on the web. There are things we do because lots of people do them, but that doesn’t mean they work. Many websites and digital processes are broken and it’s down to us to fix it.
With traditional personas, we make an awful lot of assumptions about people. Have a look at facebook.com/ads/preferences. See just how easy it is for computers to make startling amounts of assumptions.
The other problem with personas is that they are amalgamations. But there’s no such thing as an average costumer. The Microsoft design team add much more context so that they can design for real people in real situations.
Designing for personas only takes care of a fraction of the work we need to do. When we add in another layer of life getting in the way, and a layer of how someone is feeling, you’ve a medley of UX issues that need solving.
The problem is that personality traits aren’t static. They evolve with context. Personas are contextual but static. What we should really be doing is creating the most desirable experience for the user, and we can only do that by empowering them, as Margot also said. We need to give our users control.
If there were such controls, Sarah would use them to reduce motion on websites. She suffers from motion sickness and some websites literally make her sick. There is a
prefers-reduced-motion media query but so far only Safari and Firefox support it. It’s hard to believe that we haven’t been doing this already. This stuff seems so obvious in hindsight.
Sarah asks who in the room are introverts. People raise their hands (which seems like quite an extroverted thing to do).
Now Sarah brings up the Meyers-Briggs test, a piece of pseudoscientic bollocks. Sarah is INFJ—introversion, intuition, feeling, judging. Weird flex, but okay.
Introverts will patiently seek out complex UX patterns if it aligns with their levels of comfort. These are people who would rather do anything rather than speak to someone on the phone. An introvert figured out that if you sat on the Virgin Atlantic homepage long enough, a live chat will pop up after twenty minutes.
Apple is great for introverts. They don’t bury their chat options (unlike Amazon). Remember, introverts are a third of the population.
Users will begin to value those applications and services that bother them the least, respect their privacy, and allow them a certain level of control.
Let’s talk about designing compassionate products.
What we’re asking of people in time-critical or exceptionally personal situations is for them to have the foresight to turn on incognito mode. Everyone has an urban legend horror story about cookies following them around the web. Cookies can seem like a smart marketing solution until context lets them down.
Sarah’s best friend got pregnant. She started excitedly clicking around the web looking for pregnancy-related products. She sadly lost the baby. Sarah explained to her how to use a cookie eraser. Her friend that she was joking. Sarah showed her how to clean her search history. But if you’ve liked and subscribed a bunch of things while you’re excited, it’s not that easy—when the worst happens—to think back on everything you did.
There’s an app that’s not in the US. It’s a menstrual cycle and fertility tracking app. It captures a lot of data. At the point when Sarah’s friend lost her baby, this change was caught by the app. The message she got was lacking in empathy. It was more like market research than a compassionate message. At a time when they should’ve been thinking of the mindset of their user, they were focused on getting data. No one caught this when the app was being designed.
The entire user experience of our websites and apps is going to rely on how empathetic we are.
We don’t always save things to reminisce; we save to give us the option to remember. We can currently favourite a photograph or flag as inapropriate. It would be nice to simply save something to a memory vault.
Bloom and Wild is a company in the UK. They send nice mailbox flowers. On March 5th last year, Sarah sent an email to the CEO of Bloom and Wild. She had just received a mailout about mother’s day after her mother passed away. Was their no way of opting out of receiving mother’s day emails without unsubscribing completely?
Well, yesterday they finally implemented it! Bloom and Wild have been overwhelmed by the positive response.
For those of us trying to make the web a better place, sometimes it can be as simple as reaching out to point out what companies could be doing better. And sometimes, just sometimes, they listen.
As standard, we should be giving users end-to-end control over how they interact with us.
Sarah wants to talk about designing a personal UX journey. For one of her clients, Sarah dip-sampled hundreds of existing customers. There were gaps in the customer journey. They think that what was happening was the company was getting very aggressive after initial interaction—they were phoning customers. Sarah and her team started researching this. That made them unpopular with other parts of the company. Sarah gave her team Groucho Marx glasses whenever they had to go and ask people uncomfortable questions.
Sarah’s team went on a remarketing effort. They sent an email to people who were in the gap between booking an appointment and making a purchase. They asked the users what their preferences were for contacting them. The company didn’t think they were doing anything wrong but this research showed that 76% of people prefered to avoid phone calls.
They asked a few more questions. If you ask questions, there has to be value in it for the users. Sarah got the budget for some gift cards. They got feedback that many people don’t like taking calls, especially when they’re at work. The best: “I’m an intorvert. I hate calls. Sorry.”
The customer feedback was very, very clear. Even though this would take a lot of money to fix, it was crucial to fix it. Being agile was crucial.
Then they looked at a different (shorter) gap in the customer journey. It was clear that an online booking service was desirable. They made a product quickly that booked more appointments in ten days than had previously been booked in a month by sales agents.
They also made a live chat system. You see a very slow roll-out. At the beginning, it has all new customers. After a while, people return with more questions.
The mistake they made was having a tech-savvy team with multiple browser windows open. That’s not how the customer service people operate. They usually deal with people one on one. So they were happy to leave people waiting on live chat for twenty or twenty five minutes, and of course that was far too long. So when you’re adding in a new system like this, think about key performance indicators that you want to go along with it e.g. live chat must have a response within five minutes.
There’s also a long tail of conversion. Sometimes the sales cycle is very lengthy. They decided to give users the ability to select which product they wanted and switch options on and off. It was all about giving the power back to the user. This was a phenomenal change for the company. They were able to completely change the customer journey and reduce those big gaps. They went from a cycle of fourteen weeks to seven days. They did that by handing the power back to the user.
Sarah’s question for the audience is: What is stopping your user completing your cycle? This can be very difficult. You might have to do horrible things to validate a concept. It’s okay. We’re all perfectionists, but sometimes you have to use quick’n’dirty code to achieve your goal. If the end goal is we’re able to say “hey, this thing worked!” then we can go back and do it properly.
- Respect privacy and build in a personal level of UX adjustment into every product.
- Outlier data can create superfans of your product.
- Build the most empathetic experience that you can.
Thursday, December 6th, 2018
A deep dive into Pixar’s sci-fi masterpiece, featuring entertaining detours to communist propaganda and Disney theme parks.
Tuesday, December 4th, 2018
The newest Gary Hustwit film is a documentary about Dieter Rams, featuring plinkity music by Brian Eno.
Rams is a design documentary, but it’s also a rumination on consumerism, materialism, and sustainability.
Monday, November 26th, 2018
Prototypes and production
When we do front-end development at Clearleft, we’re usually delivering production code, often in the form of a component library. That means our priorities are performance, accessibility, robustness, and other markers of quality when it comes to web development.
We do a lot of design sprints, where time is of the essence. The prototype we produce on the penultimate day of the sprint definitely won’t be production quality, but it will be good enough to test.
What’s interesting is that—when it comes to prototyping—our usual front-end priorities can and should go out the window. The priority now is speed. If that means sacrificing semantics or performance, then so be it. If I’m building a prototype and I find myself thinking “now, what’s the right
class name for this component?”, then I know I’m in the wrong mindset. That question might be valid for production code, but it’s a waste of time for prototypes.
So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.
Alternating between production projects and prototyping projects can be quite fun, if a little disorienting. It’s almost like I have to flip a switch in my brain to change tracks.
When a prototype is successful, works great, and tests well, there’s a real temptation to use the prototype code as the basis for the final product. Don’t do this! I’ve made that mistake in the past and it always ends badly. I ended up spending far more time trying to wrangle prototype code to a production level than if I had just started from a clean slate.
Build prototypes to test ideas, designs, interactions, and interfaces …and then throw the code away. The value of a prototype is in answering questions and testing hypotheses. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy when it’s time to switch over into production mode.
Of course it should go without saying that you should never, ever release prototype code into production.
Heydon recently highlighted an article that offered this tip for aspiring web developers:
As for HTML, there’s not much to learn right away and you can kind of learn as you go, but before making your first templates, know the difference between in-line elements like
spanand how they differ from block ones like
That’s perfectly reasonable advice …if you’re building a prototype. But if you’re building something for public consumption, you have a duty of care to the end users.
Friday, July 13th, 2018
A nice walkthrough of a CSS grid in production. I was surprised to see percentages used as units—I wonder if it would feel “cleaner” if they were converted to
Tuesday, July 10th, 2018
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
Tuesday, June 26th, 2018
Prompted by his time at Clearleft’s AI gathering in Juvet, Chris has been delving deep into the stories we tell about artificial intelligence …and what stories are missing.
And here we are at the eponymous answer to the question that I first asked at Juvet around 7 months ago: What stories aren’t we telling ourselves about AI?
Building More Expressive Products by Val Head
The products we design today must connect with customers across different screen sizes, contexts, and even voice or chat interfaces. As such, we create emotional expressiveness in our products not only through visual design and language choices, but also through design details such as how interface elements move, or the way they sound. By using every tool at our disposal, including audio and animation, we can create more expressive products that feel cohesive across all of today’s diverse media and social contexts. In this session, Val will show how to harness the design details from different media to build overarching themes—themes that persist across all screen sizes and user and interface contexts, creating a bigger emotional impact and connection with your audience.
I’m going to attempt to live blog her talk. Here goes…
This is about products that intentionally express personality. When you know what your product’s personality is, you can line up your design choices to express that personality intentionally (as opposed to leaving it to chance).
Tunnel Bear has a theme around a giant bear that will product you from all the bad things on the internet. It makes a technical product very friendly—very different from most VPN companies.
Mailchimp have been doing this for years, but with a monkey (ape, actually, Val), not a bear—Freddie. They’ve evolved and changed it over time, but it always has personality.
But you don’t need a cute animal to express personality. Authentic Weather is a sarcastic weather app. It’s quite sweary and that stands out. They use copy, bold colours, and giant type.
Personality can be more subtle, like with Stripe. They use slick animations and clear, concise design.
Being expressive means conveying personality through design. Type, colour, copy, layout, motion, and sound can all express personality. Val is going to focus on the last two: motion and sound.
Expressing personality with motion
Animation can be used to tell your story. We can do that through:
- Easing choices (ease-in, ease-out, bounce, etc.),
- Duration values, and offsets,
- The properties we animate.
Here are four personality types…
Calm, soft, reassuring
You can use opacity, soft blurs, small movements, and easing curves with gradual changes. You can use:
- scale + fade,
- blur + fade,
- blur + scale + fade.
Pro tip for blurs: the end of blurs always looks weird. Fade out with opacity before your blur gets weird.
You can use Penner easing equations to do your easings. See them in action on easings.net. They’re motion graphs plotting animation against time. The flatter the curve, the more linear the motion. They have a lot more range than the defaults you get with CSS keyword values.
For calm, soft, and reassuring, you could use
easeInOutQuad. But that’s like saying “you could use dark blue.” These will get you close, but you need to work on the detail.
Confident, stable, strong
You can use direct movements, straight lines, symmetrical ease-in-outs. You should avoid blurs, bounces, and overshoots. You can use:
- quick fade,
- scale + fade,
- direct start and stops.
You can use Penner equations like
Lively, energetic, friendly
You can use overshoots, anticipation, and “snappy” easing curves. You can use:
- overshoot + scale,
- anticipation + overshoot
To get the sense of overshoots and anticipations you can use easing curves like
easeInOutBack. Those aren’t the only ones though. Anything that sticks out the bottom of the graph will give you anticipation. Anything that sticks out the top of the graph will give you overshoot.
If cubic bezier curves don’t get you quite what you’re going for, you can add keyframes to your animation. You could have keyframes for: 0%, 90%, and 100% where the 90% point is past the 100% point.
Stripe uses a touch of overshoot on their charts and diagrams; nice and subtle. Slack uses a bit of overshoot to create a sense of friendliness in their loader.
Playful, fun, lighthearted
You can use bounces, shape morphs, squashes and stretches. This is probably not the personality for a bank. But it could be for a game, or some other playful product. You can use:
- squash and stretch (springs.
The easing curve for elastic movement is more complicated Penner equation that can’t be done in CSS. GreenSock will help you visual your elastic easings. For springs, you probably need a dedicated library for spring motions.
Expressing personality with sound
We don’t talk about sound much in web design. There are old angry blog posts about it. And not every website should use sound. But why don’t we even consider it on the web?
We were burnt by those terrible Flash sites with sound on every single button mouseover. And yet the Facebook native app does that today …but in a much more subtle way. The volume is mixed lower, and the sound is flatter; more like a haptic feel. And there’s more variation in the sounds. Just because we did sound badly in the past doesn’t mean we can’t do it well today.
People say they don’t want their computers making sound in an office environment. But isn’t responsive design all about how we don’t just use websites on our desktop computers?
Amber Case has a terrific book about designing products with sound, and she’s all about calm technology. She points out that the larger the display, the less important auditive and tactile feedback becomes. But on smaller screens, the need increases. Maybe that’s why we’re fine with mobile apps making sound but not with our desktop computers doing it?
People say that sound is annoying. That’s like saying siblings are annoying. Sound is annoying when it’s:
- not appropriate for the situation,
- played at the wrong time,
- too loud,
- lacks user control.
But all of those are design decisions that we can control.
So what can we do with sound?
Sound can enhance what we perceive from animation. The “breathe” mode in the Calm meditation app has some lovely animation, and some great sound to go with it. The animation is just a circle getting smaller and bigger—if you took the sound away, it wouldn’t be very impressive.
Sound can also set a mood. Sirin Labs has an extreme example for the Solarin device with futuristic sounds. It’s quite reminiscent of the Flash days, but now it’s all done with browser technologies.
Sound is a powerful brand differentiator. Val now plays sounds (without visuals) from:
- Outlook Calendar.
They have strong associations for us. These are earcons: icons for the ears. They can be designed to provoke specific emotions. There was a great explanation on the Blackberry website, of all places (they had a whole design system around their earcons).
Here are some uses of sounds…
Alerts and notifications
You have a new message. You have new email. Your timer is up. You might not be looking at the screen, waiting for those events.
Apple TV has layers of menus. You go “in” and “out” of the layers. As you travel “in” and “out”, the animation is reinforced with sound—an “in” sound and an “out” sound.
When you buy with Apple Pay, you get auditory feedback. Twitter uses sound for the “pull to refresh” action. It gives you confirmation in a tactile way.
Marking positive moments
This is a great way of making a positive impact in your user’s minds—celebrate the accomplishments. Clear—by Realmac software—gives lovely rising auditory feedback as you tick things off your to-do list. Compare that to hardware products that only make sounds when something goes wrong—they don’t celebrate your accomplishments.
Here are some best practices for user interface sounds:
- UI sounds be short, less than 400ms.
- End on an ascending interval for positive feedback or beginnings.
- End on a descending interval for negative feedback, ending, or closing.
- Give the user controls to top or customise the sound.
When it comes to being expressive with sounds, different intervals can evoke different emotions:
- Consonant intervals feel pleasant and positive.
- Dissonant intervals feel strong, active, or negative.
- Large intervals feel powerful.
- Octaves convey lightheartedness.
People have made sounds for you if you don’t want to design your own. Octave is a free library of UI sounds. You can buy sounds from motionsound.io, targetted specifically at sounds to go with motions.
Let’s wrap up by exploring where to find your product’s personality:
- What is it trying to help users accomplish?
- What is it like? (its mood and disposition)
You can workshops to answer these questions. You can also do research with your users. You might have one idea about your product’s personality that’s different to your customer’s. You need to project a believable personality. Talk to your customers.
Designing for Emotion has some great exercises for finding personality. Conversational Design also has some great exercises in it. Once you have the words to describe your personality, it gets easier to design for it.
So have a think about using motion and sound to express your product’s personality. Be intentional about it. It will also make the web a more interesting place.