If we design for humans, then we need to know humans. Good design decisions are helped by research, and access to the latest research of others, like that from the academic world. What we might call intuition is the effervescence of hours of absorbing information, experimenting, and applied curiosity. That’s why it galls me that some of the best research into how humans process information is locked into academic journals. Yes, professional peer review is necessary and useful. Yes, it costs money to review, edit, and publish papers. However, who exactly benefits from the current practice of locking research data and results into walled gardens on the Web behind a paywall?
If our community of Web professionals has demonstrated anything it’s that amateurs can become professionals by participating diligently in the informal peer review system of the empirical Web. By testing ideas and solutions, publishing results openly, and providing review and feedback, we have grown into a profession. The crucial ingredients are the free sharing of knowledge, and our own curiosity. Paywalls retard sharing, and inhibit curiosity. The €208 for the three ‘online only’ issues of the 2012 Information Design Journal are one example of many. If the academic publishing industry had been the de facto route to sharing our experiments I would not be a web designer today. I would simply not have been qualified enough to be published, and would have struggled to find the money to buy the journals holding your research.
So, I urge you to support campaigns like that of Cambridge mathematician, Tim Gowers — documented in an excellent article in The Guardian in April this year — that want to free research from the paywalls of journals.
We stand on the shoulders of giants. Their thoughts and work make us better. Set it free!
Past Thoughts: June 2012
Contrary to popular belief, the defining characteristic of a good professional, in any discipline, is not the ability to blurt out good ideas off the top of their head. It’s perseverance and not being easily satisfied. Where the others would stop, they keep going. For example, when writing CSS, they won’t stop after they’ve achieved a certain style. They will also try to make it more flexible, more maintainable, simpler. Next week, try this: When you’re about to give up and proclaim that something is “done”, try to spend five more minutes on the task, thinking how you can improve it further, how to make it more elegant. I think it will help you be much more satisfied and proud of your work.
A conversation I had with Dan recently left some thoughts in my head regarding the consumption of web content. Whilst we have the ability to offer our content in text, image, audio, video or other interactive mediums, are we doing our best to exploit that opportunity and why do we not offer users more choice?
Let me illustrate this for you taking a common four device approach. Imagine I want to ‘consume’ a news article. I might want to listen to that article on my phone, read it on my tablet or Kindle, read, watch, listen or interact on my desktop and finally, watch it on my TV.
It seems natural then that sites should learn and store my preferences for content consumption, according to my contexts (time, date, location, device, mood, activity, etc). That’s not to say I wouldn’t be able to consume it in any other way if I chose to, but I would be receiving personalised service that learned with me and my habits and served me content appropriate to the device that I wish to consume it on.
What if there was a way we could collect disparate pieces of information: blog posts, news articles, videos, tweets, comments, etc. and collectively annotate them? We have blogs now, but the concept of annotation hasn’t been widely realized. There has got to be a better, more visual, semantic way to display this kind of information, reflection, and conversation. I’m most interested in how we document and collect our thoughts publicly and collaboratively. Imagine the learning that could take place.
As information is torn free of its moorings, and people expect services to straddle countless devices, we'll see a rise in the value of good, old-fashioned information architecture. Context, structure, content, and metadata have become key issues for every designer. Information architects, much maligned over the last five years, can surely allow themselves a wry smile.
I don’t always have the pleasure of working on projects where I get a chance to learn something new. This isn’t tied to freelancing. I remember it was like that with every single one of my previous employers. It’s just a simple truth that not every project is innovative or challenging.
That doesn’t diminish my desire to learn. In fact, it probably makes me more inclined to try a new technique or software, if only to stimulate my creativity. But if the project doesn’t require it, I find it hard to justify a higher project cost or longer timeline just so I can learn something new.
This is why I write. This is why I co-host EE Podcast. This is why I give presentations.
Whether it was writing for my blog, a publication or even a book, I never started with all the knowledge I ultimately shared. The process of writing is how I learned (and even mastered) subjects. Researching, creating examples, finding ways to convey information simply … this process of teaching someone else teaches me first.
It’s even more true with the EE Podcast. The subjects we cover are frequently those I have little to no experience with, and the guests we interview are far more experienced with ExpressionEngine than I am. And I like it that way. It’s like playing a sport with someone better than you: it makes you better. All the research and prep we do for each episode, combined with the actual interviews, give me at least four dedicated hours a month of focused EE education.
Giving a presentation, too, is a learning experience. Of course assembling the deck and talking points reinforces my knowledge, but it’s the attendees who teach me the most. After presentations, I always get great questions from attendees, and I particularly love the ones I can't answer. These give me a broader perspective of my topic, as well as a reason to learn more about the subject for next time.
All of this, plus my client work, means I’m ridiculously busy most of the time. Yet, for me, it is worth it on so many levels. Writing, podcasting and presenting has helped me build my reputation and are, basically, my main avenues for marketing myself. Sometimes I even get paid for it (woo!). But most of all, I pursue these endeavors as a means to satisfy my personal desire to learn and to do my job better and faster.
I recently was able to see Douglas Crockford speak. He had a fantastic premise: we are flawed beings attempting to create perfect programs for machines. What struck me during the talk was how few developers acknowledge this. We all make mistakes—we may have missed a keystroke because we were distracted by music we were listening to, hunger, or the phone ringing. And yet we all too often relish pointing out flaws in other people’s code, as if we could never be guilty of the same. Perhaps more humility and acceptance are in order in our industry.
Writing on the trip home from TXJStoday, I realise I just gave my first talk in over 18 months and that for the first time I wasn’t scared. I wonder what’s changed? I’d been putting off doing any more speaking mostly through a lack of confidence and a few sub-par panels at SxSW I’d participated in.
Recent conversations with friend, and fellow baker, Rachel Andrew inspired me with her tales of being afraid of speaking, and flying, and just telling herself to not be anymore. Her blog post Public Speaking for the (Formerly) Terrified is a sure read for anyone who has been put off speaking in the past.
The experience this last week was a blast, and I suppose I just want to encourage anyone who has thought of speaking, or tried it and found it uncomfortable, that maybe you should give it another go. I might not have been brilliant, but it turns out that it can actually be enjoyable to share a story about something you care about, which is ultimately the point of getting up on stage in the first place.
We notice the sort of design that demands to be noticed, and make the mistake of proclaiming it to be some kind of “game changer”, glossing over its functional failings in favor of its unique approach to a problem. But the truth is that the game is much more likely to be changed incrementally, by design that doesn’t call attention to itself. When we wake up tomorrow, we won’t be greeted by a new and grand spectacle of human ingenuity. Instead, we’ll fit another tiny, seemingly mundane piece into a puzzle that will never be completed. The people who move things forward are the ones who can see spectacle in slow motion.
Always be explicit in your code. Don’t use
margin:0if you really mean
margin-bottom:0. Every time you use shorthand you need to check that it’s not inadvertently setting (or unsetting) another value at the same time.
If you’re a designer and want to endear yourself to a front-end developer, work on a grid. A real grid. Not just some guides you threw together in Photoshop. It doesn’t have to be one of the popular ones, just put your design on an actual grid. It makes our lives, and I’d have to assume yours as well, much easier.
I’ve been thinking about the intersection of ownership, responsibility, and infrastructure in the development of businesses on the web. Users and potential businesses are involved in a difficult balancing act of ownership, obligation, and expectation. Every new service on the web seems to rub up against this at some point, regardless of the funding model. What’s more, I think that if the lessons of this generation of start-ups are clearly understood, start-ups and applications should be able to take a more fearless footing as they grow.
So, here’s the basis of most web applications: You store data, which other people own. Other people create things and combine them with your service, either at point of creation or distribution. What you own is infrastructure; the machines, the principal applications that connect it all together, the interfaces through which people interact with their creations on your service. This infrastructure belong to you. At a basic level you have an obligation to your user to provide them with access to what’s theirs, but it’s all on infrastructure, which you own.
Now, although the data does not belong to you, the operations that aggregate that data, through it being entrusted to your network en mass, do. This is your product. You are entitled to profit from features built on these aggregations, insights and infrastructure.
Consider Rdio, MOG, or Spotify, and consider Last.FM. All are music companies, and all stream music. The first three—at least initially—have core businesses built around streaming alone and have developed infrastructure to that end. But, the product users pay for—the music—belongs to a third party. This makes them vulnerable, since changes from their supplier could cause a sudden imbalance to the entire business.
Last.FM—although also having a streaming component—has a product of its own, in the form of the aggregated, processed, and presented Audioscrobbler listening data of its users, that it serves back to them as a service. The user owns their listening data, the music labels own the music files, and Last.FM owns the entire infrastructure of data analysis, aggregation and presentation (and the iterative uses, such as music recommendations). There is a balance between the service and the user. If the streaming music licenses were pulled tomorrow, there remains a business in the data the user owns and the services Last.FM has built on it.
(Of course, online music is far from the simplest example, since there are so many licensing factors and contracts muddled into it. Rdio and Spotify surely have contractual assurances from labels for some period of time, and are working hard to build out unique aspects of their services as they grow—reviews, libraries, web playback APIs, and nested applications, for example—so please don’t mistake this example as writing them off.)
A well-balanced application doesn’t have to lock data away, and has an understanding with their users about what they give and what they get. In the applications we build, in the businesses we try to found on the web, this balance—or understanding thereof—is what we must strive for from the outset.
But what of APIs? APIs are interesting things. Beyond the raw basics—providing high fidelity data to your users—they enable a specific group of users to grow usage and personal investment in your service, and even define whole new usage patterns. With time, the influence of third-party designs can become de facto, and the core service may be shaped by them.
However, the idea that your service is obligated to third parties is muddied. It’s a relationship, because although ideas developed in the wild can prove essential, they could not succeed in isolation without your infrastructure, collective user-base, and even the adoption of those popular ideas themselves into features that other users come to understand. Everyone needs to understand that; you, as the provider of an API, and any user who chooses to build on top of your infrastructure.
The value of a business on the web comes from broad infrastructure. It’s the things you build that allow people to do more than what they might do in isolation. You provide and support the platforms on which people build new ways to perceive their creations and others. If successful, your business supports your work and yourself because as a whole—you, your users, your backers and advertisers, those who build around your infrastructure—you create a healthy, balanced relationship.
I have worked for myself, either as a freelancer or as part of a small company, as is now the case, for 6 of the last 9 years. Many of us talk about the great advantages of “being your own boss”. How many times have you been in a conversation with someone who says something like “It’s alright for you, you can do what you want when you want!”
For the most part they are right, it’s great working from your favourite coffee shop or on a train whilst you are travelling in the middle of the day to see a friend. However I have to say it’s not without it’s problems.
One of my aims for 2012 was to try and improve the line between work and home, or work and “not work”. My commute is literally seconds so I have put things in place to help. For example every day I get out of the house to take my children to school. It’s a great start to the day, unless it’s raining, and an opportunity to get some time to think. Additionally I decided to take all public holidays as holidays (something I haven’t always done).
So what’s the point of me telling you all this? Well it struck me the other day that I really don’t know how to take a “day off”—remember those? A day to yourself, not a public holiday or a weekend, a day that you mark off in your calendar just for you. I had hoped to book in one or two a quarter but so far it hasn’t happened. The problem is that I love what I do. Work pays the bills, but the web and design fascinate me. Taking a “day off” would likely turn into me checking emails in a coffee shop, reading a blog post or worse, fixing a bug.
I’ve decided that the next day off will be completely un web related. There’s plenty left to discover in and around the area I now live in. Museums, steam railways, great restaurants, river rides and independent cinemas to name but a few.
The funny thing is when you do make the time and do something different you normally come away with a new perspective, an idea for a design influcenced by a coffee shop menu, the solution to that problem that has been annoying you for days. Deep down we know all this but do little about it, I speak from experience. Let’s try it, after all that email will still be there when you get back!
Do you know, specifically, the kind of work you want to be doing? The kind of people you want to be working with? The kind of customers you want to be looking after?
I’m amazed how many people reach out to me when they’re looking for work but, when I ask them, what kind of work are you looking for, I get a blank stare.
Sure, sometimes you might need to take work you’d rather not be doing, but you should always know clearly what you want (even if this changes from time to time).
Same thing goes for my clients. They are often so busy trying to make a sale, or raise some money, they’ve lost their vision. They’ve forgotten the real reason their organisation exists.
Once you have a clear view of what you want to be doing, two things happen:
- You see opportunities more quickly and clearly and can pursue them with more focus.
- Other people find opportunities for you and create connections for you because they know you’re the person who does that thing.
It’s harder than it sounds, making that decision and communicating it, but it’s well worth the effort.
When someone says “it can’t be done with CSS alone” my first instinct is to try and prove them wrong. I don’t know why I feel like that or indeed why I have to prove myself but that approach has often taught me more about how things really work and even 10 years into CSS I still find new ways of doing things. Many times over the years impossible seeming tasks have been beaten into submission with a little bit of lateral thinking.
I remember when I started in CSS and would read all the tips, tricks and hacks that I could find and then take that advice as gospel. For a couple of years I didn’t question the things I had learned but as I became more proficient I started to realise that some of the things I had learned weren’t quite true and that with a little extra effort and a bit of head scratching many things could be achieved that were previously thought impossible.
Now, when I am confronted with a tricky question or problem I make a point of saying “I can’t do that” but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.
Not everything is possible of course but don’t accept that something isn’t possible until you have tried it for yourself.
If you’ve ever read Alice in Wonderland, you’ll be familiar with the following passage:
“I’m sure I’ll take you with pleasure!” the Queen said. “Two pence a week, and jam every other day.”
Alice couldn’t help laughing, as she said, “I don’t want you to hire ME—and I don’t care for jam.”
“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any TO-DAY, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you DID want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.”
“It MUST come sometimes to ‘jam to-day’,” Alice objected.
“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every OTHER day: to-day isn’t any OTHER day, you know.”
Let’s say that you, in fact, liked jam, and that’s exactly what you wanted. Some of us (myself a primary culprit) have lived or are living in the world of “jam every other day” with “today not being any OTHER day”. That is to say, we’ve lived or are living with extreme delayed gratification, to the point where there is no gratification at all, or if it is, it is extremely short-lived and difficult to appreciate.
What are you putting off until it’s “the right time”, such as the project (an article or book to write, app to develop; site, program or company to launch), that you really want to do, something new that you really want to learn, a fun new activity that you really want to try, a new exercise habit, a vacation or trip that you really want to take, the person (or people) that you would like to get to know better/spend more time with or become friends with? What piece or pieces of self-care are you pushing off because “you don’t have time”? In my own life, I can see so many times where “jam to-morrow” just didn’t happen—largely due to my own devices. In contrast, during the instances where I did get, achieve, or manifest what I truly desired, I was in-love with life and all of the possibilities that it had to offer.
So, if it’s “jam every other day” for you like it has been for me so often in my life, here is my recommendation based on what I’m currently learning and putting into practice: start looking at where you can make it “jam today” instead. Right now, I am making an effort to set aside small amounts of time to do the hard work (only because I am out of practice) of feeding my soul, and am trusting that it becomes increasingly easier the more I do it. I’ve already seen that when you give to yourself first, you then are able to give more to the world. And isn’t that what we all came here for anyway?
(…and if you’re curious, my favorite jam to date is St. Dalfour Fancy Plum. Yum!)
I'm seeing an increasing rise in people blogging and tweeting in opposition to responsive web design. Some are intelligent discussions about the challenges it poses, but sadly most are simply knee-jerk reactions from frustrated designers and developers who don't get the concept and are angered at the extra time required to work in this new way.
Fixed-widths were always a hack; always a temporary measure. As Andy Clarke said, responsive web design is web design. Attempting to remain in a world of fixed-width layouts is futile, so — please — let's stop trying to come up with half-baked arguments against it.
Originality is a myth. Not one of us can create anything ex nihilo – out of nothing. We all have to be acutely aware of how easy it is to be a stylist rather than a designer, following the latest hot trends or display techniques. But it’s equally important that we are careful not to choose a new design technique because we’re afraid of using a method or design pattern that is tried and true or just simply really well thought out. A great example is rounded corners. Rounded corners can be a style, but before they are a style they are a philosophy. Corners are rounded on physical products so that they are comfortable to hold and handle. An interface can emulate that and make a design easy on the eyes, creating a suspended disbelief in the realism of a digital interface. Don’t round your corners or not round your corners because of a style choice, make a decision based on how you can best serve your audience the content they want.
When we are designing anything we should be asking ourselves how we can best serve the customer or the audience and then use the standard principles of design to execute on that service. Use a grid. Use clear hierarchy. Use color, line, form, and texture. Use space. Use movement. Whatever you use, use it with the intention of serving the people who will use and benefit from the content your design is serving up. If you’re struggling to make a decision with your client or with your team, simply ask each other which decision best provides quality for the customer.
I suggest discussing these topics over the following:
The most poisonous idea in the world is when you’re told that something which achieved success through lots of hard work actually got there just because it was excellent.
There’s a big difference between freelancing and running a business. Be cognizant of which one best suits you.
Dear [Insert name]
Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend this meeting.
As someone who is paid to create value for this organization, I feel it is my ethical obligation to decline participating in meetings that have neither (a) a stated purpose, nor (b) a clear agenda, as it is well documented and agreed upon by most leadership teams that the absence of this intentional thinking costs companies upwards of billions of dollars every year [insert link to most recent source]. If you wish for me to attend, please send a second invitation with this information clearly stated so I can accurately estimate the value of my attendance.
There's something about how other designers' work can be brashly evaluated in under 140 characters that has been bothering me for a while now. Anyone who knows me agrees I'm not the warmest person; yet, the lack of empathy and the lack of basic politeness leaves me uneasy.
I had the overwhelming honor of speaking at Webshaped in Helsinki this year. I had a fantastic time in a beautiful city, and I was sad to leave. As I waited in the airport, I noticed these huge stickers on the floor:
I followed them, and sure enough I was led to a big, open room filled with chairs designed by various Finns. Weird, wonderful inventions. “SIT DOWN; SEIZE THE MOMENT” is plastered on the wall. I’m too afraid to actually sit on account of the security guards, so I continue to admire from a safe distance.
At the back of the room is a board filled with the profiles of the designers, as well as headphones dangling from the ceiling. But they weren't headphones at all—they were ear protectors. The idea was to take these ear protectors, go and sit down and just enjoy the deafening silence. It’s wonderful that something like this exists in an airport, or anywhere at all.
I turn around and notice one last thing—hundreds of sticky notes on a far wall. I walk up. They’re from the people who sat and listened to the silence. Tales of their experience. I looked over all the strange messages on the wall, and one in particular stood out to me.
Life is just beautiful.
I told this to a friend and she put it into the words I was struggling to find:
Life has such an awesome way of reminding us of these things. Like it’s rewarding us for paying attention. The most beautiful user-experience.
Put down your phone every once in a while. Always look up. Follow suspicious signs.
Today, I’m taking my nephew to the zoo. We’re going to feed the soulful, friendly giraffes and there are some young lion pups too. My favorite creatures are the anteaters and the huge tortoises. Then we’ll go sit in the aviary and listen to the shrieks of the beautiful, diverse birds in all their colorful glory.
What does this have to do with doing great design work? Getting off the computer and into the world—interacting with the happiness of achild among animals, sounds, smells and rich environments are all part of refreshing ourselves as well as inspiring us through the sensory joy of simply being.
So do yourself a favor this week. Get offline and go do something that’s colorful, smelly, silly and joyous!
My kids are sometimes confused when using the Web to do their homework, as sometimes (often!) two sites will disagree or have conflicting “facts”. It’s a good lesson for them that what we used to call the Information Superhighway is really a communication superhighway.
It’s good for us to remember that, too, as we finesse our design or finesse our APIs: all the design, all the tech is merely a vehicle for communication. That’s what we’re building.
The web makes being a creator easier than ever before. Creators of digital things need no raw materials and no expensive machinery to get started. A computer, an idea, some talent and hard work can turn out a product that makes the lives and businesses of thousands of people better.
Many of the products, services and websites I use in the course of my work are created by individuals and small teams. I didn’t give this a lot of thought until we became a small software vendor with the launch of our product Perch in 2009. When you make a thing that other people use; you really care about your product and the experience people have with it. I can’t stress enough how happy a positive bit of feedback can make you. Equally, a harsh review from a frustrated user can feel devastating.
Armed with this knowledge I try to remember to tell makers when I love their product, rather than just assuming my continued use shows that I am happy. I also try to phrase criticism in a way that is constructive, kind and helpful. We often find that our greatest fans are our toughest critics. They love the product and want us to continue improving it and their suggestions often go into the product. Makers want your feedback as well as your praise.
Have a look at the products and services you use. Which are made by individuals or small teams? Which of them would you really miss if they disappeared? Have you ever dropped the maker a note via email or Twitter to say how much you love using their work? If not, why not do that today?
Remember how cool it was when you first learned how to tween objects in Flash? That’s how I feel about using CSS transitions with hovers. It’s my favorite thing about the web right now, which is why this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it or talked about it . I just can’t seem to get enough of the awesomeness that we are applying to our links. From subtle color changes as seen on the links of Owltastic to more apparent size changes, such as the ones I recently worked on for the Online Music Awards, there are a plethora of enhancements we can add to our styles. When done with the audience in mind, they can add just the right amount of fun and class to your interactions. And don’t we all know if there’s anything the internet needs more of (besides kittens), it’s class.
When I say web…
As might be apparent by now, I try to think a lot about where the web is now, but also where it is going (which really boils down to the question “what is the web anyway?” in a lot of ways).
So I'm always interested in exploring new devices, ways of interacting, both in practice and in theory.
What’s interesting in these conversations is often very experienced technologists think of the web and the browser more or less interchangeably. Which constrains the possibilities of the web as a medium tremendously.
In a similar vein, just as it has been for the last decade or more, indeed since the web transitioned from an academic tool to a more popular medium in the mid 1990s, our focus on what the web is, and might be, is typically almost entirely visual.
Of course this is a fundamental aspect of the web, but the web is not exclusively a visual medium. Nor is it exclusively a human-driven medium. Increasingly our interactions with the web are, and will be, passive (as I discussed in my first Pastrybox entry back in January). Indeed, increasingly it won’t be humans, but our built environment, our buildings and vehicles, the environment itself, that drives the web.
So when you think of the web, when you talk about the web, train yourself to go beyond fonts and colors and responsiveness.
Play with some of the emerging low-cost, easy to program sensor devices like Ninja Blocks, Twine, and others. Investigate the APIs that are in mobile devices, accessible to web developers via phoneGap, or on platforms like Windows8, and RIM's TabletOS and upcoming BB10 phone OS.
When I say web, I’m not 100% sure what I mean, but I know it goes far beyond the browser.
I always find it hard to explain in a practical way how I choose and apply colors in a design. To me it has a lot to do with intuition; a feeling that certain colors go well together and others don’t. It’s a very subjective matter, and who am I to say that, for example, a certain type of soft brown in combo with a flashy red doesn’t work well.
There isn’t a magical formula that explains how to choose the right colors. I’m not a believer in strict rules when it comes down to design, because there is always a lot of grey area in this matter. I think it’s mostly about seeing what works and what doesn’t. Tools like Adobe Kuler, or the colors in my Inspiration Gallery can help in seeing what works together and what doesn’t. It’s something that comes with trial & error. I never know upfront if the colors I have in my mind will work well together. I usually do the test by looking at it from a distance. I enlarge the design, making it as big as possible on my screen, and I step away to look at it from a distance of 3 meters. A lot of times I feel I need to change certain colors, because it didn’t seem to work very well in combination with the other colors. Sometimes it’s just lack of contrast, or it feels as if it’s out of sync with the others. It basically comes down to feeling what looks good, and what doesn’t. Studying how others apply color also helps in becoming better at it.
There’s no reason why anyone should have to wait more than 24 hours for the money you owe them, especially people you work with. So the next time you receive an invoice from a contractor or supplier, pay it right away. Don’t wait a month, a week, a day or even an hour longer than you have to. Better still, find out how to pay them before they start any work. That way you can pay them immediately when you receive their invoice. They’ll feel good and so will you.