Frances Berriman

Frances Berriman is a London-based front-end developer, where she currently works for the Government Digital Service building their new single domain site. Prior to that she served as a senior web developer at BBC and Nature Publishing Group. She is one of the people behind microformats.org, a former editor at Digital Web Magazine, and a contributor to 24 ways.

You can read her posts on her blog and see her tweet as @phae.

Published Thoughts

After a year of reading small gems of opinion from the bakers, the main point that sticks for me is how much of the advice on here is timeless. It’s good to feel that we’re in a phase where we’re collectively able to look beyond our current limits and products and start to see the long term story.

Technologies and capabilities will change, the devices we build for are as of yet unimagined, but the desire and need to make products and services for people that make their lives easier, better or more fun will always stick around and should be at the heart of what we’re doing as makers.

After the launch of www.gov.uk, the coverage we were most excited about was that in the printed press, particularly those found in glossy design magazines. This is not to say that we didn’t have any other kind of press online, just that this was a particular type that seemed to garner the most respect, despite our remit being “digital by default”.

Be it an article in a magazine or a complete, published, book, many of us are still swayed to believe that the printed medium is somehow better, more tangible and respectable.  That an author has more of value to say if it’s printed on paper rather than accessible purely digitally. Why is this?  Is it not part of our remit as digital citizens to encourage less wasteful and informationally accurate consumerism?

Printing digitally comes with so many benefits: you can update information with corrections, annotations, further information.  Digital can be interactive, more easily shared and produced in a wider number of languages more easily. It can take unusual forms, and it can be more accessible. Yet still, many of us are excited or prefer a physical book, fixed in time and would consider the printed version superior.

Is it the additional effort associated with physical print that gives it its significance?  Something that cost more money to produce, could last longer, can be touched and shared, and is not necessarily “of web”. How or will we recreate these properties of value in digital medium, or will the special place that paper holds for many of us eventually disappear naturally?

This month, our team did the first non-beta release of our new site,www.gov.uk.

We’ve been very careful to refer to it as a release, rather than alaunch. Launching insinuates a thing is done—that we’ve set our boat off to sail and don’t intend to think about it again. A launch succeeds or fails, with not a lot in between. However, it’s not until after a launch that our real users get to be onboard and find all the snags and pitfalls. Those are the people we’ve been spending so much time thinking about—it’s short-sighted of us to imagine that we’d be able to guess how they’ll inevitably be using the site in anger.

User testing can only get so far and now we’re excited to learn how the rest of the world reacts to our release so we can improve in the next one.

If you’re feeling like you’re having a down day at work — everything seems mundane, ordinary, unexciting, or you don’t know why you’re there — explain what you do to someone. Tell them about what you’re building, why it matters and what makes it a challenge. Why did you join up and what are the big-picture outcomes?

If explaining what you do doesn’t instantly lift your mood and make you excited about creating things, maybe it is time to dust off the CV.

My dad emailed me over the weekend, to ask if I’d seen lingscars.com. He wasn’t sure what to make of it—should he laugh or despair? I, of course, had seen it before. Phil Hawksworthuses it in his talks where he discusses over-using bells and whistles, and being careful using piles of JavaScript.

I emailed my dad back, and told him that yes, it’s done the rounds, and yes it’s still successful. It struck me that it didn’t actually matter what I thought past that though—it’s awful in an aesthetic sense, but so what? It clearly gets them business. In the same week, I’d come across something I hadn’t seen in a while—because I have Flash disabled—a website with music! It was using <audio>. Infuriating, because that’s exactly the sort of feature I disliked about the “old” web and was blocking for, and it was back using modern, better, technologies—but what did I really expect would happen? That website creators across the internet would simultaneously stop wanting jingles on their website just because we’d switched the technology on them?

We might be pushing out proprietary technologies like Flash, replacing them with the open web-friendly options like video, audio and WebGL, but we’re not changing expectations from users about how websites should actually look and behave—what’s annoying, what teaches users to be fooled, what puts them off, what’s fun. The question for me is really will this class of website, like Ling’s Cars, always exist and will we always just write them off without learning about why they still work for a large set of our audiences?

Here in the UK, summer has been cancelled and we’re awaiting the hoards for the Olympics in a couple of weeks. It struck me that it’s the perfect time to take a break—and I mean a real one—and escape the slightly disappointing condition of the climate here. Which is exactly what I did, and just got back from my first trip to a foreign land in a long while that didn’t involve also intending a conference. And it was great—I feel refreshed, focussed and significantly more enthused about the work I was doing before I left.

I think those of us who are enthusiastic about our jobs, and consider ourselves “lifestyle nerds” rarely stop and do something unrelated to our work, often spending free time reading on-topic, at conferences, or working on side projects. We tend to consider just “not being in the office” as enough, and consider that alone to be the same as taking abreak.

So, other than gloating about being away, my recommendation is to go outside and forget about the internet. It’ll still be here when you get back.

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.

My colleague and friend, James Weiner, brought to my attention this fascinating read from IBM: Designing for Usability. I think what's most interesting about it is how sound the advice is some 30 years later, and also their conclusion that what may seem like common sense is not always intuitive. I think it's worth challenging your own views and critiquing whether you really do always follow your own best advice.

I'm continually surprised by those that tout their "user-centred" design approach, when it comes to developing digital services. Who else is there to design for, if not the users?

"UX" as a single person's role strikes me as a red herring. User experience is everyone's job to get right -- from making sure servers respond quickly to having buttons that seem tangible and copy that's understandable. "Good UX" should be a core competency within every team member.

Various debates this last fortnight, particularly around vendor prefixing and using other work in progress features, reminded me of the importance of testing in my workflow. Working to make your users get the best experience possible is still paramount. The only way to succeed in doing this is to understand what they see, and then fix and enhance accordingly. I've seen mentions of cross-browser testing missing from many of the arguments, and blindly using prefixes more or less encouraged.

If you're not noticing the lack of a prefixed property, where one is available in a browser your site has visitor stats for and a commitment to support, I'm guessing you're not looking very hard at all in those browsers. They probably have more fundamental problems than a few missing rounded corners. Worse still, if you're not testing thoroughly, using a vendor's work in progress, unfinished, unstandardised feature could make your site behave poorly in ways you can't foresee. Using a prefix for a certain vendor should be an automatic commitment on your part to check what that prefixed effect actually looks like in those browsers that understand it.

One of the reasons I enjoy what I do for a living, is it feels as though we're in an industry where we're still exploring and working out what we want. We get to define the technology, approach and ethos of what we do in a raw sense, from language design, browser features, scalability or user experience. You name it! Because we probably haven't yet. We should feel privileged to do what we do while we still don't know exactly what it is we're doing.

We're not just building throw-away websites, we're building an entire way of working from the ground up, and we all still get a say in what that looks like. It's pretty exciting, don't you think?