We can divide well-done design projects into a discovery phase (where we explore the boundaries of the problem we’re trying to solve), an exploration phase (where we toy with different possible solutions), and a refinement phase (where we choose a direction and fill out the details). Not everyone does design projects well, but the folks who do end up following these three phases. The ones who don’t, well, they skip one or more of these stages then regret it later.
Or, as Leisa would say, “trust the process”. You won’t have all the answers at the beginning. But if you trust the process, you’ll get to them in the end.
“Not drinking tea and not having cream on cream teas reduces the day to day hassle, stress and confusion of living in Devon by approximately 90%”—Barnaby Walters reflects on conversations at an Exeter Web meetup.
Working in Harmony: Links and further reading from my talk
My talk at Port80 2013 riffed on the theme of the parallels between music and the web, and why music offers often better analogies, especially when considering workflow and collaboration, than traditional print design. Here are the slides, playlist and suggestions for further reading.
Dave Shea, 10 Years, mezzoblue, 7 May 2013 Dave relaunches the Zen Garden for the HTML5 era
Stuff I don’t necessarily entirely agree with, but that forms the context for some of the points made.
Mark Boulton, A New Canon, 9 Dec 2012 Owen Gregory takes issue with Mark’s argument that on the web “there is no page” in his Antiphonal Geometry talk
Rachel Lovinger, The Nimble Report, Razorfish, 2010 "it’s more structure that makes content nimble and sets it free" - remains one of the key references when arguing for greater structure beyond simple HTML in content authoring
Cennydd Bowles, What Bugs Me About “Content Out”, 20 Nov 2011 Although Cennydd is also making the content+design=meaning argument, I’d take issue with the idea that “content out” disregards the influence of design on meaning
Jeffrey Veen, The Art & Science of Web Design, 2000 I quote from Veen’s earlier Hotwired Stylebook in the presentation, but this is a better overview of the history of the web and where we were c. 2000
John Allsopp, A Dao of Web Design,A List Apart, 7 April 2000 A lot of people are quoting this when discussing responsive design. It’s worth reading the whole thing to see how far we’ve come
I’ve spent the last three months working with University of Surrey’s Digital team, wrangling* a team of freelancers, contractors and in-house designers, developers and writers to deliver what must be - if we do say so ourselves - the most radical and innovative HE website in the UK right now. Here’s the story of the Big Launch, as it unfolded on Twitter:
Is a lack of great writing why advertising isn't working?
Dear Michael Wolff,
You are right. Advertising needs good writers. Like you, I get frustrated by bad writing. I get frustrated when my clients care more about how their stuff looks, than whether the words are right. I get frustrated with the ‘communication professionals’ my clients hire, whose job it is to sell stuff and sell it through words, seem so bad at them.
(In no particular order because I’m busy, which means, as I’ll tangentially explain, that I do not have time to write something great for you.)
A lack of good writing isn’t why advertising isn’t working anymore, though I expect it isn’t helping.
Writing well is hard and takes more time than people think. If people can communicate their ideas faster and more effectively through a powerpoint slide than a memo, perhaps they should.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t times when conveying ideas through the written word wouldn’t be superior. If only people were able to express those ideas well in words. Which often they aren’t.
Writing is not “print”.
Facebook is writing. Twitter is writing. Good writers thrive there. Brevity is the soul of wit and all that. You don’t get much briefer than 140 characters. Just ask @stephenfry. Maybe all the good writers are too busy updating their Twitter accounts and getting rich self-publishing to take the advertising shilling? (No, probably not. But I digress…)
Content isn’t just words. Photos are content. Visuals are content. Video is content. This often involves words even if they aren’t expressed as blocks of letters.
Steve Jobs was a Great Man, but that doesn’t mean he was universally right about everything, in the world, ever. Maybe he was right to judge his advertising agency on the quality of their writers (I certainly would) but “Steve Jobs did it this way, so it must be the right way” is ridiculous. And getting tiresome.
I love words, but I’m not sure “text-heavy copy” is ever necessary. Did I mention brevity is the soul of wit? The mark of great writing is usually fewer words. (Just as great code is often less code.)
The most powerful ideas are those that are simply expressed. Nike “Just Do It”. BMW “The Ultimate Driving Machine”. The genius here is not really the writing, but the process of boiling down the mess of brand and message and desire to its simplest possible expression. That’s what great writers do. And that takes a lot of time, and you don’t have much to show for it. What? three words, maybe four. How long can it take to write four words? I can type 60 words in a minute…
Dangerous, in a world where the value of your job may be measured by volume (like the programmer, judged on how many lines of code she commits a day) and you can’t measure a slogan’s impact in Facebook likes.
Which doesn’t leave much room for those who stare out the window all day, in search of just the right four words.
Which leads me to think…
Perhaps the problem is really, as you say, that “the bureaucrats have taken over from the creatives”. In that world of big data, creative work is being judged on quantitative metrics. “If you can’t measure it, how do you know it’s working?” is becoming “it can’t be working if we can’t measure it”. Dangerous.
Is that why advertising isn’t working anymore?
Perhaps it never did and now we just know it, thanks to the bureaucrats metrics?
I suspect we just don’t like adverts that much. I suspect we never did. We just didn’t have much else to look at during a three minute break in Coronation Street. There was an opportunity for a great piece of creative advertising to grab us. But there is so much amazing creativity out there now. And it is so easily accessible. Even during a three minute break in Coronation Street. We are no longer so thirsty for it that we will drink the sand at the end of the advertiser’s mirage. Will more, better creativity and great writing in advertising fix that, or are all the great creatives just working elsewhere, because that’s where the audience have gone?
Martin Belam reflects on the disaster area that the Olympic booking system has become, after spending many hours fruitlessly attempting to buy tickets through their convoluted, multi-step system:
> “I wonder the extent to which they tested the actual user experience of sitting in front of it for twenty or more minutes, only to have no tickets at the end. The user experience is not your beautiful design, or carefully thought through deliverables. There is a case to be made that you’d have a better user experience if the page just said “Sorry, we can’t process that request at the moment” any time the queue was over ten minutes, rather than putting you into a queue where fulfilment is unlikely.”
Which neatly ties into yesterday’s post about conceiving interfaces as sets of jobs. The user experience is the whole story not just the individual screens.
Interactive systems like websites and apps are best designed as a flow. But it is very easy to lapse back into designing them as a series of ‘moments’ made up of static screen. Wireframes and design concepts are still predominantly created as flat files. As a designer you work on one state at a time, which can lead to a kind of tunnel vision in which each screen is honed in isolation from the rest of the task flow, leading to a disjointed user experience.
Ryan Singer’s deceptively simple suggestion to combat this is to think of the interface as a set of jobs, each with a beginning, middle and end. It’s a simple concept that’s easy to grasp and to keep in mind while designing each step in that journey.
Although it’s not mentioned in Ryan’s post, I’m sure it’s no coincidence that, just like a job well-done, having a clear beginning, middle and end is also the essence of a good story. Storytelling and designing for emotion are gaining traction in interaction design. As a user, though, I find some of their manifestations crude and heavy-handed. There is a tendency to try too hard, manufacturing emotion and telling me how I should feel like some annoyingly perky user-experience cheerleader. A good storyteller doesn’t tell you how to feel and neither should a good interface. Perhaps if we craft a strong beginning, middle and end to our user interactions, by designing jobs not screens, the emotion will take care of itself.
Design the top level of your navigation in isolation. Base it on your top 20 tasks. Then test it with about 20 top task questions. Ask a minimum of 20 people what their first click would be based on the navigation you present them. You can do this manually using the simplest of wireframes.
Aim for a 90 percent first click success rate. Keep tweaking your navigation until you get that success rate…
Most of what you will be doing to improve success rate will involve changing words.
When columns and elements within them change width, all too easily a visual hierarchy can be broken and along with it the relationship between element sizes and the outer window or viewport. This can happen quickly if you make just one set of fluid grid calculations and use those percentages across every screen width, from smartphones through tablets and up to large desktops.
The answer? Make several sets of fluid grids calculations, each one at a significant window or device width breakpoint.
I hit this issue on a recent project. The fully fluid layout lost its balance as the elements compressed at smaller screen widths. It became clear that multiple design adaptations were going to be needed, each optimised for a different viewport range. The project budget didn’t allow time to craft those multiple design options. I compromised by setting a min- and max-width within which the base grid worked well, sacrificing full responsiveness. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to revisit it in the New Year and may try taking the adaptive grid approach Andy Clarke discusses here.
I’m confused. The new Google Reader is “super stark, open and clean, but is it too dull?” yet the “Clean and Simple Homepage” - which could hardly be more dull - is “still a classic”. Make up your mind Mashable.
Much of this can be ascribed to users’ well documented hatred of change. As Jakob Nielsen wrote in 2009 “Users hate change [but] in the long run, incrementalism eventually destroys cohesiveness”.
Morrisons, the UK supermarket chain, have a mobile site. So far, so good. Unfortunately their device detection is somewhat, ahem, flaky.
Here’s what it looks like on my HTC Desire S, a recent Android phone:
Let’s leave aside for a minute that that mock phone surround is pretty cheesy. The offending image, “iphone-surround.gif”, is being applied to the <body> by the stylesheet “notmobildevice.css”. Which suggests it’s intended to be loaded only if you’re not viewing on a mobile phone. Presumably to show, should you stumble across it on a desktop, that this is a mobile-specific site.
Unfortunately my small Twitterverse sample suggests whatever device detection Morrisons are using is only treating iPhones (and iPods) as mobile. On iOS the cheesy phone is mercifully absent. But iOS is only around 18% of the mobile market. So - assuming my guess is right - 82% of mobile users are getting a desktop experience in error. This is, in essence, the flaw in relying exclusively on device detection.
What Morrisons could - should - have done is use CSS media queries to load notmobiledevice.css only at larger screen sizes. Either in conjunction with their device detection or instead of it. Media queries future-proof sites against the introduction of new devices their device detection script is unaware of. Provided the new device supports CSS media queries, which new devices almost certainly will, the site owner does not need to fret about supporting every mobile device individually.
Media queries offer a flexible, reliable, future-proof method to give different styles for different screen sizes. Used well they let your site elegantly fit to any screen size in a way that is device agnostic. As mobile devices proliferate and overtake desktop internet use, as assumptions about screen size become ever more dangerous, every site will need to use them to ensure a good browsing experience for its users. I’m not against either device detection or mobile-specific sites. Both have their place. But you want to use them alongside media queries to enhance the mobile-browsing experience, not instead of them.
(As a weird ps, I’ve realised the mobile detection is even more messed up. It was capable of redirecting me to the mobile site in the first place, but then decided I wasn’t mobile after all.)
The Law of the Instrument can be seen in every web discussion forum, on sites such as Forrst and on Twitter. Ask for a CMS, blog or framework recommendation and you’ll see people immediately leap in to declare their hammer the best, without any knowledge of the requirements at hand – sometimes even when the requirements really rule out that tool from the outset
You cannot recommend a solution until you’ve identified the problem. Yet the web is awash with people pushing their favourite one-size-fits-all answers to whatever question is posed, whether a particular CMS, a certain programming language, or the latest social media cure-all. They are focused on a solution: one which works for them, one in which they are competent. Their own personal comfort zone, recommended as much for their own benefit as anyone else’s. But Twitter is not a marketing strategy, nor WordPress the only answer to web publishing.
I’m much more interested in problems, burrowing down into what’s really holding a business or organisation back and seeking out those golden nuggets, the smart ideas which are the real solutions to people’s complex, real-world problems. When someone asks for a recommendation, your first answer should be a question: what are you trying to do, what is the problem you are having, tell me more…
Two wise words on growth, making money, and funding startups
37 Signals’ David Heinemeier Hansson on his distaste for the “swing for the fences”, go bust or have lavish success, approach
I’d rather just have nice, steady, predictable growth. I believe in the beauty of compound interest. We might not be growing 2000%, but if we can just keep our nice, solid growth for a couple of years, that’ll compound to have quite an impact.
and DHH’s business partner, Jason Fried, on Making Money
There’s a fundamental difference between a bootstrapped business and a funded business. It’s all about which side of the money you’re on. From Day One, a bootstrapped business has no choice but to make money. There’s no cushion in the bank and not much in the pockets. It’s make money or go home. To a bootstrapped business, money is air.
On the other hand, from Day One, a funded business is all about spending money. There’s a pile in the bank, and it’s not there to collect interest. Your investors want you to hire, invest, and buy. There’s less—and in some cases, no—pressure to make money. While that sounds comforting, I think it ultimately hurts…
Anyone can spend money. Making it is the hard part.
‘I wish I’d written this one.’ That’s what you listen for, of course: the ultimate creative’s compliment. That potent mixture of delight and envy – and the undercurrent of anxiety that, presented with the same brief, one wouldn’t have come up with anything like as powerful a solution. (Or perhaps that’s just me.)
We were talking just last night about design critique and feedback, and how easily it becomes a fraught experience for both parties. If can be just as difficult for the client to talk about what they don’t like, as it is for the designer to hear it.
If both parties accept that, 95% of the time, any design isn’t going to be “right” yet, and treat that as a perfectly normal and natural state of things, those conversations become a lot easier. Because just cos it isn’t right yet, doesn’t mean it won’t be right when we’re finished. The design process is all about spotting what isn’t right and working out how to fix it; refining, improving, polishing and adjusting until it’s all just so.
I find it’s really easy to get into the self-blame game sometimes. The thinking goes that if only you were somehow better, bigger, higher profile, working for larger clients, working for better clients etc… etc… the problems you face as a client services business would all be fixed.
So it’s great to read articles like the latest interview with Jim Coudal on the 37 Signals blog, ‘Bootstrapped, Profitable, & Proud: Coudal’, on why he gave up first his job as creative director of a major Chicago ad agency, and then the struggle to turn his own company, Coudal Partners, into the kind of high-profile client-services agency that would “bill $20 million and win some Addy Awards”:
"I had to feed the beast. If you start adding people, then you gotta bring in more work and sometimes you gotta bring in work that you’re not particularly fond of in order to make the payroll to pay the more people that you’re hiring to do the work that you’re not particularly fond of."
I’ve said almost the exact same thing many times, to many people, about our decision to break all the business rules anyone had ever preached at us and stop trying to grow as an agency. Still I would be lying if I said I didn’t have occasional moments of nagging self-doubt that that decision wasn’t based on some personal deficiency somewhere. That if only we had been, in some indefinable way, better, the problems wouldn’t have existed. It’s reassuring to hear someone as successful as Jim Coudal give the ‘been there, tried that’ answer: no.
I had a similar moment watching, of all things, the Channel 4 series “Can Heston Save Little Chef?”. The Little Chef chain of roadside restaurants hired Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal of culinary wizardry fame to overhaul their restaurants and menu. It didn’t matter that he was a high-profile, multiply decorated, widely-recognised master of his field. The clients still wouldn’t listen.
It’s always good to be reminded. It’s not you, it’s them.
I didn’t spot this because the full URL was not visible in the search results. All the tweets use a “short URL" from one of the major URL shorteners instead of the full article link.
So that’s the mystery of the ‘irrelevant’ search results solved. They did match my search term. But only Twitter knew that.
Twitter knew? Now, that is interesting…
The interesting part of this (for a given, geek value of “interesting”) is it shows the Twitter engine tracks the full, expanded URL for shortlinks. And not just from its own native T.co service. Just on this screenshot alone we’ve got TinyURL, Ow.ly, Is.Gd and Bit.ly in addition to T.co links.
This ought to create opportunities for improving both security, and how shortlinks are shown to us, the end-users and readers.
Twitter likes to plug the safety advantages of T.co. With T.co, they tell us, Twitter can easily check the actual destination page for malware, scams and other ‘net nasties and warn you accordingly. If it’s search results are anything to go by these security features should, in theory, extend to malicious content lurking behind shortlinks from any of the major shorteners.
More interesting, though, are the user-interface possibilities. Right now there no way as a Twitter reader to see the full destination URL without clicking on the shortened link. This is a shame. We click on these links largely blind. There are some services - including from the shorteners themselves - which will preview links for you. But it involves moving away from Twitter to another tool. That’s a whole bundle of extra effort most of us won’t bother with.
"New" Twitter already uses the expanded right-hand pane to show additional information about individual tweets: who’s re-tweeted, the context of the conversation and so on. I’d love to see Twitter add full destination URLs here as part of this extra information. This would be a great tool for readers. It would protect us not just from real hard malware, but the whole specturm of undesirable content right the way down to just avoiding wasting clicks on links you’ve already visited.
More about Twitter’s URL shortening (from Twitter.com):
Brand Narrative: Every Company is a (Bad) Media Company
Companies have always created media in the form, usually, of advertising as well as corporate literature, brochures and websites. The difference now is that companies, more and more of them, are creating their own media themselves, without specialized help or resources…
Instead of hiring smart, experienced specialists to tell their stories, they are relying on pretty much anyone within the organization who knows how to Tweet…
Every company is a media company. Unfortunately, when it comes to creating their own media, most are doing a bad job.
I often meet clients who wouldn’t dream of laying-up their annual report in-house, but who are firmly wedded to the DIY principal when it comes to websites and social media. Content creation and publishing falls to in-house personnel who may have little or no editorial or marketing expertise.
But just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. Even in the brave new social media age when anyone and everyone can create and publish content online - often for free - it still makes sense to pay for professional help.
Twitter reaches people who are already significantly more engaged in online community activities (to give it the old-fashioned name) than the general Internet population:
US Twitter users in April 2010 were far more likely than general Internet users to post to forums (75% vs 25%), blog (72% vs 14%), comment on blogs (70% vs 23%) and post ratings / reviews (61% vs 20%). In other words, the 14 million odd people who regularly go on Twitter (as opposed to the 95 million that have signed up), are already active in social media
Active Twitter users are not “Joe Average” internet-user, but a specific subset of engaged, social internet users.
Twitter is not a magic bullet for reaching an otherwise unengaged audience.
[there is a] distinction between traditional music and the fairly useless catch-all term ‘folk’, which can be applied equally to singer-songwriters, acoustic rockers and solo Hebridean fiddlers, and is used gratuitously whenever the music industry wants to make a distinction between their brand of soap and the one that everyone else washes with.
Bellowhead’s Pete Flood on the point some of his more folk-orientated band-members might make about the confused and often meaningless appropriation of “Folk” as a genre label.
Jeffery Zeldman In Defense of [XHTML] Web Developers
Sanity, as ever, from Jeffrey Zeldman on the pointlessness of much of the (X)HTML 1.0/2.0/4/5 geek bun-fight:
"It has only been a few days but I am already sick of the “XHTML is bullshit, man!” crowd using the cessation of XHTML 2.0 activity to condescend to—or even childishly glory in the “folly” of—web developers who build with XHTML 1.0, a stable W3C recommendation for nearly ten years, and one that will continue to work indefinitely."