Quartz sums up several interviews that Sir Tim Berners-Lee is giving this week. The web’s daddy is a little disappointed in how things are turning out. Berners-Lee specifically calls out three ways that the web isn’t living up to its ideals:
Advertising’s pernicious effect on the news
Social networks ignoring their responsibility to the truth
Online privacy is a “human right” that’s being trampled
At mobiForge, Ronan Cremin surveys the last two decades of mobile web technology, from WAP to i-mode to responsive web design to Googleâs AMP platform. This long-view perspective reveals responsive web design to be a possible detour from an otherwise steady march of technologies that fork mobile into its own codebase, âthe mobile website.â
With AMP, Ronan suggests weâve kinda come full circle.
And thus here we are, WAP to the future, in a place
that looks remarkably like where we started out in
the 1990s, with many prominent websites now separately
delivering made-for-mobile experience to mobile devices,
be it AMP or Instant Articles. Given that there are
already one billion AMP pages itâs probably safe to
say that there is more mobile-specific content out
there now than at the height of the m-dot era.
The ostensible driver behind every one of the mobile-specific platforms is performance. They all serve a separate set of code because mobile gadgets and their networks are slower than other devices.
These platforms force the business decisions that publishers apparently wonât make on their own.
So it seems that performance is less the âdriverâ than the passenger when deciding to adopt these platforms. I totally agree with Ronan that the decision to adopt platforms like AMP and Facebook Instant Articles is largely about SEO, not performance:
Some will fret about splitting the web and say that
we have regressed, but on the other hand we now have
some really fast mobile sites that reach more devices
and lower-end devices than ever before. Could we have
done this without AMP or Instant Articles? Yes, of
course. But we wouldnât haveâand despite swathes of
evidence pointing to the importance of page speedâwe
didnât. Instead we got relentlessly heavier and slower.
Which is betterâa web with adaptively-served formats
or an abandoned web? Are AMP et al the ârightâ way
to fix the problem? Probably not, but itâs working
and no other solution is getting any traction. It seems that
it takes SEO pressure from Google to instigate change.
So weâre getting performant sites that publishers didnât otherwise have the gumption to build themselves. Thatâs good, for sure. But at what cost?
Among several worrying things about AMP and the other new platform-hosted platforms is exactly that: theyâre platform hosted. It feels like a monopoly grab, strongly biased by the ad-driven business models of Google and Facebook. Publishers are giving up some agency and even their URLs, which is dangerous. (Iâm sure there are many folks at these platforms who are earnestly all about improving performance and user experience, but once all this content is absorbed into big platforms, Iâm not convinced that good things will follow.)
But also, yeah, Iâm one of the people Ronan mentions who âfret about splitting the web.â Iâd hate to see us adopt the retrograde idea that the mobile web experience should be less than the ârealâ web experience on the desktop. If anything, traffic tells us that the mobile experience is now the real one. Better, however, to create most experiences (and certainly publishing/media sites) as device agnostic. Thatâs a core principle of the web: it doesnât care what device you bring to it. Everyone is welcome.
Here we go again
Separate website vs single responsive design is an old argument, and I think the ârightâ thing to do is still what I suggested back when I wrote this in 2011 in Responsive Web Design or Separate Mobile Site? Eh. It Depends.Default to a single responsive site unless you have such unique opportunities or constraints that the mobile site is effectively a different application:
The bottom line is whether youâre really talking about the same website in the first place. Depending on what youâre building, a mobile website could be an entirely different animal than its desktop counterpart, addressing entirely different needs. The simple thing to remember is that layoutâ content. Great designs require considerable attention to both. Responsive web design cannot dictate content strategy, nor vice versa.
The case for making a separate websiteâfor any platformâis when you have an opportunity to make something that is more than and qualitatively differently from what you might make for other platforms. Thatâs usually a rare case; in most cases, a healthy dollop of progressive enhancement does the trick. (Progressive enhancement is not always easy to do, as Ronan points out, but then again, thatâs why weâre all paid the big bucks: to shoulder hard work on behalf of the best possible product.)
The troubling thing, though, is that none of these elements seem to be key factors for publishers in deciding whether to adopt AMP for mobile devices. Itâs not about user stories, device capabilities, developer effort, or building the right product. Itâs about SEO.
Yet again, ad-driven business models warp decisions to the detriment of the underlying product.
In that way, at least, this isnât a âback to the futureâ story. All of the past mobile-platform efforts were at least developed and adopted with the goal of providing the best possible experience to mobile users. With platforms like AMP, that goal seems to be secondary.
No matter what platform you choose, letâs at least carry forward the learnings and principles weâve taken from the last few years or responsive design. Ronan rounds em up:
Donât limit the choices available to mobile devices.
Responsiveness is a good thing.
You canât assume context from device.
Device-specific URLs are a bad thing.
Smartphones and mobile networks arenât as fast as you think.
Need help sorting out your mobile experience? We can help! Big Medium specializes in multiplatform design. Get in touch for an executive session, workshop, or design engagement.
At The Outline, Hanson O’Haver bemoans the abusive state of web design: popovers, auto-play videos, ads that crowd out content, swarms of cynical dark patterns:
You’ll notice that these problems with web design are mostly found on websites that depend on traffic and advertising. You don’t see these issues on Amazon, Google, or Facebook, which are constantly — if not always successfully — trying to redesign to make their sites easier and more pleasant to use. These companies are focused on maximizing eyeballs, which means any aesthetic improvements that don’t directly boost traffic are not a priority.
The piece gives a shout to our work at About.com (now Dotdash), where we designed several verticals and purposely “de-monetized” them—industryspeak for pulling out all those hideous ads. The result was a better user experience for readers (duh), but also a better experience for advertisers. When we pulled out the Outbrain/Taboola links, the crummy text links, and the zillion low-grade banner ads, the remaining ads got stronger placements, crafted to fit the design organically.
And get this: revenue is up because the sites have fewer ads. “The sales teams’ phones are ringing off the hook,” About CEO Neil Vogel tells us. Advertisers want more of this. They want more of less. Just like the rest of us. Everyone wins.
Too many sites let advertising corrupt their product, poisoning not only user experience but also the editorial (clickbait). Our recent work tells us it doesn’t have to be that way.
(The Outline also quotes Brad and links to his Death to Bullsh*t project, which demonstrates a fine collection of truly awful ad-driven dark patterns.)
Is your media company struggling with balancing revenue and user experience? We can totally help you with that. Get in touch for a workshop, executive session, or design engagement.
There’s a sweet spot for great pilot candidates after
planning for the pilot has begun but before it gets
designed or built. If a product isn’t far enough along
in planning, we likely don’t know enough about it to
say whether it’ll make for a good pilot or not. But
if it’s already in the process of being created or
recreated, it’s probably too far along to be able
to integrate parts—read: component design, patterns,
and/or working code—from the design system without
some amount of reffactor, which teams in need of a design
system often can’t afford.
Once we find some good potential candidates in that
sweet spot, there’s a set of criteria we use to determine
a pilot’s potential efficacy.
Dan offers up practical foundational metrics for comparing project candidates, and you can of course supplement them with your own.
Dan, Brad, and I have begun to use this scorecard approach in our latest large-scale design-system project. Giving project candidates a hard score makes them easier to discuss inside a large organization. Scorecards like this are portable and provide apples-to-apples comparisons for projects that are often very different in substance or complexity.
In the Dubai of 2050, the world looks both instantly familiar and utterly strange. Here, urban planning is driven by an omniscient AI installed at the top of a skyscraper; your smart bathroom mirror tracks your physical health; and you interface with the government through a personalized “genie,” a hologram in the form of a virtual Emirati gentleman in traditional garb.
This is the work of the design-futures agency Tellart—specifically, their giant-scale installation at United Arab Emirates’ annual government summit. They call it the Museum of Future Government Services. The job is to construct a working, immersive prototype of a possible future.
Chayka categorizes Tellart’s work as design fiction, but that dramatically understates the scale and ambition of work like the Dubai project. The installation is an almost-nostalgic return to the spirit of the last century’s World’s Fairs.
Over the past couple of years, I’ve had occasional conversations with Paul Skinner and Christian Ervin, two of the designers of the project. I’ve been impressed by both the POV of the project and the academic rigor with which its trends are explored. (Check out Christian’s 2017 talk from Interaction and Paul’s 2015 talk from push.conference—both about this project. Seriously, gentlemen, when do we get to work together?)
It turns out the Museum of Future Government Services is a bonafide UX research study, albeit pumped up on steroids. Its exhibits are not the answer to how the future might look, but the opening question.
Tellart proposes that perhaps the best way to test out future paths is to go ahead and build them—and see what happens. Rather than being prescriptive of how things should be, they basically create a life-size usability lab to test what happens for things that might be. How do government officials respond to them? How do citizens? They lay out possible threads to the future and then tug on them.
Some of the ideas are delightful, others creepy, some downright horrifying. There’s a sense of humor throughout. The goal is to find a path that dances what turns out to be a surprisingly fine line between dystopia and utopia.
“Is this is a world where collapse happened, or a world where transformation happened, or growth?” [Tellart co-founder Matt Cottam] asks. Clients might pose a product or a problem, but Tellart brings in teams of outside consultants, from architects to futurists and sci-fi novelists, for world-building and selecting a relevant situation to simulate. You’re dealing with a robo-nurse at the emergency room of an automated hospital, say, or your self-driving car is running late to work and has to dodge traffic. Finally there’s the physical stuff, the kitsch and junk of the future that make the theoretical world realistic and give visitors cues on how to behave in it. Every detail must be considered.
As a design industry, we need more exploration like this at scales both large and small. We tend to plunge ahead without testing the waters. Few designers have the opportunity to tinker with prototypes at this scale, but all of us can do smaller versions in our own research practice. In my own work I try to build lots of little “what if” prototypes to gauge response, utility, and cultural impact. Splashing in puddles helps us test whether our ideas will tip into the utopian or dystopian side of the line.
In its client work, Tellart has effectively found patrons to fund its exploration of the future at grand scale. Doing this kind of work for clients, of course, necessarily changes the outcome. And there are always ethical decisions in the clients you choose. The UAE has a rough record on human rights, and it’s not exactly the world’s most democratic society. Chayka’s piece explores this effectively.
Then again, Tellart influenced the client—a country whose entire economy is based on oil proceeds—to take on climate change as its focus this year, though Chayka is skeptical that it has much bite. “In this future, the money from oil has solved all the problems that oil dependency creates — thanks to technology, the desert becomes a permanent oasis. Tellart’s work reassures its viewers that the environment is an issue that will simply be fixed one day, through no effort on their part.”
Tellart’s worldview, though, is that if you can at least suggest it will be fixed, we make actually find the steel to fix it:
The 2017 exhibition was a “reframing of climate change so it’s not seen as something that we can’t get control of, that’s beyond our capabilities,” Scappaticci says. “Here’s a version of our future in which we’ve come together, we’ve solved these problems, and we’re more in harmony with the world,” presenting the possibility of a solution so we don’t have to, say, give up and move to Mars. Tellart’s boutique futurism is ultimately an optimistic one, motivated by a belief that, with funding from its clients, we can tweak the incipient future simply by envisioning it.
Are you sorting out what the future looks like for your organization? Big Medium does ideation workshops and executive sessions to help companies figure out what’s next. Get in touch.
What could pass for a dystopian vision of the workplace
is almost routine at the Swedish start-up hub Epicenter.
The company offers to implant its workers and start-up
members with microchips the size of grains of rice
that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate
printers or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand.
biggest benefit, I think, is convenience,” said Patrick
Mesterton, co-founder and chief executive of Epicenter.
As a demonstration, he unlocks a door merely by waving
The familiar trade-off: convenience in exchange for our data.
This kind of exchange can be mutually beneficial when the scope is constrained and the use is transparent. Disney’s wildly popular Magic Bands, for example, have a specific scope and context, the grounds of the resort. And the company is extremely clear about how the bands work and how the information will be used.
When that information gets murkier, things can quickly go sideways—it’s not clear to what end or to whose benefit this data will be used. What am I actually paying in exchange for the magic trick of opening workplace doors with a wave of my hand? Who’s watching and why?
While mouseketeers may be happy to wear Disney’s Magic Bands, would they be as happy if asked to wear them by their government? Or their boss? I guess this Epicenter experiment will let us know just how much of ourselves we’ll give up for simple conveniences.
“People ask me, ‘Are you chipped?’ and I say, ‘Yes, why not?’” said Fredric Kaijser, the 47-year-old chief experience officer at Epicenter. “And they all get excited about privacy issues and what that means and so forth.”
If you’d like to turn off the LED light on your eero,
you can do so either through the eero application or
through the Amazon Alexa skillset.
I love this so much. As more and more of our physical objects light up with digital smarts, they’re lighting up literally, too—and often somewhat gratuitously. Every new gadget seems to impose bright, flashing lights on our living rooms, bedrooms, and offices.
Kudos to eero for offering a software setting to give users back control of their physical environment. Looking forward to the moment when “Alexa, ask eero to turn off the LED” evolves into “Alexa, ask the house to turn off all LEDs.”
50 Cent, Aerosmith, Snoop Dogg and Kiss have all deputized chatbots as their automatic, ever-alert greeters on Facebook Messenger, handling the flood of inquiries that would overwhelm any human.
Three things stuck out to me as interesting signals here:
Chat is emerging as a distribution channel. Bands are using chat to share pre-release clips of singles. (“Based on the data we’re seeing, it’s not crazy to think that a year from now it’s going to be [the music industry’s] No. 1 distribution channel,” according to Matt Schlicht, CEO of chatbot-builder Octane AI.)
Bots are moving beyond transactions and broadcast/marketing to start to manage common fan communications. (“Chris Mortimer, the head of digital marketing at Interscope, said Messenger was now a critical way for his artists to reach their fans. ‘Right now, a Facebook Messenger inbox is what an email inbox was before the spammers got to it,’ he said.”)
Bots may have even more promise as proxies for people than for brands/services. The emotional connection some fans feel with these bots is remarkable.
That last point reminds me of Rafał Cymerys’s experiments with automating his friends on Slack: “Behind most automated messages there’s a real person. Why not make it clear from the start? This will give the recipient a reference to a real person.” This approach may have legs beyond entertainment stars.
Cultivating this hero-by-proxy approach in bots relies on voice and tone that is true to the person (and personality) you’re “automating.” Which brings me to my favorite line of the Times piece:
Not all celebrity bots are quite up to the level of verbal verisimilitude, however. Aerosmith’s, for example, responds to virtually every inquiry with “Rock on.”
Exactly 40 years ago, Christopher Alexander’s book A Pattern Language kicked off the whole idea of design patterns. Erin Malone steps back to show how just how far we’ve come. Her timeline traces the path to modern design systems and style guides. (Fun to see my pal and collaborator Brad Frost given such a prominent place in the recent history of all this.)
It’s important to not forget about the explorations
and experiments and hard work that many people did
(in their companies and on their own time) to share
their knowledge and to advance the conversations and
the practice of user experience design. Without this
work, no one today would be so easily accepting of
the need for a robust style guide that contains interactions
Today we wonder how you could work (particularly in
the enterprise with hundreds of scattered designers)
In many ways, Alexa is the progeny of ELIZA. The way
it interacts with people is much more sophisticated
than the teleprinter-fed program that communicated
through a disassembling and reassembling of its users’
words, but the overall intended effect is still the
same. Both programs are meant to interact with users
in a way that’s supposed to elicit feelings of comfort
and intimacy within the user.
It strikes me that purposeful efforts to create a genuine emotional connection can backfire when they’re even a few degrees off. Here at home, our Echo has a 80–90% success rate understanding our daughter and me. But it never understands my wife Liza. An emotional connection has been made, for sure: Alexa annoys the hell out of Liza.
A voice UI that doesn’t understand your voice is frustrating. An affection UI that inspires anger is doubly so.
I tapped a link in the Twitter app, which showed as
google.co.uk/amp/s/www.rt.c…, got a page in Twitter’s
in-app webview, where the visible URL bar displays
the reassuring google.co.uk. But this is actually
content from Russia Today, an organisation 100% funded
by the Russian government and classified as propaganda
by Columbia Journalism Review
and by the former US Secretary of State.
Google are allowing RT to get away
with zero branding, and are happily distributing the
content to a mass audience.
This is not OK. This is catastrophic.
Betts is talking about content cached by Google’s AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) platform. While the goal of the platform is ostensibly to speed delivery of pages, it also serves those pages from a Google URL. With the URL spoofed, the origin of the content is hard to discern. This “recklessly devalues the URL,” Betts writes, and makes AMP an attractive petri dish for fake news:
If the world’s biggest content discovery and delivery platforms
prioritise security, performance and popularity, over authenticity,
evidence and independence, well, the likely result is an exponential
rise of simplistic, populistic thinking, inevitably spreading and
amplifying until false beliefs become tacitly accepted as facts.
… [W]e need a much stronger focus on authenticity as a strong ranking signal.
This is not only critical to avoid potentially huge societal implications of
bad decision making, but also cultivates better content by improving incentives for creators.
Technology decisions in AMP are affecting far more than page speeds, aggravating what I consider to be one of the big civic crises of our times: the erosion of trust in the fourth estate. At the very least, let’s protect the URL as citation and origin model.
Another day, another hacked dishwasher. Miele’s internet-connected dishwasher is vulnerable to an attack that could allow hackers to take control of the network and make a mess well beyond the kitchen. While the security problem is bad enough, Hackaday points out there’s no good way to address it:
The problem is, a dishwasher is not a computer. Unlike Microsoft,
or Google, or even the people behind VLC, Miele donât
have infrastructure in place to push out an update
to dishwashers worldwide. This means that as it stands,
your only real solutions are to either disconnect the
dishwasher from your network, or lock it behind a highly
restrictive firewall. Both are likely to impede functionality.
While poor security is already becoming a hallmark of internet-of-things gadgets, the lack of a plan for fixing inevitable problems is even more concerning. It suggests a vacuum of care not only for customer experience but for sustainability of the product. Sending your dishwasher to the landfill for a software bug shouldn’t be part of the product lifecycle.
First, Andy Clarke said web style guides should be more stylish. Then Jeremy Keith said beauty is in the eye of the beholder; the design and style should suit the audience.
Now Brad Frost adds to the exchange by suggesting that there may be more than one audience for a design system’s style guide. If establishing consensus is a key goal of a design system (and it should be), then its style guide should welcome a big, broad group:
A style guide has the opportunity to serve as a watering
hole for the entire organization, helping establish
a common vocabulary for every discipline invested in
the success of the company’s digital products. Establishing
this common vocabulary can lead to more efficient work,
better communication, and more collaboration between
disciplines across the organization. That’s why the
style guide should be an inviting place for everybody,
not just [core] design system users.
Amen. As the front door to the design system, this reference site should be at once approachable, practical, and yeah, even a little inspiring for the whole organization. That can happen over time; get it out there, refine it, and help your organization to shape it to its disparate needs.
That’s a pretty good triangulation among the three points of views here. The one thing I’d also add: style guides are ideally built out of their own components, guidelines, and design principles. They should be not only a container for the design system, but a living demonstration of it. It should be exactly as stylish as the underlying system.