The Entropy of Intent

With the publication of his article ‘A Mathematical Theory of Information’ in 1948, a visionary mathematician and engineer named Claude Shannon all but established information theory, outlining in his paper the building blocks of digital communications.

His work introduced a contextual definition of ‘entropy’, addressing the reliability of data transfer, the conveyance of information from a source to a receiver. If ‘Shannon entropy’ was low, then the predictability of the information content was said to be high. Shannon has been credited with laying foundations that ultimately led to the creation of the world wide web itself.

The fundamental problem of communication,” Shannon put forward in his publication, “is that of reproducing at one point, either exactly or approximately, a message selected at another point. He was – and is – of course absolutely right.

However the specific challenge that Shannon was referring to was one of technology, and the need for purity of signal and removal of distortion caused by interference such as compression of data. The irony is that, in a web that is a legacy of the work of pioneers like Shannon, information entropy is less likely to be as a result of technological factors, and more a simple failing of human communication.

To put it more succinctly – it doesn’t matter how perfect data transfer is if the data itself is wrong.

In this post from last month, (echoing this piece from earlier in the year) Jeremy Keith opines that the web has drifted away from its original vision. It is lacking, states Keith, “because we shaped it that way, either through our own actions or inactions”.

A deterioration of vision or purpose due to human-related factors – the entropy of intent.

This same decay can manifest itself at a granular level in design and development projects; a deterioration of what was originally desired, intended or agreed, dissipated across meetings, through processes, sign-offs and the myriad communications that take place between various parties as a project progresses.

The idea of ‘entropy of intent’ is not referring to, for instance, constraints being applied to features or narrowing the scope of the project (both of which can actually be hugely positive moves). It may however manifest itself in other seemingly innocuous ways such as: poor copywriting; ineffective navigation and wayfinding; needless functionality. Anything in fact which distorts the communication of ideas and concepts between the source (the project team) to the receiver (end users).

Protecting intent doesn’t come under project management; it isn’t the client’s responsibility, nor specifically that of the design or development teams. Responsibility exists both within and outside the traditional project roles. More than anyone though, I believe it falls to the UX function to keep a project true to its original purpose, which will generally be  more all-embracing than the minutiae of conversions, KPIs and metrics.

Without question it takes a huge amount of effort to even articulate the central intent for a project never mind maintain focus on it. One key contribution that UX design can effectively make is firstly to identify and agree core guiding principles, and then to keep those principles in play right through to delivery. But it is a monumental challenge.

I’ve been involved in projects over the years where mere delivery was celebrated. Something that began with high aspirations and apparently clear goals became something to simply get finished and tick off a list. This is not necessarily anyone’s fault. What it means is that somewhere along the way the original vision for the project has become secondary to other priorities – sometimes this may be just getting it ‘out the door’.

Help is at hand, unsurprisingly from a fantastic and supportive UX and design community:

  • Any project comes with a brief, albeit one that might be vague or unfocused. Creating a vision though is just as important. This article from UX Magazine offers some excellent advice on creating an effective, singular vision
  • It may be the user’s intent, rather than the project’s, that requires clarification. UX Matters published The Importance of Knowing User Intent some time ago, documenting how this can be identified, which in turn can feed into the vision for the project as a whole
  • Dan Klyn has spoken on defining what “good” means on a project and outlined the use of Performance Continuums. I highly recommend his talk, which can be listened to on the UX Thursday website, with accompanying slides available on Slideshare

No project will ever embody perfection. But neither should every project fall prey to a lack of stamina or will to create something if not great, then truly effective for the organisation funding it and the people who will ultimately make use of it. Following the critical early stages of a project, when it is often easy to feel that the difficult decisions have been made and all the big battles already won, the war of attrition against entropy is only beginning.

Design for Everything, Everywhere.

As occurs frequently on Twitter, I was able to enjoy a conversation between two prominent figures of the design industry as they exchanged insights. This one really made me sit up and take notice. I’ll reproduce it in full here, short and sweet as it is:

@trentwalton: Lines between mobile, tablet & everything else are beginning to overlap to the extent that the terms are becoming useless.

@lukew: wrist, palm, lap, desk, wall, mall sized screens. human ergonomics won’t change. devices will.
@lukew: as illustrated in: http://static.lukew.com/unified_device_design.png …

To save you a tap, click or cut n’paste, Luke Wroblewski’s graphic is reproduced below.

The new device landscape by @lukew

Any given day on Twitter yields a huge number of enlightening stats, info graphics and blog posts; frequently these will be stark reminders of how the device landscape is changing. Luke’s graphic however is a statement of fact – everything is changing.

Let’s just examine the message: device sizes, interactions, input devices and resolution are at once convergent and inconsistent. Add to the mix that context and location are unpredictable and it becomes clear that there is no convenient fallback. The desktop cliché, for instance, is now archaic.

Even the popular perception of responsive web design as a requirement to accommodate different viewport sizes must go. Our new reality affects (amongst other things) tap/click area, text size, image file size, colour palette, content length… Quite simply, it affects design decisions across the board.

There is no secret formula. The future of design on the web is designing for everything. Everywhere.

Adapting to responsive

Responsive web design has reached the grand old age of two and remains the single most important shift in design and development for the web since the advent of CSS.

Broken record

I have written previously about the dangers of dogmatic approaches, emphasising that we should move in the direction of responsive design increasingly and methodically. RWD is not however a be-all-and-end-all. It is not a magic bullet for multi-device deployment. Responsive images remain a challenge, advertising doesn’t sit well with a fluid layout and, regardless of how simple the approach is pitched as, the creation of a credible responsive solution takes significantly greater time than a single-resolution site.

Here comes the future

And yet it should remain the goal. We are clearly impelled to move to responsive as an industry standard. Some of the loftier commentary recommending multiple versions of websites appears frighteningly blinkered in its naivety. We are headed only one way in the medium to long term.

One foot in front of the other

However an all or nothing stance on RWD is an equally retrograde move. Speaking as a (ahem) “seasoned” designer, shifting to an adaptive approach has been an essential stepping stone in understanding RWD as a whole. Is it better to learn responsive as standard? Of course. For any new designers starting out: take this route and don’t look back. For those who have been around the block a few times, coming to terms with full responsive as a new way of approaching projects is to put it simply, difficult. I have yet to meet a designer in industry for any amount of time with a different view.

Money, money, money

I work in a commercial organisation and to remain viable in a commercial environment, we need to deliver effective outputs that surpass expectations – within a budget. Recently we’ve committed to producing adaptive sites as standard and deviating from this only where individual projects demand it. Not committing to fully responsive for the moment, our rationale is that doing something is better than doing nothing; not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.

It’s not what you do..?

As I have said before, we’re getting there and should enjoy the journey. But whether it is acknowledged or not (and it isn’t) there is a purist agenda at work in some corners of the industry. Challenge some of the more vociferous opinions and there is usually a conciliatory climb down, but the inference remains: if you’re not producing fully responsive work, you’re falling short. My problem with this is simply that it places technique over results. The means do not justify the end. There are a number of responsive sites featuring what I would regard as unacceptable design anomalies at certain sizes, and they should not be given a pardon simply because of the way they have been constructed. An adaptive approach may yet be more condusive to better overall design on certain projects.

Conclusion

To repeat myself (again), why create divisions where none exist. We’re all on our way. Those who fail to come to terms with the changing landscape in web access are condemning themselves to history. For those who are moving forward, there is more than one way to do so.

In other news, perfection remains elusive

Here is a hypothetical scenario which may or may not sound familiar to you: A project has progressed to the visual design stage. The process you followed fell somewhat short of textbook. Deadlines are imminent. The first iteration of a rendered design has gone to a client with various caveats:- that feedback is welcomed, that various aspects need to be reviewed, that the design can be progressed based on further discussion, etc. Then the word comes back:

“Looks fine. We’ll go with that”.

The question is: have you failed or succeeded?

Blind vision

As a professional you are almost certainly torn. You want to work towards the best possible result, ensuring the project is effective and represents something both you and the client can be proud for years to come. The craftsman in you wants to hone and improve. You had anticipated further debate, leading to the next iteration. Instead what you appear to have is approval. And the commercial imperative suggests that the time for iteration is past; the client has accepted your work and the process must move on.

The long wait

I suspect these are familiar dilemmas for design professionals. We hear much about the ‘perfect process’ in our industry writing and conferences. Professionalism calls for improvement; often arduous, incremental, glacial improvement that may only be measured in years rather than months. But it is a truism that perfection never arrives.

Reality slap

To remain commercially viable, relentless quests for perfection may have to be set aside for another day. Not, let’s be clear, abandoned completely: defeatism is the path to template-driven mundanity. Without question we should all aspire to better. However the harsh truth is – and you may want to brace yourself – compromise is a fact, in life and in business. Another element of professionalism is the maturity to accept that fact, while knowing that you are still a credible member of the design community despite falling short of perfection.

Conclusion

The lesson from a scenario such as this is almost certainly that we should not present anything to a client that we are not prepared to stand by 100%, or indeed go live with. It can be all too easy to sleepwalk your way to a design that doesn’t represent you or the client particularly well. #speakingfromexperience

Small viewports… and the death of the fold

Like all the best/worst B-movies, the bad guy you thought was dead and gone has summoned up his last ounce of strength for one last attack. The Fold is back. With a twist.

A short debate

The debate about whether a ‘fold’ exists on the web begins and ends with the following assertions: yes, content goes off-screen in the majority of websites and yes, users are willing to scroll to read it. Period. Note that the second point doesn’t dispense with the need for clients and designers to assign priorities within content and for the designer to create a visual hierarchy based on these priorities. These are crucial conversations in any project. And this is the very area where things are going to get interesting.

Top of the (content) pops

The current mobilisation towards responsive design is laudable, and a great many people are currently wrestling the theory towards best practice. Despite what may be pronounced from various sources across the web, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution for myriad viewport sizes. What we will likely emerge with is a toolbox of approaches for use in a variety of contexts, of which responsive design will be just one. But what ‘responsive’ highlights very effectively, in a way that designing for desktop does not, is the relative priority of content as the viewport shrinks.

Top=good, bottom=bad

Laying out web content for a desktop PC or laptop provides plenty of screen real estate to play with. We can cheat the hierarchy by placing something somewhere else in a vast 960 x [whatever] pixel canvas and create visual priorities through the use of colour, space etc. We can design within grids and columns that allow pretty much everything to get a look in. Whatever sits further down the page is somewhat less important and everything that sits towards the top of the page is more important. But this is far from the absolute scale that we are going to need.

Extreme content. Dude.

For a responsive approach we need to decide on absolute priority, not a vague, general hierarchy. A glance at any of the new breed of responsive sites on a mobile device tells you one thing: the content has a no-nonsense, top-to-bottom hierarchy. This kind of extreme prioritisation is going to form part of the new normal in designing for the web. The conversations right at the outset of the design process will need to address this. “If the user could only see one part of the site, what would it be?” is as basic a question as can be asked but it has tremendous resonance now.

All change

Further, if we are now giving something lowest priority and it will require a significant amount of swiping or scrolling to get to… is it really required at all? And if that element is removed, what about the content which is now at the bottom? These issues have massive potential to skew how we assess content and it is barely credible that the now ‘traditional’ website we have grown so accustomed to will not be affected by these shifts.

It’s what thumbs are for

And what of the fold? The old arguments used to go that if the fold existed, everything needed to be forced into the area above it for fear of users missing it. By the same logic, on a 320 x 480 viewport the user is going to miss… pretty much everything. The same logic would also suggest that those users won’t know to swipe to see more. Except we know that they will.

Web origami

The fact is there is no longer even a single fold. On a small device there are multiple folds, multiple screens to scroll through. But bizarrely the more folds exist the less they matter. Users now expect to swipe and to scroll. So sleep easy and let it be known: the fold is dead.