Return to the garden

(or: Designers Assemble!)

 

I shouldn’t need to declare support (again) for the pursuit of responsive web design as the future for online design. What irks me though is not so much a sense that visual design is being compromised in order to achieve a responsive outcome, but that the fact is not being acknowledged.

For what it’s worth I’m writing from the standpoint of working in a sizeable agency on many projects where RWD is not a practical option based on such factors as functionality and user profiling. You can take much of what I offer here as my opinion only, but my firm belief is that it is not mine alone.

Yin without a yang

I’ve written before about the difficulties of implementing responsive solutions in a commercial environment. As evidenced in James Young‘s excellent collation of “problems from the coalface“, designers are having mixed experiences in the transition to RWD – a situation I feel is inadequately represented in online conversations. The overwhelmingly positive spin accompanying a responsive site launch creates a subtle (but tangible) pressure on conscientious designers to ‘step up’ and deliver RWD on their own projects. Which would be fine, but the inference that RWD is desirable at any cost.

So here is a conundrum for designers that I will pretentiously moniker ‘the RWD Paradox’:

Forced to choose, what is less desirable: a visually mundane but responsive website, or a highly engaging fixed width site?

Obviously I distort for effect, but I believe that this is the uncomfortable truth for a large proportion of designers trying to pursue a responsive approach. The underlying point of RWD is that all resolutions and viewport sizes are important; it’s not just preordained screen sizes that should be accommodated. That being the case, why do many responsive sites create visual anomalies at certain sizes that we would normally find unacceptable in any other context? And if this as a natural consequence of applying RWD, then lets at least admit it.

Think outside the box (model)

It has further been suggested by more than one industry colleague that RWD promotes ‘boxy’ design, where a facet of the site’s visual appeal – part of the ‘personality layer‘ – is sacrificed to easily scaled, easily manipulated blocks. This is clearly manifest in at least one high-profile brand’s recently launched site.

Now, this is not to suggest that RWD precludes great visual design. Not at all. There are many examples of a successful marriage of the two, but they appear to be in the minority compared to the plethora of single-column portfolios or blogs that have little relevance to large consumer-facing sites.

Ding-a-ling

Suppressing these issues will only exacerbate them. And yet we resize our browser windows, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every cute little piece of javascript that animates resizing images while missing an important point – users don’t care. Users want a coherent experience relevant to their situation at any given time. Designers and developers are the only people I know who sit and accordion their browser window to see how a site will respond. We’re too in love with technique because we know that somewhere, another designer or developer is going to think it’s cool. And folks, when it gets to the point when we are designing for other designers, that should ring some pretty loud alarm bells.

Return to Eden

So what should be done? We need look no further than relatively recent history for inspiration.

Dave Shea‘s CSS Zen Garden marked a sea change in online design. The site, if you are unfamiliar with it, accepts CSS submissions and applies them to a core HTML file, demonstrating in a simple and powerful manner how separating content from presentation creates a beautiful and effective flexibility. In 2003 it enlightened many designers, myself included, and put the argument for the jump to CSS beyond debate. More than that, it coalesced the design community in a way that circulating links on Twitter does not.

“Just sowing seeds..”

We need a new garden for responsive web design. Mediaqueri.es is great as an initial eye-opener for those unfamiliar with the idea of adaptive layouts, but we badly need something to give designers the opportunity to pool ideas and resources and begin raising the bar for RWD. Not a new idea I freely admit. However while it may have been hinted at, and the original Zen Garden used to illustrate adaptive potential, I have not found a straight call for a new ‘Garden’. So this is it.

We can and should learn from experience in order to forge a better future for web design. That, and be a little more open on occasions when quality has taken a back seat to technique.

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.

Putting the spotlight on ‘delight’

Disclaimer: I tend to react adversely to industry buzzword memes.

A new word has been gradually creeping into the design industry lexicon. Designers should now, apparently, design for “delight” – and once again a word has been introduced without context into the forefront of design debate.

I’ve avoided ‘cool’ for most of my professional career. I don’t do ‘awesome’. I don’t trust it. I don’t strive for it. But I like ‘effective’. Effective I can work with.

The most rational, level-headed thoughts on this come from CX Partners’ Giles Colborne. The points Colborne makes illustrate that we don’t really know what we’re saying. It’s all too easy to drop these phrases into discourse, but it’s quite another to try and measure or define it. And yet invariably a section of the design community, certainly within web design, will regurgitate this type of commentary and broadcast it without questioning what it actually means.

I don’t disagree with the sentiment; I agree fully that ‘delight’ would be a.. um, delightful reaction for users of our work to have. But to impose this on an industry that strives for effective results appears to be imposing very shallow measures on a complex profession. If we’re going to propagate something meaningful, what about “design for success” – how’s that?

“Delight” is a meme and a millstone. It’s another way of saying that we should design something cool. But cool is not a commercial imperative, and it’s place in the process is undefinable. So, at what point should ‘delight’ appear? Until definitions and metrics emerge I will continue to hold such opinion at arm’s length.

There is no magic ingredient for a successfully designed product. There is only process and effort. As with cool, ‘delight’ will be a by-product of an effective outcome.

‘Delight’ happens, just as ‘cool’ happens, most often through rigorous attention to detail and a rock solid understanding of user requirements.

Reflections on Refresh

…or how I learned to stop worrying and love the Responsive Summit.

Apart from work itself, two industry events dominated last week for me. I was directly involved in one, but watched the other from afar with many others. As it transpired the two were not unrelated.

On Monday evening I was fortunate enough to co-host a session of RefreshBelfast with none other than Richard Weston under the title “There’s more than one way to design a cat”.

We managed to shoehorn all manner of issues under that banner, the central theme being that the middle ground of the design industry is a pretty vibrant and rewarding place to practice. We sang the praises of teams and organisations (versus the notion of the rockstar individual designer), and addressed the idea that vehement opinions put forward on the web as truisms are nothing more than that: opinions.

It was an enjoyable evening and one that we hope lived up to the standards set by previous speakers, including Jeremy Keith, The Creativity Hub and Design by Front.

Another key point Richard and I made was that no single point of view on techniques and processes is any more true than others simply because of how strongly the point is made, and attempts to dictate best practice to the wider industry is wrong. Unfortunately, that was the perception of many of an event in London later in the week.

The Responsive Summit – a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware moniker – riled a number of people on Twitter and beyond, apparently by bringing together a select group (‘select’ only in the sense that it was organised within a matter of days) to discuss the current hot topic of responsive design.

It is now almost two years since Ethan’s original post, yet RWD remains a grey area and continues to be difficult to implement on larger commercial projects. The idea behind Responsive Summit was nothing more sinister than trying to aggregate opinion on the challenges at hand and at least begin to plot a way forward. Knowing a couple of the personalities involved, I am confident that the aims of the session were true and will produce not diktats or imperatives, but something of practical benefit to our industry.

We need more honest and open discussion in this area. Early support for RWD was a touch absolutist in its fervour and more honest documentation of the difficulties in implementing RWD as a solution on large scale commercial projects is required. I believe this pragmatic viewpoint was reflected in the discussions during the day.

It may be that this one event will inspire many others either directly, or as a reaction against an unfortunate perception of ‘elitism’ surrounding it. Either way, this is what we need and positives will flow from it.

I am grateful for both of last week’s events, in different ways. Thank you to everyone involved.

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For more information on the background to Responsive Summit, see Chris Armstrong’s candid summary of the build up to the event on Storify.

Rockstars, preachers or craftsmen. Time to choose.

My father was a joiner, serving his apprenticeship in the Harland & Wolff shipyard in Belfast. He took a simple pride in his work, going on to develop his skills in a number of construction firms across the city. I don’t believe he would have labelled himself a “craftsman” and I am confident that, while knowing no project he worked on would be complete without his contribution, he had a balanced sense of where that contribution sat in the greater scheme of things. We are fortunate to still have a couple of pieces of furniture that Dad made over the years as labours-of-love. They are simple, usable items.

Intense introspective

When I first read this recent blog post by Jon Tan it resonated hugely. His thoughtful appreciation of our industry is a heartening summary of how quickly things have changed and improved. On reflection though, should we subject ourselves to so much soul-searching based on moments of awkwardness in social situations? Should it matter what others’ perception of us is?

The drive towards a craft-based approach to design for the web continues to gain momentum, something worth fostering. Craft implies care, thoroughness. If we are to be craftsmen, we also need to accept that dedicated craftsmanship is often carried out in relative anonymity. Our contributions, if they are effective, will go unnoticed by most. Intuitive usability implies a lack of conscious effort on the part of the end user which, in turn, suggests a lack of acknowledgement on the part of the user.

My Dad ended his working life as a Clerk of Works. You may not be familiar with that role. I don’t believe Dad would have minded and would quite happily have explained his job to anyone. As our profession matures and we struggle with perceptions and interpretations of what we do, we should prepare for nothing but a muted response from those outside the industry or elsewhere in the design community.

We do great things, but they are not made any greater or lesser by how others perceive them.

You’re either with us or you’re against us

Elsewhere on the web, others appear keen to let us know exactly what defines us.

During his years in trade, Dad came into contact with engineers, architects and tradesmen of all kinds. He took an interest in them and how they contributed to projects. It informed his own work. To the best of my knowledge he never took it upon himself to accuse others of not being genuine joiners. As in all professions, he knew there are two types of practitioners: those who are effective, and those who are not.

I have written before of being proud to work in a profession that places effective practice over showboating. However there has been a trend of late for showy pronouncements suggesting what designers are or are not, depending on their approach. For example:

“…you’re not a web designer, you’re something else.”

“You’re not a user experience designer if…”

“A designer who does not write markup and css is not designing for the web, but drawing pictures.”

The defense for statements of this nature tends to be that they are intended to “provoke debate” or similar. I really wonder. Because sometimes, just sometimes, the intention appears to be to create divisions in our field where there are none; to create a ‘them and us’ based on approach and technique, rather than effectiveness of output.

A situation where a relatively small number of (I should state – exceptional) professionals, with the biggest platforms, who shout loudest feel empowered to define what we should or should not be is one that I’ll call unhelpful. Producing great work sets the best possible example to others in the profession. Sharing of the process gives something back to the community. Does proselytising really add any more value?

Future proof

We want to attract the best possible calibre of people into our industry. A clear sense of ourselves and what we contribute as UI and UX designers is crucial to that effort. Promotion of best practice, which is always changing, is a positive. There are suitable ways and means to do this. I suggest that haranguing those with a different perspective is not one of them.

Reading much of our internal debate of late, I cannot help but hear Dad’s voice and what he said to me in so many situations over the years:

“Just get on with it, son”.

I commend this sentiment to the industry.

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Update: Following some particularly gracious feedback from Jon Tan, whose blog post is referenced here, I have edited the text of this piece to more accurately establish sources and targets for a number of points made. Thanks to Jon for his input. The original post has been retained for reference.