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.

Machines of unknown intent

Around six years’ ago we worked with a client who, as part of the project brief, asked for a website that would “still look great in 5 years”. No doubt there was an element of thriftiness in the request (and perhaps a degree of mischief), but fair play to them. It was a hell of a challenge to set a design team.

Aiming low

So how did we do? Well for one the website is still there (and no, I won’t supply the URL…). While it doesn’t look terrible, it certainly displays all of the traits of having been designed six years ago. The giveaway is the 760 pixel width, catering for the large percentage of users then still with monitor resolutions of 800 x 600 pixels. We interpreted the request as having an influence only on the style of the site, while blindly fixing its dimensions to the standard of the time. Using the same flawed logic, we would now be designing sites with a 320 pixel width to suit the lowest resolutions accessing the site.

Post-PC

The fact is there are very few ways of future-proofing a design, particularly when basing it on a style-only agenda. But our chances of success in this challenge were much better at the time our client made their forward-looking request when web access was almost exclusively PC-based. Steve Jobs has recently repeatedly proclaimed that we are living in a ‘post-PC era’. It’s not the fact that Jobs says this that makes it significant. It’s significant because it’s true.

Knowing the unknown

Although we’ve known they were coming for a long time, web-enabled devices are changing the landscape irrevocably. In the past week for instance, it was discovered that Barnes & Nobles’ Nook eBook reader has a browser embedded in it, waiting to be switched on. How could we possibly have designed or tested for this or any of the myriad of new web-enabled devices hitting the market each day, each with their own particular optimal settings for viewing websites? Quite simply through a more forward-looking approach.

Hard sell

The deluge of blog posts heralding the advent of responsive design was something I’ll admit to greeting with cynicism. If someone tells me I “need” to do something, my initial reaction will be to ask what is in it for them. What are they trying to sell me – a conference? a book? In some cases the answer is both, but that doesn’t change the central truth. The argument in favour of an adaptive approach to web-based design is now overwhelming. It’s early days yet, but this is a shift, not a trend.

No-brainer

This doesn’t require signing up to some new dogma, it simply means assessing each project individually on its requirement to adapt to multiple devices. Put like that, doesn’t it sound like pure common sense, if not an essential part of any professional design process? The approach doesn’t guarantee that a website’s visual design won’t look dated in a number of years time, but it will ensure its credible appearance on browsers of all types for a significant period of time, even those yet to be released.

Future machines

With an adaptive design, we can design for the future. Literally. We can prepare designs and layouts for still-to-be-invented machines and devices whose purpose we simply cannot even begin to guess. But they will access the web. And we can design for them.

Isn’t that fantastic?

Responsive design: don’t stifle debate with dogma

The responsive design debate was set in motion around a year ago, but seems to have reached something of a crescendo of late. Some commentary borders on the totalitarian, others’ input is philosophical, while some contributions attempt to navigate a practical way forward. Fact is, there is a veritable scramble to coin the phrases that will become tomorrow’s industry-standard vocabulary.

Designers are just plain excited about responsive design, and it’s easy to see why. We have arrived at one of those industry-defining moments which precipitates huge leaps forward in practice – think HTML 3.2 & 4, CSS2. You can perhaps forgive the piousness of some commentators. As new practices bed in, you can always rely on designers to get sanctimonious about how inadequate our practices were up until a day or so ago.

Get up, stand up

Exciting as it is, there is also a huge challenge for designers to step up, not something we have always distinguished ourselves by. As the mass-market web came into being, designers (by and large) stood idly by waiting for someone to make it easy for them, instead of just getting in there, learning some basic markup and meaningfully engaging with a new communications medium.

A shared future

Things couldn’t be more different today; a new generation of designers are falling over each other to experiment, test, share and move the practice of online UI design forward into a new era. This time the catalyst is not a new markup specification, but advances in hardware: a critical mass in use of web-enabled devices has been reached. The rules of the game have changed. Mobile access is no longer an afterthought, or a box to tick, it has parity with desktop and laptop access.

Papa don’t preach

The volume of the debate is rising, but those preaching too loudly or broadcasting their opinions on who is or isn’t doing it ‘right’ are demeaning themselves, and missing the point. We are all in this together. Our internal industry dialogue will continue and something will emerge from all this, almost certainly not in the form of a single proposal or approach. Thought leaders will get us in the general vicinity, but best practice emerges from the efforts of many, and continues to evolve, as we evolve both as designers and as a community.

The new reality

Subscribing to new thinking is one thing, but deploying it on a relevant, commercial project is another. I’ll readily admit to being right at the start of the transition and pursuing a trail-and-error approach; much preferable to breathlessly following anyone who screams they have ‘the answer’. Plus, attempting to stay ahead of the curve on this issue looks like the path to madness when even the originator of the term ‘responsive design’ has identified somewhat inevitable grey areas.

In conclusion

This is as fresh a challenge as we could hope for in our industry, and these are exciting times. The least helpful contributions to a discussion tend to be the most vociferous, but we’re off and running, on the road to best practice and the community will win. Let’s enjoy the ride and look forward to what emerges on the other side.

Sometimes wireframes won’t work

Wireframes are a pillar of best practice in any interface process, but what happens when they get in the way?

What happens when say, the client has no interest in them, or doesn’t feel empowered to take decisions based on what they see, what then? Should a principled designer hold firm until the client sees the ‘error’ of their ways… or alternatively, do we graciously step down from our pedestal and move on, acknowledging that adherence to an idealistic idea of best practice can occasionally get in the way of progress?

A quick reality check: clients know their business best, and will care most about that. They are not hugely concerned with what constitutes best practice for designers; they simply want effective results. In at least one recent project, wireframes became either a barrier to progress or a literal waste of time, completely failing to elicit the responses and decisions they were designed to achieve. And yet the “client education” card is played all too often by elements of the design community as the fix-all solution to allow us to work the way we would like.

Having have long since accepted that designers are not artists, and rightly so, we should accept also that we are not surgeons, or nuclear engineers. Call it ‘agile’ if it makes you feel better, but the fact is that our processes should be mature enough to accommodate a degree of compromise, and still produce effective outputs.

If wireframes can lead to a more effective end solution, then their benefits will be apparent to all and their use a formality. If not, then maybe, just maybe, they are not appropriate or required.

Investment in design services is a huge leap of faith for so many clients. While the ROI on considered and well-executed design might be a given to those of us in the industry, it remains a significant outlay for clients who already have budgets stretched to breaking point by many other aspects of their project. Heard through that filter, the sound of a designer labouring the benefits of wireframing might easily sound like “that’s just how we do things around here, although of course you wouldn’t know this stuff, being a client and all that”.

From experience, winning confidence is the most effective path to what we sometimes rather demeaningly term client education – and has far more value than that. Ditch the designer vocabulary and pretensions and earn the trust of your client. Once achieved, rather than having made your client feel slightly patronised, any project is guaranteed to run more smoothly.

Wireframes or no wireframes.