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Articles for people who make web sites.



Published: 2017-01-23T05:01:00+00:00

 



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2017-01-23T05:01:00+00:00

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Guerrilla Innovation

2017-01-17T15:00:00+00:00

In a culture like Google’s, having paid time to innovate is celebrated. But most of us don’t work at Google; most of us work at places that are less than thrilled when someone has a bright new idea that will be amazing. After all, who has time to try new things when the things we’re doing now aren’t broken? No one wants to be forced to use another app, to have yet another thing they are expected to log into, only to see it die out in six months. So how do you push an idea through? How can you innovate if you work in a less-than-innovative place? It takes more than a big idea Let’s say you just saw a demo of someone using a prototyping tool like UXPin and you’ve got this big vision of your team incorporating it into your development process. With a tool like this, you realize, you can quickly put some concepts together for a website and make it real enough to do user testing within two days! Seems pretty invaluable. Why haven’t we been using this all along? You create an account and start exploring. It’s pretty damn awesome. You put a demo together to share with your team at your next meeting. Your excitement is completely drained within five minutes. “Seems like a lot of extra work.” “Why would we create a prototype just to rewrite it all in code?” “Let’s just build it Drupal.” Knife. In. Heart. You can see the value in the product, but you didn’t take the necessary steps to frame the problem you want to solve. You didn’t actually use this exciting new tool to build a case around the value it will have for your company. So right now, to your coworkers, this is just another shiny object. In the web development world, a new shiny object comes along every couple seconds. You need to do some legwork upfront to understand the difference between what shiny object is worth your team’s time and what is, well, just another shiny object. Anyone can come up with an idea on the fly or think they’re having an Oprah Aha! Moment, but real innovation takes hours of work, trying and failing over and over, a serious amount of determination, and some stealth guerrilla tactics. Frame the problem The first step in guerilla innovation is making sure you’re solving the right problem. Just because your idea genuinely is amazing doesn’t mean it will provide genuine value. If it doesn’t solve a tangible problem or provide some sort of tangible benefit, you have little or no chance of getting your team and your company to buy into your idea. Coolness alone isn’t enough. And “cool” is always up for interpretation. Framing the problem allows you to look at it from many different angles and see different solutions that may not have occurred to you. By diving deep into the impact and effects your idea will have, you will start to see the larger picture and may even decide your idea wasn’t so amazing after all. Or, this discovery could lead you to a different solution that truly is innovative and life-changing. Start at the end When your idea is implemented and everything goes as planned, what benefit will it provide? Make a list of people who would theoretically benefit from this idea. Write down who they are and how the idea would help them. Let’s go back to our prototyping tool example. Who would benefit from it the most? The end user looking for specific content on your website. Using a prototyping tool would allow you to do more user testing earlier in the process, letting you tweak and iterate your design based on feedback that could improve the overall site experience. An improved experience would, ideally, allow visitors to find the content they are looking for more easily; the content would therefore be more useful and usable for them. If visitors have a better experience, that could result in a better conversion rate—which in turn would help your manager’s goals as web sales improve. That benefit could extend to your team as a whole, too: a prototyping tool could improve communication between the marketing group and the [...]



A Dao of Product Design

2017-01-12T15:00:00+00:00

When a designer or developer sets out to create a new product, the audience is thought of as “the user”: we consider how she might use it, what aspects make it accessible and usable, what emotional interactions make it delightful, and how we can optimize the workflow for her and our benefit. What is rarely considered in the process is the social and societal impact of our product being used by hundreds of thousands—even millions—of people every day. What a product does to people psychologically, or how it has the power to transform our society, is hard to measure but increasingly important. Good products improve how people accomplish tasks; great products improve how society operates. If we don’t practice a more sustainable form of product design, we risk harmful side effects to people and society that could have been avoided. The impact of product design decisions In 1956, President Eisenhower signed the U.S. Interstate Highway Act into law. Inspired by Germany’s Reichsautobahnen, Eisenhower was determined to develop the cross-country highways that lawmakers had been discussing for years. During the design of this interstate network, these “open roads of freedom” were often routed directly through cities, intentionally creating an infrastructural segregation that favored affluent neighborhoods at the expense of poor or minority neighborhoods. Roads became boundaries, subtly isolating residents by socioeconomic status; such increasingly visible distinctions encouraged racist views and ultimately devastated neighborhoods. The segmentation systematically diminished opportunities for those residents, heavily impacting people of color and adversely shaping the racial dynamics of American society. Such widespread negative consequences are not limited to past efforts or malicious intentions. For example, the laudable environmental effort to replace tungsten street lamps with sustainable LEDs is creating a number of significant health and safety problems because the human impact when applied at scale was not thought through sufficiently. In each example, we see evidence of designers who didn’t seriously consider the long-term social and moral impacts their work might have on the very people they were designing for. As a result, people all around suffered significant negative side effects. The ur-discipline Although the process is rarely identified as such, product design is the oldest practiced discipline in human history. It is also one of the most under-examined; only in relatively recent times have we come to explore the ways products exist in the context they impact. Designers often seek to control the experience users have with their product, aiming to polish each interaction and every detail, crafting it to give a positive—even emotional—experience to the individual. But we must be cautious of imbalance; a laser focus on the micro can draw attention and care away from the macro. Retaining a big-picture view of the product can provide meaning, not only for the user’s tasks, but for her as a person, and for her environment. Dieter Rams’s ninth principle says that good design is environmentally friendly; it is sustainable. This is generally interpreted to mean the material resources and costs involved in production, but products also affect the immaterial: the social, economic, and cognitive world the user inhabits while considering and using the product. At a high level, there is an easy way to think about this: your product and your users do not exist in a vacuum. Your algorithms are not fair or neutral. Your careful touch is not pristine. Your life experiences instill certain values and biases into your way of thinking. These, in turn, color your design process and leave an imprint behind in the product. It’s essentially the DNA of your decisions, something embedded deeply in the fabric of your work, and visible only under extremely close inspection. Unlike our DNA, we can consciously control the decisions that shape o[...]



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2017-01-09T23:19:00+00:00

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The Imbalance of Culture Fit

2017-01-03T15:00:00+00:00

When I started Bearded back in 2008, I’d never run a business before. This lack of experience meant I didn’t know how to do many of the things I’d ultimately have to do as a business owner. One of the things I didn’t know how to do yet? Hiring. When it came time to start hiring employees, I thought a lot about what the company needed to advance, what skills it was lacking. I asked friends for advice, and introductions to people they knew and trusted who fit the bill. And I asked myself what felt like a natural question: would I want to hang out with this person all day? Because clearly, I would have to. The trouble with this question is that I like hanging out with people I can talk to easily. One way to make that happen is to hang out with people who know and like the same books, music, movies, and things that I do; people with similar life experiences. It may not surprise you to learn that people who have experienced and enjoy all the same things I do tend to look a whole lot like me. The dreaded culture fit This, my friends, is the sneaky, unintentional danger of “culture fit.” And the only way out I’ve found is to recognize it for what it is–an unhelpful bias–and to consciously correct for it. Besides being discriminatory by unfairly overvaluing people like yourself, hiring for culture fit has at least one other major detriment: it limits perspective. At Bearded, our main focus is problem solving. Whether those are user experience problems, project management problems, user interface problems, or development problems–that’s what we do every day. I’ve found that we arrive at better solutions faster when we collaborate during problem solving. Having two or more people hashing out an issue, suggesting new approaches, spotting flaws in each other’s ideas, or catching things another person missed–this is the heart of good collaboration. And it’s not just about having more than one person, it’s about having different perspectives. Perspective as a skill A simple shortcut to finding two people who look at the world differently is to find two people with varied life experience–different genders, races, religions, sexual orientations, economic backgrounds, or abilities… these factors all affect how we see and experience the world. This means that different perspectives–different cultures–are an asset. Varied perspective can be viewed, then, as a skill. It’s something you can consciously hire for, in addition to more traditional skills and experience. Having diverse teams better reflects our humanity, and it helps us do better work. This isn’t just my experience, either.According to research conducted by Sheen S. Levine and David Stark, groups that included diverse company produced answers to analytical questions that were 58 percent more accurate. When surrounded by people “like ourselves,” we are easily influenced, more likely to fall for wrong ideas. Diversity prompts better, critical thinking. It contributes to error detection. It keeps us from drifting toward miscalculation. Smarter groups and better problem-solving sounds good to me. And so does increased innovation. In her article for Scientific American, Katherine W. Phillips draws on decades of research to arrive at some exciting conclusions. Diversity enhances creativity. It encourages the search for novel information and perspectives, leading to better decision making and problem solving. Diversity can improve the bottom line of companies and lead to unfettered discoveries and breakthrough innovations. Even simply being exposed to diversity can change the way you think. Phillips isn’t alone in linking diversity to profit. A Morgan Stanley analysis released in May 2016 showed that gender-diverse companies delivered slightly better returns with lower volatility than their more homogenous peers. Seems like we’d be crazy not to be thinking about building more diverse teams, doesn’t it? Peo[...]



Learning from Lego: A Step Forward in Modular Web Design

2016-12-22T15:00:00+00:00

With hundreds of frameworks and UI kits, we are now assembling all kinds of content blocks to make web pages. However, such modularity and versatility hasn’t been achieved on the web element level yet. Learning from Lego, we can push modular web design one step forward. Rethinking the status quo Modular atomic design has been around for a while. Conceptually, we all love it—web components should be versatile and reusable. We should be able to place them like bricks, interlocking them however we want without worrying about changing any code. So far, we have been doing it on the content block level—every block occupies a full row, has a consistent width, and is self-contained. We are now able to assemble different blocks to make web pages without having to consider the styles and elements within each block. That’s a great step forward. And it has led to an explosion of frameworks and UI kits, making web page design more modular and also more accessible to the masses. Achieving similar modularity on the web element level is not as easy. Pattern Lab says we should be able to put UI patterns inside each other like Russian nesting dolls. But thinking about Russian nesting dolls, every layer has its own thickness—the equivalent of padding and margin in web design. When a three-layer doll is put next to a seven-layer doll, the spacing in between is uneven. While it’s not an issue in particular with dolls, on web pages, that could lead to either uneven white space or multilevel CSS overrides. I’ve been using Bootstrap and Foundation for years, and that’s exactly what would happen when I’d try to write complex layouts within those frameworks—rows nested in columns nested in rows, small elements in larger ones, all with paddings and margins of their own like Russian dolls. Then I would account for the nesting issues, take out the excessive padding on first- and last-child, calculate, override, add comments here and there. It was not the prettiest thing I could do to my stylesheets, but it was still tolerable. Then I joined Graphiq, a knowledge company delivering data visualizations across more than 700 different topics. Here, content editors are allowed to put in any data they want, in any format they want, to create the best experience possible for their readers. Such flexibility makes sense for the small startup and we have a drag and drop interface to help organize everything from a single data point to infographics and charts, to columns, blocks, and cards. Content editors can also add logic to the layout of the page. Two similar bar charts right next to each other could end up being in quite different HTML structures. As you can imagine, this level of versatility oftentimes results in a styling hell for the designers and developers. Though a very promising solution—CSS Grid Layout—is on the horizon, it hasn’t made its way to Chrome yet. And it might take years for us to fully adapt to a new display attribute. That led me to thinking if we can change the Russian doll mentality, we can take one step further toward modular design with the tools available. Learning from Lego To find a better metaphor, I went back to Lego—the epitome of modular atomic design. Turns out we don’t ever need to worry about padding and margin when we “nest” a small Lego structure in a large Lego structure, and then in an even larger Lego structure. In fact, there is no such concept as “nesting” in Lego. All the elements appear to live on the same level, not in multiple layers. But what does that mean for web design? We have to nest web elements for the semantic structure and for easy selecting. I’m not saying that we should change our HTML structures, but in our stylesheet, we could put spacing only on the lowest-level web elements (or “atoms” to quote atomic design terms) and not the many layers in between. Take a look at the top of any individual Lego brick. If y[...]



Demystifying Public Speaking

2016-12-15T15:00:00+00:00

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 1 of Lara Hogan's new book, Demystifying Public Speaking, available now from A Book Apart.Before you near the stage, before you write the talk, before you even pick a topic, take time to get comfortable with the idea of giving a talk. You’re reading this because something about public speaking makes your palms sweat. You aren’t alone; when I created an anonymous survey and asked, “What’s your biggest fear about public speaking?” I received over 300 replies. Though the fears all revolved around being vulnerable in front of a large group of people, I was surprised how widely the responses ranged. See for yourself—I’ve grouped a handful of replies to illustrate the spectrum of fears. People are worried about their voices: “The sound or pitch of my own voice.” “Voice cracking up—I forget to breathe from the diaphragm and come across sounding nervous and uninformed.” “Forgetting or skipping over what I want to say, heart racing (and getting out of breath quicker), getting tongue-tied.” People are worried about their bodies: “Being judged for being fat, not on my presentation content.” “In middle school I got something in my eye during a class presentation, and my eyes would not stop watering. I’m terrified it will happen again.” “Needing to pee during the speech!” “Falling on stage.” “People judging my appearance, whether I’m dressed appropriately.” People are worried about technical or wardrobe malfunctions: “Problems connecting laptop to projector.” “Making stupid coding mistakes during live coding.” “Open pants zipper (because it’s happened).” People are worried about being wrong and being challenged: “Elegantly explaining something that is actually wrong.” “Showing that I’m ignorant about something I thought I was knowledgeable about.” “Getting a question I can’t even begin to answer.” “Being wrong and being called out on stage during Q&A.” “Getting heckled.” “Vocal skeptics or doubters.” People are worried about their performance: “Not being impressive enough.” “That everything I say becomes so messy anyone can refute it.” “Since I’m not a native English speaker, my biggest fear is not making any sense when speaking.” “That no one learns anything, and the audience is starkly aware of it.” “Being exposed for the fraud I have always felt like.” Phew. Given the potential for these moments of total—human—disaster, why should we even bother embarking on this journey toward the stage? To start, public speaking (or put another way, broadcasting your abilities and knowledge) has definite career benefits. You grow your network by meeting attendees and other speakers, and you gain documented leadership experience in your subject area. People looking to hire, collaborate with, or fund someone with your topic expertise will be able to find you, see proof of your work, and have a sense of the new perspective you’ll bring to future projects. Those professional benefits are huge—but in my experience, the personal benefits are even more substantial. Giving a talk grows so many skill sets: crafting a succinct way to share information, reading an audience, and eloquently handling an adrenaline-heavy moment. You’ll prove something to yourself by overcoming a major fear, and you should take pride in knowing you taught a large group of people something new that will hopefully make their work or lives easier. Public speaking experience boosts a lot of knock-on benefits too, like a stronger visa application or more confidence in your everyday spotlight moments, like a standup meeting, code review, design critique, or other project presentations. No matter the impetus, trying your hand at public speaking is a brave act. While it’s a different challenge for everyon[...]



This week's sponsor: ZARGET

2016-12-14T17:36:00+00:00

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Managing Ego

2016-12-13T15:00:00+00:00

A note from the editors: This is Part 2 of the series entitled, “Defeating Workplace Drama with Emotional Intelligence”. We’re in an industry where we regularly hear that our ideas are bad. We can get yelled at for overlooking something, even if we didn’t know about it, and we frequently encounter threats to our ego that can turn any one of us into an anxious and irrational coworker. Minimizing our exposure to ego-damaging situations can be valuable in preventing anxiety, but that’s sometimes beyond our control. Unfortunately, when threats can’t be controlled, confidence is the next thing to take a hit. Professional and personal self-worth may seem vulnerable, but they can also be reinforced and strengthened far in advance. Client drama, ground zero I shrunk in my chair as a client technical contact listed off everything he hated about the site I had just built. The list was not short, nor was it constructive. When it came time for him to make his recommendations, I went on the offensive and launched into my own opinions on how terrible and impossible his ideas were. By the end of the phone call, everyone was on edge and I was left with one desperate question: What just happened? I found out the next day that the website I built was originally supposed to be an internal initiative, handled by the technical contact who had berated me. In short, his ego was bruised—and by the end of the phone call, my ego was bruised too. This brought out the worst in each of us. The result was a phone call full of drama that shall live on in infamy. There were a few things wrong with that conversation. First, the technical contact clearly felt threatened by my website. But my history with this guy showed me that he felt threatened by most ideas we brought to him, so we also had to give some thought to where to draw the line with validating him on this. We should have employed a long-term strategy for strengthening that relationship by validating him at other times. Lastly, there are things I could have done to guard myself against irrationality and drama when that conversation turned south. In short, everything went wrong in this scenario. That’s bad for me, but good for you, because it means we can learn a lot from looking at it. Let’s dig in. Validating self esteem to prevent anxiety Everyone responds to external feedback and affirmation—some more than others. So how do we tailor our feedback to avoid causing undue anxiety? When you notice someone suddenly get worked up about something, go over what just happened. You probably introduced a threat. Did you propose a new idea? Did you point out a flaw in their idea? (Ideas are tied very closely to self esteem.) What was the idea? You’ve just pinpointed where their self esteem comes from. Just like web professionals usually draw self esteem from the things that got them the job in the first place, marketing and account people do the same thing. Marketing people may prize their own creative ideas in a campaign, or their analytical skills when critiquing a campaign; account people often value their communication skills and ability to read people. When these skills are called into question, it produces anxiety, which can quickly lead to drama. Think about that marketing person who can’t accept any creative idea as-is—who feels the need to make revisions to any idea that comes in. Creativity is the source of this person’s self esteem, so pushing back on those ideas without first validating them will introduce threat and result in anxiety. What about that developer who won’t accept other people’s suggestions, and shoots down others’ ideas as impossible or too impractical? Problem solving and technical know-how are the sources of this person’s self esteem, and self esteem must be boosted by validating those strength[...]



Accessibility Whack-A-Mole

2016-12-06T15:00:00+00:00

I don’t believe in perfection. Perfection is the opiate of the design community. Designers sometimes like to say that design is about problem-solving. But defining design as problem-solving is of course itself problematic, which is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the realm of accessibility. After all, problems don’t come in neat black-and-white boxes—they’re inextricably tangled up with other problems and needs. That’s what makes design so fascinating: experimentation, compromise, and the thrill of chasing an elusive sweet spot. Having said that, deep down I’m a closet idealist. I want everything to work well for everyone, and that’s what drives my obsession with accessibility. Whose accessibility, though? Accessibility doesn’t just involve improving access for people with visual, auditory, physical, speech, cognitive, language, learning, and neurological difficulties—it impacts us all. Remember that in addition to those permanently affected, many more people experience temporary difficulties because of injury or environmental effects. Accessibility isn’t a niche issue; it’s an everyone issue. There are lots of helpful accessibility guidelines in Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0, but although the W3C is working to better meet the complex needs of neurodiverse users, there are no easy solutions. How do we deal with accessibility needs for which there are no definitive answers? And what if a fix for one group of people breaks things for another group? That’s a big question, and it’s close to my heart. I’m dyslexic, and one of the recommendations for reducing visual stress that I’ve found tremendously helpful is low contrast between text and background color. This, though, often means failing to meet accessibility requirements for people who are visually impaired. Once you start really looking, you notice accessibility conflicts large and small cropping up everywhere. Consider: Designing for one-handed mobile use raises problems because right-handedness is the default—but 10 percent of the population is left handed. Giving users a magnified detailed view on hover can create a mobile hover trap that obscures other content. Links must use something other than color to denote their “linkyness.” Underlines are used most often and are easily understood, but they can interfere with descenders and make it harder for people to recognize word shapes. You might assume that people experiencing temporary or long-term impairment would avail themselves of the same browser accessibility features—but you’d be wrong. Users with minor or infrequent difficulties may not have even discovered those workarounds. With every change we make, we need to continually check that it doesn’t impair someone else’s experience. To drive this point home, let me tell you a story about fonts. A new font for a new brand At Wellcome, we were simultaneously developing a new brand and redesigning our website. The new brand needed to reflect the amazing stuff we do at Wellcome, a large charitable organization that supports scientists and researchers. We wanted to paint a picture of an energetic organization that seeks new talent and represents broad contemporary research. And, of course, we had to do all of this without compromising accessibility. How could we best approach a rebrand through the lens of inclusivity? To that end, we decided to make our design process as transparent as possible. Design is not a dark art; it’s a series of decisions. Sharing early and often brings the benefit of feedback and allows us to see work from different perspectives. It also offers the opportunity to document and communicate design decisions. When we started showing people the new website, some of them had very specific feedback about the typeface we h[...]



This week's sponsor: ENVATO ELEMENTS

2016-12-05T05:01:00+00:00

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This week's sponsor: O’REILLY DESIGN CONFERENCE

2016-11-28T05:01:00+00:00

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Insisting on Core Development Principles

2016-11-22T15:00:00+00:00

The web community talks a lot about best practices in design and development: methodologies that are key to reaching and retaining users, considerate design habits, and areas that we as a community should focus on. But let’s be honest—there are a lot of areas to focus on. We need to put users first, content first, and mobile first. We need to design for accessibility, performance, and empathy. We need to tune and test our work across many devices and browsers. Our content needs to grab user attention, speak inclusively, and employ appropriate keywords for SEO optimization. We should write semantic markup and comment our code for the developers who come after us. Along with the web landscape, the expectations for our work have matured significantly over the last couple of decades. It’s a lot to keep track of, whether you’ve been working on the web for 20 years or only 20 months. If those expectations feel daunting to those of us who live and breathe web development every day, imagine how foreign all of these concepts are for the clients who hire us to build a site or an app. They rely on us to be the experts who prioritize these best practices. But time and again, we fail our clients. I’ve been working closely with development vendor partners and other industry professionals for a number of years. As I speak with development shops and ask about their code standards, workflows, and methods for maintaining consistency and best practices across distributed development teams, I’m continually astonished to hear that often, most of the best practices I listed in the first paragraph are not part of any development project unless the client specifically asks for them. Think about that. Development shops are relying on the communications team at a finance agency to know that they should request their code be optimized for performance or accessibility. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that shouldn’t be the client’s job. We’re the experts; we understand web strategy and best practices—and it’s time we act like it. It’s time for us to stop talking about each of these principles in a blue-sky way and start implementing them as our core practices. Every time. By default. Whether you work in an internal dev shop or for outside clients, you likely have clients whose focus is on achieving business goals. Clients come to you, the technical expert, to help them achieve their business goals in the best possible way. They may know a bit of web jargon that they can use to get the conversation started, but often they will focus on the superficial elements of the project. Just about every client will worry more about their hero images and color palette than about any other piece of their project. That’s not going to change. That’s okay. It’s okay because they are not the web experts. That’s not their job. That’s your job. If I want to build a house, I’m going to hire experts to design and build that house. I will have to rely on architects, builders, and contractors to know what material to use for the foundation, where to construct load-bearing walls, and where to put the plumbing and electricity. I don’t know the building codes and requirements to ensure that my house will withstand a storm. I don’t even know what questions I would need to ask to find out. I need to rely on experts to design and build a structure that won’t fall down—and then I’ll spend my time picking out paint colors and finding a rug to tie the room together. This analogy applies perfectly to web professionals. When our clients hire us, they count on us to architect something stable that meets industry standards and best practices. Our business clients won’t know what questi[...]



The Coming Revolution in Email Design

2016-11-15T15:00:00+00:00

Email, the web’s much maligned little cousin, is in the midst of a revolution—one that will change not only how designers and developers build HTML email campaigns, but also the way in which subscribers interact with those campaigns. Despite the slowness of email client vendors to update their rendering engines, email designers are developing new ways of bringing commonplace techniques on the web to the inbox. Effects like animation and interactivity are increasingly used by developers to pull off campaigns once thought impossible. And, for anyone coming from the world of the web, there are more tools, templates, and frameworks than ever to make that transition as smooth as possible. For seasoned email developers, these tools can decrease email production times and increase the reliability and efficacy of email campaigns. Perhaps more importantly, the email industry itself is in a state of reinvention. For the first time, email client vendors—traditionally hesitant to update or change their rendering engines—are listening to the concerns of email professionals. While progress is likely to be slow, there is finally hope for improved support for HTML and CSS in the inbox. Although some problems still need to be addressed, there has never been a better time to take email seriously. For a channel that nearly every business uses, and that most consumers can’t live without, these changes signal an important shift in a thriving industry—one that designers, developers, and strategists for the web should start paying attention to. Let’s look at how these changes are manifesting themselves. The web comes to email It’s an old saw that email design is stuck in the past. For the longest time, developers have been forced to revisit coding techniques that were dated even back in the early 2000s if they wanted to build an HTML email campaign. Locked into table-based layouts and reliant on inline styles, most developers refused to believe that email could do anything more than look serviceable and deliver some basic content to subscribers. For a few email developers, though, frustrating constraints became inspiring challenges and the catalyst for a variety of paradigm-shifting techniques. When I last wrote about email for A List Apart, most people were just discovering responsive email design. Practices that were common on the web—the use of fluid grids, fluid images, and media queries—were still brand new to the world of email marketing. However, the limitations of some email clients forced developers to completely rethink responsive email. Until recently, Gmail refused to support media queries (and most embedded styles), leaving well-designed, responsive campaigns looking disastrous in mobile Gmail apps. While their recently announced update to support responsive emails is a huge step forward for the community, the pioneering efforts of frustrated email developers shouldn’t go unnoticed. Building on the work first introduced by MailChimp’s Fabio Carneiro, people like Mike Ragan and Nicole Merlin developed a set of techniques typically called hybrid coding. Instead of relying on media queries to trigger states, hybrid emails are fluid by default, leaving behind fixed pixels for percentage-based tables. These fluid tables are then constrained to appropriate sizes on desktop with the CSS max-width property and conditional ghost tables for Microsoft Outlook, which doesn’t support max-width. Combined with Julie Ng’s responsive-by-default images, hybrid coding is an effective way for email developers to build campaigns that work well across nearly every popular email client. This week's sponsor: ADOBE XD

2016-11-14T05:01:00+00:00

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Awaken the Champion A/B Tester Within

2016-11-01T14:00:00+00:00

Athletes in every sport monitor and capture data to help them win. They use cameras, sensors, and wearables to optimize their caloric intake, training regimens, and athletic performance, using data and exploratory thinking to refine every advantage possible. It may not be an Olympic event (yet!), but A/B testing can be dominated the same way. I talked to a website owner recently who loves the “always be testing” philosophy. He explained that he instructs his teams to always test something—the message, the design, the layout, the offer, the CTA. I asked, “But how do they know what to pick?” He thought about it and responded, “They don’t.” Relying on intuition, experienced as your team may be, will only get you so far. To “always test something” can be a great philosophy, but testing for the sake of testing is often a massive waste of resources—as is A/B testing without significant thought and preparation.  Where standard A/B testing can answer questions like “Which version converts better?” A/B testing combined with advanced analyses gives you something more important—a framework to answer questions like “Why did the winning version convert better?” Changing athletes, or a waste of resources? Typical A/B testing is based on algorithms that are powered by data during the test, but we started trying a different model on our projects here at Clicktale, putting heavy emphasis on data before, during, and after the test. The results have been more interesting and strategic, not just tactical. Let’s imagine that Wheaties.org wants to reduce bounce rate and increase Buy Now clicks. Time for an A/B test, right? The site’s UX lead gets an idea to split test their current site, comparing versions with current athletes to versions featuring former Olympians. Wheaties page design. But what if your team monitored in-page visitor behavior and saw that an overwhelming majority of site visitors do not scroll below the fold to even notice the athletes featured there? Now the idea of testing the different athlete variants sounds like a waste of time and resources, right? But something happens when you take a different vantage point. What if your team watched session replays and noticed that those who do visit the athlete profiles tend to stay on the site longer and increase the rate of “Buy Now” clicks exponentially? That may be a subset of site visitors, but it’s a subset that’s working how you want. If the desired outcome is to leverage the great experiences built into the pages, perhaps it would be wise to bring the athlete profiles higher. Or to A/B test elements that should encourage users to scroll down. In our experience, both with A/B testing our own web properties and in aggregating the data of the 100 billion in-screen behaviors we’ve tracked, we know this to be true: testing should be powerful, focused, and actionable. In making business decisions, it helps when you’re able to see visual and conclusive evidence. Imagine a marathon runner who doesn’t pay attention to other competitors once the race begins. Now, think about one who paces herself, watches the other racers, and modifies her cadence accordingly. By doing something similar, your team can be agile in making changes and fixing bugs. Each time your team makes an adjustment, you can start another A/B test ... which lets you improve the customer experience faster than if you had to wait days for the first A/B test to be completed. The race is on Once an A/B test is underway, the machines use data-based algorithms to determine a winner. Based on traffic, con[...]



Let Emotion Be Your Guide

2016-11-01T14:00:00+00:00

We were sitting in a market research room in the midst of a long day of customer interviews. Across from us, a young mother was telling us about her experience bringing her daughter into the ER during a severe asthma attack. We had been interviewing people about their healthcare journeys for a large hospital group, but we’d been running into a few problems. First, the end-goal of the interviews was to develop a strategy for the hospital group’s website. But what we’d discovered, within the first morning of interviews aimed at creating a customer journey map, was that hospital websites were part of no one’s journey. This wasn’t wildly surprising to us—in fact it was part of the reason we’d recommended doing customer journey mapping in the first place. The hospital had a lot of disease content on their site, and we wanted to see whether people ever thought to access that content in the course of researching a condition. The answer had been a resounding no. Some people said things like, “Hmm, I’d never think to go to a hospital website. That’s an interesting idea.” Others didn’t even know that hospitals had websites. And even though we’d anticipated this response, the overwhelming consistency on this point was starting to freak out our client a little—in particular it started to freak out the person whose job it was to redesign the site. The second issue was that our interviews were falling a little flat. People were answering our questions but there was no passion behind their responses, which made it difficult to determine where their interactions with the hospital fell short of expectations. Some of this was to be expected. Not every customer journey is a thrill ride, after all. Some people’s stories were about mundane conditions. I had this weird thing on my hand, and my wife was bugging me to get it checked out, so I did. The doctor gave me cream, and it went away, was one story. Another was from someone with strep throat. We didn’t expect much excitement from a story about strep throat, and we didn’t get it. But mixed in with the mundane experiences were people who had chronic conditions, or were caregivers for children, spouses, or parents with debilitating diseases, or people who had been diagnosed with cancer. And these people had been fairly flat as well. We were struggling with two problems that we needed to solve simultaneously. First: what to do with the three remaining days of interviews we had lined up, when we’d already discovered on the morning of day one that no one went to hospital websites. And second: how to get information that our client could really use. We thought that if we could just dig a little deeper underneath people’s individual stories, we could produce something truly meaningful for not only our client, but the people sitting with us in the interview rooms. We’d been following the standard protocol for journey mapping: prompting users to tell us about a specific healthcare experience they’d had recently, and then asking them at each step what they did, how they were feeling and what they were thinking. But the young mother telling us about her daughter’s chronic asthma made us change our approach. “How were you feeling when you got to the ER?” we asked. “I was terrified,” she said. “I thought my daughter was going to die.” And then, she began to cry. As user experience professionals we’re constantly reminding ourselves that we are not our users; but we are both parents and in that moment, we knew exactly what the woman in front of us meant. The entire chemistry of the room shifted. The interview sub[...]



Liminal Thinking

2016-10-25T14:00:00+00:00

A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Practice 4 of Dave Gray's new book, Liminal Thinking, available now from Two Waves Books. Use code ALA-LT for 20% off! A theory that explains everything, explains nothing Karl Popper Here’s a story I heard from a friend of mine named Adrian Howard. His team was working on a software project, and they were working so hard that they were burning themselves out. They were working late nights, and they agreed as a team to slow down their pace. “We’re going to work 9 to 5, and we’re going to get as much done as we can, but we’re not going to stay late. We’re not going to work late at night. We’re going to pace ourselves. Slow and steady wins the race.” Well, there was one guy on the team who just didn’t do that. He was staying late at night, and Adrian was getting quite frustrated by that. Adrian had a theory about what was going on. What seemed obvious to him was that this guy was being macho, trying to prove himself, trying to outdo all the other coders, and showing them that he was a tough guy. Everything that Adrian could observe about this guy confirmed that belief. Late one night, Adrian was so frustrated that he went over and confronted the guy about the issue. He expected a confrontation, but to his surprise, the guy broke down in tears. Adrian discovered that this guy was not working late because he was trying to prove something, but because home wasn’t a safe place for him. They were able to achieve a breakthrough, but it was only possible because Adrian went up and talked to him. Without that conversation, there wouldn’t have been a breakthrough. It’s easy to make up theories about why people do what they do, but those theories are often wrong, even when they can consistently and reliably predict what someone will do. For example, think about your horoscope. Horoscopes make predictions all the time: “Prepare yourself for a learning experience about leaping to conclusions.” “You may find the atmosphere today a bit oppressive.” “Today, what seems like an innocent conversation will hold an entirely different connotation for one of the other people involved.” “Stand up to the people who usually intimidate you. Today, they will be no match for you.” These predictions are so vague that you can read anything you want into them. They are practically self-fulfilling prophecies: if you believe them, they are almost guaranteed to come true, because you will set your expectations and act in ways that make them come true. And in any case, they can never be disproven. So what makes a good theory, anyway? A scientist and philosopher named Karl Popper spent a lot of time thinking about this. Here’s the test he came up with, and I think it’s a good one: Does the theory make a prediction that might not come true? That is, can it be proven false? What makes this a good test? Popper noted that it’s relatively easy to develop a theory that offers predictions—like a horoscope—that can never be disproven. The test of a good theory, he said, is not that it can’t be disproven, but that it can be disproven. For example, if I have a theory that you are now surrounded by invisible, undetectable, flying elephants, well, there’s no way you can prove me wrong. But if my theory can be subjected to some kind of test—if it is possible that it could be disproved, then the theory can be tested. He called this trait falsifiability: the possibility that a theory could be proven false. Many theories people have about other people are like horoscopes. They ar[...]



Network Access: Finding and Working with Creative Communities

2016-10-25T14:00:00+00:00

A curious complaint seems to ripple across the internet every so often: people state that “design” is stale. The criticism is that no original ideas are being generated; anything new is quickly co-opted and copied en-masse, leading to even more sterility, conceptually. And that leads to lots of articles lamenting the state of the communities they work in. What people see is an endless recycling within their group, with very little bleed-over into other disciplines or networks. Too often, we speak about our design communities and networks as resources to be used, not as groups of people. Anthony McCann describes the two main ways we view creative networks and the digital commons: We have these two ways of speaking: commons as a pool of resources to be managed, and commons as an alternative to treating the world as made up of resources. One view is that communities are essentially pools of user-generated content. That freely available content is there to be mined—the best ideas extracted and repackaged for profit or future projects. This is idea as commodity, and it very conveniently strips out the people doing the creating, instead looking at their conceptual and design work as a resource. Another way is to view creative networks as interdependent networks of people. By nature, they cannot be resources, and any work put into the community is to sustain and nourish those human connections, not create assets. The focus is on contributing. A wider view By looking at your design communities as resources to be mined, you limit yourself to preset, habitual methods of sharing and usage. The more that network content is packaged for sale and distribution, the less “fresh” it will be. In Dougland Hine’s essay Friendship is a Commons, he says when we talk enthusiastically about the digital commons these days, we too often use the language of resource management, not the language of social relations. Perhaps we should take a wider, more global view. There are numerous digital design communities across the world; they are fluid and fresh, and operate according to distinct and complex social rules and mores. These designers are actively addressing problems in their own communities in original ways, and the result is unique, culturally relevant work. By joining and interacting with them—by accessing these networks—we can rethink what the design community is today. Exploring larger communities There are a number of creative communities I’ve become a part of, to varying degrees of attention. I’ve been a member of Behance for almost 10 years (Fig. 1), back when it was something very different (“We are pleased to invite you to join the Behance Network, in partnership with MTV”). Fig. 1: Screenshot of the Behance creative community website in 2009. Source: belladonna While I lived in Japan, Behance was a way for me to learn new digital design techniques and participate in a Western-focused, largely English speaking design network. As time has gone on, it’s strange that I now use it almost exclusively to see what is happening outside the West. Instagram, Twitter, and Ello are three mobile platforms with a number of features that are great for collecting visual ideas without the necessity of always participating. The algorithms are focused on showing more of what I have seen—the more often I view work from Asian and African designers and illustrators, the more often I discover new work from those communities. While interesting for me, it does create filter bubbles, and I need to be careful of falling into t[...]



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2016-10-24T04:01:00+00:00

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