web musings

The web is a rich and complex environment. It boomed and bloomed in ways we couldn't have imagined twenty, ten or even five years ago. As a developer keeping track of what is going on can be a daunting task and it's not easy to distinguish between hypes, fads and proper evolutions. In this feature I'll vent a little about (sometimes tangibly) web-related issues.

valuable friction / by ashton kutcher

date
July 26, 2013
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So this morning I was watching an interview with Ashton Kutcher. Not because I'm a big fan of the guy (I think he's a pretty bad actor to be honest), but I was kinda interested to hear about his role as Steve Jobs and I could use some background chatter. The first part of the interview wasn't about the film though, it was about Kutcher's views on technology in general. About 8 minutes into the interview I would've spilled my coffee if I'd been a coffee drinker.

Kutcher pretty much reiterates a blog post of mine that I wrote 5 years ago, where I explored the boundaries between effort, worth, quality and quantity, something I still feel very strongly about. In short: making a task too easy will decrease the value of that task. Kutcher brings up the retweet action from Twitter that changed from a manual syntax to an automated 1-click action, disturbing the signal to noise ratio in a negative way. In a way removing that friction helped Twitter to grow (because it was much easier to retweet), but at the same time it removed value for its users, which is a long-term risk.

It's really nice to see other people are picking up on this, as I feel that too many people still believe that simpler is always better. Friction (or effort) is necessary to reduce noise (or quantity), so it's all about balance rather than making something as easy as possible.

Though I must say it still feels weird feeling so connected to something Ashton Kutcher said.

claustrophobic blog designs / tired of the hype

date
June 25, 2013
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If anything is fad/hype-sensitive, it's the overall design of front-end/web design blogs/portfolio sites. Remember a couple of years ago, the one-pagers stating just some links to social media websites? That didn't last very long, did it? Since a year or so a new trend has surfaced, one you'll often find on web development blogs and which is often being sold as a usability/UX improvement. Well, I'm not really buying it.

I'm talking about the seemingly under-designed, almost white-label, single-column blogs featuring over-sized fonts and excessive white space. To give you an idea, I ran into the filament blog yesterday which is following this trend to the letter, though zeldman.com probably takes you closer to the source of this hype.

It's not that I don't understand where this is coming from. Blogging takes a lot of time and effort, so maintaining the code and design of your website on top of that can be a little daunting. These type of designs are naturally responsive (apart from a collapsing main navigation and maybe some footer styling), they are pretty browser-proof and they are "flat", which is all the rage. The bigger fonts are needed to fill the freed space by leaving out all kinds of sidebars, but that's where it gets tricky. Somehow, in an attempt to mask all these practical design choices, this is all supposed to make it easier for the reader to actually read the text.

Well, not so for me. I'm on a 27" screen here and I often feel claustrophobic looking at these blogs. I never have my browser full-screen so I usually see only two or three paragraphs max. A fierce scroll shoots me deep into the page without any form of context. Skipping around paragraphs involves a lot of scrolling and a lot of feeling lost. I can never really settle down while reading an article because before I know it I'm past the first two paragraphs and I need to start scrolling down again. Pages go on forever and without a good overview this makes me nervous. Images inserted into the text only make it worse, as they once again diminish the available content on a single page.

One thing to take into account when trying to sell these types of design as "better for readability" is that blog posts aren't the same as stories or books (though I understand why bloggers like to think differently). People often skip through our texts. If one paragraph isn't interesting enough (or simply too predictable), it will be skipped and they will jump to the next. People are looking for information and/or opinions, more often than not skimming texts in order to find what they need. Big fonts and less content on a single screen are only a hindrance.

Zooming out (control + '-') does help in most cases but it makes for really small websites on my 27" screen, to the point where it just looks ludicrous. I know this is just the opinion of one guy but I truly hope this fad disappears soon. I can also assure you I won't be participating in this trend. I may have flattened my design recently, but the 13px base font remains and the columns will continue to exist too.

discovery is not search / app/platform frustrations

date
May 17, 2013
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One frustration about almost every new app and platform nowadays: it's all about discovery. It's about sharing, predefined content filters and pushed content. It's about the experience, the journey and the fluff in between. There are tons of music and film services out there (at least for those of you living in America), but whatever platform I try I don't feel really comfortable with the way it presents its data to me. What I think these platforms and apps lack is search. Good, old-fashioned, plain and straightforward, multi-faceted search.

For a while now I've been eying online music/streaming providers. Now that Netflix is finally announced in Belgium I did the same with film providers. The fact of the matter is that few platforms out there accommodate people with specific and well-defined needs. This morning I checked iTunes (movies), which is a complete disaster in this respect. Even a simple task like "give me all Japanese films" is virtually impossible to accomplish (or tucked away so deep that I wasn't able to find it after playing with it for 15 minutes). I've been using the Microsoft XBOX music service once in a while, but still haven't found a way to get label listings (give me all the releases on label X), my preferred way of discovering new music (and one that's infinitely better than algorithmed recommendations).

When it comes to film and music I do my own discovery. (Database-like) sites like discogs and IMDb are where I discover things. I do my own linking, mixing and matching and I would love to find a platform that combines this type of specific discovery with purchases and cataloging. Sadly I still haven't found it yet and looking at what's out there it doesn't seem to be a big priority for content providers. Instead people are expected to just sit back, being spoon-fed the crap these services think we might like. Maybe that's fine for others, but I'm not paying for that.

social communication / direct vs subscription

date
April 30, 2013
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A month or two ago I finally bought my very first smartphone. The first thing I did was download a selection of apps. The usual suspects: Twitter, WhatsApp, Skype, Facebook, RSS reader. I even tried out a news app, just to see what the fuzz was all about. Last month I deleted the Twitter, RSS and Facebook app. Not because the apps themselves annoyed me, but the fact that they acted as apps seriously disrupted my workflow.

When it comes to social communication, I think there is an important distinction to be made. Apps like Mail, WhatsApp, Skype (SMS and Phone) are all services that facilitate a direct form of communication. Notifications coming from these apps are important, as they mean that someone actively tried to contact me. Apps like Facebook, Twitter, RSS (and the news app) on the other hand, are different in that they are (mainly) based on subscription-like communication. While they too notified me of "new content", the content itself was not aimed at me and could be consumed at my own leisure.

Getting notifications from apps like Twitter, Facebook and RSS annoyed me no end, as I was inclined to react to these notifications immediately. But subscriptions aren't supposed to work that way. They should be consumed in sizable chunks, whenever I have a little time to spare. So I ditched the apps, favorited the websites and I'm a much happier person now. I think subscription-like communication has little reason to be disruptive, so cutting off these notifications actually took away some unnecessary pressure. If you find yourself needlessly checking Facebook and Twitter with each new notification, I suggest you try the same (at least if you have a decent browser to check their mobile web alternatives).