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  1. Early Reflections on Google Chrome

    Google Chrome screenshots

    The world is abuzz with the imminent release of Google Chrome today. The screenshots on CNet were apparently from the new site that was live for a short time. The news slipped out (or leaked) when, according to the Google blog, they “hit ‘send’ a bit early” and released the Google Chrome comic strip prematurely.

    The comic is a great piece of work by Scott McCloud. It’s a gold-mine of interesting propaganda, and I’d love to link to some of my favourite sections but there’s a critical failing: none of the pages have a permalink! Some kind soul has taken the time to republish the strip so they can be linked although the site was slowing down already when I last visited.

    Does the world need another browser? Do we need another browser to test our work on? Those seem to be the questions I hear first. However, Chrome is built on WebKit, the open source engine that also powers Safari. Safari is also my browser of choice right now — WebKit passes the Acid 3 test and Safari has the best font rendering of any browser I’ve tried — so that gives me hope. Also, Chrome will be open source, and with a few new ideas may push browser science along a little bit in a good direction, especially around security, performance and the UI.

    When I heard the name, it reminded me of the DHTML tricks we used to use way back to remove the chrome from the browser window — effectively stripping it of everything that wasn’t content. Google has said:

    “We don’t want to interrupt anything the user is trying to do. If you can just ignore the browser we’ve done a good job.”

    I do a pretty good job of ignoring the browser already. However, there are problems we’ve all been working around for a long time that Chrome wants to solve. Most of the advances have a visual metaphor in their approach to tabs. Here are some of the things that caught my eye:

    The tab is king

    Tabs will be at the top of the browser window as they are in Opera, making utilities like the address bar part of an individual tab. It makes sense to me: Often I find, when talking to less technical people and trying to get them to go to a URL, they’re so used to ignoring the address bar that I have to help them find it before they can start typing. Google don’t have a URL box though, they have an “omnibox” that does everything from remembering visited URLs to giving search suggestions and allowing us to do free text history searches. It also does autocompletion. The comic strip explicitly mentions getting this right but, just in case it doesn’t, I hope autocomplete can be toggled off.

    In Chrome, the browser controls and URL box are explicitly associated with that unique tab. Everything associated with the site open in the tab is contained within it so it can be moved or detached completely from the window.

    However, people often ignore the page title, too. In the past, this has led to all sorts of wacky, useless and inaccessible page titles being used by developers to stuff keywords or just have fun. I would of liked to have seen the page title better associated with the viewport, and visible in full, not just as part of the tab label.

    Oi, JavaScript, stop!

    How many times does an errant bit of JavaScript slow down the browser to a crawl and sometimes even crash the whole caboodle? Too many times. Chrome has a whole new JavaScript virtual machine dubbed V8. It also claims a multi-threading approach that sandboxes each individual tab so it won’t affect other open tabs, which allows us to close it and kill the process if it’s getting out of hand. They’re also giving us a task manager to enable us to see which tabs or plugins are causing problems by seeing the processing running and how much memory they’re using. Sounds good to me.

    Confined pop-ups

    Chrome will associate pop-ups with each individual tab, and confine them within that tab unless people drag them out to become a new window; an enhancement to just blocking all pop-ups altogether when some are used for legitimate purposes.

    Default tab page

    When a new tab is opened, Chrome will open a tab page with nine of your most visited pages, search history, recently closed and bookmarks. It sounds like an evolved version of Opera’s Speed Dial (Flash demo), that automatically populates the holding page by default.

    Site-specific Chrome

    Taking a lead from apps I find incredibly useful like Fluid, Chrome will allow site-sepcific browsing to access sites like Google Mail in a streamlined window. Hopefully, we’ll be able to do that for any URL, and create icons in much the same way I can with Fluid now.

    Security

    Chrome would seem to take sand boxing to its natural conclusion, isolating individual sites from any other open tab, and not allowing access to anything without user permission. I’ll be interested to see what the web app security experts say about this, especially in relation to XSS and CSRF attacks. Chrome will also continually download blacklists for phishing and malware sites and warn users when they visit them. Those lists will also be open source.

    Typography?

    I can’t talk about a new browser without mentioning typography. The WebKit rendering engine already gives Chrome an advantage to build on for web type. All I want to say is that I hope they take a lead from the great work being done with things like @font-face support, and keep a beady eye on the most important thing a browser has to do: help us read. Hopefully, nothing in Chrome will limit the fine work the WebKit team are doing to make hinting, anti-aliasing, grid-fitting and hyphenation as good as they can be. Chrome will be released for Windows first. I’m looking forward to see how it reads, but how it integrated with OS X’s native text rendering will also be very interesting.

    One thing is…

    Google Chrome has already changed the browser landscape and it’s not released yet. We’ll see if all the web application savvy at Google Inc. emerges in the browser — I’m looking forward to it. After all, if we can’t just have one very good browser to design and develop for (oh, what luxury that would be), we may as well have another using WebKit — a rendering engine that’s committed to standards support, is open source, and doing a fine job already.

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  2. Collaboration at OSCON ’08

    OSCON 2008

    In just under two weeks time I’ll be delivering a joint talk with Chris Shiflett at OSCON, the biggest open source convention in the world run by O’Reilly. It happens to be my first time at OSCON, as well as my first talk. It also happens to be OSCON’s 10th birthday. Needless to say, I’m a little nervous: First, at the privilege of speaking in front of such an erudite crowd at such an important event, and second, because losing your cherry is always nerve-wracking, unless you’re drunk.

    Just for the record, I have no intention of being drunk.

    It was Chris’s idea. He thought that our working process was valuable enough to share. I’ve really enjoyed the way we’ve worked together over the last couple of years, so thanks Chris for suggesting we talk about it.

    Our talk will be about collaboration, what we’ve called experience-driven development. We’ll be exploring how we can do our best work, and enjoy the relationships and processes that get us there, no matter the size or complexity of the project. I don’t want to give anything away, but hopefully it will be fun as well as informative. With a bit of luck we’ll leave folks with some food for thought to take away with them and re-heat later.

    The talk will take place on Thursday 24th July from 10:45am to 11:30am in room E145. If you can make it, I’ll see you there! Also, let me know if you’re going, and feel free to come and say hi anytime. I’m looking forward to meeting people and generally soaking in the vibe! If anyone is considering grabbing a last minute pass, and could use a 15% discount, contact me. You don’t have to come along to our talk, but we’d love to see you.

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  3. The Paragraph in Web Typography & Design

    Paragraphs are punctuation, the punctuation of ideas. After selecting a typeface, choosing the right paragraph style is one of the cornerstones of good typography. This is a brief inquiry into paragraph style for the Web.

    To collect my thoughts I put together a rough page of examples. I was interested in openings and texture more than font style, so they all share the same basic copy, typeface, size, and leading (line height). It was mostly for my own reference and will change over time, but you’re welcome to take a peek:

    Typographers use layout techniques like single line boundaries, indents, outdents and versals (drop caps etc.) to punctuate paragraphs in a stream of discourse. Block paragraphs are common to the Web, indented paragraphs are common to print. Browser vendors gave us a default block style of flush left, ragged right with a single line boundary, but there are many variants we can pick from depending on the context.

    In any project, the text itself will have its own tone, rhythm and meaning. It’s our job to provide it with a stage on which to sing. Typography serves the spirit of the text, bringing it before an audience, and then quietly fading into the background as the reader delves into the meaning. As Ellen Lupton says in Thinking with Type:

    Typography is a tool for doing things with: shaping content, giving language a physical body, enabling the social flow of messages.

    In the Web era, designers create narrative spaces made up of text, images, video, etc. We add context and legibility to those formats. We also create spaces where people express themselves. We work with enacted narratives where the content is already available, and emergent narratives to be created over time. Instead of just styling symbols, we’re styling bytes in fluid narrative spaces. We’re bytographers; literally, the writers of bytes, not just glyphs. Yet still, at the heart of this explosion in publishing, is the humble and beautiful paragraph.

    From paragraphos to paragraph

    Punctuation is a word derived from the Latin punctus, to point. Punctus is also the precursor of the period, or full stop. Punctuation was called pointing in English. It was used to indicate pauses or breaths until the 16th century. Punctuation as syntax didn’t emerge until the Renaissance.

    A paragraph was historically a punctuation mark. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word paragraph has roots in the old French word paragrafe from modern Latin paragraphus or “sign for start of a new section of discourse”. That in turn is based on the Ancient Greek word paragraphos, a “short stroke in the margin marking a break in sense". The great reference of the 20th century, the Encyclopædia Britannica says:

    In the oldest Greek literary texts, written on papyrus during the 4th century BC, a horizontal line called the paragraphos was placed under the beginning of a line in which a new topic was introduced. This is the only form of punctuation mentioned by Aristotle.

    This fragment of a parchment scroll shows a paragraphos (a) indicating the line where the new paragraph starts with a break in the text (b).

    Source: The ‘Textual Mechanics’ of Early Jewish LXX/OG Papyri and Fragments by Robert A. Kraft (University of Pennsylvania), The Manuscript Fragments, s.5: parchment roll, ca 100 bce; Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

    Parchment roll fragment

    Medieval punctuation employed a paragraphus—also known as a “‘gallows-pole’ or upper-case gamma, or § (later ¶)”— to separate ideas in a running discourse.

    White space did not punctuate paragraphs until the 17th century. This was the era of Ben Jonson’s English Grammar, where he recommended the use of syntactic punctuation. Around that time, the practise of indenting the first line of a paragraph became part of our standard syntax, along with the use of capital letters for the start of a sentence, and the use of a space between words.

    Technology & cost influencing style

    Materials and technology have always influenced calligraphy and typography. Papyrus was used from the 4th century BC. It was brittle, so papyrus was rolled instead of folded. Parchment codices became more popular in the 5th century AD. The finest parchment was vellum, made from the white skin of a calf. Next came paper: Invented in China in the 1st century, the first latin text was written on paper around the 10th century. By the mid-15th century it was becoming dominant. Johannes Gutenberg printed only 45 copies of his Forty-two line Bible on vellum, using paper for the remaining 135 copies because it was cheaper.

    During the industrial revolution in the 19th century, cheaper wood-based paper emerged along with steam-driven paper making machines. Intuition tells me that also influenced typography. By the turn of the 20th century paper was cheaper than ever before. The cost of inserting a single line of white space between paragraphs—the most common style today—would have reduced. The emergence of the consumer society and rise of advertising also encouraged a change in typographic style. “Fat face” display type was created for bills and advertisements; hyperbole became a style of visual layout. Before the 19th century, the insertion of a full line of white space between paragraphs would have surely been decadent. Perhaps that’s how it became commonplace. However, this is speculation; I cannot find reference to how it became prevalent, so would welcome further evidence.

    The single line boundary is the most common paragraph delimiter used on the Web today and the most common browser default style. Generally, the indent is still the most prevalent paragraph delimiter in printed books and publications. In some ways, the block and indent styles exemplify the divide between Web and print. Printing cost is still a consideration looking at some of the mistreated text in certain paperback books, but printing on a screen effectively removes cost as a factor. Usability is the only currency by which web typography is measured. That’s what we’ll explore next.

    Paragraphs in a narrative space

    The narrative space of a web site is where a story develops as a person navigates the site. This should not be confused with narrative as a text-type. However, in some cases, it does share some characteristics like a chronological order. For example, a blog is a narrative, no matter how broken. It has a chronological order (albeit reverse). Even though a blog has multiple entry points, it can still contain a chronological story. The chapters in that story (entries) may be any one or more of the traditional text-types {narrative; descriptive; argumentative; expository;} but they all form the narrative space of the site.

    The narrative space within a web site is made up of three components: content, layout (style and context), and information architecture.

    Further reading:

    1. Mark Bernstien writing in his mis-spent youth about narrative on A List Apart

    Web design narrative can be compared to architectural narrative: The design of an environmental experience from multiple viewpoints in time and space. Visitors experience a web site in much the same way.

    Web design narrative can also be compared to narrative in game design: both create the narrative space via a screen.

    In both comparisons, the experience of the narrative space is more than just style and technology. In fact, style and technology are tools to create the user experience. The experience of moving through a narrative space on the Web is complex. We understand that people may arrive in that space from any direction and context (referrer). They may be confronted when they arrive with any number of artifacts that convey narrative information (navigation, main content, calls to action, etc.). Any paragraph style must consider context as well as the meaning of the text.

    Thinking about paragraph style

    The way we approach the design of a narrative space on the Web is manifold. In most cases the content is not already available. If it is available, it may be subject to revision as part of a redesign process. The vision of the brand and the purpose of the site can seem clear, but may not be upon further investigation. Sometimes, our job as designers is to help refine both the vision and content. It’s during that stage that we explore layout and get a clue to the context in which the typography will live. We call it experience design. Only after that do we get down to experimenting with style.

    The context, meaning and tone of web copy should always determine typographic style. Reading the text in full—or at least understanding what the text might be before styling it—is a pre-requisite. A common mistake is to allow the design to dominate the text: Design for design’s sake, or even worse, fashion’s sake. The text is made subservient to the canvas that the designer wished to paint on the screen. This is exemplified by the proliferation of fun, but ultimately harmful, web design galleries. Once a user muscles past the gag reflex, or stops admiring the amazing graphical decoration, they can often realise the design is in their way. The content is obscured. The narrative space becomes broken into fragments, like pieces of torn parchment linked tenuously together by calls to action, or a nested index of links called a menu.

    Good typography makes the canvas fit the meaning of the text, not the other way around. It paints pictures with form that enrich the meaning of the words with colour, texture and movement. It is illusive, subtle, and ambient. It’s the shirt that engages from a distance. The closer you get to it the better it seems, but it takes a moment of reflection to even realise why. Robert Bringhurst says it beautifully in Elements of Typographic Style:

    One of the principles of durable typography is always legibility; another is something more than legibility: some earned or unearned interest that gives its living energy to the page. It takes various forms and goes by various names, including serenity, liveliness, laughter, grace and joy.

    When trying to energise paragraph text, meaning and context are the most important factors to consider. Meaning flows from the author. They are trying to share a message, a thought, an idea. Context belongs to the audience. They are trying to understand, extract meaning and find relevance. They’re doing so in the context of their own requirements, but also in the context of the page layout and the wider architecture of the site. A refined sense of empathy will help you find the right form for your paragraphs, if user testing cannot be part of your process.

    Choosing a paragraph style

    There are no hard and fast rules for paragraph style for the Web. Choosing a style depends on all the factors we’ve previously discussed. The 12 example styles I threw together are just a starting point and all paragraph styles need testing in context.

    You may find this place holder markup useful when testing styles.

    All browsers have good support for basic paragraph styles. However, complex treatments of versals and openings can be problematic. There are still browsers with immature standards support when it comes to using techniques like pseudo elements and adjacent sibling selectors. Our ability to specify fonts for body copy is also limited, and inconsistent rendering across platform and browser persistently frustrates creativity and precision. There’s still a lot to work with, though. Here are a few examples, some new and some that are aging beautifully:

    1. robweychert.com

      Rob Weychert used indents to wonderful effect in his Across America diary with text set flush left and ragged right. He also uses a deft combination of indents and small-capped openings in his blog posts. Both are a pristine example of using indents to compliment his particular style of writing. Truly a great example of bringing a love of print to the Web.

    2. funkatron.com

      Ed Finkler mixes a font stack of Palatino and Palatino Linotype with boundaries that perfectly suit his content. He publishes a mixture of material that’s often technical, so boundaries help delineate the technical writing for skim reading, while the larger size and typeface adds great texture to his site. For the technical material I might have defined sub-heads a little more, but his choice of paragraph style is instinctively good.

    3. andyrutledge.com

      Andy Rutledge treats paragraphs with love. On his home page, extracts from the three latest posts descend in a beautiful hierarchy of size and tone to indicate the chronology. Individual posts also cascade gracefully. Boundried blocks define his thoughts with great clarity. His material is often instructive, so this style perfectly suits the content.

    4. cameronmoll.com

      Cameron Moll indents paragraphs and uses boundaries. This could offend pedants in print but I find it wonderfully pleasing on the Web. His material is often educational so the division of points by boundaries helps legibility. However, one of the main reasons this style works so well is the font size: it could seem small but the indent with a boundary allows the text to breathe and adds great poise and texture.

    A note on indents

    If you choose to use an indent, stylistic tradition suggests that there should be no indent on a paragraph that follows a head or sub head. Tradition also suggests there should be no indent following elements like lists and blockquotes. You can achieve this without extraneous markup using adjacent sibling selectors. For example, if you have already set an indent on your paragraphs:

    p { text-indent: 2.5em;  }
    

    Then, to stop any paragraphs following a heading of rank 1–3 having an indent you can set:

    h1 + p, h2 + p, h3 + p { text-indent: 0; }
    

    However, I would caveat that with only if the blockquotes and indents are set flush left with hanging punctuation. Robert Bringhurst suggests: “If your paragraph indent is modest, you may for consistency’s sake want to use the same indent for quotations.” I agree, and I think the same can apply to lists on the Web. In both cases, a boundary is required to separate the list or blockquote from the surrounding paragraphs.

    A note on blocks

    If you choose a block style with no indent, but with boundaries between paragraphs, tradition suggests that there should be no indent on either lists or blockquotes. As you may have noticed from reading this article, I don’t always agree, especially on the Web. It depends on the content and the balance of elements. In certain instances, lists and blockquotes might be used to punctuate the running text, which can help people skim read on the Web.

    Web != print

    People experience the Web differently to print. The Web is not linear; in print people most often read sequentially, from front to back. They may flip, looking for something that catches their eye. After an initial look, they may skip back to interesting items using a table of contents or an index. On the Web this is reversed. Skipping to a certain page via the menu is habitual. This has been encouraged by bad design and web copy writing where inline links in the running text are sparse, if available at all.

    Skim reading is the norm on the Web. It may well even be the case that skimming is normal everywhere, it’s only when we become absorbed that we digest the meaning of the text linearly. It’s a way of filtering the noise in a page to try and get to the content of interest. However, this has become essential because of bad design; pages have been confused with intrusive advertisements, overbearing calls to action, and layouts that don’t serve legibility. It has forced people to skim, whether they want to or not. Better designers refuse such harmful techniques. Getting layout and content right in prototyping is essential.

    Careful choice of paragraph style (and other body text forms) can accommodate all of the differences in audience behavior and expectations. The optimal paragraph style you choose in summary pages may not be the optimal one for dense, detailed pages. A subtle change may well be necessary in different sections of a site. Choose judiciously, but most of all, designers should know why they are choosing a particular form; “because it looks good” is not a good reason on its own; “because it feels good” may well be.

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  4. An Ephemeral Site: Denna Jones

    Denna Jones is a designer, and we recently launched a site for her that is unlike any other that Jon Gibbins and I have done before. This is it:

    Screenshot of dennajones.com

    The evolutionary bit for us is under the hood, and to understand why, let me introduce you to Denna, herself.

    Introducing Denna Jones

    Denna’s fascinating to talk to because she is genuinely erudite. Her influences are as diverse as her roles. She’s a former Designer-in-Residence at Central St Martin’s College of Art and Design for the B.A. Architecture course. Currently, she’s Lead Artist for DLA Architecture’s Masterplanning Team, Deputy Editor of Art and Architecture Journal, and the Resident Curator responsible for delivering the arts strategy for the massive Devonport regeneration project. Most recently, Denna’s contributed to books like 1001 Buildings You Must See Before You Die and had an invitation to be the editor of a new tome in the series, 1001 Houses You Must See Before You Die.

    Luckily for us, Denna’s work with spacial narratives is often exploratory, so she was open to our newfangled experiments.

    A Web 2.0 problem

    Denna is also prolific around the Web. She documents her projects and travels using Flickr, and regularly reads, writes about, and observes Web culture as part of her work. So when she came to us to discuss a site it seemed to me she embodied a problem I’d been thinking about for a while: How can our domains be connected to our other personal accounts more naturally? Domains are our identity. However, much of what we publish is locked into other sites where we share it. It’s accessible by APIs at best, or clunky widgets at worst. Technical people can pull everything together but for non-technical people it’s not intuitive. Then there’s the issues of legacy content and copyright. Unsolved as yet, but looming. What will happen to all of our content in five, ten or twenty years time? Will we still have content strewn around the Web disconnected for the most part? Somehow we need to connect the dots. Maybe portable social networks are part of the answer, or Google’s OpenSocial. Whatever the answer, I wanted to include Denna’s existing content in her own site, and to make the future relationship between her Web activity and personal site as seamless as possible.

    Web services, say hi to dennajones.com

    The content on Denna’s site is delivered exclusively by Web services. We take advantage of the ability to share and manipulate data that those services provide to Denna, then let her choose what to publish on her site, and in what context. This is how:

    • Flickr is used to manage all images and some of the site copy direct from Denna’s account. That includes the main display images on the home page, the introduction copy on her work page, and the images and copy for projects. Work projects are managed via a specific Flickr collection, with each set being a project. This enables Denna to choose the display image and write a description that appears on the site. Visitors can also drill deeper via the project link to see other images that Denna has added to each project on Flickr.
    • Tumblr is used for Denna’s blog and her about page. The site archives her entries and allows access to tags and dates exactly like a conventional blog would. We also use tags to display different content around the site like the entries tagged with “projects” that are displayed on the work page.
    • Ma.gnolia is used for bookmarks.
    • Twitter is used for random thoughts and snapshots of her day.
    • Upcoming manages events.
    • Technorati is used for references to her posts in the wider blogosphere in place of allowing local comments which were considered but discarded.
    • Feedburner manages all feeds.
    • Google is used for site search.

    Jon Gibbins did the heavy lifting around the idea, using CakePHP and SimplePie to manage the incoming data. He also added functionality like Technorati reference counts, and the ability for Denna to refresh her site as soon as she published something elsewhere if she didn’t wish to wait for the automatic updates.

    Other small touches were also a pleasure to see unfold, like Denna’s footer image being her Flickr profile image, and the text describing her blog coming directly from her Tumblr byline.

    Denna’s Tumblr account is not linked because she wishes it to remain private.

    Tumblr posed the most significant problems. When we started development, tags were invisible on Tumblr. Entries could be tagged, but tags were not displayed anywhere for people to use. They were absent from the API. Jon Gibbins wrote a workaround and fired an email to Tumblr suggesting it might be good to give people some way of using tags. After a couple of weeks Jon came back to me and declared that although he hadn’t had a reply, the API had just changed to allow tag access. Perfect! We got an email a couple of days later from the Tumblr crew: Did we know that the API supported tags?

    Visual design, typography & layout

    I wanted the design to be a container to allow Denna’s own content to flourish. Although we discussed style, and helped Denna formulate her own house style, it was very much in her hands. Strangely, I had no reservations about this. Putting the choice of stock images in the hands of a client might seem risky to some folks; to me it was exciting, especially as Denna was so enthusiastic about having such an intimate level of control over her own site.

    Typography and layout have a touch of the Swiss modern using Helvetica Neue or Arial (depending on your platform) with a traditional scale. The layout is a hybrid—part fluid, part elastic — meaning it defaults to a 1024px viewport width, shrinks to fit 800px-wide viewports, but grows with browser font size until it fills the available viewport and then wraps.

    Information verbitecture

    The information architecture mostly uses verbs in the directory names—an idea that first surfaced with Chris Shiflett during our recent OmniTI design. It means that web addresses make up sentences wherever useful. For example, a blog entry has a URL of http://dennajones.com/writes/entry-title.

    HTML, JavaScript & microformats

    Plain old semantic HTML is used with CSS for styling. The interface was designed with accessibility firmly in mind; all JavaScript is introduced as a progressive enhancement to PHP-powered features like the slide-show for the home page.

    Microformats are used wherever appropriate: hCard for Denna’s contact details; hAtom for blog entries; hCalendar for Upcoming events.

    There is still more things we’d like to do, but in the meantime we’ve got a great head start and hopefully the beginnings of something special for an exceptionally interesting voice on the Web.

    Parting shots

    Working with Denna was inspirational. Her boundless curiosity, willingness to experiment, and professional skill made the whole process lots of fun. Her uncompromising belief in the ability of art and design to improve people’s lives makes her just the sort of person we need consulting on the future of our public spaces. It was a pleasure to give her a quasi-professional site that hopefully embodies the spirit of collaboration, personal creativity and expression we all admire. You can read more of her own thoughts on the design in her entry, Websites and the Science of Happiness. I’ll leave you with the opening line of that entry; it’s humbling to be though of in this way:

    “The designers of this website are happiness merchants.”

    Thanks Denna.

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  5. A Site for Sore Eyes: OmniTI

    You may have seen the recent case study featuring the evolution of OmniTI’s brand mark. Work on their new web site started soon after that was finished. This is what we did:

    OmniTI index

    OmniTI’s CTO Chris Shiflett and I worked closely on every aspect of the vision, brand message, information architecture, copy writing and content. For me it was the best kind of arrangement resulting in a piece of work I’m especially pleased with. Along the way we developed the kind of relationship that I’ve come to treasure, making me feel like I work in a collaborative industry, rather than a service one.

    OmniTI Sketch mark

    Metaphors for the invisible

    Discussions around the new site made me think of two interesting design problems. Scalability and performance, security, development and infrastructure are invisible arts. Historically, companies have fallen back on metaphors to communicate what they do visually: Faux boxes of imaginary software; stock photography of happy people at computers; they never worked for me. From my perspective, OmniTI is one of the finest development companies in the world. They’ve written some of the seminal technical books in our industry. They work for some of the most heavily trafficked sites on the planet like Digg, Friendster, National Geographic and Facebook. Their contributions to open source are legendary, with their utilities being used by Yahoo!, amongst many others. When tackling email on a massive scale they built the world’s fastest mail transfer agent. To reduce what they are capable of to awkward metaphors seemed disingenuous. I wanted to do something different.

    Another significant problem was how to convey personality. People buy from people, especially in a service industry. The relationships we develop are priceless. Many developers in our business—especially those who attend conferences like OSCON where they often speak—are already aware of the people at OmniTI, but they themsevles don’t tend to shout about what they do. Part of the reason for this is the culture of the company itself: Relaxed and down-to-earth but jam packed full of some of the most talented people anyone could hope to work with. Excellence has become commonplace, making celebrating it feel almost un-natural. It just happens by default. So, the web site needed to show some leg, reveal their personality as well as their work, without forcing patterns of publishing on them that would not be maintained.

    These problems made the job interesting. I wanted to accomplish three specific goals:

    1. Make OmniTI accessible. Personalise the brand, reveal the company character, and the people within it.
    2. Communicate the scale, quality and depth of what they do to technical and non-technical people.
    3. Make the whole experience of researching and contacting them simple, easy and useful.

    Collaboration

    To try and accomplish the goals we took a novel approach to design. It might seem ad-hoc, but it was deliberately organic; we let everything develop collaboratively, at almost the same time: From setting the vision to requirements gathering, persona development and task analysis, through to information architecture and copy writing. It sounds insane, but with a condensed time-line and a lot of intellectualising to be done, it worked in a way that only a small agile team that knows each other well can do.

    Along the way we went through four related iterations of style. Each reflected a development stage in the multi-track process we embarked on. The staff started writing a personal note for their own profiles. Some chose to stay with the professional photos, others supplied their own. All of it real though and unfiltered by marketing hype. Read the personal note of Rob Speed to get a glimpse of what I mean. The iterations kept getting better. In fact, everything kept getting better. Nothing is ever perfect, but a feeling of constant iterative improvement is a joy in itself. These are some of the highlights from my point of view:

    Theme, copy writing & content

    The theme is deliberately textual. OmniTI is a company that manipulates data in ways that are so esoteric that sometimes I had a hard time conceptualising the scale, nevermind the method. Text is the prevalent form of web data. It felt right to focus on it.

    Early on I decided to drop almost all decorative images and anything that was not content from the design. The data, the typography, they became the decoration. That went hand-in-hand with the decision to let OmniTI’s people, work and clients tell the company story. We decided to have a dual section in the planet for official company news and relevant posts from the staff’s own personal blogs. For the rest of the site, any copy that didn’t reflect the spirit of the company was avoided, and that which was left would be factual, not hyperbolic. Any claims OmniTI have made are under-estimates, and therefore all the more exceptional.

    Tiered detail

    I wanted to find a way of communicating the scope of their ability in a simple way. The audience diversity made this problematic. When developing personas to identify who we wanted to reach, two stood out: The technician and the executive. Both have very different requirements from the site. Both required detail in different areas. The first answer to this was for the home page. To grab people’s attention, I had the idea to display the actual output of their work as data in real time. There were technical and disclosure issues. We settled (for now) on showing some meta-level data around the number of pages and people that OmniTI’s clients serve:

    Screenshot: 'last month we helped some of our clients publish 880 million web pages, seen by 93 million people.'

    This will evolve over time and also be stored in an archive for future reference. Even more importantly, it is no mere boast. The figures are independently gathered and conservatively rounded down.

    The next solution was to somehow ease all of the audience into the site, whether they were technical or not. The narrative pattern we developed I call tiered detail. At the first level, like the index or any of the main navigation landing pages, chunks of different data are labeled with headers that encourage page skimming to find interesting topics. Copy is short, terse, accurate. The second level, like a personal profile, is more detailed and specific but has contextual links to related second level topics. The copy has links to third level pages where the focus narrows further to provide the kind of detail some people might want. These third level areas can be on site or off site—we didn’t distinguish between the two. All detail is useful when you want it.

    URLs

    Both Chris and I love beautiful, clean URLs. So when he came up with the idea of using verbs rather than nouns in the information architecture we we quickly agreed to make it so. The outcome of a fair degree of debate and wrangling is the structure you see today. The about page is http://omniti.com/is, the work page is http://omniti.com/does, etc. Deeper pages have a URL that forms a sentence, such as:

    http://omniti.com/does/security

    All trailing slashes have been removed making for highly legible and beautiful URLs in any context. More traditional URLs are redirected to the verb, so people can still type http://omniti.com/about and reach the about page. If you wish to know more, read Chris’s post, URLs can be beautiful.

    Typography & palette

    Evolving an interface from a brand, the type choices of which I had nothing to do with, is always interesting. Trying to find compliments is fascinating, even more so in a design that relies heavily on type composition and treatment for decoration. I’ll pretty much let the typography speak for itself .

    Italic Baskerville ampersands in the byline

    Highlights for me are the raised initial used in headlines which I always see as an icon, my favourite Baskerville italic ampersand used in the byline on the home page, and other subtle treatments like the semantics of the page titles or contextual links. I used a traditional scale, body copy is set in Georgia by Matthew Carter with the headlines set in a Lucida stack.

    The palette is included in this section because the typography developed alongside it, and they are irrevocably linked. Or, I should say, they are tonally co-dependent. Although the palette is autumnal, it is a counterpoint to the season, and you may see us have some fun with it over time, but the effect will persist: Type highlighted by luminosity, regardless of palette.

    Layout, functionality & accessible Ajax

    The layout is elastic in every respect to a strict baseline grid. This served the narrative theme, splitting the content in to equal chunks higher in the architecture for skimming, resolving to conventional asymmetric columns deeper in.

    OmniTI contact Ajax

    Jon Gibbins did a sterling job implementing the JavaScript effects on the site. He chose jQuery and added some flavour of his own to make everything accessible with or without JavaScript turned on. That extends to the Google Map on the contact page which fills the expanding container as font size is adjusted. Jon also audited the site for accessibility generally, applying his uniquely pedantic but practical approach to support a wide range of disabilities, especially where the JavaScript is concerned. You can read more in his post, Accessible Ajax: OmniTI.

    All other functionality was handled by OmniTI, with Theo himself building an unbelievably quick search engine with Perl in about an hour, and Chris building out the CMS equally as fast it seemed.

    Experience & narrative

    As designers, we wear a multitude of hats. In the final analysis I think we’re experience designers more than anything else. In many cases we use design to tell stories, or help a story unfold. We create spaces in which enacted or emergent narratives exist and the OmniTI site is no different. Like all real tales though, there’s still much to be told. Hopefully they have a good starting point; an authentic opening chapter where the history of the last ten years can sit comfortably with the next ten.

    For my part, I hope the story is a joy to read. I hope the design is unobtrusive and becomes an ambient signifier that adds a little texture to the content. It is a design I would have liked to implement for Grow itself, so a lot of my own predilections went into it. I was lucky: The great relationship that we have, and the creativity of OmniTI, allowed my ideas some breathing space. We took a journey that resulted in a site that is re-markedly different to other technical companies. Some might view that as dangerous. I think the opposite is true. To me it was a great project to do. Hopefully you’ll find it interesting enough to enjoy. If that’s the case, keep an eye on it; there may be some more subtle changes to come.

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  6. Web Design Craft & Boxwood Combs

    Around 10,000 years ago in the Stone Age human beings were using boxwood combs. They may have predated that, but that’s what the physical evidence shows. To put that in context, we’ve been using boxwood combs about 700 times longer than we’ve been using the Web, who’s protocols were put into the public domain on 30th April, 1993 by CERN. Boxwood has special properties. It is strong yet soft enough to be shaped and generates no static. A boxwood comb is perfect for purpose.

    Tsuge gushi or boxwood comb

    Boxwood comb via japanesetradition.net

    Sometime between the Stone Age and now, perhaps around 400 years ago, the Japanese turned Boxwood Combs (tsuge gushi) into something extraordinary. They discovered that Satsuma boxwood (Satsuma-tsuge) was the best quality for a comb. They dipped them in camellia oil to preserve the shine for comb and hair. People sat for 12 hours straight carving a single comb. They began to carve combs of incredible delicacy and precision that to this day, makes Japanese Boxwood combs the finest in the world. They became true craftsmen and women and were immortalised by artists like Hiroshige.

    That still continues today. Jusan-Ya in Tokyo’s old quarter has been there for almost 300 years where Keiichi Takeuchi, a 15th-generation craftsman, still makes boxwood combs by hand.

    The tradition and craft is important, valuable and precious, but the comb in itself is not the final output of this dedication and history. Craftsmen and women like Keiichi Takeuchi don’t create beautiful combs or just help women have beautiful hair. Through their craft they help to make life beautiful, both for themselves and for their patrons. They do this by creating something that responds to people, something perfect for purpose. That’s what all crafts people do, no matter what their profession, trade or art.

    In my eyes, Web design is almost indistinguishable from experience design. In the same way that boxwood comb makers create an experience, so do we. Web designers are all experience designers, or perhaps more accurately we are all narrative designers. A narrative designer creates an interface with flow. If you imagine user tasks as stories or narratives, whether the content is user generated or authored by copy writers, the concept of narrative design starts to make sense.

    The mistake that people make is to see Web design as the evolution of print design. Jeffery Zeldman broke it down rather well recently. Others have also commented on this and related topics. This mistake is best emphasised in Web design galleries. It seems to me that even fellow professionals sometimes forget what they are rating or judging and fall in to the trap of looking at the visual aesthetic alone. Sometimes the comments are disappointingly shallow. I wonder truly how many of us can reach past our predilections for pretty interfaces and fashion, and move into the realm of uplifting experiences that require much more than a glance at a screenshot to judge. The irony is that our discipline is very much about visual design, but it is not just about style. In my view, it should be about building carefully crafted experiences based on a thoughtful empathy with the audience and their goals.

    There are a lot of craftspeople in narrow disciplines. The issue is not a lack of dedication to craft, but the breadth of narrow disciplines that make up Web design craftsmanship. For example, apart from the technical disciplines of CSS, HTML and the vagaries of cross platform and agent behaviour, there are a vast number of others that overlap, merge and relate. To name a few, there are graphic design disciplines such as typography, illustration and layout. There are user centred design disciplines like accessibility, task analysis, persona building, information architecture and wireframing. There are marketing disciplines like copy writing and brand positioning. Then, if we want to truly create excellent user experiences designers need to understand or work with craftspeople who have depth in application optimisation, scalability, security and adaptability. The list could go on and on.

    I think a good Web designer has an understanding of all of these things, has mastered the technical, knows the non-technical and is thereby freed to be concerned with narrative: How users experience an interface and create their own stories based on the information presented to them, or by creating information themselves. Narrative design is what we do.

    In his fascinating article on Game Design as Narrative Architecture, Henry Jenkins of MIT said that, “a story is less a temporal structure than a body of information” which seemed eerily familiar to my way of thinking. He went on to make two relevant observations. The first on enacted narratives that could be compared to brochure sites that we create:

    “…the story itself may be structured around the character’s movement through space and the features of the environment may retard or accelerate that plot trajectory.”

    The second on emergent narratives that could be compared to social sites:

    “…spaces are designed to be rich with narrative potential, enabling the story-constructing activity of players.”

    Web designers have to consider these kinds of narratives on a daily basis. The skill is in how we push, pull and merge all of our technical and non-technical knowledge together. In order for Web designers to be craftspeople we have to be technically rigorous but also creative and organised, imagining and implementing complex narratives with everything in mind. In that sense, Web design is a much more complex discipline than making a boxwood comb but both aspire to the same ambition of creating something that is perfect for purpose.

    It took 10,000 years for human beings to reach the boxwood summit, but I think that many Web designers are there already in their approach. For my part, I’ll still be reaching for the lofty heights of the polymath and on that note I’d better get my finger out and do some work.

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  7. Smoothing out the Creases in Web Fonts

    Stickman smoothing out the contour in a ligature.

    Designers often choose one of the core Web fonts for body text because they are widely available, but like all typefaces, they render differently on different operating systems.

    Apple OSX and Microsoft Windows have different ways of rasterising fonts and different text rendering engines. Apple’s text rendering engine is Apple Type Services for Unicode Imaging (ATSUI .) Microsoft’s text rendering engine is Uniscribe .

    Font Rendering Methods in OSX & Windows

    OSX tries to respect the anatomy of the type as far as it can using floating–point positioning — a combination of anti–aliasing techniques and sub–pixel rendering that does not lock glyphs to the pixel grid.

    Windows uses two methods depending on the version of the operating system, (Standard and ClearType.) Standard uses a combination of hinting (grid fixing) and anti–aliasing. ClearType also uses sub–pixel rendering — using LCD display technology to achieve better anti–aliasing. With both of them, it prefers to lock the letters to the pixel grid.

    Comparing fonts at 14px and 800% maginifcation in OSX and Vista.

    Fig. 1: Firefox 2 on OSX (left) and IE7 on Vista (right) font rendering at 800% magnification.

    ClearType is enabled by default in Windows Vista. In 2001, Windows XP had ClearType included but enabled Standard mode by default. Changing to ClearType requires navigating through the Control Panel to find the Appearance settings, then finding a button marked “Effects” to access the options. It’s the Windows equivalent of trying to change the accessibility options in browsers: Even if you know they exists, they’re a pain to find.

    The legibility of each technique is subjective, and also depends on factors like ambient light, resolution, viewing distance, visual impairment, screen type and colour contrast.

    Dave Shea prefers Windows’ ClearType method, as does Jeff Atwood and much of his commentators. For judiciously sized body text I mostly prefer the Apple method, yet previously in brand work I’ve also locked the letters to the pixel grid to get them as sharp as I’d like. Again, it’s subjective: How I see the individual font appear at a particular size and colour is the deciding factor.

    Core Web Fonts

    In August, 2007 Apple and Microsoft renewed the license for the core Web fonts. It was anticipated, but still, there was a collective sigh of relief that the fonts would still be common to all major operating systems. Matthew Carter, the designer of Georgia and Verdana said:

    “By agreeing to make these fonts available cross–platform Microsoft and Apple will support their customers, and confirm their respect for the standards of type–design.”

    Using the default Standard mode in XP, text is rendered with minimal (practically non–existant) anti–aliasing up to a certain size. The size at which text starts to become smoothly anti–aliased seems arbitrary. Good smoothing occurs at various sizes for each variant of each typeface. XP is still the most common platform used by our audience today, and this is how it displays Georgia in IE6:

    IE6 on windwos XP font rendering

    Fig. 2: Screenshot of Georgia displayed in IE6 on Windows XP clearly showing smooth anti–alias starting at 17px.

    For your bookmarks: The Web fonts test suite displays text from all the fonts in a range from 11px to 21px so you can compare and contrast yourself.

    Smooth Header Font Size for Windows XP

    The Web Fonts test suite was used to produce the following table that compares the core Web fonts, and the size in pixels at which good anti–alias starts to occur in XP by default. (Every browser except Safari.) Only whole pixel font sizes were used.

    Typeface Pixel size for smooth anti–aliasing
    Regular Bold Italic Bold Italic Small Caps
    Andale Mono* 18 11 18 18 21
    Arial 18 11 18 12 21
    Arial Black 17 17 17 17 20
    Comic Sans MS 16 11 16 11 18
    Courier New - 16 - 17 -
    Georgia 17 17 17 17 20
    Impact - - - - -
    Times New Roman 18 14 21 18 21
    Trebuchet MS 17 12 17 12 20
    Verdana 17 17 17 17 20

    * Andale Mono does not ship with Windows Vista.

    Noticeably, Impact is never smoothly anti–aliased, and Courier New only when embolded (perish the thought.) The font being rendered with smooth anti–aliasing at the lowest size is Comic Sans; a fact that might produce a wry smile from its creator, Vincent Connare, who never intended Comic Sans to be used outside of the speech bubbles in Microsoft Bob.

    Designers can choose to ignore the smooth anti–aliasing point in XP Standard mode altogether. My view is that headers look better when smoothed as much as possible, so a careful choice of weight for the font is important. Now there’s an added complication. ClearType in Vista seems worse in some circumstances to me than the Standard method, but that is a post for another day.

    Future Font

    Apple’s patent application for a system and method for displaying text—invented by Mark Zimmer—from June 14th, 2007 may make interesting reading for some. It includes references to grid fitting / hinting, specifically a method that, “increases contrast of tops of lowercase characters of the font family and preserves thickness at tops of stems of lowercase characters.”

    In the future, the debate around platform specific font rendering may all be moot, as displays move to ever higher numbers of dots per inch and pixels per inch (160 as per the iPhone.) For now, how a given fonts behaves on different platforms is still crucial to user experience. I’ll still be keeping an eye on XP for a while yet, and I have a funny feeling I’ll be getting good use out of the table for a while, too.

    1. Resources and further reading:
      1. Web fonts test suite
      2. Apple Type Services for Unicode Imaging (ATSUI)
      3. Microsoft Uniscribe
      4. Apple TrueType Reference Manual
      5. Microsoft TrueType Reference Manual
      6. Wikipedia: Font Rasterization
      7. Wikipedia: Anti–aliasing
      8. Wikipedia: Font hinting / grid fitting
      9. Wikipedia: Sub–pixel rending
      10. Microsoft ClearType
      11. ClearType tuner for XP

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  8. Design vs Evolution

    I just watched a fascinating TED presentation on self–aware robots from Hod Lipson of Cornell University:

    It was inspiring to watch the spider–like bot trying to understand its own form and how to move forward. It was fascinating to see it not walk like a spider as we might have hoped for. Instead, it found a completely different way of propelling itself.

    Observing users in action within a user centred design (UCD) approach can also be surprising. They often do things we might not expect or be able to predict. As designers, we use our intuition to try and create empathetic experiences that transcend our own predilections. Jared Spool alluded to this recently at dConstruct when he described speaking to members of AIGA. He described how he talked about UCD and experience design to the audience who apparently promptly turned around and said, “that’s what we do!”

    In the article about narrative, I was thinking about developer versus user–generated narratives. The best social networks are platforms for expression. Users generate their own stories within the framework. To do this there is often a symbiotic relationship between the stage (the site) and the players (the users and audience.) The stage is literally set by the players and audience. They often find unique and interesting ways of using the stage to tell their stories. They create and pave new cowpaths which are then expanded upon by the developers. So the narrative being designed by the developers is only one of countless plots the users can follow.

    That’s what the robot was doing. With a reward at the end, it created its own story in order to understand itself and move forward. As Hod Lipson suggests, evolution rather than design may be a much more effective way of allowing robots to discover themselves. The same could apply to website users. Should we design experiences, or help them evolve? If it’s a balance between the two, how do we walk the line?

    The other fascinating portion of the presentation is what happens when rewards are removed. Instead of trying to achieve a task, the robots in the primordial soup of parts and power start to self–replicate. Self–replication becomes the task and the reward; amazingly like us, or any life form.

    You might compare that to certain social networks that exist without a goal as such, but to merely connect people. Users define their own rewards and tasks. Create their own narrative. Think about friends lists or popularity on Facebook. In a way that could also be considered self–replication, but of ideas and influence rather than genes. Conversely, on sites like Cybersocietes—a social networking popularity game where an algorithm calculates popularity based on activity—many users choose not to play a part in the designed narrative of the game. They choose instead to get satisfaction in other ways. They create their own narratives that still revolve around influence; not with the false measure of game points though, but in more subtle ways such as participation in public forums or private groups.

    Perhaps our job is not to design experiences in all cases, but to enable the audience to explore, play, and learn their way to a rewarding experience. Along the way they teach us a thing or two, and we all move forward together. Thanks to the Cornell Computational Synthesis Lab we can also let robots evolve on our computers as a screensaver (unfortunately Windows only) but fellow Mac users can evolve sheep instead.

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  9. Copywriting, Experience Design, Daleks & Julio

    Feedburner heading: My feeds are with Julio down by the school yard

    Reading the welcome message from Feedburner made me laugh. Logging in was a treat. Can you name the song and artist? Googling is cheating by the way! How I knew it automatically, I will never know. It was published before I was born.

    Feedburner just endeared themselves to me by making my experience better. Even if my huge subscriber count goes from six to one, then back to six again the following day, I’ll be predisposed to cut them a little more slack, just for making me smile.

    Flickr resurrected good copywriting with the multiligual and colloquial welcome messages. After coming out of beta Flickr also loves me (and you). Ahoy me hearties!

    Flickr: Ahoy jontangerine welcome message

    Dopplr has taken forth the torch and does its own great things with copy. Simple but effective:

    Dopplr copy: Welcome, Jon. Your home city is Bristol. You can invite people to Dopplr to see your trips or look for travellers you already know.

    Great copywriting. Or, more accurately, great copywriting as part of great experience design.

    Copywriting as Part of the Product

    Copywriting is usually associated with advertising: The selling or promoting of a particular product, service, concept or person. Hold the dogma, though. The Web hasn’t made that untrue, but it has extended the definition slightly. Copywriting is integral to user experience. It’s part of the contract between the user and the site. The copy is part of the service, not just a means to sell the service.

    Darlek says: Log in sux sess full.

    Dalek image © Owen BillCliffe via Flickr.

    Once upon a time in a land too close for comfort, developers often did copywriting. They were often great developers but more often terrible copywriters. Everything looked like DOS or Terminal messages: Dry, terse and with the personality of a Dalek. Not any more, though. As designers, we should have an active hand in it, and if the project allows, work with a good copywriter. At Grow, we regularly get pedantic over language because the copy will effect the way we think and see. If the copywriter can move away from the trite self–promotion of corporate sites, or the stale techno–shorthand of developers, we’ll hopefully all think good thoughts and have our eyes delighted by what we see.

    Experience Design and Narratives

    Experiences, narratives, stories; simplistically, one and the same. Denna Jones is Designer in Residence at Central St Martin’s College of Art, and consultant for architects. When she introduced me to the phrase, “design narrative” over a Peking duck salad at Severn Shed in Bristol, we shared a smile together, mostly due to the awkwardness of the term. However, narratives are exactly what social websites are all about. We share, create and experience them through the medium of the site and that’s exactly what copywriting helps to encourage.

    The copy adds to the narrative just as much as the typography and graphic elements do. In the same way, the copy can also add to the personality of the brand. Brand personality is a carefully cultured message. Brands have characters, and as I discussed in a previous article, the house style is integral to it. The question is whether the site or brand is a Mary or a maverick. As Mark Bernstein said in his A List Apart article on narrative:

    The point is that the reader’s journey through our site is a narrative experience. Our job is to make the narrative satisfying.

    One way of looking at it, is to see the narrative we design as just one amongst many. Users will create stories and experiences for themselves. The context may also be created by the audience, too, and then reinterpreted by others as part of their own experience of the site. That leaves the interface, the framework or stage upon which the narratives are played out. That’s where I love to work. Web designer? No. Art director? Maybe. Stage hand? Definitely! On that note I think I’ll go back to watching my feed play with Julio in the school yard. Paul Simon has a lot to answer for.

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