Starting something new

It’s almost a year since I closed down BlankPage, the writing service I ran for several years as a side project, and I think it’s finally time to start something new. Picking what to work on, has turned out to be a surprisingly hard problem.

When I started BlankPage is was just one of those excited moments when something life changing felt within reach, and I set about making it a reality immediately. This time I have more experience, and I know how important it is to work on things that are achievable.

That sounds a bit dark, but what I mean to say is that I have some idea of how much time, energy, and money I can spend on a project. So there’s no reason for me to pick a project that is far beyond those limitations in scope. I can’t build a new type of nuclear power plant by myself, with my savings. Understanding that and picking something a bit more viable is actually a freeing and exciting idea. Because it makes my next project so much more real, even in the idea stage.

https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js

Derrick Reimer wrote about finding product founder fit a while back, and I like the idea of picking a project that suits you as the creator. That should increase the likelihood of success.
So which are my criteria?
These are my thoughts, off the top of my head while writing this post:

  • The project needs to be small enough that a single full stack dev can easily build it.
    An MVP can’t take more than a few days to implement. Otherwise I won’t iterate fast enough.

  • The project cannot be production critical for the customers.
    I simply cannot guarantee seven 9’s uptime.

  • The Project’s competitive advantage should be based on a clear understanding of the users needs and wants.
    Not technology. It doesn’t have to be unique, it would be ok to just be different.

  • The Project should “give back” to the free and open web some how. The internet is important, and I think it’s up to all of us to strive to keep it open.
    So whatever I build, it should take cues from the IndieWeb movement somehow.

  • The Project shouldn’t aim to become a “scale-up”.
    If I end up taking on VC money, it will consume my life.

Alright, that’s enough for today I think. Back to work.

What’s so Ethical about Design anyway?

Last year I gave a talk at Designers in Stockholm about where evil comes from and how to avoid it. I called it “What’s so ethical about design anyway?” as a joke about the raging debate on ethics of design.

This debate has only grown since I gave the talk, but I’ve heard very little of substance on the topic. So to contribute I thought I’d update my talk and make it available online.

Here are my thoughts on how evil happens in large organisations, and how to avoid becoming evil.

This talk is 5 to 30 minutes long. Email me if you’d like me to present it for your organisation or meetup.

Finding patterns in randomness.

I recently saw season three of Stranger Things on Netflix with my partner, and at one point we both wanted to pause the episode just to learn a word the nerdy professor used: Apophenia.

Apophenia is the tendency for us to find patterns in random noise. Like seeing faces in clouds, or believing we can predict a coin toss.

Originally the word was intended to denote the more extreme behaviours of finding patterns, for instance delusions in connections with schizophrenia. But I think it’s useful in all sorts of situations. Especially for me, as a designer, when I track and observe human behaviour.

Participation medals for moral panic

I’ve always wondered about why some words are deemed to be more dangerous than other. I’m not referring to offensive language here, that’s an entirely different conversation. But words that are simply shunned for their perceived power. Words like “problem”.

A problem is a complication in your way. Something to be solved, worked around or on. In engineering and design a problem is not a negative word, it’s what you’re there to straighten out. Not exactly the focus of your work, but an important part.

In other fields, like politics, a words power comes from the perceived effect it might have. So Problems get renamed into Challanges, and recently I saw the next logical step; Opportunities.

The problem with this second way of working with language is that we’re shooting the messenger. We’re reframing and retooling language instead of working on the problem.

Instead of doing PR about a crash we’re pretending new words can achieve less crashes.

Language has power, and choosing the right words is important. We should continue to do so. But not to absurd extremes.

Fear of problems will not diminish because we change the vocabulary every five minutes. Showing that problems can be worked on and overcome might diminish that fear.

Jony Ive’s wisdom about design problems

Speaking with the Independent Jony Ive, chief design officer of Apple, gave us this insight into design. I think it’s one of the most wise things I’ve read about design problems in a very long time.

I think that is a huge part, a fundamental part, of my job. When you’re talking about the future, and as a designer that’s where my head is, then it’s extremely rare that I feel that I’m working in response to an articulated problem.

I could count the occasions that I’ve done that in the last 25 years on the fingers of one hand. It’s extremely rare that what we do is a response to somebody articulating a problem. By definition, you didn’t know it was a problem until you were aware of a better way of doing it. The tremendous challenge here is that when you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, so many things convince you that, of course, that’s the best way of doing it, not least habit.

When you have been solving a problem a certain way for a long time, the very idea that there could be a better way of doing it, can seem almost sacrilegious. It can seem extremely unlikely, so what you have to do is work by taking a leap of faith. That faith is based on the thought, ‘I’ve been here many times before and many times before we have found a better way of doing this’. And you just have to believe that’s the case and you keep on.

Sometimes, the vast majority of times, we are able to find a better way of solving a problem.

— Jony Ive

It’s extremely rare to solve articulated problems. Because normal users don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what the real problem is, they simply discover annoying details. And most often, the habit of how things are done, is not the best way of doing things.

It’s time for a radical rethink of web design paradigms

I love the current state of visual design online, don’t get me wrong. There’s so many beautiful apps and services that I’m constantly feeling the pressure to up my own game. Oddly though, in this sea of great design, there’s a strange aspect of conservative conformity. I’ve only started to wrestle with this myself, but this article will detail why I think web design needs a reboot.

There’s no reason for the web to look like the 90s

Most design today is based, at least in part, on context from the 90s. At that time design was constrained by bad browsers, small screens with poor contrast and bad system font typography. The results were frankly fantastic. Since then most of these constraints have changed radically, but design trends still closely resemble their forerunners.

Screen size and layout metaphor

Screen size should have little to no impact on design. In the early days of the internet, screens were terribly expensive and for the first couple of decades they were more or less standardised into a handful of sizes. TV and Cinema did the same thing, it was a great way to ensure affordable cost and mass market.

Today there are hundredsof screen sizes being used in large numbers. So many that simply testing a design on the most common screen sizes becomes an exercise in futility. Instead we tend to settle for flagship devices. An iMac Pro and Google Pixel Phone? Then we’re all set. Never mind the other 89 screen sizes that are used in more than a million visits per week…

Designers all over the world try to adapt to this by padding their layouts as if they were cinema screens. Just like Hollywood in the 60s we show the same things in almost the same size and then add white space fill the full width of the screen. Making sure the proper elements align above the “fold” (whatever that is on screens today).

This is nonsense. Screen size actually affects user behavior. The iPad technically isjust a large iPhone, but people sure don’t use it as such. Windows 10 does work on mobile devices, but no one would use software designed for a 4k monitor on their cellphone.

I believe that the only useful metaphor left over from the early days is scrolling. Scrolling is arguably more useful than ever because it is the main user inputon the most common type of device used online today — the touch screen phone.

Instead of seeing web pages as a full width scrolling sheets, there are two other metaphors in use that are more useful with todays technology:

Specifically sized cards.

Possibly made famous by the failed Palm OS. Look at any mobile app today and you will see cards everywhere. Usually they are made to be one size, and are then stacked horizontally or vertically depending on the available screen real-estate.

Infinite canvas

Facebooks infinite scroll is probably the most commonly used one. But infinite canvases are everywhere just like Cards. Presentations zoom and pan, web pages scroll, app windows show only part of the document. The use cases go on.

User Interface Inputs

The web is primarily used through graphical user interfaces, and mostly on mobile devices. Based on this premise isn’t it strange that so many designs still use the desktop hunt-and-peck-with-your-mouse style of elements?

Why do we right click links and chose to bookmark or open in a new tab? Why don’t we drag the link to the side of the screen for a new tab, and to the bookmark icon to store it?

Despite huge success on mobile apps, the web still fails to recognise touch as a first class user input. Mouse clicks are already optional on many laptops. Ten years after the touch device started it’s rise to power it is time for us to make the web reflect that.

Grid & Typography

In the last few years typography has turned the web from computer science book into a beautiful print poster. Finally we have access to technology like CSS grid that allows us to recreate any print layout. But why print?

Print design is all based on a set of constraints that have no value on the web. Most typography is created to fit fixed size sheets of paper. Worse still, fonts are set in rows with fixed heights. Do we really always need to scroll?

In stark contrast with layouts, why aren’t we type setting based on screen size instead? Imagine if the font size was set to 80 characters across the screen. Or 200 characters vertically? What sort of grid could that produce?

So where do we go from here?

I don’t really know. The situation is extremely interesting. I’ll keep working on this, and post everything I think of right here. If you’d like to join in the fun, please contact me! Honestly, I’d love your help.

Your next steps

A collection of buttons and dials on instagram

I’ve always loved buttons and dials. When I was a kid, the flashing consoles of Star Trek and Star Wars were the height of sci fi cool. Stereos and electrical panels were exciting, I kept wondering “what do these do?”

 

#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1527148093429_19061 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid { margin-right: -10px; }
#block-yui_3_17_2_1_1527148093429_19061 .sqs-gallery-block-grid .sqs-gallery-design-grid-slide .margin-wrapper { margin-right: 10px; margin-bottom: 10px; }

Stories are taking over, as a media format

I loved when Snapchat introduced the Stories format. It suited the platform perfectly and became a sort of passive social channel that I used to enjoy when social media was new. But I haven’t given much thought to what the rise of Stories means, both as a platform, and as a media format.

Thankfully, better people have:

Stories is not a technology, nor is it a feature. It is a media format, or even a genre, in the way that a magazine or a murder mystery or a 30-minute television program is.