The balance we need to move the web forward

This is a great post by Anil Dash. There’s so much to learn from the Foursquare story, but my favorite part is the last paragraph. In Foursquare: Today’s best-executing startup he writes:

But perhaps most importantly, I think we need more stories that celebrate the success of what seem like small, iterative product launches, but actually reflect triumphs in unsung disciplines such as systems operations, design process, business development and product management. There are lots of loud, pointless headlines about companies getting money from venture capitalists or angel investors. What I’d love to see more of in 2012 (and beyond!) is headlines about how a few small successes with users are a demonstration of a small company outperforming and out-innovating the biggest companies in the tech industry by being focused and disciplined in their execution.

This is why I hope all the cynics are wrong when they publicly wonder when Facebook will buy Path’s design team. I’m done with Path because I couldn’t find a use for it, but some people have found a place for it. I’d much rather see Path succeed as a small, niche social network that continues to push the design envelope, than have them be gobbled up as a “talent acquisition” move.

When we design for the web we often find ourselves balancing the use of established UI patterns with trying out new ways to solve existing problems. Facebook Timeline is tilted towards the former, while Path bet heavily on the latter. Yet both approaches are important. If we’re going to move the web forward we can’t get stuck in the existing ways of doing things without also experimenting with possible better ways. If we shine a bigger spotlight on those small companies that “outperform and out-innovate the biggest companies”, then maybe we can maintain this necessary balance between design status quo and new ideas indefinitely.

Craggy rocks: content strategy and the art of language design for the web

They paddled a little further, then Salty looked through his telescope again.
“A pirate ship!” he cried. “Let’s have a battle.”
“Oh dear,” said Button. “I don’t want to meet a pirate.”
“Don’t worry,” said Salty. “I’ll be the hero.”
But when they got close they found that the pirate ship was just a craggy rock.

– Angela McAllister, Salty and Button

I picked up Salty and Button for my 2-year old daughter on a whim. I just felt like we both needed a break from Winnie the Pooh. He’s a nice enough bear, but the dude’s got some serious honey issues. Much to my delight the book quickly became my daughter’s favorite, and we’re now reading it several times a day.

Yesterday something interesting happened. My daughter suddenly became fixated with one specific part of the story. The two friends think they see a pirate ship, but it ends up being just a rock. “Wher’s the craggy rock?”, she keeps asking. “Let’s go find it!” And when we find the page she points to it and says the words “craggy rock” over and over, with obvious delight.

I am now convinced that she does this just because she loves saying the words. She loves the way they sound, and the way the phrase rolls off her tongue. Craggy rock is no cellar door, but it’s pretty close. Seeing my daughter delight in language for its own sake fills me with so much joy. It reminds me of a story I just read in Clay Johnson’s excellent The Information Diet. He quotes Helen Keller, the renowned deaf-blind activist, as she describes her first experience with language:

We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten – a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away. I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me.

I can see this realization in my daughter’s eyes as she continues to learn new words. She’s learning that everything has a name, and that names can be beautiful.

I recently wrote about about some problems I have with language the New York Times used in one of their emails. On the Hacker News thread for the post this comment appeared:

Honestly, this just seems like nitpicking. Your main complaint about their email is that their apology isn’t phrased in the vernacular? Don’t we have better things to do with our time than complain about things like this?

The comment got to me more than it probably should have. Is the commenter right? Is it a waste of time to nitpick language? My daughter’s love for the phrase craggy rock makes me think that it’s a worthy cause to fight, after all. At the risk of stating the absolute obvious, language is the soul of civilization. We have to not just protect it, but help it thrive. We have to find the joy and the power in the names of things. In Patrick Rothfuss’ epic fantasy novel The Name of the Wind he describes the power of language like this:

“What do you mean by blue? Describe it.” I struggled for a moment, failed. “So blue is a name?” “It is a word. Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest hearts. There are seven words that will make a person love you. There are ten words that will break a strong man’s will. But a word is nothing but a painting of a fire. A name is the fire itself.”

So, here’s the point I’m trying to make.

Those of us who write for the web need to remember that the words we choose are not just about comprehension, but also about feeling. Phonaesthetics teach us that the sound of certain words and sentences have an inherent pleasantness or beauty (euphony), while others can be quite unpleasant (cacophony). Just as a typeface (the artistic representation or interpretation of characters) adds emotion to letters, word aesthetic can be in total harmony with other design elements.

Beauty in design isn’t just the job of visual design. Content strategy has a specific role to play in creating the desired aesthetic of a web site. And beauty is quite important in a changing landscape where aesthetic longevity is the new product expiration date. So the next time you write a paragraph for the web, ask yourself the following question:

Will the sound of these words make that one guy’s 2-year old daughter’s face light up?


Update 1/4/2012: “Nick” emailed and pointed me to the fascinating essay Politics and the English Language, where George Orwell discusses “language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought”, particularly in politics. He ends with some great writing tips.

If the porridge is too hot or too cold, make a fresh batch

Jeffrey Zeldman in The maker makes: on design, community, and personal empowerment:

I sometimes become impatient when members of our community spend their energy publicly lamenting that a website about cats isn’t about dogs. Their energy would be so much better spent starting The feeling that something is missing from a beloved online resource (or conference, or product) can be a wonderful motivator to start your own. I created A List Apart because I felt that wasn’t enough about design and was too much about it. If this porridge is too hot and that porridge is too cold, I better make some fresh, eh?

Sounds to me like a good mantra for 2012. Happy New Year, everyone! In the coming year, may we all make porridge that’s just right.

Don’t rip into a design too early

How designers and engineers can play nice is a really great post by Jenna Bilotta. I nodded along enthusiastically to this point in particular:

Too often I observe my fellow designers rip into the aesthetics or interaction design of an early engineering prototype. When an engineer is met with critical feedback from a designer about issues they haven’t even begun to think about, it doesn’t encourage that engineer to include the designer in future reviews. This is how designers end up begging for massive changes the week before launch, and how we almost never get them.

One of the most difficult skills for a designer to learn is restraint during the early stages of implementation, when things aren’t perfect yet.

There are some great suggestions in the article – well worth reading.

Twitter’s Creative Director and musician Seal discuss Twitter’s iPhone app design

Last night Seal (@Seal) tweeted about his displeasure with the latest Twitter iPhone app. Doug Bowman (@stop), Creative Director at Twitter, asked him to elaborate:

What followed is one of those exchanges that make me absolutely love the Internet. A world-famous musician has a conversation about an iPhone app with a world-famous designer, and we get to sit in on it. I think my favorite part of the conversation is Seal’s honest apology:

I can’t quite put my finger on why I find this random chat so great. Maybe it’s because it shows the power of Twitter to reduce degrees of separation to zero in a matter of minutes. Maybe it’s the fact that I can sit in Cape Town, South Africa, and listen to two people who I admire a great deal have a respectful disagreement in real time. Or maybe it’s because I keep thinking about the bizarre exhilaration Doug must have felt, defending an app he worked on with a musician he’s a fan of.

Whatever the reason might be, it’s just really cool. Unfortunately Twitter still isn’t great at showing us conversations (apparently that’s being worked on), but luckily Aaron Swartz built a tool to help us with that. I’m posting a screenshot of the conversation below, but you can also view it here.

The urgency of slowing down

Pico Iyer in The Joy of Quiet:

The urgency of slowing down “” to find the time and space to think “” is nothing new, of course, and wiser souls have always reminded us that the more attention we pay to the moment, the less time and energy we have to place it in some larger context. “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for our miseries,” the French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in the 17th century, “and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.” He also famously remarked that all of man’s problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room alone.

As I’m making my way through The Information Diet, I’m starting to think that this longing for some peace and quiet will be a recurring theme for many of us in 2012.

Dropbox and the network effect

Rachel Swaby wrote a great piece for Wired on the complex problems that Dropbox had to solve to arrive at the simple solution they have today. This sentence stopped me in my tracks:

Almost immediately, those who didn’t actively search out the solution outnumbered early adopters.

Think about that. About 100,000 early adopters signed up for the Dropbox service in the six months leading up to the official launch. But because these early adopters started sharing folders with coworkers, friends, and family, they immediately hooked an entire network of regular users into the service.

Dropbox solved a problem most people don’t know they have, and made the solution simple enough so that non-tech savvy users immediately get the beauty of it and how it can fit into their lives. That’s innovation.

The New York Times non-apology, and the end of lazy marketing language

Yesterday I received an email from the New York Times in which they told me, “Our records indicate that you recently requested to cancel your home delivery subscription.” They proceeded to use a phrase that bears an uncanny resemblance to something I told a girlfriend who dumped me when I was 15: “We do hope you’ll reconsider.”

Here’s the problem: I canceled my subscription 3 years ago. No big deal though, mistakes like this happen all the time. I hit the Archive button and forgot about it. But this morning I woke up to another email from the Times, this one with the subject line “CORRECTION: Important information regarding your subscription.” One of the paragraphs read as follows:

This e-mail was sent by us in error. Please disregard the message. We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.

I find passive voice non-apologies like this frustrating and insulting – worse than the original mistake, because it somehow manages to avoid taking responsibility for what happened. And it looks like I can finally move on from the idea that I’m the only one who feels this way. Here’s Clinton Forry:

And John Holdun:


In Subscribing to The New York Times, a post about the paper’s subscription pricing, Khoi Vinh alludes to a recurring pattern in their email communications:

In the run up to my subscription expiring, the company had been sending me promotions that were urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness. Each email was unequivocal about the number of days that remained in my subscription, but the renewal rates were only hinted at.

“Urgent in their warnings but exasperating in their vagueness.” That’s a great description.

This is a big deal. Content Strategy has become mainstream, and more and more businesses are finding out that it’s more effective to talk to their customers like real people (and get to the point quickly). Yet too many old school companies continue to speak to us in that patriarchal tone, assuming that since they clearly know what’s best for us we’ll just go ahead and click that “Buy now” button (if we can find it, because we’re not that smart you see). That’s why the Times didn’t just say this in their “apology” email:

Yesterday we made a mistake and sent you an incorrect email about your subscription. We’re sorry about that. You can delete the email.

The problem is that we’re starting to notice when we’re being talked down to. This has very real implications for marketing, where traditional slogans like “Your savings start here!” and “Unbeatable service!” lose their power to pull the wool over our eyes if they’re not backed up by something real. I recently lamented the laziness of the slogan “Everything you could ever want. And more. For less.” I wondered what it would cost for some happiness and a toilet made out of solid gold, because if you take that slogan at face value I should be able to get that, right?

The lesson to companies is simple: We’re smarter than you think. Be honest about the product or service you provide, and just say “sorry” when you made a mistake. We’ll love you for it.


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