Sense Quest

My quest to make sense of the internet.

Waxing Philosophic and My New Site!

I’m writing this blog post to introduce the world to my new site:

lifeisdesign.me

So why lifeisdesign.me?

Well, after many many hours of introspection and trying to figure out how best to market myself, the phrase ‘life is design’ just hit me. It was one of those ‘AH-HA!’ moments I love having. It perfectly encapsulates how I view the world. I’ve heard it said that ‘design is life’ but I genuinely believe life is design. You see, design implies thought, intent, intention. Design is solving a problem. Everything in life is done with intent. Nobody sits down to make something and that thing just appears. Design can be good or bad but it’s all design. Nature is designed. Everything has a reason. So if everything is created with intent then everything is designed. Thus, life is design.

Granted, the above paragraph doesn’t present the argument in the most logical or alluring light but the point still stands. Nothing is done without intent, therefore everything is designed and so it makes perfect sense for me, a person who believes that life is design, to have the web domain lifeisdesign.me. The .me part happened because .com was taken and cost too much to purchase but I think it worked out for the better because this is MY site. It’s about me. A part of me, the professional part, but still a part.

Well, thanks for reading and if you have some spare minutes then please go check it out and let me know what you think.

Prosit!

Google Music and What It’s Doing for the Industry

I was browsing in the android market on my phone and I, like I can be known to do, went into the Google Music to download the free song of the day. I feel as thought it is like the digital equivalent of going into Sam’s Club just for the free samples. I was on my way down to the free song of the day when I noticed a free music sampler Google had posted. I immediately downloaded every song from that sampler Google offered me free of charge. Which got me thinking about how Google’s Music marketplace has become a fantastic resource for discovering new music. I’m always visiting the Google Play Store for free anything so if something manages to be free there’s a strong chance I will download it. So a band that has a free song instantly gets downloaded and will eventually be listened to. It might happen immediately or it might not happen for a while but it will happen eventually presuming I listen to the music I have downloaded to my account. Because I will listen to it that is one more person who’s ears have been reached by that band’s music. All the band had to do was contact Google and offer up a free song, or one of the Google Play Store managers might have contacted that band having been a fan and asked for a free song. Either way the effort involved is considerably less than what I’ve come to understand the music industry was like. I don’t know specifics but the music industry does have enemies based on it’s purportedly deceitful and devious tactics in signing a band. I think this is a fantastic change and opens up a lot of doors for musicians to not be afraid to be musicians.
My one takeaway from my story is that I feel that as a result of the internet and the people who create for it in a malice free way it is becoming easier for an individual to be an individual and pursue whatever whim or desire they have in life and there is a way to be successful at it. It’s an amazing point in time where we are starting to be free instead of being bound by our surroundings or stature in life. I’m looking forward to the future.

Typography and the Web

A designer once argued that typography is 95% of web design. I disagree but I understand the argument. Websites are not an art form. Websites are repositories for information. If you consider this as an inherent truth then the 95% argument holds weight. I don’t but I will discuss the merits of good typographic practices anyways.

Typography in relation to the web is less about the art of letterforms and more about the quick conveyance of hierarchy and information. I once read a quote from David Oglivy that stressed his belief that the printed words on an advertisement were more important than the imagery. After all, nothing says what you want to say better than words. This thinking is why typography is so vital to web design. So what are good typographic practices for web design? I mentioned one already and that is hierarchy. Large type dominates small type. Thicker weights dominate thinner weights. Contrast is king so make the most important elements stand out against the rest. Volumes of text have been written on how to accomplish this and while there are agreed upon guidelines there are no rules so don’t be afraid to experiment.

Rhythm. Rhythm is a new one for me. Rhythm refers to how easy it is for your eye to glide down the page from paragraph to paragraph, headline to headline. Rhythm instills comfort in the viewer. It strips away unnecessary visual jolts that would give pause. It helps maintain a pleasing flow so the user enjoys the act of reading and is therefore more able to easily absorb the actual words. Good rhythm is built on two typographic elements. Type size and line height. This concept can be explored further and in greater detail through the links presented below.

One special consideration for the web is line length. Printed books have physical constraints that allow the designer to plot out paragraph sizes with god like accuracy. The web is malleable and web designers are not afforded that comfort so it’s a good idea to keep line length to a pleasing range of 120-140 characters.

Font rendering is something new to web typography. New in that as new fonts are created and web browsers are charged with displaying them then font rendering becomes an issue. Font rendering is the technology behind the computer drawing the font on the computer screen. I’ve attached an article at the end for those interested in this highly technical aspect of web typography.

It’s important to understand typography as it has evolved through the ages and frame that knowledge in the context of the web. It is not as important to understand how current web technologies allow designers to manipulate typography to suit their needs, but it is important. While not everything is possible to accomplish with the current generation of web technology I can say that the possibilities are vast and if you can think it you can find a way to do it. I’ve included an article that discusses the CSS properties dedicated to helping you achieve good web typographic practices.

The links below are in no particular order but upon careful inspection should reveal the information contained within. All topics of typography and the web would be impossible to cover completely but these can provide a good starting point not only on theory but also execution. Enjoy and have fun. Remember, there are no rules; only tools.

http://24ways.org/2006/compose-to-a-vertical-rhythm/

http://snook.ca/archives/html_and_css/font-size-with-rem

http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/07/24/one-more-time-typography-is-the-foundation-of-web-design/

http://informationarchitects.net/blog/the-web-is-all-about-typography-period/

http://webtypography.net/toc/

http://sixrevisions.com/css/css-typography-01/

http://www.alistapart.com/articles/on-web-typography

http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2012/04/24/a-closer-look-at-font-rendering/

The Three Little Webdesigners

Ethan Marcotte

I feel the need to start this blog post off about this guy. He is considered by many to be the father of responsive web design. His position solidified because he literally wrote the book on the subject. While not the first person to brooch the subject of responsive web design his unique take on it did manage to rally the masses and birth the modern responsive movement. His site is rather simplistic but the content is well laid out and the visual are nice. I feel the main draw to his page is the articles section where he provides links to his publications including the articles he wrote about responsive design (must read BTW).

Luke Wroblewski

The usability guru Luke W. His site is just jam packed with information on practically anything related to website usability and some design. He is also the forerunner of the mobile first web movement, he has also written the book on the subject. I guess that’s what experts do. They write books. He site is a great educational tool and you’ll always get great content. I’ve just started visiting his site more often to read articles and I plan to continue this new trend.

Kevin Richardson

This guy is a bit of an odd ball in the three people I’ve listed. He’s not world famous, he hasn’t written any books on the subject and chances are if you didn’t know of him you’d never know of him but somehow I found him and I’m glad I did. He was one of the largest inspirations for me getting into the web design field. I love the work he produces. It’s always visually appealing and interesting. He’s the visual design part of a two man company based out of NY called “Iron to Iron.” The page I linked to isn’t his company’s website but his own personal one instead. It’s a nice site because he makes it very intimate and discusses issues related to being involved in the web design field and not about web design although you can learn a thing or two if you want.

Web Standards

The web standards movement is a call to arms for all web designers and developers to help stop the segmentation that is happening with CSS3.0 support amongst the browsers. Because everything is in the working draft stage it is up to the browser makers to decide which new properties or advancements to support. This leads to an unequal browsing experience across all users and browsers. Considering the general attitude towards the web is one web for all people then subjecting users to different experiences across various browsers is considered sacrilegious. I understand the argument at present but I feel that although at this current point in time each individual browser maker is free to choose which new web technologies to implement that once the documentation is written and the working drafts solidify there will no longer be a segregation of technologies amongst the individual browsers. When one becomes dominant others will rise as challengers. Nobody will remain king forever so while this is a growing concern now I feel that years down the road the browsers will bring a more (but not entirely) unified experience to us all.

As far as how it is affecting today’s time I think the design community understands the need for a consistent browsing experience and has either adapted to the fractured nature by developing easy to implement solutions or are using the browsers that support the latest technology as a testing ground to see what can be done in the future.

I think when it comes to working in the industry it is important to maintain a consistent browsing experience across all browsers so adhering to any web standards best practices is a good idea.

Resource(s):

Web Standards Project

The Mobile Life

I’ll be candid here but writing this makes me feel incredibly old because I’m complaining about youth today despite being among the demographic I refer to as youth today but I feel this is an important revelation for me and hopefully someone reading this. And now for something completely different!

I was attending a concert at a local music venue when the headlining act took the stage and started to perform. My inclination in this situation is to fully immerse myself in the experiences of the moment letting all my sense absorb everything they can but as I looked around me I noticed approximately 2-3% of the concert goers were holding up mobile phones which were recording this experience digitally. I was offended because I believed that to fully enjoy the experience that was the concert meant to put away the phone and live in the moment. I felt strongly compelled to snatch away the phones and demand these people just let themselves enjoy the concert. How conceited is that? Forcing my beliefs upon another person? It was then that I realized this is how certain people fully enjoy these moments. Photographers love to experience life through their lens. Videographers are the same way. I don’t understand it but I recognize it and respect it. Some people like to experience their life through the eyes of the mobile device and it’s my job as a designer to create a way for them to do that. The question then becomes, “How?”

My answer to that question is, “I haven’t the slightest idea.” So I started to ask myself some questions. What benefits did these people get from that behavior? What’s the draw for them? When is this behavior most prevalent? Least prevalent? I’d imagine eating breakfast or the morning shave doesn’t warrant the same attention but how valuable does the moment or situation have to be to warrant interacting with it behind a mobile screen? How do we as humans measure that kind of thing? What can I, as a designer, add to a mobile device or mobile application what could help these people increase their enjoyment of the situation. Using the concert as an example, what if there was an app that let you view the streaming video footage of a person nearby using the same app. You could see the concert through another’s eyes as it were. Or what if there were lyrics streaming across the screen that way you could sing along better or at least know what you’re supposed to be singing. What if the band could create a real-time collage of all the video footage being recorded at that moment and project it back to the audience? Concerts after all contain a strong element of establishing a connection between the musicians and the audience. The possibilities are endless really.

This is an isolated incident mind you but as the availability and portability of information increases I can only see this behavior becoming more predominant. I will resign myself to enjoying the moment as best I can but I know that if I found a better reason to watch a live concert through my phone I’d have a hard time saying no.

The NUI

The NUI! Natural User Interface or NUI is a concept that explores what a completely organic user driven interface would look like if all the restrictions of technology weren’t present. Think of all those great science fiction movies where the characters interact with some form of computing device through the use of their body movements or even thoughts. Prime examples include Minority Report, or more recently the Iron Man movies. Those interactions are examples of a NUI. Touch screen technology has pushed up towards a more organic user interface but if those science fiction movies have taught us anything they have taught us that the future is touch free.

You can thank video games for this next part. Because of the success of the Wii, Microsoft developed a means of interacting with their home consoles in a touch free manner. It’s called the Kinect and it’s kind of a big deal. The reason being is that now the technology exists and has been proven to be a cost effective means for users to interact with computing device in a touch free manner. Touch free does just mean a lack of physical interaction, it also include the addition of verbal interaction. The Kinect responds to voice thereby allowing the user to bark out commands for the computer to execute.

What does this mean for the future of the internet? This provides a means for a change in web interactions. Imagine sitting on your couch waving your arms at a screen and the program currently displayed responding. Very science fiction. Because this is new territory there are no standards set in terms of human interactions and system responses. Everyone is familiar with the traditional mouse and keyboard interactions and when you press a button on any program you’ve got a pretty good idea of what will happen. Press “Enter” and you’ll get a line return or a form submission. What about translating that into a physical motion? What action denotes pressing “Enter?” As an extension what action would denote closing a window? Is there a voice command such a “close” that would suffice? These are the kinds of questions the forefront of touch free interaction demands. Nobody has answers and nobody will for some time. We’re breaking new ground so it’s time to let your ideas run wild. Could it be possible to create an interface that functions like Jarvis in Iron Man? I don’t know yet but I can’t wait to find out.

You can find more information about the NUI and touch free interactions here on these websites.

http://nuigroup.com/go/lite

http://uxmag.com/articles/new-design-practices-for-touch-free-interactions

Real World UX Design

It just dawned on me in an odd moment of realization that the whole world can be broken down and defined in terms of user experiences. With that realization comes the realization that user experience has existed since the moment that people started to care about creating enjoyable experiences in life. Ever been to someone’s house and just felt welcomed? Maybe it was the inviting decor or the welcoming attitude of the host or a combination of both. Perhaps it was a familiar location that filled you with pleasant memories. On the dark side of the moon have you ever been to someone’s house and felt as though you were not welcome? These experiences are what the field of UX is all about. So what can we bring from our real life experiences into our digital ones? I don’t know but I’d love to find out.

A thought. Start carrying around a notebook to document your real world user experiences. Start analyzing your thoughts from the moment you feel your user experience starts to the moment you feel it ends. Let’s use going to the mall as an example. Let us make it more interesting by examining a visit to the mall the weekend before Christmas, which I think most people will generally regard as a horrible time to go shopping at any mall. Where does the experience begin? I would start with arriving at the physical location as the start. Unless you travel by public transit chances are high that you’ve arrived at the mall by car and need to find a place to park. The headache begins. So how could the experience of parking, especially during the busiest shopping season, be made more pleasurable? Maybe some sort of marking system that would identify empty spaces, or for a more human touch you could have traffic coordinators guiding drivers. Perhaps even a special section of parking you have to pay for but are guaranteed less hassle. Now you’re parked and on your way into the mall. What is the physical condition of the surrounding architecture and does it effectively direct you to the nearest mall entrance? How does it do that? Once inside do you have the information you need to find the store you are looking for? Did you look it up before hand or are you familiar enough with the mall layout that you don’t need guidance? Does the layout of the mall support and provide for all three types of people? Have guideposts been installed to direct you? Is the lighting too bright or too dim inside? The list of questions can be endless but everything you experience contributes to your user experience. It is vital to recognize the important elements of a successful user experience by asking these types of questions.

Say you’ve gotten into the mall, you’ve found and purchased your items, you’ve made your way back to your car, and have started your journey back home. You assessed your experience as you were experiencing it but successful user experiences are design to encourage return visits so now you need to assess the individual components in comparison to the whole. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Which parts of the experience do you place the most importance on and why? An example would be if you value expediency above comfort meaning you’d much rather get in and get out than relax and browse. Are your expectations reasonable? Getting in and getting out might not be a logical option given the time of year and the location you’ve chosen. Be reasonable but be analytical. Be the Sherlock Holmes of your user experience. Pull it apart, study it, deduce things, and puff on your pipe for a bit. Do whatever helps you. When you start to think this way you start to come to conclusions that will help you design better user experiences in the digital world.

The last bit here is a challenge. Go visit a museum. Any museum. Pick an exhibit and go study it. Find out what the person that crafted that exhibit was aiming for you to feel and learn. Did the path that was set up for you help or hinder your progress towards your perceived goal? What were the greatest successes of the exhibit? What were the greatest failures and how could you turn them into successes? User experience requires a lot of analysis of yourself and the world around you. It’s not all work if you find the fun in it. So go try and let me know what you come up with.

I Wish I Was a Real Boy

I was recently reading “Designing for Emotion” by Aarron Walter and I believe somewhere in that book he poses the question, “If your website was a real person, who would your website be?” It is highly likely I’m paraphrasing but I think the question is an interesting one worth consideration. As an user experience professional will tell you, user personas are the cornerstone upon which all websites reside. Web people spend so much time and effort defining and refining who their users are but no effort into defining the personality of the website. I think that needs to change. Here’s why.

It could be argued that when approached by a company to create a website that the voice of the website is predetermined as the voice of the company. Yes, but a company is not a physical being. It doesn’t wake up in the morning. It doesn’t get dressed. It doesn’t have conversations. It doesn’t do anything a living breathing human can do. By defining a company as an individual it can bring the all important human element into the equation. Craft a persona for the company, if it’s large enough start crafting different personas for different divisions. Find out who these people are. Is this company a male or female? Where did he go to school? What does he dress like? Who does he like to date? What’s on his iPod? By crafting a persona to represent the website you get to take advantage of all the benefits a persona provides. I think the greatest benefit is you get a point of reference to always refer back to whenever questions arise. User persona’s work so this will work too.

A few tangential benefits would include a direction for the tone of voice, clues about good visual design elements, a guide to content strategy (although that one could be debated), or a compass to guide the user experience. The last one is a bit interesting because if you start to think of a website in terms of a person then the user experience can be measured against a scenario in which you encounter this person in the real world. I think there is immeasurable value in the ability to relate the abstract to the concrete. Everyone has experienced encountering another person at some point in there life but not everyone understands what user experience is.

As you can see by asking the question, “If this website was a real person, who would this website be” you can quickly gain additional and possible unforeseen insight into all aspects of the website’s creation. It makes it easy to design a website when you understand it so next time you start a project take some time to start defining who your website is and see where that takes you.

Design as a Conversation

On a recent project to which I was assigned I was given the task of providing the information architecture for what could be referred to as an over-glorified blog. At the time I was enthusiastic because I enjoy the art of organizing information for users. My enthusiasm waned when my solution was found wanting but I learned something valuable that I think will help me, and hopefully you, design more interesting websites. My revelation was that websites are part of a conversation with the user.

Conversation can be an abstract term used to designate any interaction between two things but I mean this in the literal human sense of call and response type conversation. While I was designing my layout I kept having to put myself in the position of the user and when I would I was always asking myself questions about this website. Questions such as, “why is this important to me?” “Why should I care?” “What do I do now?” In designing a website you not only take on the task of defining users but you also have to retain the voice of the company in what you do. So whenever I would ask myself a question as a user, I would then answer the question as the company. In that way I was engaging in a conversation. A full blown conversation, had I been alone this conversation would have been vocalized. As it stands this was an internal conversation only. I realized then that by thinking of the website as the visual result of a conversation between the user and the company I could be more effective in my information architecture layout.

One more thing I wanted to point out is that the content you place on a website and where you place it is the answer to a question. What it looks like and how it reads is how the question is answered. It is the old adage “it’s not what you say but how you say it” for a digital world. The content is what you say, the visuals and copy are how you say it. It’s important not to forget that even the most interesting content presented in an unattractive manner can be less impacted than the most boring content presented in a glamorous fashion. Content is king and it’s the reason user will return to the website but in the age of short attention spans you need that visual huzzah! to keep the viewer on the site long enough to seduce them with your content.

Design as a conversation is another way to help visualize the underlying structure of a website. Give it a try sometime, if nothing else at least you’ll be having a wonderful conversation with yourself. What more can you ask for from life right?

Edit: A few days later after I wrote and posted this article an article was posted on UXMag.com with the same overall idea. I would recommend reading it because it is much more well researched and written. Here it is: http://uxmag.com/articles/content-as-conversation