The Usability of the Link Icon

Peter Steen Høgenhaug has posted the results of a usability test focused “aimed at exploring how little documentation you could leave in a CMS, and still have even the most non-savvy person use it with no issues”. This lead him to discover how few people make the connection between an icon of two links in a chain with the act of creating a hyperlink to another page. It’s a quick read and a fascinating study of the cognitive association, or lack thereof when trying to extend real world imagery to represent online actions.

It would be interesting to see a study focused on users who are familiar with content management systems, to see if they find this to be an issue. Without a great replacement, we may need to rely on discovery and learning for this association.

This reminds me a lot of my previous post . So, posing the same question as we did there – what would be a good replacement? I haven’t been able to come up with a great iconic substitution and am leaning ever so slightly, toward simply using the word Link. I’m sure there’s something better though.

What do you think, is it worth changing? If so, what should it be?

Switching to Chrome: Essential Extensions

The Web browser is the most important tool to my profession, yet I continued to use a memory-intensive and often times, slow browser day in and day out. Firefox is great for many reasons, but it’s no longer good enough.

Enter Chrome

In the last two years Google Chrome has matured quickly and the community has ported all of the functionality I need. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve put Chrome through its paces, using it as my default browser at work and home. I’m very happy with the results.

For those of you contemplating the move, here are the extensions I’ve installed, and some quick notes on the browser.

Extensions

One quick note – given how young the platform is and the size of the community compared to that of Firefox, there are a lot of rough edges. I expect these will be taken care of with time.

1Password

1Password support is a requirement for me given the amount of sites I use on a daily basis. The great people at Agile Web Solutions have us covered though. The extension is new and not as full featured as that available for Firefox and Safari, but it covers about 90% of what I need.

AdBlock

While I don’t run AdBlock on every site (I like to support content creators), there are some sites where the ads are so distracting it makes it hard to read their content, which is where AdBlock (as well as the excellent Readability bookmarklet) shine. The Chrome version functions just like its Firefox sibling.

After the Deadline

Automattic’s spelling and grammar checker is amazing and should be baked into every browser. Perhaps then the writing quality of the Web as a whole would improve.

Awesome Screenshot: Capture & Annotate

A great utility for grabbing the entire page or a selected portion. A must-have for anyone who reports bugs or keeps bits of great design for future inspiration. I do both.

Chromicious (Delicious Bookmarks)

I prefer this extension over the official (beta) Delicious version for one important reason – the save dialog is a separate window, allowing me to copy and paste snippets of the page into the description. The official version uses a drop-down drawer, which is wiped as soon as you click anywhere else.

Neither extension includes the handy bookmarks sidebar that’s available in Firefox.

Clip to Evernote

I use Evernote as a repository for interesting designs and products on the Web in addition to a general note tacking app. The plugin makes it simple for me to quickly import the current page and it also provides quick access to my other notes.

While it uses the same drop-down drawer as the one I dislike for the official Delicious extension, it doesn’t wipe the content when you click elsewhere.

Eye Dropper

A useful color picker. This functionality is already baked into the Web Developer Extension (below), but I like the quick access that the separate extension provides.

Firebug Lite for Google Chrome

I go back and forth on Firebug List as so much of its functionality is already available in Chrome’s Developer Tools. Luckily it doesn’t noticeably increase memory usage, so I’ll keep it around until I make a decision.

RSS Subscription Extension (by Google)

This should be baked into the browser. The entire purpose of the extension is to add the small RSS notified to the address bar, simplifying the process of subscribing to a feed.

Web Developer

Another great tool ported from Firefox to Chrome. The extension includes many utilities that make the life of a Web Developer much easier – everything from a color picker, guides and a ruler to the ability to enable and disable CSS and JavaScript on a page

Syncing

I love the fact that I’m able to keep extensions in sync across computers. If you aren’t aware of this feature, open the app’s Preferences, select Personal Stuff and follow the directions to enable syncing. It saves a lot of time and effort.

Rough Edges

  • Some sites seem to forget that I’m logged in when I use Chrome, though they will remember me for weeks while using Firefox. There aren’t many, but the fact that our bug tracking system (Jira) at work forgets me is very frustrating when I’m attempting to file a ticket.
  • I find it odd that Chrome didn’t adopt the long-standing View Source keyboard shortcut (CMD/CTRL-U). I remapped it in my OS given my muscle-memory automatically hits those keys when I’m debugging a page.
  • Another keyboard annoyance is that the F5 key isn’t mapped to reload a page. Again, my fingers are used to hitting CMD-R and F5 to reload a page. While it’s not a requirement to have two different ways to force a reload, it can be very convenient.
  • I hit an odd issue with fonts on my home machine recently, the cause of which I still don’t understand. While I resolved it, I’ve noticed other font rendering issues since, even after cleaning up my font installs on this machine.

Random Bits that Make Me Happy

Here’s a quick brain dump of little touches that I love about Chrome:

  • Chrome makes it easy to resize textareas, making long-form input easier in apps and forms.
  • The unified address/search bar works beautifully. The Firefox implementation is pretty good, but Chrome is noticeably better in terms of ease of use and recognizing my intent to search over my intent to navigate straight to a URL.
  • Chrome is fast. Very very fast.
  • Extensions are written with JavaScript, making them very easy to create and modify. This also widens the scope of extension-developers.

Do You Use Chrome?

If so, what cool things am I missing? If not, what’s holding you back?

Type on the Web – An Evolutionary Shift

For designers and anyone interested in typography on the Web, I highly recommend you check out Web Font Specimen and the A List Apart article “Real Web Type in Real Web Context” that explains it. As we near a point where real typographic controls and options are available to us, its pivotal time for professionals to step up and gain (or remember) skills that haven’t been of use on the Web. The gap between good and great designs and designers will grow and the differences will be much more apparent at a glance and in the details.

If you haven’t had a chance to play with Typekit or learn about the various font embedding options (see The Potential of Web Typography: and Bulletproof @font-face Syntax) recently layered into browsers, now’s a good time to fatten up a few brain cells.

Burning Chrome

Google Chrome Comic

Google Chrome Comic

Google plans to release a new browser soon, based on Webkit, but with a new JavaScript engine, which is expected to be significantly faster than most browsers and will be sandboxed to ensure that a crash in one tab doesn’t take out the rest of the browser.

In addition to the blog post, they’ve created an introduction to the browser in comic book form.

While there are a lot of questions about it and some interesting discussion points, I am curious to see how, or if it changes the way we design and develop Web apps. It will also be interesting to see how they design the interface and flows within the browser, having stated that one major goal is to streamline and simplify the UI. The beta Windows version is to be released today, with Mac and Linux versions coming soon.

I am also very curious about the privacy implications inherent in this release. Google has reached a point where they have an insane level of information about the interests (Google search, AdSense), browsing habits (Google Analytics, DoubleClick), events (Google Calendar), personal and business plans and finances (Google Apps) and personal connections (gMail, gTalk) of nearly everyone who uses the Web. While I love their motto of “Do No Evil”, I can’t bring myself to trust that it will always hold true, whether by internal decisions, or by outside pressure from stock holders or governments (wow, now I’m starting to sound like the other Alex Jones).

I will definitely test the browser, and I look forward to the concepts they are introducing. A shakeup in the market will be useful, even if it reignites the browser wars, and causes consternation amongst those of us who build Web apps and sites. We’re pushing forward, which is a good thing, but we need to temper our excitement (or annoyance) with the impact this will have on the Web and be wary of what we as consumers and users trade for the new browser.

Portable Privacy Experiences

When you think about it, online social applications are bad places to put things that are meant to go unseen, and it makes the notion of privacy start to feel like the wrong idea. This brings us back to the words we choose, because I think we interact online not to keep stuff private, but to share it selectively. Setting up a privacy framework works as a force in opposition to the goal of sharing something. If instead we think about streaming shared actions (or gestures, if you like) and content to the right people and less about exception frameworks, things should work more smoothly and, I think, bring us closer to models that can cross networks without exploding.

Todd Sieling: Portable Profiles and Privacy: Choppy Ux Ahead

Todd’s insightful article has me thinking about privacy, expectations of and experience within our social media tools, online and off.

Creative Bridges, Coworking & Communities

This started as a quick comment on Alex Hillman’s post Creative Agency, which quickly grew so long that I realized that I had begun writing a post of my own, so I’ve shifted it to my site so I don’t hijack Alex’s discussion (plus I don’t post often enough).

Please read Alex’s post prior to reading this one.

So, Alex’s ideas set my mind-gears a’spinnin’. He covers several aspects of building a community that is beneficial to its members but also to its clients, uniting several concepts that drive me personally, and I believe drive communities around the globe.

A couple of coworking initiatives (LaunchPad, Conjunctured) are growing here in Central Texas, which I think will mesh well with our various Web and creative groups like Refresh Austin, which in turn play a large part in sharing knowledge and connecting members of the professional creative and Web communities. That said, we’re a disparate community, which can be both good (an abundance of creativity and different perceptions and solutions of challenges) and bad (harder to spread the word and unify), and often times the individuals, whether they work for themselves or sit amongst hundreds in large enterprises aren’t able to rely on each other to augment their strengths.

Some love design, others front-end development, or back-end coding. Some dig deep into the perfect turn of phrase, while others concentrate on the most effective way to monetize a product or service. Some of us like to translate between the various cultures. We’re different, which is very good. But we could do more to help each other.

Alex highlights some of the most glaring gaps amongst our profession:

  • Creatives who don’t take responsibility for “leading the client just as much as we are leading the project and the result that the end user experiences”
  • Independent creatives who may not have the business background, the time or the personality to look out for themselves on the business front

These are large gaps, but they are addressable by the right communities, some of which exist, others of which we need to being forming.

Bridges

So, we need to connect these communities:

  • Independents and corporate designers/developers – it’s amazing how different these experiences can be, and both groups will benefit from the sharing of knowledge
  • Experienced and new professionals – connect the energy, vigor and will-not-stop drive with experience and knowledge (business, and yes some political). We have to tap into the excited professionals – no cynicism
  • Business professionals and creative professionals – business folks would love to tap into the fountain of ideas that make up a creative world and the designers and developers will gain valuable skills from their counterparts making it much easier to navigate the world of contracts, time lines and expectations
  • Open source developers/communities and businesses – As Alex notes, “being an open source software developer does not, and should not, condemn ones self to a life of poverty”, which follows up on Whurley’s Opensville post.

Chief among my questions to the community is to learn what are the first steps we should take to move forward building this new creative agency platform and the other pieces required to move our communities forward? CitizenAgency and Indy Hall have an edge as established, physical spaces with strong communities, but I think Austin is an ideal setting for this as well and could quickly contribute.

So where to?

Searching for Findability

Everyone seemed to have their place in the project life-cycle at the web design agency; everyone but little Findability. Occasionally someone would notice his value to a project, but instead of giving him the care he deserved, they’d just fork over copious amounts of cash to ship him off to his sketchy uncle SEO, who tied him up and fed him keywords all day long. He spent so much time at uncle SEO’s that everyone started to think Findability was SEO, and subsequently became a little dubious of his importance.

Aarron Walter

Aaron’s article, Findability, Orphan of the Web Design Industry is a great reminder that we should not overlook the importance of findability, nor confuse it with SEO and usability as we create our designs and interfaces.

A Good Day for the Web – IE8 to Properly Support Standards

The IE team announced a change from their previously stated plan for IE 8 ‘involved showing pages requesting “Standards” mode in an IE7’s “Standards” mode, and requiring developers to ask for IE8’s actual “Standards” mode separately’ via a specific bit of meta information delivered per page or at the server level. After a lot of discussion in the community, some of it quite heated, Microsoft has relented. IE8 will now ‘show pages requesting “Standards” mode in IE8’s Standards mode. Developers who want their pages shown using IE8’s “IE7 Standards mode” will need to request that explicitly (using the http header/meta tag approach described here).’

Microsoft is notorious amongst the Web development community for past decisions, some, like their initial decision on this issue, made with the best of intentions; so it is great to see that they are willing to step back, re-evaluate and change their direction when the community speaks up. It is a change from the old days, and alongside their shift regarding open source, I truly hope it is an indicator of the future.

Spec Work, Pixish, Design Contests and Unicorns

Adam Howell sums up my thoughts on Pixish quite succinctly. Sure, the concept sounds great at first, as noted on the Pixish site, the community is set up as “a way to engage creative people online to submit, judge, and source amazing images.” Nice until you dig into it, just a little bit, and realize that a set of designers are all working on the same project, only one of whom will get paid. Even worse, “paid” may be a prize that is worth far less than they should have been paid.

Choices

Now, there’s a part of me that believes that it’s up to individual designers to decide to participate in something for which they may not be paid. But, in this case, as has been noted many times over, spec work weakens the profession, promoting the inexpensive option over a quality piece. Clients will view the talent pool as relatively equal, opting for a crap shoot instead of finding the right match for their needs. We do have an obligation to keep our industry strong.

For Those Starting Out

Some believe that this is a great opportunity for budding designers to build a portfolio, but as Adam notes, “We’ve got, you know, the web. Blogs. Youtube. digg/reddit/lots of other lowercase social sites. There are no longer just three ways to showcase your talent — there are three bajillion. And if you aren’t getting noticed, sorry, you either aren’t trying hard enough or you suck.”

Harsh? Yes.

True? You bet’cha.

So, do design contests have any real value? I think so. Competitions oriented towards students and amateurs to help them fill out a portfolio are great, as are contests that may benefit a non-profit, as long as the results of the contests isn’t used as a business deliverable, much less as a part of branding. That a disservice to the client who deserves nothing but the best representation of their brand and services; and it’s a disservice to the designer who should be properly compensated for their efforts.

Value

In this same vein of respect for the designer and the clients, I had a conversation recently with someone who had worked in marketing at a large tech company and was not willing to pay a designer the going rate (actually the lower end of the spectrum) for a Web project. This potential client told me that were he to interview someone who designed a site like Apple.com, he would automatically consider them out of his league. So, even though he respected and acknowledged their skills, he wouldn’t try to find a way to harness those skills, that designer would be set aside because they were too good. Anyone who wasn’t at that tier were then lumped together, as they couldn’t impress him, which means that they were charging too much.

He’s chasing a unicorn: quality and experience on the cheap.

Oh, and this is for a project that he is passionate about, and will represent him to the world. He seemed like a perfectly nice guy, but what does this say about the image he will project?

What does it say about the designers and clients using Pixish?

Quick Note

Derek Powazek has given a lot to the Web community, and I have benefited from his work in the past, so while I have a lot of respect for him, that respect doesn’t change the fact that I disagree with the concept of Pixish.

Be a Story Teller

These little behind-the-scenes battles are what turn average websites into masterpieces. When everyone else is content to say “The End,” keep bringing it all into focus. Be a storyteller. Let your point of view shine through, and everything you create will have a depth that is sorely missing on the web.

Ryan Sims – Cinematic Web Design

Perfect timing as I begin to plan a redesign of this site.

Slanty Design in the Real World and on the Web

Architectures of Control, which provides some very interesting analysis of products that are “designed with features that intentionally restrict the way the user can behave” in order to encourage the user to follow certain practices and behaviors, has posted Slanty design, which is a great introduction to the concept and bridges design in the physical world and design for the Web. It’s a quick, well illustrated article that I encourage everyone, not just designers to read.

For non-designers, it may shed some light as to why some of yoru favorite products and services act as they do.

Revising My Thoughts of the Future

Having spent some time digging into the various arguments around IE 8′s plan to address compatibility concerns since my first post on the subject, I’ve shifted away from my initial embrace of the plan. While I’m not as deeply entrenched as many on the Net, I see this as a major problem. Microsoft will implement this change no matter what, and many developers will make use of it. It may start with bits and pieces – a quick fix to address one incompatibility, but in time we’ll see it crop up in corporate-wide, multi-site environments – like your bank. In time this will drag down the Web as innovation won’t be as important without the looming threat of browser changes. If a corporation can stick with an IE 6 Web application design for five years, they will – it could make a lot of sense economically, but I think it will hamper the interesting changes to user experience and usability practices that come with the new technologies inherit with spec and browser updates. This concept isn’t too well formed in my head yet, so I’ll have to post more later, but until then, I recommend reading the quotes from folks who have thought about the issue far more than I have, and provide much more articulate responses this post: Opera, Mozilla and Safari react to IE’s solution for browser compatibility issues

The Future of Compatibility

A List Apart has ignited a discussion around future-proofing our sites and targeting specific browser version. Read Aaron Gustafson’s Beyond DOCTYPE: Web Standards, Forward Compatibility, and IE8 and Eric Meyer’s From Switches to Targets: A Standardista’s Journey to learn what has sparked the renewed discussions and arguments.

After an initial reading, I rather like the idea. If we can get Firefox, Safari and Opera to implement the same method as recommended in Aaron’s article, the Web development industry, and all those it serves (including the vast majority of business, education, government and blogging sites – i.e. the entire Web) would benefit.

Ugly sites will still exist, but they’ll at least stay the same shade of ugly as their creator intended.

Reset Your Style

Eric Meyer has updated his reset style sheet, outlining the reasons for his change in the post Resetting Again. The modifications, while small, are logical and affirm how important the Reset sheet has become to Web professionals and amateurs alike. As Eric notes “this is more than just a throwaway development tool. It really is the beginning of a baseline style sheet. (Or can be.) Things like boldfacing and italics are some of the most obvious textual effects readers will see, and to have reset styles that treat them inconsistently across browsers doesn’t make sense.”

I use a variant of the reset style sheet in every site I build; the majority of those variants are now accounted for, making my life a bit easier. As always, Eric helps our profession move forward in a realistic way that is accessible to developers of all skill levels.

Straight Talk on Accessibility

If we can make the effort to care about cross-browser compatibility then we can make the effort to care about cross-person compatibility.

Jonathan Snook

That is one of the simplest, yet most effective points ever made about Accessibility in the realm of Web development. If you are in the least bit involved in any aspect of Web design or development, you should read What does Accessibility mean? It’s long, but well worth your time.

If you’re a believer, Jonathon provides a couple more rounds of ammunition, including a concise breakdown of the accessibility lawsuit (PDF) against Target.com. If you are unsure, or feel that accessibility isn’t important, you’ll learn a lot from his post.

This is important. I recently agreed to join the advisory board for AIR Interactive & Access U to lend my efforts to this extremely important cause. Every site on the Web should be accessible to all visitors. Yes, a balance must be struck, but right now the balance is tipped in the wrong direction. The effort to implement sites properly, ensuring everyone can access them is small.

Read the article. Think about how you work. Change what should be changed.

Satisfying UI Design is Often Illogical

Scott Stevenson provides a very interesting essay, Satisfying UI Design is Often Illogical, discussing the impact and need for UI changes and the expectations of and reactions by the market to those changes. The entire piece is well worth a read by anyone interested in design and user experience, with many valuable insights. One of my favorites though is encapsulated in a single line: “The real goal is user satisfaction, and some of that is really illogical and messy.”

WordPress Marketplace

Matt, the creator of WordPress, is laying the groundwork for a theme marketplace, the beginning of which he shares in his post Marketplace Idea. The idea is solid, and a step I’ve wanted to see for a while. I design and build my own themes, and will likely do so for a long time to come, but I have never built a theme to give away due to time constraints, so I’m not firmly in either target audience for the service. From this outside (though firmly in the ‘I love WordPress’ camp) vantage point I see some great benefits from this service:

  • The amount of people developing themes will increase, as professionals will be able to justify the time spent on theme creation. If billable hours are important to you, knowing that you are creating a product is worth spending some unpaid time up-front.
  • Following from the last point, the more professional developers and designers that are involved, the more high quality themes will be available.
  • Blog themes will gain in value. While I am a big fan of giving away work, having produced a couple of small plugins and scripts myself, it is important that we establish the fact that good work is worth paying for, and great work doubly so.
  • Good designs that are “retired” from a site could be put into circulation as a theme. I’ve had a couple of designs that I have replaced because I wanted something new on a site, not necessarily because the old design had any major flaws. Knowing that I could earn money, benefit others and/or gain recognition, I’d be more willing to spend some time making the small changes required to place it on the Marketplace. I’m not sure how this point relates to the requirement that the theme has not been published before.
  • This is a great promotion of open source code, without sacrificing the earnings that should come from hard work.

I’m really curious to see how the pricing will play out. Will the system set a price, or a set of prices, or will each theme producer set their own? Knowing only that a subset of users will have to pay to use your theme provides an interesting twist to setting your price and deciding on how much work to put into each theme.

I’m also excited to see how people make names for themselves, building reputations with the themes they produce. This could produce a neat cottage industry, or it could reduce the value of design and development in much the same manner as the “get a whole site for $500″ services that have existed for a while. The latter doesn’t worry me very much, as quality stands out, and I know quite a few top notch folks who make their living producing great work at fair prices far above the outsourced rates.

Feeling Ethereal: Prism, Air and SilverLight

Mozilla Labs has launched Prism, which is an application, based on Webrunner “that lets users split web applications out of their browser and run them directly on their desktop” They are approaching the solution in a different manner than Adobe’s AIR and Microsoft’s Silverlight, choosing to harness the power of the Web, which they call “a powerful and open platform for this sort of innovation” ultimately aiming to “identify and facilitate the development of enhancements that bring the advantages of desktop apps to the web platform.”

It’s interesting and exciting to see another contender working on the Web app to desktop app bridge. It’s even better that they won’t require developers and designers to come up to spread on yet another language.

Thanks to Rick for the heads-up on this one!

On Balance and Layers

Jeff Croft has posted a very interesting article, The new layers of web development, presenting a view of the Web development landscape that’s been simmering in the back of my head, but that I’ve never been able to articulate in any coherent manner. Ultimately, my view that balance is good, all the more so when developing in the real world of corporations large and small, is based on discussions such as the one that has formed in the comments of the article.

HTML isn’t built for purity. So we might as well stop saddling it with those expectations. When the “pure” structure is stored somewhere else, the markup is just a translation. Use the best-available language to capture the essence of the structure in a medium-appropriate presentation. And if some of the subtler semantic nuances get lost in translation, well that just comes with the territory.

Wilson Miner’s comment

Damn right!