There’s a classic answer to almost every question in web development: it depends. And of course Stephen Hay used it when I asked him my first question: what is it that makes a thing good? It’s the perfect answer for the start of a long conversation: It means there’s more than one thing to discuss.
Keep the fantasizing to a minimum
We wonder what people mean when they talk about UX-designers, or even real UX-designers. We try to figure out why accessibility is seen as a technical thing, instead of a holistic design thing. We talk about aesthetics. We wonder if there’s something like a web aesthetic, or an accessibility aesthetic and if we can use those in education. We talk about the differences between working in an agency, working as a freelance consultant, or working on a product. We talk about what makes a good conference, and what makes a good conference talk. And we talk about many many more things, like the web, and responsive design, workflows, books. And still, after more than an hour, we concluded that we have to do this again sometime in the future.
Vasilis: You’re listening to the Good the Bad and the Interesting, a podcast about quality. This time the conversation is between Vasilis van Gemert, that’s me, and my old friend Stephen Hay, Senior UX Design Lead at online auction house Catawiki. We usually drink beer and whisky when we meet, but today we drank water. Which turned out to be fine as well, and probably much easier to follow for you, dear listener. This time, as always, I started out with the question: what is that that makes a thing good?
Stephen: I am not sure you want the answer to that. You probably heard it depends.
S: Well it does, it depends on the situation. I could probably give an example of one thing that I thought was quality was that you should not have like a dot mobi site. You remember the dot mobi sites or not?
V: Okay, yeah I remember those.
S: The thing about those sites is that you’re like taking time to make something especially for one specific use case when I have been kind of an advocate of responsive design for many years. So of course in my mind responsive design is always right. So I went into this company to help them with a project. And it was a mobile project. They wanted to know if they should go responsive and they were weighing responsive against like an m dot option.
S: So I thought well responsive definitely that’s the quality way to go.
S: Right a no-brainer.
S: But it’s a huge company, very large multinational European company and they were working on a redesign of their whole identity and so that kind of changes things just a little bit. They were working on a redesign but they didn’t have it done yet. And the branch in Germany that was working on the redesign was also working on the responsive website.
S: But that wasn’t going to be done for several months. But people weren’t able to log in and do their stuff on smart phones so it was a problem. So what are you going to do? Repeat the efforts that they’re doing in Germany at the time or are you going to just say maybe an m dot is not so bad with a redirect for right now. Because it’s just to bridge the gap.
S: And then suddenly the thing that I would never have done normally is the thing that I advise that client to do and help them do over a period of like 4 months.
V: I think there are more situations where you can say m dot is a good idea and that is when you have a real good design team focused solely on those kind of devices.
S: Yeah, if they are working on native apps, right.
V: If you have that budget, right. And what I see most of them don’t have that budget. There is no budget to have a complete design and development team solely focused fulltime on […]
S: On small devices.
S: And most of the time nowadays, this was a few years ago right the example I gave. But nowadays if you have teams that are focused like that then generally I see they are working on native apps.
S: So and then all the expertise about small screens is within the app teams right. I mean we notice it here at Catawiki that the most knowledge about small devices is concentrated usually around the app teams, you know.
S: So yeah quality it depends. And it depends also on what type of quality you’re talking about. So that’s one example, just a simple one with an m dot but one thing that pops up all the time is like accessibility.
S: When is a product accessible enough. It seems like for some people it is never accessible enough but there is a point where it is accessible enough.
V: Okay, yeah. Example yeah, it depends […]
S: It depends on the audience. I would always like to have something as accessible as possible.
S: But if you are working on a large product I am glad to just sneak some accessibility in there at all. You know what I mean? Sometimes you are not able to. I know I have been to companies where they’d have to - it would cost a lot of money to even get decision makers to think about that stuff. So you don’t really even want to talk about it. So it becomes this part of your craftsmanship right?
V: I think my students are very much interested in accessibility because I always wondered, especially when I looked at visual interface designers that […] well I am not sure about this generation but the previous generation was just really not interested in accessibility. So that was a technical thing, it was not a visual thing. And it was not something that interaction designers cared too much about it was really a technical checklist. And what I am interested in is why, why, why is that, why do only technical people care about that?
S: I think because a lot of the things you have to do to make something accessible seem technical or they’re communicated as technical. It is funny because you have the WAI ARIA stuff that people start adding these ARIA roles to things that don’t need them because they’re inherent in html. And then it seems like oh look at all this complicated stuff I have to do. No you just pretty much have to use html the way it was intended and be careful about which things might need a little bit more help, a little bit more […]
V: I think it is also an aesthetic thing right? A lot of designers like very low contrast fonts, small fonts.
S: Oh yeah.
V: Grey fonts and a grey background. Things like that. I think it is not technical at all that is just an aesthetic thing. People think that is beautiful.
S: Yeah and then when you make it accessible. It’s funny cause recently we had this discussion about the grey tones that we’re using or the grey shades. So we had this discussion we called it 50 shades of grey.
V: Yeah of course.
S: Which was kind of funny at the time and I don’t know how it feels now. So we were looking at these greys and we were looking at what kind of combinations what things can we do with these greys that will still be accessible. We started really ambitious we’re like we only want 4 shades of grey and then it ended up being 10 at the end because you needed […] some things needed to be placeholders but the placeholder had to be lighter than your normal text but not that you have too little contrast so it was interesting and we kind of figured it out which was a big plus that we were even able to have that discussion. Because even in the beginning there are always some voices that will say well it is not as nice. You know it doesn’t look quite as nice but it depends on what you do around it as well. So everything, that’s the thing about visual design I think that is that everything is relative to everything else around it. So if you’re to make something darker and leave everything else the way it was yeah it might look terrible. But what if you adjusted everything in such a way that it looks better.
S: So you give yourself the constraint of this bit of text has to be darker if that’s a given what other things would I do to the context to make it look better.
V: So how is that here? Your colleagues is it obvious that you always think about accessibility in every stage of the design.
S: Oh no, no, not at all. We do think about it but it’s not always like baked in. Sometimes it’s like oh yeah how does that look to you know people who are color blind or what’s the contrast like or what’s it like to me I’ll just put […] Like now I have reading glasses which is a terrible thing but I’ll hold it like closer and closer to my face and when I think well now I can’t read it but I also can’t read it when I put it a little bit further away then you know maybe it is too small. So we’ll do stuff like that. But it really does help to have a discussion with your whole design team or anyone doing UI and visual stuff that you do things like have a color palette and rules for using the color palette that make it kind of a no-brainer, so you don’t have to think about it. So we know that certain colors are only useable for backgrounds because when you are on a screen it ’s not only color blind people right it’s sometimes you’re on a screen that just doesn’t have that kind of color density.
V: And sometimes you have to project things on a wall.
S: Project things on a wall and then that grey color is gone so when you are using a desert background then you know that that’s the color we are using just as a background because it might turn white in some situations. So you know that then you also know that if you want it to always stand out in every situation you have to do something that is not only the color of the background. So you kind of make up these rules in the assets that you’re building.
V: These things are actually once you know them or once you just like you them tell right now they are obvious aren’t they?
S: Yeah I think so.
V: These are some obvious design principles that you can apply to any project.
S: Well it’s a matter of how you look at the design process. And I think right now there’s still this discrepancy I mean years ago we talked about this. How you had this focus like interaction designers which a lot of them are just you know called UX designers now. But interaction designers and the deliverables they have and handing these over to other people.
V: I think that is changing.
S: That is changing. But like within the UX field now I have this position that’s called UX you know UX is in my job title.
S: And I meet people who say well are you a pure UX designer which I don’t even really know what that means. Am I a pure UX designer? I think the essence of it was […] like what an interaction designer did traditionally or at least the last several years, which is like wireframes.
V: And like what I call fantasizing about the interaction because you don’t know yet. Because you can’t interact with the thing yet.
S: Exactly, yeah, yeah.
V: So like a real interaction designer I guess would be really involved once the product is already started being built or prototyped and you can interact with it.
S: Prototyped. Different early prototyped being […]
V: Early prototyped being which you know I am a big fan of so I think if you that even now we feel like there is more overlap which is a good thing I still think there’s a lot of people who have their little areas. And if you have this idea like I am a visual designer and you only have to focus on certain things. And those certain things involve making something look good then I can see that some are looking at what looks great on Dribble and what’s a nice portfolio piece or whatever and not thinking about all the constraints that are given to them within that project that they have to do. Which is really what a designer always has to do is work with constraints. You always have constraints. But if you just toss some of those constraints out because they weren’t explicit no one said to you no manager came to you and said you have to worry about accessibility therefore it is not explicit therefore if I do that it’s extra time doesn’t make it look as good.
V: Yeah that’s what I am trying as a teacher is to make these things obvious so my ultimate goal would be that my students cannot make these mistakes. They cannot create something with low contrast because they think it is ugly because they know it doesn’t work, right. So I want to find these things, these attributes, these visual attributes of accessible design and put it in them.
S: And how does that work?
V: Well it does work. I mean if I create something I just know it has to have enough contrast, right. If I see something that doesn’t have enough contrast I don’t like it. It is ugly it doesn’t work.
S: Do you think it makes a difference that you are from a developer background really?
V: Well I am trying to question this from […]
S: Cause it going back to your question.
V: Yeah it could be but I am trying to approach this from an aesthetic point of view, right. From a visual […]
S: You are trying to get people to think that accessible visual design looks better […]
S: Than other types of visual design.
V: Yeah exactly.
S: Yeah that’s an interesting thing.
V: Right now I think a lot of people think accessible design is ugly because it’s bigger, it’s less refined maybe. It’s when you go too minimalist and minimalism people like minimalism it breaks right.
V: You cannot do that. You have to be […]
S: Yeah it is funny how the minimalism somehow gets thrown in to accessibility for some reason. It doesn’t have to be the case at all.
V: Yeah I know.
S: You remember when I had Cinnamon right?
S: When I was well co-owner of Cinnamon.
V: Exactly yeah.
S: The whole idea of Cinnamon was to have a small agency that looked at accessibility from a perspective that it can also be on brand and look really good so you can have attractive visual design that’s accessible.
S: That was the whole idea like bridging that kind of gap there.
S: And I thought that everyone was on the bandwagon you know after a few years but I guess the same problems are kind of recycling.
V: Yeah. I saw an interesting thing a few weeks ago, a few months ago. So I invited two speakers at University for our students. There were about a 100 students and two speakers. And the one he talked about accessibility and he showed examples of people who were color blind, blind people, all different kinds of accessibility. Very interesting. And then afterwards there was this other, former colleague of mine who did a terrible, it was really really bad talk. He just simply showed all kinds of images of things that he had done. And then halfway through his talk one of my students asked have you ever thought about colorblind people. My former colleague said to be honest no, never. And that was just after one talk and maybe two lessons that I gave them that this student noticed that the designs were inaccessible. That the designer had not thought about accessibility.
S: I wonder why?
V: Well he saw the very low contrast. And that was just so obvious; it was so obvious in these designs.
S: But was it like lack of awareness that there are other people who don’t see low contrast just not knowing that that’s the case.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: So it is just an educational thing really. It’s just that people don’t know. It is not like people know that they are purposely making something that is not accessible. Or do you see that happening as well?
V: Yeah I used to see that happening. Where I used to work yeah definitely. So I would show to designers and art directors look it’s broken. It doesn’t work on this device.
S: And they didn’t care?
V: Well buy a better device.
V: I don’t care.
S: You’re holding it wrong.
S: Yeah right.
V: So yeah it could be an educational thing. It could be a tooling thing as well, right. How do you test this? It’s if you have an exceptional a very good monitor, a very good computer […]
S: Okay so related to that, ‘cause I think we are on agreement there right?
V: Yeah sure.
S: Related to that you have things now like everyone is designing for high-density screens, you know. I just started using Sketch which it was for me a hill to climb not because it is hard to use but because I don’t want to get into this mode of doing things in Sketch and then passing them off to developers. So but learning Sketch then I see these like two times you know the 2x and the 2.5x and you can export these files at 2.5x and I’m like why would anybody want to even export like […] And I am thinking in terms of mockups so I am not thinking about assets and of course there are reasons people would want to export 2.5x assets I guess. But then I am like you heard of svg […]
V: Yeah exactly.
S: Yeah so I don’t quite get it.
S: I would choose an svg over a 2.5x png.
V: I have to admit that I don’t work for clients anymore so I only work for myself. I only have to test on my own devices because I don’t really care nobody else looks at my websites anyway. But then I found out that on a windows machine that don’t have a high definition screen the font that I use on my website is just really really really really broken. I had to fix that.
S: Yeah. So at my normal office in Austin I have […] we basically just you know have laptops and screens right that we can attach as a second screen. So I have a pretty big screen but at the beginning they asked me do you need a retina screen ‘cause they know I was a designer or just a normal screen. I am like just give me a normal crappy screen so that I have retina on the laptop right so I could see both. I want to be able to see both. So the whole idea like getting this whole gamma of information […]
V: Get a crappy Dell laptop from your neighbor, an old one that one is well to test your work on.
S: Yeah just keep a […] like I have now I had at one point several devices just a mini device lab you could say doing my previous consulting work. And now of course those devices were getting older and older but they are still really useful. Oh my God it looks like that you know on these devices. So yeah.
V: Hey, tell me so you changed jobs so you used to have your own agency with people work, right.
S: Yeah for about 10 years.
V: For about 10 years then you quit there and you had a freelance, you worked as a freelance […]
S: Yeah I did freelance consulting work for like design strategy consulting and mostly focused on responsive design and stuff like that for like from 2010 to last year, it is 2016.
V: And now you are in product
S: And now I am in product yeah.
V: Yeah so that’s three completely different ways to look at quality right?
V: I guess that definition changed.
S: I don’t know if it changed. I am still doing the same stuff now I am doing it from the inside I guess you could say. Well okay […]
V: You can look a little bit more at detail I guess.
S: For me I think that it was selfish really the reason, the main reason I wanted to come work here. I worked six years on my own which I made the conscious choice to do because I having employees takes up a lot of time cause you are working on the employees and not doing stuff you really like to do. So I was doing stuff I really liked to do for the past six years.
S: I always secretly had this thing I want to work on a product. And what’s the difference between like doing creative services for clients that have a product or working on the product is I didn’t know for sure. I wanted to find out. I always had this like romanticized idea about what it would be. And I think I like it so far that the idea that you go into a client you help them with something and then a year later you take a look and it is totally screwed up you can’t put it in your portfolio because it looks like crap. They worry more about the technology behind than interaction and you know how people will use this thing and you can’t help them anymore because your job is done. You came in and as Jared Spool calls it swoop and poop. You swoop in and poop on everything and then leave.
V: I guess that’s an attitude that you must like right? I talk to a lot of agencies nowadays and there seems to be two attitudes. One is that some agencies they want a long term relationship with their clients so multiple many many years on multiple projects if possible which sounds a little bit like being an in-house design team, right?
S: Except it is not.
V: Yeah it is not. And then you have these other agencies they say no we don’t want that we want you to hire us if you run out of ideas. If you need new fresh ideas, if you need a new way of thinking.
S: Yeah so I did that work before I had my own company. You know just in traditional like advertising, brand identity and packaging design.
V: Okay yeah.
S: So that was a lot of that. Coming up with new ideas and stuff like that. We did a little bit of it during my time with Cinnamon and we had you know some […] I have also had clients for very long periods of time generally. Some clients I have had for more than 10 years, you know.
S: It’s still not being in the company, it’s still not seeing all those little tiny things that happen and being able to influence those things and seeing something really grow and feeling the results you know of how it changes. Now I get to see the results of what happens I mean we test everything. There is no like I just feel like this is going to work better. NO it is like okay well that’s valid that you feel that way now let’s test to see if it’s really true.
S: And so it’s a nice way of working. I mean it is not like Google like we have to test 40 shades of blue right. Not that kind of thing.
V: I heard a podcast about that one a few weeks ago from people on the other side of that blog post. So that was, what was his name, Dan Brown I think wrote it, I don’t remember. Somebody was a designer.
S: Doug Bowman.
V: Doug Bowman.
S: Yeah Doug Bowman, yeah.
V: Doug Bowman, so he had his blue tested something like that. But now I heard the other side of the […] so the people who tested it. That was pretty interesting. It wasn’t that bad.
S: Yeah well I am sure that each side you know the one thinks the other is exaggerating I guess. But there are concessions you have to make when you test. It’s hard to come up with something that you feel attached to and think it’s great and realize that it just doesn’t work as well as the other thing. But the facts are the facts you know.
V: Yeah there are people they cannot just give up they won’t.
S: Well the thing is you have to isolate what is wrong. Because there are so many factors at work. Is it something within the context, something nearby? Did changing one thing like switch attention or focus on the screen so you are not getting the effect you want? Because you were focused on this one little part did you not see what effect that had on something else unwittingly right?
S: But it’s cool to see all those changes. I never got to that kind of depth in what was going on when I wasn’t working on a product. So so far it’s really great.
V: There is always of course much smaller time span right maybe two or three clients […]
S: Yeah deadlines are really important.
V: Deadlines, budget probably much lower budget not even comparable to what […] You don’t have to worry about budget now you have to worry about […] What are the constraints […]?
S: Well that I mean there […] Budget is a concern. Well we still have time constraints I mean we have goals that we want to hit. We want to try to but it might be increasing […] we always are interested in having more people using the platform. And using the platform means for someone who’s buying that means that they’re placing bids, right. That they purchase things on the platform. If it is hard for them to do that and we can make it easier which will result in more people doing it then we need to do that. So that might be a goal. You know just as an example. So we have goals of course and those goals are not timeless, right.
S: And some things need to be done quicker than others and it depends also on what you do at the company. If you are a developer and there is a bug and something is really wrong then yeah you have a totally different kind of time constraint.
V: Of course yeah.
S: But for designers it’s also a matter of juggling what the thing you are trying to improve does within an entire flow. Everything you change is part of some process or some kind of intersection of processes and you need to think about the effect that thing you are changing has on those processes and act accordingly. So if this is a change that you want to do very quickly then there are some other things you might need to do quickly as well and test quickly so that you can change that entire flow. Because if you change this part and that has an effect on part B you could mess up the flow for someone even though you have done something better for this. Nothing is in a vacuum. All these things are kind of connected together. But you can’t make too many changes at once at the same time because it is just overwhelming for people. So that kind of balance is really hard to find. I see that as a constraint.
S: Some things are too small to do mockups the way that I have always preached that mockups are good to do. Like web based mockups. Some things are really small and it’s like just a small visual change and if you can spend five minutes in Sketch and make that change and then just walk up to the developer and say hey listen that’s you know we are using that soft script that’s 8 pixels right or the equivalent of 8 pixels relative right. Then they know enough and they can get to work and there’s no real need to like do a whole full-blown web based comp like that.
V: Yeah of course. That was a question that I wanted to ask you. You wrote a book.
V: And that was a while ago and you used to work for some kind of clients probably so that book was about work flow, design work flow, design and development work flow and how that fit into your way of working.
S: Yeah it was just design by the way.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: Just a design workflow that worked for me. The whole idea was starting low fi.
V: One of the critics […] the things that I used to hear about it is yeah but this doesn’t work on big things. But now you say it does but it doesn’t work on small things.
S: It works on big things really well.
S: And yeah because small things if everything is in place and you are making a very very small change yeah it’s quicker to jump into Sketch.
V: Of course.
S: Sketch is like a great place or Photoshop or whatever you use.
V: Yeah or sketching, right?
S: Or sketching on paper.
V: Writing an email, yeah.
S: Yeah so I have done that too. Make a small sketch, take a picture of it, put it in the issue tracker. Whatever works at that point of time. But I think the workflow that I wrote about or the principles behind it are more relevant than ever now. Maybe even more then when the book came out in 2013. And I use the principles all the time. I am still doing mockups in code. As a matter of fact I am working on making it easy for people who are not comfortable with code to do mockup internally here to start prototyping with code.
V: How is it more important because I used to understand back then when we created a website it had several different appearances. Really different appearances right. On old Windows machines it would look completely different from on new Macintoshes or with newer browsers, things like that or on small screens. But aren’t the differences getting smaller, aren’t the browsers getting more and more the same?
S: Yeah but if you look at the context of what I wrote about it was responsive design and not necessarily […] even though it is basically a book about progressive enhancement. It’s not progressive enhancement in the sense of we have like Internet Explorer 6 that’s going to show things totally different. It’s more that even though that’s part of it it’s still a big concern about small screens to large screens. And the thing about a web based comp like a code based comp is that - or mockup to use the same terminology - when you’re in any kind of image program even a quick one like Sketch that really works well. And I enjoy working with it because I can do things really quickly. Even though you can do things quickly it is still a proxy and it’s still a poor proxy for what happens on an actual device.
V: Especially with breakpoints at all.
S: Yeah. So what happens is that when you’re a designer hopefully you know if you have anything to do with interaction which I hope visual designers also consider themselves also having to do with interaction then you need to know what’s really going to be […] you need to confront yourself with the reality of what this is really going to be like. When you have the opportunity which we have to jump into reality as quickly as we can and keep the fantasizing to a minimum. Just sketch enough to know […] You know work in Sketch well enough to know what you want to make and then get a prototype of it as quickly as you can. And when you do that […]
V: It is true. I have a good example of why so that my students right now they have their final exams. They have been working for 10 weeks on a responsive website basically and they design so that they come up with they sketch different layouts, different breakpoints and then they make it in html and CSS. And what you always see is that at certain points the layout looks perfect probably three. So mobile and then somewhere tablet thingies and then the bigger screen. And at three points, three exact points it looks perfect but in between it’s broken. Then I think the in between that’s what you have to design for and that’s really hard with pixel editors and that’s really easy with the web.
S: That’s hard and interaction is hard.
S: Once you get the thing on a device and you can play with it then you find out all the stuff that needs to be better. Yeah. Text that’s too small, calls to action that are too small too close to other calls to action. You accidentally click on or tap on the wrong thing.
V: Key board interaction.
S: Key board interaction, any kind of interaction basically. We have noticed things about like font rendering differences you know. Everything looks fantastic, same problems as Photoshop, everything looks fantastic and then you get it into the browser and it’s like oh crap you know. My regular font looks like light on the screen or my light font looks like regular on the screen.
V: It is still that way, it is still that way.
S: Yeah. Well just use the screen you know. The cost is pretty low. It is not like we have to go to get something printed to see what it will look like. You know what I mean. We don’t have to spend that kind of money. Any type of prototyping you do whether it is by yourself or just by sitting with a developer showing him what you made and doing that collaboration to get to a prototype. However you do it it’s never wasted time. The quicker you do it the more questions you’re answering about your design. You’re questioning your assumptions early on in the process. The answers you’re going to get confronted with those answers anyway. So what you are doing is moving it as close to the front of the project as you can or the start of the project as opposed to you know this thing is already being built and then you come across all these problems. And if you would have known them from the beginning your would have made different choices. And now you are stuck, right?
V: It’s also understanding the problems right. I used to give workshops at design agencies that have problems with working together, different experts working together. So I asked them so okay what do you tell your designers to create. So create a mockup for a mobile and then one for big screen and something in between. Okay but do you ever think about what’s between those things because now you just make these things beautiful and they just throw them over the gate to a developer and solve the real hard problems right. Because those are the real hard problems the in betweens. And they tell a developer to solve those hard problems. So do they really understand where the real problems are?
S: I think a lot of designers don’t. One of my favorite quotes is Jeremy Keith who said it is not what happens at the breakpoints it is what happens between the breakpoints.
V: Exactly yeah. Exactly yeah.
S: And really if you look at the like Ethan Marcotte’s original definition of responsive design the fluid grid aspect is really important. So we see things that are called responsive including our own site and that also has to do with when you have a big product you can’t just go and then change everything. So I’m glad that we have a process that every day we are improving something, right? So we’ll get there. So I know a lot of companies have that problem. But when you first sit down and design something now there’s really no excuse to not think responsively. So if you have a somewhat flexible grid not a fluid grid but flexible with like a max width at a certain point and then there is a breakpoint and you get actually the next layout then that’s not really responsive in the original sense, right?
V: Yeah, okay.
S: So the original responsive would be like you have got that fluid and I know I have been quoted a lot with talking about my take on breakpoints which is you just literally grap the browser and you just slowly increase the width until it doesn’t look good anymore to keep it clean for the listeners. Then you decide okay what things, why doesn’t this work right now, what things need to change and that becomes your breakpoint. So your design and your content determine the breakpoint and devices really have nothing to do with it. Then you know that up to that point it’s going to look good on all those devices no matter what. Recently I had […]
V: But that’s really hard to do if you don’t know how to make these things in browsers right?
S: Yeah, well […]
V: That’s really hard to do.
S: Yeah because you going to leave a lot of that design decision making up to a developer […]
S: And they can’t come to you like every pixel. You know like oh I don’t think it looks good.
V: That’s why I teach my developers some basic rules about readability right?
V: Just to base the breakpoints on some old graphic design rules.
S: Well like this tip that you gave one time, I can’t remember where I heard it probably in one of your talks but the one where you have the calc with the 1n plus 1vw, right?
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: Am I saying it right?
V: It’s even more complex.
S: Well yeah it is kind of complex but it’s really just one thing that you just pop in there and then it just kind of works.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: So little tricks like that are really they take a lot of that pain out. The fact that we even have things like calc in CSS which takes a lot of the pain away. Flexbox takes so much pain away. Grids going to take a lot of pain away.
V: And even gives us opportunities that we don’t know. It gives us possibilities to create stuff that we cannot even imagine yet. I think.
S: Yeah if people embrace it as a creative tool that it is but you can’t embrace as a creative tool if you keep seeing it as a developer tool.
V: Exactly. Yeah.
S: And that’s what I think that if you’re interested in interaction and you don’t really know a lot about what can be done with CSS animations and things like that then it’s just like this world that you are missing that you can play around with and figure things out. Everyone is looking at like what company X does and what company Y does but someone somewhere down the line thought of that thing that everybody is copying. And just because a big company is using it doesn’t mean that you are not in a place that you can find out, you can discover something that works really well. You have the same thing you have a lot of followers but there are always people who find something different and surprising and delightful in a sense but that works just fine. It doesn’t have to be those patterns that are listed on some pattern website, you know. It doesn’t always have to be some version of something someone else already did.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: You know go out and discover some stuff.
V: There is room for new stuff right?
S: There’s room for new stuff and it’s going to change anyway.
V: Yeah. Another thing well I have talked about aesthetic a little bit. I am really interested in this idea. So Paul Robert Lloyd you know him writer of […]?
S: Yeah, yeah.
V: He wrote an article a while ago about the web aesthetic. If something like that exists. And he wondered where are the famous design websites, right. The websites that we will remember in 50 years like we remember some chairs and we remember some books right the big designs?
S: Well yeah and that’s kind of interesting because I thought about that and the funny thing to me is there is a popular print magazine about the web which I am sure you know.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: Just be careful and not name names but it is a pretty popular site and I think most people know it and you know they have an award ceremony and things like that.
V: Yeah, yeah
S: The funny thing about that magazine I have always thought they have through the years the quality of the content has gotten better as they have gotten more accomplished and experienced people to write articles for them. The content yeah it’s become pretty good. I don’t know how it is now I haven’t read it in a while but there was a period of time where I thought the content is pretty good. But then there is always this little section where they open like what’s the cool stuff on the web and it was never the stuff they talked about in the rest of the magazine. It was always like the flash type of website you know what I am talking about?
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: Now it is not flash it is just been replaced with you know quote html 5 which is […]
V: Yeah webGL and things like that.
S: Yeah stuff like that and it always looks beautiful and it’s always when you go visit the site it is always inaccessible and it’s always this showcase for what kind […]
V: It is always impressive.
S: Yeah it is always impressive. And it has nothing to do with what the rest of the magazine talks about. So if you read through the rest of the magazine you are not learning the stuff that’s helping you make that, that kind of stuff. And the thing about those showcases where the presentation was always really really creative and it is always the thing that we would often criticize as like mystery meat navigation, hard to use, not intuitive you know all those things, those things come up when I see it too. But they are visually really creative so there’s kind of this gap I guess you could say.
V: I guess so and I am trying to find out. I started a master study, started studying for a master degree last week so. And I want to focus on this. I want to find out why do […]
S: Why does great design have like icons? Why do we not have them on the web right?
V: Yeah well and why do people want to make many designers want to make flashy stuff while people who use things need something else. So what is that, what’s going on? And is there a gap or is there something else?
S: You know Mark Bolton right?
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: A designer in the UK. He has this thing where he photographs faucets in hotel rooms and stuff.
V: Okay, yeah, yeah.
S: It is an utilitarian device. It is something you just have to be able to use and people in their quest to make it creative have made the hardest to use faucets. You won’t even believe some of the photos that he has.
V: Yeah I have been in a hotel where I didn’t use the shower because I just couldn’t figure out […]
S: You can’t figure it out. I even have one at home that looks like you can like take the handle and put it up but you actually have to turn it to the side but not either side it is just one side. So but it looks beautiful, right?
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: So that’s kind of the thing we have to watch out for too. I think that a lot of us that work on products on the web or you know even in companies that work for companies that have products. We are very concerned about the utilitarian aspect of the things we make for our clients because that is the way they make their money. You know you can make something pretty that less people are using clients losing money. You played to the utilitarian aspect of it the client makes more money.
V: Probably yeah.
S: And BJ Fogg has always said when you increase the simplicity then you increase the user’s ability.
S: Which is […]
V: But couldn’t it be both I mean it would be possible right?
S: Yeah it should be both. Yeah I think it is possible.
V: The web doesn’t have to look like the government digital agency right which is brilliant I think what they did the UK government. That’s fantastic.
S: Yeah it is and it serves the purpose that’s why it is fantastic because it is a government website. When I go to a government website I don’t care about some huge photo of someone drinking a cup of coffee you know what I mean.
V: A background video.
S: Or a passport or something like that. I want to get information.
S: So what is the thing that you’re making and what does it have to involve, what kind of experience do you have to have as a person using that product? In some cases that might be an immersive thing in which case I think you can still make it immersive and accessible and have all these other aspects of good design. Some things don’t have to be that immersive, some things are purely utilitarian. I am not interested in a really weird cronkely spoon. You know just give me a normal spoon I don’t really care. It might be made from silver I don’t even care about that. I want to eat give me a spoon.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: And I think a lot of websites are like that.
V: My mother has a beautiful, what is called servies, cuppery, yeah.
V: So and there’s this spoon it’s perfectly circular but you cannot eat with it. Your mouth just doesn’t work like that, right? It is a geometric spoon.
S: Oh yeah.
V: We are not geometric.
S: If you don’t […] That’s an example of something that is just unnecessary to the product.
V: Yeah it looks beautiful but we never use it.
S: Well maybe it is just an object to be looked at.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: And I think there is a huge difference between having a site where you buy plane tickets and a site for an art museum that has centuries old works of art, you know. That’s a completely different way to look at the design. And you know what museum I am talking about, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I think they did a lot of good stuff in that new site and I am sure that a lot of people would find things that could be better but they did break out of a mold. I have to admit. And they did what a museum arguably should do they said it is about art, it is about the art works and how can we create this kind of experience that puts the artwork in front. You know it is the most important thing.
V: It is really content first. Content only even. Because if you […] it is actually the design is a jpeg if you look at the website of an artwork there is only the artwork there is no interface at all. So it is just that.
S: It is just the artwork which is a kind of daring approach. And let’s say that you had a bunch of designers working on that project who said you know what does site X do, what does Facebook do. Oh look at what Facebook […] Facebook has this kind of icon in the menu. And they spend millions testing so they must know what they are talking about. Yeah they probably do for their goals but you know.
V: Yeah okay then I guess in these cases what you see when these big success stories like the Rijksmuseum and the Government digital service. I mean these were not just good designers working on it but also leadership that really understood it. There was a mandate there.
S: Yeah. That’s an important point. Yeah. That is arguably the problem that needs to be solved for most companies.
S: I don’t think really […] There are design problems but the biggest design problem is organization design. And the biggest problem within organizations is communication. And sometimes the education. You know if you are in a position that you have to make decisions about something that you know nothing about maybe that’s a decision best delegated to someone who knows something about it. You know.
V: Yeah but maybe that’s not how we are used to lead stuff.
S: I think it will change.
V: It is changing definitely.
S: And there is this element of kind of I guess the implicit competition that happens by like on the web when just the fact that everyone says hey look at what company X is doing that does in some cases inspire companies to want to do better than what they are doing right now. Unfortunately it often inspires them to do what the other companies is doing right now instead of thinking on their own.
V: Well that’s a good thing as well.
S: But it is at least better than what they did.
V: It is better yeah. If you look at what the Rijksmuseum did. In the Netherlands most museums right now have a similar approach which is a good thing.
S: It is better than it was, right?
S: And so then the step beyond that which I hope someday we get to is where people don’t say we want to differentiate ourselves so let’s look at what our competition is doing which makes no sense at all. Which is what happens a lot.
S: But what they are doing is they are comparing what the competition has to what they have now. They are not comparing themselves to the competition once they have the same standard. So like Jared Spool always talked about you can’t delight users or customers until you hit the baseline of usability you know. If you don’t have plumbing you can’t start fiddling around with what faucet you want right?
S: Get the plumbing down figure out what you are going to next. And I think that’s an important thing is that you can always look to the baseline or hover around. Once you have that baseline you have to look beyond it and try to make things that are kind of fun and exciting in some way to use. Little things that feel like, it is hard to explain, like a breath of fresh air like you think this is going to be this huge process and it turns out to be so easy and you are like oh man that was great you know I did that on my phone in like three seconds. It is so easy.
V: The first time I bought something through my phone I thought […]
S: Wasn’t that a thing about instagrams popularity is that it was just so simple to use. There was like no wall that you had to climb over to get the thing done. I don’t use instagram really much at all but that was kind of the thing, right?
S: Now there is stuff being added to it.
V: The same with Twitter. Twitter was […]
S: Dead simple.
V: Yeah. You could just type in 140 characters, it was like sms that was it.
S: Now it’s like okay I am on this Twitter app and what’s this retweet going to do right. Is it going to retweet or is it going to give me the chance to comment on it […]
V: And how does that work and now we can […]
S: Well slack just some of these threads. It just totally confused me and I know there is always the change of version right? There is always this initial moment where it is like something is new and it might be better but right now I am like totally confused cause I don’t understand it yet. And once I understand it it might be cool. So that’s kind of where I am at with slack with the threads. I don’t quite get it yet I am not seeing exactly what problem it is solving but […]
V: I mean if you look at Twitter other people use it than in the beginning. So it is probably better for those people who use it now.
S: Yeah and I am sure they tested it.
V: Okay let’s go to the next thing. Conferences.
V: You speak at conferences, you visit a lot of conferences, you listen to talks, you give talks […]
S: Yeah, less now though I toned it back quite a bit.
V: Okay. So what’s a good conference?
S: What’s a good conference? For what subject?
V: I don’t know. Just whatever what should conferences do?
S: What should conferences do?
V: I guess it depends right […]
S: Well obviously it depends. I think there are some things conferences can do in general to be a good conference. I just like good content at conferences. And sometimes I like content where there is this little I really like the speaker’s take on something. I don’t want to hear, I don’t want a lecture about how to do something but I kind of want that personal insight of that particular speaker that makes it worthwhile to go to that conference as opposed to like reading a tutorial or something like that. So personally I am not really interested in like the latest tip and trick how to do like some kind of medior inquiry in svg or stuff like that. I think it’s cool but unless the speaker has like their opinion, like they’re not afraid to go a little bit out on a limb. People are not going to always agree with you. I know that from experience. People are not always going to agree with you but it does […] it is an opinion. It means that something they think about. It is the difference between illustration and art, right.
V: Okay, explain.
S: To me. I think an illustration is just like okay […] while art is kind of got to challenge you in some way, let’s put it that way. And an illustration is just illustrating a story. It might challenge you but it won’t challenge you anymore than the story would, right. It is in service of the story. It is like complementing the story. And art, good art to me, and that’s just an opinion which is probably slightly unpopular I think it challenges you in some way. So I want to be challenged by the speakers.
S: So I think speaker […] you know the curation of what talks there are going to be is really important. I think it is important to […] I think diversity is important, it is an important issue. I think people kind of become jerks to each other about it unfortunately. Once you do that I think people stop listening to each other but I think it is important. And the reason it’s important is because it’s not like what we think […]. We could kind of create, I don’t know how to say this, probably with the right words ‘cause it is a touchy subject but we create this mini community for a couple of days and we have the chance to make that reflect the type of community that we would like to have the larger community outside of that. And if we aren’t careful like choosing […] I don’t say you have to choose people because they’re minorities or because of other genders that that should be reason they you invite them but I think that if you just sit down and think about speakers of the top of your head there’s a good chance that you’ll come up with a list that is missing out on some people. So I think you need to threat it like design.
V: I think it is like team building, right? I talked to a development agency a while ago and I asked them why do you only have men here no women at all. And he said I only hire the best people. And I say do you want the best people or do you want the best team? What do you want? He said the best team.
S: Yeah but it’s not. I don’t believe that that that’s the best people.
S: I don’t believe it. I believe that what you do is somewhere I think we all grow up with some kind of inherent bias within ourselves and you know I wouldn’t call myself a racist but I am open to the fact that there might be a list of people that come to mind first and that might not be the best […]
V: Exactly, exactly.
S: So what you would do is you would treat it like design where you don’t just pick the first ideas that come into your head but you explore and figure out you know what kind of […] I was pretty proud I did Design Day twice I was pretty proud of the line up that I picked out probably because I never picked out a line up before so I was pretty proud of that. But I thought we had like this great mixture of types of people and topics and gender and just made a feeling like hey this speaker this group of speakers kind of represents the type of people who can also come to this conference and that the audience then I found to be pretty diverse as well. Because if you look at the speakers then you know that tells you if you want to go to the conference or not. So I was pretty happy about it. I can’t say that I did a good job but based on my own experience of those two conferences I thought I did a pretty good job.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: But it was fun to do but it was also exhausting because it was like when you are trying to come up with some new design or something you go pass the low-hanging fruit that everyone else would have thought of and then it is just like I once heard the phrase squeezing water from a stone. That’s really hard. It was too hard to come up with that stuff. Just like hard work but really rewarding when you did it. And I know that the speakers felt kind of the same way and they were really glad to have been a part of it and it is unfortunate that it didn’t work out […]
V: It’s really a pity.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: Yeah so I guess that tells you something. Maybe I didn’t do a good job because you know not enough people showed up.
V: Maybe it was hard to reach the right people. I think that’s a problem as well.
S: Yeah I guess. But I think the one thing that’s an important part of conferences and so I think topics are important. I think the personal slang of each speaker is important. I think the diversity of the speaker line up is important. You can’t do much about the diversity of the audience. I mean you can’t just kick people out ‘cause […]
V: It does work. I remember the first responsive day out or the second, I don’t know. Responsive day out in Brighton.
S: That was a great […]
V: That was fantastic. More than half of the speakers were women. And this gave me the impression and I know it’s not really true but it gave me the impression that half of the developers in the UK are women. Which is not true but for me it was really nice to have that impression. But imagine that you are a woman or a junior developer, female junior developer sitting in that audience you feel so welcome, so much more welcome […]
S: Yeah I would say much more welcome because I have been to conferences that are pretty diverse and then you know been really irritated by the behavior of just […] I mean it only takes a couple of jerks to you know to be jerks and that can ruin it for everyone. So […]
V: I think we are pretty lucky here in the Netherlands and in […] We have UK, we have Germany with some excellent conferences very close by.
S: I tend to like the European conferences a lot more. I haven’t spoken on a lot of conferences in the States but just you know the horror stories that I have heard from friends who have spoken and you know things you hear and read about which I don’t know. Yeah there is a point where you don’t know what to believe and what not to believe but I don’t hear as much of that type of stuff about European conferences. I don’t know if it is like European mentality or what it is […]
V: I don’t know.
S: I tend to enjoy […] it seems more laid back, really, here. Which probably appeals to the Californian me but […]
S: Yeah. I think those are important things. I don’t think that diversity is a subject that should […] it ’s important and it should not overshadow the importance of […]
V: And the other thing is it was important to shout about it because it was a problem.
S: Yeah but now the shouting is over and you have to solve it by just doing.
V: By just doing. Now we know, we understand, right?
S: Do it. Do it right. You know. There are lots of conferences that do it right.
V: I try to do the same thing with accessibility with my students that’s what I am trying. To deliver new designers who just do it right. You don’t have to discuss accessibility with them. It is not an option.
S: You can call them for help. If someone knows more […] Like if you are a conference organizer and you don’t know […] you realize your pool of ideas for speakers is slanted in one direction I mean you have you know people ask them. Say hey do you know of any speakers I am hitting a wall right now. I have done it. I have asked people. And then I get the conferences that are concentrating on you know really seeing curation as not something you just put […] you don’t just email like everyone who’s ever been in a particular magazine and then hope they write back to you. But you really make work of it, you know. It’s like you are putting together your curating an exhibition at a museum. That’s hard work.
S: Do it that way. And then […]
V: Were you involved in CSS day this year?
S: 2017? The one coming up?
V: No okay.
S: No, I am speaking there […]
V: Yeah yeah I saw that. I thought the line up was incredible.
S: About something really different but yeah I really have to hand it to Krijn and PPK because I think they really tried to do a good job all the time and I worked with them but I never curated CSS day. That’s kind of their thing. I mean we all kind of had discussion like threw names in and stuff like that. But I think my role is one of the more minor roles. They just do a lot. And Martijn.
S: Yeah. So they do a good job. I think all the conferences they put on are really good and I know like I think Jeremy and you know the clear left group the stuff they put on just people with integrity and they do good stuff. I like […]
V: I like Marc Thiele’s conferences.
S: Yeah definitely Marc […]
V: They are really good. Smashing […] There’s so much.
S: Yeah there’s a bunch of really good ones. So yeah.
V: Hey I have one final question that’s something I am also very interested in and that is do you remember why you make things? So there is people who work as a lawyer or something or you know you can […] but you somehow choose or you wanted to create stuff. Do you remember why?
S: I don’t have one particular reason but there’s a quote by a comic book artist named Bill Sienkiewicz that sums it up pretty nicely and he says if you knew you had to make hamburgers for the rest of your life wouldn’t you go out of your way to make them really interesting hamburgers.
S: I think somewhere it has to do with just the I guess this power that you have in creating something, that you can make something. And somewhere it is a little bit of a dissatisfaction with other things.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: And just the ability to be able to do it. It is kind of why I want to […]
V: So it is improving stuff is that it?
S: No I think it is probably more selfish than that. It is just making stuff.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: And even if it is not better I made it. I made it and yeah don’t talk poorly about it. Don’t test it. Don’t disagree with it.
V: Test everything but not yours.
S: Why we make stuff? Because we can.
V: I don’t know yet. I really don’t know but I am interested because I think that’s also my research that sometimes the reason why we want to create stuff is in conflict with the reason why we want to use stuff. But I am not sure yet so that’s a hypothesis.
S: I think it’s different depending on what you are making and also for every person what the reason would be.
S: To me it’s being able to think of something and then not having to depend on someone else to make it.
S: I come up with an idea and I want to be able to make it. That’s probably one of the reasons that I just didn’t want to only design things but also have one foot in development. It’s why I am interested in programming and I am trying to teach myself to program.
V: That’s interesting. So there’s a difference maybe between people who want to think of stuff and people who want to create stuff. That could be […]
S: I think there are people that in […] I guess since I moved to the Netherlands I have met a lot of those people who say I am one of the okay I’ll say it in Dutch: ik denk in grote lijnen, you know those people who are like I am a broad strokes type of person.
V: Yeah, yeah, okay.
S: So I always […] To me that’s always like that leaves a bad taste in my mouth you know the broad stroke thinkers. I am like oh yeah so you mean you want to just think of something incompletely and then give it someone else and they’ll have to think of all the details and make it work for you and then you can pass it off as your own idea.
V: Yeah yeah.
S: You know. There is something about that phrase that just rubs me the wrong way even though it is not always true. And I am also a strategist but I don’t just want to be a strategist. I don’t just want to figure out what do we need to make and why but I also want to think up you know figure out what direction we are going and I also want to be able to make it because then you understand the whole process and you can A. make it yourself if you had to B. you have if you have other people making it you understand their processes and what things are possible what’s not possible which probably makes you a better designer anyway and I think it’s just the kick of it. Why do people like jump off a building with a […]?
V: Yeah okay.
S: With a bungee […]
V: But I wouldn’t compare it because that was I jumped off a bridge in Zimbabwe once. That was easy but creating stuff is not easy.
S: But it is rewarding.
V: Well if it works it’s rewarding but I mean […]
S: It’s a struggle when you’re done it is a great feeling.
V: Yeah but that’s not always true with design, right? You work with clients, you work with colleagues and sometimes the result is not the result you want or that’s my experience.
S: I have often said design and prostitution have a lot in common. Well someone is telling you what to do and you’re you know they’re giving you constraints […]
V: Well that’s not really true that they are telling you what to do. They are asking you to solve their problem.
S: Yeah and they are giving you constraints and wishes. Yeah there are differences.
V: There are different approaches to design. Yeah, yeah. I don’t see design as doing what other people tell you to do. I see it more as coming up with solutions, finding out what the real problem is and then trying to find the real solutions, right?
S: That ideally.
V: Ideally yeah.
S: And if you are a visual designer so called visual designer what are you doing then? It depends. It depends on if you are working with a real UX designer who is giving you wireframes that you get to color in.
V: Is that really? They call that real UX designers?
S: I have heard it said to me like I am real a UX designer but I work together with a […]
V: I think that’s weird because I always thought that […]
S: But it was a really nice person by the way.
V: Yeah. Yeah.
S: I think I scared her off.
V: I always thought that UX was the complete package. I always said okay you have interaction design maybe so people who think about interaction. But UX is everything. It’s how it works. It’s the final product that you […]
S: Yeah but there is a different aspect like if you say that you’re UX designer. There are some people who call themselves UX designer who are actually more researchers.
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: But they are somehow not called a researcher. You have UX designers who are really what we used to call interaction designers and you have UX designers that are now kind of pigeonholing this idea if you are UI or a visual designer and I think why did we come up with that umbrella term then if we are not going to accept an umbrella term. So now you have people who are rebelling against the term UX designer.
V: Me too I don’t know what it is.
S: Because they feel product designer they feel is a better term. I know Andy Budd wrote a piece about that and I think he is right in a way that product designer is probably a better term for what you do.
V: Yeah or service designer.
S: Well service designer that has other connotations as well and then you get into this idea that if someone says service design to me even all […] that calls just up these images of you know all kinds of charts and things and tie brands which might not be true. So I like Don Norman’s definition of user experience like that was the first definition of user experience that I came across which means that it’s basically the experience of the user. Make sense right? So that means that the tone of voice of your emails is part of the user experience. The way people answer the phone at customer support is part of the user experience.
V: The weather.
S: And that micro […] The weather, whether you had an argument this morning. Well yeah that’s.
V: Well you can at least […]
S: The things you can influence, right?
V: Yeah, yeah.
S: And I think that newer kind of more micro definition of UX having the […] like a sort of umbrella around research and service design, UI, visual, interaction I don’t think it works very well. So when people ask me what you do because I have UX in my title, what do you do? Well I do a lot of UI related stuff as well. I am thinking about you know optimizing a little thing through simplify it so that people understand that they can use it or they can use it quicker. Does that make me an UI visual designer? When I am at the same time thinking about the entire flow and what consequence that would have for the entire flow does that make me now a real UX designer or an interaction designer?
V: Sounds like a service designer to me.
S: See. So in the attempt to split these things up to give them more meaning they have become meaningless and you really don’t know what people do.
S: So maybe we should just say designer and leave it at that.
V: Agreed but then again design is also the same thing. So I was at an agency a while ago and the guy who owns the agency he showed me around and he said okay here are the developers and here are the designers. I said is that the same, what, your developers are not designers? And he talked about designers, visual designers. The visual designers were designers and the rest were not designers. And for me it is just the same thing. You work on the thing then you are a designer.
V: Well okay.
S: It’s really hard to have a whole conversation for an hour and a half and then it begins with it depends and it ends with it depends but it is […]
V: Do you have something else to say?
S: I don’t know but if I think of one let’s do another podcast.
V: That’s a good idea. Okay thanks man!
S: It’s very great talking to you. I like this. We will probably continue in Dutch right after this so thanks for having me.
V: Thanks man!
V: This was episode number 17 of The Good, the Bad and the Interesting with my special guest Stephen Hay. I hope you enjoyed it. If you want to listen to more episodes of this podcast I’m afraid you will have to learn Dutch, if you don’t know it already. So far there’s just one more episode in English, with Léonie Watson, which is very much worth listening. If you want to contact me about this podcast, and if you know how to write my name then you can mail me at vasilis at vasilis.nl, or you can find me on twitter via @vasilis. Any feedback is welcome, I’m always looking for ways to improve things.