Friday, May 20, 2011

This is what I sound like griping about pixels vs. boxes

For those few who have forgotten to remove me from your feed list, the absence has been totally worth it. Writing (half of) a 460 page book on mobile design was very interesting, and hopefully will be something important and helpful to you all. Buy a copy when it comes out, presumably in a few months. Last year I was on a panel with, among other people, Luke Wroblewski. He was "defending" his then-new concept of mobile first. I was supposed to be the naysayer. But it takes me a while to warm up to people and be abrasive, harsh and disagreeable, so I ended up looking like I agreed with him. Everyone else did, so it was a rather boring panel. We're sorry it wasn't exciting. I did agree with the principles – which I'll get to eventually – but I didn't fully understand how much, or even really why I disagreed with the practice at the time. At the time, I thought I had a nice cynicism baked in, but in fact I'd worked in or with organizations that more or less bought into the concept of UX practitioners and let us do our jobs. Some encouraged it. Since then, I've had to leave that job, and as it turns out that whole world. Not the design world, but the happy design world. Before I go further, I should mention to anyone who works with me, you may or may not know what I am talking about. I have a day job which is separate from my freelance clients, who don't know each other. Though it probably decreases my ability to network and sell, I respect client wishes and do not generally even imply who I am working for. I also have friends, and keep track of former co-workers, and talk to others about their new jobs. And with the writing I have been very much keeping up on the world of mobile (and other interactive) design. So if this sounds like you, and you are offended, there's probably someone worse, or at least it's a composite. Don't get in a huff about it.

It's like I never left

I'll hope we can all agree that the end goal is good, useful design for the end-user, and the way they work. But from there it all falls apart. Let's get right to the heart of the matter. A lot of people use this as the basic unit of design, for all interactive work: a pixel I see it used by those who distribute involved raster PSD templates for designing on a specific device, or write up long explanations of how to use Fireworks for mobile design, or who push or promulgate pithy catchphrases like "mobile first," (or "CLI first") really. They often routinely conflate interaction and interface design, or just call themselves "designers" without distinction. Many work at companies who hire designer/developers, or cannot fathom what a designer does if not also writing code, or at least prototyping everything, as soon as possible. Yes, I am enough of a taxonomist to know that generalizing results in generalizations. I don't much care about individual cases. But if you want to talk specifics, I have seen at least three well-meaning, otherwise mostly-useful repositories of information refer to 44 px as the right touch target size this year. If you are not horrified by that, turn in your HCI credentials. You may have noticed that people cannot be measured in pixels. So it was dumb a couple years ago when there were too many Apple fanboi designers. But now even iOS has multiple resolutions. Saying "44 px" without caveat, in 2011, should be tried in the International Criminal Courts at the Hague. It all reminds me of 1999. That's when I started seriously – in front of clients – rejecting the concept of the "page fold" in web design. By way back then even the desktop was becoming too fluid or fragmented to pick a screen size for everyone that was the same. Anyone who starts with a single resolution for mobile is fooling themselves, and wasting opportunities. Without over-emphasizing the point, designing in pixels is dumb. Anything that reinforces or just trys to improve designing in pixels is also dumb. Note that I didn't say we don't need Photoshop. It's open alongside InDesign all day, every day. And I in no way said we don't need visual or graphic designers; I have an art degree, and have won awards for digital art and illustration, but it's not my day job today, and I need that sort of designer to collaborate with. I said "designing in pixels" is bad. Don't over-reach and miss the point.

So, what's your point?

My basic element of design is this: a box I like words also. If I can get them, well-formatted bullet lists are nice, but if I have to just boxes and words will do nicely. Two pixels together are two pixels. But two boxes together are nested. or adjacent, or overlapping. They interact. They can move. One can conditionally disappear. two boxes Don't even get me started on the possibilities offer up by three boxes. The mind boggles. What size are they? It doesn't matter. Or: it depends. On rules we don't just assume, or constrain by declaring a resolution, but by determining some what size and what items stay on each page in which position as the design progresses into addressing different platforms, different devices, and different aspect ratios. This is all based on every other type of design or drawing or illustration I have done or learned. You start with basics and move into details. You start with sketches and settle on aspect ratios, orientations and sizes. Details get filled in as it evolves. So few artists start their work at full detail in one corner that it's generally studied as a condition. Whereas I have seen an awful lot of interface designers start by laying down a gradient bar at the top of the page, pick the color and type the title in, then proceed from there.

What catchy phrase can I use to remember this?

My mantra would be something like "do your job first." Yeah. I am not that great at catchphrases. But I still believe in it. Don't jump to final designs, and don't jump to even wireframing of any one platform and resolution. Let the process unfold. Analyze existing products. Ask clients and customers, then build goals and objectives. Put Post-Its on the wall, then start drawing. With whiteboard markers, and sharpies. Eventually you get to make boxes and they evolve, and branch to the needed interfaces. Doing it all like this might even help you identify which devices and modes in which it should operate. And remember to design for people first. I once was in a meeting at a Fortune 50, who had hired a respected and well-known design firm to do some interactive design. They brought some "mood boards." That's what they called them, but they were single images just ripped from magazines and blown up. Starting your design by copying the last thing you did, the standard OS template, or the coolest new thing, locks you into that first pretty picture in the same way, and everything will be a variant of it, instead of your own design. Let IAs do IA, let Information Designers design the information, let IxDs design the interaction, and yes let the VizDs do everything they do to assure it's all tied together as a cohesive interface. Respect all the jobs, and don't fall for shortcuts, but do your job first, last, and always.

I wish we had a manifesto

If this strikes you as totally the opposite of the way you work, rest assured I am not just some nutjob screaming in the wilderness. I've worked with or for plenty of others who believe in this. There are whole, large, respected organizations who work like this. Ones you've heard of, and who are too cool to hire me. But we all spend more time doing our work, or arguing with each other to get together and realize our similarities and write up a public, non-proprietary process to get noticed. You, no matter who you are, probably believe at some level also. Ever done a whole design session with just sharpies and Post-Its? Ha! I caught you. Try that for a few more layers of design and see what happens.

You probably shouldn't listen to me

I mentioned up front that I can be abrasive and disagreeable. If you don't think so now, you haven't been reading closely enough. I get along with a lot of people well, but (I have been recently told) not always, not with everyone. Don Draper (and his ilk on every TV show) gets away with a lot more than I can, or you probably can either when selling to the client/patient/judge/etc. The right idea doesn't always win out in the real world, so even if you are ready to join the revolution and start that manifesto, you need your day job still. Be ready to lie to keep the clients. I do this all the time. They want to see the home page, so we make one up, with gradients and icons and banner ads that are better integrated than they'll ever be in reality. Then we ignore it (rarely does anyone keep them around) and get back to developing the design the right way. I am sure some people are bugged by the morality of this, but I certainly think the end user and the end deliverable is still more important than a short-term deliverable. I am willing to stretch the truth a little bit. It's in everyone's best interest.

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