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Run, Salmon, Run

I was recently asked on Twitter about the status of the fourth edition of CSS: The Definitive Guide.  A fair question, given how long the project has lain dormant!  I have two things to announce on that front.

The first is that I’m really excited to say that Estelle Weyl has joined me as co-author for the fourth edition.  We’re working in parallel, tackling individual chapters and doing technical review of each other as we work.  Sharing the load, especially with someone as sharp and knowledgable as Estelle, will help get chapters out faster, and the overall book done sooner.

The second is that writing is once again underway, with four chapters in process.  I’ve got the transforms chapter done, and the backgrounds and gradients (and maybe foreground colors too) chapter almost done.  Estelle is nearing the end of transitions and animations, with flexbox up next.  What comes after that for each of us is a little bit up in the air, though I’ll probably tackle basic visual formatting next.  Unless I get distracted by something more interesting, of course—truth be told, I’ve been eyeing grid layout with some covetousness in my heart.

So, the book is once again underway, and actually has been for a little while now.  I can’t say with certainty when we’ll be done and ready to compile everything into the Doorstop Edition, but we’re pushing for this year or early next.

As an offshoot of this renewed push, I’ve been expanding and revising my CSS test files so that I can check my understanding of the specification, as well as test the fine details of browser support.  Over the holidays I decided, more or less on a whim, to commit the whole kit ‘n’ kaboodle to Github.  There’s no license and no readme, mostly because I didn’t think to establish either when I set up the repository.  Sorry, I guess?  In any case, I regard the CSS in the tests to be public domain, but the actual content (whether inline or replaced) of the HTML files may or may not be, so a single license would have been hard to assert anyway.  I mostly put the files up there as a form of open backup, and also to smooth out the process of managing updates to the tests between my local machine and meyerweb.  Feel free to make use of the tests for your personal education, though!

Words, Words

R: “What are you playing at?”

G: “Words, words.  They’re all we have to go on.”

—Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz & Guildernstern Are Dead

My recent-inbox counter incremented by one, and I was between tasks, so I went to take a look.  It was a notification from Facebook:

Jesse Gardner commented on a link you shared.

"*gets some popcorn*"

Thanks,
The Facebook Team

I couldn’t figure out what would have provoked that sort of comment, so I went to look at the link I’d shared and came away even more confused.  What about the link was popcorn-worthy?  It wasn’t even a case of being an inappropriate response: it was so out of left field, it seemed literally disconnected from the post.  I seriously wondered whether it was a reply meant for some other post, accidentally dropped onto mine by some combination of multiple browser tabs and mental distraction.

So I asked, and it turned out Jesse was actually replying to an earlier comment on that link.  Once he clarified, his comment made perfect sense, and it was in fact quite funny.  What had seemed like a complete non sequitur was revealed to fit seamlessly into the conversation.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  The words “commented on a link you shared” are so neutral, they make the Swiss look hyperpartisan, and yet they were sufficient to fit into my mental state in such a way that I was led completely astray.  I was so taken in by the idea that Jesse was commenting on the link, I never stopped to ask if he was participating in a conversation.

It wasn’t the words that led me astray, but my interpretation of them.  I led me astray.  Everything I brought to that moment of reading, all my experiences and biases, took the incredibly banal concepts encoded in those arbitrary marks and came to a conclusion that had nothing to do with Jesse’s original intent.  An entire flowering construct of incorrect, misleading assumptions grew out of that simple moment of unconscious interpretation.

No matter how hard we work to be clear, no matter how many words we spend on precision, no matter how carefully we choose our words, what people find in our words is more a product of their views than our efforts.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people hear us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what they hear.  If we express ourselves badly, or in a way that is misinterpreted by many, that is on us.

This is the dilemma of communication: we cannot control how people speak to us, and yet cannot declaim all responsibility for what we hear.  If we misinterpret another’s intent, or listen in bad faith, that is on us.

Words have such power, but none of it their own.  We invest them with all the power they have, each in our own way.  We rarely think about it, rarely make conscious decisions about what power we invest in which words.  I think we think far less about what we hear than what we say, and still less about why we hear what we hear.

Nothing about communication can be entirely one-sided.  We bring ourselves to the words that pass between us, every node in the network running on a unique protocol, striving for clarity in a landscape that seems built for confusion.

This is dilemma of communication: words.  Words.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 February 2015.

Media Queries

Thanks to a combination of my slow process of re-integrating into the web community and the Year in Review explosion at the end of 2014, I actually have some media appearances to tell you about.  (This is at least four times as weird for me as it is for you.)

Since I love the written word, I’ll start with the fact that I’ve been published at Slate Magazine.  As the whole Year in Review thing was going crazy viral, an editor at Slate emailed to ask if I’d consider republishing “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” with them.  I said I’d love to as long as I could revise the piece a bit, to which they readily agreed.  So I reworked the opening to be extra-clear about what had actually happened, gave it a closing that was better attuned to a wider audience than the few hundred web designers I assumed would read the original post, and they ran it.  (The headline was, I have to say, not my idea, but that’s how it goes in most magazines: editors write headlines.  I was at least able to suggest some tweaks.)

Shortly after that piece went live, I was asked to be part of a piece on Huffington Post Live about Year in Review (of course).  I was still in Tennessee when the segment aired, and our hotel’s wifi wasn’t up to the task of streaming video, but thankfully they were willing to have me on by phone.

I saved what I consider to be the best for last.  Jen Simmons just recently had me as a guest on The Web Ahead, where we talked for two hours about what my family has been through in the past two years, designing for crisis, Year in Review, what it’s like to have a story go viral on you, being intentional in the age of social media, new details about my AEA talk “Designing for Crisis”, the Metafilter dot, and a whole lot more.  Parts of it are emotionally difficult, but not too many.  We got pretty deep into what I’m thinking about design and where it should go, and in a few cases Jen posed questions that I couldn’t really answer, because they’re at or beyond the edge of what I’ve figured out so far.

Jen is such a great interviewer.  Not only did she ask great questions and then patiently let me ramble my way to answers, she brought really smart perspectives to everything we were talking about.  Listening to her observations and thoughts gave me several new insights into designing for crisis, and more.  You should listen to the episode, or to any of the shows in her archives, just to hear a master of the craft at work.

So, yeah.  This has all been very interesting for me.  At some point, I’ll probably write something about what it’s like to watch a story about you go viral, but for now, I’m enjoying the return to anonymity.  It’s left me time to think more about empathetic design, and to catch up with work and other people’s thoughts.  That’s the best part of this whole web thing: learning from others.  It’s why I got started with the web in the first place.  It’s why I’m still here.

Ramping Up

We were driving back home from our impromptu surprise family vacation in Tennessee, winding our way through the Appalachian Mountains, when I pointed out a long, steep ramp to nowhere branching off the side of the highway.  “What do you think it’s for?” I asked the kids.

They made some guesses, some quite clever, but none correct.  So I told them about runaway truck ramps and how they work.  I think they were vaguely interested for a few seconds; I got a well-isn’t-that-interesting grunt, which I’ll take as a win.  We swept on past, the kids went back to whatever they were doing before I’d interrupted them, and I kept my eyes on the road.

But I was still thinking about the runaway truck ramp, and how it’s a perfect physical example of designing for crisis.

I also wondered about the history of runaway ramps—when they were first implemented, and how many runaway vehicles crashed before the need was recognized and a solution found.  After I got home, I looked it up and discovered that ramps didn’t really exist until the 1970s or so.  Even if we assume that no vehicles lost control in the U.S. until the Eisenhower Interstate System was established in the 1950s (just go with it), that’s still two decades of what were probably some pretty horrible crashes, before a solution was implemented.

This is not to say that the ramps are a perfect solution.  A runaway vehicle can certainly crash before reaching the next ramp, and using a ramp is likely to damage the vehicle even under the best of circumstances.  A badly-designed ramp can be almost as dangerous as no ramp at all.  Still, a solution exists.

I feel like web design is at the pre-ramp phase.  We’ve created a huge, sprawling system that amplifies commerce and communication, but we haven’t yet figured out how to build in some worst-case-scenario features that don’t interfere with the main functioning of the system.  We’ve laid down the paths and made some of them look pretty or even breathtaking, but we’re still not dealing with the crashes that happen when an edge case comes onto our stretch of the road.

I’m trying really hard to avoid “information superhighway” clichés here, by the way.

I’ve been pondering whether to incorporate this particular example into my 2015 talk, “Designing for Crisis”—much will depend on how the talk stands after I go back through it one more time to tighten it up, and start rehearsing again.  If there’s room and a good hook, I’ll add it in as a brief illustration.  If not, that’s okay too.  It’s still given me another way to look at designing for crisis, and how that topic fits into the broader theme that the Facebook imbroglio brought to light.

I’m still trying to get a good handle on what the broader theme is, exactly.  “Designing for Crisis” is a part of it, but just a part.  Several people have told me I should turn that talk into a book, but it never quite felt like a book.  Sure, I could have stretched it to fill a book, but something was missing, and I knew it.  I thought there was a hole in the idea that I needed to identify and fill; instead, the idea was filling a hole in a context I hadn’t seen.

Now I have.  It will take some time to see all of it, or even just more of it, but at least now I know it’s there and waiting to be explored and shared.

Sunrise, Sunset

Everything begins, and everything ends.  Sometimes the beginnings are hard to define, and the endings are hard to accept.  Other times the beginnings are clear, and the endings are welcome.

We have a lot of beginnings and endings in our lives.  Beginnings are usually easier than endings.  In fact, some of us dislike endings so much that we avoid them by any means possible.  How many projects have you started, and then let fade from attention, denying them a proper finish?  I’ve done that so many times, I should be ashamed.

This is so common to our industry, though.  Plenty of projects and even programming languages get launched, gain favor, start a buzz, and then gradually fall by the wayside, but they never really end.  There are still people making a living writing COBOL.  There are so few of them left, in fact, they’re probably making a better living than you and me.  COBOL will only die when the last machine shuts down, or else when the last COBOL programmer does.

We see the same dynamics at play in design.  Remember drop shadows?  Some day, we’ll say the same thing about flat design, even responsive design as we now understand it.  Something will build from them, whether as a reaction or an evolution, be given a snappy new name (snappy names are critical to the adoption of design trends), and we’ll look back and say, “Remember…?”

But there is no standard definition of what constitutes the end of a trend.  It’s probably just as well, since in the absence of such a definition, we can support a thriving industry of thinkpieces on The Death Of whatever the thinkpiecer wants to declare dead.  They’re never definitive, but they do generate traffic, which generates ad revenue, which generates higher stock prices for Google.

That is, until some confluence of factors causes Google’s stock to drop, which will in turn launch a thousand breathless thinkpieces on The Death of Google.  They’ll sail off toward the intellectual horizon, questionable axioms and unquestioned assumptions fluttering gaily in the hot air, following in the wakes of the fleets of thinkpieces on The Death of Apple, The Death of Microsoft, The Death of Dell, The Death of IBM, The Death of Kodak, and The Death of Digital Equipment Corporation.

If you live long enough, you start to get a sense that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating, as Shirley Bassey once put it.  The towering crises of youth, both the personal and global, are eventually seen to be iterations on a long-running theme.  When our elders say that youth is wasted on the young, a big part of that observation is the realization that the time of life at which you are the most energetic is also the time in which you’re most likely to expend all that energy taking everything so damn seriously, as if the world is coming to an end.

Which it will, at some point.  Everything does.

The best we can hope for is that an ending comes at the right time, for the right reasons.  We don’t always have the ability to make that happen.  Other times, we do.

Here’s to the last year of The Pastry Box.

This article was originally published at The Pastry Box Project on 2 January 2015.

Well, That Escalated Quickly

This post is probably going to be a little bit scattered, because I’m still reeling from the overwhelming, unexpected response to the last post.  I honestly expected “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty” to be read by maybe two or three hundred people over the next couple of weeks, all of them friends, colleagues, and friends who are colleagues.  I hoped that I’d maybe give a few of them something new and interesting to think about, but it was really mostly just me thinking out loud about a shortcoming in our field.  I never expected widespread linking, let alone mainstream media coverage.

So the first thing I want to say: I owe the Year in Review team in specific, and Facebook in general, an apology.  No, not the other way around.  I did get email from Jonathan Gheller, product manager of the Year in Review team at Facebook, before the story starting hitting the papers, and he was sincerely apologetic.  Also determined to do better in the future.  But I am very sorry that I dropped the Internet on his head for Christmas.  He and his team didn’t deserve it.

(And yes, I’ve reflected quite a bit on the irony that I inadvertently made their lives more difficult by posting, after they inadvertently made mine more difficult by coding.)

Yes, their design failed to handle situations like mine, but in that, they’re hardly alone.  This happens all the time, all over the web, in every imaginable context.  Taking worst-case scenarios into account is something that web design does poorly, and usually not at all.  I was using Facebook’s Year in Review as one example, a timely and relevant foundation to talk about a much wider issue.

The people who I envisioned myself writing for—they got what I was saying and where I was focused.  The very early responses to the post were about what I expected.  But then it took off, and a lot of people came into it without the context I assumed the audience would have.

What surprised and dismayed me were the…let’s call them uncharitable assumptions made about the people who worked on Year in Review.  “What do you expect from a bunch of privileged early-20s hipster Silicon Valley brogrammers who’ve never known pain or even want?” seemed to be the general tenor of those responses.

No.  Just no.  This is not something you can blame on Those Meddling Kids and Their Mangy Stock Options.

First off, by what right do we assume that young programmers have never known hurt, fear, or pain?  How many of them grew up abused, at home or school or church or all three?  How many of them suffered through death, divorce, heartbreak, betrayal?  Do you know what they’ve been through?  No, you do not.  So maybe dial back your condescension toward their lived experiences.

Second, failure to consider worst-case scenarios is not a special disease of young, inexperienced programmers.  It is everywhere.

As an example, I recently re-joined ThinkUp, a service I first used when it was install-yourself-and-good-luck alpha ware, and I liked it then.  I’d let it fall by the wayside, but the Good Web Bundle encouraged me to sign up for it again, so I did.  It’s a fun service, and it is specifically designed to “show how well you’re using your social networks at a more human level,” to quote their site.

So I started getting reports from ThinkUp, and one of the first was to tell me about my “most popular shared link” on Twitter.  It was when I posted a link to Rebecca’s obituary.

“Popular” is maybe not the best word choice there.

Admittedly, this is a small wrinkle, a little moment of content clashing with context, and maybe there isn’t a better single word than “popular” to describe “the thing you posted that had the most easily-tracked response metrics”.  But the accompanying copy was upbeat, cheery, and totally didn’t work.  Something like, “You must be doing something right—people loved what you had to say!”

This was exactly what Facebook did with Year in Review: found the bit of data that had the most easily-tracked response metrics.  Facebook put what its code found into a Year in Review “ad”.  ThinkUp put what its code found into a “most popular” box.  Smaller in scale, but very similar in structure.

I’m not bringing this up to shame ThinkUp, and I hope I haven’t mischaracterized them here.  If they haven’t found solutions yet, I know they’re trying.  They really, really care about getting this right.  In fact, whenever I’ve sent them feedback, the responses have been fantastic—really thoughtful and detailed.

My point is that ThinkUp is a product of two of the smartest and most caring people I know, Gina Trapani and Anil Dash.  Neither of them comes anywhere close to fitting the Young Brogrammer stereotype; they are, if anything, its antithesis, in both form and deed.  And yet, they have fallen prey to exactly the same thing that affected the Year in Review team: a failure to anticipate how a design decision that really worked in one way completely failed in another, and work to handle both cases.  This is not because they are bad designers: they aren’t.  This is not because they lack empathy: they don’t.  This is not because they ignored their users: they didn’t.  This is such a common failure that it’s almost not a failure any more.  It just… is.

We need to challenge that “is”.  I’ve fallen victim to it myself.  We all have.  We all will.  It will take time, practice, and a whole lot of stumbling to figure out how to do better, but it is, I submit, vitally important that we do.

Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty

I didn’t go looking for grief this afternoon, but it found me anyway, and I have designers and programmers to thank for it.  In this case, the designers and programmers are somewhere at Facebook.

I know they’re probably pretty proud of the work that went into the “Year in Review” app they designed and developed, and deservedly so—a lot of people have used it to share the highlights of their years.  Knowing what kind of year I’d had, though, I avoided making one of my own.  I kept seeing them pop up in my feed, created by others, almost all of them with the default caption, “It’s been a great year! Thanks for being a part of it.”  Which was, by itself, jarring enough, the idea that any year I was part of could be described as great.

Still, they were easy enough to pass over, and I did.  Until today, when I got this in my feed, exhorting me to create one of my own.  “Eric, here’s what your year looked like!”

image

A picture of my daughter, who is dead.  Who died this year.

Yes, my year looked like that.  True enough.  My year looked like the now-absent face of my little girl.  It was still unkind to remind me so forcefully.

And I know, of course, that this is not a deliberate assault.  This inadvertent algorithmic cruelty is the result of code that works in the overwhelming majority of cases, reminding people of the awesomeness of their years, showing them selfies at a party or whale spouts from sailing boats or the marina outside their vacation house.

But for those of us who lived through the death of loved ones, or spent extended time in the hospital, or were hit by divorce or losing a job or any one of a hundred crises, we might not want another look at this past year.

To show me Rebecca’s face and say “Here’s what your year looked like!” is jarring.  It feels wrong, and coming from an actual person, it would be wrong.  Coming from code, it’s just unfortunate.  These are hard, hard problems.  It isn’t easy to programmatically figure out if a picture has a ton of Likes because it’s hilarious, astounding, or heartbreaking.

Algorithms are essentially thoughtless.  They model certain decision flows, but once you run them, no more thought occurs.  To call a person “thoughtless” is usually considered a slight, or an outright insult; and yet, we unleash so many literally thoughtless processes on our users, on our lives, on ourselves.

Where the human aspect fell short, at least with Facebook, was in not providing a way to opt out.  The Year in Review ad keeps coming up in my feed, rotating through different fun-and-fabulous backgrounds, as if celebrating a death, and there is no obvious way to stop it.  Yes, there’s the drop-down that lets me hide it, but knowing that is practically insider knowledge.  How many people don’t know about it?  Way more than you think.

This is another aspect of designing for crisis, or maybe a better term is empathetic design.  In creating this Year in Review app, there wasn’t enough thought given to cases like mine, or friends of Chloe, or anyone who had a bad year.  The design is for the ideal user, the happy, upbeat, good-life user.  It doesn’t take other use cases into account.

Just to pick two obvious fixes: first, don’t pre-fill a picture until you’re sure the user actually wants to see pictures from their year.  And second, instead of pushing the app at people, maybe ask them if they’d like to try a preview—just a simple yes or no.  If they say no, ask if they want to be asked again later, or never again.  And then, of course, honor their choices.

It may not be possible to reliably pre-detect whether a person wants to see their year in review, but it’s not at all hard to ask politely—empathetically—if it’s something they want.  That’s an easily-solvable problem.  Had the app been designed with worst-case scenarios in mind, it probably would have been.

If I could fix one thing about our industry, just one thing, it would be that: to increase awareness of and consideration for the failure modes, the edge cases, the worst-case scenarios.  And so I will try.


Note: There is a followup to this post that clarifies my original intent, among other things.

A slightly revised and updated version of this post was published at Slate.

Finding My Way

With presentations of “Designing for Crisis” at AEA Orlando and World Usability Day Cleveland now behind me, I’m getting into the process of reviewing and refining the talk for 2015.  This will be my talk at An Event Apart all throughout this year, making me one of the rare AEA speakers who won’t have a brand-new talk in 2015.  (We’ll have a mix of new and familiar faces, as we always try to do, and they’ll all be bringing new material to the stage.)

Even “Designing for Crisis” will have some new aspects to it, as I discover ways to strengthen it and loop in some new thoughts and discoveries.  As an example, I just recently had a great chat with Amy Cueva, who gave me some really sharp insights into how I can share the message even more effectively.  I expect that kind of iterative improvement to continue throughout the year, given how new the topic is to me, and possibly to everyone.  It’s been something of a surprise to have many people tell me it’s caused them to see their own work in a whole new light—even people working in fields where you might think they would already be on top of this.  I’m really excited to bring this talk to people at AEA, and elsewhere as opportunities arise.  I hope it will do some good in the world.

In parallel with that ongoing effort, I’m getting back to writing more than just the occasional blog post.  I’ve restarted work on the fourth edition of CSS: The Definitive Guide—details on that will be forthcoming just after the holidays.  I’m also starting to write down some of the thoughts and approaches in “Designing for Crisis”, as well as some nascent thoughts on network effects, responsibility, community, and guidance.  I’m also trying to teach myself git so I can push out public repositories of my CSS tests and some bits of code I’d like to release into the wild, but honestly that’s pretty slow going, because it’s always a fifth or sixth priority behind my family, working on AEA, refining and rehearsing the new talk, and writing.

(“Bits of code”.  SEE WHAT I DID THERE?)

Given everything that’s coming together, I really am looking forward to 2015 and a return to speaking and writing.  For painfully obvious reasons, I was pretty out of the loop for nearly all of 2014, not to mention the last half of 2013.  I tried to stay up to date, but it’s one thing to be in the middle of things, and quite another to observe things from a distance.  (The mosh pit never looks like it feels, you know?)  So in addition to all the other stuff, I’m working overtime to catch up, and that’s where I could really use some help from the community.

So, tell me: what did I miss?  What’s emerging that I should be (or should already have been) paying attention to, and what am I already behind the curve on?  What has you excited, and what sounds so awesome that you’re hungering to know more about it?  And maybe most important of all, where should I be going to get caught up?

All input welcome, whether here in the comments, or out there on les médias sociaux.  And thank you!

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