Howells.

The launch of Steer: learn design and development

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I’m very excited to see that Rik Lomas’ new start-up—Steer—has launched. Their goal is to set up high-quality courses in web design and development. Some of their courses are aimed at people pursing a new career, whether it be creating their own web startup or wanting to become a designer or developer, and other courses are aimed at giving people in the industry extra skills to improve their craft.

Some of their courses are long form multiple day courses, for instance, they have a course called “Learn to make websites” coming up in April that’s Monday to Friday, 10am until 6pm every day for 10 days. Another interesting product is a series of courses called Slow Code: sessions every fortnight for people who want to learn more casually or just don’t have the time to commit to an intensive course. They’re launching with Ruby on Rails and jQuery Slow Code courses.

Their long term goal is to create a platform for learning during and after the courses so that their students can always get help solving problems. There are a few education startups that help do this, but importantly Steer are providing the educational infrastructure than will underpin the platform; tailoring it precisely to their students’ needs.

The staff at Steer—who, incidentally all code themselves—know the pain of learning how to program, so in parallel with the main platform they’re building web apps to make creating websites easier. Their first app, Teepee is for people looking to get static sites online easily. They say, “Think of it as a cross between Geocities and a super simple web host. We’re working with Code Club on this so it has to be simple enough for a 9 year old to use which in itself is a big but fun user experience challenge for us.”

Finally, Steer are donating money from each course to Code Club, to help their programme that helps kids learn to code. For instance, every ticket bought for their 2 week learn to make websites course will fund 12 children to code for a year. “We love Code Club and it’s amazing to see how much enjoyment children get out of creating their own inventions. That sense of fun and achievement is something that we want to replicate with Steer.”

Given the woeful state of design and development education in the UK and the US, I’m excited about Steer, and genuinely believe that it will be startups like this that will carry the mantle: I haven’t seen any innovation by traditional educational institutions and can’t envisage a future with them playing a significant role in educating the next generation of talent in our industry.

“What Constitutes Good and Bad Web Design?” — a response

I recently enjoyed this article by Alice Rawsthorn in the New York Times. As an industry we seldom get a mention in the mainstream media, so I welcomed commentary.

Here’s a pithy summary:

  • A huge number of websites—particularly those of major art galleries like Tate and Centre Pompidou—are incredibly confusing to find even the most simple information.
  • She levies the fault of this at the web designer’s feet: “Shoddy Web site design is a curse of modern life. The more dependent we have become on the Internet for information, the likelier we are to suffer from its design deficiencies.”
  • A well designed site is “fulfilling its intended function efficiently and engagingly”, but “dispiritingly few sites manage to achieve it. A common mistake is to prioritize style over substance.”
  • The principal problem with many Web sites is that, “their designers were neither rigorous nor imaginative enough in planning the way we will navigate them”
  • She uses the example of Quo Vardis as an example of a well designed site that fulfils its function
  • Then, she uses the Milwaukee Police News website of a site designed to convey the complex and time-sensitive nature of its content well.

I agree with almost everything she says, but it’s everything that is unsaid that is missing, and which makes me uncomfortable with the piece. Of course it’s tricky to get into the minuatae of a website’s failings in a mainstream publication, but at the very least I want to explain why the web designer shouldn’t be blamed.

Let’s take a typical art gallery site as an example. I might not particularly like the site in its entirety, but I could love its design. In the context of the article, that could seem like a contradiction. It assumes that the site is a failure because it has been designed badly, and in many people’s minds design equates to style. In fact, there so many pieces of the website machine that can fail, which can have a devastating effect on the overall experience.

Firstly, it’s no secret that the last organisations to enjoy the cutting-edge in content management systems (CMSs) are those in the arts. Either there is no funding available, or they are locked into multi-million dollar government contracts with behemoth IT companies whose systems are held together with string and sticky-tape. Designing for antique systems is a challenge that I wouldn’t want to wish on anyone. Your beautifully crafted designs—and even code—can get mulched into a hideous mess when mangled by such systems.

Then, because the CMSs aren’t a pleasure to use, the people who are responsible for updating it have a hard time adding content. If it’s hard to add content, missing connections start to creep in and the whole experience is ruined. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed browsing the V&A site without stumbling into a 404 error page, for instance. Because adding content is a miserable experience, why would they even bother creating—or commissioning—joyful, well produced content, if it means a world of pain to publish?

Suddenly there’s a chain of circumstances that lead to website mediocrity, and yet designers only form a small part of it.

I’ve not met a fantastic web designer who also has the ability to structure and model content as well as a fantastic information architect can. Yet I’ve learned of projects where there has been little input from someone who can see the broader picture and goal of a complex site. In these cases the web designer is working from briefs that usually haven’t been validated by some solid architectural thinking. By the same token, bad structural thinking can only lead to messy design; but that’s hardly the fault of the designer.

Underpinning all this is the technical infrastructure. Sites have to feel punchy and quick for a great experience, and so many either don’t have the resources to achieve this, or their hosting team isn’t up to the job. Tate themselves felt this sorely with the Kraftwerk fiasco, a few weeks ago.

So, let’s take a look at what’s happened with all the cogs in the machine so far: the design agency who created the site is upset because their designs have been mangled beyond recognition. They could also be upset because they’ve worked from client briefs without any solid architectural plans in place. The content team are frustrated and demotivated because their CMS is little more use than a typewriter. The hosting team are frustrated they don’t have the money (or the will) to make things faster.

And yet it’s the web designer who’s suffering the blame.

Finally, I’d like to question Rawsthorn’s use of the Milwaukee Police News as an example of a great site. Absolutely, it’s a technical feat and compelling. But to me, it looks like a promo for a new cop drama starring Damian Lewis. And—while I haven’t tried; I’m only assuming here—I’d like to see how it works on Internet Explorer 6.0, which is exactly the sort of browser that someone using “older, cheaper machines with slower Internet connections” she refers to earlier in the article have at their disposal. The drama of the site will soon be lost.

To genuinely appreciate design for function, I would have liked Rawsthorn to reference the work of the Gov.uk team. They have done a lot of thinking around how the many millions of users in the UK need to access content, on any machine, and in any way possible. This is only successful due to the close-knit team of designers, developers, information architects, user experience professionals, and technologists, that have come together to make a speedy, simple, clear message, using design as it is intended: to make the site effective and functional.

Ultimately, a well designed website is the sum of its parts. The parts tend to be invisible to its visitors other than the visuals that are the end result of a long and complex process. The outcome is that the designer often gets the blame, and that’s a sad message to read in the mainstream media.

A few things I learned from redesigning and redeveloping siteInspire

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The new siteInspire is live, and I’m pretty exhausted.

I started the process almost a year ago, which is an insane amount of time full of ups and downs. So I thought I’d pen a few notes as to what I learnt from the process.

I should also caveat this entire post with the fact that I realise a site that showcases other sites isn’t exactly the most humanity-transforming idea nor is the most complex. But with daily visitors creeping into the tens-of-thousands a day, it seems to be something that people like and so there’s a duty to do a decent job, and ultimately not to screw it up spectacularly.

The redesign went through approximately ten radically different looks, each a knee-jerk rebound from each other and—as a result—I felt each iteration was poorer than the last. In the depths of disillusionment and directionless-ness, it took on the look and feel of a vintage, hipster, restaurant menu. Ugh. That “friendliness” and “charm” was replaced by stark coldness. Ugh. Towards the end I became almost blind to what I was doing and trying to achieve, which was when I had to seek the advice of others before I gave up.

In the end, the site doesn’t look dissimilar to the old version: the same(ish) palette, same typography. There’s nothing clever about it, it’s just a small iteration from the original. Yet paradoxically it took a long time to get to a point where it just felt right.

In true piece-of-advice-blog-post fashion, here are a few take-away bullet points:

  • If the design isn’t that broken, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. All it probably needs is a little attention and tweaking. Keep the goal simple.

  • If you ask 10 different designers for an opinion, you will get 10 different, polarising opinions. That can only lead to heartbreak and confusion, so be choosy who you seek for advice and be careful when you post on open forums like Dribbble: some feedback I’ve seen for most shots that I have either liked or disliked has been unfathomably bonkers.

  • Seek advice of only those whose work you genuinely respect and whose work you admire, otherwise you might as well ask some guy at a coffee shop who’s wearing cool headphones.

  • Related to this, seek advice only from those who have done similar projects to what you are doing. If you’re creating a web app, reach out to people who have worked on a similar thing and who understand the challenges in both designing and developing one. Designing a product is very different to designing and building something.

  • If someone really, really hates your design, it just means they care. Of course, saying something like “it’s shit” isn’t constructive, and they’re probably a bit of a dick, but don’t take it to heart however hard it must be. This is why people get so angry when loved products like Twitter and Facebook are redesigned. Haters are gonna hate, but haters care a lot.

  • You need focus. Spending a year on a redesign and redevelopment project is totally impractical and is full of waste. Sprint to the end as fast as possible whilst still taking care, otherwise you’ll lose motivation and focus. This is difficult with personal projects because there is no client to impose any deadline, so try to set one. (Mine was actually Christmas Day, but that came and went, what with the all the food and booze.)

  • Try and ditch Photoshop and Illustrator if you’re making a web app. siteInspire is hardly a complex design but I didn’t touch either once apart from creating assets. Having no training in design, they feel like such old fashioned tools to me, and there’s a lot to be said for just diving in and creating everything in HTML and CSS from the outset.

  • This isn’t related to this project in particular, but if you want to learn development the very best way to do it is on your own projects. It’s a place where you can make all sorts of mistakes and experiment. I learnt a lot more about Rails, Compass, and responsive development.

Finally a big thanks and warm hugs to Shelby, Allan, Simon, Al, Lawrence, and Rik for all their advice. They’re awesome and you should follow them.

Now for the next challenge, to re-design this blog, the studio site, Creative Journal, and a new, not-so-top-secret project that I’ll talk about soon…