We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!
- Get the beat.
- Listen to the wisdom of the system.
- Expose your mental models to the open air.
- Stay humble. Stay a learner.
- Honor and protect information.
- Locate responsibility in the system.
- Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
- Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
- Go for the good of the whole.
- Expand time horizons.
- Expand thought horizons.
- Expand the boundary of caring.
- Celebrate complexity.
- Hold fast to the goal of goodness.
Tuesday, July 20th, 2021
Friday, August 28th, 2020
Before the hagiographical praise for working with an iPad Pro, Robin nails the fundamental shape of the design process:
I had forgotten that there are two modes of design, just as there is in writing.
The first mode is understanding the problem, getting a ten-thousand foot view of the land. It’s getting people to acknowledge that this really is the problem we need to agree upon. This work needs to happen in a sketchbook in the form of messy, back-of-the-napkin drawings or in writing. All this helps you to form a proper argument and focus your thoughts.
The second mode of design is taking that ten-thousand foot view and zooming all the way in to the hairs on the back of the rabbit; figuring out the precise UI and components, the copywriting, the animations, the everything else. This should be done in a design tool like Figma or Sketch. And this is when we should be talking about color palettes, icons, design systems, and consistency.
The problem with almost all design work is that first phase never really happens. People don’t take that ten thousand foot view of the problem and are focusing instead on the pixels; they’re trapped by the system they know too well.
Yes, yes, yes! Spot on:
I think people get stuck in that second mode because productivity in design is often tied to “how many pages or frames did I design today?” when productivity should instead be thought of as “how did my understanding of the problem change?
Sunday, August 16th, 2020
!important in CSS are ways of solving your immediate problem …but unless you know what you’re doing, they’re probably going to create new problems.
Wednesday, July 29th, 2020
Design ops on the Clearleft podcast
The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is out. If you’re a subscriber, it will magically appear in your podcast software of choice using the power of RSS. If you’re not a subscriber, it isn’t too late to change that.
This week’s episode is all about design ops. I began contructing the episode by gathering raw material from talks at Leading Design. There’s good stuff from Kim Fellman, Jacqui Frey, Courtney Kaplan, and Meredith Black.
But as I was putting the snippets together, I felt like the episode was missing something. It needed a bit of oomph. So I harangued Andy for some of his time. I wasn’t just fishing for spicy hot takes—something that Andy is known for. Andy is also the right person to explain design ops. If you search for that term, one of the first results you’ll get is a post he wrote on the Clearleft blog a few years back called Design Ops — A New Discipline.
I remember helping Andy edit that post and I distinctly recall my feedback. The initial post didn’t have a definition of the term, and I felt that a definition was necessary (and Andy added one to the post).
My cluenessness about the meaning of terms like “design ops” or “service design” isn’t some schtick I’m putting on for the benefit of the podcast. I’m genuinely trying to understand these terms better. I don’t like the feeling of hearing a term being used a lot without a clear understanding of what that term means. All too often my understanding feels more like “I think I know it means, but I’m not sure I could describe it.” I’m not comfortable with that.
Making podcast episodes on these topics—which are outside my comfort zone—has been really helpful. I now feel like I have a much better understanding of service design, design ops and other topical terms. I hope that the podcast will be just as helpful for listeners who feel as bamboozled as I do.
The secret of design being useful in many places is not talking about design too much and just getting on with it. I sometimes think we create significant language barriers with job titles, design theory and making people learn a new language for the privilege of working with us.
I think there’s some truth to that. Andy disagrees. Strongly.
In our chat, Andy and I had what politicians would describe as “a robust discussion.” I certainly got some great material for the podcast (though some of the more contentious bits remain on the cutting room floor).
Calling on Andy for this episode was definitely the right call. I definitely got the added oomph I was looking for. In fact, this ended up being one of my favourite episodes.
There’s a lot of snappy editing, all in service of crafting a compelling narrative. First, there’s the origin story of design ops. Then there’s an explanation of what it entails. From around the 13 minute mark, there’s a pivot—via design systems—into asking whether introducing a new term is exclusionary. That’s when the sparks start to fly. Finally, I pull it back to talking about how Clearleft can help in providing design ops as a service.
The whole episode comes out at 21 minutes, which feels just right to me.
I’m really pleased with how this episode turned out, and I hope you’ll like it too. Have a listen and decide for yourself.
Monday, April 20th, 2020
I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.
Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.
Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.
This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).
When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:
Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.
I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.
Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:
There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.
- They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
- I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.
The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.
How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?
I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.
It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:
Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.
Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.
So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.
I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.
Because the web can’t survive like this.
Friday, January 3rd, 2020
Most experienced designers want concision—clear, robust, consistent, elegant systems that avoid redundancy. Concise designs are smoother to implement, faster to render, quicker to understand, and easier to hand-off and maintain. Achieving a simplicity with clarity means that you’re engaging with the fundamentals of the problem (and of your craft) at the correct fidelity. You’ve cut through complexity with insight, understanding, and committed decision-making. That third one is critical. A lot of complexity comes from an unwillingness to commit to the things that insight and understanding surface.
Thursday, October 24th, 2019
Look. Observe. See.
Monday, August 20th, 2018
Jon has seven answers:
- Build a culture to learn from mistakes
- Embrace healthy critique
- Fail little and often
- Listen to users
- Design. Learn. Repeat
- Create a shared understanding
- Always be accountable
It’s gratifying to see how much of this was informed by the culture of critique at Clearleft.
Tuesday, July 24th, 2018
A very thoughtful post from Stuart, ostensibly about “view source”, but really about empowerment, choice, and respect.
I like that the web is made up of separate bits that you can see if you want to. You can understand how it works by piecing together the parts. It’s not meant to be a sealed unit, an appliance which does what the owner wants it to and restricts everything else. That’s what apps do. The web’s better than that.
Tuesday, June 12th, 2018
This is really good breakdown of what’s different about CSS (compared to other languages).
These differences may feel foreign, but it’s these differences that make CSS so powerful. And it’s my suspicion that developers who embrace these things, and have fully internalized them, tend to be far more proficient in CSS.
Wednesday, October 11th, 2017
James talks about automation and understanding.
Just because a technology – whether it’s autonomous vehicles, satellite communications, or the internet – has been captured by capital and turned against the populace, doesn’t mean it does not retain a seed of utopian possibility.
Wednesday, April 26th, 2017
Thursday, June 23rd, 2016
Wednesday, March 4th, 2015
Superb. Absolutely superb.
A magnificent tour-de-force by Frank on the web’s edgelessness.
Read. Absorb. Read again. This is the essence of responsive web design, distilled.
Saturday, May 17th, 2014
Tuesday, February 10th, 2009
When localisation attacks. This is like a more morbid Douglas Adams vignette.
Sunday, January 15th, 2006
With a name like Dave Seah, misunderstandings are bound to occur.