Getting it Wrong

I had hoped that my first blog post in two years would be about something a little sunnier than this, yet here I find myself offering my readers a heartfelt apology, and a promise to do better.

Historically, this website has always been my test bed; a place to try out new techniques and optimisations. As such it has usually been hyper-focused on performance and accessibility. Since I wrapped up work with my last freelance client and moved into an agency two years ago this website hasn’t received much love, sitting abandoned as I concentrate on other things.

That said, when I decided recently to redesign it, I pushed on with the task quickly. I dropped the case studies section of the site—trying and failing to write case studies has led to the death of no less than four redesigns—hoping that once I had the base of the site live, it might free my mind to concentrate on actually writing the content.

In my haste to do this, I failed to do it properly. Last week, a full two months after launching the site, I opened it up in the text-only web browser lynx on a whim, and was greeted with the following page.

The homepage of this website as viewed through a text browser, before accessibility optimisations.
The homepage of this website as viewed through a text browser, before accessibility optimisations.

There is no obvious navigation, as it is so obscure and unreadable. There are no headings. There are no links to the location of the content or the top of the page. I was disappointed in myself to say the least, a feeling that only grew when I navigated to the Projects page.

The projects page of this website as viewed through a text browser, before accessibility optimisations.
The projects page of this website as viewed through a text browser, before accessibility optimisations.

Oh. Shit.

Immediately, I felt a wave of empathy. Empathy and guilt towards those who may have tried to browse my site with a text browser or screenreader in the time it had been like this. I have spent my career advocating accessible design on behalf of users, and yet here was obvious proof that my standards had slipped unforgivably.

I’ve just finished rebuilding this site again—from the ground up—in an effort to right this wrong and I’m pleased to say that things are a lot better. Although it looks nearly identical, behind the scenes I’ve switched from using Roots back to my old friend Jekyll, as the accessibility aids it provides are far better. As well as this, I’ve completely restructured the HTML to ensure that it’s semantically correct, and properly annotated for screenreaders.

The homepage of this website, as viewed through a text browser at time of writing.
The homepage of this website, as viewed through a text browser at time of writing.

I’ll be tweaking further over the next few weeks as I start to add more content, but I’m a lot happier with the way things are now.

This Site has been on a Diet

I’ve come a long way since I started my career. For the four years I’ve been writing it, this blog has served as a great reminder to myself of my progress as a designer and developer. That said, it has also contained—for a long time—posts which are naïve, misinformative, pretentious and a bit too sweary.

Whilst I’m all for preserving the integrity of links on the internet, a lot of these past articles do not represent my current position as a designer, developer and decent human being. As such, I’ve removed those articles which I’m no longer proud of, and that is why you may be seeing this explanation instead of what you expected to see.

Please take a look at the full listing and read some of my other articles. Some of them are actually quite good.

Great Minds

Throughout my life, I’ve constantly found myself amazed at how little I know. My ability to learn has always been fuelled by this feeling of inadequacy, and a desire to better myself. It’s the thing that keeps me going at 4.30am, trying to meet a deadline, with absolutely no idea of how I’m going to get there.

And nothing makes me feel more inadequate, than reading articles on the web. There are so many great minds in our industry – stalwarts like Jeffrey Zeldman and Oliver Reichenstein, trendsetters like Frank Chimero and Trent Walton, or up-and-coming youngsters like Devin Halladay and Cole Townsend. The writings of all of the above, and many others, have inspired me in some way or another. I trawl through article after article, I eagerly await updates, all in the hope of some sentence, some phrase or snippet which will teach me something new.

It also pleases me that the recurring theme, amongst all these words I take in, is improvement. Self-improvement, professional improvement. Improving design practices, development methods and performance optimisations. Improving work/life balance. Improving lives with ideas for new products, or charitable contributions. Improving the human race, one well-written article at a time.

Maybe as designers we are a little arrogant to think we have the power to cause this kind of change, but the simple fact is, we do. We work with hive mind, all striving subconsciously toward the same purpose – improving everything we touch. We see problems to be solved where others see frustration.

And there will always be problems to solve; always things to improve; always more knowledge to obtain.

When asked, I used to tell people that I got my motivation from striving to be the best in my field, as though there were some imaginary ladder I could climb in order to reach the top. But now I realise that such a thing simply does not exist. As I learn and develop and improve myself, so too do my peers. As hard as I try to reach a certain level, by the time I get there, the benchmark has moved.

Socrates once said “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”, and I take solace in the fact that I’m never going to “know it all” – The world would be an incredibly boring place if I did.

The Art of Storytelling

Users. Customers. Buyers. Shoppers. Clients. Patrons. Consumers. We use many different names to describe the people for whom we build things on the web, but we often forget that they are just that – people. People with emotions, contrasting opinions, differing reactions and distinct expectations.

People don’t get excited about websites. People aren’t excited by a fancy interface or an expensive font. People get excited about experiences.

And this is why I became a designer. I love the look on my client’s face when I present a project for the first time, and totally knock it out of the park. I love seeing a group of users excitedly exploring a new version of a product they have used for years. The more I put into this job, the more I get out of it.

Everything put on the web tells a story. The challenge is to write a story that your customers will want to tell over and over again.

The View From Above

A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.
A satellite image of Forth Vean, the street where I grew up.

This is a satellite image of the house where I grew up.

When I was young we had a real photograph of this view framed on our living room wall. It had been taken by a local man who, as the only pilot in the village, had hired a photographer and flown him across it, to take photos of all the houses.

He advertised them in the Post Office, and at local craft fairs, and the villagers would stop next to the stacks of photographs and flick through them one by one, searching for their own home. Along the way, they would spot the houses of friends and relatives, pointing and exclaiming their excitement.

My parents did exactly that, and then purchased and mounted the picture, as did many others. Neighbours would discuss and compare their own photographs in the street, and this little phenomenon became a sense of pride in our community.

At this young age, I would often look at this photo, taken high above the home I knew. I had never flown before; never seen the roof of my house. I would sit and look, imagining that this must be what the birds saw when I heard them calling and singing. It stank of freedom, and had a strange other-wordly aura.

By the time I first set foot on a plane two years later, I had moved to a different house, in another country. I had no frame of reference, I’d never seen the roof of this new home, but I remembered that photograph. As I travelled overhead, I stared out of the window for the entire flight, trying to see the roof of my house. I had no concept of distance and countries and borders. All the way over Germany, Belgium, France and then England, I stared and stared, knowing that my house was somewhere in the rolling terrain below.

When we arrived in England, I ran to my father in excitement. “I saw our house! I saw our house!” I shouted, not because I actually had seen it, but because I’d looked at every single building below that tiny plane window, and therefore one of them must have been ours.

It is now eighteen years later, and the picture which fueled my imagination so much is long since lost. That one photograph, nothing but paper and ink and a wooden frame, opened my mind to the idea that the world I lived in had a z-axis, and now sits discarded in a cupboard or box and forgetten.

I look back and remember that picture well, and struggle to see where, in this modern age, children will be able to excercise the same imagination and curiosity. The satellite image I embedded above only took me 30 seconds to find; but I didn’t frame it and hang it or discuss it with friends, I simply closed my browser window.

As much as I love the community that has been built around the web, I wish that I could bring back those days when the world and the simplest things within it were so awe-inspiring, because I worry that as my daughter grows up she will have so much information available to her that she’ll feel no need to go looking for it. Pictures and maps and videos and virtual three-dimensional models of every little corner of the earth are so prevalent online that they no longer attract our attention, and almost negate the need to visit the places they depict. Stories of disasters, tragedies and personal struggles are no longer as potent, so numbed we are through over-exposure. Friendly debates no longer take place, as the answer to an argument is a few taps on a smartphone away.

It is as though as a society we have been climbing a rope, higher and higher, trying to get a better view of the world, just like the pilot. Except now, as we are nearing the top, we are so high, and we are faced with so much of the world below us that we are simply incapable of feeling the awe which we anticipated. We are simply staring, unsure which way to turn, such that we cannot find the enthusiasm, the innovation and the time which we need to bind thread and make the rope longer. Instead we have no choice but to gingerly climb back down, or simply let go.

And I feel partly responsible, as I am helping contribute to this impasse. I build websites and write articles that people will read alone, and then post on social media for other people to then read alone. I am helping to build a web which is slowly nullifying the enjoyment of exploration and discovery, as experienced by the pilot, the photographer, and the many families who purchased a photo of their home.

We need a shift of direction. The web is already prevalent in every area of our lives; we need to stop building it so that it only improves and contributes to itself. So much of the focus in open-source and publicly accessible software is on building “a better web”, but what if instead we could work together to build a better world. What if we could write software that contributed to society, rather than providing it with more distractions?