More on criticism

Nice response from Andi Farr to my post about criticism. He raises a good point:

Once the work is launched, it’s another story – even if they were to agree with incoming criticism, the prospect of going back to a client to say “we did this wrong” is an uninviting one.

I agree that criticism is rarely going to be about salvaging something.

[...] if an agency is making shoddy work, then the likelihood is that they’ll either realise and get their act together, or lose all their clients / talent and eventually go out of business.

This I’m not so sure about. It’s a sad fact maybe, but great work does not always equal success. Mediocre work sells if it’s marketed well.

My anxiety about this stems from the fact that what constitutes “great work” is not obvious. It’s very easy to be distracted by flashy graphic design, and it’s harder to communicate things like usability, accessibility, optimisations for speed and file size, and security. It’s our responsibility to educate clients about these things, but also sometimes to educate each other.

* * *

Social networks as platforms

I think the main hurdle to creating a successful social network is thinking of these networks as websites or web applications. The real networks exist offline and the web apps are a way of organising or augmenting those relationships.

At first I thought that the success of a network depended on how much it acted as a site-independent platform. You can see with Facebook and Twitter in particular that they have a useful API that has encouraged a ecosystem of applications and tools to flourish around them. New challengers have to compete, not only with the application itself, but the way it has embedded into the web.

But now, I’m starting to think that the distinction between Facebook as a website and Facebook as a platform is a natural extension of the fact that these sites must mirror offline relationships to be successful. If I have a close circle of friends, I don’t have to leave them behind in one place and then reassemble them in another. The tools exist (phone, IM, email) to communicate at all times, around any subject.

We don’t need a new social network for every conceivable topic because Facebook already fills that need. But conversely, we ultimately don’t need Facebook because even without it,  our relationships still exist.

* * *

How do we criticise web work?

A local web design agency that I used to admire has started to churn out insipid work. It’s made me think about this aversion we have for talking publicly about this kind of thing. I don’t want to name them, and I’d consider it rude if I did, but I don’t know where this politeness comes from. Is it a cultural thing? Is a part of the cult of positivity? I’m certainly not shy about criticising big names for things they do wrong, nobody is shy about criticising Microsoft or Apple for example, so maybe it’s because they’re not a giant company. Maybe I think enough public criticism could cause irrecoverable damage to their reputation. Maybe I hope the last few projects have been aberrations. Or maybe I hope that I’m not perceptive enough to see the value in the work they’re doing.

I remember some time ago a high profile web designer saying that criticism of web projects shouldn’t be done publicly, but should be given privately over a pint in the pub. But that doesn’t seem right to me. What if you’re not friends? Wouldn’t this criticism be taken almost as harshly?

I worry that average or even poor work will get praised out of politeness and set a bad example to the next wave of web designers and even affect client perceptions of good work, and I feel there needs to be some firm yet polite method of offering feedback.

* * *

Why is it so hard to subscribe to a blog?

So I’m reading a blog (hosted by Blogger, now owned by Google) in my browser (Chrome, built by Google) and I decide I want to subscribe to it in Google Reader (also a Google product don’t you know) and I have to scroll right down to the bottom of the page to find a button that says Subscribe and when I click it, it opens a new tab which shows me the XML of the Atom feed.

What in the hell am I supposed to do with that?

There’s an implicit assumption that non-techies don’t understand RSS (or Atom or whatever) because it’s a strange concept or hard to explain, but maybe it hasn’t taken off in the way it should because even in an environment where each part of the equation is controlled by one company the process seems designed to prevent me from subscribing.

* * *

Operator Precedence and Parantheses

It occurred to me last night that I never really remember the order of operator precedence in any language. For example: 2+3*4 will work out as 14 rather than 20 because most languages will evaluate the multiplication before the addition. If we wanted it to work the other way round we’d add some parentheses like this: (2+3)*5

What I’ve noticed is that even if I want the precedence to work as described I’ll add unnecessary brackets like this: 2+(3*4)

I’m using simple examples here so it might seem a little more ridiculous but for more complex examples I think it increases readability. When I scan through the code later, I want to see right away what is happening and in what order. I can’t decide if this is just a side-effect though, and the real cause is that I’m too lazy to remember the precedence.

* * *

Doing the work first

Nothing more is required of the pupil, at first, than that he should conscientiously copy what the teacher shows him.

- Zen in the Art of Archery, Eugen Herrigel

It’s necessary to do the work first. And I’m beginning to think that more than that, it’s necessary to enjoy the work first. The work is the thing. The tips and the tricks, they are just dressing; they come from expertise they don’t lead to it. Even when people talk about the 10,000 hours it takes to master something, it’s as if they are saying “I just need to get these 10,000 hours out of the way and then I’ll be done”.

* * *

Spec work does not equal design

In website design, speculative work stems from the idea of the designer as an artist. The idea that each designer has an identifiable style. The idea that the designer approaches each project with the main aim of creating something new, as opposed to building on what has worked well in the past. Also the belief that a designer makes things pleasing to the eye and is not concerned with how they work, how they feel or what behaviour they inspire.

Some designers may like the idea of being an artist, of creating art, because the idea of art is somehow grander than the idea of being a craftsman. But when I need a chair, I need something that keeps my arse off the floor, I don’t want your re-interpretation of what it means to be elevated by four legs. Granted some people may make a better chair, a better-looking chair even, but you can easily distinguish those people by looking at the chairs they’ve made before. I don’t want an exploration of the idea of a chair, I want a solution to the problem of sitting at my desk.

A designer solves problems. And the problem is not “what’s the cutest shade of pink?” or “how big should I make my logo?”. For the average designer, these problems are practical and straightforward. How do I sell more widgets? How do I get more blog subscribers? But for the really great designers, the problems are deeper and more emotional. How do I make someone laugh? How do I create trust? How do I make a screen full of words and colours and shapes feel intimate?

Spec work doesn’t answer problems. It can’t. It doesn’t know you or your customers. It’s an explosion of colours and funky typefaces and drop shadows and gradients. It says: look at how many Photoshop tutorials I’ve read!

The convenience of spec work to the client is twofold. First of all, they know that the designer can produce work of a certain standard. But that’s what portfolios are for. Secondly, it gives them the illusion that they are choosing the best designer. They are deathly afraid of making a mistake, of being lumbered with work that doesn’t fit their needs and that makes them look out of touch, or dated, or boring.

And yet, that is exactly what they will avoid if they engage a designer in an ongoing process of collaboration. The design becomes an iterative, evolving masterwork and not a one-off afternoon’s doodling.

The benefit to the designer is that there is a chance that they will get paid. After all, someone has to get the job don’t they? This is the same thinking that gets people to play the lottery twice a week. Even if the odds of winning are higher than spontaneously bursting into flames, there is always a winner so why not me? And the more often I take part, the greater my chances right? Except none of these assumptions is true. And the only definite outcome is that the idea of design will be cheapened and misconstrued, not only to clients but to up and coming designers.

* * *

The myth of creative industries

The lines between creation and distribution seem to get blurred in arguments about copyright law. What record companies and film studios and television channels and book publishers do is not what I think of as creative work; what they do is market and distribute creative work that is created by someone else.

In an imaginary future where no one paid for music or film or games, things like films that require massive investment up front would no longer be possible. Or at least the way they are made would have to change. Producers invest money because they expect a return, it’s a business decision but that idea of investment is separate from the art.

People write books and make music because they want to express something. Being paid for it is a pleasant side effect. It’s not the career choice for people who want to make money because making a living is hard and unlikely.

* * *

Gary Vaynerchuk at RailsConf 2010

Great talk. I’m totally behind the idea of the “give a fuck” economy.

* * *

Kathy Sierra at Business of Software

It looks like Kathy Sierra has removed herself from the web but for those of us that miss her, here is an incredibly insightful talk about making your users feel amazing. About an hour long but worth it.

* * *