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Issue № 368

What We Learned in 2012

by Published in Community, State of the Web1 Comment

Well hello there, 2013. It’s taken us a few weeks to settle into you (if we still used checks, this’d be about the time we’d stop writing “2012” on them). Now that we have, we like what we see: people taking risks, taking charge, and taking a stand. Passionate conversations about not just which tools to use, but why our work matters. A community coming together to make sense of a web that’s changing faster than we can refresh our tiny screens.

But before we barrel into the future, we’d like to take a moment to reflect. So we asked some of A List Apart’s friendly authors and readers to share the lessons they learned last year, and how those lessons can help us all work—and live—better in 2013.

Solving information gluttony

In 2012, I left Seattle and the company I founded to join Twitter and help solve the most serious issue in the world that I might be qualified to solve: information gluttony.

We used to live in a world where we didn’t have access to enough information to keep us properly informed; now our problem is the opposite: there is so much signal competing for our attention that we spend entire days swimming through it in search of what’s actually important in our lives.

The most essential service of the next decade will be the one that keeps you the best informed in the least amount of time. There’s more to life than staring at screens all day.
Mike Davidson, VP of design, Twitter, and founder, Newsvine

Successful design takes organizational change

In 2012, I worked with organizations of all sizes and stages—from a couple of people just starting out to enormous, established, complex operations of thousands. The resulting designs ranged from gentle evolution to revolution.

Changing the design of an interactive system changes the organization behind it. This year was full of striking examples. The more we can anticipate this—by asking questions, talking openly, and planning for change—the more successful the outcome. I think we all know this, but it can be easier to avoid dealing with it and “just focus on the design.”

Organizations are just groups of people with goals, rules, and customs. Designers are just people with certain skills. But because of insecurity on both sides, differences trigger defense mechanisms. We resort to jargon. All the hoo-ha around “design thinking” is just a distraction. Design is a business activity. It goes well when designers and businesses work together to solve a real problem with good information and clear goals. The hard part is confronting all the specific mundane things that interfere. So, I guess that’s the goal for 2013: getting over ourselves and looking deeper at what makes a successful design solution.
—Erika Hall, co-founder and director of strategy, Mule Design

Positive change takes time

I was reminded of our responsibility to leave the world in better shape than we found it and that change always takes time. These lessons were reinforced as I researched TV browsers and worked on responsive images.

TVs don’t support the TV media type because if they did, it would break the 99 percent of the web that uses “screen.” This reminds me of the vendor prefix debacle. When we cut corners on projects, we don’t realize the long-term impact it has on the web. When it comes to responsive images, progress is measured in weeks of effort and collaboration. New standards take time and persistence.

Outside of technology, I attended my first PTA meeting. I was inspired by the presidential election. And I ended the year horrified by the tragedy at Newtown and determined to help prevent it from happening again.

In both the web and in our greater community, I see people despair that change doesn’t happen more quickly. That we can’t make the world better overnight. But if this year has taught me anything, it is that we can’t ignore the hard work that needs to be done. And that we all must take up the charge to make the world better than it we found it—both on the web and in our society.
—Jason Grigsby, co-founder, Cloud Four

Experimentation over assumption

For me 2012 was a year of experimentation. I learned that the more certain you are about something, or the longer you’ve been doing things one way, the more important it is to abandon your assumptions and try the complete opposite. The more embedded your assumptions are, the less you notice them—so this is not easy.

In 2013 I’d like to figure out how to help people using WordPress as a development platform, find ways to make blogging more social and connected, and adapt WordPress to be touch-native.
Matt Mullenweg, founder, Automattic and WordPress

Life shapes work

2012 was a year of difficult lessons for me. Since 2008, I’d been making business decisions based on a vision I’d invested in heavily, both emotionally and materially. Saying goodbye to that vision meant making tremendous changes, and that wasn’t easy to do. (One of my employees gave me a Christmas card that opened with “2012: The Year That Sucked.”)

During those long months, I did a lot of thinking about how my work has shaped my life over the past four years. And at some point, I realized that the true opportunity here, in fact, is to figure out to let my life shape my work. So in 2013, I want to help people understand how their own life experiences—both professionally and personally—can inform and improve their work. And if this sounds like a change in direction for me, it’s not. At its core, content strategy is about taking stock, setting goals, storytelling, wayfinding, and, ultimately, imparting real change. (Any good content strategist will tell you that, at some point, a client has suggested they change their title to “content therapist.”)

Being able to articulate a point of view based on real-world experience is so critically important. It can change your work, your career, and the industry as a whole. Just ask the people whose words appear in this and every ALA issue.
—Kristina Halvorson, president, Brain Traffic

In it together

No matter how hard we work, none of us can say “I did it without help.” Everything that is foundational for us as web professionals, from code to design to content to mobile to apps to revenue models (it’s an extensive list, really), we owe to someone who came before us. As I look back on 2012, my biggest takeaway is the tremendous debt of gratitude I have to all of you. 

In 2013, my hope is that this spirit of gratitude becomes pervasive. It is my hope that understanding how all our work is connected will inspire us to dream bigger, conquer greater challenges, discard our fears, and remember to criticize and hold each other accountable when we stray. It doesn’t matter if you are my competitor; it doesn’t matter if you agree with me. What matters is that if you are making the web (and therefore the world) a better place, I’ve got your back. Thanks for having mine all these years.
Leslie Camacho, entrepreneur, former CEO of EllisLab

Design systems, not screens

More than half of U.S. laptop owners now also own a smartphone, and nearly a quarter of them own a tablet too (source). And, of course, with the holiday season past us, the number of users who own a device in all three categories will jump higher still. Users move between devices so fluidly, and in patterns that we often can’t predict. Now apps are starting to connect to other devices to control, synchronize or extend an experience.

I think we’re going to see more cross-channel design thinking in 2013 to address simultaneous multi-device usage, and frequent device hopping in a single workflow. Continuity between platforms will be important, but we don’t need to make the experience the same between devices. The user experience will morph with each context. We’ll need to design systems, not screens, to solve cross-channel experience design problems.
Aarron Walter, director of user experience at MailChimp

Confidence versus humility

The biggest thing I learned last year is that the two most important characteristics of a good designer are ones that, at first, appear to contradict one another.

On the one extreme, designers need to be confident in the solutions we come up with for the problems we’re solving. We need to keep digging into the theory of design and its related disciplines, and we need to hone our craft constantly. Solid theory and excellent technique need to become so ingrained that they simply become second nature—cornerstones of everything we design.

But equally important, we need to be open to the possibility that some of our decisions might be wrong. In fact, we need to welcome it. We should hang on to a measure of ego-less self-doubt every time we present a new design to the world. Admitting our mistakes and making changes based on good critique do wonders to improve our designs and our craftsmanship. That’s why user testing and thoughtful peer reviews are so essential.

The phrase that has emerged to describe this combination of skills and attitude is “humble design,” and I like it. But an even better summary comes from John Lilly: “Design like you’re right; listen like you’re wrong.” That’s not a contradiction. It’s a recipe for success.
Rian van der Merwe, user experience designer

Connecting with clients

In 2011, I reported that “the best design connects people.”

In 2012, as I started my own design studio, I realized more and more how true that is. Starting out as a one-man shop after working for and with agencies for years, I fully anticipated that the majority of my work would be back in Photoshop. However, I’m finding a significant amount of my working hours this past year—48.73 percent to be exact (thanks Harvest!)—has been on the phone/Skype/in-person investing in conversations with clients I trust and who trust me. Great design comes from meaningful collaboration, reinforced by trust on both ends.

In order to create great design that connects people, it’s important to connect with great people who value great design.
Dan Mall, founder and design director, SuperFriendly

Reseting device expectations

One of the main things I’ve come away from 2012 with is the understanding that people don’t use devices the way we expect them to.

In 2011 I met Ludwick Marishane, a 20-year-old student from South Africa. He’d invented a gel called DryBath that works without water. Because he didn’t have a computer, he typed his entire 8,000-word business plan on his Nokia 6234 cell phone.

People use whatever devices they have access to. Ofcom found that 20 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds visit websites on a game console. It seems like a lot. But it’s easy to forget that for some, a game console may be the only device they have access to that has a browser.

The console browsing experience improved considerably over 2012, which should lead to more people browsing on TVs—so the living room environment is a context we need to be thinking about a lot more in 2013.
Anna Debenham, freelance front-end developer

Getting over ourselves

More than anything, I’d say we were able to prove some things we should have already known in 2012. Halfway into the year, we hired a full-time SEO. Well, we hired a digital strategist, because everyone knows web shops and SEO consultants don’t mix.

We should have done this a long time ago. We’ve known for a while that we’ve been too focused on launch, but we were too caught up in all the usual self assurances to dedicate someone on the team to doing something different. Honestly, I can’t think of another event in our recent history that’s had such a positive impact on our business.

This coming year, I’m hoping to get rid of any remaining stereotypes and continue to reevaluate what we do. I think our industry tends to look down on anything other than the beautiful, repeatable mechanics of our craft. In some ways, it limits our business relevancy.

It took us a little while (sixteen years) to get over ourselves long enough to try something new. I’m hoping we’re able to move a little faster next time.
—Aaron Mentele, partner, Electric Pulp

Making, not just consuming

Don’t tell me you haven’t woken from a nap or a night of blissful slumber to find your [insert favorite mobile device here] wedged in your hand. Life online is so wonderfully seductive that we tend to focus so intently on the light-emitting screens of various sizes, we forget about how much easier it can be to solve problems when our brain is engaged doing something else. And, by “me” and “you,” what I really mean is me.

When I was working at Flickr, I ran four miles three times a week. We were working through some pretty gnarly adventures: launching internationally in multiple languages and jurisdictions (“think, Flickr thinks!”), introducing video (“Keep Flickr still!”). Running kept me (mostly) sane. I found that when I was away from everything, I could work through problems more easily.

What I’d forgotten over the last few years is that I’m happiest when I’m making things with my hands. In 2012, I took a six-week online painting course and participated in a lino block printing bee. That time when I’m doing something with my hands has become that four miles three times a week. My brain can noodle through problems in ways that staring at a blank document or empty spreadsheet can’t.

In 2013 I’d like to spend less time online consuming and more time offline creating. Or rather, consume more wisely. I need to buff up my making skills for the impending zombie apocalypse.
—Heather Champ, Findery

Diversity is a feature

The conversations within our community this past year have reminded me just how much designing for the web has completely and irreversibly changed since I started working in this field. Early on, our practices focused on normalizing CSS rendering and JavaScript logic across five or ten popular browsers, so that our designs looked and behaved in one “same,” expected way. Essentially, we were making print designs navigable on a computer. Considering the number of browsers relevant to us today, it’s easy to look back on those days as a simpler time in our field, but the truth is, that work was very difficult—perhaps even impossible. Our jobs weren’t simpler then, but our focus has since shifted in an important way.

Today, we design for a medium that is completely its own. We’ve realized that diversity is a feature, not a bug; we’ve acknowledged that delivering an identical user experience to everyone is a missed opportunity. We’re moving from an age of normalization to an age of contextualization, where developing websites that cater to browsers’ diverse features, constraints, sensors, and input modes makes for a subtly different, and more appropriate, experience for each person.

Supporting all users today demands a new definition of “support” itself: the successful delivery of essential content and functionality to a device. Beyond that, we should embrace that things will rarely be the same.
Scott Jehl, designer/developer, Filament Group

Being honest

This year I gave a talk called “True Story,” where I told everyone to stop bullshitting and tell simple, honest stories. 

Three days before my talk, I realized I was bullshitting. It didn’t sound like me. I was trying to impress people, not help them. I spent three days and nights rewriting my talk. I didn’t stop until I wrote something that made me cry. It wasn’t perfect, but it felt right.

As a content strategist/writer for hire, a big part of my job is keeping companies—and myself—honest. I’ll be working on that in 2013.
Tiffani Jones Brown, content strategist at Pinterest

Living with urgency

This year was one of many realizations and additions to my toolkit as a designer and leader. A few that I came back to repeatedly over the year are:

  • Trust and vulnerability are a prerequisite for creativity within a team
  • When creating as a group, those relationships are more important than talent, ideas or process
  • That fine line between too much self-editing and not throwing out enough concepts is a horizon to always keep an eye on

But bar none, the most important lesson I learned was to live life with urgency. Not in a stressful, frantic sense, but that things you may or may not be focused on—relationships, projects, ideas, etc.—can come to an end when you least expect them to. Living with with anything less than laser-sharp focus and purposeful haste is not enough. 2013 is going to be a year of living and creating with urgency.
Hannah Donovan, co-founder/design director, This Is My Jam

Making better use of better tools

I got a lot of milage out of the phrase “this gig wouldn’t be any fun if it were easy” this year.

When I was in my early twenties and just learning carpentry, all of my tools were terrible. My hammer bent nails, none of my saws ever cut in a straight line, and my tape measure always managed to be off by just a little bit once everything was said and done.

Let’s be honest: responsive web design isn’t easy when you’re just getting started with it. It calls for some major changes in both thinking and process. You start out clumsy at first, like with any new tool; maybe you even find yourself cursing it out from time to time. Thing is, once you’ve struggled through it and you stand back to admire what you’ve built: yeah, maybe you can see a couple of seams and maybe you could have done a few things better, but you’ll know those mistakes before they happen next time. When we move on to the next job our tools seem a little lighter, sharper, and more accurate than they did on the last one, because we got better with them.

This year we all started getting the hang of an incredible new tool. Next year we’ll get even better with it.

We’ll probably still do a fair amount of cursing, though.
Mat Marquis, designer/developer, Filament Group, and technical editor, A List Apart

Facing your fears

2012 was about fear. Throughout my career I’d convinced myself that I was not one of those people that spoke in public. And then I was dumb enough to go out and write a book. Part of that book was about convincing people to get over their fear. To avoid being a hypocrite I had to go out there and do the thing that I was most afraid of. And so I found myself onstage in front of a large audience.

I hadn’t slept the night before. I was terrified. My heart was racing. And I realized in that moment that I could either walk away or face that fear. So I let myself be scared. I acknowledged it was real. And that it had a right to exist. And I embraced it. And I went out and did the thing I was most afraid of in the world. And I did OK. And the next time I spoke in public I was still afraid, but a little less.

My hope for you in 2013 is that you ask yourself what fear is keeping you from accomplishing. What are you most afraid of? Stop waiting for courage to come. That comes after.
Mike Monteiro, co-founder and design director, Mule Design

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