What I Learned About the Web in 2011
Issue № 341

What I Learned About the Web in 2011

In 2011 I learned that emotion is at the heart of every decision we make. From fashion to web forms, and spouses to site sign ups, emotion shapes our behavior by casting the tie-breaking vote when logic determines appropriate options for our consideration. We do what feels right, we go with our gut. By understanding emotion we can gain insight into user behavior, and design better user interfaces.

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Aarron Walter, User Experience Design Lead, MailChimp

Apps redefining the web#section2

The most important thing I learned about web design and development in 2011 is that more and more, the “web” is APIs and services, rather than sites, apps, and pages rendered in web browsers. Take Instagram: it’s one of the most popular services on the “web” and the entire experience is controlled not by some HTML pages, but rather by an iPhone app. Twitter and Facebook are just as popular—if not more so—via native apps for various platforms (iOS, Android, Mac, Windows, etc.) than they are on the browser-based web. As “web designers,” we have to start realizing that our job is no longer solely to produce sites, apps, and pages built in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. We have to expand our definition of what the “web” is. More and more, the “web” is not a platform. It’s a service with clients on many platforms. Wired Magazine called it the “death” of the web. I call it an evolution.

Jeff Croft, Chief Designerd, nGen Works

You’ve come a long way, baby#section3

In 2011 I learned to let go of ideals.

It’s an incredibly exciting time to be creating things on the web. This year’s advances in browsers, standards, and smart thinking have enabled us to finally begin to web design. We’re no longer forced to think of the web as a digital reproduction of physical pages, but rather to finally embrace it as its own thing.

These recent advances can seem overwhelming to keep up with: HTML5! CSS3! Responsive Web Design! Mobile! Web Fonts! Grids! It’s become impossible to keep up with everything. And that’s why I’ve learned to let go and focus on incrementally folding these new ways of thinking into daily work as I grasp them—while at the same time trying not to worry about everything being perfect or solving a problem “correctly.”

The web is an ever-changing beast, full of flaws and imperfection and experimentation. And that’s why we love it.

Dan Cederholm, Founder, SimpleBits

Measure to improve#section4

The most important thing I learned—a revelation for me—was from Kelly Goto’s talk at Webvisions. That is: there are ways to model and measure goodness in a design that we can quantify as we observe users using designs.

Dana Chisnell, Consulting Researcher, UsabilityWorks

It’s all about the users#section5

In 2011, browser makers drove home the key message that the web standards community has promoted for years. With frequent, silent browser updates quickly becoming the norm, and with browsers popping up on more and more devices, designers and developers must relinquish the idea that we finely control a user’s experience and instead must work to ensure that a site will gracefully adapt to any number of circumstances. The question for 2012 is: how can we best help our users understand the changes in experiences that they will encounter as we adapt to building single, responsive sites?

Kimberly Blessing, Senior Software Architect, Comcast Interactive Media

Respect complexity#section6

If a single idea has followed me around this year, from politics to art and work to friendships, it’s been this one: “it’s more complicated than that.”

It’s centrally important to seek simplicity, and especially to avoid making things hard to use or understand. But if we want to make things that are usefully simple without being truncated or simplistic, we have to recognize and respect complexity—both in the design problems we address, and in the way we do our work.

Erin Kissane, Editor of Contents magazine, Content Strategist at Brain Traffic

Exciting times#section7

The year 2011 made it clear that we’re in an accelerating phase of web development, with big changes coming and happening on several fronts. Markup, CSS, browser support, the types of devices in common use, methods of design—it’s all quickly changing, with challenges and opportunities galore. Exciting times!

Eric Meyer, Co-founder, An Event Apart

We’re all in this together#section8

It’s all about community#section9

I’ve discovered, and am still discovering, just how amazing, precious, and endearing our web community is. And how incredibly lucky I am to be a part of it.

Cameron Moll, Founder, Authentic Jobs

We who are web designers#section10

I wrote We, Who are Web Designers for myself, but published it in the hope that it might mean something to other folks, too. I wrote it as a celebration of everything I treasure in the people around me. I wrote it as a way of enunciating why I think our profession is just a little bit exceptional in its behavior. We share more for free than any other profession I know, effectively giving away our hard-earned lessons, techniques, mistakes, successes, and tools. I grew into being a web designer because of it, and shared some of my own learning because of it. What I learned again in 2011 is that I’m not alone in considering this characteristic precious and worth protecting. I learned that our generosity, enthusiasm, confidence, and above all, courage to collaborate not compete, is a best practice worth propagating to other professions as they join us in building the web. I realized that some of my colleagues think that, too, and was overwhelmed by the response. It was quietly refreshing and nourishing, like a bowl of hot soup on a bitterly cold day, and it reminded me to pause now and again to acknowledge the amazing people I see through the screen, every day.

Jon Tan, Designer, Analog

Greater than the sum of its parts#section11

It’s easy to forget that great design is bigger than well-chosen typefaces, sharp icons, harmonious color palettes, and pixel-perfect grid systems. Those are merely some of the ingredients that support a great design. This past year, I’ve led more working sessions, had more discussions, simplified more wireframes, edited more collaborative Google docs, responded to more Basecamp posts, written more stories, and spent less time in Photoshop and Illustrator than I ever have before. I’m a better designer for it.

I’m repeatedly reminded that the best design connects people.

Dan Mall, Design Director, Big Spaceship

Mission accomplished?#section12

About a year ago, around the time I quit freelancing, I remember thinking “Is this all worth it?” Designers were moving heaven and earth, trying to make a dent in the way big corporations see design. Design was (in my opinion) underrated and never got the respect it deserved. People seemed to think it was a waste of time, they seemed to think just getting something to work was enough.

Today, everything has changed. Corporations big and small are hiring designers like crazy. Knowing I have a full-time job, people still contact me asking if I know any designers looking for a job. Lately my reply has always been disappointing, as most of the freelancers I know got a job.

Most websites and apps launching today all are beautifully designed with care. People realize design isn’t just something you slap on your product right before it ships, but is something you take into account from day one.

So, mission accomplished? Can we stop pushing for great design? No. We changed the world, but can’t start slacking now. We need to remind them every single day about the value of design, and (more importantly) we need to prepare the next generation of designers to follow our lead.

Take some time to blog more, reply to emails from students with questions about design, make sure people know you’re approachable and willing to help them out.

It won’t make you rich, but then again, if you’re doing this for the money you might want to reconsider your profession.

Tim Van Damme, Designer

Keeping it real#section13

The most important thing I learned is that web design is real design, and people outside of our industry get it.

Brooklyn Beta was full of speakers from the fields of education, health care, and human services—begging for our help, to make the world better.

Some folks still hear the “web” modifier and think “amateur,” but it’s clear that many people recognize us as design professionals.

As we grow into this recognition, let’s remember our roots as self-educated hustlers, but also work hard to keep design traditions alive and honor those whose work paved the way for design solutions we might take for granted.

Let’s show the world what a designed future looks like. And while we’re at it, let’s show the world what a professional community looks like too.

Tim Brown, Type Manager, Adobe Typekit

All together now#section14

It is important to embrace your passion, define your purpose, foster your promise, and engage in pursuits that support these ideals. On your journey, connect with supportive, creative, and fun people and together create the web, experience the web, and be the web. For that is what the web truly is—people collaborating and learning together.

Leslie Jensen-Inman, Maker of Awesomeness

Talkin’ bout my inspiration#section15

My standout lesson this year has been the importance of working with others (and putting complete faith in talented people). The brilliance that comes from the people around me is a constant source of inspiration. It drives me even more to surround myself with as many fantastic creative people as possible.

Dan Rubin, Founder / Creative Director, webgraph, Creative Director, MOO

We’re all making it up as we go along#section16

Doing a startup is really hard—you constantly have to do things you’ve never done before. The biggest lesson I learned is that every other startup is in the same position—no one really knows what they are doing, and as a result other founders are very willing to help you figure things out. That’s why it is important to surround yourself with other startups: startup culture is pay-it-forward, so more mature startups will give you advice expecting no more than that you’ll one day do the same for newer startups earlier in the process.

Natalie Downe, Co-founder, Lanyrd.com

Real designers ship#section17

Iteration nation#section18

The most important thing I learned about web and interaction design in 2011? That iteration is king and that perfection should never be achieved—shipping it is more important than trying to perfect it endlessly behind the scenes. It’s better to release with a solid core set of features and then iterate and add as time or users necessitate it. By launching a product, website or what have you into the public, you put the pressure on to rapidly make it better as time goes by. You can aim for perfection, but you should never reach it. It can always be better.

Naz Hamid, Principal, Weightshift

Know your audience#section19

The most important thing I’ve learned is to not ignore your audience. As your website becomes known online it can grow from a small personal project to a large community website. As a result, it isn’t solely about you anymore. It is wise to keep track of what readers like and don’t like on the project. For example, you can do polls or ask direct questions on social networks to get feedback from readers. And when you make a change to your layout, you can view your web counter to see if the “bounce rate” percentage goes up or down, which helps to see if there is a problem or not on the website.

Clearly, it is impossible to please every single person. However, it is about finding a balance and satisfying your general audience.

Adriana de Barros, Founder, Scene 360

An object in motion stays in motion#section20

Making is momentum. Everything you make is a step toward making something else. Making your first product is a lot like finishing your first novel. Like most first novels, it will most likely collect dust in a shoebox while you move on to better and better work. Later, when your masterpieces come, you’ll always know that the unreadable dreck in that dusty old shoebox—or that wonky web app that nobody ever used—made it all possible.

Chris Fahey, Co-founder, Behavior

Vision quest#section21

Explore—go off into the craziest recesses of interaction models you’d like to see.

Prototype them. Get them out of your head, off paper, out of Photoshop and into working applications as quickly as possible.

Nothing can be decided without touching it.

Emotion and nostalgia generally trump our ability to rationally understand how something will feel in practice.

Even if you end up back where you started, you’ll have lit up the entirety of the “Zelda map” of possibilities, as it were. You’ll understand the context of your choice in the greater whole, and your work will be decidedly more confident for doing so.

Craig Mod, Designer, Flipboard

Keep the faith, sweat the small stuff#section22

The year 2011 was a significant milestone in my life. In addition to a new job and a new house, I have learned new things in design as well. Here are some of the new and old but priceless things I have learned that I would like to share with you:

  • The grid is king! Once you understand how to flow your design along the lines of a grid system, you will never go back.
  • Design in vector or any other flexible format as much as you can. You never know what screen resolution you will be dealing with next.
  • Stay faithful to a design system across a larger mainframe.
  • Helvetica and Georgia are not the only fonts in the basket. Using other fonts can shed a new light on your design. Typekit, Google Fonts—come on—you’ve got no excuse.
  • Kind of old news but “God is in the details.”

Ali Ali, User Experience Designer, Effective UI

Focus your gaze#section23

In 2011, it was apparent that to be competitive as a freelance designer in a tough economy, I needed to focus on one thing. By narrowing my focus, I’ve become a specialist in my field, which makes me more valuable as a designer.

Alan Houser, Owner, Creative Component

Change is good, donkey#section24

Never get too comfortable.

I was reminded of this with the Google redesign(s) in 2011. Even though they weren’t a total shock (it was about time), they still made me entirely uncomfortable.

This is, in part, because Google is as central to getting around today as the U.S. Interstate Highway System once was. And when a change is made, it impacts, in a crucial way, the way we navigate.

Back then, in 1926 specifically, Bureau of Public Roads employee, Edwin W. James, came up with what we today know as the interstate numbering system. Prior to that, people relied on a color coding system to know where they were, and where they were going. Telephone poles lined highways and color bands ringed those poles, corresponding to individual trails across the country. As trails expanded, telephone poles became painted from the ground up, 15 feet high, so trying to distinguish one color from the next became a dangerous and confusing distraction.

E.W. James changed that. He decided all north/south highways would be numbered with odd numbers; all east/west numbers would have even numbers; and numbers would increase as you go east and north. The new system had the advantage of not only being expandable (numbers are infinite; poles are not) but it also allowed a motorist to figure out where he was at any given time based on an intersection.

James gave navigation a shape, just like Google gave navigation a shape. When the shape changed—both in 1926 and 2011—people had to adjust. Change is good; it just takes time to adjust to it. Never get too comfortable. Good change is always around the corner.

Liz Danzico, Chair, MFA Interaction Design, School of Visual Arts

Mobile first#section25

Progressive enhancement loves mobile first#section26

This year I learned that “mobile first” is not only a smart strategy for better serving your users, but it is also an easier way to develop and falls perfectly in line with the progressive enhancement philosophy.

Aaron Gustafson, Author, Adaptive Web Design: Crafting Rich Experiences with
Progressive Enhancement

Understand intent#section27

In 2011, I fell in love with complexity in mobile interfaces. A small screen doesn’t signal a desire to do less. Removing mobile features because “it’s just a phone” is like an author removing chapters because “it’s just a paperback.” It confuses context with intent. Mobile apps and websites have to be more than lite version of their desktop counterparts; they should have the conceptually same content and features as other platforms. Our job isn’t to remove complexity but to make complex information accessible—a challenge for the small screen, but an important one.

We do everything on our phones now, some more than others: 25 percent of mobile internauts in the US never or rarely use the desktop. For those folks, if content isn’t available on mobile, it’s simply not available at all. The real question isn’t what to take out of a mobile app, but what to add. These sensor-laden devices can do more than the desktop, and our apps and websites have to reflect that.

Josh Clark, Author, Tapworthy: Designing Great iPhone Apps

The need for speed#section28

In 2011, I became addicted to speed. No, not that kind of speed. Speed of web development iteration and release. Most of my year was spent in a startup we engineered to be fast from day one. During that time, I learned the value of creating a Command Line Interface (CLI) for everything we did. I became a convert to logic-less templates that fully separate back-end and front-end logic. And I spent hours a day staring at real-time views of what people were doing on our site and iterating quickly based on what I saw. All in the interest of speed.

Why? A web application is a “living” thing and all living things are continually changing from cradle to grave. The faster they can respond, the better they can adapt to change. Changes in technology, in people’s behaviors, and in business. Setting yourself up to be fast up front allows you to move with the web instead of being left behind it and that’s pretty important to me.

Luke Wroblewski, Author, Mobile First

The devil is in the data#section29

This year I spent a lot of time on getting accurate mobile web statistics. Web developers need to know which browsers their mobile users use, and in which ratios. That information is very hard to get, and even if you do get it, it turns out to be incomplete at best.

Currently I use StatCounter as my main source of data because they’re the only company that gives away mobile browser stats for free, and that’s willing to listen to sage advice from people who know the mobile browser market (that would be me).

StatCounter suffers from self-selecting bias (websites have to sign up for the service in order to be counted) and possibly also a Western bias (more Western websites sign up than those from the developing world). So one could say that their stats are not good enough.

Still, they’re the only ones available, so I’ve decided to use them anyway. To anyone who disagrees I say: give me better (or at least different) stats. NetMarketShare has some, but they made some methodological decisions I disagree with, and they don’t allow you to dig deeper into their stats (unless you pay them, I believe). Other than that there are simply no sources.

Besides, there is the fundamental problem of what constitutes a “smartphone.” Basically the current definition is in bad need of an overhaul, but all stat-gathering entities out there, also those that give us sales market shares, have to agree on a new definition.

Right now several phone OSs such as S40 and Brew, who have decent (though not great) browsers, are not counted as smartphones, while others such as Symbian and Windows Mobile, who have equally decent browsers, are. That’s an essentially arbitrary decision that doesn’t make much sense any more—especially not for web developers.

We need to know about all the systems that are able to run a decent browser, whether they’re called “smartphones” or “feature phones.” Sadly, gathering this data is going to be a huge job, and I’m not sure if I can do it on my own. Besides, I simply don’t know where to start.

So that’s what I found out this year. Not particularly sexy, but we badly need the data.

Peter-Paul Koch, Mobile Platform Strategist

Can I get an Amen? #section30

That rumbling we’ve been hearing in the distance revealed itself to be a full-blown stampede of mobile devices of all breeds. Sure, Luke Wroblewski’s been talking about it for years, but for me, 2011 was the year it became crystal clear that all that stuff we put onto web pages has to work on all manner of screens and browsers. And not just tolerably, but really well. Of course, this was always the case, but the fact is we’ve been turning a blind eye and making 960-pixel-wide pages for a handful of browsers.

The Breaking Development conference in Nashville was my wake-up call. I had vastly underestimated the multitude and variety of devices as well as all the challenges in getting it right. It was a punch in the stomach and a call to action. Since then I’ve been immersing myself in the writings of the Future Friendly gang and raising the “Mobile first!” battle cry. There is still so much to learn. These are exciting times!

Jennifer Robbins, Senior Interaction Designer and Author; O’Reilly Media

The great app migration#section31

One of the biggest shifts I’ve noticed in 2011 is that websites are becoming more and more “app-like.”

Take Hipster.com for example. You’re greeted by a visual welcome page with a clear call to action. You’re then brought into a content-dominated interface with simple, minimal controls. It’s not a copy of the Hipster app, but it takes the essence of that experience and recreates it for the web.

Or take the new Path.com, which has almost no web experience at the moment except around the endpoints, which are presented in a very focused, interactive, app-like way. While you could argue that it’s an excuse for building a “real” website, there’s something about these app-like websites that is compelling to me.

They are focused. They are elegant. They are visual. They immerse you in content. They are dynamic.

As a mobile startup founder, I look forward to taking this observation into 2012 as I re-imagine the Foodspotting web experience, asking myself what a more “app-like” Foodspotting website might look like!

Alexa Andrzejewski, Founder & CEO, Foodspotting

Tools of the trade?#section32

IE? Oh my!#section33

In 2011 I learned that if you’re not designing for an optimal experience in Internet Explorer in 2011 you’re not designing for a profitable experience in 2012”¦or at least leaving more than half the profit on the table. It doesn’t matter if you agree or are enthusiastic about this fact. Facts, interestingly enough, are stubbornly indiscriminate.

Andy Rutledge, Author, Design Professionalism, Publisher, Design View

Flash forward#section34

The most important thing I learned about web and interaction design in 2011 is that the people who bloviated several years ago about how Flash content might not be easily viewable in the future could not have been more correct.

Mike Davidson, CEO, Newsvine

Wash, rinse, repeat#section35

I keep having to learn the same lessons over and over again: HTML5 is like every other cool tool ever invented: it is only as good as the people who are using it.

Lisa Holton, Founder, Fourth Story Media

Responsive web design: we’ve only just begun#section36

Great expectations#section37

The idea that websites should be intelligently malleable things—adaptable and responsive to a broad continuum of uses and devices, many unforeseen by the original builders—is back, and it’s here to stay. Responsive web design is doing a flying leap across the Kano model from “excitement generator” to “basic expectation,” with users and clients coming to expect it baked in from day one, not layered on after the fact. Explosive demand for an ever-expanding universe of mobile and lightweight computing devices may be driving the growth of proprietary apps, but it’s also driving demand for the responsive web. The web remains the baseline; the one tried-and-true way to get yourself in front of the broadest audience possible, and the connective tissue that ties different forms of access to the same service together. There may be “an app for that,” but there will always be a web for everything. And a responsive mindset prepares you to excel in that reality.

David Sleight, Principal, Stuntbox LLC

Never stop learning#section38

For us, 2011 has been all about responsive web design. Unlike many design trends, coding techniques, or workflow approaches, responsive design has an immediate positive impact on users. This really sets it apart as something more than a simple trend or technique. It’s now a fundamental tenet of web design.

With that, there is so much now to explore, discover and master. We’ve been finding new ways to handle images, advertisements, and conditional loading within our pages. We’ve learned that anything promoted by email will result in a high proportion of responses via a phone or tablet. We’ve had to learn that the medium does not prescribe the intent.

We’ve mainly learned how much we, as an industry, don’t know. And how much more there is to learn. That’s quite exciting.

Drew McLellan, Director & Senior Developer, edgeofmyseat.com

It’s not about the grid#section39

Best lesson of 2011? I found the missing piece for understanding responsive web design—sitting between Ethan Marcotte and Andy Clarke in the hallway of An Event Apart Boston.

I was already sold on the idea of responsive design, but struggled to figure out how to do it. Writing the CSS was easy enough, but figuring out what to do with it was not. I could imagine how I might want columns to shrink and grow, to pop from few to many. But I couldn’t figure out what that meant for the overall design. What about the stuff that lived inside those columns? I couldn’t figure out how to design what happened to the content when the screen size changed.

Getting a chance to peek at the prototypes Ethan and Andy were each working on unlocked it all. I could see how it is about the content, not the grid. The key lies in figuring out how bits of content morph from one shape to another, before determining the overall page layout. And in thinking about how content should be laid out on a page at each size, without any regard for a predefined layout code library. With that vision, I was able to go back home and design a responsive site to be proud of.

2011 was the year we all went from thinking “that HTML5 stuff seems cool—maybe I’ll use it later,” and “there are some interesting new ideas floating around that I should really spend some time checking out” to “we need to totally revamp our process to put mobile first, rethink content, design responsively, use real typography, and strip out all this old crap. And we need to hurry!”

Jen Simmons, Designer and Host, The Web Ahead

Build accessibility in, ftw#section40

In 2011, I played more with video and each project was an example of how much easier, cheaper, and smoother it is to consider accessibility from the beginning of a project instead of later. For example, one project was adding accessibility to an existing video. Because of the way the video was designed, the effort required and the end result was far from optimal. Conversely, for another video project we thought about accessibility up front and thus benefited from things like: considering the position of captions when framing the shots, integrating most of the important visual information within the main audio script, and planning for additional audio description so we could use the same caption file for the audio described version. (See W3C Multimedia Accessibility FAQ and WCAG Guideline 1.2.)

I learned about accessibility support in video editing tools, and wished for more—it would have saved a lot of time and effort. Several designers and developers I talked to in 2011 are calling for better accessibility support in the tools they use to design the user experience of websites and apps. (See ATAG 2.0)

I’ve been excited about the accessibility potential of technologies that continued to develop in 2011—for example, integrated media that will support captioning, accessible graphics with canvas, and dynamic designs using WAI-ARIA. I’m optimistic that 2012 will see more consideration of accessibility in web design and development, and it will fuel innovation to benefit everyone.

Shawn Henry, Accessibility Evangelist

Have your cake and eat it too#section41

From a purely business perspective, nothing in 2011 affected how we sell digital services more than the advent and adoption of responsive design. Mobile design has always been a bit of a conundrum for many people we talk to. They think they need dedicated apps, mobile-specific styles and content curation. All of it. Yet, they only have the budget for a website. When we introduce them to the concepts of responsive design, their eyes light up like a kid on Christmas morning. “You mean you can use the same codebase and our content will reformat magically to fit any device or orientation? Wow!” It has made a “can we afford Happy Cog?” conversation to a “How can we NOT afford Happy Cog” conversation.

Greg Hoy, President, Eastern Operations,
Happy Cog

Context is king#section42

The most important thing that 2011 taught me about web design is that physical context of use can no longer be assumed by platform, only intentional context can. For the past couple of years, we have gotten into the habit of presuming that mobile means on-the-go, desktop denotes a desk, and tablet is on the toilet. But increasingly the lines are blurring on where devices are being used and how they’re being used in unison. This year I have learned to see devices as location agnostic and instead associate them with purpose—I want to check (mobile), I want to manage (desktop), I want to immerse (tablet). This shift away from objective context toward subjective context will reshape the way we design experiences across and between devices, to better support user goals and ultimately mimic analog tools woven into our physical spaces.

Whitney Hess, UX Designer

Walk this way#section43

Lose your balance, then catch it. Lose your balance, then catch it. When you walk, you repeatedly and intentionally make the choice to trade stability for progress. You lift one foot and catch your weight on the other.

2011 was a year of doubt, change, and renewal for me, all in the name of trading stability for progress. Many people shared in feelings of uncertainty over the economy—but all experience is specific, so I’ll make this personal.

This year, I took on the daunting challenge of writing a book. As I began to outline my objectives and thesis, I started to doubt the expertise I took for granted—but found discourse, reassurance, and support in our community. Now that the release date nears, I know more than I did when I began the writing process. I have better answers”¦but far more questions.

That intimidating one-upmanship between questions and answers threatens how I address other communication challenges too. New approaches to the problems I once battled like familiar enemies have unseated any semblance of methodology and replaced it with alternating moments of doubt and clarity.

Responsive design and adaptive content challenge the way I’ve long managed and created content—but delight me with possibility! Location and other metadata have grown to present ethical dilemmas—but thrill me with the opportunities of context! I haven’t felt such a sense of the unknown in several years, but I am giddy to wobble at the precipice with others who are creating the modern web.

And that’s what I take from 2011. Like so many people across so many industries, any sense I had of technical comfort and consistency is gone. But my loyalty to past experience was Stockholm Syndrome. I’m still shaking off the shackles, but I’m incredibly excited for what’s next; and next, for me, is progress.

Margot Bloomstein, Principal of Appropriate, Inc., Author, Content Strategy at Work (2012)

Change is the only constant#section44

Whoever thought we’d look back at the days of IE6 wrangling as the simpler time, when a few conditional styles and hacks could solve all our problems? Now we’ve got innumerable phones and tablets, each with their own mysterious quirks and constraints, and no reasonable way to test on all of them. The War for Web Standards has more or less been won on desktops, but it’s unrealistic to bring that fight to the mobile world. My One Big Take Away of 2011 is that interaction design, like the rest of the universe, naturally moves toward a state of maximum entropy. Fight the good fight, but always be ready to learn something new.

Adam Parks, Design Director, BRIC Arts | Media | Bklyn

Tear down the cubicle walls#section45

In this brave new multi-device world we’re all designing for, I’m convinced more than ever that designers and developers need to be working more closely together. I spent the majority of my year on a large responsive design project, where the traditional “design team” and “development team” divide didn’t exist. We realized that our respective tools—a design app on one hand, HTML/CSS on the other—can’t design beyond the desktop without help from the other. Starting with a mockup, testing ideas in prototypes, bringing elements back into Photoshop for further refinement—that kind of “back and forth” worked incredibly well for us, and I’ll be looking to bring that collaborative approach into my future work.

Ethan Marcotte, Independent Designer, Developer, and Ragamuffin

Challenge in constraints#section46

Up to a certain point, 2011 has changed my way of thinking when designing for the web, because of the ever-emerging mobile web. While designing I try to keep in mind that a mobile version of my design is possible. Depending on the type of site/project, and a few other parameters, it could go as far as creating a fully responsive design. When this is the case, my usual thinking path needs a lot of adaption, because I tend to forget boundaries and limitations for a bit when I’m in the middle of my creation process, because it has lead me to my most creative and successful designs. Certain basic criteria are easy to keep in mind at all times, even in the middle of my process, but smaller obstacles are kept as a CSS challenge for me to try to solve later on. This way I also force myself to think more creatively during the coding process, and I try to push boundaries as well. With a fully responsive design, I need to keep more of these boundaries and limitations in the back of my head, and so it makes my typical way of designing that I’m so used to much harder. The challenge lays of course in finding the right balance between keeping some basic limitations at the back of your head, while still giving yourself enough freedom to try to create a unique design. The fact that we also can add a level of animation in our designs is another factor that plays its role in this way different way of thinking.

Veerle Pieters, Graphic / Web Designer

The elephant has left the building#section47

The biggest thing#section48

2011 was a year of maturity for the web. Finally, things that used to be just a dream can be accomplished with less struggle and more elegance. There was tremendous innovation this year; “responsive design” changed my design process and brought out the most creative work I’ve seen from my peers in years.

Despite all this maturity, more than anything, this year taught me that content is, and always will be, king. New methods for solving problems are nice, but content will always be the most important ingredient on the web.

Noël Jackson, Designer and Founder, Exquisite

Not going to take it any more#section49

One big takeaway for 2011 was to finally put my foot down with my clients and stop designing without prior content. Reading, digesting, and understanding the objectives of each piece of content completely changes the way you work as a designer. Designing with dummy content now feels like a giant step backwards.

Sarah Parmenter, User Interface Designer

Create once, publish everywhere#section50

Listening to Luke Wroblewski (Mobile First), Jeremy Keith (HTML5 for Web Designers), and Ethan Marcotte (Responsive Design) speak at 2011’s first An Event Apart in Seattle was a watershed event for me. Content strategy suddenly went from “you should do this” to a five-alarm imperative. With the advent of HTML5 and responsive design, as well as the worldwide mobile regime (finally here!), content has taken center stage: how will we prepare our content for cross-platform delivery without having to recreate it every time? The answer, of course, is to structure our content so we can create it once, then publish it everywhere. To do that, we need to find brand new ways to collaborate across disciplines; and that’s what I’ll be looking for in 2012!

Kristina Halvorson, Founder,
Brain Traffic


What blew my mind this year was when I realized that the problems we have with mobile and the problems we have with content management systems are the same problem. It’s been clear to me for a while that we need to provide better interfaces and workflows to content creators—if we want to publish great content, we’ve got to give people the tools to do it. What I didn’t realize until this year is doing that solves a lot of problems for mobile, too.

If we’re going to succeed in publishing content onto a million different new devices and formats and platforms, we need interfaces that will help guide content creators on how to write and structure their content for reuse. When we talk about mobile, we often focus on the front end interactions, design, and code, but what I realized this year is that the solution to many problems with mobile lives way further down the stack, in the CMS.

Karen McGrane, Managing Partner, Bond Art + Science

What’s a book?#section52

2011 was the year that, after much resistance, I started reading on my iPhone. I didn’t like the idea of erasing a designer’s work in favor of the iBook—or Kindle app—regulated type. I missed having the gorgeous covers adorn my nightstand. I was worried about what I was doing to writers—a major concern, seeing as I am one. The outcome was incredibly positive, from a user’s perspective. First of all, I can say that my consumption skyrocketed: I started reading four and five and then six books a month. I learned more: since it was so handy, I started Googling terms and phrases that I didn’t understand or wanted to know more about. And I did end up supporting writers: I downloaded Kindle Singles and self-published ebooks from people who had never seen—and never would see—six-figure advances. But my challenge to us—to all of us—is to make this experience even better. How can we use this technology to get more people reading, to pay writers fairly, to give designers a new place to play? How can we get even more out of the words we read? I’m looking forward to seeing some answers in 2012.

Alissa Walker, Writer

Keeping it real#section53

It’s all about the experience#section54

The most important thing I’ve (re)learned this year is that the greatest experiences in life aren’t designed at all. I’ve spent less time on blogs and Twitter and more time watching sunrises in beautiful places. I’ve obsessed less over gadgets and tools and more over finding the right wine to go with a great meal. I’ve remembered that I love my work more when it isn’t also my life. All of these things make me more patient, more optimistic, and more inspired”¦which can only make me better at what I do.

Kim Goodwin, Author, Designing for the Digital Age

31 Reader Comments

  1. Some great perspectives and insights, but you can really tell who’s been around for a while vs. those who’ve only been working a few years.

    Designing for different browsers has been an issue since 1995 (and moved off the desktop years ago). Things have never been as consistent as they are now; even mobile has been more standardized with the spread of WebKit and HTML-5 on the top phones.

    The idea that “the bosses just don’t get it” and the need to justify smart and beautiful design has always been and will continue to be a struggle for creatives/designers; anyone who thinks that’s been conquered in the last year will surely have a rude awakening, probably with their next client.

    I think the most important thing is to be open to ideas around you, whether they come from more senior designers, managers, or technology co-workers. You don’t know everything, there’s a good chance someone has dealt with this problem before you, and the best ideas often come from collaboration not individual perspiration.

  2. Being allowed to peer into the things industry leaders were thinking, learning and doing during the year was a total treat. I’ve loved many posts at A List Apart over the years, but this is my absolute favorite. I’m sure Aarron could explain exactly why. I hope this becomes a tradition and we get a post like this every year.

  3. I had the pleasure to attend to various conference of people that I read or followed by years through website like A list apart, and I made a greateful discover. They are just people like you and me. I could talk with them, ask question, and they were incredibly polite, gentle and helpfull, it was a great surprise that they were so approachable.
    I learned that the passion that drives me to learn every day about communication and web design, it drives them as well. I felt on the same level and passion. And it just gave me a second wind of desire of being able to talk about what inspire me, what drives me and what I find great way to communicate. With some friend from Barcelona we started to make some small free conference and the result was that more people wanted to share and grow together.
    The 2011 for me was this discovery, that there is a world of people behind the screen of my monitor that are passionate as I am about this wonderful medium, and that we all share the same dream. Be a better designers, comunicators and above all a better man.

  4. Definitely a banner year for the “internet of things” and great to hear industry professionals recognize that we are in transitional time for design and development.

  5. Death awareness. All we do, or what we wold do, all our art, design, decisions, at the end of the days will disappeared. Something new will be invented, some other person will come. It’s not about to get success, it’s about to choose life that make you happy. And if you get lucky, it would change some other peoples too.

    New things. All things around us was invented by peoples. Hopefully, everybody have a chance to invent something new. Even with web design.

  6. Awesome read. It’s so nice to read stuff that reflects the every day experience working in web. Its been an exciting year with so much happening on all fronts.

  7. Emotion is at the heart of every decision we make — I also learned that.
    Web design should be created for people, cause positive feelings, including esthetic.
    Do not be afraid to experiment – it’s a great experience, a professional web designer learns from his mistakes and successes.
    You have to think about people, not about design.

  8. I learned that apparently animals are taking over the internet (Pandas especially). I just have to say I love animals, so maybe the Pandas will take it easy on me and my websites. It has been a fun year, and I have learned a lot.

  9. More than apps, it has been the death of “inter” as in inter<-->net. Remember the day of geocities and similar services! Remember how you could connect to any email from any email : for example, to write to someone @hotmail you could write from @yahoo *without* needing to be hotmail member. The giant and evil monopoly and blatant data-miner FB has changed the scenario and killed a lot of the interent. It is now cookie-cutter stuff allover with a massive "slave" population following. Anybody once could write simple html and create their pages - it was **open and easy** protocol, and sadly we killed it in favor of meaningless apps and allowing just a few sites to rule : so that internet is now = FB + Apple + G + Amazon. Unfortunate so much that even Tim Lee has lamented. I wish there were more players, at least a dozen like FB. I wish they come soon and fast. Apps can be just killed by good mobile browsers : there is a sign of this as Opera and others bring on more improvements. Apps, among other things, restricts the wide exposure of www. At max you can have 100 or 500 apps to interact regularly. The browser is the best app that exposes you to a million sites every second, and once this crazy app craze dies down and more html5 pours in apps can be in-browser stuffs. Internet of today was made by the common mass who did a lot of simple html and php, but the most bad part is that now things are moving or have moved to intricate and costly money-needing expert skills, huge stinky commercialization unthought of in the 90's, a few monopoly sites, and other sites just slave to FB using FB icons, FB shares, FB comments - none of their own. It not even matters to them that they are not being original ( FB do not use their icons) and thus are actually losing more users who value independence, uniqueness and freedom. What we need now : - do not let the simplicity of html and php get lost - apps no, browser yes : browser can do from one window all app stuffs - at least a dozen more sites like FB - revival of services like Geocities Who will be the champion for these causes? These are much more important than SOPA, of you understand what I/we mean!

  10. This year web services took me by surprise, but I love being able to re-package data as needed for different platforms. Once you have the service running, it can be deployed in app form, in mobile-optimized form, heck, in IE6-friendly form even.

    Mobile optimization became a major priority this year and is now a central consideration in all my design planning. As a result, I’ve pretty much ditched Flash entirely, opting for jQuery or at least graceful degradation / progressive enhancement.

    CSS3 shows amazing promise and with IE9 gaining steam we can finally move beyond the ancient browsers of the 2000’s and into modern, standards-friendly ones.

  11. Hi Guys,

    As per my personal experience it has been tremendous growth for Web Development especially PHP and HTML5. The emergence of these apps has indeed triggerred panic among iphone and android developers(although the web apps have a long way to go even to have a fight with iphone app features) and it has surely made 2012 a year to look out for. HTML5 and different frameworks like Sencha, Jquerymobile and so on have made there mark this year and with more customers looking to reduce the effective cost of their apps, it surely seems 2012 is gonna be a great one for mobile web application developers.

    All this said, i’m also looking forward to how apple will move forward in the coming year. Android has surely taken a huge portion of their market in 2011.

    Further more, PHP has become a must know language for all developers as the range is growing like anything for php.

    I am a php developer myself and have just got into mobile web application development. 2011 was by far the best year and i truly think 2012 is gonna be even better..


  12. The content on the web pages should be very terse and engaging. No one likes to read literature. Keep it simple, Keep it “fun” and most importantly keep “them” in mind is the important to usability.

  13. I’m so pleased to have found your site! I’m just now exploring the idea of becoming a web designer after managing my own photography website. I’ve learned that I both love and hate web design and I have VERY much to learn. The quote about simplicity spoke to me the most. I want to keep my designs simple but appearing simple can sometimes be very complicated. I look forward to learning from this community in 2012!

  14. i’d love to be able to share a specific quote, but there are no anchor tags which makes it a lot more difficult. comments have unique IDs since they’re being generated by your CMS. i realize that most articles do not need to have content segmented in this way, but given this article’s content, it’d be very useful (and probably have far more links on twitter and such) if people could point to and share specific gems via IDs matching the names of the quote authors.

    sorry for suggesting more work 🙂 anything for good design right?

  15. I loved reading these, and I really appreciate Aaron Walter’s start. Sometimes we get so caught up in the implementation of sites that we can lose the emotional side – we should see the human piece when we talk usability, but even then our emotional, or gut, reaction is often left out. Well stated, and good reminder!

  16. A lot of people underestimate the creation process of apps. They think an app is created, submitted for approval and that’s the end of story. The marketing aspect of apps is very complex. What’s even more complex is the ways in which companies are making profits on free apps via advertising.
    Profit sharing is another side of it as most people don’t have the funds for app development.

  17. I learned that while there are always new technologies and gadgets to design for and get excited about, there are still so many companies who lack an effective website for any platform. Despite the prevalence of mainstream coverage on the importance of user experience and seemingly more and more people who get it, there is still so much work to do. Looking forward to a busy 2012!

  18. For me 2011 was the year we finally said good riddance to IE6. If clients ask about IE6 support now we just sneer at them. Still it was depressing to see a couple of clients upgrade from IE6 not to the latest IE, but to IE7… oh well…

  19. Great read. Exciting to see design playing a bigger role in the SEO world as well as design finally gets it’s due in it’s ability it has on a site’s ultimate success/failure.


  20. Tablets, iphones, ipods and the other mobile devices where almost overtaking traditional searches i n 2011, mobile search is massive — and its only going to increase in 2012. So we must cater for those devices.

  21. It looks to me like tools are being developed at such a rate that most common needs for sites will be available to unskilled people most of the time. Doesn’t it seem so?
    Hosts certainly provide simple templates to fill in. Dreamweaver, and others, have WYSIWYG and wizards, making moderate sites available to many folks.
    I expect the applications may evolve to more of an art program, far from coding HTML.

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