Career Day Special with a Future Web Designer

Last week I received pretty much the best email I’ve ever gotten, from Emma S.:

As a student doing an eighth grade project on careers, I was greatly drawn to web developing and designing. I’ve always loved working with computers, learning about coding, and spending as much time as possible on being online.

Part of my assignment though, is interviewing somebody in the field to learn about their career. I was wondering if I could be given the opportunity to ask you about five questions. These questions would be about your job, your education, and the web designing/developing career in general. If not, I could go ask somebody else, but you were my first choice after I saw your “Zombie Apocalypse” speech, where I could tell that you really knew what you were talking about.

I would love to hear back from you, as you would really help me meet the standard for my project. Thank you so much for your time.

I’m always happy to pay it forward by taking some time to talk with people who are new to the field, but I’ve never heard from anyone Emma’s age about a career in web design. I remember my own eighth grade career day, visiting the local Minneapolis news station, WCCO. And—straight talk here—it is a privilege to have a career where I can share my ideas with other people, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine someone would want to do a career day project on me.

Emma’s questions were so good I wanted to share them, and my answers. Even better, I wanted to ask Emma a few questions about her interest in web design, and she was gracious enough to respond (see below.)

My responses to a future web designer

  1. What did you major in in college? What are some classes that I should take in high school to prepare me?
  2. I attended the University of Minnesota with a double major in Philosophy and American Studies. I went on to graduate school at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received an MS in Technical Communication and Human-Computer Interaction. Today, I teach in a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts. The program is an MFA in what’s called Interaction Design. I teach a class called Design Management, which is about business skills.

    While many people might think that a strictly technical education would prepare you to work in web design, I believe that a well-rounded liberal arts education is most beneficial. Web design isn’t just about coding—it’s about understanding human behavior and decision-making. Classes in art, social studies, even—especially!—classes in writing will be as useful as courses in math or computers.

  3. How hard was it to get your job(s)?
  4. In one sense, I’ve really only had a single “job” where I worked for a company. I got my job at Razorfish, a large digital agency, when it was a relatively small company. I was offered a couple of jobs at different companies, but Razorfish was owned and run by people who came from my hometown in Minneapolis. Even though I didn’t know them when I grew up there, it made me feel like I’d be comfortable working there when I learned they’d gone to the same high school as me!

    Today, I own my own company and I hire other people to help me build websites. I work with clients to help solve their problems. Working in client services means that, in a sense, I am always looking for a new job. I think I’ve built a reputation as someone who is smart and easy to work with, which means that clients come looking for me.

  5. What is the work like?
  6. I work with lots of different types of people to build a website. Two of the most commonly known jobs are “web designer” and “web developer.” (People might call them visual designer or front-end developer.) Designers tend to focus on what the website will look like, and developers actually code the site and make sure it is working correctly.

    There are other positions that might be less familiar to people. User experience design means figuring out how the site should work and function, but not necessarily what it should look like. I might work with information architects, who define the structure and navigation for the site, or interaction designers, who prototype the transitions and animations. Content strategists and copywriters plan what the website will say and who will create all the content.

    From this list, it should be pretty clear that making websites means working in teams of people! To be successful, you need to know how to work in groups and present your ideas in a persuasive way.

  7. How much would I earn? (Low, average, high)
  8. Much like building a house, a website can cost a little or it can cost a lot. I know some people who might build a simple website for $500 or $1000. I know other people who work on websites that cost millions of dollars.

    Starting salaries for people right out of college might range from $25,000 to $50,000. People in the middle of their careers often get jobs around $75,000 to $90,000. Higher salaries—six figures—are definitely possible in the web design world, but people who get paid more work really hard!

I had a few questions in response!

Emma’s responses to me

  1. Why are you interested in web design as a career?
  2. I’m Interested in web design as a career because I love combining the right and left side of my brain by coding and designing at the same time. I consider myself a rather creative person, and to be able to dream about something, and then design it, is amazing in my opinion. I also believe that web designing is one of those hobbies that could blossom into a full time career. I think that starting off your job because you enjoyed doing it, is the best because there’s a good chance it means you’re going to enjoy it enough in the future, that that’s what you want to do for the rest of your life.

  3. Which websites do you use most often, and what do you like about them?
  4. The website I use most is DFTBA and the app, Instagram. I like DFTBA the most because it connects a lot of people, so that I can get access to their information quickly. Their website is extremely organized, which helps me navigate through whatever I need to, to locate the specific person or category that I’m trying to find. I also like that there isn’t any nonsense that nobody is going to need. It shows us exactly what they feature, and where to find it.

    While you may not consider Instagram a website, I still think it’s worth noting as one of the best sites, and the best social media platform. Instagram allows people to see exactly what they came to see, and more, but still limits the creator to not over share, and clog us with unnecessary information. Unlike snapchat, where users have no boundaries on what they post, except for a ten second limit. It’s just a quick little shot to entertain, persuade, and inform, and I love that.

  5. What do you find difficult or frustrating when using websites?
  6. The thing I find most frustrating about using websites, is when they force me to install the app before I read the article, or when it’s one really long, unorganized slideshow, that’s impossible to get through in less than ten minutes, because each individual slide has to take it’s own time to load. By forcing u to install the app to watch a video, or look at the cute dress you saw a picture of on pinterest, all you’re doing is making us want to run away. My phone is already a deluge of useless games I’ll never play, so I really don’t need to install Yelp just so I could find the hours of Little Caesars Pizza, once.

  7. What classes do you like best in school?
  8. My favorite classes in school are math and science. I like math the best because I feel like I’m really good at solving equations and problems quickly, and I know that I have to be good at that if I ever want to get serious about coding. I like science, because I’m absolutely fascinated by learning and figuring out how stuff works. I’m not super talented at it, and my grade is kind of a roller coaster of A’s to C’s in that class, but I still enjoy. I think science is going to help me the most in the future, which is also why it’s one of my favorites.

The web can be frustrating, chaotic, always-changing. It can also be a pretty fun job. I needed to be reminded that it is amazing to be able to design something and bring it to life.

The web can also be challenging and demoralizing for women. We all need to make sure that the web is a place where young women like Emma can find meaningful work and creative success.

Content Strategy, Mobile

Content in a Zombie Apocalypse

Here’s my latest talk about why multi-device publishing is important—it’s not about smartphones, it’s about separating content from form.

Talk Description

Friends, a zombie apocalypse is upon us: an onslaught of new mobile devices, platforms, and screen sizes, hordes of them descending every day. We’re outmatched. There aren’t enough designers and developers to battle every platform. There aren’t enough editors and writers to populate every screen size. Defeating the zombies will require flexibility and stamina—in our content. We’ll have to separate our content from its form, so it can adapt appropriately to different contexts and constraints. We’ll have to change our production workflow so we’re not just shoveling content from one output to another. And we’ll have to enhance our content management tools and interfaces so they’re ready for the future. Surviving the zombie apocalypse is possible. In this talk Karen will explain how: by developing a content strategy that treats all our platforms as if they’re equally important.




Hey, you guys want to know what I think is awesome? Beyond Tellerrand, come on! Give it up! I speak at about a million of these things and this is one of the nicest, best organized, and also the most attractive audiences I think I’ve seen.

You want to know what else I think is amazing? Print! Print is a fantastic technology. I mean, you put the words on the paper and they stay there. You don’t have to worry about keeping it updated all the time—man, print was fantastic. When you take a look at the history of human communication and you realize that we’ve had hundreds of years of the printing press and nearly thousands of years of communicating in written documents, that the history and the values and the culture of print and how you get ink on paper is so deeply intertwined with what it means to communicate priority or hierarchy or relationships of information, that those cues are so deeply ingrained in how human beings think about communication that it’s really hard to get away from them.

Then we had to go and invent the web. Which, on balance, I think has been totally worth it. But man, is it a pain in the ass. So, the web, as you all know just turned 25. Twenty-five years of the web. Look, I’m a huge nerd for computing history and I love understanding the underpinnings of our field or the generations that came before us. So when you look at the web, you look at the very foundations of this tool—Hyper Text Markup Language, HTML, and the Uniform Resource Locator, the URL—those technologies were designed with the explicit intent that anyone, anywhere, could create a document that could be updated instantaneously and accessible globally. When you take a step back from the day-to-day stuff that we’re all doing and trying to figure out, and really just appreciate how transformational that is in the history of human communication, just how different that is from everything that has come before, twenty-five years is not nearly enough time for us to have truly wrapped our head around the way that the web is different.

As a result, for the last twenty-five years or so, we’ve been kind of bandaid-ing ourselves along by imagining that “Well, I mean, a web page, it’s really just like a piece of paper, right? It’s not really all that different from a piece of paper.” To me, now with the rise of mobile devices, this is what is forcing us to acknowledge for the first time, to really come to terms with the way that the web is different.

Let me be clear about this: the web has always been different. It’s just that we’ve been able to kind of treat the web page like a crutch. But with the rise of mobile devices and now tablets, we have to give up this shared hallucination that we have all been operating under, that we have any control over the presentation. That we have any control over the size of somebody’s screen or the layout that they have or the input mechanism that they’re going to be using. That’s gone. And it’s not coming back.

This, to me, is the real transformation of mobile. When I talk about content strategy for mobile or publishing to mobile, I don’t mean publishing on smartphones or different devices. I mean how do we, as human beings, wrap our heads around the idea that no longer can we treat whatever we want to publish as if it is locked to any one particular output format?

You might look here at the whole “desktop computer and smartphones and tablets” and kind of go “Well, you know, that’s already a pain in the ass to deal with.” But the problem here is it’s not going to stop. I want to be clear about this: I am not a futurist. I am not here to predict for you what I think the next big thing is going to be. If I could do that, I’d be making a fortune. But what I am here to do is explain that something else is going to come along. There will be some new device, some new platform, some new communication technology. And whatever that is, we’re going to have to find a way to publish to it. We’re going to have to find a way that we can get our content onto it.

So maybe that next new thing is smart TV. A lot of people are hypothesizing is that the next great wave is fighting over the living room. I think when you look at the smart TV interface, I think that really starts to drive away any lingering hope that you might have, that you can make assumptions about the size of somebody’s screen or what type of device they’re using to interact with it. Just the sheer range and diversity of different platforms and different input mechanisms that we have to deal with is so great, that the idea that we’re still trying to design for any particular one—it’s like, at what point do you start to say “Wait a minute, we just can’t do that anymore.” Is it the point where we’re trying to figure out how we can design for the smallest smartphone screen, all the way up through the largest 60–inch giant living room screen? Recognizing that that’s the leap we have to make will make this challenge easier.

Maybe it’s not smart TV. Maybe it’s in-car systems. A lot of automobile manufacturers are already embedding sensors and screens into their automobiles. For me, when I look at this, what I don’t see is people trying to use a touchscreen while they’re driving. What I see is an integrated system in which there will be both a touchscreen and an audio component. When you realize this, it’s like “Oh, right.” The opportunity here is going to be around combined systems where people are interacting both with screens and through audio interfaces.

I know there’s this sense that audio interfaces just aren’t quite ready for prime time yet. You talk to Siri and she makes a bunch of mistakes and it’s not a very great experience. You know what else didn’t work very well for, like, forever? Touchscreens. Touchscreens were terrible. You’d go to the ATM and you’d have to figure out how to angle your finger just exactly right in order to get your button to push. For decades, touchscreens were seen as this also-ran technology that was never really going to quite make the prime time. Then one day, touchscreens worked. They worked perfectly. And it transformed our entire industry in the space of five years.

I don’t know when audio interfaces are really going to become a reality, if it’s 5 years, 15 years, 50 years, but I know that one day the Star Trek computer is going to become a reality. And I gotta tell you, when I go up and I ask the Star Trek computer a question, the last thing I want to hear it read back to me is “http colon slash slash.” When you start peeling back—“Oh right, what does that mean for how we construct relationships between the content and our code?”

I’ve had developers ask me sometimes “Oh, Karen, why do you insist that we even bother trying to parse out the difference between what should be rendered as italics and what should be rendered as emphasis when every major browser since the dawn of time has rendered emphasis as italics?” Not in an audio interface they don’t. One of those things conveys visual styling. The other conveys semantic meaning. In an audio interface, emphasis is going to be rendered as tone of voice. When you start peeling back all those challenges, how they work even at the tiniest little HTML tag, you start to realize that our ability to start encoding the meaning of what we publish in ways that are not entirely dependent on the way that they look is what’s going to help us survive the future. I hope it should also make clear that doing the right thing for the future means doing the right thing for accessibility today.

I don’t know, maybe the next big thing is going to be… Google Glass. I don’t really think Google Glass is going to be the next big thing. I think Google Glass like the Segway of mobile. It’s like a Segway, but for your face. But I will say, I agree with Robert Christopherson, that the idea of wearable technology is a very real prospect. I worked with a client recently that publishes a giant print catalog and the products that they make are industrial products, they are intended to be used in factories. I had a conversation with them where I’m like “Look guys, we all know that a day is going to come, at some point in the future, where you will no longer publish this print catalog.” I don’t know when that’s going to be. I’m not going to say if it’s 5 years or 10 years from now. But at some point you’re going to say “This world that we live in no longer needs a 2-inch thick print catalog of all of our products.” So what happens when that day comes and wearable heads-up displays are a reality on the factory floor? What happens when the type of audience that you want to communicate with, working in these industrial environments, needs the ability to get information in a hands-free environment. What if that’s the next platform that you need to publish to? Is your content going to be ready to go there? Or, maybe a better question is, you need to start acting now to figure out how you’re going to get your content into a format so that it is not locked up, intended to be printed only in this one document, but rather it has the flexibility so that you can get it onto another platform.

So if Google Glass isn’t the next big thing, maybe the next big thing is going to be… watches. Right? Everybody is talking about watches—the Galaxy Gear, the Pebble, maybe an Apple watch. Again, people are sometimes like “Well Karen, why do you care about watches? No one is ever going to want to read a long document on their watch.” And that may be true. But when you think of a watch as existing in a larger ecosystem of devices, when you imagine that that watch is a controller for a smart TV or provides notification from a smartphone or can be a small touchscreen interface that would allow someone to interact with an audio interface that they engage with their headphones, now you start to see—right, it’s not just that my content needs to live on that platform, but it might need to be accessible and navigable on that platform and we might have to find ways to represent it on ever-smaller or different screen sizes.

But you know, okay, watches, so tiny, maybe not the next big thing, right? Maybe the next big thing is going to be stadium scoreboards, woo-hoo! Let’s get our content where everybody can see it guys! This is a joke. I’m funny, aren’t I? I put this in here as a joke, because I thought it would be funny because the watches are so tiny and then the scoreboards are so big and then I turned around and I had a client tell me that the biggest problem that they’re trying to solve right now is digital signage.

I worked with a university and they said “Karen, we have a mobile website, we have an app and we just bought these digital signs that we want to put up all over campus. What we want to do is we want to have one central place where we can manage and maintain all of our content. And then we want to be able to send things like events listings or campus alerts to students or information about what’s going on on campus to these three very different platforms and we want to be able to do it automatically.” I was like “Mm… have you thought about treating the digital signs like they’re a completely separate workflow and just having someone manage those like they’re a silo?” They were like “Karen, ain’t nobody got time for that! No. This is the whole reason we’re talking to you, is we want a way to manage and maintain our content in one place and have the right information go to three very different platforms.” This is not some crazy futuristic dystopia that these people are living in. This is right now, a problem we have to solve today.

And so, if you have to solve digital signage problems in the enterprise, maybe we all will be facing the same problems in our homes. Can’t talk about the future without talking about the internet refrigerator. Again, I don’t really think the internet refrigerator is going to be the technology of the future but the idea that our homes will eventually have a network of connected devices and sensors and maybe smaller screens. Heck, maybe instead of the internet refrigerator, maybe a better idea is that one day your glass cooktop will have a giant iPad screen embedded into it and on the glass you will be able to watch videos or look at recipes or the news while you’re cooking.

Or—and I want to say I do think that this is the biggest problem that we are facing as a society today—what happens when toaster printers become a reality? Is your content ready to be burned onto delicious toast? These are the problems that we’re here to solve together.

Right now, today, organizations already face the challenge of how do they publish to a variety of different platforms and screen sizes. They’ve got content that needs to exist on the web, and it already has to exist in social channels, or in blogs, or in microsites, maybe in email. And now they’re wrestling with “Well, how do we publish to the mobile web? How do we deal with apps on smartphone platforms and on tablets? Heck, is this the opportunity for us to actually wrangle what we’re publishing in print versus what we publish in digital channels?” Tomorrow, there will be an ever-greater number of new devices and platforms and screen sizes. It is a veritable zombie apocalypse of new devices and platforms. There’s too many of them for us to battle by treating every single one of them as if they’re an independent platform. How are we going to protect ourselves from the zombie apocalypse?

Well the answer I think lies deeply in something that I know pretty much everybody on the web has spent some time thinking about, which is: How do we achieve the idea of having true separation of content from form? I feel like this is one of these subjects that everybody who works on the web has an opinion about. I sometimes will ask people “What do you think that means?” and people are like “CSS!” But in reality, what this means—it goes so much deeper than just any one person’s or just any one point of view’s window on what this means. It goes all the way through what every single person who is responsible for the website does.

The idea that we now have so many different output formats that we have to publish to, that we can no longer imagine that any one of those outputs is primary. Or that we can intend the meaning that we’re trying to communicate, to be communicated for only the visual language or the styling of that one platform. Do you have any idea just how transformational that is in the history of communication—just how different that is from everything that’s come before? When you imagine this monk here, sitting, laboriously hand-scribing documents, the very notion that you would say: Let’s think about the meaning of what you are trying to communicate separate from the actual physical form of this document, let’s talk about how you might communicate structure or priority or relationships or hierarchy in this document, separate from any one particular instance of this physical form—it wouldn’t make any sense. Throughout most of human history, there was no reason why we would even talk about this.

And now, with the web and mobile devices and different platforms and the whole zombie apocalypse, I think that this is the real challenge that we are facing. We need new tools, we need new processes in order to make this happen. When Dan Jacobson here—he’s the API guy from Netflix and he’s formerly from NPR—when he says that “the future of content management systems is in their ability to capture the content in a clean, presentation-independent way,” it’s real tempting to reduce that to a problem with markup, to think that we can get rid of this just by getting rid of rich text editors.

I really hate rich text editors on the web and I rail and shake my fist at the limitations of these things that I call “blobs.” Which is this big, messy bucket, where we give a content creator a big field and just tell them “Oh, dump whatever you want in there. If you want to add a table and drop in some custom bullets (which are not using SVG) and you want to take a table of contents box and float that over to the right, you just go right ahead. You just make this look exactly like a Word document.” This even says: The Word-like interface makes content creation easy for business users who know nothing about HTML and want to keep it that way. The challenge here, the problem here, is that the styling information that this content creator embedded in this blob, that has meaning attached to it. Sometimes developers will say “Oh yeah, you’ve got to go in and strip all that out when you want to take it to another platform.” Strip all that out? That content creator intended something when she took that table of contents box and floated it to the right. She wanted that to convey that this was an aside or some sort of information that was set off from the document. But unfortunately the only tools that she had to communicate that came through what she wanted that document to look like rather than what that actually meant. I rail against the idea that we treat publishing on the web as if it’s “just like Microsoft Word” and we give content creators this WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get—toolbar at the top and let them just style that stuff any way they want it.

I’ve gotten the reputation as being the president of the WYSIWYG haters club and I want you guys to know: it’s fun to come and talk to people at meetings like this, but my graffiti crime spree is also going exceptionally well. It’s really getting the message out. When I talk about why I think WYSIWYG is so bad, sometimes people come up to me and it’s like they assume I’m some kind of markdown evangelist. They’re just like “Yeah, markdown all the way!” I’m like, “Well the problem is not the toolbar.” I kind of don’t care if somebody gets a button at the top of their screen that they can use to actually add some truly semantic formatting. No, the problem with WYSIWYG is that we are giving content creators an antiquated metaphor from the desktop publishing era to communicate to them what it means to publish on the web.

Do you guys know where WYSIWYG came from? It came from Xerox, the research group, Xerox PARC. Because they invented the laser printer. Think about that for a minute. Up until this point, a Xerox machine could only make a copy of a document that already existed. Xerox invented a way that you could print out whatever you wanted. Except they needed a way for you to be able to actually create that document. And so they invented the entire concept of what you see is what you get, invented the entire concept of the graphical user interface, so that they could sell laser printers. Arguably, the laser printer is the most important component of the entire personal computing revolution. Demand for laser printers, demand for desktop publishing, is what drove people to start buying Apple computers and to start buying PCs, and to buy laser printers, and to print out really badly formatted newsletters and to use too many fonts. As a result, directly coming out of that personal computer revolution, it led directly to the web and the demand for personal computers to run the web.

I think all of us here actually probably have jobs today because of the personal computing revolution that was sparked by the laser printer. I think it’s with a great deal of respect for the history of how we have been using these tools over the last thirty years or so when I tell you that the web is not a laser printer. There is nothing about the web that is anything like a laser printer. The very notion that we are using this metaphor of a printed page or “what you see is what you get” to communicate to content creators what it means to publish on the web is an outdated mental model where we’re basically giving them a crutch and saying “think of this just like a Word document.”

Ted Nelson says that “imitating paper on a computer screen is like tearing the wings off a 747 and using it as a bus on the highway.” The web is better than print. The web can do so much more than print. The idea that we have dynamically published information that can be sent, can be targeted, can be sent all over the globe—that is why I say that we are fighting a war, a war between blobs and chunks. Blobs are these messy formatting rich globs of stuff where we’ve dumped content and markup and everything and the kitchen sink into one big messy blob of a field. When it comes time to take that information to another platform or target little bits of that information, you can’t do it. Chunks are clean, well-formatted, presentation-independent bits of content that are intended, from the start, that they can and will live on a variety of different platforms, in a variety of different ways. We are fighting a war, people. We cannot let the blobs win.

What this means—if we talk about what it really means to truly separate content from form, I think the real limitation here, the thing that we all just stumble back into, no matter that you might say yes, the page is dead, but we are still, as an industry and as humanity, rife with what I think of as “container-first thinking.” Our goal is to say “Okay, first thing I’m going to do is I’m going to figure out what the box is that I’m going to fill and then afterwards I’ll figure out what I’ll put in it.” You see it over and over again. What does Photoshop do the first time you open it up? The first thing it asks you is how big do you want that canvas to be. Sure, you can change it, but it’s like the primary decision that you are making is how big do I want my thing to be?

The great Ethan Marcotte describes his initial process for doing the Boston Globe redesign. He says “We began by identifying some common breakpoints.” By saying “Okay, well let’s figure out what the different containers are that we’re going to fill.” To his credit, he also will tell you “Don’t do this.”

Or, lately we’ve been told that cards are the future of the web. Cards. They’re like pages, but tiny. This certainly is a principle that comes from a design perspective. I can very easily see how, if you’re a designer, it is very hard to imagine what it is that you’re going to be designing unless you put some kind—you want to draw a box around something, right? Maybe ever-smaller little boxes of things but you’re still trying to bound that in some way.

But this isn’t just a problem for design. It is also a problem in the very architectures of our systems. I’m working with a client right now and… I get to see a lot of companies’ content management underpants. So I’m like rooting around in their system, they’ve given me a list of all of the content types that they publish and this is what it says. And I’m like “Oh… oh, that’s interesting. Some of these things are not like the others.” Even baked into the very architecture of the content management system, they are saying “Oh, here are some of the actual pieces of content that we publish. We publish articles and press releases and FAQs. But we also have this notion that the container of the content—a carousel or a wrapper or an accordion—those are content types too.” But they’re not.

This idea that we are still struggling with: How do we make choices about what we do and what we design, how we publish separate from what it should look like or what the little box should be around it? The technique that we use to do this is something called content modeling. Content modeling is essentially the process of starting with your content and figuring out from the start what are all the little bits and pieces that you’re working with. Content modeling is what makes lots of things possible. It makes possible the NPR Create Once Publish Everywhere (COPE) model. This is a very much talked about case study, I’ve talked about it many times in my talks. But what it means is that they have a flexible set of content that then they can dynamically target to whatever platform or screen size or device they want to. Because they know the underlying content structure before they start designing, they are more able to make good decisions about how they should style and interact with that content for any given platform.

It’s also what makes possible this digital signage project that I’ve talked about. I teach at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. They have these digital signs, they also have a website. I could look at a webpage like this and see that it was entirely published as one big blob. Everything on that page could just be one big WordPress field. And somebody is like “I’ll put a picture in there and then I’ll put in all of the text about the event.” The problem is if that event listing isn’t properly structured, there’s not underlying chunks of data behind it, then their ability to target the right bits of that content for their digital screens wouldn’t be possible. They need that image, they need that overview paragraph, they need the date and time of the event all separated out as separate fields so that they can target them dynamically.

And it’s even what makes possible I think some of the things we’re going to be able to do in responsive design. This is an example of The Guardian’s beta site and you can see, okay, here’s a block of headlines that have an image. At a smaller breakpoint, they’ve decided to drop the image out. Similarly, headlines and images, and at a smaller breakpoint, only for the priority stories. Only for the first, most popular stories, the hierarchy of stories, do they include the image, for the stories that drop the image out. Now, this is a pretty simple example, right? We could do this today. But when you start thinking: Oh right, our job should be to have the right granularity in our content so that, as we are thinking about “what’s the most important or appropriate presentation at different breakpoints?” we can actually target the content at more and more fine grains of granularity. The ability to do that is going to be content modeling.

Content modeling essentially means that you sit down and the first thing you figure out is: What type of content do you have? It might be an article or a product spec or a recipe or maybe it’s a medical condition. You sit down and you figure out: What are these things?

I’m going to tell you something. Doing this, for many people, is actually very easy. I worked with a hospital this summer and we sat down and in a half-day brainstorming session, we went through and we listed out every content type that they thought they could publish. And you know what? They did it. They did it really quickly and easily. They understood their content. In fact, they were actually really excited about the opportunity to talk about what their content was separate from what template it should run in. They were tired of doing web redesigns where people would come in and be like “Okay, well here’s the six templates you’re going to get.” What they wanted to do is they wanted to sit down and say “What do these content types mean to us? What do we think they consist of?” For example, they had something called a Patient Story. What they were able to do is break down that patient story, so instead of being a big blob, they said “Oh, well it’s going to have the information about the condition, and the doctor who treated the patient, and how old the patient was, and where the patient came from.” And so having all of that information structured allowed them to do more with those patient stories. They were able to target them and search them and present them in more fluid ways because they weren’t treating a patient story as if it were just one big article blob.

What that is, that process that I’m talking about, is that we are trying to figure out what the attributes of the content are. When I talk about chunks, sometimes I call them “Fields” or “Content Objects.” I say “Fields” in quotes because I want to be real clear, I don’t necessarily always mean that an attribute of the content is going to be stored as a separate field in the CMS—that way lies madness—it’s a combination of fields and markup that allow us to truly communicate the semantic meaning of what these attributes are.

But the content attributes are things that… a recipe is a super-easy one to explain. I worked on a product called Food and Wine this past year. They’re a big recipe site and magazine based in New York. We sat down and we did a massive content modeling of their recipe content type. I think sometimes people are like “Well recipes, that’s pretty simple right? The name of the recipe and a picture of the recipe and the steps and the ingredients.” Well, it’s true. Recipe is the core content type and, yes, there are ingredients and steps that come off of that. But honestly, to make it actually useful, there’s so much more. For Food and Wine, their primary organizing schemas were the category and the chef. They focus really heavily on people for their recipes, so having the chef as a major organizing principle worked for them. Off of that, there were a whole bunch of facets that we would use to categorize the recipes. So, we had cuisine, and culture, and diet, and equipment, and holiday. All of those things were things that they could encode to say: “This is great for a brunch, this is great for people who eat gluten-free, this is German food.” That process of defining what that taxonomy was, what that model was and what all those facets were, made it possible for them to do more with their recipes.

You might think “Well, okay, great Karen! You’ve figured it out. That’s what recipes are.” But it’s not. The thing is, this content modeling exercise is different for everybody. Even a format that you might think is as codified as a recipe. My friend Jeff Eaton has a case study of the Lark Cookbook. This is a Kickstarter-funded campaign that has a website, it has a variety of mobile apps and—not only that—it has a print cookbook. If you’re the kind of nerd that I am, the super-interesting thing about this is that all of these platforms, even the print cookbook, are all being sourced from the same Drupal CMS. So they had Drupal outputting to the print version as well.

So they also had to go through a process of content modeling. You guess “Yes, okay, great. Well they started with a recipe, right?” And you might say “Well Karen, at least recipes and steps, those are the most important thing.” But no. For this product their primary organizing principle was a plate. They didn’t want to just have recipes. What they wanted to have was a plate of recipes that you would serve together as part of a meal. The chef had very well-considered opinions about what he thought those plates should be. They were categorized by season, so what would be fresh during that time. Interestingly enough, the chef also had a point of view that there were only three seasons, so right there that’s a content modeling issue. And there were different varietals of wine that you would serve with that plate. Then beyond that, step was actually the way they primarily hung both ingredients and then techniques. What they wanted to do for this product was they wanted to store a whole bunch of examples of how you would perform a particular cooking technique and they had a whole media library of videos of the chef actually doing those particular techniques. So if you didn’t know how to whip or you didn’t know how to bread, you could watch a little video of the chef doing that. Two very different products, two very different content models.

This is top of mind for me right now because recently, just within the last couple of days, The New York Times Innovation Report about their digital strategy on the web was leaked. If you have any interest in publishing or how people communicate on the web, get your hands on this. This version was actually like a faxed copy that somebody leaked to BuzzFeed. For me, this was like Deep Throat. In this innovation report, one of the things that they said was “Here’s the ugly truth about this kind of structured data. There are substantial costs to waiting.” They go on to say: “For example, because our recipes were never properly tagged by ingredients and cooking time, we floundered for about 15 years trying to figure out how to create a useful recipe database. We can do it now, but only after spending a huge sum to retroactively structure the data.”

There is a huge cost associated to this. I want to give you a little bit of an example from what I think of as the blobbiest blob that we have ever blobbed onto the web. Oh yes, the PDF. Sorry Adobe. But honestly, I feel like there’s going to come a point in the history of the web where we’re all going to look back on the fact that we let ourselves band-aid along on the web using a piece of paper. It’s literally a piece of paper. It’s because we still haven’t worked out how to support a true print to digital publishing model. Instead, we’re letting people get by by treating the web like it’s paper.

Please, allow me to make one thing clear before I go on: Nobody is reading your PDF. The World Bank recently did a study in which they looked from 2008 to 2012 at all of the PDFs that they have put online and what they found was 33 percent of them, a third of them, never downloaded at all. What’s worse: 40 percent of them were downloaded fewer than 100 times. I’ll be fair, this is the World Bank. They’re not BuzzFeed, they’re not going viral. But the fact is PDFs lock valuable content up in a format that makes it inaccessible for most people. Most people just don’t go through the trouble of downloading a printed document so that they can read it on their screen.

Ethan and I just recently went and talked to the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, so that’s the United States Central Bank. This place is like a PDF farm. They’re just harvesting PDFs, planting and growing and harvesting them. When you look at the kind of document that the World Bank or a Central Bank might publish—what sticks out to me when I look at a document like this is all of the different charts and tables and equations and graphs that need to get embedded inside of a larger narrative flow.

The challenge that an organization like the bank faces is that their ability to do the kind of content modeling that I’m describing is extremely limited. What they are doing is they are publishing things that aren’t truly digital. They’re not digital-native texts. These things aren’t responsive.

Watch me go talk to a bank about the number of things that they are publishing in PDFs that just aren’t going to be really appropriately rendered on any size screen other than the desktop. They’re not really searchable. They can be, but a lot of times they’re not. They’re not searchable in the same way that web pages are. Similarly, they’re not really accessible. They can be. I think there’s people doing some interesting work in PDF accessibility but this is—come on guys, there’s got to be a better way. Why are we doing this? Why are we still relying on what is clearly a completely antiquated model of how we publish to the web?

Well, I’ll tell you. It’s because it’s a familiar tool. It’s because the tools that we have for publishing simply aren’t sufficient for the kind of people who work at a central bank to go in and actually mock up their articles. Like these bankers, they can use Microsoft Word, they can go in and they can make their charts and their graphs and they can put in their equations. Ask them to do that in any HTML editor, any content management system today, it’s just not good enough. It also gives them a very simple workflow. The publishing process for these organizations is: write something in word, export it as a PDF, put the PDF on the web. The publishing process for how you would take that on if you actually wanted this to be properly structured and modeled digital content would likely require three or four people to do it. So this enables them to get their charts and tables in. But I think most important, what the real challenge here is, that it allows them to support what is a truly unstructured flow in the document. They’re not publishing recipes or product specifications or documents that inherently have a very regular structure to them. They are publishing documents that by their very definition, do not have a structure.

My friend Jeff Eaton published an article on A List Apart called The Battle for the Body Field, where he talks about what he calls “responsible blobbing.” So what do we need to do as an industry to support content creators who need the tools and the flexibility to embed some content types inside of other content types to support a truly unstructured narrative flow without getting caught up in a thicket of fields in the CMS or markup that then starts to introduce presentation-dependent cruft into the field. What he says is: “Standard HTML is rich enough for a designer to represent complex content. It isn’t precise enough to describe and store that content in a presentation-independent format.”

And so as we are wrestling with this, I think the challenge that we all have to try to solve here is: How do we figure out, how do we get all those blobs of stuff that are stored in PDFs or stored in big blobby WordPress fields, and how do we pull all of that out and actually make it properly structured?

Well let me give you a little example of what’s required for that. So I talked to a large professional services organization in New York. They just went through a mobile first responsive redesign where they went through and they said: Let’s dig into the massive PDF farm that we have and figure out what valuable content we want in there, that we can then publish to the web. They found 6,250 PDFs that they wanted to go and properly model and structure so they could have true digital native text. So here’s what it took. They did a modeling exercise, which is basically what I described earlier. So they had people like me go in, figure out what their content types were, what the attributes of those content types were. It took four people three weeks to do this, and they paid those four people about 130 euro. They paid them in U.S dollars but I did the math for you. So it was about 175 dollars an hour, which is a pretty good mid-senior hourly rate. So this task cost about 62,000 euro for them to complete.

And then second, they did a pilot project that took a week. So what they did is, based on the model that they created, they went in and got new PDFs and they piloted those new PDFs to make sure that the model actually accounted for all the things that those PDFs had in store. So that took a week, cost them 20,000 euro.

Then, they did a process that I call “copy and pasting.” So this was the restructuring process where human beings had to actually sit there, go through all of those PDFs, copy and paste and restructure that content into a content management system. That took them five months to do. Now the people who did it, it took them three people, those people were paid a little bit less, so they made 55 euro. It still cost them 150,000 euro to do it. So as a result, for them to get the value out of these six thousand PDFs: six months, eight people, cost them 230,000 euro.

In contrast, they had 25,000 PDFs that they said: Just punt on it, let’s just migrate those over and if anyone really wants them they can get at them. That process, that I call “shoveling,” took one week, took one developer, they paid him 130 euro, cost 2,000 euro to do it. As a result they now have a giant dumpster of documents that are technically on the web but yet the true value of them can’t be realized because they are all in fact locked up in those PDFs.

I make this point, I want to leave you with this. Our future depends on us being able to get away from blobs. I pick on PDFs because they’re such an obvious case, but the truth is our content on the web is pretty blobby. Most web pages today suffer from the fact that the content is not appropriately structured—I mean structured from the modeling perspective that I take on it—that we have appropriate content types and appropriate attributes attached to that content.

We have to get away from this if we’re actually going to be able to truly be platform-agnostic. Our future is going to depend on having the kind of structured content that will allow us to target content to different platforms or devices, to know what the actual semantic meaning of that content is. Our future depends on fighting off the zombies. We are, today, living in this veritable zombie apocalypse of new devices and platforms and screen sizes and resolutions and input mechanisms and they just keep coming and they’re never going to stop.

The organizations that take this as their inflection point—that take the opportunity of mobile—to not just figure out how to publish to a mobile app, but rather figure out what happens if tomorrow I have to publish to a watch or a smartphone screen or a smart TV or an audio interface, the organizations that take that as their challenge and make their content future-friendly, accessible, clean and presentation-independent, and start doing that now, those are the ones that are going to survive the zombie apocalypse. Thank you.


The Immobile Web

Google is preparing for screenless computers

Google Glass UI Guidelines

The Ultimate Internet Toaster

Make your selfie the perfect breakfast!

WCM is for Losers

Creation Myth

Ted Nelson’s Computer Paradigm, Expressed as One-Liners

Why cards are the future of the web

Jared Stoneberg and The Lark Cookbook

The leaked NY Times Innovation Report

The solutions to all our problems may be buried in PDFs that nobody reads

The Battle for the Body Field

Content Modelling: A Master Skill

Content Modeling Series by Cleve Gibbon

Deblobbing your chunks: Building a flexible content model


The Lesson

Fresh from sleep, in the first few minutes of wakefulness before my brain comes fully back online, I run a few simple scripts to help me start my day. I complete these familiar routines like I’m a robot programmed only for these tasks. Exit bed. Navigate to kitchen. Boil water. Make tea. Only when the tea is brewing and I’m seated in front of the computer am I capable of conscious thought.

On this morning, like every other morning, I grab the teakettle and turn the cold water on full blast to fill the pot.

Except this morning, not like every other morning, the spout of the faucet breaks off, clattering into the sink. Behind it, a geyser of water explodes, transforming my tiny kitchen into a decorative fountain. The icy water shoots directly at my face, blinding me for a moment and making it difficult to breathe.

Don’t panic, I think.

Scenes of past plumbing disasters flash before my eyes. They all seem to feature a stranger’s torso inside my cupboard, exploring the mysteries of the pipes below, ass hanging out.

To the shut-off valve!

I fall to my knees and frantically begin removing the items densely packed in storage below the sink, cold water falling on my head and shoulders like rain. The laundry soap. The garbage bags. The dust pan and rags and furniture polish. The hammers, and even an electric drill. All of these land in the growing puddle of water on the kitchen floor, so I can reach the handle all the way in the back of the cabinet.

It won’t turn.

I struggle with this balky knob so stiff and sticky from disuse. Nothing.

I stand up, and the freezing water smacks me in the face again. For an eternity of a few seconds, I’m paralyzed. Paralyzed by shock. Paralyzed with indecision. Gasping for breath and shivering from cold, I stand there, too stupid to move.

Should I go take a hot shower and hope that the problem will fix itself? Would crying help? Maybe I should call someone. But who would come over here so early in the morning?

I reach for the house phone to call the doorman. The water continues to blast me in the face. I try to staunch the flow of water from the broken faucet by holding the teakettle over it. With the kettle in one hand and the phone in the other, I try to hold back the water and dial the phone at the same time, a comedy routine I picked up from watching old I Love Lucy episodes.

This attempt to solve my problem fails miserably. I can’t turn to the doorman for help. I have to rely on myself, my wits, and my adrenaline-fueled strength. I have got to shut this water off.

On my knees again in the inch-deep puddle, I engage in a fierce battle of woman versus knob. I wrap the sodden dishtowel around the handle and try to bend the knob to my will. Nothing. I put on the dishwashing gloves, hoping their rubbery surface will help me gain more leverage. Nothing. Finally, with both the gloves on and the dishtowel wrapped around my hand, I turn with all my might, and at last I feel the knob start to give.

The absence of water is like silence. I pause for a moment to catch my breath then call down to the front desk.

When you live in a large Manhattan apartment tower and you call the building staff to tell them there’s a flood in your apartment, someone instantly materializes at your door.

Haki, the super, surveyed the scene wearily, a man all too familiar with the titanic power of a plumbing disaster to pull one from the depths of sleep. He stepped into the kitchen while I dashed to my closet to grab a sweater to pull on over my soaking wet T-shirt.

When I returned, he was in the hallway, stooped to pat my dog on the head. He stood up and explained, “Okay, Luis will be up in a few minutes to clean this up. Miguel will be up later to fix the faucet.” He paused for a beat. “And I turned the water off.”

I’d spent the whole morning spluttering water out my mouth and nose, and now the words spluttered out the same way. “No that’s what I did see I turned the water off I found the knob under the sink it wouldn’t turn that’s why it took so long I turned the water off I did that already that’s what I did.”

He stared at me, his face blank. “No. You needed to turn the water off on the faucet,” pantomiming the familiar turn of the wrist.

Right. The faucet handle. Why didn’t I think of that?

A moment’s shock and confusion, and a routine ingrained in my muscle memory disappeared. A task so comfortable, I’d performed it thousands of times, and yet I forgot how to do it just when it mattered most. Instead, I cycled through unfamiliar strategies, desperate gambits, a dozen bad decisions.

Designers dream of solutions to these problems, a magic wand that turns confusion into engagement and delight. But an instruction manual for my sink, even one filled with witticisms and clever turns of phrase, would have evoked hoots of derision, and pop-up boxes offering warnings or advice would have prompted wild-haired screeching.

Who am I designing for? The rational, composed, perfectly-in-control savant? The expert automaton, programmed to complete each task flawlessly? Or the messy, error-prone, distracted human? Remembering my own catastrophes, disasters, and bone-headed moves helps me be more sensitive to the fact that they happen for everyone—even the people who use the products I design.

Originally published in The Manual.

Hearing Aids

Ear Trumpets and Superpowers

“You’re lucky,” said Mr. Pelcek, my elementary school guidance counselor. “At least they’re not bigger. When I was a boy, hearing aids were huge boxes people wore around their necks, with cords running up to their ears.”

Was I also to be overcome with joy that I wasn’t lugging around an ear trumpet, like the elderly characters in Saturday morning cartoons? No one everwants to wear hearing aids, especially not a ten-year-old.

Wearing hearing aids and admitting you even have hearing loss are two different things. Determined to act just like the other kids, I kicked off a decades-long campaign to deny, ignore, and cover up any evidence that I couldn’t hear. Instructed to sit in the front of the class so I could hear better, I scorned the front-row dwellers, those unfortunates branded as nerdy, and defiantly sat in the back. I kept my hair long and avoided wearing attention-getting earrings. And I honed my skills in pretending I could follow. Even when I couldn’t.

I initially believed in minimizing people’s awareness of the challenges I faced—gave myself a simpler front-end interface. It took years, but I finally accepted the inherent complexity of hearing loss. I learned that people were even willing to work harder to communicate with me if only I’d let them know what they needed to do and why. My goal should not be to hide my use of hearing technology. It should be to find ways to make it appropriately visible.

As designers, we obsess over making technology easy to use and intuitive. But now I appreciate interfaces that are appropriately complex—technology that makes its challenges visible in the right way, at the right time. What elevates our profession from merely smoothing out the rough edges to making a meaningful—even transformative—difference in people’s lives is our ability to wisely decide how and when to communicate complexity.

The Invisibility Cloak

Our profession has a mantra: no one wants to use technology. People merely want to achieve their own goals, complete their own tasks. We’re judged successful if we remove any unpleasant friction; create a pleasurable, seamless interface to the mysteries that lurk within; and make technology invisible.

Ask an audiologist, and he’ll tell you: People want invisible hearing technology, too. People seek out the tiniest, most unobtrusive hearing aids. It’s a form of magical thinking: If no one can see it, then I don’t really have hearing loss. In recent years, as I’ve become more open about my hearing impairment, I frequently hear this response: “Really? I had no idea.” I’m ambivalent about this reaction. I’m proud of myself for passing, for successfully playing the part. Yet I now know that maintaining my facade came at a price. The cost I paid was pretending to understand even when I didn’t.

Conversation has a thread. During an evening out, you lose it and pick it up again in the encompassing din of roaring and clanging and buzzing. It’s all just noise until a robust pair of consonants springs forth: a th or ch or gr. Suddenly you have your arms around that thread, grab hold and follow that digraph down into the structure of the language beneath. Now you can grasp it—one sharp sound opens the door to an hour of conversation. But it’s exhausting. No matter how hard you try, you will eventually tire; your mind wanders for a second, and you’ve lost track. You struggle to maintain but eventually let go and just let the raw sounds and syllables wash over you. Language devolves into guttural noise, meaningless utterances, like that of the adults mumbling in Peanuts television specials.

How often can you ask someone to repeat herself? I’ll tell you. Three times. The first time, you offer a casual, quizzical look and say, “Excuse me?” The second time, you look a bit more serious, and ask, “Say that again?” The third time (and this is when things get real) you sit up straighter, stare the person in the eye and invest in a full sentence like, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

If you’re lucky, she repeats herself more clearly. Restates the point using different words. Turns and faces you directly, so you get the full impact of watching her face move, feeling the air currents hit your ear drums. Praying all the while that someone else picks up the conversation, ideally a braying man with a loud, low voice.

Failing that, you’re in trouble. The wheels of conversation grind to a halt, caught in awkwardness and bewilderment.

Better to fake it. Smile and nod. Learn to mirror facial expressions, become a spot-on mimic of someone who can hear. Laugh a half beat too late at jokes you don’t understand. Be considered a great listener because you hang on to a person’s every word, lean across the table, focus intently on her face—as if she is the most important person in the room, or the world.

But in a conversation, the point of listening is to communicate. And I wasn’t succeeding.

I hid the fact that I had hearing loss because I feared that the interface to mewas frustrating. Who would want to engage with me if extra effort were required? But instead of helping people become aware of what I needed, I hid my challenges and glossed over the difficult patches. I put a simpler front-end on the experience of talking to me, one that made a difficult task seem easier. But by doing that, I only made it harder.

Challenge = Improvement

Working at the Stanford Research Institute in the 1960s, Douglas Engelbart led the team that designed and developed NLS (oN-Line System), a revolutionary computing platform. The project goal was “augmenting human intellect.” NLS is known for being the first to implement many conventions now familiar to us, including the mouse, hypertext links, and multiple window displays. These innovations made their way through Xerox PARC and into the Apple Macintosh graphical user interface, and in many ways are the features we think of when we call a modern computer “easy to use.” But NLS itself was not easy to use, nor was it easy to learn. Why? Engelbart’s philosophy was that to truly enhance human intellect and collaborative work, the interface needed to be powerful. Operating this powerful system would require trained users committed to learning a new interaction model, in support of a greater goal.

In the fifty years since NLS was in development, our values have shifted in the opposite direction. Ease of use is paramount, ease of learning reduced tointuitiveness. Consumer apps are expected to divulge their mysteries within seconds, lest they be abandoned in favor of something more obvious. A toddler’s ability to operate an iPad (so easy a child can use it!) is held up as the ultimate example of discoverability, the interaction paradigm for our new generation.

Designs that make technology completely seamless to the user often deserve admiration. But can we balance our desire for intuitiveness with a wider recognition that some tasks are complex, some interactions must be learned, and sometimes the goal isn’t invisible technology but appropriatevisibility? I yearn for more respect for Engelbart’s ethos, in which computers are thought of as tools that harness our collective intellectual capacity to solve the important problems facing humanity—powerful tools that merit the investment of time required for mastery.

Communicating with me can be more difficult than talking to people with normal hearing. By treating that as my failure, a problem that needed to be hidden, I missed out on opportunities to connect with people. When we seek obviousness above all else, we’re doing the same thing. When interfaces that must be learned are considered failures, we miss out on opportunities to create more powerful, meaningful engagement.

Powerfully Unsexy

In a 2010 SXSW keynote, Evan Williams of Twitter stumbled in response to a question from Umair Haque. After an uncomfortably long pause, he grabbed me with the most meaningful statement of the whole interview: “We want Twitter to reach the weakest signals. We want it to be inclusive, and by using SMS we can reach anyone.”

We may set our aim on dazzling the very consumers who already have too many options. But sometimes it’s the boring old unsexy technology that can reach people in new ways, make something out of nothing, make a thunderously transformative difference in people’s lives.

Back when I worked for a big-name agency, back when I worked on giant teams with resources and time and money at our disposal, I lusted after high-profile projects. I wanted the marquee names for my portfolio. I fought to win the media and fashion and consumer product brands, the clients I could name drop, the projects that would impress my peers.

Then I started my own firm, and my definition of a great client changed. No more boardroom presentations at giant corporate headquarters or large-scale redesigns. I wanted more intimate relationships, with clients who didn’t need a huge account-services cushion to help manage their internal strife. Instead, I made sure I had clients who hired me solely for my expertise and respected me for it. They were companies with problems I knew I could solve. I’d be working with nice people. And they would pay their bills on time. Household name was meaningless to me now. I wanted to be able to make decisions that would benefit people.

I learned to love the unsexy projects. I grew fond of places where I wasn’t trying out something perched on the precipice of the bleeding edge but rather was executing small, incremental, meaningful changes. Even if it was routine, it could still be exciting. And almost always more important.

My friend Stephen runs UX for a large financial services institution. I guarantee you they’re doing challenging and innovative work. Yet he told me once, “What we do might not seem very sexy. But we make a huge difference in people’s lives.” Enterprise applications often spill their guts—seemingly at random. Each is a giant database explosion of fields and inputs—screen after screen of layouts and workflows that make no sense. The challenge these designers face is not to sweep all that away but to find out how to communicate it at the right level for the user, improving the quality of a worker’s day-to-day life. These applications might not always be immediately intuitive, but they can be powerful and useful.

I love the idea that even if all we do on a project is create simple, nuanced changes, the results can make a significant difference in someone’s life. I know digital technology can achieve this because I’ve felt it myself.

Zeroes and Ones

I’d say to anyone whose job opportunities were opened wide by the web, whose friendships have been enriched by Facebook, whose finances have taken on a whole new twist with online banking and bill payment, or whose ability to solve the nightly dinner-table debate is now flavored by Wikipedia: Nothing in yourdigital life has changed even a fraction as much as mine has. Google’s power to answer questions or deliver information in an instant has nothing on the power of digital hearing aids to change the way hearing-impaired people communicate.

My friend Joe once told me a story about a mutual acquaintance who needed a wheelchair to get around. “She wants to get one of those new iBot wheelchairs,”—the gyroscopic, stair-climbing, all-terrain wheelchair which innovated many of the technologies inventor Dean Kamen eventually used in the Segway. “But it’s really expensive.” The iBot supposedly handled better than other wheelchairs and would even raise her up so she could sit at eye level with the person she was talking to. Was that worth $25,000? I replied, without hesitation, “To feel like I was on equal ground with everyone else, I would payany amount of money.”

And then it hit me. Obviously I wouldn’t. I’d been scraping by for years with cheap, antiquated, analog hearing aids. I told myself they were good enough andhad a few more years in them and would do for now.

I scheduled an appointment with my audiologist the very next day. I told her, “I want the best hearing aids money can buy.” Since I’d last purchased a pair of hearing aids, the digital revolution had swept this space as well.

A couple weeks later, I picked up my new digital hearing aids, had them custom-programmed, and went out into the night. I asked my friend Randy to meet me for dinner, and we met up at the bar at a crowded restaurant in a fashionable Manhattan neighborhood, a place I’d always wanted to go but never had. We sat close together on barstools and started talking. At least I did. “It’s so LOUD,” he said. “You have to SPEAK UP. I CAN’T HEAR YOU.”

Hey, that’s my line!

Years of struggling to participate in social occasions were replaced—through digital technology—with a clear, focused, intimate conversation, one that I didn’t have to strain to hear. Analog hearing aids amplify everything equally, so conversation and background noise move in lockstep, and the voice of the person I’m talking to gets drowned out by the roar of the crowd. Digital sound processing algorithms strip out the background noise, focus the microphone on the voice of the person next to me. The droning hum of other people’s conversations: Gone. The roar of the airplane engine, the buzz of the crowd at the baseball game: Gone. The endless asking people to repeat themselves: Gone. I could hear. I could hear well. I could hear superhumanly.

I felt like Helen Keller suddenly grokking the sign for water. Randy and I made the rounds of a few more bars that night, so I could drink it all in andhear it. Finally allowing myself to believe it all true, I headed home on the 6 train sporting a wide, irrepressible grin. As I walked through the door of my apartment, I burst into tears. Tears of joy, to be sure, but of gobsmacked amazement too.

My hardware purchase was a life-changing event. Parties, noisy restaurants, conferences, meetings, movies: All open to my participation in a way I’d never before experienced.

No one was jealous when I purchased these prosaic devices. I gained no geek cred from showing them off in a high-powered meeting. Imagine the designers who created this product: No one fetishizes it, their friends aren’t wowed, it’ll never be a Trending Topic. And yet its impact on my life brought me to tears.

Digital Superheroes

If I had a magic wand to wave that would enable me to hear like a normal person, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t need it. Hey‚ if you had a volume knob for your life, one that didn’t shut the sound off altogether but just turned it down‚ you might not want to give it up either. Because I’ve mastered making what’s hard for me appropriately visible, I’m able to mitigate the downsides of my dependence on technology. Where I used to see only pain points, I now see the upside of a quiet hush where I can focus, my own private space where I can think clearly. What I used to think of as a disability, I now sometimes think of as a superpower.

Do you have the ability to grant your users superpowers? If you do, it might not be because your designs are simple, intuitive, or make technology invisible. A powerful interface might take time to understand; people might need to stretch a bit to learn it. Rather than striving to erase the parts of the technology that are difficult or challenging, you might seek ways to make them appropriately visible. Sometimes it’s only through communicating complexity that you can empower people.

These designs likely won’t get you written up in TechCrunch or on the leaderboard at the iTunes Store. But you just might profoundly improve the lives of a few people. Remove the daily frustrations that grind away at them, offer them meaning or whispers of love or a fresh chance, take pain and make the absence of pain seem like pleasure, or crack open the world and bring them right to the center of this great conversation of life that by all rights belongs to us all.

Superpowers, indeed.

Content Strategy, Mobile

Podcast Behind The Scenes

One of the best things I’ve worked on lately is a new podcast series with Ethan Marcotte, fittingly titled a Responsive Web Design Podcast. Ethan blogs about the podcast on his site too.

We offer a two-day workshop to companies that want some guidance as they embark on a responsive redesign. I will let you in on a secret—I learn as much from these workshops as the participants do. Hearing questions and stories from people at our workshops gives me a better understanding of the challenges that go into a responsive redesign.

The podcast really came out of our desire to tell more stories from people who have been through a large-scale redesign. We talk to the people who led the process—who can explain how they convinced their stakeholders, dealt with setbacks, and defined what success would look like.

It Takes A Village

The allure of a podcast is that you record a conversation and put it on the internet for instant radio show! This is, in fact, not how it works. Doing this podcast required the help of many people:

The good team at Campaign Monitor agreed to be the launch sponsor of our first four episodes. They have a new email builder called Canvas that has some nifty features, like styles and drag-and-drop layouts.

None of this would have happened without the help of my assistant, Selina Andersson, who is both gracious and enviably organized. She handled all the details of coordinating interviews and ensuring guests felt comfortable.

We’re working with an audio editor, Aaron Schroeder, who was referred to me by my UX designer friend Diana Turner. Having suffered through listening to my own recorded voice on these things, I can confirm that Aaron works magic.

The many anonymous transcribers working with Mechanical Turk have made it possible to offer a full transcription of every episode. Accessibility is important to me, and I think people should be able to choose if they want to read or listen to the podcast.

And finally, last but certainly first in my heart, my most genuine thanks go to Ethan Marcotte for working on these events and podcasts with me. Ethan spent the past couple of weeks building a new website at and I can confirm that making websites is really hard. As with any craft, it’s a delight to watch someone who makes it look easy.

Coming Soon to a Player Near You

The podcast will come out weekly on Mondays. Our first episode, an interview with Miranda Mulligan about the landmark Boston Globe responsive redesign, is already live.

Subscribe to the podcast or our newsletter so you don’t miss any of the great episodes to come:

02: Marriott, August 25
03: Fidelity, September 1
04: Capital One Part 1, September 8
05: Capital One Part 2, September 15
06: Virgin America, September 22
07: LA Times, September 29
08: Harvard University, October 6
09: Condé Nast, October 13
10: Weil, Gotshal & Manges, October 20
11: Code For America, October 27
12: Starbucks, November 3
13: Celebrity Cruises, November 10
14: The Guardian, November 17
15: Nationwide, November 24

Finally, if you’ve led a responsive redesign and you’d like to be on our podcast, we’d love to talk to you.


I’m a winner!

When I was about 8 years old I won $100 worth of candy from a giveaway at my local grocery store. It didn’t come as a complete surprise, as my friend Rachel and I had stuffed the ballot box while my mother shopped for groceries. My excitement at winning $100 worth of candy was somewhat tempered when my mother insisted on using some of the money to purchase chocolate for baking (bor-ing!) What’s worse, whatever candy I was allowed to select I didn’t get to eat all at once—this dreamed-for sugar orgy still looms large in my imagination—but instead was stored in the freezer and doled out to me in more appropriate servings. Still, this candy bonanza has long since provided the high-water mark for Things I Have Won. Short of winning the lottery, I wasn’t sure what might surpass it.

Until I won a case of heirloom artichokes from Ocean Mist Farms and @artichokerecipe! My childish love of candy has abated somewhat over the years, but I might say it has been replaced with a near-obsession with artichokes. I love them—graceful petals, prickly exterior, sensuous heart. They take some work, and it’s worth it.

Artichokes from Ocean Mist Farms

In honor of this momentous occasion, I’d like to share my three favorite artichoke preparations.


Seriously, just steam and eat the thing. It’s delicious. I cut the stem to just below the first leaf, and cut the top off. Stand it upside down in a steamer for 20 minutes or so (until a leaf pulls out easily.) I prefer it with a simple olive oil and lime vinaigrette, but it’s also good with aioli (add some roasted garlic to the foolproof Serious Eats 2-Minute Mayonnaise.)


This is my go-to fancy preparation, and is the first thing I’m going to try with my heirloom chokes. I follow this braised artichokes recipe from Mark Bittman, sometimes substituting lime for the lemon. The trick with this recipe is making sure to remove enough of the tough outer leaves. I take off what seems like too much, then remove another layer. The sauce over these artichokes is divine.


Baby artichokes are my absolute very favorite food in the entire world. So tiny! So adorable! When they are available in stores I buy them in vast quantities. Lest you think I’m cruelly preventing these baby chokes from reaching their prime—the veal of vegetables—“baby” artichokes are a fully mature, smaller choke picked from the lower part of the plant, according to Ocean Mist Farms.

Baby chokes are delicious braised; I serve them and the tasty sauce over angel hair pasta with scallops or shrimp. But roasted baby artichokes are, perhaps, my most very favorite preparation of my very favorite food. They couldn’t be simpler. I cut them in half, toss them with some oil and salt & pepper, and roast them around 400 for 20 minutes or so, until they are nicely browned and crispy. They’re great in a salad or simply eaten out of a bowl drizzled with vinaigrette.

Finally, let me share my favorite joke from the age when I was stuffing the box to win a candy drawing. I am not kidding, this really was my favorite joke as a kid:

Tired of being broke and stuck in an unhappy marriage, a young husband decided to solve both problems by taking out a large insurance policy on his wife and arranging to have her killed.

A “friend of a friend” put him in touch with a nefarious underworld figure, who went by the name of “Artie.” Artie explained to the husband that his going price for snuffing out a spouse was $5,000. The husband said he was willing to pay that amount, but that he wouldn’t have any cash on hand until he could collect his wife’s insurance money.

Artie insisted on being paid in part up front. The man opened up his wallet and displayed the single dollar bill that rested inside. Artie sighed, rolled his eyes, and reluctantly agreed to accept the dollar as down payment for the dirty deed.

A few days later, Artie followed the man’s wife to the local Safeway grocery store. There, he surprised her in the produce department and proceeded to strangle her with his gloved hands. As the poor unsuspecting woman drew her last breath and slumped to the floor, the manager of the produce department stumbled unexpectedly onto the scene. Unwilling to leave any witnesses behind, Artie had no choice but to strangle the produce manager as well.

Unknown to Artie, the entire proceeding was captured by hidden cameras and observed by the store’s security guard, who immediately called the police. Artie was caught and arrested before he could leave the store.

Under intense questioning at the police station, Artie revealed the sordid plan, including his financial arrangements with the hapless husband.

And that is why, the next day in the newspaper, the headline declared: “Artie chokes two for a dollar at Safeway.”

Content Strategy

Separating content from presentation

Given that content must live on a variety of devices and platforms, we say “the page is dead” and we must “separate content from form.”

But what does separating content from presentation actually mean? Is it a conceptual model to inform the content creation and design process? Using style sheets? Decoupling content from templates in the CMS? Using APIs? All that and more?

What say you, internet commmenter? Thoughts, examples, stories to tell about what separating content from presentation means in your world? Leave a comment from the link (it’s in the sidebar or at the top, I don’t know your device!)