Month: December 2013

A Revolutionary Blog Post

Is it just me? Or does it seem as though every new modern hipster-tinged app, device, or innovation is dubbed as “revolutionary”? I like the word, I really do. But it needs to be reserved a little more for times when it really does mean something.

The word is probably in most minds associated with the American Revolution, but it actually was in use as a term to characterize social or political changes long before that. In modern times it has a broader, less significant meaning. But I think it’s now been watered down far too much due to overuse.

I think it’s cool when we use a historical term to encapsulate what we are doing as creatives. But when every new product that gets released is described as “revolutionary”, the term loses its value and impact.

Yes, some of these products have impacted our lives, our productivity, and sometimes even our overall health and well-being. But in most cases, using that word becomes nothing more than mind-bait (that is, “link bait” for the mind). The word draws you in, it makes you feel warm and cozy, as if buying the product is going to make you part of something almost religious. But, truthfully, it’s become nothing more than a cheesy tag line incorporated to increase sales. And, as has been pointed out before, Apple might be the guiltiest party, having, well, revolutionized the use of the term.

So what’s the solution? Be truthful when marketing what your product seeks to accomplish. Yes, we all want our thing to be the next big thing. But your product will only be revolutionary if such is the end result, not if it’s in your body copy.

On Simplicity

There are two areas we can look at when talking about simplicity: The product itself and the way it’s presented.

Often we hear about concepts like minimalism, reducing clutter, generous use of white space, and so forth. Those are design principles often applied to websites, UIs, and promotional materials. But unless you’re doing something like creating WordPress themes, those aren’t your products; they present your product.

Let’s consider craigslist. Yes, the craigslist UI is fairly minimalist, it’s relatively devoid of clutter (albeit in an anti-design sort of way), and there’s lots of acceptable use of white space.

But what makes that website work is the simplicity of the service: Post classifieds, read classifieds. Not a lot more to it than that. And so it works. The same design applied to a more complex product would not work nearly as well. In fact, I would argue that no design can make a complex product work as well as something as simple as craigslist.

I guess that’s why I find that in my development life, single-purpose stuff is so much nicer to use. A jQuery plugin that does one thing is often more memorable and useful to me than a utility library that tries to do too much (jQuery itself, of course, being an exception).

Now think in terms of visual design. You can showcase your product on a minimalist, clutter-free website, but if the product itself is too complex and has a steep learning curve, the design will likely have limited success.

There are certainly many exceptions. In addition to jQuery, CodeKit comes to mind. I wouldn’t necessarily say that’s a simple product, because it does so much. But it fills a huge need in the development industry, so it works well. Photoshop might fall into that category, too.

So again, I’m not minimizing the importance of applying design principles to our websites (or other media). But if the product the website presents is too convoluted and difficult to use, no amount of promotional material utilizing white space or minimalism will change that.

Thus, simplicity starts and ends with the product or service itself, not the way it’s presented.

Can We Ditch the Pinterest-Style Grid Trend Yet?

I’m not really sure who officially started it, but it seems that Pinterest made it famous. I’m talking about the current trendy grid/masonry layout that everyone seems to love.

Well, I’m officially declaring it an anti-usability pattern that has fewer advantages than we think. The websites that quickly come to mind that are using this design pattern include:

That’s just a few I came up with off the top of my head. If you do a search for the concept of copying Pinterest, you’ll see lots of round-ups of Pinterest-like clones and even a discussion of how this has affected web design.

Overall, I think this style of layout is not appropriate for a lot of websites. Many of the sites that use this layout are doing it badly and (I believe) it will have an adverse effect on quality of traffic. All the sites mentioned above appear to do nothing to solve any kind of design problem with their grid layout other than squeezing more content above the fold.

I don’t think it’s appropriate for Google+, because Google+ is competing with Twitter, which presents its content in a visually linear manner, rather than the mentally cumbersome grid. No, I don’t expect Google+ to be a Twitter clone, as that would somewhat defeat the purpose of what they are trying to build. But I don’t think it helps to just copy Pinterest and hope it all works out (not that they did that, but it seems like it). Google+ is a usability nightmare, and one of the reasons has to do with the visual overkill that it creates with the grid layout.

SitePoint is, more or less, a web design blog. They too use it, I believe, to their detriment. I believe the linear blog layout is much easier to digest, and encourages better quality reading. Yes, the grid format will get you many more scans and maybe even more clicks. But I think the quality of readership in proportion to traffic goes down when this type of layout is used on a standard blog like theirs.

On Digg and Cut 4, I can deal a little more with the grid format. In those environments, the goal of the website may be to encourage the more superficial browsing like someone might do on something like Pinterest. But personally, I’d still prefer the linear format even for those.

That’s why Twitter and Instagram have been so successful, and will continue to be.

Eventually I expect this trend to die out and designers will realize that, over the long haul, the linear format is much easier to digest, and encourages a higher quality of user.

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