At a lot of web design conferences, the first speaker of the day is often greeted by rows of empty seats while some of the less committed attendees are still crawling in late, nursing their hangovers. Not so this morning at Future of Web Design, when Ethan Marcotte took to the stage to a packed auditorium, eager to hear what the godfather of responsive web design had to say. What they got was a detailed breakdown of the work he's been doing with the Boston Globe to make their web content fully responsive (for launch this summer), and the lessons designers can learn from this experience.
Making web designs fully responsive (that is, making them automatically scale and provide good experiences on all devices and platforms) means we have to reevaluate our entire process, Marcotte argued. "Some of our old practices for designing for the web have become broken," he said, pointing to the way we divide the process into distinct design and development phases.
Instead, he said, "we need to come up with something more cyclical". Designers and developers should go back and forth with the design, asking a continuous series of questions, "like a thesis defence". Or in other words, "prototype like the wind!"
The ultimate aim behind this should be to make sure users get the content they want, pure and simple, Marcotte argued. He reframed Luke Wroblewski's concept of "Mobile first" as "Content first" and said devices like the iPad mean it's no longer just about making sites simpler on mobile. "These two terms, mobile and desktop, have become synonymous with 'less' and 'more'," he said. "We need a little more nuance, a little more granualarity."
Mobile is human
The theme was continued by Canadian designer Steve Fisher, in a talk for Track 2 entitled "Making the Complex Simple: Designing for Mobile". "It's not about shrinking it down," he emphasised. "It's about context. Ask what is the core problem. The design will be the solution." The difference between desktop and mobile is not about devices but about what people are using them for, he said. "Mobile is very human. Desktop is not."
At the same time over in Track 1, designer and developer Josh Clark went into the nitty gritty of "The new rules of designing for touch". Clark claimed that touch has the opportunity to sweep away 30 years of desktop conventions. The iPad, of course, is a great example for experimenting with touch but there are also misfires. To illustrate his point, Clark showed the ABC News app, which includes a rotating Globe of News that's got all the latest videos pasted all over it. Clark said it's like a "new media papermache project" that's obscuring the content. Its interface does not inform in any way. The content, however, should define the app, not the machinery.
Clark argued that conventions for touch screen design don't exist yet but are badly needed. For example, if you make something look like a physical object, people will want to use it like one. Don't design something that looks like a book and then not let people swipe to flip the page. And if you have to use buttons, make them easy to hit.
"Big screens invite big gestures," Clark said, "and gestures are the keyboard shortcuts of touch screens." Clark concluded with a plea to explore multitouch gestures and treated the audience to a video of the impressive Uzu app for the iPad, which can be controlled by up to 10 fingers. "Understand you won't get it right the first time," he said, and suggested watching how toddlers use the iPad. It helps find the most direct and human way to design.
Burst of inspiration
If anyone at FOWD was looking for a burst of creative inspiration, they would have done well to catch the talk "Enhancing Your Creativity" by Femi T Adesina. More than any other speaker, she got the audience involved as she conducted a group brainstorm on how to redesign the Future of Web Design website.
By freeing your mindset and resisting the urge to rule anything out, you can solve any problem, she argued as she outlined her four-point plan for creative problem solving. The cornerstone of creativity is imagination, she said, which she defined as "intelligence having fun".
Meanwhile, in his talk about running a web design business succesfully, Paul Boag emphasised the importance of customer service: "We are a service business, but we often have a very confrontational attitude towards clients; we see them as the enemy who's going to destroy our designs. We have to shift our whole thinking and realise that they can be our best friends in creating a great site. We pride ourselves on putting the user first - now we need to put the same energy into understanding out clients. It's our job to educate them."
He said that managing client expectations is key. "Avoid surprises. Designers have a tendency to take the brief, build the whole thing and then whack the client with the final project. We surprise them with the final design, and when it doesn't meet their expectations they say they don't like it. We need to be guiding them through the process from the start, showing them wireframes and sketches so they can see how things are progressing."
Typography enthusiast Elliot Jay Stocks, finally, warned against the overuse of new web technologies, noting that fancy effects are often used without good reason. He talked about "the distraction of the real" - the temptation to make things look like real world objects such as sticky notes, paperclips, cardboard and so on.
"Ask yourself if you're applying an effect to make it look real. If so, why? It may be appropriate, but make sure you're not throwing down loads of textures and missing out on important design elements such as alignment, good grid use."
He said that we need to wield our new powers responsibly, unlike his childhood hero Spiderman, who learned a hard lesson. "Don't go out there, full of bravado, led by your big spider shlong." Wise words.