About this site's lack of design: Yes, it's supposed to look this way — I'm helping create a new sandbox theme for WordPress (see it on GitHub).

Dan Rubin's SuperfluousBanter

Suffering from chronic idiocy since 1977

Archive for December, 2003

Design and Usability: Part 1

Wednesday, December 24th, 2003

Not sur­pris­ingly, as a designer I value aes­thet­ics highly. How­ever at a cer­tain
point aes­thet­ics clash with func­tion­al­ity – or more specif­i­cally usabil­ity.
Some­times I wish I were a painter. No con­straints, no font size issues, no low
con­trast color com­bi­na­tion prob­lems, no acces­si­bil­ity or usabil­ity con­cerns
and no angry users to face. You either like my work or not, no strings attached.
But I’m not a painter, I design websites.

The dif­fer­ence between a paint­ing and a web­site will be obvi­ous to most. A
paint­ing does not require inter­ac­tion, at least not on a func­tional level. I
can not use a paint­ing. I can nev­er­the­less enjoy or dis­like
a paint­ing (the same anal­ogy is to some extend applic­a­ble
to motion pic­tures
). A web­site, on the con­trary, has a func­tion that car­ries
beyond its visual attrac­tive­ness. Web­sites gen­er­ally require (func­tional) inter­ac­tion
of some form. The most feared and tena­cious embod­i­ment of inter­ac­tion being
the homo inter­neti­cus.

You know what? Humans are nasty mam­mals. Humans devel­oped to per­fec­tion their
apti­tude to bitch, whine, moan, com­plain, nit­pick, nag, crit­i­cize, grum­ble,
protest and dis­ap­prove. Iron­i­cally though, with­out users (thus inter­ac­tion) my job
is rather use­less. Design­ing web­sites is (unfor­tu­nately?) not exclu­sively about
visu­ally pleas­ing users, it is also about lim­it­ing inter­fer­ence to effec­tively
deliver con­tent and enable effi­cient inter­ac­tion. The lat­ter is of course a
sim­pli­fied state­ment; the process is more com­plex and con­sti­tuted of more fac­tors
and elements.

In “Design and Usabil­ity: Part 2” I will dig a
lit­tle deeper and try to dis­cern some of the fac­tors and ele­ments related to
usabil­ity and func­tion­al­ity. Last but not least, prov­i­den­tially, humans can
also adore, cher­ish, care, appre­ci­ate, value, under­stand, real­ize and love.
It is with these thoughts that I leave you and wish you a Merry Christ­mas and
a Happy New Year. See you in 2004!

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The Art of Navigation

Thursday, December 18th, 2003

When build­ing a web­site there’s an inevitable moment when it is required you think hard about nav­i­ga­tional ele­ments. I’m not talk­ing about infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture here. Infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture usu­ally helps answer­ing the ques­tion: “How will this func­tion?” (among oth­ers). Nope. I’m try­ing to answer the ques­tion “How will this look?” – purely from a graphic design perspective.

The above men­tioned stage of the design process is one that I spend a con­sid­er­able amount of time on and par­tic­u­larly enjoy within any project. In this post I want to share my lat­est exper­i­ment on nav­i­ga­tion design.

CSS based navigation!In my quest for ele­gant, clever and nice nav­i­ga­tion design I decided to let go of cer­tain require­ments. In this case I decided to ignore a few usabil­ity (and acces­si­bil­ity) best prac­tices (note: this should of course be avoided in real life imple­men­ta­tion).

How­ever, I’ve set myself a few con­straints which make per­fect sense, even in an exper­i­ment. This design should of course be con­structed using the sounder XHTML and CSS com­bi­na­tion, as opposed to tables. Fur­ther­more, once CSS is dis­abled, a nice unordered list should remain. Other than that the sky is the limit.

The main pur­pose of this design exper­i­ment is to see how far we can push CSS. Is it pos­si­ble to cre­ate the most com­plex nav­i­ga­tion (in terms of graphic design) and have it marked-up as an unordered list? The answer of course is “Yes!”. And there are a few design­ers who ele­gantly proved this point in the past.

As said and proved by many before – CSS can han­dle your wildest dreams. Unfor­tu­nately we are cur­rently only lim­ited by the pace of web stan­dards imple­men­ta­tion in mod­ern browsers (specif­i­cally one browser, no names of course). This small exper­i­ment should work in most mod­ern browsers, but your mileage may vary. Com­ments are more than wel­come, but keep in mind that this is only a trial in design, not in prac­ti­cal imple­men­ta­tion as such.

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And Now…This

Thursday, December 18th, 2003

It’s inter­est­ing to note that, though an indi­vid­ual might spend 18 hours a day tied to a com­puter screen, they can neglect to spend a few min­utes writ­ing some­thing intel­li­gent (or not) to post to their pub­lic, some­what oft-viewed weblog. As I finally read all the emails I’ve been get­ting from loyal read­ers ask­ing if I’m alive (or in a coma, or other vari­a­tions on that theme), I come to real­ize the impor­tance of spend­ing the time to write some­thing on a reg­u­lar basis, so my read­ers do not lose inter­est and never come back.

The truth is, I have been work­ing 18 hour days (week­ends too) for more than a month now (so has Alex), and while there is a lot of excit­ing news on the hori­zon, and poten­tial work in the near future, my sched­ule of late has been exhaust­ing to say the least; frus­trat­ing at times, often exhil­a­rat­ing, and always inter­est­ing (for bet­ter or worse).

I’ve been hint­ing over the last few months at a new direc­tion in the works for Web­graph, and there’s been less time to work on our new com­pany than we had hoped (yes, that’s cor­rect: we will soon be co-launching a new com­pany, a new brand, with new peo­ple), but I can at least make a par­tial announce­ment: Web­graph is join­ing forces (we’ve already co-produced a num­ber of projects) with Didier Hil­horst (aka Nun­droo), a fan­tas­tic designer and xHTML/CSS guru from the Nether­lands. If you are a fan of the CSS Zen Gar­den, you have seen his bril­liant con­tri­bu­tion Release One, the most-copied design to date of all the sub­mis­sions to the Garden.

Nun­droo and Web­graph are form­ing a new, inter­na­tional agency, and we are build­ing a net­work of free­lancers and other small firms to expand our team on a project-by-project basis. This will allow us to work with other top-notch indi­vid­u­als, such as Dan Ben­jamin (and his dyna­mite team at Auto­mat­i­cLabs), Dave Shea, and oth­ers yet to be approached, on what will hope­fully be larger, more involved projects, so we can con­tinue to expand our global reach (sorry, I couldn’t help myself — the idea of world dom­i­na­tion is too good to pass up ;-)

Our focus will not be on web/interactive design alone: brand­ing, print (and per­haps other medi­ums), usabil­ity, UI con­sult­ing, user test­ing — it’s a list that is yet to be set in stone, but it will surely encom­pass more areas than we have thus far.

A few projects are cur­rently in-progress, with the fruits of our labor ripen­ing around mid-January (and over the next few months). Other prospects are always being dis­cussed, and we’re also look­ing for­ward to work­ing as design part­ners with tech­nol­ogy firms, and tech­nol­ogy part­ners with design firms (so if you’re in need of an expanded team, drop us a line).

On the Super­flu­ous­Ban­ter front, that redesign I men­tioned a few months ago is slowly work­ing its way up the to-do list, and will hope­fully be unveiled some­time in Jan­u­ary. The Pho­to­shop work is fin­ished, so it’s just a mat­ter of com­plet­ing the con­ver­sion to a work­ing lay­out, and then adding the Mov­able­Type hooks.

Also on the to-do list are a few arti­cles, the most-requested of which will focus on how to pro­duce a web site from start to fin­ish on an insanely short sched­ule and small bud­get. I would have writ­ten about the pros and cons of fixed-width lay­outs (ver­sion 1.0 of this site used a fluid lay­out, while the cur­rent ver­sion 2.0 has always been fixed), but some more impor­tant folks recently beat me to the punch. There are a few oth­ers, which will be writ­ten as time per­mits (not the most confidence-inspiring phrase based on my recent track record).

And finally, just to change the pace a bit (which has, admit­tedly, been slower-than-a-snail’s of late), Didier will be post­ing to SB now and then, adding a dif­fer­ent point of view, and hope­fully a more reg­u­lar post­ing sched­ule on aver­age. His first post is in the works, and should make its debut here soon.

Thanks for check­ing in, and stay­ing faith­ful — time for a New Year’s res­o­lu­tion regard­ing blog posting…

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