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Webwaste

The Web is obese

In 1994, there were 3,000 websites. In 2019, there were estimated to be 1.7 billion, almost one website for every three people on the planet. Not only has the number of websites exploded, the weight of each page has also skyrocketed. Between 2003 and 2019, the average webpage weight grew from about 100 KB to about 4 MB. The results?

“In our analysis of 5.2 million pages,” Brian Dean reported for Backlinko in October 2019, “the average time it takes to fully load a webpage is 10.3 seconds on desktop and 27.3 seconds on mobile.” In 2013, Radware calculated that the average load time for a webpage on mobile was 4.3 seconds.

Study after study shows that people absolutely hate slow webpages. In 2018, Google research found that 53% of mobile site visitors left a page that took longer than three seconds to load. A 2015 study by Radware found that “a site that loads in 3 seconds experiences 22% fewer page views, a 50% higher bounce rate, and a 22% fewer conversions than a site that loads in 1 second, while a site that loads in 5 seconds experiences 35% fewer page views, a 105% higher bounce rate, and 38% fewer conversions.”

The causes of webpage bloat? Images and videos are mainly to blame. By 2022, it’s estimated that online videos will make up more than 82% of all consumer Internet traffic—15 times more than in 2017. However, from the code to the content, everything about Web design has become super-bloated and super-polluting. Consider that if a typical webpage that weighs 4 MB is downloaded 600,000 times, one tree will need to be planted in order to deal with the resulting pollution.

They say a picture paints a thousand words. Well, 1,000 words of text takes up roughly two A4 (210 mm wide and 297 mm long) pages and weighs about 6 KB. You’d place about four images that are 9 cm x 16 cm on two A4 pages. Let’s say these images are well optimized and weigh 40 KB each. (A poorly optimized image could weigh several megabytes.) Even with such high optimization, two A4 pages of images will weigh around 160 KB. That’s 27 times more than the two A4 pages of text. A 30-second video, on the other hand, could easily weigh 3 MB. Videos create massively more pollution than text. Text is the ultimate compression technique. It is by far the most environmentally friendly way to communicate. If you want to save the planet, use more text. Think about digital weight.

From an energy point of view, it’s not simply about page weight. Some pages may have very heavy processing demands once they are downloaded. Other pages, particularly those that are ad-driven, will download with lots of third-party websites hanging off them, either feeding them content, or else demanding to be fed data, often personal data on the site’s visitor. It’s like a type of Trojan Horse. You think you’re accessing one website or app, but then all these other third parties start accessing you. According to Trent Walton, the top 50 most visited websites had an average of 22 third-party websites hanging off them. The New York Times had 64, while Washington Post had 63. All these third-party websites create pollution and invade privacy.

There is a tremendous amount of out-of-date content on websites. I have worked with hundreds of websites where we had to delete up to 90% of the pages in order to start seeing improvements. Poorly written, out-of-date code is also a major problem. By cleaning up its JavaScript code, Wikipedia estimated that they saved 4.3 terabytes a day of data bandwidth for their visitors. By saving those terabytes, we saved having to plant almost 700 trees to deal with the yearly pollution that would have been caused.

If you want to help save the planet, reduce digital weight. Clean up your website. Before you add an image, make sure that it does something useful and it’s the most optimized image possible. Every time you add code, make sure it does something useful and it’s the leanest code possible. Always be on the lookout for waste images, waste code, waste content. Get into the habit of removing something every time you add something.

Publishing is an addiction. Giving a website to an organization is like giving a pub to an alcoholic. You remember the saying, “There’s a book inside everyone”? Well, the Web let the book out. It’s happy days for a while as we all publish, publish, publish. Then…

“Hi, I’m Gerry. I have a 5,000-page website.”

“Hi, Gerry.”

“I used to have a 500-page website, but I had no self-control. It was one more page, one more page… What harm could one more page do?”

Redesign is rehab for websites. Every two to three years some manager either gets bored with the design or some other manager meets a customer who tells them about how horrible it is to find anything on the website. The design team rounds up a new bunch of fake images and fake content for the top-level pages, while carefully avoiding going near the heaving mess at the lower levels. After the launch, everyone is happy for a while (except the customers, of course) because in many organizations what is important is to be seen to be doing things and producing and launching things, rather than to do something useful.

If you must do something, do something useful. That often means not doing, removing, minimizing, cleaning up.

Beware the tiny tasks. We’ve used the Top Tasks method to identify what matters and what doesn’t matter to people, whether they’re buying a car, choosing a university, looking after their health, buying some sort of technology product, or whatever. In any environment we’ve carried it out in—and we’ve done it more than 500 times—there are no more than 100 things that could potentially matter.

In a health environment, these might include symptoms, treatment, prevention, costs, waiting times, etc. When buying a car they might include price, engine type, warranties, service costs, etc. We’ve carried out Top Tasks surveys in some 40 countries and 30 languages, with upwards of 400,000 people voting. In every single survey the same patterns emerge. Let’s say there are 100 potential tasks. People are asked to vote on the tasks that are most important to them. When the results come in, we will find that five of the tasks will get the first 25% of the vote. 50 tasks will get the final 25% of the vote. The top five tasks get as much of the vote as the bottom 50. It’s the same pattern in Norway, New Zealand, Israel, USA, Canada, UK, Brazil, wherever.

The bottom 50 are what I call the tiny tasks. When a tiny task goes to sleep at night it dreams of being a top task. These tiny tasks—the true waste generators—are highly ambitious and enthusiastic. They will do everything they can to draw attention to themselves, and one of the best ways of doing that is to produce lots of content, design, code.

Once we get the Top Tasks results, we sometimes analyze how much organizational effort is going into each task. Invariably, there is an inverse relationship between the importance of the task to the customer and the effort that the organization is making in relation to these tasks. The more important it is to the customer, the less is being done; the less important it is to the customer, the more is being done.

Beware of focusing too much energy, time and resources on the tiny tasks. Reducing the tiny tasks is the number one way you can reduce the number of pages and features. Save the planet. Delete the tiny tasks.

A plague of useless images

I was giving a talk at an international government digital conference once, and I asked people to send me examples of where digital government was working well. One suggestion was for a website in a language I don’t speak. When I visited it, I saw one of those typical big images that you see on so many websites. I thought to myself: I’m going to try and understand this website based on its images.

The big image was of a well-dressed, middle-aged woman walking down the street while talking on her phone. I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat. Hmm… Something to do with telecommunications, perhaps? Why would they choose a woman instead of a man, or a group of women and men? She’s married, I deduced by looking at the ring on her finger. What is that telling me? And what about her age? Why isn’t she younger or older? And why is she alone? Questions, questions, but I’m no Sherlock Holmes. I couldn’t figure out anything useful from this image.

I scrolled down the page. Ah, three more images. The first one is a cartoon-like image of a family on vacation. Hmm… The next one is of two men and one woman in a room. One of them has reached their hand out and placed it on something, but I can’t see what that something is, because the other two have placed their hands on top of that hand. It’s a type of pledge or something, a secret society, perhaps? Two of them are smiling and the third is trying to smile. What could that mean? And then the final picture is of a middle-aged man staring into the camera, neither smiling nor unsmiling, with a somewhat kind, thoughtful look. What is happening?

I must admit that after examining all the visual evidence I had absolutely no clue what this government website was about. So, I translated it. It was about the employment conditions and legal status of government employees. Now, why didn’t I deduce that from the images?

The Web is smothering us in useless images that create lots of pollution. These clichéd, stock images communicate absolutely nothing of value, interest or use. They are one of the worst forms of digital pollution and waste, as they cause page bloat, making it slower for pages to download, while pumping out wholly unnecessary pollution. They take up space on the page, forcing more useful content out of sight, making people scroll for no good reason.

Interpublic is a very large global advertising agency. As with all advertising agencies they stress how “creative” they are, which means they love huge, meaningless, happy-clappy polluting images. When I tested their homepage, it emitted almost 8 grams of CO2 as it downloaded, putting Interpublic in the worst 10% of website polluters, according to the Website Carbon Calculator. (For comparison, the Google homepage emits 0.23 grams.) One single image on its homepage weighed 3.2 MB. This image could easily have been 10 times smaller, while losing nothing in visual appeal. The Interpublic website is like a filthy, rusty 25-year-old diesel truck, belching fumes as it trundles down the Web.

Instead of optimizing images so that they’ll download faster, the opposite is often happening. High-resolution images are a major cost to the environment. If, for example, you move from a 4K resolution image to an 8K one, the file size doesn’t double, it trebles. For example, I saved an image at 4K and it was 6.9 MB. At 8K it was 18 MB.

Digital “progress” and “innovation” often means an increasing stress on the environment. Everything is more. Everything is higher. Everything is faster. And everything is exponentially more demanding of the environment. Digital is greedy for energy and the more it grows the greedier it gets. We need digital innovation that reduces environmental stress, that reduces the digital footprint. We need digital designers who think about the weight of every design decision they make.

We must start by trying to use the option that damages the environment least, and that is text. Don’t assume that images are automatically more powerful than text. Sometimes, text does the job better.

  • In a test with an insurance company, it was found that a promotion for a retirement product was deemed less accurate when an image of a face was used than when text only was used.
  • An initiative by the UK government to get people to sign up to become potential organ donors tested eight approaches. The approaches that used images were least effective. Text-only worked best.

“Hello?”

“Hello. Is that the Department of Useless Images?”

“Yes.”

“We have this contact form and we need a useless image for it.”

“How about a family cavorting in a field of spring flowers with butterflies dancing in the background?”

“Perfect.”

There are indeed many situations where images are genuinely useful, particularly when it comes to helping people better understand how a product works or looks. Airbnb, for example, found that its growth only began to accelerate after it invested in getting quality images of the rental properties on offer.

If you need to use images, optimize them and consider using real ones of real people doing real things.

They say a picture paints a thousand words but sometimes it’s a thousand words of crap.

Connecting the Dots

Two plans: one for design, one for culture.

What I’ve found is that the DNA between both dynamics must be inextricable from one another. Creating with compassion in an environment fueled by compassion means we never lose sight of what it’s all about: people. Beyond functioning in this manner because “it’s the right thing to do,” quality of work, loyalty internally (team) and externally (users), and product innovation are all benefits to reap.

Earlier we talked through the concept of “simplicity” and its application to creation and environment. Now, let’s revisit a few other examples of healthy benchmarks from a creative culture as we’ve discussed in this book:

  • Slowing down / pausing with intent
  • Everyone has a seat at the table
  • The New Day One

In taking a focused look at these facets, their correlation to HCD is readily apparent:

Culture: Slowing down / pausing with intent
Design: Discovery / observation

The Swedish concept of fika transcends a mere “coffee break.” It’s about slowing down, the act of pausing during a typical day and making time to have a dialogue with someone (though a good cup of coffee is a vital part). I ensure this time is not only a known quantity within my team’s creative culture, but that it’s protected and actively utilized.

Instead of getting a product manager’s Powerpoint wireframe in your inbox with a request to “make it look nice” or a client’s request to crank out a design for their approval by EOD, we must slow down to understand the people who will be interacting with our design (and the design’s potential impact on others, the environment and community in which it will be used, and so on). Rushing to get something done to tick an account manager’s client-appeasement box at the expense of the human experience is to sacrifice empathy, quality, and any prospect of innovation.

Culture: Everyone has a seat at the table
Design: Inclusion

As the very definition of cultural transparency, Nick Sarillo’s pizza parlors tack their full financial statements to a wall, daily, for all employees to see. Everyone’s hourly wage is listed on a nearby whiteboard, with the means to make more money articulated in tandem (training in more areas of business = increased hourly wage). Many managers have worked their way up in this manner, and offer training to other employees who wish to advance by taking on more responsibility. This is about collaboration yielding success to both the employee and the business, the sharing of information, and access for all; key dynamics of an inclusive culture.

Inclusion in the design process enables us, as creators, to recognize our own personal biases. By identifying the exclusion in our work, we humbly set aside our assumptions; connecting with people from diverse communities, building empathy, will expand our product’s reach (access). Via engaging humans throughout our design process, listening to them, and usability testing iteratively, objective solutions that yield innovation follow suit.

Culture: The New Day One
Design: Ethnography

The New Day One concept evolves an employee’s first day from formulaic and sterile into directly personal and custom. Via the “Inspiration” portion of the day and venturing away from the office, we gain insight into a new team member as an individual that transcends what folio work can yield. What physical aspects of their selected location have impacted who they are? How did it inspire their way of creating, or approaching problems? Understanding the impact of spatial dynamics on an individual is vital toward an individualistic, yet ultimately holistic, view.

Ethnographic research provides an environmental context to human interaction that a video-conference interview could never yield. Through direct observation, ethnography is the qualitative study of human beings in their native environment. Is the individual sitting in a high-traffic area in an office, causing frequent distraction from their work? Are they a field worker primarily utilizing a mobile device in direct sunlight, yielding paramountcolor contrast needs? By making research truly human, we gain an understanding of how those we observe see the world and how they ultimately engage with it.

For the Greater Good

Greater Good Studio (GGS) is a social impact-focused human- centered design firm co-founded by Sara Cantor Aye and George Aye. Their business is located within the Logan Share, a co- working space they also founded in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood.

I reached out to the Studio to ask if I could stop by their space and observe a “morning in the life” view of their process: culture and design, organically, as both unfolded. Without hesitation, Sara (a former Northwestern University instructor) extended me an offer to join the team for observation. After signing a non- disclosure agreement, we agreed on a date for my visit.

When I arrived on a Monday morning, George (formerly of IDEO) greeted me with a cup of coffee and walked me up the stairs into the naturally well-lit Logan Share space. I noticed the open seating in the co-working section was already nearly full, as he gave me a tour of the “configuration by human need and intent”-based layout and active-project areas. On long single sheets of cardboard suspended by custom-built fasteners, entire lifecycles of project- centric human-centered design artifacts were on display. Once a project is deployed, George explained, the cardboard is detached and saved for forthcoming iteration, with fresh sheets re-fastened to form the partitions of a new project space thereafter.

The six core steps of the Studio’s HCD process manifest themselves in the following way:

  1. Framing
    Defining questions to answer and people to engage
  2. Research
    Learning from people about their needs and values
  3. Synthesis
    Finding patterns of behavior and areas of opportunity
  4. Concepting
    Creating a high volume of new ideas
  5. Prototyping
    Making tangible mock-ups and gathering feedback
  6. Piloting
    Testing solutions in real time with real people

As a team, GGS functions via a working method called ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), a concept leveraged from Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson’s book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution. Taken from an article on the Studio’s blog, they describe the practice within GGS like this:

“The basic principle behind ROWE is that staff doesn’t need to be supervised, when given the tools, clear expectations, and deadlines people will not only do their work, but do it better than if they were trying to fit into a mold. Within GGS, this practice is exercised by very diligent calendar management, clear deadlines, expectations on deliverables, and Cookie Rewards (little treats we give each other if we have to move something on the calendar).”

Once a month the entire team pauses for a five-hour, non-client project block of time called “internal day.” This time is reserved for studio-centric things: team members sharing learnings from conferences they’ve attended, how to improve internal practices, past project debriefs, etc. It’s the act of pausing with intent, in full effect.

Sara arrived a few minutes into my tour of the space, and the GGS team’s “BD charrette” was the first employee gathering (remote and in-person) of the morning. “BD” stands for “business development,” and in a cozy seating area, everyone had a seat at the table in all senses of the phrase. Sara and George ran through the status of a current request for proposal, then each team member had the opportunity to voice their opinion about whether the RFP should be pursued based on how it aligned with GGS’s (and their employees’) personal, values. Everyone was heard; every voice was respected.

The dialogue eventually shifted to another potential new client, this time with GGS at the presentation stage. Again, everyone at the table gave their feedback on Sara and George’s presentation plan of attack and, again, every team member’s voice carried equal value and weight. The studio-wide inclusion in the business owners’ decision making was genuine, effortless, and natural.

Forty-five minutes later, the group made a physical transition to a few nearby couches; less than a three-foot walk, as I eyed it. I inquired about the very minor spatial change for this next leg of the meeting and was told, “There’s a difference in purpose, so we transition to a different space.” Each member of the team then took their turn describing their weekend in three words:

“Sunshine, beach, baking.”

I got my turn as well. Changing the energy on those couches, from new business to being focused on the individual, made for a palpable climate change. In a few words everyone had a sense of what their teammates got up to over the weekend, eliciting smiles and planting the seeds for future dialogues throughout the pauses- with-intent over the rest of the day.

Next: “validations.” In this final portion of the meeting (pre- project status), anyone who wanted to articulate their appreciation for a team member over the previous week did so. One person recognized their co-worker for their selfless collaboration, taking time from their own project work to help theirs get client-ready on time. Similar-but-unique “thanks” emerged from varied people; no one was required to speak up, but everyone did.

After project updates I sat with Sara for a one-on-one to chat over coffee. I asked her about the synergies between their HCD process and how she interacts with her team in the office:

“I think where it’s actually become more intentional and obvious has been with our staff who are not trained designers. Operations folks, or our community manager, etc. I’ve had to say, ‘I want you to be a designer about this’ (whatever ‘this’ is). ‘We are your users, you’re trying to get us to do our timesheets, or clean up the kitchen, etc. Observe. Talk to people. Figure out our motivations. Summarize everything you’ve learned, and then have ideas.’

As a designer, I am constantly designing at every level. I’m designing deliverables in many cases for clients, or coaching our teams to design deliverables. I’m also designing process by which we work by writing proposals, scoping, etc. And at the highest level, I’m designing our company. I’m designing our culture based on our customs and traditions and policies (the hard and the soft) every day. My users are not hypothetical, they’re actual people.”

When All is Not Good

Sara went on to cite how her previous work experience shaped the leader she is today:

“I think a lot of my design choices are based in (unhealthy dynamics) with prior employers. Where decisions were not made transparently, everything financial was completely opaque. Lots of lack of trust with other employees. It’s been so critical that I’ve had bad experiences so I can now clearly say: let’s not do that.”

The tactics, mindsets, organizational shifts, and operational flexibility discussed in this book are predicated upon a simple truth: a company presently supports and operates as a creative culture, or it’s genuinely willing to evolve to become one. Along the way, I’ve been primarily speaking to those who are in a position to help implement change; even at a small scale. But what about when you’re not in a position to be heard, or the position to help facilitate change?

Reality isn’t always unicorns and rainbows. Bad experiences can impact us all. For example, the fabric of a company’s creative culture can become irreparably frayed thanks to management changes, acquisition, or it can lack sustainability. Whether these circumstances reveal themselves over years or overnight, your passion and evolution should never be their casualty.

Sometimes, creating within an environment that’s the best fit for your growth and passions means finding a new opportunity.

Mr. Roboto: Connecting with Technology

People don’t always need another human being to experience a sense of connection. The deep emotional bonds many people have with their pets proves this. (So might the popularity of the Pet Rock in the 1970s but that’s just speculation.) Even Link in The Legend of Zelda had an inanimate companion: his trusty sword (see Figure 9.1).

A screen from The Legend of Zelda where Link receives his sword from an old man saying 'It's Dangerous To Go Alone! Take This.'
Fig 9.1 Even the company of a wooden sword is better than venturing into Hyrule alone.

It’s also possible for people to feel that sense of connection in the context of behavior change without having direct relationships with others. By building your product in a way that mimics some of the characteristics of a person-to-person relationship, you can make it possible for your users to feel connected to it. It is possible to coax your users to fall at least a little bit in love with your products; if you don’t believe me, try to get an iPhone user to switch operating systems.

It’s not just about really liking a product (although you definitely want users to really like your product). With the right design elements, your users might embark on a meaningful bond with your technology, where they feel engaged in an ongoing, two-way relationship with an entity that understands something important about them, yet is recognizably non-human. This is a true emotional attachment that supplies at least some of the benefits of a human-to-human relationship. This type of connection can help your users engage more deeply and for a longer period of time with your product. And that should ultimately help them get closer to their behavior change goals.

Amp Up the Anthropomorphization

People can forge relationships with non-humans easily because of a process called anthropomorphization. To anthropomorphize something means to impose human characteristics on it. It’s what happens when you see a face in the array of shapes on the right side in Figure 9.2, or when you carry on an extended conversation with your cat.[1]

An assortment of the same four shapes side by side. The grouping on the right looks like a face based on the shape positions.
Fig 9.2 The brain is built to seek and recognize human characteristics whenever a pattern suggests they might be there. That means people interpret the array of shapes on the right as face-like, but not the one on the left.

People will find the human qualities in shapes that slightly resemble a face, but you can help speed that process along by deliberately imbuing your product with physical or personality features that resemble people. Voice assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa, for example, are easily perceived as human-like by users thanks to their ability to carry on a conversation much like a (somewhat single-minded) person.

Granted, almost nobody would mistake Alexa for a real person, but her human characteristics are pretty convincing. Some research suggests that children who grow up around these voice assistants may be less polite when asking for help, because they hear adults make demands of their devices without saying please or thank you. If you’re asking Siri for the weather report and there are little ones in earshot, consider adding the other magic words to your request.

So, if you want people to anthropomorphize your product, give it some human characteristics. Think names, avatars, a voice, or even something like a catchphrase. These details will put your users’ natural anthropomorphization tendencies into hyperdrive.

Everything Is Personal

One thing humans do well is personalization. You don’t treat your parent the same way you treat your spouse the same way you treat your boss. Each interaction is different based on the identity of the person you’re interacting with and the history you have with them. Technology can offer that same kind of individualized experience as another way to mimic people, with lots of other benefits.

Personalization is the Swiss Army Knife of the behavior change design toolkit. It can help you craft appropriate goals and milestones, deliver the right feedback at the right time, and offer users meaningful choices in context. It can also help forge an emotional connection between users and technology when it’s applied in a way that helps users feel seen and understood.

Some apps have lovely interfaces that let users select colors or background images or button placements for a “personalized” experience. While these types of features are nice, they don’t scratch the itch of belonging that true personalization does. When personalization works, it’s because it reflects something essential about the user back to them. That doesn’t mean it has to be incredibly deep, but it does need to be somewhat more meaningful than whether the user has a pink or green background on their home screen.

Personalized Preferences

During onboarding or early in your users’ product experience, allow them to personalize preferences that will shape their experiences in meaningful ways (not just color schemes and dashboard configurations). For example, Fitbit asks people their preferred names, and then greets them periodically using their selection. Similarly, LoseIt asks users during setup if they enjoy using data and technology as part of their weight loss process (Figure 9.3). Users who say yes are given an opportunity to integrate trackers and other devices with the app; users who say no are funneled to a manual entry experience. The user experience changes to honor something individual about the user.

Screenshots of the LoseIt app showing it asking whether a user enjoys looking at data and using technology then acknowledging their choice.
Fig 9.3 LoseIt gives users an opportunity to share their technology preferences during onboarding and then uses that choice to shape their future experience.

If you can, recall back to ancient times when Facebook introduced an algorithmic sort of posts in the newsfeed. Facebook users tend to be upset anytime there’s a dramatic change to the interface, but their frustration with this one has persisted, for one core reason: Facebook to this day reverts to its own sorting algorithm as a default, even if a user has selected to organize content by date instead. This repeated insistence on their preference over users’ makes it less likely that users will feel “seen” by Facebook.[2]

Personalized Recommendations

If you’ve ever shopped online, you’ve probably received personalized recommendations. Amazon is the quintessential example of a recommendation engine. Other commonly encountered personalized recommendations include Facebook’s “People You May Know” and Netflix’s “Top Picks for [Your Name Here].” These tools use algorithms that suggest new items based on data about what people have done in the past.

Recommendation engines can follow two basic models of personalization. The first one is based on products or items. Each item is tagged with certain attributes. For example, if you were building a workout recommendation engine, you might tag the item of “bicep curls” with “arm exercise,” “upper arm,” and “uses weights.” An algorithm might then select “triceps pulldowns” as a similar item to recommend, since it matches on those attributes. This type of recommendation algorithm says, “If you liked this item, you will like this similar item.”

The second personalization model is based on people. People who have attributes in common are identified by a similarity index. These similarity indices can include tens or hundreds of variables to precisely match people to others who are like them in key ways. Then the algorithm makes recommendations based on items that lookalike users have chosen. This recommendation algorithm says, “People like you liked these items.”

In reality, many of the more sophisticated recommendation engines (like Amazon’s) blend the two types of algorithms in a hybrid approach. And they’re effective. McKinsey estimates that 35% of what Amazon sells and 75% of what Netflix users watch are recommended by these engines.

Don’t Overwhelm

Sometimes what appear to be personalized recommendations can come from a much simpler sort of algorithm that doesn’t take an individual user’s preferences into account at all. These algorithms might just surface the suggestions that are most popular among all users, which isn’t always a terrible strategy. Some things are popular for a reason. Or recommendations could be made in a set order that doesn’t depend on user characteristics at all. This appears to be the case with the Fabulous behavior change app that offers users a series of challenges like “drink water,” “eat a healthy breakfast,” and “get morning exercise,” regardless of whether these behaviors are already part of their routine or not.

When recommendation algorithms work well, they can help people on the receiving end feel like their preferences and needs are understood. When I browse the playlists Spotify creates for me, I see several aspects of myself reflected. There’s a playlist with my favorite 90s alt-rock, one with current artists I like, and a third with some of my favorite 80s music (Figure 9.4). Amazon has a similar ability to successfully extrapolate what a person might like from their browsing and purchasing history. I was always amazed that even though I didn’t buy any of my kitchen utensils from Amazon, they somehow figured out that I have the red KitchenAid line.

Spotify's Daily Mixes showcasing three distinct sets of musical styles based on the user's listening habits.
Fig 9.4 Spotify picks up on the details of users’ musical selections to construct playlists that reflect multiple aspects of their tastes.

A risk to this approach is that recommendations might become redundant as the database of items grows. Retail products are an easy example; for many items, once people have bought one, they likely don’t need another, but algorithms aren’t always smart enough to stop recommending similar purchases (see Figure 9.5). The same sort of repetition can happen with behavior change programs. There are only so many different ways to set reminders, for example, so at some point it’s a good idea to stop bombarding a user with suggestions on the topic.

A tweet from Andy Richter saying 'I ordered a toilet seat from Amazon and now based on the ads I see they must think I have an insatiable toilet seat addiction'
Fig 9.5 When a user only needs a finite number of something, or has already satisfied a need, it’s easy for recommendations to become redundant.

Don’t Be Afraid to Learn

Data-driven personalization comes with another set of risks. The more you know about users, the more they expect you to provide relevant and accurate suggestions. Even the smartest technology will get things wrong sometimes. Give your users opportunities to point out if your product is off-base, and adjust accordingly. Not only will this improve your accuracy over time, but it will also reinforce your users’ feelings of being cared for.

Alfred was a recommendation app developed by Clever Sense to help people find new restaurants based on their own preferences, as well as input from their social networks. One of Alfred’s mechanisms for gathering data was to ask users to confirm which restaurants they liked from a list of possibilities (see Figure 9.6). Explicitly including training in the experience helped Alfred make better and better recommendations while also giving users the opportunity to chalk errors up to a need for more training.[3]

The Alfred app takes a guess at places the user might enjoy for dinner and asks if any of them are right.
Fig 9.6 Alfred included a learning mode where users would indicate places they already enjoyed eating. That data helped improve Alfred’s subsequent recommendations.

Having a mechanism for users to exclude some of their data from an algorithm can also be helpful. Amazon allows users to indicate which items in their purchase history should be ignored when making recommendations—a feature that comes in handy if you buy gifts for loved ones whose tastes are very different from yours.

On the flip side, deliberately throwing users a curve ball is a great way to learn more about their tastes and preferences. Over time, algorithms are likely to become more consistent as they get better at pattern matching. Adding the occasional mold-breaking suggestion can prevent boredom and better account for users’ quirks. Just because someone loves meditative yoga doesn’t mean they don’t also like going mountain biking once in a while, but most recommendation engines won’t learn that because they’ll be too busy recommending yoga videos and mindfulness exercises. Every now and then add something into the mix that users won’t expect. They’ll either reject it or give it a whirl; either way, your recommendation engine gets smarter.

Personalized Coaching

At some point, recommendations in the context of behavior change may become something more robust: an actual personalized plan of action. When recommendations grow out of the “you might also like” phase into “here’s a series of steps that should work for you,” they become a little more complicated. Once a group of personalized recommendations have some sort of cohesiveness to systematically guide a person toward a goal, it becomes coaching.

More deeply personalized coaching leads to more effective behavior change. One study by Dr. Vic Strecher, whom you met in Chapter 3, showed that the more a smoking cessation coaching plan was personalized, the more likely people were to successfully quit smoking. A follow-up study by Dr. Strecher’s team used fMRI technology to discover that when people read personalized information, it activates areas of their brain associated with the self (see Figure 9.7). That is, people perceive personalized information as self-relevant on a neurological level.

A front and side scan from an MRI showing activation (in yellow) in the prefrontal cortex.
Fig 9.7 This is an fMRI image showing activation in a person’s medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain associated with the self. The brain activity was recorded after showing people personalized health information.

This is important because people are more likely to remember and act on relevant information. If you want people to do something, personalize the experience that shows them how.

From a practical perspective, personalized coaching also helps overcome a common barrier: People do not want to spend a lot of time reading content. If your program can provide only the most relevant items while leaving the generic stuff on the cutting room floor, you’ll offer more concise content that people may actually read.

Color Craft & Counterpoint: A Designer’s Life with Color Vision Deficiency

So, what is it like to be color blind and also work in the web design and development industry? I'll answer that question throughout this article, but it's something that's always factored into my thoughts, given my passion for design and now my career. I wonder if having “normal” vision would have made me a better artist growing up. Would it make me better at my job now? Would I have pursued a more design-oriented career, as opposed to one that’s more dev-focused? These are just some of the things that pop into my head.

As to my job and my color vision, no, colorblindness doesn’t affect my work as much as you’d think. During design meetings, I can quickly point out areas where we need to reconsider our color palette. While reviewing layouts, I’m able to explain why we need to evaluate how—and if—we’re only conveying information with color. I like that I can bring a singular perspective to the table and a voice for others like me; I am able to offer insights that others don’t necessarily have.

When you can see a larger set of colors, it’s easy to gloss over those issues because they’re functionally invisible in the moment. If a design team doesn’t have a member who sees color differently, it’s important they find a way to test with actual users who do. There is no substitute for the real thing. 

Between workarounds anyone can use when color-sensitive situations crop up, and knowing how to separate myth from actual, smart usability practices for vision differences (and which design tools to use)—I want to set the record straight on a few things about designing with color and designing for color accessibility.

What it means to be color blind

The term color vision deficiency, or CVD, more accurately reflects the type of impairment I have.

When someone hears that I’m color blind, most immediately think that I can’t see colors whatsoever—that my entire field of vision is in grayscale, that I’m truly color blind. The term is very misleading and confusing because most people living with CVD are able to see many colors. (There are people who have a type of CVD called “monochromacy,” which is complete color blindness. About 1 in 30,000 people are affected, and they see the world in shades of gray.)  

Red-green color blindness is the most culturally-familiar type, but CVD is a lot more interesting and varies far more in definition.

So what colors can’t you see?

I have been asked this question more times than I can count. My answer is always the same: it’s practically impossible for me to say. For me personally, colors become harder to distinguish the less bold they are. I can attest with absolute certainty that the sky is blue, a stop sign is red, the grass is green, and Big Bird is yellow. I can see those colors because—whether by design or by mother nature—they’re bold. But start placing certain colors adjacent to each other, and it becomes more difficult for me. There are no colors that I can’t see, rather, certain colors become muddied and start blending together. It’s not the same for everyone; that’s just my version of CVD.

As light sensors go, humans don’t have the best eyes for color. Truth be told, they’re subpar compared to most species. WE are dismally color blind—as a species. 

On top of that, normal, “accurate” color vision varies from person to person; only minor anatomical differences determine whether your eyes are normal, “color blind,” or have extra (!) color vision powers. Let’s unpack all of that.

Without getting too technical, what I can tell you is that our retinas are responsible for our color vision. Retinas have two main types of cells: rods and cones. Rods are primarily responsible for reading brightness/intensity levels, while cones are more specialized for detail and for picking up a particular range of light wavelengths. A person considered to have normal color vision has three types of cones, one each for bandwidths of short, medium, and long wavelengths of light. The bandwidth each cone can perceive is shaped like a bell curve and is unique to that cone inside your eye, and there are overlaps between cones. Cones also don’t actually correspond to specific colors, but because long wavelengths fall more toward the red part of the spectrum, medium wavelengths hover closer to green, and short wavelengths tend toward blue, you’ll hear them called red, green, and blue cones, due to sheer convenience (Fig. 1).

Spectral diagram of three bell curves (one each for short-, medium-, and long-wavelength cones), indicating their typical ranges and peak response points.

Fig. 1. Normalized cone response spectra in humans for short (S), medium (M), and long (L) wavelengths. Notice the overlapping nature of the bell curves, and that the peak sensitivity for each cone doesn’t neatly match up with red, green, and blue.

Color vision deficiencies occur because one or more of these cones is missing or has limited sensitivity (such as a narrow range), or when color perception in the brain is influenced by various other phenomena. This means that those colors in the spectrum effectively “drop out,” but since the light is still there, the brain translates it into a color based on peripheral data picked up by the other cones, combined with its brightness level.

Since color vision is based on how our eyes and brain perceive light, and since our eyes have different genetic sensitivities to light, we can say that “accurate” color vision is somewhat subjective. Even people with “accurate” color vision don’t see things exactly the same way. 

Some people even have a fourth cone cell in their retinas; "tetrachromats" have enhanced color differentiation due to extra sensitivity between red and green. The extra cone actually came standard for most mammals in the past, but ongoing studies have suggested that 12% of the world's women might still have this fourth type of cone.

There are some colors and wavelengths we can’t see because our eyes don’t have the right sensors, but for others, it’s due to anatomical make-up. The lens and cornea physically block very short wavelengths; it's why we can’t see ultraviolet light directly, even though we have the sensor capability. For people with aphakia (lack of a lens in one or both eyes, whether congenital or due to surgical removal), that’s not a problem; they see the color variations in near ultraviolet light naturally.

Inside look at living with CVDs

I think each person who has a CVD has their own set of challenges. There are also a lot of commonly-experienced situations, social and professional obstacles, and forms of discrimination and bullying we’re expected to just quietly put up with. 

Vision disabilities and color vision differences are often treated as quirky, entertaining phenomena on some mysterious map between normal vision and “blind.” People with CVDs encounter condescending remarks and dismissive treatment as part of daily life. It’s an invisible and misunderstood struggle that doesn’t have to be that way. I want to make a difference, and it fuels my desire to educate people on this topic.

Insults and passive-aggressive comments

I’ve heard my fair share of passive-aggressive comments about my career choice. Also about my passion for art and design. Because how could I possibly be a designer if I can’t see colors? 

A question like that is condescending on two levels. One, it’s as if no one should be allowed to be an artist unless they can see colors accurately. And two, it shows a complete insularity or misconstrued awareness about color vision deficiencies.

Nowadays, I work primarily as a front-end developer, but early on in my career, I designed web layouts in Photoshop. I didn’t code anything. I didn’t even write HTML. I never had an issue with colors because I was typically starting with a client’s corporate branding guidelines, so I was able to take those colors and use color palette generators to help me build out the look of my designs. I was never called out for making poor color choices, so I felt like I was doing a good job. It wasn’t until I was having a conversation with my boss, a man I looked up to as a professional, when I dropped my guard and mentioned that I was color blind. He then proceeded to question my entire decision to pursue the career I love. For a new professional, it was a pretty rough and demoralizing encounter to sit through and try to process, to say the least. 

Justifying my skill set

It feels as though I have had to justify my career decisions and my skill set on a regular basis over the years—as if CVD prevents me from being good at my job. By and large, it’s truthfully not something that comes up most of the time in my day-to-day work. 

At this point, most coworkers only find out that I have a CVD if I talk about it. Sometimes I even get a kick out of seeing how many months can stretch out before a situation comes along where I can mention it. It’s become an increasingly minor issue over the years, what with updated software and web technologies I can put to use when needed.

Life via form factor (or winging it)

Think for a moment about ways that color is used to convey information in the world around you. One thing that comes to my mind would be traffic lights. Color is used to let drivers know how they should proceed. No additional information is provided in case a driver is color blind. Traffic lights also use two of the colors most commonly associated with color blindness: red and green. Thankfully, most traffic lights have a common form factor. The top light is red, the middle light is yellow, and the bottom light is green. Even if I couldn’t tell the color, as long as I can tell which light is lit, then I’m able to get the necessary information.

Unfortunately, not all designs are created equal; there may be no secondary or supplemental indicator to go by. When something is only conveyed with color, that’s a gap where information can get lost on a large group of people.

Everyday social interactions

Exchanging stories with others who grew up color blind sounds unfailingly familiar. Most of us have had similar experiences when it comes to people first finding out. As in part Q&A, part dog and pony show.

We’re constantly asked, “What color is this?” (points to a nearby object) and “What color does this look like?” Then we watch as the person who asked us the question has their MIND BLOWN because we can’t see the correct color. Meanwhile, getting the color correct can sometimes be worse. First, there’s a look of confusion on the asker’s face. They can’t comprehend how we can both be color blind and see color at the same time, which leads to even more questions and “tests.” It turns what could have been a brief exchange into a lengthy and technical conversation, maybe at a bad time or inconvenient location.

What I ended up learning is that these encounters will never go away, since most people I come into contact with have no knowledge about color blindness. I can either get annoyed by getting asked so many questions, or I can use it as an opportunity to educate.

Getting passed over for jobs

The first time I was passed over for a job specifically due to my CVD was when I was a teenager. It was a part-time job after school, and I was told—point-blank—it was because I’m color blind. A position had opened up in the frame shop at a big-box crafts store I’d been working at for over a year. After having been told I was getting the position, my boss somehow found out I’m color blind, then informed me that I wasn’t qualified to work in the frames department for that very reason. That was it, no discussion. I had to watch the position go to one of my coworkers. 

That may have been a minor blip on my teenage radar at the time, but little did I realize it was the first of many. Between the discrimination and frustration I dealt with at various jobs over the years, I eventually convinced myself to not tell new employers or coworkers about my color vision deficiency. I wasn’t going to lie about it if I got asked, but I wasn’t going to offer up that information unsolicited.

After working in the web industry for many years, I eventually transitioned to a new approach. At this point, I have successfully proven to myself that my color vision deficiency doesn’t negatively impact my job, and that bringing it up via the lens of accessibility makes it more of a natural thing I can discuss with coworkers so we can put it to constructive use on projects.

Inside look at how I do my job

Relying on tools for help

Being a professional front-end developer and designer with a CVD is easier than ever because there are so many tools and resources out there. Professionally, I have relied on color picker tools, websites that offer predefined color combinations, image editing software, and the mere fact that all colors can be represented by a hexadecimal value. 

In front-end tasks, I’m able to modify my code editor to suit my needs, for instance. I can use light or dark mode and a wide variety of color themes. I often use high-contrast themes that have been thoughtfully designed for developers with color vision deficiencies.

Tools and resources I use regularly:

  • Trello — Trello has a nice item labelling feature that takes CVDs into consideration. Not only can users label cards based on color, they can also use stripes, zigzags, polka dots, squiggly lines, and other shapes.
  • VSCode — Visual Studio Code is my preferred code editor. I’m able to customize the interface with pre-built themes, and I can further modify those themes if I need to. I’m currently using one called Vue Theme, which I feel works really well for me. I choose themes based on what feels like the appropriate color contrast for my specific color vision deficiency. I lean toward dark backgrounds with brighter, higher-contrasting text colors that stand out against the background color. Another one of my favorites is Sarah Drasners Night Owl theme.
  • Dev Tools — Whether it’s Chrome, Firefox, or Safari, I am constantly in the browser’s dev tools. There’s an ever-increasing number of features in dev tools that I can use to get the color information I need. Something I find handy is being able to Shift + click on a color value to cycle through various color formats (3 digit and 6 digit hexadecimal, RGB, HSL, and color name).
  • Color Pickers — I installed a color picker Chrome browser extension called Eye Dropper to help me quickly grab colors from web pages. It allows me to sample colors from any web page, and provides me with the color in every format. This provides me with a secondary reassurance that the color I wrote in my CSS is truly being rendered. I wish I could trust the code as I see it in dev tools, but occasionally my eyes play tricks on me—I would swear that the color I’m seeing rendered on the screen isn’t the color value in dev tools. When I think that’s the issue, I can just grab the eye dropper and triple-check.
  • Contrast Checker — I use the WebAIM Contrast Checker to make sure that the colors I’m using are in compliance with the guidelines.

Accessibility and inclusion

Statistically, 1 out of every 12 men and 1 out of every 200 women have a color vision deficiency. Across the world, approximately 300 million people are color blind. Those are significant numbers to factor in, especially if all those users are hampered by usability issues. Color alone can prevent them from completing interactions, receiving pertinent information, and from having the same experience as users with better color vision. That last fact alone is reason enough to pay attention to the concerns outlined here.

Color disabilities and the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines

The ADA doesn’t specifically call out color blindness; it simply refers to visual disabilities. However, the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) does specifically mention color. Compliance with the WCAG helps as a first step toward ensuring your site is usable by everyone, regardless of disabilities, but keep in mind that there could be additional factors at play with your site which may be “compliant” but still create difficulties for users.

Color contrast

For those of us who have a CVD, one of the more prevalent issues is a site’s color contrast; trouble with specific colors doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have trouble with the site. 

If a site doesn’t have the proper color contrast ratio (text color on top of background color), then the site’s information may be more difficult to see or understand. WebAIM, a non-profit organization, published reports in 2019 and 2020 outlining accessibility issues in the top one million home pages. As of February 2020, 86.3% of home pages tested had insufficient contrast.

So, what does that mean? It means that the information on those sites is not being conveyed equally, to everyone. That’s 863,000 of the most influential and high-traffic sites on the web delivering an unequal user experience to billions of users worldwide on a daily basis.

Data visualization

Color contrast is not the only issue when it comes to color blindness and accessibility. Data visualization is one area in particular that often relies heavily on color to convey information. It is also a prime example of what the WCAG mentions in their success criteria: 

Color is not used as the only visual means of conveying information, indicating an action, prompting a response, or distinguishing a visual element.

– Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.1 - Success Criterion 1.4.1 Use of Color

I follow a few accounts on Twitter that bring attention to improper use of color in data visualizations. I would recommend getting started with these—they provide a lot of useful information and raise awareness surrounding issues that those of us with a CVD face:

Thankfully, making charts, graphs, and other visual aids color accessible isn’t that difficult. There is no need to remove colors altogether. Just try to use colorblind-friendly color palettes and don’t use problematic color combinations. Make sure all the data in your charts is labeled appropriately so that your readers can get the information in multiple ways. Our World in Data—a scientific online publication that focuses on large global problems such as poverty, disease, climate change, war, and inequality—has great examples of data visualizations of all types that I would consider to be colorblind-friendly.

Whenever possible, I try to provide feedback from the perspective of someone who has a CVD, but I don’t make recommendations for specific color changes; I leave the color choices to those who aren’t color blind. Instead, I describe which elements I find difficult to interpret, and why. I tell them which information is getting lost on someone like me. The hope is that my feedback informs other designers of the need to make charts, tables, graphs, and maps more inclusive.

Adding people with a CVD to your team

As far as those of us who do have a CVD and work in the web industry: we are just as skilled and knowledgeable about our professions as anyone else, and there are plenty of ways that we can contribute to the visual aspects of projects—especially regarding color. We have the ability to review designs and report back whether any information is getting lost due to poor color contrast. We can inform designers if the chosen color palette is problematic. We can be the test subjects for our fellow UX designers during their usability research.

There is also another point I’d like to get across here. There is a common misconception that a designer with a CVD doesn’t have the ability to do their job effectively. Hiring managers and other coworkers often make this assumption. Much to the contrary, people with CVDs have ways they work smart to work around their limitations. I mentioned earlier about the different tools I personally use to help me in my job. There are plenty of web industry professionals like me who use features in the tools at their disposal, getting the job done right, and so seamlessly that no one would guess they are color blind.

That brings me to a broader point—the importance of hiring people with disabilities. I won’t go into the many, many, many reasons why companies should do that. Rather, I’ll mention some of the benefits from a design perspective. 

First and foremost, if you don’t have a disability, then how can you say conclusively that you know your product will work for those who do? 

The answer is, you can’t. Not without proper testing. Sure, there are companies out there that can help designers and developers conduct usability tests. But how amazing would it be if you had team members who could provide you with that invaluable feedback throughout the duration of each project? Think about all the knowledge you’ve accumulated about your profession. Think about all of the wisdom you can teach others. Now think about all the knowledge and wisdom that could be passed on to you by teammates living with a disability. Together, you can make your products truly inclusive. Trying to do it separately will always produce and reinforce limitations.

Critical CVD tips for your projects

Color can enhance the message, but shouldn’t be the messenger. UX and UI designers have within their power the ability to take color blindness into consideration—or to ignore it. You can make sure information is conveyed to everyone, not just people who see color “normally.” That is a great responsibility, with real life-or-death repercussions at stake for many users.

For those of us in the web industry, there are specific action items I’d like you to take away from all this.

Design color palettes for “everyone”

Carefully plan your color palette—not for those who are color blind, but for everyone. Always keep in mind that ALL the information you provide in your product needs to be easy to recognize and easy to understand by anyone who touches it. We can get too familiar with what we’re doing and forget that information is delivered in multifaceted ways, so we need to be mindful of what’s specifically being conveyed by color. 

I highly recommend Geri Coady’s book, Color Accessibility Workflows; it’s a fantastic resource. In it, she discusses color blindness, choosing appropriate color, compliance and testing, implementation, providing alternatives, and she includes some tips and tricks.

Don’t assume, and be careful what you ask 

Do not assume which colors are difficult to see—actually do the research and testing. At minimum, please check the color contrast in your layout.

The reason I say that is because although the ADA doesn’t call out color blindness specifically, it does call out visual disabilities. In the U.S., it is illegal in the workplace (not to mention insulting and unwise) to ask people if they have a disability. In my book, that also applies to color blindness, and while it may not be illegal to ask in non-work contexts, it is definitely personally intrusive. 

However, if people volunteer to help you with your testing and they offer up that information about themselves, that’s a different matter. It may also be a good idea to reach out to some companies that specialize in user testing with people with disabilities. 

Companies such as Level Access help organizations incorporate accessibility into their daily workflows. They offer tailored training, auditing services, document remediation, and other services to help organizations achieve—and maintain—compliance with Section 508 and the WCAG.

Test with colorblind simulators AND colorblind users

Don’t rely on colorblind simulators alone. I could write an essay about this topic. Those simulators are not accurate enough to give you a proper understanding of color vision deficiencies.

Seek out first-hand perspectives 

Actually speak to someone who has a color vision deficiency to get their perspective, and listen with an open mind. I can’t recommend this enough. There is no better way to get an understanding of what it’s like to live with a CVD than to hear about it first hand.

Stand up for coworkers and users

Don’t make light of color vision deficiencies. It’s difficult enough living with it, let alone being an artist with it or trying to make sense of information you literally can’t see.

Tools and further reading

Accounts on Twitter 

Usability and UX

Organizational resources

Color perception and the brain

Continuing to make progress

Loving design is something that has always come naturally to me; I didn’t have to force myself down this path. Growing up, I didn’t know that I wanted the exact job that I have, but by the time I graduated high school in 2000, I knew that I wanted to combine my passions for art and computers. 

I’m thankful to have been around long enough to have watched the web community evolve into what it is today. I’m thankful for all the tools that exist to help me do what I love in spite of my color vision deficiency. I’m thankful that color blindness is recognized by the WCAG, and that considerations are made for people living with color vision differences.

There is a lot of information out there, and I recommend that people go out and read as much as they can on the topic. If you’re on Twitter, then follow people who have a CVD, or the organizations that deal with it in various ways. There is so much knowledge that can be gained by doing some simple research and adding it into your workflow.

Building the Woke Web: Web Accessibility, Inclusion & Social Justice

What would your life be like without the internet? Not if it didn’t exist at all, but if you were locked out of it? Would your days be different? Unrecognizable, even? Keeping your answers to that in mind, do you think access to the internet is a human right? Do we need to be able to access it to fully participate in modern society? To answer “yes” to these questions would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.

Living without internet

Globally, over 40% of people still do not have access to the internet. That lack of access and the issues it creates have helped motivate digital equity initiatives like Tech Goes Home and the Good Things Foundation.

Having no access to the internet creates problems in many parts of modern life. In the UK, bank branches are closing, forcing many to do their banking online. Many utilities now require internet access to request or amend services, or get better deals. Civil services, such as registering to vote, are increasingly online. As this continues, people who have no access to broadband or who have limited access to mobile data fall behind—this often includes homeless people, elderly people, and those on low incomes who are already operating at a disadvantage.

In the UK, only 37% of people living in social housing are online. Approximately 1 in 5 adults with a disability in the UK have not used the internet recently, and they make up half of the people who have not accessed the internet in the last three months. Globally, the UN target for affordable mobile data is 2% of monthly income for 1GB data, and yet many countries are still nowhere near reaching this goal. Not having access to the internet is expensive, locking you out of essential services and a surfeit of helpful information. Giving people full access to the splendors and knowledge of the online world should be imperative for everyone who works on it.

Digital exclusion is when someone is unable or unwilling to access information and services online. In the UK, 10% of the adult population was digitally excluded in 2018. The number of people in the UK lacking basic digital skills is decreasing, but in 2018, 8% of adults in the UK (4.3 million people) were estimated to have zero basic digital skills, which means they are unable to do things like buy items online, verify information, or send an email. Women are more likely to have no basic digital skills. 

Being unable to send an email, submit an application online, or use a government site is a huge barrier to civic and societal engagement. Shopping in person, rather than online, can mean you are consistently overcharged for your purchase by as much as 13%. Not knowing how to use computers can mean you earn less in the first place. Not being able to use the internet can mean that you spend more time doing tasks such as registering to vote, paying council tax in the UK, or researching your next holiday

Being able to access the internet has social and psychological ramifications too. Loneliness is well documented as a risk factor for a number of health issues, as well as early death. Being online can help you feel less alone. Half of all people with disabilities surveyed report feeling lonely in the UK, and a quarter of them are lonely every day. People with disabilities are more likely to be a captive audience to apps and websites using their data inappropriately or engaging in other unethical practices. This may be because they rely on a particular site to interact with other people with disabilities, because they lack the tools to visit other sites, or lack other suitable websites or apps to use.

Richer households are more likely to have full basic digital skills. The UK Office for National Statistics found that people without basic digital skills are three times as likely to be in low-income bands. In 2018, 12% of 11-to-18-year-olds had no broadband access on a tablet or computer, which 68% of them said made it difficult to do homework. Further, households in which one or more of their members have a disability make up half of those living in poverty in the UK.

Provide non-online options for vital services

If you work in government, food supply, healthcare, or utilities, there is no excuse for not providing offline options. In doing so you are excluding some of the most marginalized people. The internet is amazing, but it is not the only way to share information.

A non-exhaustive list of other barriers

Having access to the internet in the first place is one issue, and feeling welcome, or even safe is quite another. Even when your broadband connection is as good as can be hoped for, there are many other ways you can be discouraged or stopped from using the internet.

Trolling and threats

Online harassment is one of many barriers stopping people from accessing the internet. Diane Abbott, the first black woman Member of Parliament (MPs) in the UK, received almost half (45.14%) of all abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the 2017 General Election that decided how voters would be represented in Parliament and which party would govern. Black and Asian women MPs got 35% more abusive tweets than white women MPs. The abuse directed at Dianne Abott amounted to 10 times as much as was received by any other female MP, according to an Amnesty International study.

Mermaids is a charity that supports transgender children and their parents in the UK. Their CEO Susie Green—herself the parent of a transgender child—has been targeted with abuse and threats. The rise in abusive and threatening comments led to Mermaids’ Twitter account having to block up to 20 accounts a day.

Trolling isn’t an easy problem to fix. Allowing users to block certain words and hide certain replies on Twitter is a start, but listening to people from marginalized backgrounds and their complaints and ideas would be another critical place to begin. 

We need to think long and hard about what good moderation looks like and what guidelines work in online spaces to ensure those accessing them don’t have to wade through a tide of bigotry.

Sidelining and hiding certain groups

Information and support online are vital for at-risk LGBT people, whether to help them escape dangerous situations, access support, or find community. Yet in schools, words relating to LGBT issues are often blocked. On YouTube, videos relating to LGBT issues are demonetized, age-restricted, or even removed. This isn’t because the content is sexually explicit or not safe for work. It’s just discrimination. TikTok recently admitted it actively discriminates against certain kinds of users—namely the fat, queer, disabled, low-income, and “ugly”—in certain feeds, under the guise of paternalistic protection from bullying.

Exclusionary design

People with disabilities are the original life hackers because our motivation is so high. If we don’t hack we often go without.

Liz Jackson, “Designing for Inclusivity

Many people with disabilities rely on screen readers and screen reader compatible sites to use the internet. Screen readers can be prohibitively expensive; while there are free options, one of the most popular screen readers at the time of writing costs nearly $1200 for a professional license. Even with incredible innovation coming from within the disabled community, there’s more that everyone else can do. In their February 2020 evaluation, WebAIM found that 98.1% of the top million websites had detectable WCAG (Web Content Accessibility Guidelines) 2 errors.

The most common WCAG 2 failures—such as missing alt text for images, having empty links, and missing form labels—would be relatively simple to fix. Because they’re shared among most websites, concentrating on fixing them would have a huge overall benefit for the internet. But as long as web accessibility standards are applied without rigor, aspects of a vast number of sites remain inaccessible even once users have a screen reader or other assistive technology.

Hostile conditions

Inclusion is just as pertinent as accessibility, and tackling only one side of the equation will leave some people just as locked out. Accessibility without inclusion is not real accessibility. The curb cut effect, wherein improving access for people with disabilities improves access for all, isn’t the only reason to increase web accessibility. We have a moral responsibility as tech workers to use any privilege we may have to facilitate, respond to, and support the efforts of marginalized people who are working to carve out accessible spaces for themselves.

Hostile conditions, created or reinforced by engineering and design choices, make being on the internet harder for people who are queer, of color, or disabled. They make it more difficult to access life-saving spaces, social spaces, and civic spaces—both on and offline. Thorough accessibility and real inclusion are the solutions to these problems. To survive, marginalized people must work both against and through the abuse and accessibility issues they face on online platforms, whereas everyone else gets to use the internet as they wish. This replicates the injustices of offline in the online world.

An incomplete list of solutions

Center the voices and experiences of the marginalized

There isn’t one easy solution but to start finding the solutions that are possible we need to center the voices and experiences of the marginalized. Marginalized people with insights to share aren’t hard to find when you start listening. They are your next users, your future developers, your fledgling marketing team. Excluding them reduces your options, your appeal, and your breadth of ideas.

Hire teams that are diverse on every axis

Hiring inclusively creates teams full of people who aren’t like you or each other. And those kinds of teams build better products, bring better ideas to the table, and better reflect the user base of the majority of products. It is important to remember that diversity isn’t just about race or hiring women; there are neurodiverse people, people with physical disabilities, people of other genders, people from various backgrounds, and many other marginalizations than could be listed here.

Proactively promote inclusion and harness your team’s diversity

Help disabled and otherwise marginalized people both develop and enforce policies and practices that protect them and allow them to thrive. If there are no disabled people, or otherwise marginalized or underrepresented people on your team, take a hard look at your hiring practices, your work culture, even the layout of your office. If you can’t find these problems, hire experts. Pay specialist consultants and recruiters to root out the problems. This is an investment that makes moral, logical, and business sense. The inclusive team you build will be able to spot potential issues in a way that a squad of people who pattern match to narrow ideas of what a tech worker should look and behave like never would. Create a culture where the marginalized members of your team feel supported, feel heard, and are buoyed through their work with a sense of safety in their workplace.

Avoid legal issues preemptively

Beyonce and Domino’s Pizza were both sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which contains provisions to force the companies involved to change their websites. Beyonce’s case is still in progress, but Domino’s both lost their suit and had their appeal tossed out. Both cases were about visually impaired people being unable to access their sites and complete purchases. Accessibility is often seen as a costly detour from the “real work” of building projects, but that has never and will never be true. You want users, and users of all stripes want to use your products.

The banks HSBC, Metro Bank, and Halifax made it hard for visually impaired users to access all of their services online. When HSBC was told they had made it difficult for a user with visual impairments to access bank statements, they replied, “don’t worry, we’ll send you a video.” The Equality Act 2010 in the UK means that these users can sue. In addition to serving the far more important goal of providing people with disabilities equal access, embracing inclusive design from the outset would have saved these companies time while enhancing their trust among the public rather than putting it at risk. Fixing the content is usually much cheaper for the organization than fighting the matter in court.

Advocate for accessibility and inclusivity in any way you can, be it big or small

Caption your videos, Instagram content, Facebook photos, Twitter photos, conference and meetup talks, etc. Make information needed to access your product or service available in multiple formats. Speak up against problems in your workplace; if an internal hiring tool is hard for you to use, it is hard for others. If one of your websites has errors from WCAG 2’s list, advocate for taking time to fix it. If the gender options available on forms are “man,” “woman,” and “other,” speak up yourself, tell your manager, question whether you need to collect gender information at all. Don’t stay silent.

Test your website with tools, devices, and real end users

Run tools like axe, ChromeLens, and Lighthouse during your build processes. Do manual testing with the actual devices that are used by your end-users, and test with real users with access requirements. If you’re a team of one or a few, ensure that you run these tools from MVP to finished product—the errors that are the easiest to catch and fix will mostly be caught by automated tools, and they are a great start for learning more about accessibility. Websites such as The A11y Project compile resources, and there are other websites, Slack groups, Twitter accounts, and newsletters that are also incredibly helpful for answering any questions. The automated tools will give you the keywords to search for.

Working towards an accessible, inclusive internet

Web accessibility is not an optional extra. What inclusion looks like in practice will depend on your products, your users, and what you intend to achieve, but for it to be real and meaningful in any context, it cannot be an afterthought. Engineering that makes inclusion an afterthought is engineering that operates without morality and in doing so actively enacts harm. The fact that this kind of engineering is commonplace on the internet doesn’t make it OK. It just highlights that the way we have built the web is fundamentally broken. We can do better.

“Wokeness,” at least as conceived by those divorced from the black experience and AAVE, isn’t a great concept. The way it is used in popular culture makes it sound as if being a good person is a switch you flip on and off; you’re woke or ’sleep. But wokeness is not the end state, it’s the beginning of a journey. All the tenets of intersectional feminism, web accessibility, and diversity and inclusion are inextricably tied up in making the web a better place, for all and by all. Access to the internet is essential. Staying woke, and acting on that wokeness, is what will lead us to a better internet for everyone.

Figure It Out

Color is, without a doubt, the visual element most often misunderstood and misused.

As mentioned earlier, when designing visual representations, color is often the first visual encoding that people use. It’s also quite limited to about a dozen, distinguishable colors. It’s a potent visual element, but one fraught with accessibility and perceptual problems. A general rule of thumb: Save color for things you want to draw people’s attention to. Start with grayscale representations. Add in color only later, where it might be really, really useful. That’s it. We can move along.

Except…

We need to dispel some popular beliefs about colors, beliefs that are often held up as truth, when, in fact, this is not the case. What’s presented in this short chapter is more foundational knowledge than tips for immediate application. But also, this understanding of color is—we found in retrospect—a powerful lens for understanding the concepts shared throughout this book. We see in our exploration of color this pattern: while many of the absolutes we cling to are social constructs (varying across cultures and over time), behind these changing constructs we also find some universal human constants.

How Many Colors Are in the Rainbow?

Let’s begin by unpacking the statement above, suggesting that we only see about a dozen colors. Actually, the human eye can perceive many more colors, perhaps a million or so. Of this million, it’s estimated that each of us—individually—can distinguish somewhere between 130 to 300 colors.[1] But within a cultural group, we can only share about a dozen such colors. These limitations have little to do with personal visual acuity, but rather with language: a group’s ability to see and perceive a specific color is determined by language. Do we—as a society—share the same named color value associations?

We can talk about something being “red” and feel confident in what we all see. From both a developmental perspective and an anthropological perspective, red is the first color (after white and black) that most cultures are aware of. But if I describe something as magenta, do we have a shared agreement as to what that named concept refers to? Perhaps you see hot pink where I see a vibrant, purply-reddish color? Another example of this language-color dependency: the Russian language has a specific word for the color that we (English speakers) perceive as light blue.

To put this shared vocabulary into perspective, let’s start with something that is constant and beyond our language: the visible spectrum of light that is a rainbow.

When Colors Are Constant

Around the world, the meteorological phenomenon we describe as a rainbow is a constant thing. Light refracts across water droplets to create a spectrum visible to humans. What we see as colors are the wavelengths of light visible to the human eye (see Figure 8.1). On either end of this visible spectrum are ultraviolet and infrared waves, which while invisible to human eyes, we know they are visible—that is, seen—by cameras and some nonhuman creatures (cats can see certain infrared frequencies, for example). Beyond this visible spectrum, we have things like gamma rays, X-rays, and radio waves, which all make up the entire spectrum of white light from the sun.

A diagram showing the spectrum of light
Figure 8.1 The visible light spectrum is a small part of the broader electromagnetic spectrum. Starting from this perspective helps us recognize the subjectivity of what is “seen” and how this might vary with different creatures and devices.

But let’s stay focused on the portion of this light spectrum that is visible to humans, the part that allows us to see. Within this spectrum, the rainbow possesses millions of color combinations, as there are no clearly defined boundaries between the colors.

Why then, should diverse cultures over thousands of years arrive at the same set of color language definitions? Are colors an absolute thing? Not exactly.

The Subjectivity of Color Identification

Consider “ROYGBIV,” which is the acronym we all learned to name the colors of the rainbow. How did we conclude, at least in Western cultures, that a rainbow has seven colors? Why not five, or six, or eleven? We have Sir Isaac Newton to thank for this.

These seven colors—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet—were not the result of any serious scientific inquiry. Rather, Newton was fond of the number seven. Just as there are seven musical notes in a scale, Newton believed that colors should follow a similar pattern. He might have connected this with seven days in the week or the seven known planets (at the time) in our universe. In other words, ROYGBIV was an arbitrary choice based on mystical superstition.

Understanding how we arrived at these seven colors sheds light on the subjective nature of color identification. This may also explain a bit about the challenge that so many people have with indigo—that odd color that sits somewhere between blue and violet—as a separate color!

But here is where we have to be careful, as we are stepping into a decades old debate: Do the number of basic color terms and the location of color category boundaries vary across languages? Or might there be a universal pattern to the color naming systems of all cultures?

This Wikipedia entry sums up the debate rather nicely:

There are two formal sides to the color debate, the universalist and the relativist. The universalist side claims that the biology of all human beings is all the same, so the development of color terminology has absolute universal constraints. The relativist side claims that the variability of color terms cross-linguistically (from language to language) points to more culture-specific phenomena. Because color exhibits both biological and linguistic aspects, it has become a deeply studied domain that addresses the relationship between language and thought. [2]

An Argument for Relative Linguistics

We can characterize what Newton did as imposing an arbitrary number of colors upon the color spectrum. And we might conclude the same thing has happened throughout history as different people groups formed words to describe the world around them.

Indeed, various studies of diverse cultures reveal that “although the physiological basis of color vision is essentially the same for all humans with normal trichromatic color vision, there is considerable diversity in the way that different languages segment the continuum of visible colors.”[3] In other words, the rainbow has no natural boundaries; how we slice it up into colors is a subjective thing that varies across different cultures and time. (See Figure 8.2 for an illustration of this concept.) From one research paper, we learned that “some languages have been reported to use as few as two terms to describe all visible colors (Rosch Heider, 1972). Others have been reported to use between three and eleven (Berlin & Kay, 1969), while some (e.g., Russian; Davies and Corbett, 1997) may have twelve.”[4]

Specific examples in support of this argument:

  •  In Russian culture, there is no generic concept of blue. Rather, Russian makes an obligatory distinction between lighter blues (goluboy) and darker blues (siniy).
  • The Japanese language (before the modern period) had just one word, Ao, for both blue and green. It wouldn’t be until the year 1,000 that the word midori would be introduced to distinguish a greenish shade of blue
  • The Himba tribe from Namibia recognizes five basic colors.
  • The Berinmo of Papua New Guinea has also reached a different conclusion as to the number of colors they recognize. While they draw no distinction between blue and green, they do “draw a distinction within what English speakers would consider yellow, with the word nol on one side and wor on the other.”

From this, we might conclude that the colors of the rainbow do seem to be arbitrary and dependent upon language. (Connect this with earlier points we made about thoughts and cognition as layers upon layers of prior associations.)

A webcomic from XKCD, reading 'This chart shows the dominant color names over the three fully-saturated faces of the RGB cube (colors where one of the RGB values is zero)
Figure 8.2 This comic from Randall Munroe of xkcd nicely illustrates the subjectivity of the shared color language for English speakers.[5]

But surely, you may be thinking, color identification isn’t entirely subjective? Here’s where the research gets interesting: despite these regional differences, a fascinating and consistent pattern begins to emerge.

An Argument for the Universal

In the late 1960s, after studying color terms across many different languages, researchers Berlin and Kay introduced the idea that there were eleven possible basic color categories: white, black, red, green, yellow, blue, brown, purple, pink, orange, and gray. They argued a universalist theory: that color cognition is an innate, physiological process rather than a cultural one.

While their research has been challenged on different grounds, what has since followed is some agreement that for all noted language differences, there is a fixed order in which color names arise. The ways in which color language evolves across cultures suggest maybe there is a universal pattern governing the direction of patterns in the evolution of colors. All cultures start with the ability to distinguish dark things from light things. This is followed by the recognition of red. After that, it might be the addition of yellow or green. And blue always seems to come last. Not every language follows the exact same path, but they adhere to this same general pattern.

While the broader debate is not necessarily concluded, the general consensus seems to be that “in color, relativism appears to overlay a universalist foundation.”

Why All the Fuss over Color?

While this is certainly fascinating, how is this useful? We include this as a mirror to challenge assumptions. If we turn a critical eye to the commonly accepted color wheel, this was likely influenced by Newton’s original color wheel sketch. But is this the “right” way to think about colors? Primary colors combine to make secondary colors, which in turn allow us to describe tertiary colors. We learn this from an early age and accept this way of thinking about color as absolute. But this is just one frame. This is just a way of thinking about visible light. And this singular perspective has limitations, especially when used in medical, scientific, and engineering visualizations. Research papers such as “Rainbow Color Map (Still) Considered Harmful”[6] question the value of the rainbow color spectrum in data visualization applications. The point is simple: there are other ways we might think about color. We can look at alternatives such as perceptually ordered color spectrums, an isoluminant color map, or simply use representations of color that aren’t derived from a wheel. Tools such as ColorBrewer 2.0[7] or the NASA Ames Color Tool[8] are incredibly useful for choosing a palette more suitable for visualizing data.

Since this book is concerned with how human creatures understand information, and because we so often use color to clarify, we felt it worth calling out that color and color recognition are not necessarily universal things, but are dependent on cognition, language, and biology. Understanding this allows us to challenge common assumptions about what is “true” about color and perception.

Which leads us to…

Color, Cultures, and Universal Associations

Red means stop. Green means go. These concepts are universal, right? Not so fast. Across cultures, colors do not necessarily convey the same concept. And where we may have the same ability to identify a color, the associated meaning is just that—a learned association. Concluding that red means passion, vitality, or energy, because blood and fire are red things is not a universal idea. Neither is associating green with growth, just because nature involves so much green. (In some Chinese cultures, green can be associated with death.) At this point, please throw away those blog posts and posters about colors to choose for different cultures. While we’re keen to seek out human universals, color has proven to be something that does not have consistent meaning across cultures, or even within a culture group. Rather, the concepts we associate with particular colors are highly contextual and local, not just to a particular culture, but sometimes to smaller social groups. The meanings we point to—blue as a safe, corporate color, for example—are highly generalized assumptions, highly contextual, and mostly learned associations.

The Color Purple

Let’s take purple, as an example. For many centuries, purple dye was expensive and rare. Procuring purple dye was labor intensive and required collecting a secretion from sea snails. Historian David Jacoby remarked that “twelve thousand snails of Murex brandaris yield no more than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single garment.”[9] As a result of this laborious process, the high cost of producing purple clothing made this color a status symbol among kings, queens, and other rulers. If you could afford to wear purple, you were quite wealthy. The conceptual association then is one of scarcity (in this case of a particular dye), signaling something to be valued above other things. While we may still see the lingering effects of this history (the Purple Heart is among the highest honors awarded for U.S. military service), the constraint of purple as a scarce color is no longer true. As such, this color is able to take on new meanings.

“Pink Is for Girls, Blue Is for Boys”

To put this into perspective, let’s investigate the idea that “pink is for girls, blue is for boys.” From clothing choices to marketing toys to how we decorate bedrooms, most of us grow up believing there’s some inherent gender association built into the colors pink and blue. But, were we to travel back in time—just over 100 years—we’d find no such distinction. Or we might find the opposite association.

According to University of Maryland historian Jo B. Paoletti, author of Pink and Blue: Telling the Girls from the Boys in America, pink and blue weren't always gender-specific colors. For centuries, young children mostly wore a functional white dress, and then in the early 20th century, things began to change. Consider this quote, pulled from the June 1918 issue of Earnshaw's Infants’ Department, a trade publication:

The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.

A Smithsonian review of Paoletti’s book,[10] goes on to add:

Other sources said blue was flattering for blonds, pink for brunettes; or blue was for blue-eyed babies, pink for brown-eyed babies, according to Paoletti.

In 1927, Time magazine printed a chart showing sex-appropriate colors for girls and boys according to leading U.S. stores. In Boston, Filene's told parents to dress boys in pink. So did Best & Co. in New York City, Halle's in Cleveland, and Marshall Field in Chicago.

By the 1940s, this association had flipped. Manufacturers had settled on pink for girls and blue for boys (see Figure 8.3 as an example of this association). Baby Boomers were raised with wearing the two colors. The point of this narrative? Color associations are learned things and can change over time. Even something as seemingly strong as the pink/blue binary was a manufactured association. To be clear, this doesn’t mean a color association is any less powerful in the moment, at a particular point in history, but these color associations do not represent any universal truths.

A box of 'It's a boy!' baby announcement candy cigars in blue
A box of 'It's a girl!' baby announcement candy cigars in pink
Figure 8.3 - The “blue is for boys and pink is for girls” concept was a manufactured one, originating in the first half of the 20th century.

Accordingly, it’s good to be wary of generalizations such as “blue is a safe, corporate color.” In the case of corporate associations, one generation’s “safe” may—depending on the media and actions—signal stuffy, inauthentic, or distrustful to the next generation. It all depends on the learned associations embraced—for a time—by a particular culture.

Not All Colors Are Created Equal

We tend to treat our color palettes like interchangeable parts. Just pick a color. Or pick some colors we all find pleasing. Consider how many of us use the default color palettes built into software tools like Excel or PowerPoint. We usually choose a pleasing color palette, with the sentiment being “as long as you can distinguish one color from another, it’s okay, right?”

Not exactly. Not all colors are created equal. In terms of visual perception, some colors jump out at you while others recede into the background (see Figure 8.4). This is because of variances in hue and saturation.

A series of four charts, each with an increasing number of colors
Figure 8.4 The range of colors perceived by humans is uneven.
(Equiluminant colors from the NASA Ames Color Tool)

A very bright color is going to draw more visual attention than a more desaturated color. This makes sense if we consider how things farther away from us tend to be hazier and desaturated. If something in the distance is noticed, it’s likely because it’s moving or contrasts with the surroundings.

This same disparity applies to color hues. We tend to look at color charts like this one and assume that the extreme ends of red, green, and blue are on equal footing.

Two gradients, one going from black to red, one going from black to gray
Two gradients, one going from black to green, one going from black to gray
Two gradients, one going from black to blue, one going from black to gray

However, because of the wavelengths of these colors and how our eyes perceive color, we see green as brighter than red, which itself is brighter than blue.

How Is This Knowledge Useful?

While it’s nice to think that precise color values are interchangeable (setting aside any cultural associations), your perception doesn’t work that way. In the same way that certain frequencies on the radio come in clearer than others, certain colors do the same. You need to account for, or at least consider, the unevenness of color perception.

In the example in Figure 8.5, you see the same eight-segment pie chart. The example on the right uses all high-saturation colors while the example on the left mixes high- and low- saturation colors.

Two equal pie charts with differing levels of saturation in the colors
Figure 8.5 Two pie charts showing identical information. The chart on the left uses colors of mixed saturation, meaning some colors will naturally stand out more than others, making this an uneven representation.

Functionally, these both communicate the same thing. But consider how you perceive each. With the example on the right, use of high saturation is consistent; no color should be more prominent than another. But when you mix high and low saturation, as with the example on the left, the higher saturation colors tend to “pop” more—drawing you to these segments. While this chart is more aesthetically pleasing (as it uses half as many colors), it’s also a bit misleading—notice how your eye is drawn to the orange segment in the upper right. The lesson? Assuming the goal is objectivity and truthfulness, you’d want to avoid mixing saturations and hues that are unevenly perceived. If the goal were the opposite, to draw attention away from or toward a particular bit of data, you could manipulate perception by adjusting saturation and hue (not that this is being recommended!). This ability to direct attention by using bolder colors is something that everyone should be aware of and intentional about.

Jobs To Be Done

In this chapter, you’ll learn about these plays:

  • How to create a jobs-driven roadmap
  • Using job stories to solve specific design problems
  • How to architect the structure of a solution
  • Testing assumptions directed by JTBD

A software company I once worked for held what were called “hackweeks” once a quarter. This was a time for developers to work on “whatever they wanted,” as it was framed. Give engineers time to play around with technology, and they’re bound to find the next innovation, or so the theory went.

Hackweek was a big deal for us. Dozens of people organized it, and every developer in the company stopped work to contribute to the effort. It was costly, but we were committed to hackweek. After all, new software offerings come from new development, right?

Here’s how it went: small teams formed to cobble together starter projects representing the use of some new technology. At the end of the week, a panel judged the dozens of concepts that emerged, and the winning “solutions” were rewarded.

But in our case, hackweek was like shooting a shotgun in the wrong direction while blindfolded and hoping to hit the target. The result was inevitably a collection of concepts looking for a problem to solve. It was innovation theater at its best.

To be fair, not all hackathons are bad. Some organizations coordinate hackathons with strategic imperatives or with customer needs. And sure, it’s also good to flex creative muscles and practice collaboration across teams. But given their cost and imprecision, hackathons are often largely ineffective in producing usable concepts.

The problem is not a lack of ideas—companies are usually swimming in them. Like ours, many organizations have a Darwinistic outlook on innovation: generate more and more ideas, and the best will surely rise to the top. Said another way, when looking for a needle in a haystack, the best approach is rarely to add more hay.

The problem is knowing which ideas to pursue. The goal of innovation activities shouldn’t be to collect as many ideas as possible, but instead to get to the right ideas—the ones that matter most to the people you serve.

But more than that, the real challenge is in overcoming the natural forces in organizations that keep good ideas down. Chief among these is uncertainty, a leading deterrent to innovation. New ideas are a gamble for risk-averse managers, even if well-expressed in a high-fidelity prototype.

JTBD provides a way to increase your chances of success by first identifying the right problem to solve. Then JTBD gives you decision-making criteria for moving forward: bet on solutions that address unmet needs to create profitable differentiation.

Focus first on getting the main job done for the individual and fulfilling their needs in relation to the job. From this perspective, hackathons and other idea-generating efforts can be framed by JTBD as both inputs and outputs in terms of how concepts are evaluated.

After understanding the job landscape and defining the value you’re going after, you can continue using JTBD thinking to align teams around the design of your solution. Create a roadmap based on your JTBD landscape to set a common direction. Then use job stories to get everyone on the same page and tie local design efforts to the big picture and to architect the solution structure. JTBD can also guide the experiments you conduct to test your team’s assumptions.

Create a Development Roadmap

At its highest level, a roadmap is a sequence of development events—the relative chronological order in which features and capabilities will be built. Roadmaps serve as a central point of reference for teams to align their efforts. They show the path forward without defining individual tasks.

In the age of Agile and Lean efforts, roadmaps have gotten a bad reputation. People are quick to point out—and rightfully so—that long-term plans inevitably fail: priorities change, unforeseen challenges arise, and timelines slip. The solution, they might argue, is to have no long-term plans and to work on short initiatives with the flexibility to change as needed.

But while providing decision-making power to local development teams makes sense, overall alignment is still needed. An alternative way of viewing roadmaps is to see them not as a definitive project plan, but as a vision of how you’ll create an offering that customers will value. Roadmaps are not unchanging predictions of future activity, but a way to provide transparency for the sequence of steps your team will take to design solutions.

The information in a roadmap helps the entire organization get aligned, not just developers. It’s a strategic communication tool reflecting intention and direction. More importantly, road mapping isn’t just about the artifact: it’s about getting a common understanding of where you’re headed. In this sense, the roadmap occupies the space between the vision and detailed project planning.

JTBD can help create roadmaps that focus on the value that the organization intends to create and deliver for customers. The trick is to get the right problem to solve. Use the insights from your JTBD investigation to formulate roadmaps that are grounded in real customer need.

Mapping the Road Ahead

For a concrete approach to road mapping, I recommend the book Product Roadmaps Relaunched by C. Todd Lombardo, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan, and Michael Conners.[1] In it, the authors clearly articulate the steps to creating meaningful product roadmaps.

JTBD plays a key role in aligning to customer needs, as the authors write: “We recommend starting with the chunks of value you intend to deliver that will build up over time to accomplish your visions. Often this is a set of high-level customer needs, problems, or jobs to be done.”

Their approach breaks down the four key elements of a good product roadmap:

  • Product vision: The vision outlines how your customers will benefit from your offering. How will the job performer benefit from the solution? What will getting the job done look like after the solution is in place?
  • Business objectives: A roadmap must be aligned with the organization’s strategy and objectives. The goals of the business are important for measuring progress.
  • Timefames: Rather than committing to specific dates, good roadmaps sequence work and set broad timelines for completion.
  • Themes: These are the key problems that customers face when completing a job, or clusters of needs that align to the overall solution to be created. JTBD helps frame the themes of your roadmap in particular.

Figure 5.1 shows an example from their book of a basic roadmap overview for a fictional company, The Wombatter Hose, illustrating these main components. Note the disclaimer, as well, indicating that the roadmap is subject to change.

Figure 5.1: An example of the main components of a roadmap from the book Product Roadmaps Relaunched.2

Putting it all together, the process for creating a JTBD-driven roadmap can be broken down into four phases.

Step 1: Define the solution direction.

Define the various elements of your overall product strategy to get agreement on how you’ll be using them. In addition to your solution vision, also define the following together with the team:

  • Mission: What are your business intentions? The mission is about what your organization wants to ultimately achieve.
  • Values: What are your beliefs and ideals? What is the philosophy of your organization and solution? Values define the philosophy of the team and what it believes.
  • Business objectives: What are the specific goals your offerings will accomplish for the organization? Frame these in terms of outcomes, not outputs.

Step 2: Determine customer needs to pursue.

Next, decide on the customer needs to pursue. Here, the authors of Product Roadmaps Relaunched stress the importance of grounding the roadmap in actual customer need. JTBD is central to this step. They write:

“Identifying customer needs is the most important aspect of your roadmapping process. Roadmaps should be about expressing those customer needs. Therefore, most items on your roadmap will derive from a job the customer needs to accomplish or a problem the customer must solve.”

As outlined in Chapter 2, “Core Concepts of JTBD,” needs are hierarchical—from high-level aspirations to main jobs and sub-jobs to micro-jobs. Figure out the top-level jobs to explore and then drill down into the specific themes to target.

The “value themes,” as they are called, might come right from the job map. Locate the areas of highest underserved needs and use those stages as the categories of your roadmap themes. Or you can cluster needs to form themes that don’t necessarily follow the chronology of the job map. The important point is to ground the division of the roadmap in real-world observations of the customer’s job to be done and align the timeline to it.

Step 3: Set a timeline.

Next, create a sequence of value themes that your team will work toward. Timelines can be absolute, relative, or a mix of both. Absolute timelines with specific dates carry the risk of changing, which, in turn, can cause confusion or missed expectations.

Relative timelines give more flexibility but still provide insight into what’s coming and why. There are various terms to use, but the timeline is often broken into three phases for near-term, mid-term, and long-term. Examples include “now, later, future” or “going, next, later” or something similar. Find what works best for you.

Step 4: Align development effort to the roadmap.

Finally, conceptualize specific solutions to design and create. Use job stories to tie the overall project intent to customer needs, outlined in the next section. Then conceptualize solutions around getting the entire job done or the parts of it determined to be most strategically relevant to your business.

After a roadmap is created, you may then need detailed project plans to track progress. A simple Kanban board can serve that purpose in many cases. Or, for more complex software development efforts, tracking software may be needed. In Agile efforts, epic planning and then sprint planning come after you have an overall roadmap.

Tying the overall plan to customer needs gives the design and development teams the feeling that they are building something that matters to customers. Staying focused on customer needs helps avoid building things your customers don’t want. The nature of a job stays the same, even as features may shift. Grounding the roadmap in JTBD ensures that both its longevity and ability to absorb will change.

Learn More About This Play

Lombardo, C. Todd, Bruce McCarthy, Evan Ryan, and Michael Conners.[3] Product Roadmaps Relaunched. Sebastopol, CA:O’Reilly, 2018.

This book distills a wealth of practical information into a compact guide on roadmapping. The authors go to great lengths to provide numerous examples and stories from real-world cases. They use a realistic, modern approach for creating a roadmap that is driven, in part, by JTBD.

Align Teams to Job Stories

Agile development enables teams and organizations to work in a flexible way. The approach started in software development, but has spread to other domains, including government and the military. The principles of Agile development can apply to just about any field.

A key part of Agile is to break down efforts into individual units of work. User stories are short descriptions of features and functionality written from the perspective of the end user. Teams can focus on only a small part of the whole and make progress in a controlled way.

User stories are commonly written in a three-part format. The first element indicates a user’s role in the system. The second points to a capability that enables the person to get a task done. The last part often describes a benefit or reason for using the capability.

Although specific styles can vary, a typical user story resembles something like the following:

As a <role> I can <capability>, so that <benefit>

Examples of use stories in this format include:

  • As a system admin, I can specify files or folders to back up based on file size, date created, and date modified.
  • As a user, I can indicate folders not to back up so that my drive isn't filled up with things I don't need to be saved.
  • As a user, I want to update the name of a document so that I can categorize it.

For any given system, there may be hundreds of user stories. Some can be quite granular, such as describing a single button and why a user would click it. Stories are then organized into a backlog or repository of functionality to be built. Teams break off logical groups of user stories in sprints or two- to four-week cycles of work.

Job Stories

Although user stories are good for breaking down work, they typically fail to connect the solution being built with user needs. They lack an indication of why someone would behave in a certain way and what they need to get a job done. In fact, often user stories are derived from the capability being built, not from observing actual behavior.

Job stories are an alternative to user stories. They follow the tradition of breaking down efforts into smaller pieces, but through the JTBD lens. The technique was first pioneered by the product development team at Intercom, a leading marketing communications solution. They wanted to avoid leading designers with a preconceived solution, as well as tying development to the company vision and strategy.

Paul Adams, an Intercom product manager, wrote about job stories for the first time, saying: “We frame every design problem in a Job, focusing on the triggering event or situation, the motivation and goal, and the intended outcome.”[4]

As a result, their job story format also has three parts. But instead of focusing on a generic role, like a “user” or an “admin,” job stories begin with a highlight on the situation and context, not the individual:

When [situation], I want to [motivation], so I can [expected outcome].

Examples of job stories include:

  • When an important new customer signs up, I want to be notified so that I can start a conversation with that person.
  • When I visit someone’s profile page, I want to see how many posts they have in each topic so that I have an understanding of where they have the most knowledge.
  • When I have used the application multiple times, I get nudged to contribute so that I am encouraged to participate.

JTBD author and leader Alan Klement has done the most work refining the job story format.[5] He believes that adding more information about the circumstances shows causality better. Focusing on the context shifts attention from a persona to the situation. Klement advises that you avoid writing vague situations, but instead be as specific as possible.

For instance, consider these three possible situations for the first element of job stories:

  • When I’m hungry…
  • When I’m lost…
  • When I want to check my email…

Instead, Klement recommends describing the circumstances in rich detail:

  • When I’m hungry, running late to get somewhere, not sure when I’m going to eat again, and worried that I’ll soon be tired and irritable from hunger…
  • When I’m lost in a city that I’ve never been to, don’t know the local language, and am worried that I’ll be wasting my time in places I don’t want to be in…
  • When I want to check my email, but don’t want anyone around me to know I’m checking my email because they’ll think I’m being rude…

Each of these example situations provides more context for designing an appropriate solution.

Working with Job Stories

Job stories are modular, giving designers and developers the flexibility to solve problems in alternative ways. Job stories are grounded in real-world insight, and they are more powerful than user stories in guiding solutions. But creating job stories is more free-form than other JTBD techniques. Still, there are patterns that you can follow. Using the elements from Chapter 2, I suggest the following structure for job stories:

When I [circumstance + job stage/step], I want to [micro-job], so I can [need].

Examples:

  • When I am one of the top posters while updating my social media feeds daily, I want it to show on my profile so that I can increase recognition as an expert on the subject.
  • When I run out of materials needed while completing an art project, I want to find alternative materials so that I can maximize the number of uses of my current supplies.
  • When preparing for my commute and running late, I want to know the current weather along my journey so that I can minimize the chance of arriving wet.

Consider the last example. The first element combines information about the circumstances (running late) of getting the main job done (commute to work) within a stage of the process (prepare for commute).

The second element points to an even smaller step or micro-job (check forecast). It should be formulated without reference to specific technology, but should be specific enough for designers and developers to create a specific capability.

Finally, the last element can be taken right from your list of needs. In this case, the job performer (commuter) wants to avoid showing up to the office wet (minimize the chance of arriving at work wet). You can leverage the elements your JTBD landscape already uncovered in research directly in the formulation of the job story statements.

In researching this book, I’ve come across various alternative approaches to formulating job stories. Andrea Hill, a prominent advocate of JTBD on social media, suggests a slightly different approach. She sees the middle element pointing directly to a feature or solution of some kind, thus explicitly crossing from the problem space into the solution space. Her basic format is as follows:

When I [circumstance], I want to [solution capability], so I can [need].

A job story for the previous example of commuting to work might then look like this:

When I’m preparing to commute to work, I want to have weather forecast notifications pushed to my phone, so I can minimize the chance of arriving wet.

Steph Troeph, research and JTBD instructor in the UK, approaches job stories in yet another way. She thinks of them with this formula:

When I [circumstance], I want to [job], so that [benefit a solution offers].

Regardless of your interpretation, the key is to find a consistent structure and stick with it. The form you end up with needs to be appropriate to your team and your situation.

Jobs Stories in Action

Ultimately, job stories tie a local design and development effort to a broader JTBD framework. Because the format of job stories includes contextual details, they are portable. In other words, a job story should make sense without having to know the larger JTBD landscape or job map. As a result, job stories have a more “plug-and-play” versatility that is often required for Agile designs and development teams.

For instance, Agile planners can manage a backlog of job stories much in the same way that they would manage user stories. If a given sprint gets slowed down or changes direction, stories not addressed can be carried over to the next sprint. Having a smaller, self-contained description of the smaller job to be done has advantages during the design and development phases.

But to be clear: I have found that job stories typically do not replace user stories for development completely. Instead, job stories guide and frame the conceptualization of a solution rather than track implementation. They serve best as a design tool to create or determine concept direction and design. Developers and engineers will likely still need user stories to measure the burndown rate and overall progress.

Your job map provides an overall orientation to your JTBD landscape and allows you to zero in on a specific area for design and development. A roadmap gives you a high-level sequence of development with the rationale for planning activities. Job stories are more specific and guide the local design and development of features and capabilities.

Follow these steps to create job stories based on your JTBD research:

Step 1: Understand job stages and circumstances.

Base the relevant jobs and circumstances on previous interviews and observations. For each area of development in your solution, consider the steps in the main job. Then drill down and list the smaller and smaller steps as micro-jobs, using the rules of formulating JTBD. Also identify the circumstances that apply to that part of the main job in particular.

Depending on the depth of your prior research and how well you and your team understand the job, you may not need to do more research to create and validate job stories. It’s never a bad idea to speak with people again and drill down on specific problems and objectives they have. During additional interviews, ask “how?” until you get more granular in understanding of subgoals and objectives.

Step 2: Formulate job stories.

As a team, write job stories that are specific to your design and development effort. Decide on a consistent format for the job stories and stick to it.

Strive to come up with unique, mutually exclusive stories that target specific jobs and circumstances. Avoid redundancy. For instance, in the previous example, you probably don’t need separate stories for commuting by train versus commuting by car. Develop the job stories that matter the most and focus on a limited set. You may end up with anywhere from three to eight job stories per project or sprint.

Step 3: Solve for the job stories.

Make job stories visible and transparent to the entire team to solve for the job stories. For instance, post a relevant list of job stories in a brainstorming session for everyone to see. Or list job stories at the beginning of a design critique so that the team has context for making comments. Use JTBD to guide design and development decisions.

It’s also possible to then use the job stories to review the appropriateness of your solutions. First, the design team can use the job stories relevant to a project as heuristics. They should constantly ask if their designs are meeting the user’s goals set out in the job stories.

Then you can test solutions with users against the job stories. Show users your solutions (e.g., as a mock-up or prototype) and ask them how well each addresses the job stories. This can be done in an interview-style fashion or with a survey. The job stories ultimately become a measure for success of the designs before anything is built.

Job stories let you take a step back and look at the context of the job while designing a product or service. In this respect, job stories fill an important gap between the observations of customers and solution development, connecting insights into customer needs to individual features and development efforts.

Related Approaches: Needs Statements

Design thinking is a broad framework for creative problem solving. It is rooted in human-centered methods that seek to develop deep empathy for people and then to devise solutions that meet their needs. In design thinking, it is important to define the problem to solve before generating options for solutions.

One technique to encapsulate insights from research is to generate need statements, greatly resembling job stories in form. But these statements differ from “needs,” as defined in Chapter 2, in that need statements in design thinking are not specifically limited to the outcomes of a getting a main job done, and they can be aspirational in nature.

Need statements in design thinking also tend to be much more focused on a persona or an individual rather than the circumstances. For instance, writing for the Norman Nielsen Group, Sarah Gibbons refers to need statements representing a point-of-view for the user of a system:[6] “A user need statement is an actionable problem statement used to summarize who a particular user is, the user’s need, and why the need is important to that user.”

Like job stories, need statements have three components: a user, a need, and a goal. The user corresponds to a goal-based persona based on research (as outlined in Chapter 4, “Defining Value”). A need is expressed independent of a feature or technology. The goal is the result of meeting the need. Gibbons provides an example:

Alieda, a multitasking, tech-savvy mother of two, needs to quickly and confidently compare options without leaving her comfort zone in order to spend more time doing the things that really matter.

Note that the insight at the end of this statement, “doing the things that really matter,” is very broad and hard to measure. Job stories, on the other hand, favor a more specific context and outcome. For instance, rewriting the above example through the lens of job stories might yield something like the following:

When I’m multitasking and in a rush, I need a familiar way to quickly and confidently compare options so that I can minimize the time spent on finding a solution.

Like need statements in design thinking, job stories also avoid the mention of features or technology. Yet, they are much more specific to a given job and its context. While both a need statement from design thinking and a job story can feed into the creative generation of solutions, job stories will provide more direct guidance without prescribing a solution.

But the definition of a need in design thinking can vary greatly. For instance, IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking approach also includes guidelines for generating statements.[7] Not surprisingly, there are three parts: a user, a need, and a benefit. Here’s an example from the IBM site:

A developer needs a way to make sense of minimal design so that they can prototype faster.

This example is much more specific than Gibbon’s approach, yet still avoids mentioning a specific solution. There are no aspirational elements, such as “pursuing lifelong dreams,” sometimes found elsewhere in design thinking. IBM’s approach to need statements is closer to the job story approach, but is also light on describing the circumstances of use.

In some sense, the differences between job stories—even with the variations in format—and need statements points to a key distinction between JTBD and design thinking. The former focuses much more on the circumstances than the person’s state of mind or psychology. Where design thinking seeks to gain empathy for the individual as a starting point, JTBD seeks to understand the circumstances of accomplishing an objective before factoring in emotional and personal aspects.

Learn More About This Play

Klement, Alan. “Replacing the User Story with the Job Story.” JTBD.info (2013); “5 Tips for Writing a Job Story,” JTBD.info (2013); “Designing Features Using Job Stories,” Inside Intercom (2015).

Klement has done the most extensive work to develop the job story technique. These three articles outline the basis for creating them. The technique has evolved slightly, but Klement points clearly to how he’s updated his approach. Klement and others have posted widely about their use for development efforts, but start with these resources.

van de Keuken, Maxim. “Using Job Stories and Jobs-to-be-Done in Software Requirements Engineering.” Thesis, Utrecht University, 2017.

This thesis project offers a detailed investigation of how job stories are applied to date. After illustrating the history of job stories, Van de Keuken presents the results of his original research variations in application of job stories as seen in practice. This work contributes greatly to making job stories a more formal part of software requirements engineering.

Usability Testing for Voice Content

It’s an important time to be in voice design. Many of us are turning to voice assistants in these times, whether for comfort, recreation, or staying informed. As the interest in interfaces driven by voice continues to reach new heights around the world, so too will users’ expectations and the best practices that guide their design.

Voice interfaces (also known as voice user interfaces or VUIs) have been reinventing how we approach, evaluate, and interact with user interfaces. The impact of conscious efforts to reduce close contact between people will continue to increase users’ expectations for the availability of a voice component on all devices, whether that entails a microphone icon indicating voice-enabled search or a full-fledged voice assistant waiting patiently in the wings for an invocation.

But voice interfaces present inherent challenges and surprises. In this relatively new realm of design, the intrinsic twists and turns in spoken language can make things difficult for even the most carefully considered voice interfaces. After all, spoken language is littered with fillers (in the linguistic sense of utterances like hmm and um), hesitations and pauses, and other interruptions and speech disfluencies that present puzzling problems for designers and implementers alike.

Once you’ve built a voice interface that introduces information or permits transactions in a rich way for spoken language users, the easy part is done. Nonetheless, voice interfaces also surface unique challenges when it comes to usability testing and robust evaluation of your end result. But there are advantages, too, especially when it comes to accessibility and cross-channel content strategy. The fact that voice-driven content lies on the opposite extreme of the spectrum from the traditional website confers it an additional benefit: it’s an effective way to analyze and stress-test just how channel-agnostic your content truly is.

The quandary of voice usability

Several years ago, I led a talented team at Acquia Labs to design and build a voice interface for Digital Services Georgia called Ask GeorgiaGov, which allowed citizens of the state of Georgia to access content about key civic tasks, like registering to vote, renewing a driver’s license, and filing complaints against businesses. Based on copy drawn directly from the frequently asked questions section of the Georgia.gov website, it was the first Amazon Alexa interface integrated with the Drupal content management system ever built for public consumption. Built by my former colleague Chris Hamper, it also offered a host of impressive features, like allowing users to request the phone number of individual government agencies for each query on a topic.

Designing and building web experiences for the public sector is a uniquely challenging endeavor due to requirements surrounding accessibility and frequent budgetary challenges. Out of necessity, governments need to be exacting and methodical not only in how they engage their citizens and spend money on projects but also how they incorporate new technologies into the mix. For most government entities, voice is a completely different world, with many potential pitfalls.

At the outset of the project, the Digital Services Georgia team, led by Nikhil Deshpande, expressed their most important need: a single content model across all their content irrespective of delivery channel, as they only had resources to maintain a single rendition of each content item. Despite this editorial challenge, Georgia saw Alexa as an exciting opportunity to open new doors to accessible solutions for citizens with disabilities. And finally, because there were relatively few examples of voice usability testing at the time, we knew we would have to learn on the fly and experiment to find the right solution.

Eventually, we discovered that all the traditional approaches to usability testing that we’d executed for other projects were ill-suited to the unique problems of voice usability. And this was only the beginning of our problems.

How voice interfaces improve accessibility outcomes

Any discussion of voice usability must consider some of the most experienced voice interface users: people who use assistive devices. After all, accessibility has long been a bastion of web experiences, but it has only recently become a focus of those implementing voice interfaces. In a world where refreshable Braille displays and screen readers prize the rendering of web-based content into synthesized speech above all, the voice interface seems like an anomaly. But in fact, the exciting potential of Amazon Alexa for disabled citizens represented one of the primary motivations for Georgia’s interest in making their content available through a voice assistant.

Questions surrounding accessibility with voice have surfaced in recent years due to the perceived user experience benefits that voice interfaces can offer over more established assistive devices. Because screen readers make no exceptions when they recite the contents of a page, they can occasionally present superfluous information and force the user to wait longer than they’re willing. In addition, with an effective content schema, it can often be the case that voice interfaces facilitate pointed interactions with content at a more granular level than the page itself.

Though it can be difficult to convince even the most forward-looking clients of accessibility’s value, Georgia has been not only a trailblazer but also a committed proponent of content accessibility beyond the web. The state was among the first jurisdictions to offer a text-to-speech (TTS) phone hotline that read web pages aloud. After all, state governments must serve all citizens equally—no ifs, ands, or buts. And while these are still early days, I can see voice assistants becoming new conduits, and perhaps more efficient channels, by which disabled users can access the content they need.

Managing content destined for discrete channels

Whereas voice can improve accessibility of content, it’s seldom the case that web and voice are the only channels through which we must expose information. For this reason, one piece of advice I often give to content strategists and architects at organizations interested in pursuing voice-driven content is to never think of voice content in isolation. Siloing it is the same misguided approach that has led to mobile applications and other discrete experiences delivering orphaned or outdated content to a user expecting that all content on the website should be up-to-date and accessible through other channels as well.

After all, we’ve trained ourselves for many years to think of content in the web-only context rather than across channels. Our closely held assumptions about links, file downloads, images, and other web-based marginalia and miscellany are all aspects of web content that translate poorly to the conversational context—and particularly the voice context. Increasingly, we all need to concern ourselves with an omnichannel content strategy that straddles all those channels in existence today and others that will doubtlessly surface over the horizon.

With the advantages of structured content in Drupal 7, Georgia.gov already had a content model amenable to interlocution in the form of frequently asked questions (FAQs). While question-and-answer formats are convenient for voice assistants because queries for content tend to come in the form of questions, the returned responses likewise need to be as voice-optimized as possible.

For Georgia.gov, the need to preserve a single rendition of all content across all channels led us to perform a conversational content audit, in which we read aloud all of the FAQ pages, putting ourselves in the shoes of a voice user, and identified key differences between how a user would interpret the written form and how they would parse the spoken form of that same content. After some discussion with the editorial team at Georgia, we opted to limit calls to action (e.g., “Read more”), links lacking clear context in surrounding text, and other situations confusing to voice users who cannot visualize the content they are listening to.

Here’s a table containing examples of how we converted certain text on FAQ pages to counterparts more appropriate for voice. Reading each sentence aloud, one by one, helped us identify cases where users might scratch their heads and say “Huh?” in a voice context.

Before After
Learn how to change your name on your Social Security card. The Social Security Administration can help you change your name on your Social Security card.
You can receive payments through either a debit card or direct deposit. Learn more about payments. You can receive payments through either a debit card or direct deposit.
Read more about this. In Georgia, the Family Support Registry typically pulls payments directly from your paycheck. However, you can send your own payments online through your bank account, your credit card, or Western Union. You may also send your payments by mail to the address provided in your court order.

In areas like content strategy and content governance, content audits have long been key to understanding the full picture of your content, but it doesn’t end there. Successful content audits can run the gamut from automated checks for orphaned content or overly wordy articles to more qualitative analyses of how content adheres to a specific brand voice or certain design standards. For a content strategy truly prepared for channels both here and still to come, a holistic understanding of how users will interact with your content in a variety of situations is a baseline requirement today.

Other conversational interfaces have it easier

Spoken language is inherently hard. Even the most gifted orators can have trouble with it. It’s littered with mistakes, starts and stops, interruptions, hesitations, and a vertiginous range of other uniquely human transgressions. The written word, because it’s committed instantly to a mostly permanent record, is tame, staid, and carefully considered in comparison.

When we talk about conversational interfaces, we need to draw a clear distinction between the range of user experiences that traffic in written language rather than spoken language. As we know from the relative solidity of written language and literature versus the comparative transience of spoken language and oral traditions, in many ways the two couldn’t be more different from one another. The implications for designers are significant because spoken language, from the user’s perspective, lacks a graphical equivalent to which those scratching their head can readily refer. We’re dealing with the spoken word and aural affordances, not pixels, written help text, or visual affordances.

Why written conversational interfaces are easier to evaluate

One of the privileges that chatbots and textbots enjoy over voice interfaces is the fact that by design, they can’t hide the previous steps users have taken. Any conversational interface user working in the written medium has access to their previous history of interactions, which can stretch back days, weeks, or months: the so-called backscroll. A flight passenger communicating with an airline through Facebook Messenger, for example, knows that they can merely scroll up in the chat history to confirm that they’ve already provided the company with their e-ticket number or frequent flyer account information.

This has outsize implications for information architecture and conversational wayfinding. Since chatbot users can consult their own written record, it’s much harder for things to go completely awry when they make a move they didn’t intend. Recollection is much more difficult when you have to remember what you said a few minutes ago off the top of your head rather than scrolling up to the information you provided a few hours or weeks ago. An effective chatbot interface may, for example, enable a user to jump back to a much earlier, specific place in a conversation’s history.An effective chatbot interface may, for example, enable a user to jump back to a much earlier, specific place in a conversation’s history. Voice interfaces that live perpetually in the moment have no such luxury.

Eye tracking only works for visual components

In many cases, those who work with chatbots and messaging bots (especially those leveraging text messages or other messaging services like Facebook Messenger, Slack, or WhatsApp) have the unique privilege of benefiting from a visual component. Some conversational interfaces now insert other elements into the conversational flow between a machine and a person, such as embedded conversational forms (like SPACE10’s Conversational Form) that allow users to enter rich input or select from a range of possible responses.

The success of eye tracking in more traditional usability testing scenarios highlights its appropriateness for visual interfaces such as websites, mobile applications, and others. However, from the standpoint of evaluating voice interfaces that are entirely aural, eye tracking serves only the limited (but still interesting from a research perspective) purpose of assessing where the test subject is looking while speaking with an invisible interlocutor—not whether they are able to use the interface successfully. Indeed, eye tracking is only a viable option for voice interfaces that have some visual component, like the Amazon Echo Show.

Think-aloud and concurrent probing interrupt the conversational flow

A well-worn approach for usability testing is think-aloud, which allows for users working with interfaces to present their frequently qualitative impressions of interfaces verbally while interacting with the user experience in question. Paired with eye tracking, think-aloud adds considerable dimension to a usability test for visual interfaces such as websites and web applications, as well as other visually or physically oriented devices.

Another is concurrent probing (CP). Probing involves the use of questions to gather insights about the interface from users, and Usability.gov describes two types: concurrent, in which the researcher asks questions during interactions, and retrospective, in which questions only come once the interaction is complete.

Conversational interfaces that utilize written language rather than spoken language can still be well-suited to think-aloud and concurrent probing approaches, especially for the components in the interface that require manual input, like conversational forms and other traditional UI elements interspersed throughout the conversation itself.

But for voice interfaces, think-aloud and concurrent probing are highly questionable approaches and can catalyze a variety of unintended consequences, including accidental invocations of trigger words (such as Alexa mishearing “selected” as “Alexa”) and introduction of bad data (such as speech transcription registering both the voice interface and test subject). After all, in a hypothetical think-aloud or CP test of a voice interface, the user would be responsible for conversing with the chatbot while simultaneously offering up their impressions to the evaluator overseeing the test.

Voice usability tests with retrospective probing

Retrospective probing (RP), a lesser-known approach for usability testing, is seldom seen in web usability testing due to its chief weakness: the fact that we have awful memories and rarely remember what occurred mere moments earlier with anything that approaches total accuracy. (This might explain why the backscroll has joined the pantheon of rigid recordkeeping currently occupied by cuneiform, the printing press, and other means of concretizing information.)

For users of voice assistants lacking scrollable chat histories, retrospective probing introduces the potential for subjects to include false recollections in their assessments or to misinterpret the conclusion of their conversations. That said, retrospective probing permits the participant to take some time to form their impressions of an interface rather than dole out incremental tidbits in a stream of consciousness, as would more likely occur in concurrent probing.

What makes voice usability tests unique

Voice usability tests have several unique characteristics that distinguish them from web usability tests or other conversational usability tests, but some of the same principles unify both visual interfaces and their aural counterparts. As always, “test early, test often” is a mantra that applies here, as the earlier you can begin testing, the more robust your results will be. Having an individual to administer a test and another to transcribe results or watch for signs of trouble is also an effective best practice in settings beyond just voice usability.

Interference from poor soundproofing or external disruptions can derail a voice usability test even before it begins. Many large organizations will have soundproof rooms or recording studios available for voice usability researchers. For the vast majority of others, a mostly silent room will suffice, though absolute silence is optimal. In addition, many subjects, even those well-versed in web usability tests, may be unaccustomed to voice usability tests in which long periods of silence are the norm to establish a baseline for data.

How we used retrospective probing to test Ask GeorgiaGov

For Ask GeorgiaGov, we used the retrospective probing approach almost exclusively to gather a range of insights about how our users were interacting with voice-driven content. We endeavored to evaluate interactions with the interface early and diachronically. In the process, we asked each of our subjects to complete two distinct tasks that would require them to traverse the entirety of the interface by asking questions (conducting a search), drilling down into further questions, and requesting the phone number for a related agency. Though this would be a significant ask of any user working with a visual interface, the unidirectional focus of voice interface flows, by contrast, reduced the likelihood of lengthy accidental detours.

Here are a couple of example scenarios:

You have a business license in Georgia, but you’re not sure if you have to register on an annual basis. Talk with Alexa to find out the information you need. At the end, ask for a phone number for more information.

You’ve just moved to Georgia and you know you need to transfer your driver’s license, but you’re not sure what to do. Talk with Alexa to find out the information you need. At the end, ask for a phone number for more information.

We also peppered users with questions after the test concluded to learn about their impressions through retrospective probing:

  • “On a scale of 1–5, based on the scenario, was the information you received helpful? Why or why not?”
  • “On a scale of 1–5, based on the scenario, was the content presented clear and easy to follow? Why or why not?”
  • “What’s the answer to the question that you were tasked with asking?”

Because state governments also routinely deal with citizen questions having to do with potentially traumatic issues such as divorce and sexual harassment, we also offered the choice for participants to opt out of certain categories of tasks.

While this testing procedure yielded compelling results that indicated our voice interface was performing at the level it needed to despite its experimental nature, we also ran into considerable challenges during the usability testing process. Restoring Amazon Alexa to its initial state and troubleshooting issues on the fly proved difficult during the initial stages of the implementation, when bugs were still common.

In the end, we found that many of the same lessons that apply to more storied examples of usability testing were also relevant to Ask GeorgiaGov: the importance of testing early and testing often, the need for faithful yet efficient transcription, and the surprising staying power of bugs when integrating disparate technologies. Despite Ask GeorgiaGov’s many similarities to other interface implementations in terms of technical debt and the role of usability testing, we were overjoyed to hear from real Georgians whose engagement with their state government could not be more different from before.

Conclusion

Many of us may be building interfaces for voice content to experiment with newfangled channels, or to build for disabled people and people newer to the web. Now, they are necessities for many others, especially as social distancing practices continue to take hold worldwide. Nonetheless, it’s crucial to keep in mind that voice should be only one component of a channel-agnostic strategy equipped for content ripped away from its usual contexts. Building usable voice-driven content experiences can teach us a great deal about how we should envisage our milieu of content and its future in the first place.

Gone are the days when we could write a page in HTML and call it a day; content now needs to be rendered through synthesized speech, augmented reality overlays, digital signage, and other environments where users will never even touch a personal computer. By focusing on structured content first and foremost with an eye toward moving past our web-based biases in developing our content for voice and others, we can better ensure the effectiveness of our content on any device and in any form factor.

Eight months after we finished building Ask GeorgiaGov in 2017, we conducted a retrospective to inspect the logs amassed over the past year. The results were striking. Vehicle registration, driver’s licenses, and the state sales tax comprised the most commonly searched topics. 79.2% of all interactions were successful, an achievement for one of the first content-driven Alexa skills in production, and 71.2% of all interactions led to the issuance of a phone number that users could call for further information.

But deep in the logs we implemented for the Georgia team’s convenience, we found a number of perplexing 404 Not Found errors related to a search term that kept being recorded over and over again as “Lawson’s.” After some digging and consulting the native Georgians in the room, we discovered that one of our dear users with a particularly strong drawl was repeatedly pronouncing “license” in her native dialect to no avail.

As this anecdote highlights, just as no user experience can be truly perfect for everyone, voice content is an environment where imperfections can highlight considerations we missed in developing cross-channel content. And just as we have much to learn when it comes to the new shapes content can take as it jumps off the screen and out the window, it seems our voice interfaces still have a ways to go before they take over the world too.

Special thanks to Nikhil Deshpande for his feedback during the writing process.

Cross-Cultural Design

When I first traveled to Japan as an exchange student in 2001, I lived in northern Kyoto, a block from the Kitayama subway station.

My first time using the train to get to my university was almost a disaster, even though it was only two subway stops away. I thought I had everything I needed to successfully make the trip. I double- and triple-checked that I had the correct change in one pocket and a computer printout of where I was supposed to go in the other. I was able to make it down into the station, but then I just stood at a ticket machine, dumbfounded, looking at all the flashing lights, buttons, and maps above my head (Fig 5.1). Everything was so impenetrable. I was overwhelmed by the architecture, the sounds, the signs, and the language.

Photo of two subway ticket machines with complex maps above them
Fig 5.1: Kyoto subway ticket machines—with many line maps and bilingual station names—can seem complicated, especially to newcomers.

My eyes craved something familiar—and there it was. The ticket machine had a small button that said English! I pushed it but became even more lost: the instructions were poorly translated, and anyway, they explained a system that I couldn’t use in the first place.

Guess what saved me? Two little old Japanese ladies. As they bought tickets, I casually looked over their shoulders to see how they were using the machines. First, they looked up at the map to find their desired destination. Then, they noted the fare written next to the station. Finally, they put some money into the machine, pushed the button that lit up with their correct fare, and out popped the tickets! Wow! I tried it myself after they left. And after a few tense moments, I got my ticket and headed through the gates to the train platform.

I pride myself on being a third-culture kid, meaning I was raised in a culture other than the country named on my passport. But even with a cultural upbringing in both Nigeria and the US, it was one of the first times I ever had to guess my way through a task with no previous reference points. And I did it!

Unfortunately, the same guesswork happens online a million times a day. People visit sites that offer them no cultural mental models or visual framework to fall back on, and they end up stumbling through links and pages. Effective visual systems can help eliminate that guesswork and uncertainty by creating layered sets of cues in the design and interface. Let’s look at a few core parts of these design systems and tease out how we can make them more culturally responsive and multifaceted.

Typography

If you work on the web, you deal with typography all the time. This isn’t a book about typography—others have written far more eloquently and technically on the subject. What I would like to do, however, is examine some of the ways culture and identity influence our perception of type and what typographic choices designers can make to help create rich cross-cultural experiences.

Stereotypography

I came across the word stereotypography a few years ago. Being African, I’m well aware of the way my continent is portrayed in Western media—a dirt-poor, rural monoculture with little in the way of technology, education, or urbanization. In the West, one of the most recognizable graphic markers for things African, tribal, or uncivilized (and no, they are not the same thing) is the typeface Neuland. Rob Giampietro calls it “the New Black Face,” a clever play on words. In an essay, he asks an important question:

How did [Neuland and Lithos] come to signify Africans and African-Americans, regardless of how a designer uses them, and regardless of the purpose for which their creators originally intended them? (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-01/)

From its release in 1923 and continued use through the 1940s in African-American-focused advertising, Neuland has carried heavy connotations and stereotypes of cheapness, ugliness, tribalism, and roughness. You see this even today. Neuland is used in posters for movies like Tarzan, Jurassic Park, and Jumanji—movies that are about jungles, wildness, and scary beasts lurking in the bush, all Western symbolism for the continent of Africa. Even MyFonts’ download page for Neuland (Fig 5.2) includes tags for “Africa,” “jungle fever,” and “primitive”—tags unconnected to anything else in the product besides that racist history.

Fig 5.2: On MyFonts, the Neuland typeface is tagged with “Africa”, “jungle fever”, and “primitive”, perpetuating an old and irrelevant typographic stereotype (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-02/).

Don’t make, use, or sell fonts this way. Here are some tips on how to avoid stereotypography when defining your digital experiences:

  • Be immediately suspicious of any typeface that “looks like” a culture or country. For example, so-called “wonton” or “chop-suey” fonts, whose visual style is thought to express “Asianness” or to suggest Chinese calligraphy, have long appeared on food cartons, signs, campaign websites, and even Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirts with racist caricatures of Asians (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-03/). Monotype’s website, where you can buy a version called Mandarin Regular (US$35), cringingly describes the typeface’s story as “an interpretation of artistically drawn Asian brush calligraphy” (Fig 5.3). Whether or not you immediately know its history, run away from any typeface that purports to represent an entire culture.
A font called "Mandarin" with a stereotypical Asian aesthetic
Fig 5.3: Fonts.com sells a typeface called Mandarin Regular with the following description: “The stylized Asian atmosphere is not created only by the forms of the figures but also by the very name of the typeface. A mandarin was a high official of the ancient Chinese empire” (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-04/).
  • Support type designers who are from the culture you are designing for. This might seem like it’s a difficult task, but the internet is a big place. I have found that, for clients who are sensitive to cultural issues, the inclusion of type designers’ names and backgrounds can be a powerful differentiator, even making its way into their branding packages as a point of pride.

The world wide webfont

Another common design tool you should consider is webfonts—fonts specifically designed for use on websites and apps. One of the main selling points of webfonts is that instead of putting text in images, clients can use live text on their sites, which is better for SEO and accessibility. They are simple to implement these days, a matter of adding a line of code or checking a box on a templating engine. The easiest way to get them on your site is by using a service like Google Fonts, Fontstand, or Adobe Fonts.

Or is it? That assumes those services are actually available to your users.

Google Fonts (and every other service using Google’s Developer API) is blocked in mainland China, which means that any of those nice free fonts you chose would simply not load (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-05/). You can work around this, but it also helps to have a fallback font—that’s what they’re for.

When you’re building your design system, why not take a few extra steps to define some webfonts that are visible in places with content blocks? Justfont is one of the first services focused on offering a wide range of Chinese webfonts (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-06/). They have both free and paid tiers of service, similar to Western font services. After setting up an account, you can grab whatever CSS and font-family information you need.

Multiple script systems

When your design work requires more than one script—for instance, a Korean typeface and a Latin typeface—your choices get much more difficult. Designs that incorporate more than one are called multiple script systems (multiscript systems for short). Combining them is an interesting design challenge, one that requires extra typographic sensitivity. Luckily, your multiscript choices will rarely appear on the same page together; you will usually be choosing fonts that work across the brand, not that work well next to one another visually.

Let’s take a look at an example of effective multiscript use. SurveyMonkey, an online survey and questionnaire tool, has their site localized into a variety of different languages (Fig 5.4). Take note of the headers, the structure of the text in the menu and buttons, and how both fonts feel like part of the same brand.

A SurveyMonkey page in Korean with a simple aesthetic A SurveyMonkey page in English with a simple and similar aesthetic
Fig 5.4: Compare the typographic choices in the Korean (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-07/) and US English (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-08/) versions of SurveyMonkey’s Take a Tour page. Do the header type and spacing retain the spirit of the brand while still accounting for typographic needs?

Some tips as you attempt to choose multiscript fonts for your project:

  • Inspect the overall weight and contrast level of the scripts. Take the time to examine how weight and contrast are used in the scripts you’re using. Find weights and sizes that give you a similar feel and give the page the right balance, regardless of the script.
  • Keep an eye on awkward script features. Character x-heights, descenders, ascenders, and spacing can throw off the overall brand effect. For instance, Japanese characters are always positioned within a grid with all characters designed to fit in squares of equal height and width. Standard Japanese typefaces also contain Latin characters, called romaji. Those Latin characters will, by default, be kerned according to that same grid pattern, often leaving their spacing awkward and ill-formed. Take the extra time to find a typeface that doesn’t have features that are awkward to work with.
  • Don’t automatically choose scripts based on superficial similarity. Initial impressions don’t always mean a typeface is the right one for your project. In an interview in the book Bi-Scriptual, Jeongmin Kwon, a typeface designer based in France, offers an example (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-09/). Nanum Myeongjo, a contemporary Hangul typeface, might at first glance look really similar to a seventeenth-century Latin old-style typeface—for instance, they both have angled serifs. However, Nanum Myeongjo was designed in 2008 with refined, modern strokes, whereas old-style typefaces were originally created centuries ago and echo handwritten letterforms (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-10/). Looking at the Google Fonts page for Nanum Myeongjo, though, none of that is clear (Fig 5.5). The page automatically generates a Latin Nn glyph in the top left of the page, instead of a more representative Hangul character sample. If I based my multiscript font choices on my initial reactions to that page, my pairings wouldn’t accurately capture the history and design of each typeface.
A font with a large sample character in Latin text rather than a more representative Hangul character
Fig 5.5: The Google Fonts page for Nanum Myeongjo shows a Latin character sample in the top left, rather than a more representative character sample.

Visual density

CSS can help you control visual density—how much text, image, and other content there is relative to the negative space on your page. As you read on, keep cultural variables in mind: different cultures value different levels of visual density.

Let’s compare what are commonly called CJK (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) alphabets and Latin (English, French, Italian, etc.) alphabets. CJK alphabets have more complex characters, with shapes that are generally squarer than Latin letterforms. The glyphs also tend to be more detailed than Latin ones, resulting in a higher visual density.

Your instinct might be to create custom type sizes and line heights for each of your localized pages. That is a perfectly acceptable option, and if you are a typophile, it may drive you crazy not to do it. But I’m here to tell you that­ when adding CJK languages to a design system, you can update it to account for their visual density without ripping out a lot of your original CSS:

  1. Choose a font size that is slightly larger for CJK characters, because of their density.
  2. Choose a line height that gives you ample vertical space between each line of text (referred to as line-height in CSS).
  3. Look at your Latin text in the same sizes and see if it still works.
  4. Tweak them together to find a size that works well with both scripts.

The 2017 site for Typojanchi, the Korean Typography Biennale, follows this methodology (Fig 5.6). Both the English and Korean texts have a font-size of 1.25em, and a line-height of 1.5. The result? The English text takes up more space vertically, and the block of Korean text is visually denser, but both are readable and sit comfortably within the overall page design. It is useful to compare translated websites like this to see how CSS styling can be standardized across Latin and CJK pages.

A basic layout with English textA basic layout with Korean text
Fig 5.6: The 2017 site for Typojanchi, the Korean Typography Biennale, shows differing visual density in action. It is useful to compare translated websites like this to see how CSS styling can be standardized across Latin and CJK pages (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-11/).

Text expansion factors

Expansion factors calculate how long strings of text will be in different languages. They use either a decimal (1.8) or a percentage (180%) to calculate the length of a text string in English versus a different language. Of course, letter-spacing depends on the actual word or phrase, but think of them as a very rough way to anticipate space for text when it gets translated.

Using expansion factors is best when planning for microcopy, calls to action, and menus, rather than long-form content like articles or blog posts that can freely expand down the page. The Salesforce Lightning Design System offers a detailed expansion-factor table to help designers roughly calculate space requirements for other languages in a UI (Fig 5.7).

A chart showing how a different piece of content lays out in different languages
Fig 5.7: This expansion-factor table from Salesforce lets designers and developers estimate the amount of text that will exist in different languages. Though dependent on the actual words, such calculations can give you a benchmark to design with content in mind (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-12/).

But wait! Like everything in cross-cultural design, nothing is ever that simple. Japanese, for example, has three scripts: Kanji, for characters of Chinese origin, hiragana, for words and sounds that are not represented in kanji, and katakana, for words borrowed from other languages.

The follow button is a core part of the Twitter experience. It has six characters in English (“Follow”) and four in Japanese (フォロー), but the Japanese version is twenty percent longer because it is in katakana, and those characters take up more space than kanji (Fig 5.8). Expansion tables can struggle to accommodate the complex diversity of human scripts and languages, so don’t look to them as a one-stop or infallible solution.

The Twitter UI in JapaneseThe Twitter UI in English
Fig 5.8: On Twitter, expansion is clearly visible: the English “Follow” button text comes in at about 47 pixels wide, while the Japanese text comes in at 60 pixels wide.

Here are a few things you can do keep expansion factors in mind as you design:

  • Generate dummy text in different languages for your design comps. Of course, you should make sure your text doesn’t contain any unintentional swearwords or improper language, but tools like Foreign Ipsum are a good place to start getting your head around expansion factors (http://bkaprt.com/ccd/05-13/).
  • Leave extra space around buttons, menu items, and other microcopy. As well as being general good practice in responsive design, this allows you to account for how text in your target languages expands.
  • Make sure your components are expandable. Stay away from assigning a fixed width to your UI elements unless it’s unavoidable.
  • Let longer text strings wrap to a second line. Just ensure that text is aligned correctly and is easy to scan.

Standards for Writing Accessibly

Writing to meet WCAG2 standards can be a challenge, but it’s worthwhile. Albert Einstein, the archetypical genius and physicist, once said, “Any fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.”

Hopefully, this entire book will help you better write for accessibility. So far, you’ve learned:

  • Why clarity is important
  • How to structure messages for error states and stress cases
  • How to test the effectiveness of the words you write

All that should help your writing be better for screen readers, give additional context to users who may need it, and be easier to parse.

But there are a few specific points that you may not otherwise think about, even after reading these pages.

Writing for Screen Readers

People with little or no sight interact with apps and websites in a much different way than sighted people do. Screen readers parse the elements on the screen (to the best of their abilities) and read it back to the user. And along the way, there are many ways this could go wrong. As the interface writer, your role is perhaps most important in giving screen reader users the best context.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about screen readers:

  • The average reading time for sighted readers is two to five words per second. Screen-reader users can comprehend text being read at an average of 35 syllables per second, which is significantly faster. Don’t be afraid to sacrifice brevity for clarity, especially when extra context is needed or useful.
  • People want to be able to skim long blocks of text, regardless of sight or audio, so it’s extremely important to structure your longform writing with headers, short paragraphs, and other content design best practices.

Write Chronologically, Not Spatially

Writing chronologically is about describing the order of things, rather than where they appear spatially in the interface. There are so many good reasons to do this (devices and browsers will render interfaces differently), but screen readers show you the most valuable reason. You’ll often be faced with writing tooltips or onboarding elements that say something like, “Click the OK button below to continue.” Or “See the instructions above to save your document.”

Screen readers will do their job and read those instructions aloud to someone who can’t see the spatial relationships between words and objects. While many times, they can cope with that, they shouldn’t have to. Consider screen reader users in your language. Embrace the universal experience shared by humans and rely on their intrinsic understanding of the top is first, bottom is last paradigm. Write chronologically, as in Figure 5.5.

FIGURE 5.5 Password hint microcopy below the password field won’t help someone using a screen reader who hasn’t made it there yet.

Rather than saying:

  • Click the OK button below to continue.
  • (A button that scrolls you to the top of a page): Go to top.

Instead, say:

  • Next, select OK to continue.
  • Go to beginning.

Write Left to Right, Top to Bottom

While you don’t want to convey spatial meaning in your writing, you still want to keep that spatial order in mind.

Have you ever purchased a service or a product, only to find out later that there were conditions you didn’t know about before you paid for it? Maybe you didn’t realize batteries weren’t included in that gadget, or that signing up for that social network, you were implicitly agreeing to provide data to third-party advertisers.

People who use screen readers face this all the time.

Most screen readers will parse information from left to write, from top to bottom.1 Think about a few things when reviewing the order and placement of your words. Is there information critical to performing an action, or making a decision, that appears after (to the right or below) an action item, like in Figure 5.5? If so, consider moving it up in the interface.

Instead, if there’s information critical to an action (rules around setting a password, for example, or accepting terms of service before proceeding), place it before the text field or action button. Even if it’s hidden in a tooltip or info button, it should be presented before a user arrives at a decision point.

Don’t Use Colors and Icons Alone

If you are a sighted American user of digital products, there’s a pretty good chance that if you see a message in red, you’ll interpret it as a warning message or think something’s wrong. And if you see a message in green, you’ll likely associate that with success. But while colors aid in conveying meaning to this type of user, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing to those from other cultures.

For example, although red might indicate excitement, or danger in the U.S. (broadly speaking), in other cultures it means something entirely different:

  • In China, it represents good luck.
  • In some former-Soviet, eastern European countries it’s the color strongly associated with Communism.
  • In India, it represents purity.

Yellow, which we in the U.S. often use to mean “caution” (because we’re borrowing a mental model from traffic lights), might convey another meaning for people in other cultures:

  • In Latin America, yellow is associated with death.
  • In Eastern and Asian cultures, it’s a royal color—sacred and often imperial.

And what about users with color-blindness or low to no vision? And what about screen readers? Intrinsic meaning from the interface color means nothing for them. Be sure to add words that bear context so that if you heard the message being read aloud, you would understand what was being said, as in Figure 5.6.

FIGURE 5.6 While a simple in-app message warning a user to save their work before proceeding is more effective, visually, if it is red and has a warning icon, as seen on the left, you should provide more context when possible. The example on the right explicitly says that a user won’t be able to proceed to the next step before saving their work.

Describe the Action, Not the Behavior

Touch-first interfaces have been steadily growing and replacing keyboard/mouse interfaces for years, so no longer are users “clicking” a link or a button. But they’re not necessarily “tapping” it either, especially if they’re using a voice interface or an adaptive device.

Instead of microcopy that includes behavioral actions like:

  • Click
  • Tap
  • Press
  • See

Try device-agnostic words that describe the action, irrespective of the interface, like:

  • Choose
  • Select
  • View

There are plenty of exceptions to this rule. If your interface requires a certain action to execute a particular function, and you need to teach the user how their gesture affects the interface (“Pinch to zoom out,” for example), then of course you need to describe the behavior. But generally, the copy you’re writing will be simpler and more consistent if you stick with the action in the context of the interface itself.

Making Room for Variation

Making a brand feel unified, cohesive, and harmonious while also leaving room for experimentation is a tough balancing act. It’s one of the most challenging aspects of a design system.

Graphic designer and Pentagram partner Paula Scher faced this challenge with the visual identity for the Public Theater in New York. As she explained in a talk at Beyond Tellerrand:

I began to realize that if you made everything the same, it was boring after the first year. If you changed it individually for each play, the theater lost recognizability. The thing to do, which I totally got for the first time after working there at this point for 17 years, is what they needed to have were seasons.

You could take the typography and the color system for the summer festival, the Shakespeare in the Park Festival, and you could begin to translate it into posters by flopping the colors, but using some of the same motifs, and you could create entire seasons out of the graphics. That would become its own standards manual where I have about six different people making these all year (http://bkaprt.com/eds/04-01/).

Scher’s strategy was to retain the Public Theater’s visual language every year, but to vary some of its elements (Fig 4.1–2). Colors would be swapped. Text would skew in different directions. New visual motifs would be introduced. The result is that each season coheres in its own way, but so does the identity of the Public Theater as a whole.

Sixteen Public Theater posters in black, white, and yellow, with slanted wood type letterforms and high-contrast images of people.
Fig 4.1: The posters for the 2014/15 season featured the wood type style the Public Theater is known for, but the typography was skewed. The color palette was restrained to yellow, black, and white, which led to a dynamic look when coupled with the skewed type (http://bkaprt.com/eds/04-02/).
Twelve Public Theater posters using black, white, and pastel colors with wood type letterforms and softer images of people.
Fig 4.2: For the 2018 season, the wood type letterforms were extended on a field of gradated color. The grayscale cut-out photos we saw in the 2014/15 season persisted, but this time in lower contrast to fit better with the softer color tones (http://bkaprt.com/eds/04-03/).

Even the most robust or thoroughly planned systems will need to account for variation at some point. As soon as you release a design system, people will ask you how to deviate from it, and you’ll want to be armed with persuasive answers. In this chapter, I’m going to talk about what variation means for a design system, how to know when you need it, and how to manage it in a scalable way.

What Is Variation?

We’ve spent most of this book talking about the importance of unity, cohesion, and harmony in a design system. So why are we talking about variation? Isn’t that at odds with all of the goals we’ve set until now?

Variation is a deviation from established patterns, and it can exist at every level of the system. At the component level, for instance, a team may discover that they need a component to behave in a slightly different way; maybe this particular component needs to appear without a photo, for example. At a design-language level, you may have a team that has a different audience, so they want to adjust their brand identity to serve that audience better. You can even have variation at the level of design principles: if a team is working on a product that is functionally different from your core product, they may need to adjust their principles to suit that context.

There are three kinds of deviations that come up in a design system:

  • Unintentional divergence typically happens when designers can’t find the information they’re looking for. They may not know that a certain solution exists within a system, so they create their own style. Clear, easy-to-find documentation and usage guidelines can help your team avoid unintentional variation.
  • Intentional but unnecessary divergence usually results from designers not wanting to feel constrained by the system, or believing they have a better solution. Making sure your team knows how to push back on and contribute to the system can help mitigate this kind of variation.
  • Intentional, meaningful divergence is the goal of an expressive design system. In this case, the divergence is meaningful because it solves a very specific user problem that no existing pattern solves.

We want to enable intentional, meaningful variation. To do this, we need to understand the needs and contexts for variation.

Contexts for Variation

Every variation we add makes our design system more complicated. Therefore, we need to take care to find the right moments for variation. Three big contextual changes are served by variation: brand, audience, and environment.

Brand

If you’re creating a system for multiple brands, each with its own brand language, then your system needs to support variations to reflect those brands.

The key here is to find the common core elements and then set some criteria for how you should deviate. When we were creating the design system for our websites at Vox Media, we constantly debated which elements should feel more expressive. Should a footer be standardized, or should we allow for tons of customization? We went back to our core goals: our users were ultimately visiting our websites to consume editorial content. So the variations should be in service of the content, writing style, and tone of voice for each brand.

The newsletter modules across Vox Media brands were an example of unnecessary variation. They were consistent in functionality and layout, but had variations in type, color, and visual treatments like borders (Fig 4.3). There was quite a bit of custom design within a very small area: Curbed’s newsletter component had a skewed background, for example, while Eater’s had a background image. Because these modules were so consistent in their user goals, we decided to unify their design and create less variation (Fig 4.4).

Fig 4.3: Older versions of Vox Media’s newsletter modules contained lots of unnecessary visual variation.
Three examples of newsletter modules, showing the same colors, fonts, and spacing.
Fig 4.4: The new, unified newsletter modules.

The unified design cleaned up some technical debt. In the previous design, each newsletter module had CSS overrides to achieve distinct styling. Some modules even had overrides on the primary button color so it would work better with the background color. Little CSS overrides like this add up over time. Whenever we released a new change, we’d have to manually update the spots containing CSS overrides.

The streamlined design also placed a more appropriate emphasis on the newsletter module. While important, this module isn’t the star of the page. It doesn’t need loud backgrounds or fancy shapes to command attention, especially since it’s placed around article content. Variation in this module wasn’t necessary for expressing the brands.

On the other hand, consider the variation in Vox Media’s global header components. When we were redesigning the Verge, its editorial teams were vocal about wanting more latitude to art-direct the page, guide attention toward big features, and showcase custom illustrations. We addressed this by creating a masthead component (Fig 4.5) that sits on top of the global header on homepages. It contains a logo, tagline, date, and customizable background image. Though at the time this was a one-off component, we felt that the variation was valuable because it would strengthen the Verge’s brand voice.

Example of the Verge’s masthead component with magenta and blue abstractions. Example of the Verge’s masthead component with a city skyline in orange tones. Example of the Verge’s masthead component in pixelated black and white.
Fig 4.5: Examples of the Verge's masthead component

The Verge team commissions or makes original art that changes throughout the day. The most exciting part is that they can use the masthead and a one-up hero when they drop a big feature and use these flexible components to art-direct the page (Fig 4.6). Soon after launch, the Verge masthead even got a Twitter fan account (@VergeTaglines) that tweets every time the image changes.

Comparison of the Verge’s homepage, changing based on the masthead design and hero photography. Comparison of the Verge’s homepage, changing based on the masthead design and hero photography.
Fig 4.6: The Verge uses two generic components, the masthead and one-up hero, to art-direct its homepages.

Though this component was built specifically for the Verge, it soon gained broader application with other brands that share Vox’s publishing platform, Chorus. The McElroy Family website, for example, needed to convey its sense of humor and Appalachian roots; the masthead component shines with an original illustration featuring an adorable squirrel (Fig 4.7).

The masthead component for the McElroy Family, showing a blue navigation bar and a pastel illustration of a forest.
Fig 4.7: The McElroy Family site uses the same masthead component as the Verge to display a custom illustration.
The masthead component for the Chicago Sun-Times, showing a white background, stark black text, and a red Subscribe button.
Fig 4.8: The same masthead component on the Chicago Sun-Times site.

The Chicago Sun-Times—another Chorus platform site—is very different in content, tone, and audience from The McElroy Family, but the masthead component is just as valuable in conveying the tone of the organization’s high-quality investigative journalism and breaking news coverage (Fig 4.8).

Why did the masthead variation work well while the newsletter variation didn’t? The variations on the newsletter design were purely visual. When we created them, we didn’t have a strategy for how variation should work; instead, we were looking for any opportunity to make the brands feel distinct. The masthead variation, by contrast, tied directly into the brand strategy. Even though it began as a one-off for the Verge, it was flexible and purposeful enough to migrate to other brands.

Audience

The next contextual variation comes from audience. If your products serve different audiences who all need different things, then your system may need to adapt to fit those needs.

A good example of this is Airbnb’s listing pages. In addition to their standard listings, they also have Airbnb Plus—one-of-a-kind, high quality rentals at higher price points. Audiences booking a Plus listing are probably looking for exceptional quality and attention to detail.

Both Airbnb’s standard listing page and Plus listing page are immediately recognizable as belonging to the same family because they use many consistent elements (Fig 4.9). They both use Airbnb’s custom font, Cereal. They both highlight photography. They both use many of the same components, like the date picker. The iconography is the same.

Screenshot of AirBnB's standard listing Screenshot of AirBnB's Plus listing
Fig 4.9: The same brand elements in Airbnb’s standard listings (above) are used in their Plus listings (below), but with variations that make the listing styles distinct.

However, some of the design choices convey a different attitude. Airbnb Plus uses larger typography, airier vertical space, and a lighter weight of Cereal. It has a more understated color palette, with a deeper color on the call to action. These choices make Airbnb Plus feel like a more premium experience. You can see they’ve adjusted the density, weight, and scale levers to achieve a more elegant and sophisticated aesthetic.

The standard listing page, on the other hand, is more functional, with the booking module front and center. The Plus design pulls the density and weight levers in a lighter, airier direction. The standard listing page has less size contrast between elements, making it feel more functional.

Because they use the same core building blocks—the same typography, iconography, and components—both experiences feel like Airbnb. However, the variations in spacing, typographic weights, and color help distinguish the standard listing from the premium listing.

Environment

I’ve mainly been talking about adding variation to a system to allow for a range of content tones, but you may also need your system to scale based on environmental contexts. “Environment” in this context asks: Where will your products be used? Will that have an impact on the experience? Environments are the various constraints and pressures that surround and inform an experience. That can include lighting, ambient noise, passive or active engagement, expected focus level, or devices.

Shopify’s Polaris design system initially grew out of Shopify’s Store Management product. When the Shopify Retail team kicked off a project to design the next generation point-of-sale (POS) system, they realized that the patterns in Polaris didn’t exactly fit their needs. The POS system needed to work well in a retail space, often under bright lighting. The app needed to be used at arm’s length, twenty-four to thirty-six inches away from the merchant. And unlike the core admin, where the primary interaction is between the merchant and the UI, merchants using the POS system needed to prioritize their interactions with their customers instead of the UI. The Retail team wanted merchants to achieve an “eyes-closed” level of mastery over the UI so they could maintain eye contact with their customers.

The Retail team decided that the existing color palette, which only worked on a light background, would not be clear enough under the bright lights of a retail shop. The type scale was also too small to be used at arm’s length. And in order for merchants to use the POS system without breaking eye contact with customers, the buttons and other UI elements would need to be much larger.

The Retail team recognized that the current design system didn’t support a variety of environmental scenarios. But after talking with the Polaris team, they realized that other teams would benefit from the solutions they created. The Warehouse team, for example, was also developing an app that needed to be used at arm’s length under bright lights. This work inspired the Polaris team to create a dark mode for the system (Fig 4.10).

Comparison of light and dark modes for navigation menus in the Polaris design system.
Fig 4.10: Polaris light mode (left) and dark mode (right).

This feedback loop between product team and design system team is a great example of how to build the right variation into your system. Build your system around helping your users navigate your product more clearly and serving content needs and you’ll unlock scalable expression.

Request with Intent: Caching Strategies in the Age of PWAs

Once upon a time, we relied on browsers to handle caching for us; as developers in those days, we had very little control. But then came Progressive Web Apps (PWAs), Service Workers, and the Cache API—and suddenly we have expansive power over what gets put in the cache and how it gets put there. We can now cache everything we want to… and therein lies a potential problem.

Media files—especially images—make up the bulk of average page weight these days, and it’s getting worse. In order to improve performance, it’s tempting to cache as much of this content as possible, but should we? In most cases, no. Even with all this newfangled technology at our fingertips, great performance still hinges on a simple rule: request only what you need and make each request as small as possible.

To provide the best possible experience for our users without abusing their network connection or their hard drive, it’s time to put a spin on some classic best practices, experiment with media caching strategies, and play around with a few Cache API tricks that Service Workers have hidden up their sleeves.

Best intentions

All those lessons we learned optimizing web pages for dial-up became super-useful again when mobile took off, and they continue to be applicable in the work we do for a global audience today. Unreliable or high latency network connections are still the norm in many parts of the world, reminding us that it’s never safe to assume a technical baseline lifts evenly or in sync with its corresponding cutting edge. And that’s the thing about performance best practices: history has borne out that approaches that are good for performance now will continue being good for performance in the future.

Before the advent of Service Workers, we could provide some instructions to browsers with respect to how long they should cache a particular resource, but that was about it. Documents and assets downloaded to a user’s machine would be dropped into a directory on their hard drive. When the browser assembled a request for a particular document or asset, it would peek in the cache first to see if it already had what it needed to possibly avoid hitting the network.

We have considerably more control over network requests and the cache these days, but that doesn’t excuse us from being thoughtful about the resources on our web pages.

Request only what you need

As I mentioned, the web today is lousy with media. Images and videos have become a dominant means of communication. They may convert well when it comes to sales and marketing, but they are hardly performant when it comes to download and rendering speed. With this in mind, each and every image (and video, etc.) should have to fight for its place on the page. 

A few years back, a recipe of mine was included in a newspaper story on cooking with spirits (alcohol, not ghosts). I don’t subscribe to the print version of that paper, so when the article came out I went to the site to take a look at how it turned out. During a recent redesign, the site had decided to load all articles into a nearly full-screen modal viewbox layered on top of their homepage. This meant requesting the article required requests for all of the assets associated with the article page plus all the contents and assets for the homepage. Oh, and the homepage had video ads—plural. And, yes, they auto-played.

I popped open DevTools and discovered the page had blown past 15 MB in page weight. Tim Kadlec had recently launched What Does My Site Cost?, so I decided to check out the damage. Turns out that the actual cost to view that page for the average US-based user was more than the cost of the print version of that day’s newspaper. That’s just messed up.

Sure, I could blame the folks who built the site for doing their readers such a disservice, but the reality is that none of us go to work with the goal of worsening our users’ experiences. This could happen to any of us. We could spend days scrutinizing the performance of a page only to have some committee decide to set that carefully crafted page atop a Times Square of auto-playing video ads. Imagine how much worse things would be if we were stacking two abysmally-performing pages on top of each other!

Media can be great for drawing attention when competition is high (e.g., on the homepage of a newspaper), but when you want readers to focus on a single task (e.g., reading the actual article), its value can drop from important to “nice to have.” Yes, studies have shown that images excel at drawing eyeballs, but once a visitor is on the article page, no one cares; we’re just making it take longer to download and more expensive to access. The situation only gets worse as we shove more media into the page. 

We must do everything in our power to reduce the weight of our pages, so avoid requests for things that don’t add value. For starters, if you’re writing an article about a data breach, resist the urge to include that ridiculous stock photo of some random dude in a hoodie typing on a computer in a very dark room.

Request the smallest file you can

Now that we’ve taken stock of what we do need to include, we must ask ourselves a critical question: How can we deliver it in the fastest way possible? This can be as simple as choosing the most appropriate image format for the content presented (and optimizing the heck out of it) or as complex as recreating assets entirely (for example, if switching from raster to vector imagery would be more efficient).

Offer alternate formats

When it comes to image formats, we don’t have to choose between performance and reach anymore. We can provide multiple options and let the browser decide which one to use, based on what it can handle.

You can accomplish this by offering multiple sources within a picture or video element. Start by creating multiple formats of the media asset. For example, with WebP and JPG, it’s likely that the WebP will have a smaller file size than the JPG (but check to make sure). With those alternate sources, you can drop them into a picture like this:

<picture>
  <source srcset="my.webp" type="image/webp">
  <img src="my.jpg" alt="Descriptive text about the picture.">
</picture>

Browsers that recognize the picture element will check the source element before making a decision about which image to request. If the browser supports the MIME type “image/webp,” it will kick off a request for the WebP format image. If not (or if the browser doesn’t recognize picture), it will request the JPG. 

The nice thing about this approach is that you’re serving the smallest image possible to the user without having to resort to any sort of JavaScript hackery.

You can take the same approach with video files:

<video controls>
  <source src="my.webm" type="video/webm">
  <source src="my.mp4" type="video/mp4">
  <p>Your browser doesn’t support native video playback,
    but you can <a href="my.mp4" download>download</a>
    this video instead.</p>
</video>

Browsers that support WebM will request the first source, whereas browsers that don’t—but do understand MP4 videos—will request the second one. Browsers that don’t support the video element will fall back to the paragraph about downloading the file.

The order of your source elements matters. Browsers will choose the first usable source, so if you specify an optimized alternative format after a more widely compatible one, the alternative format may never get picked up.  

Depending on your situation, you might consider bypassing this markup-based approach and handle things on the server instead. For example, if a JPG is being requested and the browser supports WebP (which is indicated in the Accept header), there’s nothing stopping you from replying with a WebP version of the resource. In fact, some CDN services—Cloudinary, for instance—come with this sort of functionality right out of the box.

Offer different sizes

Formats aside, you may want to deliver alternate image sizes optimized for the current size of the browser’s viewport. After all, there’s no point loading an image that’s 3–4 times larger than the screen rendering it; that’s just wasting bandwidth. This is where responsive images come in.

Here’s an example:

<img src="medium.jpg"
  srcset="small.jpg 256w,
    medium.jpg 512w,
    large.jpg 1024w"
  sizes="(min-width: 30em) 30em, 100vw"
  alt="Descriptive text about the picture.">

There’s a lot going on in this super-charged img element, so I’ll break it down:

  • This img offers three size options for a given JPG: 256 px wide (small.jpg), 512 px wide (medium.jpg), and 1024 px wide (large.jpg). These are provided in the srcset attribute with corresponding width descriptors.
  • The src defines a default image source, which acts as a fallback for browsers that don’t support srcset. Your choice for the default image will likely depend on the context and general usage patterns. Often I’d recommend the smallest image be the default, but if the majority of your traffic is on older desktop browsers, you might want to go with the medium-sized image.
  • The sizes attribute is a presentational hint that informs the browser how the image will be rendered in different scenarios (its extrinsic size) once CSS has been applied. This particular example says that the image will be the full width of the viewport (100vw) until the viewport reaches 30 em in width (min-width: 30em), at which point the image will be 30 em wide. You can make the sizes value as complicated or as simple as you want; omitting it causes browsers to use the default value of 100vw.

You can even combine this approach with alternate formats and crops within a single picture. 🤯

All of this is to say that you have a number of tools at your disposal for delivering fast-loading media, so use them!

Defer requests (when possible)

Years ago, Internet Explorer 11 introduced a new attribute that enabled developers to de-prioritize specific img elements to speed up page rendering: lazyload. That attribute never went anywhere, standards-wise, but it was a solid attempt to defer image loading until images are in view (or close to it) without having to involve JavaScript.

There have been countless JavaScript-based implementations of lazy loading images since then, but recently Google also took a stab at a more declarative approach, using a different attribute: loading.

The loading attribute supports three values (“auto,” “lazy,” and “eager”) to define how a resource should be brought in. For our purposes, the “lazy” value is the most interesting because it defers loading the resource until it reaches a calculated distance from the viewport.

Adding that into the mix…

<img src="medium.jpg"
  srcset="small.jpg 256w,
    medium.jpg 512w,
    large.jpg 1024w"
  sizes="(min-width: 30em) 30em, 100vw"
  loading="lazy"
  alt="Descriptive text about the picture.">

This attribute offers a bit of a performance boost in Chromium-based browsers. Hopefully it will become a standard and get picked up by other browsers in the future, but in the meantime there’s no harm in including it because browsers that don’t understand the attribute will simply ignore it.

This approach complements a media prioritization strategy really well, but before I get to that, I want to take a closer look at Service Workers.

Manipulate requests in a Service Worker

Service Workers are a special type of Web Worker with the ability to intercept, modify, and respond to all network requests via the Fetch API. They also have access to the Cache API, as well as other asynchronous client-side data stores like IndexedDB for resource storage.

When a Service Worker is installed, you can hook into that event and prime the cache with resources you want to use later. Many folks use this opportunity to squirrel away copies of global assets, including styles, scripts, logos, and the like, but you can also use it to cache images for use when network requests fail.

Keep a fallback image in your back pocket

Assuming you want to use a fallback in more than one networking recipe, you can set up a named function that will respond with that resource:

function respondWithFallbackImage() {
  return caches.match( "/i/fallbacks/offline.svg" );
}

Then, within a fetch event handler, you can use that function to provide that fallback image when requests for images fail at the network:

self.addEventListener( "fetch", event => {
  const request = event.request;
  if ( request.headers.get("Accept").includes("image") ) {
    event.respondWith(
      return fetch( request, { mode: 'no-cors' } )
        .then( response => {
          return response;
        })
        .catch(
          respondWithFallbackImage
        );
    );
  }
});

When the network is available, users get the expected behavior:

Screenshot of a component showing a series of user profile images of users who have liked something
Social media avatars are rendered as expected when the network is available.

But when the network is interrupted, images will be swapped automatically for a fallback, and the user experience is still acceptable:

Screenshot showing a series of identical generic user images in place of the individual ones which have not loaded
A generic fallback avatar is rendered when the network is unavailable.

On the surface, this approach may not seem all that helpful in terms of performance since you’ve essentially added an additional image download into the mix. With this system in place, however, some pretty amazing opportunities open up to you.

Respect a user’s choice to save data

Some users reduce their data consumption by entering a “lite” mode or turning on a “data saver” feature. When this happens, browsers will often send a Save-Data header with their network requests. 

Within your Service Worker, you can look for this header and adjust your responses accordingly. First, you look for the header:

let save_data = false;
if ( 'connection' in navigator ) {
  save_data = navigator.connection.saveData;
}

Then, within your fetch handler for images, you might choose to preemptively respond with the fallback image instead of going to the network at all:

self.addEventListener( "fetch", event => {
  const request = event.request;
  if ( request.headers.get("Accept").includes("image") ) {
    event.respondWith(
      if ( save_data ) {
        return respondWithFallbackImage();
      }
      // code you saw previously
    );
  }
});

You could even take this a step further and tune respondWithFallbackImage() to provide alternate images based on what the original request was for. To do that you’d define several fallbacks globally in the Service Worker:

const fallback_avatar = "/i/fallbacks/avatar.svg",
      fallback_image = "/i/fallbacks/image.svg";

Both of those files should then be cached during the Service Worker install event:

return cache.addAll( [
  fallback_avatar,
  fallback_image
]);

Finally, within respondWithFallbackImage() you could serve up the appropriate image based on the URL being fetched. In my site, the avatars are pulled from Webmention.io, so I test for that.

function respondWithFallbackImage( url ) {
  const image = avatars.test( /webmention\.io/ ) ? fallback_avatar
                                                 : fallback_image;
  return caches.match( image );
}

With that change, I’ll need to update the fetch handler to pass in request.url as an argument to respondWithFallbackImage(). Once that’s done, when the network gets interrupted I end up seeing something like this:

Screenshot showing a blog comment with a generic user profile image and image placeholder where the network could not load the actual images
A webmention that contains both an avatar and an embedded image will render with two different fallbacks when the Save-Data header is present.

Next, we need to establish some general guidelines for handling media assets—based on the situation, of course.

The caching strategy: prioritize certain media

In my experience, media—especially images—on the web tend to fall into three categories of necessity. At one end of the spectrum are elements that don’t add meaningful value. At the other end of the spectrum are critical assets that do add value, such as charts and graphs that are essential to understanding the surrounding content. Somewhere in the middle are what I would call “nice-to-have” media. They do add value to the core experience of a page but are not critical to understanding the content.

If you consider your media with this division in mind, you can establish some general guidelines for handling each, based on the situation. In other words, a caching strategy.

Media loading strategy, broken down by how critical an asset is to understanding an interface
Media category Fast connection Save-Data Slow connection No network
Critical Load media Replace with placeholder
Nice-to-have Load media Replace with placeholder
Non-critical Remove from content entirely

When it comes to disambiguating the critical from the nice-to-have, it’s helpful to have those resources organized into separate directories (or similar). That way we can add some logic into the Service Worker that can help it decide which is which. For example, on my own personal site, critical images are either self-hosted or come from the website for my book. Knowing that, I can write regular expressions that match those domains:

const high_priority = [
    /aaron\-gustafson\.com/,
    /adaptivewebdesign\.info/
  ];

With that high_priority variable defined, I can create a function that will let me know if a given image request (for example) is a high priority request or not:

function isHighPriority( url ) {
  // how many high priority links are we dealing with?
  let i = high_priority.length;
  // loop through each
  while ( i-- ) {
    // does the request URL match this regular expression?
    if ( high_priority[i].test( url ) ) {
      // yes, it’s a high priority request
      return true;
    }
  }
  // no matches, not high priority
  return false;
}

Adding support for prioritizing media requests only requires adding a new conditional into the fetch event handler, like we did with Save-Data. Your specific recipe for network and cache handling will likely differ, but here was how I chose to mix in this logic within image requests:

// Check the cache first
  // Return the cached image if we have one
  // If the image is not in the cache, continue

// Is this image high priority?
if ( isHighPriority( url ) ) {

  // Fetch the image
    // If the fetch succeeds, save a copy in the cache
    // If not, respond with an "offline" placeholder

// Not high priority
} else {

  // Should I save data?
  if ( save_data ) {

    // Respond with a "saving data" placeholder

  // Not saving data
  } else {

    // Fetch the image
      // If the fetch succeeds, save a copy in the cache
      // If not, respond with an "offline" placeholder
  }
}

We can apply this prioritized approach to many kinds of assets. We could even use it to control which pages are served cache-first vs. network-first.

Keep the cache tidy

The  ability to control which resources are cached to disk is a huge opportunity, but it also carries with it an equally huge responsibility not to abuse it.

Every caching strategy is likely to differ, at least a little bit. If we’re publishing a book online, for instance, it might make sense to cache all of the chapters, images, etc. for offline viewing. There’s a fixed amount of content and—assuming there aren’t a ton of heavy images and videos—users will benefit from not having to download each chapter separately.

On a news site, however, caching every article and photo will quickly fill up our users’ hard drives. If a site offers an indeterminate number of pages and assets, it’s critical to have a caching strategy that puts hard limits on how many resources we’re caching to disk. 

One way to do this is to create several different blocks associated with caching different forms of content. The more ephemeral content caches can have strict limits around how many items can be stored. Sure, we’ll still be bound to the storage limits of the device, but do we really want our website to take up 2 GB of someone’s hard drive?

Here’s an example, again from my own site:

const sw_caches = {
  static: {
    name: `${version}static`
  },
  images: {
    name: `${version}images`,
    limit: 75
  },
  pages: {
    name: `${version}pages`,
    limit: 5
  },
  other: {
    name: `${version}other`,
    limit: 50
  }
}

Here I’ve defined several caches, each with a name used for addressing it in the Cache API and a version prefix. The version is defined elsewhere in the Service Worker, and allows me to purge all caches at once if necessary.

With the exception of the static cache, which is used for static assets, every cache has a limit to the number of items that may be stored. I only cache the most recent 5 pages someone has visited, for instance. Images are limited to the most recent 75, and so on. This is an approach that Jeremy Keith outlines in his fantastic book Going Offline (which you should really read if you haven’t already—here’s a sample).

With these cache definitions in place, I can clean up my caches periodically and prune the oldest items. Here’s Jeremy’s recommended code for this approach:

function trimCache(cacheName, maxItems) {
  // Open the cache
  caches.open(cacheName)
  .then( cache => {
    // Get the keys and count them
    cache.keys()
    .then(keys => {
      // Do we have more than we should?
      if (keys.length > maxItems) {
        // Delete the oldest item and run trim again
        cache.delete(keys[0])
        .then( () => {
          trimCache(cacheName, maxItems)
        });
      }
    });
  });
}

We can trigger this code to run whenever a new page loads. By running it in the Service Worker, it runs in a separate thread and won’t drag down the site’s responsiveness. We trigger it by posting a message (using postMessage()) to the Service Worker from the main JavaScript thread:

// First check to see if you have an active service worker
if ( navigator.serviceWorker.controller ) {
  // Then add an event listener
  window.addEventListener( "load", function(){
    // Tell the service worker to clean up
    navigator.serviceWorker.controller.postMessage( "clean up" );
  });
}

The final step in wiring it all up is setting up the Service Worker to receive the message:

addEventListener("message", messageEvent => {
  if (messageEvent.data == "clean up") {
    // loop though the caches
    for ( let key in sw_caches ) {
      // if the cache has a limit
      if ( sw_caches[key].limit !== undefined ) {
        // trim it to that limit
        trimCache( sw_caches[key].name, sw_caches[key].limit );
      }
    }
  }
});

Here, the Service Worker listens for inbound messages and responds to the “clean up” request by running trimCache() on each of the cache buckets with a defined limit.

This approach is by no means elegant, but it works. It would be far better to make decisions about purging cached responses based on how frequently each item is accessed and/or how much room it takes up on disk. (Removing cached items based purely on when they were cached isn’t nearly as useful.) Sadly, we don’t have that level of detail when it comes to inspecting the caches…yet. I’m actually working to address this limitation in the Cache API right now.

Your users always come first

The technologies underlying Progressive Web Apps are continuing to mature, but even if you aren’t interested in turning your site into a PWA, there’s so much you can do today to improve your users’ experiences when it comes to media. And, as with every other form of inclusive design, it starts with centering on your users who are most at risk of having an awful experience.

Draw distinctions between critical, nice-to-have, and superfluous media. Remove the cruft, then optimize the bejeezus out of each remaining asset. Serve your media in multiple formats and sizes, prioritizing the smallest versions first to make the most of high latency and slow connections. If your users say they want to save data, respect that and have a fallback plan in place. Cache wisely and with the utmost respect for your users’ disk space. And, finally, audit your caching strategies regularly—especially when it comes to large media files.Follow these guidelines, and every one of your users—from folks rocking a JioPhone on a rural mobile network in India to people on a high-end gaming laptop wired to a 10 Gbps fiber line in Silicon Valley—will thank you.

Responsible JavaScript: Part III

You’ve done everything you thought was possible to address your website’s JavaScript problem. You relied on the web platform where you could. You sidestepped Babel and found smaller framework alternatives. You whittled your application code down to its most streamlined form possible. Yet, things are just not fast enough. When websites fail to perform the way we as designers and developers expect them to, we inevitably turn on ourselves:

“What are we failing to do?” “What can we do with the code we have written?” “Which parts of our architecture are failing us?”

These are valid inquiries, as a fair share of performance woes do originate from our own code. Yet, assigning blame solely to ourselves blinds us to the unvarnished truth that a sizable onslaught of our performance problems comes from the outside.

When the third wheel crashes the party

Convenience always has a price, and the web is wracked by our collective preference for it.  JavaScript, in particular, is employed in a way that suggests a rapidly increasing tendency to outsource whatever it is that We (the first party) don’t want to do. At times, this is a necessary decision; it makes perfect financial and operational sense in many situations.

But make no mistake, third-party JavaScript is never cheap. It’s a devil’s bargain where vendors seduce you with solutions to your problem, yet conveniently fail to remind you that you have little to no control over the side effects that solution introduces. If a third-party provider adds features to their product, you bear the brunt. If they change their infrastructure, you will feel the effects of it. Those who use your site will become frustrated, and they aren’t going to bother grappling with an intolerable user experience. You can mitigate some of the symptoms of third parties, but you can’t cure the ailment unless you remove the solutions altogether—and that’s not always practical or possible.

In this installment of Responsible JavaScript, we’ll take a slightly less technical approach than in the previous installment. We are going to talk more about the human side of third parties. Then, we’ll go down some of the technical avenues for how you might go about tackling the problem.

Hindered by convenience

When we talk about the sorry state of the web today, some of us are quick to point out the role of developer convenience in contributing to the problem. While I share the view that developer convenience has a tendency to harm the user experience, they’re not the only kind of convenience that can turn a website into a sluggish, janky mess.

Operational conveniences can become precursors to a very thorny sort of technical debt. These conveniences are what we reach for when we can’t solve a pervasive problem on our own. They represent third-party solutions that address problems in the absence of architectural flexibility and/or adequate development resources.

Whenever an inconvenience arises, that is the time to have the discussion around how to tackle it in a way that’s comprehensive. So let’s talk about what it looks like to tackle that sort of scenario from a more human angle.

The problem is pain

The reason third parties come into play in the first place is pain. When a decision maker in an organization has felt enough pain around a certain problem, they’re going to do a very human thing, which is to find the fastest way to make that pain go away.

Markets will always find ways to address these pain points, even if the way they do so isn’t sustainable or even remotely helpful. Web accessibility overlays—third-party scripts that purport to automatically fix accessibility issues—are among the worst offenders. First, you fork over your money for a fix that doesn’t fix anything. Then you pay a wholly different sort of price when that “fix” harms the usability of your website. This is not a screed to discredit the usefulness of the tools some third-party vendors provide, but to illustrate how the adoption of third-party solutions happens, even those that are objectively awful

A depiction of a long task in a flame chart from the performance panel in Chrome DevTools.
A Chrome performance trace of a long task kicked off by a third party’s web accessibility overlay script. The task occupies the main thread for roughly 600 ms on a 2017 Retina MacBook.

So when a vendor rolls up and promises to solve the very painful problem we’re having, there’s a good chance someone is going to nibble. If that someone is high enough in the hierarchy, they’ll exert downward pressure on others to buy in—if not circumvent them entirely in the decision-making process. Conversely, adoption of a third-party solution can also occur when those in the trenches are under pressure and lack sufficient resources to create the necessary features themselves.

Whatever the catalyst, it pays to gather your colleagues and collectively form a plan for navigating and mitigating the problems you’re facing.

Create a mitigation plan

Once people in an organization have latched onto a third-party solution, however ill-advised, the difficulty you’ll encounter in forcing a course change will depend on how urgent a need that solution serves. In fact, you shouldn’t try to convince proponents of the solution that their decision was wrong. Such efforts almost always backfire and can make people feel attacked and more resistant to what you’re telling them. Even worse, those efforts could create acrimony where people stop listening to each other completely, and that is a breeding ground for far worse problems to develop.

Grouse and commiserate amongst your peers if you must—as I myself have often done—but put your grievances aside and come up with a mitigation plan to guide your colleagues toward better outcomes. The nooks and crannies of your specific approach will depend on the third parties themselves and the structure of the organization, but the bones of it could look like the following series of questions.

What problem does this solution address?

There’s a reason why a third-party solution was selected, and this question will help you suss out whether the rationale for its adoption is sound. Remember, there are times decisions are made when all the necessary people are not in the room. You might be in a position where you have to react to the aftermath of that decision, but the answer to this question will lead you to a natural follow-up.

How long do we intend to use the solution?

This question will help you identify the solution’s shelf life. Was it introduced as a bandage, with the intent to remove it once the underlying problem has been addressed, such as in the case of an accessibility overlay? Or is the need more long-term, such as the data provided by an A/B testing suite? The other possibility is that the solution can never be effectively removed because it serves a crucial purpose, as in the case of analytics scripts. It’s like throwing a mattress in a swimming pool: it’s easy to throw in, but nigh impossible to drag back out.

In any case, you can’t know if a third-party script is here to stay if you don’t ask. Indeed, if you find out the solution is temporary, you can form a plan to eventually remove it from your site once the underlying problem it addresses has been resolved.

Who’s the point of contact if issues arise?

When a third-party solution is put into place, someone must be the point of contact for when—not if—issues arise.

I’ve seen what happens (far too often) when a third-party script gets out of control. For example, when a tag manager or an A/B testing framework’s JavaScript grows slowly and insidiously because marketers aren’t cleaning out old tags or completed A/B tests. It’s for precisely these reasons that responsibility needs to be attached to a specific person in your organization for third-party solutions currently in use on your site. What that responsibility entails will differ in every situation, but could include:

  • periodic monitoring of the third-party script’s footprint;
  • maintenance to ensure the third-party script doesn’t grow out of control;
  • occasional meetings to discuss the future of that vendor’s relationship with your organization;
  • identification of overlaps of functionality between multiple third parties, and if potential redundancies can be removed;
  • and ongoing research, especially to identify speedier alternatives that may act as better replacements for slow third-party scripts.

The idea of responsibility in this context should never be an onerous, draconian obligation you yoke your teammates with, but rather an exercise in encouraging mindfulness in your colleagues. Because without mindfulness, a third-party script’s ill effects on your website will be overlooked until it becomes a grumbling ogre in the room that can no longer be ignored. Assigning responsibility for third parties can help to prevent that from happening.

Ensuring responsible usage of third-party solutions

If you can put together a mitigation plan and get everyone on board, the work of ensuring the responsible use of third-party solutions can begin. Luckily for you, the actual technical work will be easier than trying to wrangle people. So if you’ve made it this far, all it will take to get results is time and persistence.

Load only what’s necessary

It may seem obvious, but load only what’s necessary. Judging by the amount of unused first-party JavaScript I see loaded—let alone third-party JavaScript—it’s clearly a problem. It’s like trying to clean your house by stuffing clutter into the closets. Regardless of whether they’re actually needed, it’s not uncommon for third-party scripts to be loaded on every single page, so refer to your point of contact to figure out which pages need which third-party scripts.

As an example, one of my past clients used a popular third-party tool across multiple brand sites to get a list of retailers for a given product. It demonstrated clear value, but that script only needed to be on a site’s product detail page. In reality, it was frequently loaded on every page. Culling this script from pages where it didn’t belong significantly boosted performance for non-product pages, which ostensibly reduced the friction on the conversion path.

Figuring out which pages need which third-party scripts requires you to do some decidedly untechnical work. You’ll actually have to get up from your desk and talk to the person who has been assigned responsibility for the third-party solution you’re grappling with. This is very difficult work for me, but it’s rewarding when good-faith collaboration happens, and good outcomes are realized as a result.

Self-host your third-party scripts

This advice isn’t a secret by any stretch. I even touched on it in the previous installment of this series, but it needs to be shouted from the rooftops at every opportunity: you should self-host as many third-party resources as possible. Whether this is feasible depends on the third-party script in question.

Is it some framework you’re grabbing from Google’s hosted libraries, cdnjs, or other similar provider? Self-host that sucker right now.

Casper found a way to self-host their Optimizely script and significantly reduced their start render time for their trouble. It really drives home the point that a major detriment of third-party resources is the fact that their mere existence on other servers is one of the worst performance bottlenecks we encounter.

If you’re looking to self-host an analytics solution or a similar sort of script, there’s a higher level of difficulty to contend with to self-host it. You may find that some third-party scripts simply can’t be self-hosted, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the trouble to find out. If you find that self-hosting isn’t an option for a third-party script, don’t fret. There are other mitigations you can try.

Mask latency of cross-origin connections

If you can’t self-host your third-party scripts, the next best thing is to preconnect to servers that host them. WebPageTest’s Connection View does a fantastic job of showing you which servers your site gathers resources from, as well as the latency involved in establishing connections to them.

A screenshot of WebPageTest's connection view, which visualizes the latency involved with all the servers that serve content for a given page in a waterfall chart.
WebPageTest’s Connection View shows all the different servers a page requests resources from during load.

Preconnections are effective because they establish connections to third-party servers before the browser would otherwise discover them in due course. Parsing HTML takes time, and parsers are often blocked by stylesheets and other scripts. Wherever you can’t self-host third-party scripts, preconnections make perfect sense.

Maybe don’t preload third-party scripts

Preloading resources is one of those things that sounds fantastic at first—until you consider its potential to backfire, as Andy Davies points out. If you’re unfamiliar with preloading, it’s similar to preconnecting but goes a step further by instructing the browser to fetch a particular resource far sooner than it ordinarily would.

The drawback of preloading is that while it’s great for ensuring a resource gets loaded as soon as possible, it changes the discovery order of that resource. Whenever we do this, we’re implicitly saying that other resources are less important—including resources crucial to rendering or even core functionality.

It’s probably a safe bet that most of your third-party code is not as crucial to the functionality of your site as your own code. That said, if you must preload a third-party resource, ensure you’re only doing so for third-party scripts that are critical to page rendering.

If you do find yourself in a position where your site’s initial rendering depends on a third-party script, refer to your mitigation plan to see what you can do to eliminate or ameliorate your dependence on it. Depending on a third party for core functionality is never a good position to be in, as you’re relinquishing a lot of control to others who might not have your best interests in mind.

Lazy load non-essential third-party scripts

The best request is no request. If you have a third-party script that doesn’t need to be loaded right away, consider lazy loading it with an Intersection Observer. Here’s what it might look like to lazy load a Facebook Like button when it’s scrolled into the viewport:


let loadedFbScript = false;

const intersectionListener = new IntersectionObserver(entries => {
  entries.forEach(entry => {
    if ((entry.isIntersecting || entry.intersectionRatio) && !loadedFbScript) {
      const scriptEl = document.createElement("script");

      scriptEl.defer = true;
      scriptEl.crossOrigin = "anonymous";
      scriptEl.src = "https://connect.facebook.net/en_US/sdk.js#xfbml=1&version=v3.0";
      scriptEl.onload = () => {
        loadedFbScript = true;
      };
      
      document.body.append(scriptEl);
    }
  });
});

intersectionListener.observe(document.querySelector(".fb-like"));

In the above snippet, we first set a variable to track whether we’ve loaded the Facebook SDK JavaScript. After that, an IntersectionListener is created that checks whether the observed element is in the viewport, and whether the Facebook SDK has been loaded. If the SDK JavaScript hasn’t been loaded, a reference to it is injected into the DOM, which will kick off a request for it.

You’re not going to be able to lazy load every third-party script. Some of them simply need to do their work at page load time, or otherwise can’t be deferred. Regardless, do the detective work to see if it’s possible to lazy load at least some of your third-party JavaScript.

One of the common concerns I hear from coworkers when I suggest lazy loading third-party scripts is how it can delay whatever interactions the third party provides. That’s a reasonable concern, because when you lazy load anything, a noticeable delay may occur as the resource loads. You can get around this to some extent with resource prefetching. This is different than preloading, which we discussed earlier. Prefetching consumes a comparable amount of data, yes, but prefetched resources are given lower priority and are less likely to contend for bandwidth with critical resources.

Staying on top of the problem

Keeping an eye on your third-party JavaScript requires mindfulness bordering on hypervigilance. When you recognize poor performance for the technical debt that it truly is, you’ll naturally slip into a frame of mind where you’ll recognize and address it as you would any other kind of technical debt.

Staying on top of third parties is refactoring—a sort that requires you to periodically perform tasks such as cleaning up tag managers and A/B tests, consolidating third-party solutions, eliminating any that are no longer needed, and applying the coding techniques discussed above. Moreover, you’ll need to work with your team to address this technical debt on a cyclical basis. This kind of work can’t be automated, so yes, you’ll need to knuckle down and have face-to-face, synchronous conversations with actual people.

If you’re already in the habit of scheduling “cleanup sprints” on some interval, then that is the time and space for you to address performance-related technical debt, regardless of whether it involves third- or first-party code. There’s a time for feature development, but that time should not comprise the whole of your working hours. Development shops that focus only on feature development are destined to be wholly consumed by the technical debt that will inevitably result.

So it will come to pass that in the fourth and final installment of this series we’ll discuss what it means to do the hard work of using JavaScript responsibly in the context of process. Therein, we’ll explore what it takes to unite your organization under the banner of making your website faster and more accessible, and therefore more usable for everyone, everywhere.

The Untapped Power of Vulnerability & Transparency in Content Strategy

In marketing, transparency and vulnerability are unjustly stigmatized. The words conjure illusions of being frightened, imperfect, and powerless. And for companies that shove carefully curated personas in front of users, little is more terrifying than losing control of how people perceive the brand.

Let’s shatter this illusioned stigma. Authentic vulnerability and transparency are strengths masquerading as weaknesses. And companies too scared to embrace both traits in their content forfeit bona fide user-brand connections for often shallow, misleading engagement tactics that create fleeting relationships.

Transparency and vulnerability are closely entwined concepts, but each one engages users in a unique way. Transparency is how much information you share, while vulnerability is the truth and meaning behind your actions and words. Combining these ideas is the trick to creating empowering and meaningful content. You can’t tell true stories of vulnerability without transparency, and to be authentically transparent you must be vulnerable.

To be vulnerable, your brand and its content must be brave, genuine, humble, and open, all of which are traits that promote long-term customer loyalty. And if you’re transparent with users about who you are and about your business practices, you’re courting 94 percent of consumers who say they’re more loyal to brands that offer complete openness and 89 percent of people who say they give transparent companies a second chance after a bad experience.

For many companies, being completely honest and open with their customers—or employees, in some cases—only happens in a crisis. Unfortunately for those businesses, using vulnerability and transparency only as a crisis management strategy diminishes how sincere they appear and can reduce customer satisfaction.

Unlocking the potential of being transparent and vulnerable with users isn’t a one-off tactic or quick-fix emergency response tool—it’s a commitment to intimate storytelling that embraces a user’s emotional and psychological needs, which builds a meaningful connection between the storyteller and the audience.

The three storytelling pillars of vulnerable and transparent content

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, sociologist Brené Brown explains that vulnerability connects us at an emotional level. She says that when we recognize someone is being vulnerable, we invest in their story and begin to develop an emotional bond. This interwoven connection encourages us to experience the storyteller’s joy and pain, and then creates a sense of community and common purpose among the person being vulnerable and the people who acknowledge that vulnerability.

Three pillars in a company’s lifecycle embrace this bond and provide an outline for telling stories worthy of a user’s emotional investment. The pillars are:

  • the origins of a company, product, idea, or situation;
  • intimate narratives about customers’ life experiences;
  • and insights about product success and failure.

Origin stories

An origin story spins a transparent tale about how a company, product, service, or idea is created. It is often told by a founder, CEO, or industry innovator. This pillar is usually used as an authentic way to provide crisis management or as a method to change how users feel about a topic, product, or your brand.

Customers’ life experiences

While vulnerable origin stories do an excellent job of making users trust your brand, telling a customer’s personal life story is arguably the most effective way to use vulnerability to entwine a brand with someone’s personal identity.

Unlike an origin story, the customer experiences pillar is focused on being transparent about who your customers are, what they’ve experienced, and how those journeys align with values that matter to your brand. Through this lens, you’ll empower your customers to tell emotional, meaningful stories that make users feel vulnerable in a positive way. In this situation, your brand is often a storytelling platform where users share their story with the brand and fellow customers.

Product and service insights

Origin stories make your brand trustworthy in a crisis, and customers’ personal stories help users feel an intimate connection with your brand’s persona and mission. The last pillar, product and service insights, combines the psychological principles that make origin and customer stories successful. The outcome is a vulnerable narrative that rallies users’ excitement about, and emotional investment in, what a company sells or the goals it hopes to achieve.

Vulnerability, transparency, and the customer journey

The three storytelling pillars are crucial to embracing transparency and vulnerability in your content strategy because they let you target users at specific points in their journey. By embedding the pillars in each stage of the customer’s journey, you teach users about who you are, what matters to you, and why they should care.

For our purposes, let’s define the user journey as:

  • awareness;
  • interest;
  • consideration;
  • conversion;
  • and retention.

Awareness

People give each other seven seconds to make a good first impression. We’re not so generous with brands and websites. After discovering your content, users determine if it’s trustworthy within one-tenth of a second.

Page design and aesthetics are often the determining factors in these split-second choices, but the information users discover after that decision shapes their long-term opinions about your brand. This snap judgement is why transparency and vulnerability are crucial within awareness content.

When you only get one chance to make a positive first impression with your audience, what content is going to be more memorable?

Typical marketing “fluff” about how your brand was built on a shared vision and commitment to unyielding customer satisfaction and quality products? Or an upfront, authentic, and honest story about the trials and tribulations you went through to get where you are now?

Buffer, a social media management company that helped pioneer the radical transparency movement, chose the latter option. The outcome created awareness content that leaves a positive lasting impression of the brand.

In 2016, Joel Gascoigne, cofounder and CEO of Buffer, used an origin story to discuss the mistakes he and his company made that resulted in laying off 10 employees.

In the blog post “Tough News: We’ve Made 10 Layoffs. How We Got Here, the Financial Details and How We’re Moving Forward,” Gascoigne wrote about Buffer’s over-aggressive growth choices, lack of accountability, misplaced trust in its financial model, explicit risk appetite, and overenthusiastic hiring. He also discussed what he learned from the experience, the changes Buffer made based on these lessons, the consequences of those changes, and next steps for the brand.

Gascoigne writes about each subject with radical honesty and authenticity. Throughout the article, he’s personable and relatable; his tone and voice make it obvious he’s more concerned about the lives he’s irrevocably affected than the public image of his company floundering. Because Gascoigne is so transparent and vulnerable in the blog post, it’s easy to become invested in the narrative he’s telling. The result is an article that feels more like a deep, meaningful conversation over coffee instead of a carefully curated, PR-approved response.

Yes, Buffer used this origin story to confront a PR crisis, but they did so in a way that encouraged users to trust the brand. Buffer chose to show up and be seen when they had no control over the outcome. And because Gascoigne used vulnerability and transparency to share the company’s collective pain, the company reaped positive press coverage and support on social media—further improving brand awareness, user engagement, and customer loyalty.

However, awareness content isn’t always brand focused. Sometimes, smart awareness content uses storytelling to teach users and shape their worldviews. The 2019 State of Science Index is an excellent example.

The annual State of Science Index evaluates how the global public perceives science. The 2019 report shows that 87 percent of people acknowledge that science is necessary to solve the world’s problems, but 33 percent are skeptical of science and believe that scientists cause as many problems as they solve. Furthermore, 57 percent of respondents are skeptical of science because of scientists’ conflicting opinions about topics they don’t understand.

3M, the multinational science conglomerate that publishes the report, says the solution for this anti-science mindset is to promote intimate storytelling among scientists and layfolk.

3M creates an origin story with its awareness content by focusing on the ins and outs of scientific research. The company is open and straightforward with its data and intentions, eliminating any second guesses users might have about the content they’re digesting.

The company kicked off this strategy on three fronts, and each storytelling medium interweaves the benefits of vulnerability and transparency by encouraging researchers to tell stories that lead with how their findings benefit humanity. Every story 3M tells focuses on breaking through barriers the average person faces when they encounter science and encouraging scientists to be vulnerable and authentic with how they share their research.

First, 3M began a podcast series known as Science Champions. In the podcast, 3M Chief Science Advocate Jayshree Seth interviews scientists and educators about the global perception of science and how science and scientists affect our lives. The show is currently in its second season and discusses a range of topics in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Second, the company worked with science educators, journalist Katie Couric, actor Alan Alda, and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to develop the free Scientists as Storytellers Guide. The ebook helps STEM researchers improve how and why they communicate their work with other people—with a special emphasis on being empathetic with non-scientists. The guide breaks down how to develop communications skills, overcome common storytelling challenges, and learn to make science more accessible, understandable, and engaging for others.

Last, 3M created a film series called Beyond the Beaker that explores the day-to-day lives of 3M scientists. In the short videos, scientists give the viewer a glimpse into their hobbies and home life. The series showcases how scientists have diverse backgrounds, hobbies, goals, and dreams.

Unlike Buffer, which benefits directly from its awareness content, 3M’s three content mediums are designed to create a long-term strategy that changes how people understand and perceive science, by spreading awareness through third parties. It’s too early to conclude that the strategy will be successful, but it’s off to a good start. Science Champions often tops “best of” podcast lists for science lovers, and the Scientists as Storytellers Guide is a popular resource among public universities.

Interest

How do you court new users when word-of-mouth and organic search dominate how people discover new brands? Target their interests.

Now, you can be like the hundreds of other brands that create a “10 best things” list and hope people stumble onto your content organically and like what they see. Or, you can use content to engage with people who are passionate about your industry and have genuine, open discussions about the topics that matter to you both.

The latter option is a perfect fit for the product and service insights pillar, and the customers’ life experiences pillar.

To succeed in these pillars you must balance discussing the users’ passions and how your brand plays into that topic against appearing disingenuous or becoming too self-promotional.

Nonprofits have an easier time walking this taut line because people are less judgemental when engaging with NGOs, but it’s rare for a for-profit company to achieve this balance. SpaceX and Thinx are among the few brands that are able to walk this tightrope.

Thinx, a women’s clothing brand that sells period-proof underwear, uses its blog to generate awareness, interest, and consideration content via the customers’ life experiences pillar. The blog, aptly named Periodical, relies on transparency and vulnerability as a cornerstone to engage users about reproductive and mental health.

Toni Brannagan, Thinx’s content editor, says the brand embraces transparency and vulnerability by sharing diverse ideas and personal experiences from customers and experts alike, not shying away from sensitive subjects and never misleading users about Thinx or the subjects Periodical discusses.

As a company focused on women’s healthcare, the product Thinx sells is political by nature and entangles the brand with themes of shame, cultural differences, and personal empowerment. Thinx’s strategy is to tackle these subjects head-on by having vulnerable conversations in its branding, social media ads, and Periodical content.

“Vulnerability and transparency play a role because you can’t share authentic diverse ideas and experiences about those things—shame, cultural differences, and empowerment—without it,” Brannagan says.

A significant portion of Thinx’s website traffic is organic, which means Periodical’s interest-driven content may be a user’s first touchpoint with the brand.

“We’ve seen that our most successful organic content is educational, well-researched articles, and also product-focused blogs that answer the questions about our underwear, in a way that’s a little more casual than what’s on our product pages,” Brannagan says. “In contrast, our personal essays and ‘more opinionated’ content performs better on social media and email.”

Thanks in part to the blog’s authenticity and open discussions about hard-hitting topics, readers who find the brand through organic search drive the most direct conversions.

Conversations with users interested in the industry or topic your company is involved in don’t always have to come from the company itself. Sometimes a single person can drive authentic, open conversations and create endearing user loyalty and engagement.

For a company that relies on venture capital investments, NASA funding, and public opinion for its financial future, crossing the line between being too self-promotional and isolating users could spell doom. But SpaceX has never shied away from difficult or vulnerable conversations. Instead, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, embraces engaging with users interests in public forums like Twitter and press conferences.

Twitter thread showing an exchange between Elon Musk and a user

Musk’s tweets about SpaceX are unwaveringly authentic and transparent. He often tweets about his thoughts, concerns, and the challenges his companies face. Plus, Musk frequently engages with his Twitter followers and provides candid answers to questions many CEOs avoid discussing. This authenticity has earned him a cult-like following.

Elon Musk gives an honest, if not flattering, response on Twitter to a user

Musk and SpaceX create conversations that target people’s interests and use vulnerability to equally embrace failure and success. Both the company and its founder give the public and investors an unflinching story of space exploration.

And despite laying off 10 percent of its workforce in January of 2019, SpaceX is flourishing. In May 2019, its valuation had risen to $33.3 billion and reported annual revenue exceeded $2 billion. It also earned global media coverage from launching Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, recently completed a test flight of its Crew Dragon space vehicle, and cemented multiple new payload contracts.

By engaging with users on social media and through standard storytelling mediums, Thinx and SpaceX bolster customer loyalty and brand engagement.

Consideration

Modern consumers argue that ignorance is not bliss. When users are considering converting with a brand, 86 percent of consumers say transparency is a deciding factor. Transparency remains crucial even after they convert, with 85 percent of users saying they’ll support a transparent brand during a PR crisis.

Your brand must be open, clear, and honest with users; there is no longer another viable option.

So how do you remain transparent while trying to sell someone a product? One solution employed by REI and Everlane is to be openly accountable to your brand and your users via the origin stories and product insights pillars.

REI, a national outdoor equipment retailer, created a stewardship program that behaves as a multifaceted origin story. The program’s content highlights the company’s history and manufacturing policies, and it lets users dive into the nitty-gritty details about its factories, partnerships, product production methods, manufacturing ethics, and carbon footprint.

Screenshot of the Collaborating for Good website

REI also employs a classic content hub strategy to let customers find the program and explore its relevant information. From a single landing page, users can easily find the program through the website’s global navigation and then navigate to every tangential topic the program encompasses.

REI also publishes an annual stewardship report, where users can learn intimate details about how the company makes and spends its money.

Screenshot of REI's stewardship report

Everlane, a clothing company, is equally transparent about its supply chain. The company promotes an insider’s look into its global factories via product insights stories. These glimpses tell the personal narratives of factory employees and owners, and provide insights into the products manufactured and the materials used. Everlane also published details of how they comply with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act to guarantee ethical working conditions throughout its supply chain, including refusing to partner with human traffickers.

Screenshot of Everlane's page about the factory in Lima

The crucial quality that Everlane and REI share is they publicize their transparency and encourage users to explore the shared information. On each website, users can easily find information about the company’s transparency endeavors via the global navigation, social media campaigns, and product pages.

The consumer response to transparent brands like REI and Everlane is overwhelmingly positive. Customers are willing to pay price premiums for the additional transparency, which gives them comfort by knowing they’re purchasing ethical products.

REI’s ownership model has further propelled the success of its transparency by using it to create unwavering customer engagement and loyalty. As a co-op where customers can “own” part of the company for a one-time $20 membership fee, REI is beholden to its members, many of which pay close attention to its supply chain and the brands REI partners with.

After a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, REI members urged the company to refuse to carry CamelBak products because the brand’s parent company manufactures assault-style weapons. Members argued the partnership violated REI’s supply chain ethics. REI listened and halted orders with CamelBak. Members rejoiced and REI earned a significant amount of positive press coverage.

Conversion

Imagine you’ve started incorporating transparency throughout your company, and promote the results to users. Your brand also begins engaging users by telling vulnerable, meaningful stories via the three pillars. You’re seeing great engagement metrics and customer feedback from these efforts, but not much else. So, how do you get your newly invested users to convert?

Provide users with a full-circle experience.

If you combine the three storytelling pillars with blatant transparency and actively promote your efforts, users often transition from the consideration stage into the conversion state. Best of all, when users convert with a company that already earned their trust on an emotional level, they’re more likely to remain loyal to the brand and emotionally invested in its future.

The crucial step in combining the three pillars is consistency. Your brand’s stories must always be authentic and your content must always be transparent. The outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is among the most popular and successful companies to maintain this consistency and excel with this strategy.

Patagonia is arguably the most vocal and aggressive clothing retailer when it comes to environmental stewardship and ethical manufacturing.

In some cases, the company tells users not to buy its clothing because rampant consumerism harms the environment too much, which they care about more than profits. This level of radical transparency and vulnerability skyrocketed the company’s popularity among environmentally-conscious consumers.

In 2011, Patagonia took out a full-page Black Friday ad in the New York Times with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” In the ad, Patagonia talks about the environmental toll manufacturing clothes requires.

“Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60 percent recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds [of] its weight in waste.”

The ad encourages users to not buy any new Patagonia clothing if their old, ratty clothes can be repaired. To help, Patagonia launched a supplementary subdomain to its e-commerce website to support its Common Thread Initiative, which eventually got rebranded as the Worn Wear program.

Patatgonia’s Worn Wear subdomain gets users to engage with the company about causes each party cares about. Through Worn Wear, Patagonia will repair your old gear for free. If you’d rather have new gear, you can instead sell the worn out clothing to Patagonia, and they’ll repair it and then resell the product at a discount. This interaction encourages loyalty and repeat brand-user engagement.

In addition, the navigation on Patagonia’s main website practically begs users to learn about the brand’s non-profit initiatives and its commitment to ethical manufacturing.

Screenshot of Patagonia's page on environmental responsibility

Today, Patagonia is among the most respected, profitable, and trusted consumer brands in the United States.

Retention

Content strategy expands through nearly every aspect of the marketing stack, including ad campaigns, which take a more controlled approach to vulnerability and transparency. To target users in the retention stage and keep them invested in your brand, your goal is to create content using the customers’ life experiences pillar to amplify the emotional bond and brand loyalty that vulnerability creates.

Always took this approach and ended up with one of its most successful social media campaigns.

An Always ad portraying a determined girl holding a baseball

In June 2014, Always launched its #LikeAGirl campaign to empower adolescent and teenage girls by transforming the phrase “like a girl” from a slur into a meaningful and positive statement.

The campaign is centered on a video in which Always tasked children, teenagers, and adults to behave “like a girl” by running, punching, and throwing while mimicking their perception of how a girl performs the activity. Young girls performed the tasks wholeheartedly and with gusto, while boys and adults performed overly feminine and vain characterizations. The director then challenged the person on their portrayal, breaking down what doing things “like a girl” truly means. The video ends with a powerful, heart-swelling statement:

“If somebody else says that running like a girl, or kicking like a girl, or shooting like a girl is something you shouldn’t be doing, that’s their problem. Because if you’re still scoring, and you’re still getting to the ball in time, and you’re still being first...you’re doing it right. It doesn’t matter what they say.”

This customer story campaign put the vulnerability girls feel during puberty front and center so the topic would resonate with users and give the brand a powerful, relevant, and purposeful role in this connection, according to an Institute for Public Relations campaign analysis.

Consequently, the #LikeAGirl campaign was a rousing success and blew past the KPIs Always established. Initially, Always determined an “impactful launch” for the video meant 2 million video views and 250 million media impressions, the analysis states.

Five years later, the campaign video has more than 66.9 million views and 42,700 comments on YouTube, with more than 85 percent of users reacting positively. Here are a few additional highlights the analysis document points out:

  • Eighty-one percent of women ages 16–24 support Always in creating a movement to reclaim “like a girl” as a positive and inspiring statement.
  • More than 1 million people shared the video.
  • Thirteen percent of users created user-generated content about the campaign.
  • The #LikeAGirl program achieved 4.5 billion global impressions.
  • The campaign received 290 million social impressions, with 133,000 social mentions, and it caused a 195.3 percent increase in the brand’s Twitter followers.

Among the reasons the #LikeAGirl content was so successful is that it aligned with Brené Brown’s concept that experiencing vulnerability creates a connection centered on powerful, shared emotions. Always then amplified the campaign’s effectiveness by using those emotions to encourage specific user behavior on social media.

How do you know if you’re making vulnerable content?

Designing a vulnerability-focused content strategy campaign begins by determining what kind of story you want to tell, why you want to tell it, why that story matters, and how that story helps you or your users achieve a goal.

When you’re brainstorming topics, the most important factor is that you need to care about the stories you’re telling. These tales need to be meaningful because if you’re weaving a narrative that isn’t important to you, it shows. And ultimately, why do you expect your users to care about a subject if you don’t?

Let’s say you’re developing a content campaign for a nonprofit, and you want to use your brand’s emotional identity to connect with users. You have a handful of possible narratives but you’re not sure which one will best unlock the benefits of vulnerability. In a Medium post about telling vulnerable stories, Cayla Vidmar presents a list of seven self-reflective questions that can reveal what narrative to choose and why.

If you can answer each of Vidmar’s questions, you’re on your way to creating a great story that can connect with users on a level unrivaled by other methods. Here’s what you should ask yourself:

  • What meaning is there in my story?
  • Can my story help others?
  • How can it help others?
  • Am I willing to struggle and be vulnerable in that struggle (even with strangers)?
  • How has my story shaped my worldview (what has it made me believe)?
  • What good have I learned from my story?
  • If other people discovered this good from their story, would it change their lives?

While you’re creating narratives within the three pillars, refer back to Vidmar’s list to maintain the proper balance between vulnerability and transparency.

What’s next?

You now know that vulnerability and transparency are an endless fountain of strength, not a weakness. Vulnerable content won’t make you or your brand look weak. Your customers won’t flee at the sight of imperfection. Being human and treating your users like humans isn’t a liability.

It’s time for your brand to embrace its untapped potential. Choose to be vulnerable, have the courage to tell meaningful stories about what matters most to your company and your customers, and overcome the fear of controlling how users will react to your content.

Origin story

Every origin story has six chapters:

  • the discovery of a problem or opportunity;
  • what caused this problem or opportunity;
  • the consequences of this discovery;
  • the solution to these consequences;
  • lessons learned during the process;
  • and next steps.

Customers’ life experiences

Every customer journey narrative has six chapters:

  • plot background to frame the customer’s experiences;
  • the customer’s journey;
  • how the brand plays into that journey (if applicable);
  • how the customer’s experiences changed them;
  • what the customer learned from this journey;
  • and how other people can use this information to improve their lives.

Product and service insights

Narratives about product and service insights have seven chapters:

  • an overview of the product/service;
  • how that product/service affects users;
  • why the product/service is important to the brand’s mission or to users;
  • what about this product/service failed or succeeded;
  • why did that success or failure happen;
  • what lessons did this scenario create;
  • and how are the brand and its users moving forward.

You have the tools and knowledge necessary to be transparent, create vulnerable content, and succeed. And we need to tell vulnerable stories because sharing our experiences and embracing our common connections matters. So go ahead, put yourself out into the open, and see how your customers respond.

An Essential Tool for Capturing Your Career Accomplishments

Imagine you’re ready to apply for your next job. Like most busy professionals, you probably haven’t updated your résumé or your portfolio since you looked for your current job. 

Now you need to update both, and you can’t remember what work you’ve done over the past few years. (In fact, you can barely remember what you’ve done over the past few months!)

So you scramble to update your résumé with new content. Then you spend all weekend scraping together a new portfolio using screenshots of whatever work evidence you can find on your laptop. You submit the résumé and portfolio with your application, hoping you didn’t forget to include any major career milestones you achieved over the last few years. 

This is the process most of us use to approach our job search. We wait until we’re ready to find a job, panic at our lack of résumé and portfolio, and pull together a “good enough” version of each for the job application. (Trust me, I’ve done this many times myself.)

This is a stressful and ineffective way to approach a job search. There’s a much better approach you can take—and you can start working on it now, even if you’re not on the job market.

The Career Management Document

A Career Management Document (CMD) is a comprehensive collection of your résumé and portfolio content. It’s a document you update regularly, over time, with all the work you’ve done. 

When you’re ready to apply for your next job, you’ll have all the résumé and portfolio pieces available in your CMD. All you need to do is assemble those pieces into résumé and portfolio documents, then send the documents off with your job application.

I update my CMD about once a week. I start by reviewing evidence of my recent work. I review Slack messages, Basecamp posts, emails, and any other current work-related content. I write my accomplishments in the format of résumé bullets, using the framework of responsibilities and accomplishments from this Manager Tools podcast. Then I add those bullets to the CMD. 

Here are some examples from my CMD:

  • Coached a student on writing a stronger portfolio story to showcase their advanced UX skills, resulting in the student getting a job interview.
  • Facilitated an end-of-study analysis in under 90 minutes to help the team synthesize user research data from 12 participants.
  • Led a remote retrospective with teams in two offices, developed actionable takeaways, and ended on time despite a delayed start.

My CMD has several hundred résumé bullets, and it continues to grow. I organize content by year and by project. Within each project are responsibilities and accomplishments.

I add any content to the CMD that might go into my résumé someday. I include everything I can think of, even if it seems insignificant or trivial at the time. 

For example, I sometimes help with social media marketing at Center Centre, the UX design school where I’m a faculty member. I include it in my CMD. I don’t plan to pursue social media marketing as a career, but it may be relevant to a future job. Who knows—I may apply to work for an organization that makes social media marketing software someday. In that case, my social media experience could be relevant.

Include portfolio artifacts with your CMD

In addition to capturing bullets for my résumé, I capture content for my portfolio. Each week, I gather screenshots of my work, photos of me working with the team, and any other artifacts I can find. I store them in an organized system I can reference later. 

I also take brief notes about the work I did and store them with the artifacts. That way, if I look back at these materials a year from now, I’ll have notes about what I did during the project, reminding me of the details.

For example, after I facilitated a user research analysis session late last year, I captured evidence of it for my portfolio. I included photos of the whiteboard where I recorded public notes during the session. I also captured brief notes about who attended the session, the date, and when it took place during the project. 

You can use whatever tools you’d like to gather evidence of your work. I use Google Docs for the résumé portion of my CMD. I use Dropbox to store my portfolio artifacts. I create Dropbox folders with dates and project names that correspond to the contents of my CMD.


Résumé content from my CMD. I wrote about coaching a student on crafting a presentation for her job interview. The highlighted areas are where I left comments reminding me of the details of the work. Note that some of the résumé bullets seem redundant, which is OK. When I create my next résumé, I’ll choose the most appropriate bullets.

I took notes on a whiteboard while coaching the student. I stored a photo of the whiteboard in Dropbox in a folder named with the date of the work and a description of what I did.

The key is to collect the evidence regularly and store it in an accessible, organized way that works for you. To know if you’re storing work evidence effectively, ask yourself, “Will I understand this CMD content a year from now based on how I’m capturing and storing it today?” If the answer is “yes,” you’re in good shape.

Update your CMD regularly

For the CMD to work when you need it, it needs to be comprehensive and up-to-date. As I mentioned before, I update my CMD once a week. I schedule thirty minutes on my calendar each week so I remember to do it. 

Sometimes I have a busy week, and I can’t spend thirty minutes on my CMD. So I spend whatever amount of time I have. Some weeks, I only spend ten minutes. Ten minutes per week is better than zero minutes per week. 

Occasionally, I don’t get a chance to update it because my week is so hectic. That’s OK because I’ll probably get to it the following week. 

I recommend updating your CMD once a week and not once a month or once a quarter. If you wait even a month, you’ll have trouble remembering what you did three and a half weeks ago. Even worse, if you schedule a CMD update once a month and then miss it, you won’t get to it until the next month. That means you have to think back and remember two months of work, which is hard to do. 

Updating your CMD every week, while the work is fresh in your mind, gets the best results.

The CMD benefits you in additional ways

The CMD can help you prepare for your job search beyond your résumé and your portfolio. 

You can use it to prepare for a job interview. Since you’re capturing work evidence from each stage of the process in your CMD, you can use that evidence to remember what you did throughout a project. Then, you can craft a story about your role on that project. 

Hiring managers love to hear stories about your work during job interviews. For instance, if you’re a designer, they want to know the journey you took during your design process, from the start of a project to the end. A detailed CMD will help you remember this process so you can share it in an interview. 

I’ve even used my CMD to write blog posts. I’ve been blogging regularly for the past two years, and I often refer to my CMD to remember work experience I had that’s relevant to what I’m writing. When I wrote the article “How to Tell Compelling Stories During a UX Job Interview,” I used my CMD to remember interview preparation exercises I did with students. 

The CMD can also help you track work accomplishments for your quarterly or annual performance reviews. Additionally, you can use it to write job ads when hiring for related roles on your team.

Lastly, I find it rewarding to peruse my CMD now and then, especially when I look back at work I did over a year ago. The CMD serves as a record of all my professional accomplishments. This record helps me appreciate my professional growth because I see how far my skills have come over time.

Learn more about the CMD from Manager Tools

At Center Centre, we originally learned about the Career Management Document through the Manager Tools podcast series.

Manager Tools’ podcasts explain how to use a CMD for your résumé. We expanded their approach to include portfolio work as well. I recommend listening to their podcasts about creating and maintaining your CMD:

Prepare for your next job search now

We tell our students at Center Centre that preparing for your next job search is a process that starts early. It’s like saving for retirement—the sooner you start saving money, the more likely you are to be prepared when the time comes. 

Similarly, collecting résumé and portfolio content ahead of time will prepare you to find your next job whenever you’re ready to do so. It also prepares you for a sudden job termination like an unexpected layoff. If you lose your job without warning, you’ll likely be under a lot of stress to find a new position. Having a CMD ready will relieve the additional stress of building a résumé and portfolio from scratch. 

If you don’t have a CMD yet, now is a great time to start one. Schedule 30 minutes this week to begin crafting your repository of work accomplishments. You’ll be glad you did when you seek your next job.

Getting to the Heart of Digital Accessibility

Quick! Think of the word “developer” or “coder” — what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Maybe a whiteish male in his twenties living in a busy metropolis, wearing a nerdy t-shirt and hoodie? Someone a bit like Mark Zuckerberg? Or maybe a younger Bill Gates or Sergey Brin? Any of the dudes from the HBO series Silicon Valley, perhaps? Certainly no one like me.

By tech standards, I’m old. I’m also female and a mother. I live in a midwestern town you’ve never heard of and will never visit — a town where the cows vastly outnumber the people. My hair color is (almost) natural and is no longer part of the ROYGBIV collection, so I have no perceived conference street cred. I own about a thousand geeky T-shirts, but never actually wear them in public, opting for more “girly” attire (or so was pointed out by a male colleague). On the surface, I look more suited to taking notes at a PTA meeting than writing code. I’m a bit of an outsider. A tech misfit.

So when my 11-year-old daughter finished her recent coding camp and excitedly declared, “Now I’m a real developer, Mom, just like you!” there was the usual parent pride, but also a small piece of me that cringed. Because, as much as I support the STEM fields, and want the next generation of girls to be coding wizard-unicorn-ninjas, I really don’t want my own daughter to be a developer. The rationale behind this bold (and maybe controversial) statement comes from a place of protection. The tech world we live in today is far from perfect. I’ve endured my share of misogyny, self-doubt, and sexual harassment. Why wouldn’t I want to protect her from all of that?

The (diversity) elephant in the (computer) room

You’ve heard this story before: there is not enough diversity in tech. This puzzling trend seems to continue year after year, even though numerous studies show that by including more people from underrepresented communities, a company can increase its innovation, employee retention, and bottom line. Even with the recent push and supposed support for diversity and inclusivity from many Fortune 500 companies, women and female-identifying people still only hold 20% of all top tech jobs.

The data from FY 2018 shows that the number of women in technical roles at three of the top tech giants was 24% for Adobe, 26% for Google, and 22% for Facebook. While these numbers show that there is still not enough representation for women, these numbers do reflect a slight increase from the previous year (FY 2017: Adobe 22%, Google 25%, Facebook 15%). But even with this upward trend of hiring women in tech roles, the marginal growth rate has not caught up with the real world. The tech workforce is seriously out of touch with reality if, in 2019, a demographic (women) that represents more than half the global population is still considered a minority.

Sometimes this lack of diversity at the top level is blamed on a “pipeline” issue. The logic being: “If there are not enough girls who learn to code, then there will not be enough women who can code.” However, programs aimed at teaching girls how to code have skyrocketed in the past few years. Girls now make up about half of the enrollment in high-school coding classes and are scoring almost identically to their male classmates on standardized math and science tests, yet, young women make up only 18% of all Computer Science degrees. I have to wonder if this steep drop in interest has more to do with lack of representation in the tech sphere, than with girls and young women simply not being “smart enough” or “not interested” in working with code? At the very least, the lack of representation certainly doesn’t help.

Of course, the diversity picture becomes even more abysmal when you consider other underrepresented groups such as people of color, people from the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities. And while I really don’t like glossing over these deeper diversity issues in tech, because they are abundant and are much more grotesque failings than the male/female ratio, I also don’t feel qualified to speak about these issues. I encourage you to look to and value the voices of others who can speak with higher authority on these deeper diversity issues, such as Ire Aderinokun, Taelur Alexis, Imani Barbarin, Angie Jones, Fatima Khalid, Tatiana Mac, Charlie Owen, Cherry Rae, and so many others. And for those readers who are new to the topic of diversity in tech, watch Tatiana Mac’s recent conference talk How Privilege Defines Performance — it’s well worth the 35 minutes of your life.

The four stages in the digital accessibility journey

However you look at it, the numbers don’t lie. There are some pretty significant diversity issues in tech. So how do we fix this issue before the next wave of young developers join the tech workforce? Simple: teach developers to write accessible code.

This may seem like a joke to some and stretch to others, but hear me out. When we talk about accessible code, what we are really talking about at its core is inclusiveness. The actual process of writing accessible code involves rules and standards, tests and tools; but inclusive development is more abstract than that. It’s a shift in thinking. And when we rethink our approach to development, we go beyond just the base level of simple code functionality. We instead think, how is this code consumed? How can we make it even more intelligible and easier for people to use? Inclusive development means making something valuable, not just accessible, to as many people as we can.

That line of thinking is a bit abstract, so let’s go through an example. Let’s say you are tasked with updating the color contrast between the text on a webpage or app and the background. What happens at each stage in the accessibility journey?

Stage 1: Awareness — You are brand new to digital accessibility and are still trying to understand what it is and how you can implement changes in your daily workflow. You may be aware that there is a set of digital accessibility guidelines that other developers follow, but you are a bit hazy on what it all means in a practical sense.

Stage 2: Knowledge — You know a bit more about digital accessibility and feel comfortable using a few testing tools, so you run an automated accessibility test on your website and it flags a possible issue with the color contrast. Based on your awareness of the guidelines, you know the color contrast ratio between the text and the background needs to be a certain number and that you need a tool to test this.

Stage 3: Practice — Feeling more confident in your knowledge of digital accessibility rules and best practices, you use a tool to measure the color contrast ratio between the text and the background. Then based on the output of the tool, you modify the hex code to meet the color contrast ratio guidelines and retest to confirm you have met the accessibility requirements for this issue.

Stage 4: Understanding — You understand that the accessibility guidelines and tools are created with people in mind, and that code is secondary to all of that. One is the means, and the other is the end. In the color contrast example, you understand that people with low-vision or colorblindness need these color contrast changes in order to actually see the words on your web page.

This is a bit of an oversimplification of the process. But I hope you get the gist — that there are different stages of digital accessibility knowledge and understanding. True beginners may not be to even stage one, but I am finding that group rarer and rarer these days. The word about digital accessibility seems to be out! Which is great; but that’s only the first hurdle. What I’m seeing now is that a lot of people stop at Stage 2: Knowledge or Stage 3: Practice — where you are aware of the digital accessibility guidelines, have some testing tools in your back pocket, and know how to fix some of the issues reported, but haven’t quite connected the dots to the humans they impact.

From the standpoint of getting daily stuff done, stages two and three are okay stopping points. But what happens when the things you need to do are too complex for a quick fix, or you have no buy-in from your peers or management? I feel that once we get to Stage 4: Understanding, and really get why these kinds of changes are needed, people will be more motivated to make those changes regardless of the challenges involved. When you arrive at stage four, you have gone beyond knowing the basic rules, testing, and coding. You recognize that digital accessibility is not just a “nice to have” but a “must have” and it becomes about quality of life for real people. This is digital inclusion. This is something you can’t unsee, you can’t unlearn, and you can’t ignore.

Making digital accessibility a priority — not a requirement

In my role as an accessibility trainer, I like to kick-off each session with the question: “What are you hoping to learn today about digital accessibility?” I ask this question to establish a rapport with the audience and to understand where everyone is in their accessibility journey, but I am also evaluating the level of company and individual buy-in too. There is nothing worse than showing up to teach a group that does not care to be taught. If I hear the words “I am only here because I have to be” — I know it will be an uphill battle to get them anywhere close to Stage 4: Understanding, so I mentally regroup and aim for another stage.

In my experience, when companies and their leaders say “Digital accessibility is a requirement,” nine times out of ten there is a motivating factor behind this sweeping declaration (for example, impending litigation, or at least the fear of it). When changes are framed as mandatory and packaged as directives from on high with little additional context, people can be resistant and will find excuses to fight or challenge the declaration, and any change can become an uphill battle. Calling something “mandatory” only speaks to Stage 1: Awareness.

By swapping out one word from the original declaration and saying “Digital accessibility is a priority,” companies and their leaders have reframed the conversation with their employees. When changes are framed as “working towards a solution” and discussed openly and collaboratively, people feel like they are part of the process and are more open to embracing change. In the long run, embracing change becomes part of a company’s culture and leads to innovation (and, yes, inclusion) on all levels. Calling something a priority speaks to Stage 4: Understanding.

Some of the excuses I often hear from clients for not prioritizing accessibility is that it is too difficult, too costly, and/or too time consuming — but is that really the case? In the same accessibility training, I lead an exercise where we look at a website with an accessibility testing tool and review any issues that came up. With the group’s help we plot out the “impact to user” versus the “remediation effort” on the part of the team. From group to group, while the plots are slightly different, one commonality is that close to 80% of the errors plotted fall into the quadrant of “simple to fix” for the team, but they also fall under “high impact” to the user. Based on this empirical data, I won’t buy the argument from clients who say that accessibility is too difficult and costly and time consuming anymore. It comes down to whether it’s a priority — for each individual and for the company as a whole.

What will your coding legacy be?

The infinite monkey theorem states that a monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will eventually type any given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. So by that same logic, a programmer hitting keys at random on a computer for an infinite amount of time will almost surely produce a website that is accessible. But where is the thought process? Where is the human element? While all the things we’ve already talked about — awareness, education, and prioritization of accessibility are important steps in making the digital world more inclusive to all — without intent, we are just going to keep randomly tapping away at our computers, repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The intent behind the code has to be part of the process, otherwise accessibility is just another task that has no meaning.

Maybe I’m naive, but I’d like to think we’ve come to a point in our society where we want our work lives to have meaning. And that we don’t want to just hear about the positive change that is happening, but want to be part of the change. Digital accessibility is a place where this can happen! Not only does understanding and writing purpose-driven code help people with disabilities in the short-run, I believe strongly that is key to solving the overarching diversity issue in tech in the long-run. Developers who reach Stage 4: Understanding, and who prioritize accessible code because they understand it’s fundamentally about people, will also be the ones who help create and cultivate an inclusive environment where people from more diverse backgrounds are also prioritized and accepted in the tech world.

Because when you strip away all the styles, all the mark-up, all the cool features from a website or app — what’s left? People. And honestly, the more I learn about digital accessibility, the more I realize it’s not about the code at all. Digital accessibility is rooted in the user; and, while I (and countless others) can certainly teach you how to write accessible code, and build you tools, patterns, and libraries to use, I realize we can’t teach you to care. That is a choice you have to make yourself. So think for a moment — what are you leaving the next generation of developers with all that inaccessible code you haven’t given much thought to? Is it the coding legacy you really want to leave? I challenge you to do better for my daughter, her peers, and for the countless others who are not fully represented in the tech community today.

Responsible JavaScript: Part II

You and the rest of the dev team lobbied enthusiastically for a total re-architecture of the company’s aging website. Your pleas were heard by management—even up to the C-suite—who gave the green light. Elated, you and the team started working with the design, copy, and IA teams. Before long, you were banging out new code.

It started out innocently enough with an npm install here and an npm install there. Before you knew it, though, you were installing production dependencies like an undergrad doing keg stands without a care for the morning after.

Then you launched.

Unlike the aftermath of most copious boozings, the agony didn’t start the morning after. Oh, no. It came months later in the ghastly form of low-grade nausea and headache of product owners and middle management wondering why conversions and revenue were both down since the launch. It then hit a fever pitch when the CTO came back from a weekend at the cabin and wondered why the site loaded so slowly on their phone—if it indeed ever loaded at all.

Everyone was happy. Now no one is happy. Welcome to your first JavaScript hangover.

It’s not your fault

When you’re grappling with a vicious hangover, “I told you so” would be a well-deserved, if fight-provoking, rebuke—assuming you could even fight in so sorry a state.

When it comes to JavaScript hangovers, there’s plenty of blame to dole out. Pointing fingers is a waste of time, though. The landscape of the web today demands that we iterate faster than our competitors. This kind of pressure means we’re likely to take advantage of any means available to be as productive as possible. That means we’re more likely—but not necessarily doomed—to build apps with more overhead, and possibly use patterns that can hurt performance and accessibility.

Web development isn't easy. It’s a long slog we rarely get right on the first try. The best part of working on the web, however, is that we don’t have to get it perfect at the start. We can make improvements after the fact, and that’s just what the second installment of this series is here for. Perfection is a long ways off. For now, let’s take the edge off of that JavaScript hangover by improving your site’s, er, scriptuation in the short term.

Round up the usual suspects

It might seem rote, but it’s worth going through the list of basic optimizations. It’s not uncommon for large development teams—particularly those that work across many repositories or don’t use optimized boilerplate—to overlook them.

Shake those trees

First, make sure your toolchain is configured to perform tree shaking. If tree shaking is new to you, I wrote a guide on it last year you can consult. The short of it is that tree shaking is a process in which unused exports in your codebase don’t get packaged up in your production bundles.

Tree shaking is available out of the box with modern bundlers such as webpack, Rollup, or Parcel. Grunt or gulp—which are not bundlers, but rather task runners—won’t do this for you. A task runner doesn’t build a dependency graph like a bundler does. Rather, they perform discrete tasks on the files you feed to them with any number of plugins. Task runners can be extended with plugins to use bundlers to process JavaScript. If extending task runners in this way is problematic for you, you’ll likely need to manually audit and remove unused code.

For tree shaking to be effective, the following must be true:

  1. Your app logic and the packages you install in your project must be authored as ES6 modules. Tree shaking CommonJS modules isn’t practically possible.
  2. Your bundler must not transform ES6 modules into another module format at build time. If this happens in a toolchain that uses Babel, @babel/preset-env configuration must specify modules: false to prevent ES6 code from being converted to CommonJS.

On the off chance tree shaking isn’t occurring during your build, getting it to work may help. Of course, its effectiveness varies on a case-by-case basis. It also depends on whether the modules you import introduce side effects, which may influence a bundler’s ability to shake unused exports.

Split that code

Chances are good that you’re employing some form of code splitting, but it’s worth re-evaluating how you’re doing it. No matter how you’re splitting code, there are two questions that are always worth asking yourself:

  1. Are you deduplicating common code between entry points?
  2. Are you lazy loading all the functionality you reasonably can with dynamic import()?

These are important because reducing redundant code is essential to performance. Lazy loading functionality also improves performance by lowering the initial JavaScript footprint on a given page. On the redundancy front, using an analysis tool such as Bundle Buddy can help you find out if you have a problem.

The Bundle Buddy utility demonstrating how much code is shared between bundles of JavaScript.
Bundle Buddy can examine your webpack compilation statistics and determine how much code is shared between your bundles.

Where lazy loading is concerned, it can be a bit difficult to know where to start looking for opportunities. When I look for opportunities in existing projects, I’ll search for user interaction points throughout the codebase, such as click and keyboard events, and similar candidates. Any code that requires a user interaction to run is a potentially good candidate for dynamic import().

Of course, loading scripts on demand brings the possibility that interactivity could be noticeably delayed, as the script necessary for the interaction must be downloaded first. If data usage is not a concern, consider using the rel=prefetch resource hint to load such scripts at a low priority that won’t contend for bandwidth against critical resources. Support for rel=prefetch is good, but nothing will break if it’s unsupported, as such browsers will ignore markup they doesn’t understand.

Externalize third-party hosted code

Ideally, you should self-host as many of your site’s dependencies as possible. If for some reason you must load dependencies from a third party, mark them as externals in your bundler’s configuration. Failing to do so could mean your website’s visitors will download both locally hosted code and the same code from a third party.

Let’s look at a hypothetical situation where this could hurt you: say that your site loads Lodash from a public CDN. You've also installed Lodash in your project for local development. However, if you fail to mark Lodash as external, your production code will end up loading a third party copy of it in addition to the bundled, locally hosted copy.

This may seem like common knowledge if you know your way around bundlers, but I’ve seen it get overlooked. It’s worth your time to check twice.

If you aren’t convinced to self-host your third-party dependencies, then consider adding dns-prefetch, preconnect, or possibly even preload hints for them. Doing so can lower your site’s Time to Interactive and—if JavaScript is critical to rendering content—your site’s Speed Index.

Smaller alternatives for less overhead

Userland JavaScript is like an obscenely massive candy store, and we as developers are awed by the sheer amount of open source offerings. Frameworks and libraries allow us to extend our applications to quickly do all sorts of stuff that would otherwise take loads of time and effort.

While I personally prefer to aggressively minimize the use of client-side frameworks and libraries in my projects, their value is compelling. Yet, we do have a responsibility to be a bit hawkish when it comes to what we install. When we’ve already built and shipped something that depends on a slew of installed code to run, we’ve accepted a baseline cost that only the maintainers of that code can practically address. Right?

Maybe, but then again, maybe not. It depends on the dependencies used. For instance, React is extremely popular, but Preact is an ultra-small alternative that largely shares the same API and retains compatibility with many React add-ons. Luxon and date-fns are much more compact alternatives to moment.js, which is not exactly tiny.

Libraries such as Lodash offer many useful methods. Yet, some of them are easily replaceable with native ES6. Lodash’s compact method, for example, is replaceable with the filter array method. Many more can be replaced without much effort, and without the need for pulling in a large utility library.

Whatever your preferred tools are, the idea is the same: do some research to see if there are smaller alternatives, or if native language features can do the trick. You may be surprised at how little effort it may take you to seriously reduce your app’s overhead.

Differentially serve your scripts

There’s a good chance you’re using Babel in your toolchain to transform your ES6 source into code that can run on older browsers. Does this mean we’re doomed to serve giant bundles even to browsers that don’t need them, until the older browsers disappear altogether? Of course not! Differential serving helps us get around this by generating two different builds of your ES6 source:

  • Bundle one, which contains all the transforms and polyfills required for your site to work on older browsers. You’re probably already serving this bundle right now.
  • Bundle two, which contains little to none of the transforms and polyfills because it targets modern browsers. This is the bundle you’re probably not serving—at least not yet.

Achieving this is a bit involved. I’ve written a guide on one way you can do it, so there’s no need for a deep dive here. The long and short of it is that you can modify your build configuration to generate an additional but smaller version of your site’s JavaScript code, and serve it only to modern browsers. The best part is that these are savings you can achieve without sacrificing any features or functionality you already offer. Depending on your application code, the savings could be quite significant.

A webpack-bundle-analyzer analysis of a project's legacy bundle (left) versus one for a modern bundle (right). View full-sized image.

The simplest pattern for serving these bundles to their respective platforms is brief. It also works a treat in modern browsers:

<!-- Modern browsers load this file: -->
/js/app.mjs
<!-- Legacy browsers load this file: -->
/js/app.js

Unfortunately, there’s a caveat with this pattern: legacy browsers like IE 11—and even relatively modern ones such as Edge versions 15 through 18—will download both bundles. If this is an acceptable trade-off for you, then worry no further.

On the other hand, you'll need a workaround if you’re concerned about the performance implications of older browsers downloading both sets of bundles. Here’s one potential solution that uses script injection (instead of the script tags above) to avoid double downloads on affected browsers:

var scriptEl = document.createElement("script");

if ("noModule" in scriptEl) {
  // Set up modern script
  scriptEl.src = "/js/app.mjs";
  scriptEl.type = "module";
} else {
  // Set up legacy script
  scriptEl.src = "/js/app.js";
  scriptEl.defer = true; // type="module" defers by default, so set it here.
}

// Inject!
document.body.appendChild(scriptEl);

This script infers that if a browser supports the nomodule attribute in the script element, it understands type="module". This ensures that legacy browsers only get legacy scripts and modern browsers only get modern ones. Be warned, though, that dynamically injected scripts load asynchronously by default, so set the async attribute to false if dependency order is crucial.

Transpile less

I’m not here to trash Babel. It’s indispensable, but lordy, it adds a lot of extra stuff without your ever knowing. It pays to peek under the hood to see what it’s up to. Some minor changes in your coding habits can have a positive impact on what Babel spits out.

https://twitter.com/_developit/status/1110229993999777793

To wit: default parameters are a very handy ES6 feature you probably already use:

function logger(message, level = "log") {
  console[level](message);
}

The thing to pay attention to here is the level parameter, which has a default of “log.” This means if we want to invoke console.log with this wrapper function, we don’t need to specify level. Great, right? Except when Babel transforms this function, the output looks like this:

function logger(message) {
  var level = arguments.length > 1 && arguments[1] !== undefined ? arguments[1] : "log";

  console[level](message);
}

This is an example of how, despite our best intentions, developer conveniences can backfire. What was a handful of bytes in our source has now been transformed into much larger in our production code. Uglification can’t do much about it either, as arguments can’t be reduced. Oh, and if you think rest parameters might be a worthy antidote, Babel’s transforms for them are even bulkier:

// Source
function logger(...args) {
  const [level, message] = args;

  console[level](message);
}

// Babel output
function logger() {
  for (var _len = arguments.length, args = new Array(_len), _key = 0; _key < _len; _key++) {
    args[_key] = arguments[_key];
  }

  const level = args[0],
        message = args[1];
  console[level](message);
}

Worse yet, Babel transforms this code even for projects with a @babel/preset-env configuration targeting modern browsers, meaning the modern bundles in your differentially served JavaScript will be affected too! You could use loose transforms to soften the blow—and that’s a fine idea, as they’re often quite a bit smaller than their more spec-compliant counterparts—but enabling loose transforms can cause issues if you remove Babel from your build pipeline later on.

Regardless of whether you decide to enable loose transforms, here’s one way to cut the cruft of transpiled default parameters:

// Babel won't touch this
function logger(message, level) {
  console[level || "log"](message);
}

Of course, default parameters aren’t the only feature to be wary of. For example, spread syntax gets transformed, as do arrow functions and a whole host of other stuff.

If you don’t want to avoid these features altogether, you have a couple ways of reducing their impact:

  1. If you’re authoring a library, consider using @babel/runtime in concert with @babel/plugin-transform-runtime to deduplicate the helper functions Babel puts into your code.
  2. For polyfilled features in apps, you can include them selectively with @babel/polyfill via @babel/preset-env’s useBuiltIns: "usage" option.

This is solely my opinion, but I believe the best choice is to avoid transpilation altogether in bundles generated for modern browsers. That’s not always possible, especially if you use JSX, which must be transformed for all browsers, or if you’re using bleeding edge language features that aren’t widely supported. In the latter case, it might be worth asking if those features are really necessary to deliver a good user experience (they rarely are). If you arrive at the conclusion that Babel must be a part of your toolchain, then it’s worth peeking under the hood from time to time to catch suboptimal stuff Babel might be doing that you can improve on.

Improvement is not a race

As you massage your temples wondering when this horrid JavaScript hangover is going to lift, understand that it’s precisely when we rush to get something out there as fast as we possibly can that the user experience can suffer. As the web development community obsesses on iterating faster in the name of competition, it’s worth your time to slow down a little bit. You’ll find that by doing so, you may not be iterating as fast as your competitors, but your product will be faster than theirs.

As you take these suggestions and apply them to your codebase, know that progress doesn’t spontaneously happen overnight. Web development is a job. The truly impactful work is done when we’re thoughtful and dedicated to the craft for the long haul. Focus on steady improvements. Measure, test, repeat, and your site’s user experience will improve, and you’ll get faster bit by bit over time.

Special thanks to Jason Miller for tech editing this piece. Jason is the creator and one of the many maintainers of Preact, a vastly smaller alternative to React with the same API. If you use Preact, please consider supporting Preact through Open Collective.

Resilient Management, An Excerpt

In Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development, the Storming stage happens as a group begins to figure out how to work together. Previously, each person had been doing their own thing as individuals, so necessarily a few things need to be ironed out: how to collaborate, how to hit goals, how to determine priorities. Of course there may be some friction here!

But even if your team doesn’t noticeably demonstrate this kind of internal Storming as they begin to gel, there might be some outside factors at play in your work environment that create friction. During times of team scaling and organizational change—the water we in the web industry are often swimming in—managers are responsible for things like strategy-setting, aligning their team’s work to company objectives, and unblocking the team as they ship their work.

In addition to these business-context responsibilities, managers need to be able to help their teammates navigate this storm by helping them grow in their roles and support the team’s overall progress. If you and your teammates don’t adapt and evolve in your roles, it’s unlikely that your team will move out of the Storming stage and into the Norming stage of team dynamics.

To spur this course-correction and growth in your teammates, you’ll end up wearing four different hats:

  • Mentoring: lending advice and helping to problem solve based on your own experience.
  • Coaching: asking open questions to help your teammate reflect and introspect, rather than sharing your own opinions or quickly problem solving.
  • Sponsoring: finding opportunities for your teammate to level up, take on new leadership roles, and get promoted.
  • Delivering feedback: observing behavior that is or isn’t aligned to what the team needs to be doing and sharing those observations, along with praise or suggestions.

Let’s dive in to how to choose, and when to use, each of these skills as you grow your teammates, and then talk about what it looks like when teammates support the overarching direction of the team.

Mentoring

When I talk to managers, I find that the vast majority have their mentor hats on ninety percent of the time when they’re working with their teammates. It’s natural!

In mentoring mode, we’re doling out advice, sharing our perspective, and helping someone else problem solve based on that information. Our personal experiences are often what we can talk most confidently about! For this reason, mentorship mode can feel really good and effective for the mentor. Having that mentor hat on can help the other person overcome a roadblock or know which next steps to take, while avoiding drastic errors that they wouldn’t have seen coming otherwise.

As a mentor, it’s your responsibility to give advice that’s current and sensitive to the changing dialog happening in our industry. Advice that might work for one person (“Be louder in meetings!” or “Ask your boss for a raise!”) may undermine someone else, because members of underrepresented groups are unconsciously assessed and treated differently. For example, research has shown that “when women are collaborative and communal, they are not perceived as competent—but when they emphasize their competence, they’re seen as cold and unlikable, in a classic ‘double bind’”.

If you are not a member of a marginalized group, and you have a mentee who is, please be a responsible mentor! Try to be aware of the way members of underrepresented groups are perceived, and the unconscious bias that might be at play in your mentee’s work environment. When you have your mentor hat on, do lots of gut checking to make sure that your advice is going to be helpful in practice for your mentee.

Mentoring is ideal when the mentee is new to their role or to the organization; they need to learn the ropes from someone who has firsthand experience. It’s also ideal when your teammate is working on a problem and has tried out a few different approaches, but still feels stumped; this is why practices like pair coding can help folks learn new things.

As mentors, we want our mentees to reach beyond us, because our mentees’ success is ultimately our success. Mentorship relationships evolve over time, because each party is growing. Imaginative, innovative ideas often come from people who have never seen a particular challenge before, so if your mentee comes up with a creative solution on their own that you wouldn’t have thought of, be excited for them—don’t just focus on the ways that you’ve done it or seen it done before.

Managers often default to mentoring mode because it feels like the fastest way to solve a problem, but it falls short in helping your teammate connect their own dots. For that, we’ll look to coaching.

Coaching

In mentoring mode, you’re focused on both the problem and the solution. You’ll share what you as the mentor would do or have done in this situation. This means you’re more focused on yourself, and less on the person who is sitting in front of you.

In coaching mode—an extremely powerful but often underutilized mode—you’re doing two primary things:

  1. Asking open questions to help the other person explore more of the shape of the topic, rather than staying at the surface level.
  2. Reflecting, which is like holding up a mirror for the other person and describing what you see or hear, or asking them to reflect for themselves.

These two tools will help you become your teammate’s fiercest champion.

Open Questions

“Closed” questions can only be answered with yes or no. Open questions often start with who, what, when, where, why, and how. But the best open questions are about the problem, not the solution. Questions that start with why tend to make the other person feel judged, and questions that start with how tend to go into problem solving mode—both of which we want to avoid while in coaching mode.

However, what questions can be authentically curious! When someone comes to you with a challenge, try asking questions like:

  • What’s most important to you about it?
  • What’s holding you back?
  • What does success look like?

Let’s say my teammate comes to me and says they’re ready for a promotion. Open questions could help this teammate explore what this promotion means and demonstrate to me what introspection they’ve already done around it. Rather than telling them what I think is necessary for them to be promoted, I could instead open up this conversation by asking them:

  • What would you be able to do in the new level that you can’t do in your current one?
  • What skills are required in the new level? What are some ways that you’ve honed those skills?
  • Who are the people already at that level that you want to emulate? What about them do you want to emulate?

Their answers would give me a place to start coaching. These questions might push my teammate to think more deeply about what this promotion means, rather than allowing them to stay surface level and believe that a promotion is about checking off a lot of boxes on a list. Their answers might also open my eyes to things that I hadn’t seen before, like a piece of work that my teammate had accomplished that made a huge impact. But most important, going into coaching mode would start a two-way conversation with this teammate, which would help make an otherwise tricky conversation feel more like a shared exploration.

Open questions, asked from a place of genuine curiosity, help people feel seen and heard. However, if the way you ask your questions comes across as judgy or like you’ve already made some assumptions, then your questions aren’t truly open (and your teammate can smell this on you!). Practice your intonation to make sure your open questions are actually curious and open.

By the way, forming lots of open questions (instead of problem solving questions, or giving advice) is tremendously hard for most people. Don’t worry if you don’t get the hang of it at first; it takes a lot of practice and intention over time to default to coaching mode rather than mentoring mode. I promise, it’s worth it.

Reflections

Just like open questions, reflections help the other person feel seen and heard, and to explore the topic more deeply.

It’s almost comical how rarely we get the sense that the person we’re talking to is actively listening to us, or focusing entirely on helping us connect our own dots. Help your teammates reflect by repeating back to them what you hear them say, as in:

  • “What I’m hearing you say is that you’re frustrated with how this project is going. Is that right?”
  • “What I know to be true about you is how deeply you care about your teammates’ feelings.”

In each of these examples, you are holding up a metaphorical mirror to your teammate, and helping them look into it. You can coach them to reflect, too:

  • “How does this new architecture project map to your goals?”
  • “Let’s reflect on where you were this time last year and how far you’ve come.”

Occasionally, you might get a reflection wrong; this gives the other person an opportunity to realize something new about their topic, like the words they’re choosing aren’t quite right, or there’s another underlying issue that should be explored. So don’t be worried about giving a bad reflection; reflecting back what you’re hearing will still help your teammate.

The act of reflecting can help the other person do a gut check to make sure they’re approaching their topic holistically. Sometimes the act of reflection forces (encourages?) the other person to do some really hard work: introspection. Introspection creates an opportunity for them to realize new aspects of the problem, options they can choose from, or deeper meanings that hadn’t occurred to them before—which often ends up being a nice shortcut to the right solution. Or, even better, the right problem statement.

When you have your coaching hat on, you don’t need to have all the answers, or even fully understand the problem that your teammate is wrestling with; you’re just there as a mirror and as a question-asker, to help prompt the other person to think deeply and come to some new, interesting conclusions. Frankly, it may not feel all that effective when you’re in coaching mode, but I promise, coaching can generate way more growth for that other person than just giving them advice or sharing your perspective.

Choose coaching when you’re looking to help someone (especially an emerging leader) hone their strategic thinking skills, grow their leadership aptitude, and craft their own path forward. Coaching mode is all about helping your teammate develop their own brain wrinkles, rather than telling them how you would do something. The introspection and creativity it inspires create deeper and longer-lasting growth.

Sponsoring

While you wear the mentoring and coaching hats around your teammates, the sponsor hat is more often worn when they’re not around, like when you’re in a 1:1 with your manager, a sprint planning meeting, or another environment where someone’s work might be recognized. You might hear about an upcoming project to acquire a new audience and recommend that a budding user researcher take it on, or you’ll suggest to an All Hands meeting organizer that a junior designer should give a talk about a new pattern they’ve introduced to the style guide.

Sponsorship is all about feeling on the hook for getting someone to the next level. As someone’s sponsor, you’ll put their name in the ring for opportunities that will get them the experience and visibility necessary to grow in their role and at the organization. You will put your personal reputation on the line on behalf of the person you’re sponsoring, to help get them visible and developmental assignments. It’s a powerful tool, and the one most effective at helping someone get to the next level (way more so than mentoring or coaching!).

The Center for Talent Innovation routinely measures the career benefits of sponsorship (PDF). Their studies have found that when someone has a sponsor, they are way more likely to have access to career-launching work. They’re also more likely to take actions that lead to even more growth and opportunities, like asking their manager for a stretch assignment or a raise.

When you’re in sponsorship mode, think about the different opportunities you have to offer up someone’s name. This might look like:

  • giving visible/public recognition (company “shout outs,” having them present a project demo, thanking them in a launch email, giving someone’s manager feedback about their good work);
  • assigning stretch tasks and projects that are just beyond their current skill set, to help them grow and have supporting evidence for a future promotion; or
  • opening the door for them to write blog posts, give company or conference talks, or contribute open-source work.

Remember that members of underrepresented groups are typically over-mentored, but under-sponsored. These individuals get lots of advice (often unsolicited), coffee outings, and offers to teach them new skills. But it’s much rarer for them to see support that looks like sponsorship.

This isn’t because sponsors intentionally ignore marginalized folks, but because of in-group bias. Because of how our brains (and social networks) work, the people we’re closest to tend to look mostly like us—and we draw from that same pool when we nominate people for projects, for promotions, and for hires. Until I started learning about bias in the workplace, most of the people I sponsored were white, cisgender women, like myself. Since then, I’ve actively worked to sponsor people of color and nonbinary people. It takes effort and intention to combat our default behaviors—but I know you can do it!

Take a look at the daily communications you participate in: your work chat logs, the conversations you have with others, the process for figuring out who should fix a bug or work on a new project, and the processes for making your teams’ work visible (like an architecture review, code review, launch calendar, etc.). You’ll be surprised how many moments there are to sponsor someone throughout an average day. Please put in the time and intention to ensure that you’re sponsoring members of underrepresented groups, too.

Daily Ethical Design

Suddenly, I realized that the people next to me might be severely impacted by my work. I was having a quick lunch in the airport. A group of flight attendants sat down at the table next to me and started to prepare for their flight. For a while now, our design team had been working on futuristic concepts for the operations control center of these flight attendants’ airline, pushing ourselves to come up with innovative solutions enabled by the newest technologies. As the control center deals with all activities around flying planes, our concepts touched upon everything and everyone within the airline. How was I to know what the impact of my work would be on the lives of these flight attendants? And what about the lives of all the other people working at the airline? Ideally, we would have talked to all the types of employees in the company and tested our concepts with them. But, of course, there was no budget (or time) allocated to do so, not to mention we faced the hurdle of convincing (internal) stakeholders of the need. Not for the first time, I felt frustrated: practical, real-world constraints prevented me from assessing the impact and quality of my work. They prevented me from properly conducting ethical design.

What is ethical design?

Right, good question. A very comprehensive definition of ethical design can be found at Encyclopedia.com:
Design ethics concerns moral behavior and responsible choices in the practice of design. It guides how designers work with clients, colleagues, and the end users of products, how they conduct the design process, how they determine the features of products, and how they assess the ethical significance or moral worth of the products that result from the activity of designing.
In other words, ethical design is about the “goodness”—in terms of benefit to individuals, society, and the world—of how we collaborate, how we practice our work, and what we create. There’s never a black-and-white answer for whether design is good or bad, yet there are a number of areas for designers to focus on when considering ethics.

Usability

Nowadays usability has conquered a spot as a basic requirement for each interface; unusable products are considered design failures. And rightly so; we have a moral obligation as designers to create products that are intuitive, safe, and free from possibly life-threatening errors. We were all reminded of usability’s importance by last year’s accidental nuclear strike warning in Hawaii. What if, instead of a false-positive, the operator had broadcasted a false-negative?

Accessibility

Like usability, inclusive design has become a standard item in the requirement list of many designers and companies. (I will never forget that time someone tried to use our website with a screen reader—and got absolutely stuck at the cookie message.) Accessible design benefits all, as it attempts to cover as many needs and capabilities as possible. Yet for each design project, there are still a lot of tricky questions to answer. Who gets to benefit from our solutions? Who is (un)intentionally left out? Who falls outside the “target customer segment”?

Privacy

Another day, another Facebook privacy scandal. As we’re progressing into the Data Age, the topic of privacy has become almost synonymous with design ethics. There’s a reason why more and more people use DuckDuckGo as an alternative search engine to Google. Corporations have access to an abundance of personal information about consumers, and as designers we have the privilege—and responsibility—of using this information to shape products and services. We have to consider how much information is strictly necessary and how much people are willing to give up in exchange for services. And how can we make people aware of the potential risks without overloading them?

User involvement

Overlapping largely with privacy, this focus area is about how we deal with our users and what we do with the data that we collect from them. IDEO has recently published The Little Book of Design Research Ethics, which provides a comprehensive overview of the core principles and guidelines we should follow when conducting design research.

Persuasion

Ethics related to persuasion is about to what extent we may influence the behavior and thoughts of our users. It doesn’t take much to bring acceptable, “white hat” persuasion into gray or even dark territories. Conversion optimization, for example, can easily turn into “How do we squeeze out more revenue from our customers by turning their unconsciousness against them?” Prime examples include Netflix, which convinces us to watch, watch, and watch even more, and Booking.com, which barrages our senses with urgency and social pressure.

Focus

The current digital landscape is addictive, distracting, and competing for attention. Designing for focus is about responsibly handling people’s most valuable resource: time. Our challenge is to limit everything that disrupts our users’ attention, lower the addictiveness of products, and create calmness. The Center for Humane Technology has started a useful list of resources for this purpose.

Sustainability

What’s the impact of our work on the world’s environment, resources, and climate? Instead of continuously adding new features in the unrelenting scrum treadmill, how could we design for fewer? We’re in the position to create responsible digital solutions that enable sustainable consumer behavior and prevent overconsumption. For example, apps such as Optimiam and Too Good To Go allow people to order leftover food that would normally be thrashed. Or consider Mutum and Peerby, whose peer-to-peer platforms promote the sharing and reuse of owned products.

Society

The Ledger of Harms of the Center for Human Technology is a work-in-progress collection of the negative impacts that digital technology has on society, including topics such as relationships, mental health, and democracy. Designers who are mindful of society consider the impact of their work on the global economy, communities, politics, and health.
[caption id="attachment_7171650" align="alignnone" width="1200"]Focus areas of ethical design: user involvement, persuasion, focus, sustainability, society, usability, accessibility, privacy The focus areas of design ethics. That’s a lot to consider![/caption]

Ethics as an inconvenience

Ideally, in every design project, we should assess the potential impact in all of the above-mentioned areas and take steps to prevent harm. Yet there are many legitimate, understandable reasons why we often neglect to do so. It’s easy to have moral principles, yet in the real world, with the constraints that our daily life imposes upon us, it’s seldom easy to act according to those principles. We might simply say it’s inconvenient at the moment. That there’s a lack of time or budget to consider all the ethical implications of our work. That there are many more pressing concerns that have priority right now. We might genuinely believe it’s just a small issue, something to consider later, perhaps. Mostly, we are simply unaware of the possible consequences of our work. And then there’s the sheer complexity of it all: it’s simply too much to simultaneously focus on. When short on time, or in the heat of approaching deadlines and impatient stakeholders, how do you incorporate all of design ethics’ focus areas? Where do you even start?

Ethics as a structural practice

For these reasons, I believe we need to elevate design ethics to a more practical level. We need to find ways to make ethics not an afterthought, not something to be considered separately, but rather something that’s so ingrained in our process that not doing it means not doing design at all. The only way to overcome the “inconvenience” of acting ethically is to practice daily ethical design: ethics structurally integrated in our daily work, processes, and tools as designers. No longer will we have to rely on the exceptions among us; those extremely principled who are brave enough to stand up against the system no matter what kind of pressure is put upon them. Because the system will be on our side. By applying ethics daily and structurally in our design process, we’ll be able to identify and neutralize in a very early stage the potential for mistakes and misuse. We’ll increase the quality of our design and our practices simply because we’ll think things through more thoroughly, in a more conscious and structured manner. But perhaps most important is that we’ll establish a new standard for design. A standard that we can sell to our clients as the way design should be done, with ethical design processes and deliverables already included. A standard that can be taught to design students so that the newest generation of designers doesn’t know any better than to apply ethics, always.

How to practice daily ethical design?

At this point we’ve arrived at the question of how we can structurally integrate ethics into our design process. How do we make sure that our daily design decisions will result in a product that’s usable and accessible; protects people’s privacy, agency, and focus; and benefits both society and nature? I want to share with you some best practices that I’ve identified so far, and how I’ve tried to apply them during a recent project at Mirabeau. The goal of the project was to build a web application that provides a shaver manufacturer’s factory workers insight into the real-time availability of production materials.

Connect to your organization’s mission and values

By connecting our designs to the mission and values of the companies we work for, we can structurally use our design skills in a strategic manner, for moral purposes. We can challenge the company to truly live up to its promises and support it in carrying out its mission. This does, however, require you to be aware of the company’s values, and to compare these to your personal values. As I had worked with our example client before, I knew it was a company that takes care of its employees and has a strong focus on creating a better world. During the kick-off phase, we used a strategy pyramid to structure the client’s mission and values, and to agree upon success factors for the project. We translated the company’s customer-facing brand guidelines to employee-focused design principles that maintained the essence of the organization.

Keep track of your assumptions

Throughout our entire design process, we make assumptions for each decision that we take. By structurally keeping track of these assumptions, you’ll never forget about the limitations of your design and where the potential risks lie in terms of (harmful) impact on users, the project, the company, and society. In our example project, we listed our assumptions about user goals, content, and functionalities for each page of the application. If we were not fully sure about the value for end users, or the accuracy of a user goal, we marked it as a value assumption. When we were unsure if data could be made available, we marked this as a data (feasibility) assumption. If we were not sure whether a feature would add to the manufacturer’s business, we marked it as a scope assumption. Every week, we tested our assumptions with end users and business stakeholders through user tests and sprint demos. Each design iteration led to new questions and assumptions to be tested the next week.

Aim to be proven wrong

While our assumptions are the known unknowns, there are always unknown unknowns that we aren’t aware of but could be a huge risk for the quality and impact of our work. The only way we can identify these is by applying the scientific principle of falsifiability: seeking actively to be proven wrong. Only outsiders can point out to us what we miss as an individual or as a team. In our weekly user tests, we included factory workers and stakeholders with different disciplines, from different departments, and working in different contexts, to identify the edge cases that could break our concept. On one occasion, this made us reconsider the entirety of our concept. Still, we could have done better: although scalability to other factories was an important success factor, we were unable to gather input from those other factories during the project. We felt our only option was to mention this as a risk (“limit to scalability”).

Use the power of checklists

Let’s face it: we forget things. (Without scrolling up the page, can you name all the focus areas of design ethics?) This is where checklists help us out: they provide knowledge in the world, so that we don’t have to process it in our easily overwhelmed memory. Simple yet powerful, a checklist is an essential tool to practice daily ethical design. In our example project, we used checklists to maintain an overview of questions and assumptions to user test, checking whether we included our design principles properly, and assessing whether we complied to the client’s values, design principles, and the agreed-upon success factors. In hindsight, we could also have taken a moment during the concept phase to go through the list of focus areas for design ethics, as well as have taken a more structural approach to check accessibility guidelines.

The main challenge for daily ethical design

Most ethics focus areas are quite tangible, where design decisions have immediate, often visible effects. While certainly challenging in their own right, they’re relatively easy to integrate in our daily practice, especially for experienced designers. Society and the environment, however, are more intangible topics; the effects of our work in these areas are distant and uncertain. I’m sure that when Airbnb was first conceived, the founders did not consider the magnitude of its disruptive impact on the housing market. The same goes for Instagram, as its role in creating demand for fast fashion must have been hard to foresee. Hard, but not impossible. So how do we overcome this challenge and make the impact that we have on society and the environment more immediate, more daily?

Conduct Dark Reality sessions

The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates used a series of questions to gradually uncover the invalidity of people’s beliefs. In a very similar way, we can uncover the assumptions and potential disastrous consequences of our concepts in a ‘Dark Reality’ session, a form of speculative design that focuses on stress-testing a concept with challenging questions. We have to ask ourselves—or even better, somebody outside our team has to ask us— questions such as, “What is the lifespan of your product? What if the user base will be in the millions? What are the long-term effects on economy, society, and the environment? Who benefits from your design? Who loses? Who is excluded? And perhaps most importantly, how could your design be misused? (For more of these questions, Alan Cooper provided a great list in his keynote at Interaction 18.) The back-and-forth Q&A of the Dark Reality session will help us consider and identify our concept’s weaknesses and potential consequences. As it is a team effort, it will spark discussion and uncover differences in team members’ ethical values. Moreover, the session will result in a list of questions and assumptions that can be tested with potential users and subject matter experts. In the project for the airline control center, it resulted in more consideration for the human role in automatization and how digital interfaces can continue to support human capabilities (instead of replacing them), and reflection on the role of airports in future society. The dark reality session is best conducted during the convergent parts of the double diamond, as these are the design phases in which we narrow down to realistic ideas. It’s vital to have a questioner from outside the team with strong interviewing skills and who doesn’t easily accept an answer as sufficient. There are helpful tools available to help structure the session, such as the Tarot Cards of Tech and these ethical tools.

Take a step back to go forward

As designers, we’re optimists by nature. We see the world as a set of problems that we can solve systematically and creatively if only we try hard enough. We intend well. However, merely having the intention to do good is not going to be enough. Our mindset comes with the pitfall of (dis)missing potential disastrous consequences, especially under pressure of daily constraints. That’s why we need to regularly, systematically take a step back and consider the future impact of our work. My hope is that the practical, structural mindset to ethics introduced in this article will help us agree on a higher standard for design.

Trans-inclusive Design

Late one night a few years ago, a panicked professor emailed me: “My transgender student’s legal name is showing on our online discussion board. How can I keep him from being outed to his classmates?” Short story: we couldn’t. The professor created an offline workaround with the student. Years later this problem persists not just in campus systems, but in many systems we use every day.

To anyone who’d call that an unusual situation, it’s not. We are all already designing for trans users—1 in 250 people in the US identifies as transgender or gender non-binary (based on current estimates), and the number is rising.

We are web professionals; we can do better than an offline workaround. The choices we make impact the online and offline experiences of real people who are trans, non-binary, or gender-variant—choices that can affirm or exclude, uplift or annoy, help or harm.

The rest of this article assumes you agree with the concept that trans people are human beings who deserve dignity, respect, and care. If you are seeking a primer on trans-related vocabulary and concepts, please read up and come back later.

I’m going to cover issues touching on content, images, forms, databases, IA, privacy, and AI—just enough to get you thinking about the decisions you make every day and some specific ideas to get you started.

“Tried making a Bitmoji again, but I always get disillusioned immediately by their binary gender model from literally step 1 and end up not using it. I don’t feel represented.”

Editorial note: All personal statements quoted in this article have been graciously shared with the express consent of the original authors.

How we can get things right

Gender is expansively misconstrued as some interchangeable term for anatomical features. Unlike the constellation of human biological forms (our sex), gender is culturally constructed and varies depending on where you are in the world. It has its own diversity.

Asking for gender when it is not needed; limiting the gender options users can select; assuming things about users based on gender; or simply excluding folks from our designs are all ways we reify the man-woman gender binary in design decisions.

Names are fundamentally important

If we do nothing else, we must get names right. Names are the difference between past and present, invalidation and affirmation, and sometimes safety and danger.

Yet, many of the systems we use and create don’t offer name flexibility.

Many programmers and designers have a few misconceptions about names, such as assuming people have one moniker that they go by all the time, despite how common it is for names to change over a lifetime. People might update them after a change in marital status, family situation, or gender, or perhaps someone is known by a nickname, westernized name, or variation on a first name.

In most locales, legally changing names is extremely difficult, extremely expensive, requires medical documentation, or is completely out of the question.

Changes to name and gender marker are even more complicated; they tend to be two separate, long-drawn-out processes. To make matters worse, laws vary from state to state within the U.S. and most only recognize two genders—man and woman—rather than allowing non-binary options.Not all trans people change their names, but for those who do, it’s a serious and significant decision that shouldn’t be sabotaged. We can design systems that protect the lives and privacy of our users, respect the fluid nature of personal identity, and act as an electronic curb cut that helps everyone in the process.

Deadnaming

One need only search Twitter for “deadname app” to get an idea of how apps can leave users in the lurch. Some of the most alarming examples involve apps and sites that facilitate real-life interactions (which already involve a measure of risk for everyone).

“Lyft made it completely impossible for me to change my name on its app even when it was legally changed. I reached out to their support multiple times and attempted to delete the account and start over with no result. I was completely dependent on this service for groceries, appointments, and work, and was emotionally exhausted every single time I needed a ride. I ended up redownloading Uber - even though there was a strike against the service - which I felt awful doing. But Uber allowed me to change my name without any hoops to jump through, so for the sake of my mental health, I had to.”

Trans people are more likely to experience financial hardship, so using payment apps to ask for donations is often necessary. Some of these services may reveal private information as a matter of course, leaving them exposed and potentially at risk.

There are also ramifications when linked services rely on our data sources for name information, instigating an unpredictable cascade effect with little or no recourse to prevent the sharing of sensitive details.

These are examples of deadnaming. Deadnaming is what happens when someone’s previous or birth name is used, rather than the name the person uses now. Deadnaming is invalidating at the least, even as a faux pas, but can be psychologically devastating at the other extreme, even putting lives at risk.The experiences of trans, non-binary, or gender-variant folk can vary widely, and they live in disparate conditions throughout the world. Many are thriving and creating new and joyful ways to resist and undo gender norms, despite the common negative narrative around trans lives. Others can face hardship; trans people are more likely to be unstably housed, underemployed, underpaid, and targets of violence in and out of their homes, workplaces, and intimate relationships. The ramifications are amplified for people of color and those with disabilities, as well as those in precarious living/working situations and environments where exposure can put them in harm’s way.

Design for name changes

Heres what we can do:

Design for renaming. Emma Humphries’ talk on renaming covers this nicely. Airbnb has developed policies and procedures for users who’ve transitioned, allowing users to keep their review histories intact with amended names and/or pronouns.

Get rid of “real name” requirements. Allow people to use names they go by rather than their legal first names.

Clarify when you actually need a legal name, and only use that in conjunction with a display name field.

Have a name change process that allows users to change their names without legal documentation. (It’s likely that you have procedures for marriage-related name changes already.)

Ensure users can still change their display names when connecting with other data sources to populate users’ names.

Don’t place onerous restrictions on changes. Once someone creates a username, web address, or profile URL, allow them to change it.

Draft a code of conduct if you’re part of an online community, and make sure to include policies around deadnaming. Twitter banned deadnaming last year.

Allow people to be forgotten. When people delete their accounts for whatever reason, help them make sure that their data is not lingering in your systems or in other places online.

Update the systems users don’t see, too

Identity management systems can be a mess, and name changes can reveal the failures among those systems, including hidden systems that users don’t see.

One Twitter user’s health insurance company kept their ID number between jobs but changed their gender. Another user updated their display name but got an email confirmation addressed to their legal name.

Hidden information can also undermine job opportunities:

“At a university as a student, I transitioned and changed my name and gender to be a woman. TWELVE YEARS later after being hired to work in the Libraries, the Libraries HR coordinator emailed me that I was listed as male still in the database. He changed it on my asking, but I have to wonder how long… was it a factor in my being turned down for jobs I applied to… who had seen that..?”

Emma Humphries details the hidden systems that can carry out-of-date information about users. Her tips for database design include:

  • Don’t use emails as unique IDs.
  • Use an invariant user ID internally, and link the user’s current email and display name to it.

Images

Visuals should allow room for representation and imagination rather than a narrow subset of the usual suspects: figures who appear to be straight, cisgender, able-bodied, and white/Caucasian.

What we can do is feature a variety of gender presentations, as well as not assume someone’s gender identity if they buy certain items.

Some companies, like Wildfang and Thinx, offer a broad array of images representing different races, body sizes, and gender expressions on their websites and in their ads.

Many are also choosing not to hire models, allowing room for imagination and versatility:

“I got a catalog for a ‘classic menswear company’ that features zero photos of any person of any gender. Now if only I could afford an $800 blazer...”

Here's what we can do:

Actively recruit diverse groups of models for photos. And pay them!

If you can’t shoot your own photos, Broadly has recently launched a trans-inclusive stock photo collection free for wide use. Avataaars allows users to create an avatar without selecting a gender.

Information architecture

How we organize information is a political act and a non-neutral decision (librarians have said this for a while). This applies to gender-based classifications.

Many companies that sell consumer goods incorporate gender into their product design and marketing, no matter what. The product itself might be inherently gender-neutral (such as clothing, toys, bikes, or even wine), but these design and marketing decisions can directly impact the information architecture of websites.

Here's what we can do:

Evaluate why any menus, categories, or tags are based on gender, and how it can be done differently:

“Nike has a ‘gender neutral’ clothing category, yet it’s listed under ‘men’ and ‘women’ in the website architecture. 🤔”

Forms

Forms, surveys, and other types of data gathering are surefire ways to include or exclude people. If you ask for information you don’t need or limit the options that people can select, you risk losing them as users.

Here's what we can do:

Critically evaluate why you are asking for personal information, including gender. Will that information be used to help someone, or sell things to your advertisers?

"Why does the @CocaCola site make me select a gender just to make a purchase? Guess my family isn't getting personalized Coke bottles for Christmas."

If you are asking users for their gender, you’d better have a good reason and options that include everyone. A gender field should have more than two options, or should ask for pronouns instead. When including more than binary options, actually record the selections in your databases instead of reclassifying answers as male/female/null, otherwise you risk losing trust when disingenuous design decisions become public.

Honorifics are infrequently used these days, but it takes little work to add gender-inclusive titles to a list. For English-language sites, “Mx.” can go alongside “Mr.” and “Ms.” without fuss. United Airlines debuted this option earlier this year.

Content

Here's what we can do:

Avoid inappropriately gendered language. Your style guide should include singular “they” instead of “he/she” or “s/he,” and exclude frequently used words and phrases that exclude trans folks. Resources such as this transgender style guide are a quick way to check your language and benchmark your own content guidelines.

Check assumptions about gender and biology. Not everyone who can have a period, can get pregnant, or can breastfeed identifies as women or mothers—just as not everyone who identifies as women or mothers can have periods, can get pregnant, or can breastfeed. Thinx, a company that sells period underwear, has an inclusive tagline: “For people with periods.”

Avoid reinforcing the binary. Groups of people aren’t “ladies and gentlemen” or “boys and girls.” They are folks, people, colleagues, “y’all,” or even “all y’all.”

Pronouns aren’t “preferred”—they’re just pronouns. Calling pronouns preferred suggests that they’re optional and are replacing a “true” pronoun.

Avoid reinforcing stereotypes about trans people. Not all trans people are interested in medically transitioning, or in “passing.” They also aren’t fragile or in need of a savior. Gender is separate from sexual orientation. You can’t “tell” someone is trans.

Privacy, surveillance, and nefarious AI

We’ve heard the story of algorithms identifying a pregnant teen before her parents knew. What if an algorithm predicts or reveals information about your gender identity?

Inferences. Users’ genders are assumed based on their purchase/browsing history.

Recommendations. A user bought something before they transitioned and it shows up in “recommended because you bought X.”

Predictions. Users’ genders are not only inferred but used to predict something else based on characteristics of that gender. Even if you don’t tell big websites what your gender is, they assume one for you based on your interests. That kind of reductive essentialism can harm people of all genders. One of this article’s peer readers summed this up:

“Gender markers are a poor proxy for tastes. I like dresses, cute flats, and Raspberry Pis.”

Flashbacks. “On this day” algorithms remind users of the past, sometimes for better (“I’ve come so far”) or for worse (“don’t remind me”).

AI-based discrimination

AI and surveillance software can also reinforce norms about what men’s and women’s bodies should look like, resulting in harrowing airline travel experiences and creating AI-based discrimination for trans people.

So, too, can trans folks’ public data be used for projects that they don’t consent to. Just because we can use AI for something—like determining gender based on a face scan—doesn’t mean we should.

Here's what we can do:

Read up and proactively mitigate bias. AI and algorithms can reflect developers’ biases and perpetuate stereotypes about how people’s bodies should look. Use AI to challenge the gender binary rather than reinforce it. Design for privacy first. Hire more types of people who represent different lived experiences.

Toward a gender-inclusive web

The ideas I’ve offered here are only starting points. How you choose to create space for trans folks is going to be up to you. I don’t have all the solutions here, and there is no singular trans experience. Also, language, definitions, and concepts change rapidly.

We shouldn’t use any of these facts as excuses to keep us from trying.

When we start to think about design impact on trans folks, the ideas we bring into question can benefit everyone. Our designs should go beyond including—they should affirm and validate. Ideally, they will also reflect organizational cultures that support diversity and inclusion.

Here's what we can do:

Keep learning. Learn how to be a good ally. Pay trans user research participants to help validate your design assumptions. Hire trans people on your team and don't hang them out to dry or make them do all the hard work around inclusion and equity. Make it everyone’s job to build a more just web and world for everybody.

Editorial note: All personal statements quoted in this article have been graciously shared with the express consent of the original authors.

This article is stronger and wiser thanks to Mica McPheeters at A List Apart and the following peer readers. Thank you.

Jake Atchison
Katherine Deibel, Ph.D.
Justina F. Hall
Austyn Higgs
Emma Humphries
Tara Robertson
Levi R. Walter

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