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Jul102012

Five Questions for Jeffrey Zeldman

Photo by Tony Quartarolo

Author, designer, and entrepreneur Jeffrey Zeldman has spent nearly two decades at the leading edge of web design and development -- writing and publishing some of the seminal books in the field. I caught up with Zeldman (who will be keynoting our combined Future of Web Apps / Future of Mobile conferences in London this fall) via email to get his thoughts on the future of responsive design, how Facebook screwed up its mobile app, and why he writes about personal subjects like sobriety and family. His responses are candid and thoughtful. 

DW: How long before a majority of new web sites are designed to be responsive?

JZ: It could take five years or more before a majority of sites are responsive. Not that responsive web design hasn't caught on. It has caught on faster than anything I've witnessed or with which I've been involved in my years as a web designer. I'm astounded (although not surprised) by the rapidity with which it has reached mass awareness not only among web designers but also among site owners, managers, marketers -- all the people connected with websites. It has caught on far faster than standards-based design, far faster than "social media," faster even than advanced web typography in the age of Typekit. Why is it so popular, even though it is also difficult to pull off well, and requires a shift in thinking and a change in methods and practice? It's popular because it brilliantly solves the problem of lack of standards in an exploding multi-device world. When Android devices alone have 500 standard viewports and two definitions of what "pixel" means, fixed-width design stops making sense. Responsive solves the problem by designing around content instead of breakpoints.

Given all that, why do I think it will take five years before most sites are responsive? Corporate inertia. If a designer wants to update her blog to be responsive, she can get it done relatively quickly. But a huge corporate site, with 100 stakeholders, a dozen divisions, and an aging CMS is another story entirely. The internal politics at many big companies make "Game of Thrones" look like "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm." Changing big sites takes time, takes fighting, takes budgets. It takes in-house people making the case for responsive over and over again to bosses who may not be responsive -- or who may like the idea, but not be in a position to contemplate a site redesign. So although your question is actually unanswerable, I'll hazard a guess of five years to work through all those changes.

Oh, and what we mean by Responsive Design may have evolved by then as well.

DW: You've taken some heat for your support of Readability, but it's clear that "orbital content" is a very real thing. What is your vision of the future of content, when it's no longer affixed to any particular web site or app?

JZ: I think we'll have it both ways. With or without a subscription model, an advertising-supported model, or a combination of the two, you will continue to be able to visit your favorite online magazine or newspaper -- or download digital content from your favorite magazine or newspaper to an app. But you will also be able to find that same content (or bits of it) in other ways. You already do find content in other ways of course. You read a magazine article because someone tweets about it, or your favorite blogger links to it while criticizing it. And you already find content because it shows up in Flipboard. The article that coined the term -- Cameron Kozcon's "Orbital Content" in A List Apart No. 326 -- presents orbital content as an either/or: an evolution away from going to a magazine or newspaper or your favorite blog. But I think both activities will happen in parallel, just as they do now. 

The other interesting part of this has to do with content management systems. Our current systems are set up for publishing in "pages." That's fine for the traditional part of content publishing, but it doesn't address orbital content or the needs of adaptive and responsive designs. Karen McGrane has been giving brilliant lectures about the need for new CMS tools that publish in "chunks," not "blobs" -- structured, adaptive, mobile units that can build traditional desktop web pages, of course, but that are equally suited to the new adaptive, modular, responsive workflows we will need to develop to invent and populate new publishing forms. (Her book on this topic is coming out in a few months from A Book Apart.)

DW: What effect has the preponderance of mobile web-enabled devices had on the web standards movement? 

JZ: Mobile, and specifically the plethora of non-standardized platforms currently being built, sold to consumers, and then rapidly discarded by the manufacturers, create an environment in which we need to rethink layout. Standards-based design had evolved into the use of semantic markup, optimized CSS, and lean JavaScript to create carefully composed, almost print-like page experiences. Mobile throws all that out the window, and forces us to come up with new layout approaches, the foremost of which is responsive.

Then, too, mobile challenges us because not all browsers in even the best mobile devices are equally capable or equally standards-compliant. Peter-Paul Koch has spent half a decade documenting the foibles of the variously forked Webkit, Mozilla, Opera, and IE browsers inside our ever-changing, ever-expanding riot of devices. As we use more and more CSS3, with and without vendor prefixes, we find that we cannot always be sure what the browsers will do; we don't even know for sure what two "Chrome" browsers in two different devices will do. And that's before we even think about Android's two standard pixel definitions. 

So there are a lot of challenges, and we spend half our time conservatively sticking with those elements which we are sure will work across platforms, and the other half pushing the envelope, testing, and pulling out our hair.

But these are not even the interesting challenges with mobile. The interesting stuff is adaptive content, mobile use-case context and what it means for UX, what to serve a device that has a Retina display but is currently accessing your site via the Edge network, and so on. We live in interesting times!

DW: Facebook recently announced it would move from an HTML5 app to native apps for mobile. Do you think it would have been possible to deliver an appropriate user experience with an HTML5 app, or are there some core requirements of a Facebook mobile app that require a native solution? 

JZ: They could have delivered a brilliant user experience in HTML5 if they had focused on content first. Specifically, they needed to look at what people love about Facebook. It turns out that it isn't the slick interactive features -- it's the dopamine hit of sharing photos, links, and comments, and getting almost instantaneous feedback from your friends. You post a comment, and seconds later your co-worker, or an ex-girlfriend, or your uncle is riffing on it. That's what people love about Facebook. And that kind of experience can mostly be delivered with simple, structural HTML (including form elements) and a little back-end juju. If Facebook had focused on what users love about it -- the community element, the sharing element -- and decided to make that happen as fast as possible, even over slow Edge and iffy 3G network connections -- they could have delivered a great mobile experience in lean HTML5. 

Instead, they chose to focus on the apparatus of the Facebook experience -- the slick interactive "magic" that happens when you're on Facebook, the app-like stuff. Given their strategy of delivering an app-like experience, they were correct to use native technology. Native will be better and faster at delivering all the little circus dog tricks that they consider core to the Facebook experience. Personally, I like my mobile experiences stripped down and content focused. Give me the content fast, and let me interact with it as directly as possible. That's the promise of iPhone and accounts for its success, but the same principles underly any great mobile experience.

DW: You've written some amazing pieces on your private life -- divorce, sobriety, your mother's battle with Alzheimer's, etc. Do you benefit more from the writing itself or the feedback you receive? 

JZ: Both are good.

I benefit tremendously from the writing, which is something between giving birth and exorcising a demon. At its best, it can be powerfully redemptive (for me); more typically, it just feels good to get it said, get it done, get it off my chest -- and that's fine, too. Most of us go around with problems eating at our insides, with secrets that make us feel guilty and alone. It's important to share. 

And I love the feedback I get. Often, these days, I turn comments off when I publish something personal, but I still get private DMs on Twitter, as well as private emails -- and I can also follow what people say about it on Twitter and Facebook. What I like best in those experiences is when people connect, feel something, share their own experience, strength, hope, fear, insight. 

I would not get the same cathartic benefit from writing these things in a private journal that I never shared with anyone. I'm immensely private as a person, but writing is one way I push against the bars of my cage. Knowing someone read it, whether they say anything or not, is powerful. Reading someone's feedback, when they take the time to reach out to me, is magical. 

And it is sometimes weird, as you imply. It's weird to show up in a hotel where you are going to give a talk or do some business, and have a stranger recognize you and ask how the divorce is going, or something else personal. But it's not an invasion of privacy -- I open the door to that kind of encounter by writing the stuff. So it's okay, it's good, it's a connection. 

If I couldn't write, I'm not sure I'd know what I'm feeling and thinking. Writing forces the vagueness of lived experience into shapes -- that's what makes it art.

Jeffrey Zeldman blogs regularly at zeldman.com and tweets from @zeldman. Davin Wilfrid is the editor of futureinsights.com and tweets from @dwilfrid. 

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