The Blogroll: Week 11

If you’re asking “what the heck am I looking at?”, here’s a primer. Also, if you know of an article or blog I should be reading, let me know.

The Blogroll

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Chris Ashton - I Used The Web For A Day With JavaScript Turned Off

Think also of the emerging global markets; countries still battling to build a network of fast internet, with populations unable to afford fast hardware to run CPU-intensive JavaScript. Or think of the established markets, where even an iPhone X on a 4G connection is not immune to the effects of a partially loaded webpage interrupted by their train going into a tunnel.

The web is a hostile, unpredictable environment, which is why many developers follow the principle of progressive enhancement to build their sites up from a core experience of semantic HTML, layering CSS and unobtrusive JavaScript on top of that. I wanted to see how many sites apply this in practice. What better way than disabling JavaScript altogether?

I did this for about an hour and died a little. So many of the pages I go to are so unnecessarily complex.

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Best Buy got a new logo

Stephen Petrey - Best Buy’s Rebranding Nightmare

It’s easy to see that Best Buy’s branding and new spots were designed by committee. They’re chaotic, amateur and insult the consumer. Those TV spots aren’t going to motivate anyone under 55 to go to a Best Buy (or visit bestbuy.com for that matter). Perhaps — maybe it is best that their branding turned out like this. I mean, Best Buy’s financial pitfalls will be designed by committee. Just like Blockbuster.

I get the shakes when I see things that are obviously done by-committee. Have a vision, make a plan, then trust people to do their jobs. Or else this happens.

Brand New - Tag, You Are It

The old logo wasn’t great or a bastion of fine design execution but it was impressively, undeniably effective as a storefront element, making their stores visible and distinguishable from a mile away, driving at 60 miles per hour on a highway. The yellow tag matched the price display in the store and the blue background was matched by the now-famous, now-almost-hip blue shirts of the employees. The logo wasn’t suave or cool or elegant, nope, it was dorky, uncool, and cheap-looking but it has gotten the job done for over 30 years — they even tried to replace it in 2008 but it didn’t take.

>The new logo is technically and aesthetically better, with more balanced letterforms — the type in the old logo may have been scaled horizontally — brighter colors, and an overall more refined look. I think they did a good job with the placement of the yellow tag, tucking it under the “Y” with the hole of the tag working almost like a period. (I don’t know why the hole ain’t a hole, though.) The spacing in the type is troublesome because it’s an unfortunate combination of nightmare-kerning-pairs and when set so tightly all the awkwardness is more evident and I wonder if the leading should be as tight as the letterspacing to create a more cohesive unit.

The biggest challenge this logo has, though, is the amount of time it will take for all those storefronts to change — and what are they going to change to? — as it will require a huge capital investment to update the most effective beacon of the brand.

I don’t so much agree with the review, but design is subjective. What’s interesting to me is the note about design usage. The previous Best Buy logo, with the huge yellow tag, worked because you could spot it on the freeway a mile away. And that’s Best Buy’s bread and butter — big box stores on suburban freeway exits. The new logo? Not so much. Maybe they see the writing on the wall — big-box stores are toast. They’ll all be coworking spaces in a decade.

The interesting thing to think about (designers think about this all day) isn’t how good a logo looks on a jpg, it’s how well logos perform a task. Best Buy’s old logo was pretty wonky, but it definitely wasn’t boring and I know exactly where their stores are when I’m driving by. It’s hard to think of that as anything but a success. The new logo? I dunno, it looks pretty much like every other hipster logo being designed these days.

Me to Kevin about the Verizon logo redesign a while back:

Is this how design works now? Boring font, high contrast, move the design element off to the side because you’re not allowed to just delete it? Does every logo have to look like it was built with Squarespace’s Logo Maker?”

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Khoi Vinh - Valuable Lessons from Pointless Machines

It’s also interesting to note that what makes these machines interesting, entertaining and even educational to audiences is not just whether they accomplish their tasks. Granted, no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that doesn’t make it to its final stage, that fails to deliver that slice of cake or whatever its ultimate punchline may be. But it’s also true that no one cares about a Rube Goldberg machine that’s dead simple and poses no challenges, whether to the creator or the audience. What matters is the aesthetic quality of the contraption, whether it challenges the possible for no better reason than the fun of that challenge.

Indeed, looking at any successful Rube Goldberg machine offers a lesson in how we might appraise design. In design, we often emphasize the simple metric of whether a something works or not. Some people argue—some designers among them—if it accomplishes its goal then it’s hardly important whether it looked great or not, whether it offered any kind of ineffable aesthetic qualities. I think that’s a false dichotomy though; I think it’s important that a design solution should work and that it’s beautiful. Given the choice between an ugly solution that works and a beautiful solution that also works, most would choose the latter.

This right here was Best Buy’s problem. Their old logo was ugly, but it worked. Instead, it should’ve been pretty and functional.

Logos aren’t the main application for this though — they’re almost always made by designers, and are usually only ugly when brands put together approval committees that kill them. This Rube Goldberg story is about interfaces.

Too often, interfaces are built by developers with one thing in mind — functionality. And don’t confuse functionality with usability — if the thing works in an intended way without breaking under normal stress, it’s considered a development win. It’s when you get designers, content strategists, and UX people involved that you start getting things to respond well to humans.

My plea is for developers to bring usability people into projects right off the bat. Don’t build a thing as a minimum viable product, then task someone to make it usable. You might get lucky that way, but you’ll be fighting against usability debt forever. It’ll be baked into your DNA.

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Jill Duffy - Beyond Decision Fatigue: How Managing Decisions Can Help or Hurt Your Productivity

Another difference among decisions comes down to how many people must agree on them. The question of still or sparkling is a no-brainer if you’re alone, but it’s likely to become a group decision if you’re at the table with friends.

Anyone experienced at working on a team knows that group decisions can be double-edged swords. Certain decisions benefit from groupthink, while at other times it’s more a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth. It’s hard to know when a team lead or senior team member should be decisive for the sake of the group or if making decisions as a committee would lead to a better outcome.

Committees never lead to better outcomes. k;ha[w0ehi;3n4rsf;hawef! That’s not saying one person has to make all the decisions — designers should design, writers should write, developers should develop — but there needs to be a singular vision. Creative people yearn for freedom, but the best work comes when there are constraints.

For instance, Elon Musk at Tesla has a singular vision to make electric cars. He even has a priority list: start with an expensive electric car, then with that knowledge gained, reinvest that money into the company to build an affordable electric car. It’s a forward-looking vision people believe in, and it provides a framework creative people can work with. Employees know not to come to management with plans to build hybrid gasoline cars — that’s not the vision.

You need a singular vision. Everyone should know the vision. That vision is your DNA.

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James Williamson - Coding with kids

Make sure the kids know what they are building and how they are going to do it. Whenever you use a open environment it encourages the kids to explore on their own and ignore what you are doing and saying. Letting them know what is required of them, how decisions will be made, and setting a structure for how you will complete each task will keep the chaos to a minimum and ensure they remain focused. I recommend having a stage that lets them explore and create on their own. That way you can keep them on task with the promise of exploration later and the kids get some free time to learn through their own actions.

Speaking of structure, replace “kids” with “team” and you’ve just solved every problem tech companies have ever had.

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John O’Nolan, Hannah Wolfe - After 5 years and $3M, here’s everything we’ve learned from building Ghost

Our team is spread all over the world, and we have no office in any country. After 5 years I would summarise the overall experience as very positive. The stuff you might imagine is hard generally turns out to be a non-issue, like: How do you know if people are working? How does anything get done? How do you pay people if they live in different countries? What about contracts? — The things people ask about most often all have straightforward answers. In summary: You hire people you can trust, you trust them, and the logistics in between are solved mostly with Slack, Zoom and Github.

The stuff which is actually hard, nobody ever asks about. For instance: How do you know when someone is in a bad mood? How do you deal with loneliness? How do you foster camaraderie? How do you achieve urgency? How do you ever get to know people outside of work when you never spend time with them outside of work?

Real challenges of being remote are more human, than business.

This is right on the money. Remote work isn’t really any different than office work — the difference is that when you get fed up with things and would normally gather some people for a coffee run, it’s just you. Your nearest coworker is sometimes 1,000 miles away. Video chats are an ok substitute, but you learn a lot about someone when you’re in the same physical space. It’s just different. Not necessarily worse, but different.

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Dave Rupert - The Eponymous Laws of Tech

Conway’s Law

“Organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

Conway’s Law might be one of my most observed laws. From large company to small company you can see the fingerprint of an organization and leadership on the products they build.

I like to put it another way…

“Your website is a manifestation of your organization’s problems” - Dave Rupert, NetMag March 2016

A friend once pointed out to me that you can expose all the problems of an organization just by suggesting you redesign your website’s main navigation. This is the quickest way to make enemies and catch hell-fire at an organization. Product owners come out of the woodwork to justify their existence in the main navigation, but it’s really just a proxy for their existence in the entire company.

Ha, I really like the main navigation bit. When you tie people’s worth to bits and pieces, they’re naturally going to fight for their existence. No one wants to be left behind.

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Cal Newport - Beyond Black Box Management

What I mean by my above claim is that knowledge work management cannot stop at the boundary of the black box: providing workers only shared objectives and the tools/information needed to act on these objectives.

It must also consider what occurs inside the box — setting up cultures, workflows, and environments optimized to help the human brain act on these objectives with maximum effectiveness.

To put this in (admittedly dehumanizing) economic terms, in knowledge work, the largest investment and most valuable resource is the attention capital latent within each worker’s brain — that is, their potential to process information into something more valuable.

To optimize the return on this capital requires that you care about what helps the human brain best pay attention to what matters and think deeply about it.

And yet, almost no one does this.

It’s true that most managers implement structure primarily so that they know what’s going on, which hopefully turns into them being able to streamline something. But the additional overhead placed on knowledge workers can be crippling, depending on the personality type.

This post places the management burden where I think it should be — to ruthlessly clear bullshit from employee plates so they can work without burden. As Cal later in the post puts it though: “These organizations will be a massive pain to run (imagine how much extra overhead will be introduced into your daily routine when you can’t simply email someone when you need something) […].”

For anyone in a management position (or for people like me who pretend everything is The Sims), it’s an interesting thing to think about.

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K.Q. Dreger - Medium Kills Off Custom Domains

Using your own domain was one of the few meaningful ways you could separate your Medium-hosted blog from all the others. Anyone signing up today will be stuck using whatever publication names (medium.com/publication) are still available to register, making Medium more akin to a long-form Twitter than a place to keep a blog. Lame.

Lame indeed. There’s a reason I don’t include Medium posts in the Blogroll. Get that closed-web shit off my lawn!

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Rob Beschizza - TXT.FYI

This is the dumbest publishing platform on the web.

Write something, hit publish, and it’s live.

There’s no tracking, ad-tech, webfonts, analytics, javascript, cookies, databases, user accounts, comments, friending, likes, follower counts or other quantifiers of social capital. The only practical way for anyone to find out about a posting is if the author links to it elsewhere.

I kind of love this. And I’m always happy to see a new TLD in the wild.

The actual blogroll

(Blogs are ranked in order of appearances in these Blogroll posts. Also, I’m only listing blogs that don’t act as newspapers, because those are the ones I feel need the most support.)