Web design and “user myopia”

My non-designer approach to web and user interface design is decidedly functional. Beauty only gets you so far; I’m interested in what inspires people to take part in something, in what yanks them out of their bubble and makes them feel connected to something beyond themselves. Long essays just don’t scan well on the web, where everything you post is competing with a thousand other things for a user’s attention.

Nevertheless, the desire to connect is strong, and there are many ways to engage it, even if that engagement is fleeting. Bold headlines often do the trick. A sharp design that doesn’t call attention to itself, but appeals to users’ emotions, usually helps. But I’ve found that online designers, writers, and producers often overlook a simple fact about their audience: people rarely see what you want them to see.

I’ve spent much of my working life producing content meant to be viewed online, and whenever that content has involved words — as, um, this does — I’ve had the nagging feeling that my intended audience just won’t be able to focus on it. Not if there’s too much of it, and not if it doesn’t reach out and grab them in a visceral way. Every day, I labor long and hard over the text people will read in an email or a blog post.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m convinced that if I make the perfect argument people will see things my way.  I’m deceiving myself; most people never finish the piece, and never get to that witty comparison between “big media” and “bigger media” that’s buried in the 5th graf.

This disconnect between producer and audience applies to every kind of site.  You write a blog post featuring a complicated argument, and your readers take away the opposite point. You create a community site and make the registration and sign up process as easy as possible, but still no one can figure it out. Back to the drawing board you go.

Once again, users — accustomed to being immediately taken with a site, or else they take off — simply don’t always see what you want them to see.

Coder Jeff Atwood recently looked closer at this phenomenon. First, he jokes that users don’t read anything you put on the screen. But then he gets serious.

When I said users don’t read anything you put on the screen, I was lying. Users do read. But users will only read the absolute minimum amount of text on the screen necessary to complete their task. I can’t quite explain it, but this kind of user myopia is epidemic. It’s the same problem, everywhere I turn.

Perfectly put. As an online writer, that means one thing above all: don’t write one word more than you have to.

Quick notes from Netroots Nation ’09

Last Sunday I arrived back at Hartford airport (yep, that’s the home airport now) after a fun and fast four days in Pittsburgh at the Netroots Nation conference.

It was yet another moment to hang out with the traveling pack of online campaigners and progressives I’m proud to know. It was four days of panels, drinks, and the constant talking of shop. For us that means Twitter, Facebook, emailing, crowdsourcing, astroturfing, videomaking, petitioning, and general all-around campaigning. It’s always a great time, even if there’s never any water or snacks to be found and the organizers always seem to find the largest, most-oversized venues possible in which to stage these pinko events.

A few highlights:

– Seeing Andy Cobb’s fantastic parody of the Washington Post’s ill-fated Mouthpiece Theatre disaster for what felt like the 50th time. And meeting Andy Cobb.

– Watching Bill Clinton get questioned by bloggers.


Well, not really “questioned.” But there were a few questions in the heckling.

– Pittsburgh. What a wonderful city! Even the Kinko’s guys were beyond nice.

– Representing Free Press. It was great to be able to be a Free Presser here – with an actual mission – instead of looking for people to hire to trying to figure out who the cool kids were. I think Free Press is one of the cool kids.

– Seeing all of my friends. Ever since attending RootsCamp 2006, I’ve gotten to know a ton of wonderful, inspiring people who put their all into their work. Seeing them a few times a year always energizes me and makes me want to work harder and be better at the work I do.

– Feeling good knowing I was going home to Northampton, MA. If you’d told me a year or two ago that this was my home I would have laughed. But that’s where the hippies live! I would have said. Yet here I am.

Wow. Northampton.

Yes, it’s been a long time. But I have an excuse, and it’s spelled N-o-r-t-h-a-m-p-t-o-n.

We’ve moved from the New York to the Western Massachusetts, and after almost four weeks here it’s fair to say we’re feeling settled in. Routines have emerged, we’re getting used to living in a house (with insane bugs and boilers that break), and life in a small town is not so bad if you can share it with good friends and work that you care about.

So count me feeling blessed. I ride my bike a mile and a half to work each day, passing through beautiful New England-y land full of century-old farmhouses, and spotting more than a Subarus and Priuses along the way. Arlo loves it here and already has a posse of kids he can call friends.

We have a bunch of friends as well, mos of whom have settled in town after adventures in New York and Boston, just as we did.

I realized before we moved that my needs in life are fairly simple: I want to be able to focus on the kind of work I love and can obsess about, I want to be able to focus on my family in a complete and unhindered way, and I want to be surrounded by friends I care about and want to see. Oh, and the ability to play tennis a lot is helpful too. So far, so good.

AllThingsDigital Lightens Up

Last week I wrote up some notes on the ongoing AllThingsDigital reposting controversy in which the WSJ’s pet site was failing to distinguish third-party, aggregated blog posts from their own original content.  I don’t like the practice, not because it compromises existing copyright laws but because a) it assumes the bloggers want their work to be reposted, and b) it isn’t nearly transparent enough, and it’s too difficult to tell what is original content and what is reposted from elsewhere.  I’m a huge fan of creating online conversations, and quoting, excerpting, and linking are integral to that practice.  But this is a different issue.

My old publishing buddy Terence wrote a friendly rebuttal to my post in which he makes a number of good points.  I actually agree with most of what he says, though I think he mischaracterizes my critique a bit.  First, Terence:

Another point of Josh’s that I take greater exception to is his characterization of “big sites” that “skirt around copyright issues by only ‘excerpting’ posts.” The legal principle, which covers excerpting, is fair use. It has long been held that the benefits of fair use to the public dissemination of knowledge—and, thus, the common good—far outstrip the individual’s right to restrict the use of a small—very small—part of her work. And, at least in part, fair use is meant to counteract what Josh terms as the producers’ right to “decide who uses their work, and how,” which could be wielded as a tyranny of the minority. After all, what novelist would want passages of her novel used by a critic to show just how incompetent a writer she is in a review (a review that likely has ads sold against it, incidentally)?

Again, it’s a gray area, but generally two or three sentences is fine as an excerpt (which is what most RSS feeds willingly serve up) and is all that most above-board aggregators use. In fact, the only ones really making a stink about the unfairness of fair use, excerpting, and appropriation right now are the AP and Time magazine, both big businesses. Just see the paces Time is putting Shepard Fairey through.

Again, I’m not making any claims about copyright.  I absolutely agree with Terence that the grey area of fair use is what’s at play here, and it’s not particularly helpful to hash out the legal consequences of excerpting blog posts — a practice that helps keep the engine of online conversations running.

Instead, I’m concerned about the lack of transparency of ATD’s practices, and the ethics of wrapping ads around third-party content without third-party consent while disengenously and paternalistically arguing that it’s always good for the bloggers in question.

There’s also a difference between ATD and Digg and delicious (a comparison Terence made in his post): Digg and delicious are bookmarking sites, only listing headlines (which are frequently changed from the originals) and brief descriptions (usually written by the bookmarkers themselves).  ATD is a content publisher, producing creative work of the same type as the blog posts it appropriates.

Proving that we all had a legitimate point, ATD’s Kara Swisher not only responded to criticism from Merlin Mann, Andy Baio, and others, she went as far as to change ATD’s policy:

While we did not agree with all the complaints in the story, the debate did make us realize we needed to be a lot clearer and more explicit about what we are doing, and to make those policies–which we had not posted in as much detail as we have, for example, about our ethics statements (you can see mine here, for example)–more prominent and transparent.

Some will disagree with the changes we have made and some will not think they go far enough.

But we hope we have addressed the key issues, including making it clearer that these posts are not ours, posting our policy prominently to avoid confusion about exactly what Voices is and removing all comments and sharing icons from posts that are not original to our site.

We are also now linking directly to original sites from the front page excerpt, without forcing anyone into the Voices section, where we also link to original sites.

(Check out Merlin Mann’s parody of ATD’s old policy too.)

Again, I agree with most of what Terence (and Swisher) have to say, and I think the issue has been around a fairly esoteric set of editorial practices that had no real precedent, making it hard for us to all agree on the proper language and approach to use.  We’re all grappling in the dark here, but I think Swisher’s openness to these ideas has shed some light on the issue.

Spontaneous acts of grief and love

Last weekend I experienced a rare bout of freedom for a couple of nights. Nicole and Arlo went up to her folks’ place in western Massachusetts, and I was alone — by myself, single, etc. — for two nights in a row.

What to do with myself? Friday night I stopped by at the local bar and had a whiskey and a beer with some friends before heading into the city for a friend’s going away party.

(He was “going away” in the sense that he was leaving his East Village apartment that he shared with roommates to live in another East Village apartment with his boyfriend. But the big, old, tub-in-the-kitchen apartment he was living in has been in my circle of friends since the mid-90s, and I was very, very sad to see it leave his hands. Also, any excuse for a party.)

It was fun to be out in Manhattan on a Friday night, knowing that I hadn’t left the family at home. I could stay out late, I could drink a bit more than usual, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about anything.

On Saturday I decided to do what I had done for most warm-weather weekends pre-Arlo: I walked. I walked up to Prospect Park and along one of the many wonderful footpaths there, away from the bikes, and made my way up old crumbling stairs and through the leafless overhang over to Park Slope.

As I approached the rotary at 15th Street and Prospect Park Southwest, I noticed a memorial set up around the entrance to the park. This is a spot where, any time after 3pm or so, you’ll find a bunch of high-school age skateboarders hanging around, make lewd comments to each other and passerby and trying and failing any number of skating tricks. The Prospect Pavilion movie theatre sits right across the street, and on most nights hundreds respectable Brooklynites — perfect targets for the skate crew — are flowing in and out of there. I’ve never been too bothered by that group, though imagine some moviegoers are, and when I pass them by on my bike late at night I try to envision ways that they can knock me off and annoy me. I usually avoid them.

The memorial was set up for a member of this crew — we’ll call him Khalid. About a dozen bunches of flowers were laid around one of the poles blocking cars from entering the park, above which were photographs of Khalid and dozens of notes to him. Every writable surface featured a scratched out message to him as well, usually to the tune of “We miss you.” To the left of the main memorial was another, smaller memorial. Here, a beat up baseball hat was hung on a pole above more bunches of flowers, notes, and photographs. There were a few candles as well.

The whole scene was so striking that those passing by were compelled to stop and stare for a few moments. As with most roadside memorials, there was no information about how this young kid had died, or how old he was when whatever happened happened (he looked about 15 in the photos). That lack of information made the scene even more harrowing.

I hung around and did my best to soak in the spontaneous displays of grief and love. Even though I didn’t know this guy, I could see that we was a member of the annoying skate crew. What had happened here? Was he hit by a car? A random act of violence? Maybe it didn’t happen here, but this was his stomping ground, so it was here that the memorial sprung up.

In any event, I had to keep up my momentum. I spent another 30 seconds or so staring at the memorial and was off. The day was young.

More Hungry People, Less Food

File this is sustainable food, poverty, homelessness, and probably a dozen other overlapping issues.

It’s not just AIG and Bank of America anymore. Nick Turse in Salon is reporting that’s not only the money banks that need a bailout, our nation’s food banks are coming up short too.

Food bank representatives agree on one thing: The need for their services is spiking in a way none of them can recall. Again and again, they emphasize that lines at food pantries are growing longer, seemingly by the month, and that those in line are younger and often more middle class than ever before.

I never thought I’d see the day when there would be more hunger in the U.S. This is not to diminish the problem of hunger worldwide — there’s plenty of it, and more to come — but I’ve just always gone on the assumption that there isn’t a lack of food in this country; there’s a lack of healthy food. Around the world, overnutrition is becoming a bigger problem than undernutrition.

But here we are. Turse writes that food banks are facing a perfect storm of economic trouble, with less donated food coming into food banks and rising food costs across the country (example: the wholesale cost of a case of pasta has risen by 88% in the last three years). The result is that as more and more people are losing their jobs, there’s higher and higher demand for food from the food banks, and the food prices are going up too, creating even less available food that than there would have been if only the demand had risen.

One ray of sunshine: more people are donating food to the shelters. But the food banks aren’t sure it’s enough to balance out the increased demand and higher prices.