Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood

I’ve know that there is a movement to make the web more sustainable for a while, but Sustainable Web Design, written by Tom Greenwood, is the first book I’ve read about it. I read the book, honestly, because it’s from A Book Apart, and I give pretty much everything they publish a read.

I’m recommending the book, however, because it illustrates that sustainability is one more excellent reason to run an efficient, cleanly-coded, performant website.

An efficient site lets a user do the task they arrived to do in the fewest possible understandable steps, and with the fewest possible distractions.

A cleanly-coded website has less code cruft, takes up less server space, takes up less time to transmit from place to place, and has fewer errors.

A performant website also takes up less server space and less time to transmit from place to place. Additionally, it makes the web feel “snappy” and increases user confidence and satisfaction.

All of those things help us burn less electricity (both as the web consumer and — more importantly — as the web producer), and as a result, increase the sustainability of the internet. Considering that the internet is, as Tom Greenwood puts it, a coal-fired machine, any increase we can make is progress.

Sustainability is important, but sustainability isn’t my passion in UX (at least right now). My passion is seeing that coal-fired machine become more accessible to people with disabilities and users in general.

Turns out that efficiency, clean code, and performance <i>also</i> increase accessibility. Especially when we’re talking about things like “yo how about you remove those eleventy billion javascript frameworks that aren’t accessible, eat a ton of server space, and make loading times agonizing, and try plain static html instead?”

We all have our passions in UX, and that’s good. It helps to keep the larger culture balanced. But it’s also excellent when we can places where our different goals can be met together using common techniques.

Whether you’re passionate about sustainability, accessibility, or just plain great UX, whether your interest is in software, hardware, or managing data centers, whether you are a lifelong tech geek who remembers when everything had to fit on a floppy disk or you’re new to the web and don’t remember a time before, Tom Greenwood’s book will have suggestions for how you can make your products, and our planet, more sustainable. And probably hit a good number of your other life goals on the way.

Quiet in a time of change

You may have noticed that the site has become… well… UX-related book reviews mostly.

That’s not an accident — I’m reading more than I have in decades, and I do my best to review good books because reviews are a driver for sales, and good authors deserve to be rewarded for being good authors.

But it’s also an acknowledgement that I’m not talking about much else in UX right now. Even on The Interconnected, which is my usual ranting locus, the site was virtually silent last year.

Last year, I think we can all agree, was rough.

This year so far is better but that doesn’t mean much. When I walk the half marathon in Virginia Beach, mile 11 over the damned bridge is hell, but it being stupid hard doesn’t suddenly move the finish line closer.

Still, I think there’s a finish line around the corner, so I shall trudge on until I can fall onto the beach and soak my feet in the ocean.

Things that are looking up:

  • I have a new job at Vertex, Inc. where we design software that calculates sales tax and VAT. I am pro-fair-taxes and also pro-make-taxes-easy, and in a lot of places (for better or worse) sales taxes fund lots of important local initiatives, so at least at the moment it feels like a good fit. I’m two months in and I haven’t seriously pissed anyone off yet, but the day is still young.
  • I’m seeing more and more people in our industry concerned about accessibility and making things more equitable for all, regardless of disability. I refuse to say that the pandemic has any silver linings with 500,000 dead in my country alone. I will say that hard-earned lessons are still lessons, and hopefully we’ll come out of this with more accessible jobs, more accessible websites, and more people giving a damn about their own impacts on their neighbors’ ability to survive in an increasingly technical world.
  • While we’re on the subject of survival, there’ll be a review coming up sometime soon on Sustainable Web Design by Tom Greenwood. I’m about halfway through now and already recommending it to coworkers. Many of the goals in the book align with accessibility goals and good information architecture goals, so I think it could become an asset in convincing our higher-ups (especially in enterprise product design) that good web design = good business, both on the surface and within the code.

I’m also working (slowly) on my own accessibility website, trying to bring together information from the WCAG and the Deque online training classes I’m taking, articles that I rely on, other books, etc.. The ultimate goal is somewhere that people can navigate through a list of components and find something that says “Oh, buttons? Here are all the WCAG guidelines, info on how to hit them, and info on how to test them, all in one place.”

That’s taking longer than I thought it would because

  1. pandemic;
  2. constant exhaustion;
  3. I am the world’s worst estimator.

May you also be within sight of the next milestone, and may your strength hold out until you get there.

A Culture of Safety by Alla Weinbereg

A Culture of Safety: Building a work environment where people can think, collaborate, and innovate, by Alla Weinberg, is a very good read of the very very basics of building safety (physical, emotional psychological) in the workplace.

It is short. When they say on the cover it’s a 30 minute read they are not kidding you. The book is 62 pages. You can read it between meetings and still finish it in a day.

If you’re not familiar with the concepts of physical, emotional, and psychological safety as precursors to communication and collaboration, this book might not be compelling enough to convince you to pursue changing your behavior. Crucial Conversations or Radical Candor or one of the other big names in this topic line might be better for convincing the person with huge communication issues that they, in fact, have huge communication issues.

But I find Crucial Conversations is better for specifically conversations and tbqh I got nothing from Radical Candor except an emotional breakdown by trying to follow it. A Culture of Safety is much more down to earth (much less “my-bad-worker-left-and-started-a-coffee-shop silicon valley”).

This book would make a great companion to Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle if you were the manager of a burned out team (and especially if you were burned out yourself).

A Culture of Safety is technically aimed at managers, but many of the activities and directions can be approached successfullyby anyone who facilitates one or more regular meetings.

I’m not a big fan of “activities” in self-help books because so many of the popular books seem to delight in suggesting the kinds of activities that make my introverted thrice-burnt-out neuroatypical brain want to crawl under the desk. The activities in this book are not like those.

The activities in this book, for the most part, are light touch. “Ask everyone how they’re feeling at the beginning of a meeting” or “schedule a venting day when people can sign up to just go off about something bothering them and your job is to listen and understand.”  These are things that I can do as a product designer just as well as a people manager can. And because I’m a designer, the people on my team generally won’t even know I’m doing it to foster a culture of safety, they’ll just think it’s one of my quirks. I like that.

All told 100% win. Read book. Enjoy.

Am I Overthinking This? by Michelle Rial

Am I Overthinking This? is a delightful book of 101 infographics. In the introduction, Michelle Rial explains that she was an information graphic designer whose chronic pain removed her from the field… and that this was her response.

This is the perfect coffee table book for the introverted UX designer who thinks way too hard about the little things, like:

  • Where are my hair ties?
  • Is brunch fiscally irresponsible?
  • Are people judging me by my desk?
  • Is it too late to start?
  • Am I a bad friend?
  • How much do I tip for this?
  • How do I stay calm?

Michelle uses everything from water colors to markers to hair ties, matches, and Chinese food take-out boxes to create the info graphics that are in the book.

For example, here’s “Are people judging me by my desk?”

Photo of the book page. The quadrant chart can be broken down to the following desk value combinations. Mess and quirky: you're the creative type. Neat and quirky, you're important. Messy and minimal, you're at happy hour. Neat and minimal, you're storing a lot of resentment in these drawers. The chart axis and labels are drawn on a piece of paper, but each of the values (which fills its whole quadrant) is a post-it note.

If you are an overthinker, or you are an information designer, or you just like charts (or you know anyone who fits any of these combinations) this is a book worth buying. I foresee using it to hand out “advice” to many of my friends in the future.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This was an odd one, in part because it wasn’t a book I chose. Our team has a book club at work and the Radical Candor was the first book we covered, in part because our manager is looking for us to provide each other with more radical candor.

So first: this book is written for managers, and I am not a manager. (I don’t foresee wanting to be a manager any time soon.) If you are a manager, it’s probably a better fit.

Second, well, there’s a lot of Silicon Valley privilege dripping from this book. At one point, Kim talks about how letting poor performers go can be a blessing for both the company and poor performer because the fired employee can go do something like starting that coffee shop they always wanted.

Maybe on a West Coast IT severance package (assuming they move somewhere else) but most people on the East Coast and all points in between lose a job and immediately have to go find another job.

Kim also talks about how things like minority status or being female might make radical candor more complicated, but doesn’t actually talk about what to do about them. Frankly, I don’t think she knows.

So yes, problematic book from multiple angles.

At the same time, this book gave me some tips and tools that I need. For example, Kim puts a lot of emphasis on giving praise, which I don’t do enough. One of the highlights of my year so far was an unexpected piece of praise from my manager for a wiki I’m putting together. I’m trying to pay that forward to the folks I work with, because we all should hear about the things we’re doing right at least as often as we hear about the things we’re doing wrong.

The other thing that Radical Candor provides is a framework for structuring large conversations. When you have a business question where you know gaining consensus is going to be an issue, you can separate the “debate” meeting from the “decide” meeting, for example, to ensure that everyone gets a chance to have their say and at the same time there isn’t pressure to make a decision right now.

don’t think that Kim Scott provided enough direct advice on how to structure a piece of criticism. I think that Crucial Conversations does a much better job in that sense. But I do think that this book gives better examples of why constantly providing just-in-time feedback can help a team move from a place where crucial conversations are necessary to a place where everyone is communicating clearly enough that high-stakes behavior discussions are fewer and far between.

In summary, this is not a book I’d say will have a permanent place on my bookshelf like Crucial Conversations does, but it’s helpful and adds some tools to my toolbox that I didn’t have before.