The Clock of the Long Now, by Stewart Brand

I’m thinking about writing a book, and the [1]nonfiction book I’m thinking about writing is about building design systems and making sure they’re accessible. [2]The list of fiction books in progress is embarrassing.

It’s a big undertaking. [3]Building a design system, I mean, not the book. Although I think the book will be a big undertaking too — it’s just that books tend to be finite creatures that you can finish, and design … Continue reading

It’s an undertaking that I’ve been involved with for three different companies now — as a consumer of the system at Vanguard, and as a designer at both Boomi and Vertex.

But really, I wouldn’t have made the jump from consumer to designer successfully at all if Jeremy Keith hadn’t given a talk in 2018 called The Way of the Web. [4]It is not one of his best-known talks and for that matter if I hadn’t found these sketchnotes I’d really be wondering if I made it up right now.

In that talk, Keith summarized the concept of pace layers, presented by Stewart Brand. It surmised that culture builds from a bottom layer of nature (which changes very slowly) through multiple layers until it reaches fashion (which changes almost too rapidly to track), and that by understanding the relationships between the layers, we can better understand how and where to effect change.

Keith’s suggestion in his talk was that a similarly-structured pace layer could be built from TCP up through Javascript and other scripting libraries, from the slowest changing layers of the internet through the fastest.

At the time I was prepping for my own talk so the idea kind of grabbed on to the back of my brain… and there it started gnawing on things.

Building a design system is often challenging and frustrating because some things about it (such as, for example, the organization’s voice and tone, or the corporate font) change rarely, but have huge impacts. Others, such as the fashion of flat design or the implementation of specific interactions, change frequently but only impact small subsets of the full design system. As a designer, I’ve found that understanding the difference between scheduling a change to the corporate font and scheduling a change to the 4th carousel owned by the 2nd subdivision of importance in the organization is the key to ensuring that the design system is given the budget to grow — and the key to ensuring that the design and development partners don’t want to string me up.

But to explain all of that, first I had to be able to explain pace layers. And while I was pretty sure I did understand them, if one wants to start writing a book it’s a really good idea to read the source material before running one’s mouth.

Then I bought the wrong book.

See,  my brain is a muddled mess of memories from various conferences and web events. Learning about pace layers is definitely one that sticks out. Another that sticks out is discussion of the Long Now Foundation.

This foundation is dedicated to taking the long view on time. The very long view. Like, a clock that runs for ten thousand years long. People who place bets that take a minimum of two years to prove out true long. Storing a sample of all the world’s languages in nickel long.

And while The Clock of the Long Now does, indeed, discuss pace layers in chapter 7, the bulk of the book is about taking the long view on what we put into the world. In the case of web design and development this can mean everything from choosing HTML as your primary markup language (and not coding everything in JavaScript) to deciding which companies and projects you’ll still be proud to be associated with 20+ years into your career.

(I also remember a lot of conversations about how future forward design is progressive enhancement from older technology, and a lot of men getting their pictures taken in a space helmet, but once again the terminology to find proof of these things eludes me tonight.)

It turned that reading The Clock of the Long Now was not a mistake on my part (more of a lucky accident) because it’s helped me understand and maybe even figure out how to explain that one of the biggest challenges with a design system is that it’s a system. You’re designing a system that, if successful, cuts design and development time for the whole organization. But that means you’re also designing a system that will require time to develop, time to adopt, time to grow, time to stress-test. It is not a short-term two-quarter project with a payout at the end.

In other words, it works in long time, but in corporate-driven show-me-the-returns time, it may be hard for our Product people to buy into.

One of the amusing things about the book is that the edition I read was published right after the turn of the millennium (or the year 2000 for you pedants, don’t @ me about when centuries start), which is itself a millennia in web years. The Long Now Foundation still exists, which is a bit of a relief because basing my ideas on design systems on a long vision that subsequently died in the 20 years since the book was written would’ve been embarrassing.

Brand did seem to go out of his way to not make predictions about what the future would bring, outside of the fact that it 10,000 years from now life will likely be very different from today.  Still, there was more than one point where something said would pull me out of the book. Brand seemed quite optimistic, that the web would have the power to prevent people in power from spreading lies, for example, at which point I almost spat my drink across the room.

The book’s thesis, that we should take a long view if we want to work together to solve problems, is still valid 20 years later, and has helped me better shape the kinds of discussion points I’ll need to get the funding necessary for a quality design system. (I’m pretty sure Brand didn’t see that coming, but then, he probably wouldn’t be surprised either.)

So it’s a good, relatively short read, not directly about the web but definitely about the underpinnings of being a developer or a designer, and I recommend it to anyone interested in the longer view.

Footnotes

Footnotes
1 nonfiction
2 The list of fiction books in progress is embarrassing.
3 Building a design system, I mean, not the book. Although I think the book will be a big undertaking too — it’s just that books tend to be finite creatures that you can finish, and design systems are not so much.
4 It is not one of his best-known talks and for that matter if I hadn’t found these sketchnotes I’d really be wondering if I made it up right now.

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 Amazon.com, 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.