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.

Presenting Design Work by Donna Spencer

Presenting Design Work by Donna Spencer captures everything I’ve learned about that harrowing process of presenting a web design for review and turned it into a six chapter book you can read over two lunch hours.

I am thrilled that this book emphasizes rigor in the craft of creating and presenting designs.

So many times I’ve sat through reviews where the designer couldn’t tell me what the business problem was, why the user needed the changes, how the user would get from place to place, or what the unhappy paths looked like. They failed to take notes (sometimes showing up without even a note-taking device, like, say, a pencil or a laptop), gave me a tour of our components on the page instead of telling me how someone would use it, and thanked everyone when done — but never followed up to let us know what they’d decided. Then, later, they complained that the product manager steamrolled their input on designs or ignored their feedback.

This book demands a lot of the person who wants to be successful. You have to think about your audience, practice presenting, take notes (or find someone who will), understand the problem you’re building against, understand the feedback you’re given, and be rigorous in your feedback decision-making process.

It also works. It works so very well. And it garners trust between us and our business and engineering peers way better than any less-rigorous process is capable of doing.

As soon as I started reading it, I started messaging people I know mentoring designers and said “yeah this book? this is the one you want.”

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.

Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin

I’m a three-time failure at reading the Polar Bear Book.

I’m also a Principal Information Architect with 10 years’ experience.

I’m not telling you not to read the Polar Bear Book. I am telling you that if you want a short, direct, and well-structured book on what Information Architecture is, how to get started practicing it, and real-world examples of prior work, Everyday Information Architecture by Lisa Maria Martin is the book to start with.

It is the IA cohort to The Elements of Content Strategy And y’all know I’m a big fan of that book.

I started this book while sitting in a hospital room watching my husband sleep. It’s readable even under extreme stress. The book starts with the LATCH system of organization, which I had learned… but when I’d learned it through the quasi-apprenticeship of a mutual fund company’s design department, it didn’t have a name. So here I was, middle of the afternoon, snoring and beeping filling the room, and ten-year veteran of information architecture, learning things I didn’t know on page 5.

Your milage may vary (YMMV), especially if you’re one of those younger folks for whom information architecture degrees were available. (We had library science but I was too short-sighted to major in it.)

The book is vibrant and well-structured enough that I could put it down for a week at a time if I needed to and pick it up again and keep reading and understand where I’d left off. (Also, YMMV.)

Plus, this book isn’t afraid to use Star Trek, Ravelry, cooking, self-deprecating spreadsheet jokes, and colorful, useful examples.

To sum up, this book is going on the list of books anyone who asks me how to start a career in UX, along with Don’t Make Me Think, How to Make Sense of Any Mess and Universal Principles of Design.

Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski

Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski (Also available from the publisher, A Book Apart, possibly for cheaper depending on your edition. Support your small press publishers!)

I’ll admit I probably should have read this book back when Luke Wroblewski wrote it, but I didn’t think I needed to. I had attended one of the An Event Apart conferences where Luke presented the ideas the book is based on, and I followed him pretty closely on Twitter at the time, so most of what is in the book I’d learned through other means.

But it’s been seven years, and I’m introducing a new company to mobile design for the first time, so it was time for me to take a refresher course. This book was perfect for that task.

The goal of this book is to teach you what it means to design a website or application first from the mindset of a mobile design. It came about because, before mobile, we designed everything for the computer desktop, and after mobile, that sucked pretty badly all things considered. If you don’t remember the era of m-dot sites and dumbphone sites and total lack of iPhones, well, I envy you a little. (Also, go ask an old person about the Netscape browser wars.)

The book promises no code and to keep things short; it delivers on both promises. At the same time it delivers explanations of why mobile is important, how to think about mobile use cases beyond the idea that everyone is doing things “on the go” (they’re not), and a light but effective introduction to how to think about design elements such as touch areas, hover states, form elements, and page layout in a mobile context.

I hope that A Book Apart commissions a second edition, because the first edition is pushing close to 10 years old, and a lot has changed in the last 10 years. I’m not honestly confident that it will make as much sense to someone who just joined the industry as it does those of us who were hand-coding our Geocities sites back in the late 1990s. But regardless of the slightly dated statistics (and screenshots) and the assumption that none of us know what this “mobile” thing is, the theories and mindsets introduced are sound. It’s still a valuable read all these years later.

Update December 2018: The paperback is sold out at A Book Apart and I’m hoping that means there’s a new edition coming out! In the meantime, the e-book is a good deal.