Web standards pioneer and general icon of the internet Jeffrey Zeldman was one of the first names on my must-see list when skimming through the conference listings. His session this year was titled ‘Jeffrey Zeldman’s Awesome Internet Design Panel’ and the big man began by explaining that the SXSW people demanded he add an adjective to the title, hence ‘Awesome’. With him on the panel was designer Dan Mall, Mandy Brown of Typekit and A List Apart, and Roger Black of, er, Roger Black Studio Inc.
We kicked off with a discussion on web platforms, perhaps the most widely-changing aspect of the web in the past 18 months. Zeldman began with a story about his efforts to check in to his upcoming flight to SXSW from a taxi cab in New York. He entered his details into his airline’s mobile app and clicked the ‘log in’ button, only to be taken to their desktop website which required Flash to log in, which inevitably, his iPhone didn’t support. How did this kind of user experience failure occur?
Dan Mall responded by making an interesting point: the choices we make dictate the context we see things in. Sounds obvious perhaps, but he suggested that we buy iPhones to see apps that look iPhone-like, or that we use Chrome (as opposed to Internet Explorer or Firefox) to see websites rendered in a particular fashion. Perhaps this only applies to more technical users who know the difference between Webkit and Gecko, but still noteworthy. Mall did add that when straddling the divide between user and developer, things became tricky to negotiate. Zeldman’s problem with his airline was aided by his understanding of why it failed - an average user would perhaps just feel frustrated that it didn’t work and may have continued to attempt to log in.
Moving on, the panel began to discuss publishing. The advent of plugins like Readability and a new product Roger Black is working on called TreeSaver allow readers to specify how they want to see content, and the advent of web standards means that content is generally separated from presentation, to the benefit of the reader. Zeldman made the point that the entire platform is for content, which makes it odd when some products are designed with the content being the last thing in mind.
The paywall quickly came up and the overwhelming ethos from the panel was “if you have exclusive great stuff, people will pay for it”. Dan Mall suggested that traditional publishers didn’t understand alternative modes of publishing and were attempting to price them at the same rate as their paper-and-ink versions. Mandy Brown joked that many publishers saw the iPad as their saviour, just like they did with the CD-ROM back in the 90s. She also made the point that despite its web-savvy audience, the A Book Apart project’s sales were 75% print.
Discussion turned to content curation - Dan Mall mentioned that he follows so many Twitter users that he almost requires a service to filter them for him; a human-powered content recommendation tool. This for me highlighted the need for journalism in the 21st century - while we could all get our news from Twitter or similar, the role that journalists and editors play in sifting through the noise is absolutely crucial and will always have a place in the way we consume information - no matter how clever Google’s algorithms get.
A question at the end returned to Zeldman’s airline issue and asked whether it was really the fault of the airline - was it Apple’s fault for not supporting Flash? Adobe’s fault for not producing a lightweight version of Flash? Zeldman’s fault for not just using their (working) mobile site? Zeldman responded that while all of those things can be cause for concern, the way to solve these issues is always to simply put the user first. Make the user happy and research their needs, expectations and frustrations and everything else will follow. A good conclusion to a great talk by an iconic figure.
- Matt Andrews