An Event Apart: 10 Commandments of Web Design

by August 5, 2013

In his presentation at An Event Apart in Washington DC 2013 Jeffrey Zeldman walked through today's web design principles and how they can make our sites better. Here's my notes from his talk: Ten Commandments of Modern Web Design.

Thou Shall Entertain.

  • We spend lots of time thinking about efficiency and usability but we also need to think about being delightful and entertaining people.
  • You don't need an excessive amount of design elements to set an appropriate personality for your site.
  • Set a conversational tone with your body copy.
  • Headlines and visuals play together. Consider how images can add life and clarity to your content pages.
  • Stock photos might not be the best answer, illustrations and icons naturally come with a unique personality. Stock photos often do not. Part of being entertaining is being different.
  • Error pages are an opportunity to insert personality. Try to be entertaining but be mindful of people’s mindset when an error occurs. Fun is not appropriate everywhere.
  • Entertaining elements can be used to enforce a brand. For example Flickr greets you in different languages to emphasize it is an international platform.

Test Everything

  • We have to be responsible.
  • People are using your Web sites on lots of different devices, you need to test on these devices. There is no substitute for using real devices to test. But getting lots of devices can be expensive -so do it strategically. You don't need every device but you need to have representative devices.
  • Remote Preview is a tool that allows you to preview any URL on large number of mobile devices simultaneously. It's a tiny Javascript-based tool.
  • Don’t just test your designs and sites, also test your assumptions.
  • A List Apart made many decisions when redesigning. Then had lots of conversations with readers about what they chose to do. ALA didn’t include an ALT tag on author bios because they felt it was the best decision for accessibility. This goes against convention but it’s important to keep trying different things.
  • Test your assumptions by publishing your intent and ideas. Encourage discussion about them. Even question the fact that you test assumptions -inception!

Thou Shall Iterate

  • Iteration is how design happens: “I move stuff around on the page until it looks right” -Milton Glaser. A great designer is the one who keeps moving stuff, even when everyone else leaves the room.
  • Iteration isn’t just for visual design. It also helps you uncover insights.
  • A List Apart found people are often commenting and re-tweeting articles before they read them. They learned this by iterating on where the share and comment links exist on the page.
  • Always keep iterating after delivery whether you are in-house or a creative agency.

Thou Shalt Ship

  • Good is the enemy of great. Great is the enemy of shipping.
  • Not shipping can be soul-crushing. You need to get your designs and ideas into the world. It doesn't matter how good your product is if you don't get it out there.
  • If you can't delegate at the pixel level you'll never ship.
  • We're never really done. When you work on the Web, its a process of constant improvement.
  • Consultants, raise you rates when clients don’t ship. This encourages clients to get the work you do together out and into people’s hands.

Engage Thy Community

  • The most important asset you have are the people who love and use what you do. Engage with them and treat them well.
  • Instagram lost a lot of public support when they changed their terms of service without explaining what they were doing and why to the community. Its most passionate users were upset about these changes and caused a big uproar.
  • added a custom header to their homepage that highlighted the type work of designers.
  • Big companies care about customers too but they often are less connected to their users than small companies.

Additional Commandments

  • Love thy user as thyself: treat people well. Do things that you would like to have done to you.
  • Remember Content & Hold it Holy. Design from the content out instead of based on device breakpoints. Decide where your content requires a change and adapt layout there. Use the font you select to guide your designs from the start.
  • Make sure the content people come to read is free of distractions and front and center. Let people focus on the content.
  • Big picture, big type is the future for content sites. We need to deliver the experience our readers want.
  • Make magic, not perfection. Instagram’s success is likely based on how easy they made it to share photos. Many other parts of their experience were incomplete but it didn’t matter. They nailed the workflow of the most critical part of their service.
  • Thou shalt prioritize: we need to work with decision makers to make sure we are working on the right things.
  • Github issues, or similar software, can help you set priorities for the changes and features you want to make.
  • Be true to yourself and your Websites.
  • This is design, not religion.