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Desponsive Design

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There is an accepted modern wisdom that goes a little like this:

Change is good. Continuous change is even better. Delivering to user needs is paramount. The only way to test what are the best things to meet a user’s needs is to put things in front of them. Change is the only certainty. Everything should be agile. Let’s change things now, tomorrow, the day after!

Which is great from the perspective of the developer and the designer. They make “change” their new stable constant and enter an ever-repeating cycle of sprints and burndowns and backlogs that means that their day-to-day life becomes remarkably unchanging. Release, develop, release, develop…

But what about us? What about those of us who have to use the bloody things day in, day out, trying to make sense of this perpetual change whilst we, Helllooo!, actually have work to do?

Now in some cases, the continuous drip-feed of functionality seems to work fine. New features added to services like Google Apps are incremental. Ooh look I can now do slides in 16:9, that’s useful, what took you so long? ChromeOS seems to update itself every few weeks, and appears to be fixing bugs in the background with little interruption to my work.

But in other cases, it’s a bit sucky. And when I say “a bit” I mean “completely”. And when I say “sucky” I mean “sends the user into a pit of despondency”. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we will refer to as Desponsive Design – continual incremental disruption that seems to ignore wholesale the idea that “Users” are actually people who are trying to get on with their lives.

A couple of recent examples:

WordPress is a great service. But over the last few months it’s been living a double life. A life of new and old sitting next to each other like chalk and mozzarella. You see WordPress and introducing a new User Interface. A Better user interface. A More Modern user interface. But they are doing it a bit at a time, and the new and the old just don’t play well together.

For example, when I land into WordPress the the moment, I get to a screen a little like this:

Screenshot 2015-02-16 at 16.00.44

Much of the common functionality I need is available from that page, but not all of it. And to find the stuff that’s only available through the old interface (and to find what’s not there is a bit of a hit-or-miss process) you have to click on the incredibly unclear “WP Admin” link. Which takes you to the old interface which looks a little like this:

Screenshot 2015-02-16 at 16.01.06

Which also does a lot of the same stuff that’s in the new interface. But differently. And more (for older WP users) familiarly. But then every so often you get bumped back into the new UI and then it’s difficult sometimes to find your way back again (or even anywhere). The new post edit screen, for example:

Screenshot 2015-02-16 at 20.54.23

appears to offer no route back other than all the way to the first screen showed, from where you then have to click on Posts (or WP Admin) to get back to a list of the Posts you have already.

This might sound like moaning, but quite frankly I don’t know where anything is, or how it reliably fits together, and it makes the whole experience a complete pain in the arse. This is not a seamless user experience. It’s disjointed and incoherent, and makes me dislike the new stuff.

If it’s making me dislike the new stuff, what is there that the developers can learn from this piecemeal deployment? It’s a laboratory exercise with New Coke potential outcomes. It’s Desponsive Design.

Or another example which cropped up at the weekend from the BBC. The BBC are changing their homepage on Mobile. Here’s why:

Screensh bbc

Let’s break that down into three:

beginning to look a bit dated

This is the “Logan’s Run” rule of agile delivery. It’s old, it must die.

Let’s be blunt. The iPhone and all it’s wannabes are heavily influenced by modernism. Modernism is nearly 100 years old. Why are Apple doing anything about that?

from a technology standpoint, we could improve the Homepage’s resilience

Fine, but it doesn’t strike me that to do that you need to make it all modern-y-big-picture-y

how it handles the saving of your location settings

Ditto. These appear to be three mutually-exclusive things. And deploying the new look onto mobile devices first again results in discontinuity in my experience as a user across mobile and larger-screened devices. Desponsive Design.

Now I’m being a little bit tongue-in-cheek here. But there is a very serious point underlying the flippancy. As humans, we struggle with change because adopting something new, no matter how much better than the current it might be, requires cognitive investment which makes it harder at first. If you never leave things in a state that allows people to become comfortable, you leave people permanently uncomfortable.

But the developers of most services are not active users of those services. They can’t be, because they’re busy using things like Github and Basecamp and Eclipse and Visual Studio and whatever else to create the things that they are perpetually buggering around with. If all of the dev tools that they used were being continually disrupted in the way in which the services they provide are, then maybe they’d have a little more empathy for the people trying to make sense of the nonsensical.

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