Responsive Web Design: Breakpoints (Suck)

I’ve been doing responsive web design since it hit the fan in 2010, and it’s really challenged and changed how I do web design in general.

(Primer: The basic idea is that the way elements are displayed on the screen changes depending on the width of that screen. That way, a website can look just fine on a smartphone, tablet or desktop. It’s an effective way of acheiving mobile compatibility without a separate mobile site. RWD, as it’s lazily called, is now old hat, and has been built on with new concepts that will shortly be assumed common sense barely worth articulation.)

RWD added to the workload involved in creating a simple webpage, but at the same time, moved the whole industry’s perspective from pixels and towards content and meaning (and semantic informational heirarchies!).

This change in perspective was a good thing becasue it relieved the pressure to compete on making pages visually detailed and the same in all browsers (responsive design meant pages would change, no matter what).

At first, wide eyed and eager I consumed Eathan Marcotte’s eminal classic that introduced the world to the concept and practice. I trawled forums for best practices. Still, I came across a number of issues I was forced to solve on my own.

Why do RWD breakpoints suck?

Breakpoints are groups of changes that occurr when specific criteria are met… such as a total screen width more than 30em, or the device held in orientation mode.

I started out grouping changes together like this. This might work if a website is visually simple, but add some slight interest to how the page is contructed, and you’re going to need to be more specific.

What I do instead of RWD breakpoints

These days I have responsive declarations all over the stylesheet, containing only one or two elements, independant of all other element’s declarations. In concert, multiple elements are responding at any given time, not necessarily at once or in obvious ways.

A standard CSS style declaration next to it's RWD  counterpart.

A standard CSS style declaration next to its RWD counterpart.

At firstly I felt guilty for this, as if I was being disorganised. Later I realised this was a necessary technique for writing a legible stylesheet. Of course responsive declarations need to be grouped by elements. And of course elements should be styled for RWD independantly.

I do often use global breakpoints, for global elements such as body (font-size) and page (widths and margins). The baby stays in the bath.

HTML Frameworks such as Bootstrap don’t appeal to me as head starts, because they force elements to change in groups, at breakpoints, which means many look unnatural. A common example, even on high profile websites, is a rows of boxes jumping from a crowded four-across to a wastefully sparse vertical stack.

I like my pages to feel well designed all the way. Because, you know, I design websites. RWD is a useful tool, but it means careful consideration of how each element will look on different devices. I don’t believe there’s another way as long as RWD is my tool of choice.

There’s more on what-I’ve-learned-from-RWD to come.


The Secret of Great Customer Experience

A great customer experience doesn’t come in a laquer. Starbucks (for example) would like to make employees think it’s their responsibility to provide a great experience to their customers. But they wouldn’t even have to mention it if they realised that the responsibility belongs to everyone. It can’t be someone’s job to manufacture joy. When customers get presented with that, it sucks worse than a perfunctory, polite experience.

People know genuine, and to give genuinely happy you have to be a part of a genuinely happy oragnisation. That means lowering stress on managers with more realistic targets – or even just having a better business model so managers don’t have to sweat sales.

Fuck. Just don’t, you know, milk people.

Experience is the small moments of living and feeling. As employees, we shouldn’t sacrifice 10 hours to misery and lonliness just to be alive for the other 4. As organisations, we shouldn’t try to take care of the customer (for the sake of the bottom line) while overlooking employees. This isn’t life.

You can’t make people happy when you’re not. Starbucks basically proves this. When I connect with a barista it’s *despite* Starbucks, not because of. It’s all just life. It all has to work, it all has to be good. Until an organisation realises that, they’ll likely be providing a sub-par experience, because bad vibes just get passed on and on. And bad decisions follow along, because people don’t care.

Organisations need to treat their employees like customers. With exactly the same attention and care as they want their actual customers to experience – nota drop less.

Unfortunately, in ‘normal’ environments, employees often defend their psyches against the mess by erecting facades. Their real selves will be buried beneath an act. It’ll be perfunctorily cold. Not special. Not a memorable experience. In fact, it will make customers unconfortable. They don’t want to feel sorry for someone. They just want a bloody coffee.

Apple has the most successful retail business in the world. But walk in to a shop, it doesn’t look that ‘productive.’ I’m not sure how it works, but folks in there seem genuinely content to stand around and talk. What an atmosphere to enter.

It’s not just about improving productivity. Productivity does not equal value. The real value is in the emotions: of everyone from the CEO to the floor staff. Emotions don’t go away. They are absorbed, by people, and the people around them. Don’t place more stress on the people in your organisation, especially in the name of improving the experience of the customer. All changes start internally, and successful changes happen at the root. You need to adopt the changes yourself, in your state of mind, in your reason for existing as an organisation.

A great customer or user experience doesn’t come in a lacquer. 

The Screen

I dented my Macbook screen. My loved window to the world. My canvas. My beautiful, expensive retina screen with the perfect colours and great viewing angles. An investment I planned to cherish for years to come.

I like my laptop to have battle scars. But not the screen.
I went through a few breif stages of grief.

Then I thought – maybe this is good. Suddenly, it’s not a window to a magical universe: it’s an imperfect layer in front of it. Instead of being invisible, it’s suddenly there, real – and ephermeral. It makes me think about how much there is between me and what I’m trying to see. How abstract what I’m trying to do is. How I’m plugged in. So many machines, so many people that create the working digital universe. So so much cogs, turning and grinding, unseen, between me and my work.

Maybe it’s a good reminder: that the digital world is not the real world; that computers are just tools for jobs. Something normal people, whose hearts aren’t made of ones and zeroes, don’t need to be reminded of. People matter, so so much more than computers. Places matter, even though they’re boring to our digitally trained eyes.

Our largest problems have human fixes – solutions dormant within the human heart. We’ll do what we need to do with or without computers. Faster with them, perhaps, but at some cost. Where are we? Where am I? Am I lost in a digital world? What’s wrong with this one? Am I building anything worthwhile – that will increase the happiness of the world? Am I losing more to bits and bytes than I’m gaining? Is there a robotic heart in me growing over the organic one, strangling it perhaps?

It’s a magical thing – the computer. As much as I owe to it – the best things in my life have happened without them.

Really, there are screens all over my life. Thinking about myself as a designer, rather than a human – is another kind of screen. It also needs a crack or two.

Here’s to new perspective, and more time with feet on the earth.

Potato & Pea Soup (v1)


Winter is on the way out but it’s still pretty… wintery. Growing up, I used to enjoy mush pea soup at my grandparents place. Here’s a variant of that.

IMGP4061Serves: 1

  • Ingredients:
    • 1 potato
    • 1/4 leek
    • 1 cup of garden peas
    • 2 cups of water
    • 1 teaspoon of salt (to taste).
  • Optional:
    • 1 capsicum
    • 1 tablespoon of coconut cream (Ayami brand is the best).
  • Possible garnishes
    • Nutmeg (slight)
    • Dill (goes with anything creamy, really).

Chop your ingredients chunky. It’s great to eat like this if you don’t have a blender, of if you just like a bit of chunk.

The potato, leek and peas boil in a pot for about half an hour, with about two cups of water.

IMGP4068The capsicum, if you’re going with that option, is best fried, although this isn’t essential. When the edges are crispy, it’s reminiscent of bacon bits. Either way, it adds great colour. I understand frying things is a lot of work which really goes against my whole ethos, but sometimes it’s worth it :p

Give the soup a blend if you like. I like a rough blend, leaving bits of bits in the soup.

This soup stands on its own, but if you want more spice, lightly sprinkle nutmeg or add some herbs (dill will work).


Customers are Not the Enemy, Right?

This is a larger story I’m crafting out of one little example.

For years I’ve been running into this barrier: wanting to improve customer experience for an organisation that doesn’t. For whatever reason, many businesses refuses to empathise with it’s customers at some point.

A great expereince can only be provided by a business that really KNOWS what it’s about, one that can focus on what’s important. Otherwise, the purpose of a business can be mistaken for milking dollars from humans in any way possible, something that leads to a scattered, less effective expereince. Of course, the world is full of these.

The inspiration behind this article is the local chapter of the global coffee retail giant you-know-who. They seem to have mistaken themselves for a money milking organisation in some respects. Sure, provide things that coffee-lovers like, but not at the expense of the core experience. Merchandising is seriously getting in the way of drinking coffee in this particular location. Not that you’d expect an organisation to act against their financial interests – you’d just expect a more planned, integrated approach to realising those interests. I wouldn’t expect so much from them except I’ve worked for them and I know they try to install a customer-oriented perspective in their staff.

Before getting into it, let me talk about time.

In a business like a cofee shop, time should be counted as the cumulative experience of time by customers. So if their are twenty people in your shop for five minutes, that five minutes is really by twenty – because it’s the customer’s persoective that really matters. If your shop is malfunctioning when a hundred people are in your shop for five minutes, then your shop has been malfunctioning for five hundred minutes. Which makes your malfunctioning shop that much more of a problem because it’s a much larger percentage of the overall time than it appears to be from the perspective of the staff.

But they fall short from there. The store in question is a difficult one – not very large and quite busy at times. The issue is a large merchandise structure in the middle of the shop, which makes it difficult to move around without saying excuse me a hundred times. Just being in the shop is difficult – and if you consider the merchandsing thing optional, unncessarily so.

Also, in-between this monument and the counter gets placed a little bargain bin, about one-and-a-half fet high, with a chalk written sign propped up against it, sticking outwards into the space where people have to walk, under the counter. The reason for the sign sticking out and not leaning against the counter is of course so more people can see it. Having to be aware of this obstacle in the least navigable part of the store, is bad enough without the fact it gets kicked over a thousand times a day. This apparently doesn’t matter, because it can just be picked up again. But it does matter, because your average customer will feel sorry and/or embarassed for having kicked down a sign.

The most common mistake for businesses that have lost sight of their purpose is to focus instead on squeezing a few extra dollars out of people. Of course the experience is eroded: the cause of the erosion is rooted in the fact the business no longer cares.

There are clear solutions to these problems in this particular shop, but the soutions don’t matter because the problems aren’t recognised. The management is barked these orders to sell shit. The staff who place the bargain bin don’t have to experience the crappy results. All because the important question isn’t being asked: how can we make our core expereince better? The core expereinces? Sitting down for a coffee, or grabbing one ont the go.

Sure, as an organisation spreads out, it must be easy to add things that feel important to the mission. But as the additions take on lives of their own, it must then be hard to notice when they stop being useful additions and start eroding what you had to start off with, the special something that made the whole shebang possible.

And for a super large organisation with a good brand name, there’s probably going to be significant lag between eroding that experience and eroding the brand name. Once it’s eroded though, it’ll be too late. Even fixing the core issues won’t repair the brand in time. Unless you have Steve Jobs to come and draw diagrams.. but how many companies have at their heart someone who really cares, and who the public respects?

“The customer is actually an enemy which you simply conquer by being nice. A ‘good customer experience’ is a topically applied lubricant making it easier for you to slide your dirty fingers into their purse.” It’s a paradigm and like all paradigms it’s invisible.

As a new idea takes hold, and people get used to higher standards, your shabby efforts to get people’s money will be on display. We’re heading into an era where only perfect customer expereince is acceptable. No matter how large an organisation, the importance of peope’s experience, inside and outside, has to be upheld as sacred.

The new idea will be established by organisations that actually care about what they do and remind themselves of that everyday. Because they care, they’re focussed on how people experience them and their product. They don’t want to drop the ball.

Of course the world is full of large corporations that hire people who simply couldn’t be expected to care. Fair enough, most organisations hardly provide incentive for people to care. Even if their employees did care, they’re not empowered to suggest and make change that favours their customers. The reverse is important. Care, and spread that care throughout the whole organisation. And to care, you need to know what you’re caring about. You can care about everyone all the time in a general sort of way, but if you want to do something right, care about that.

Oh the fine line between being a designer and a critic. I’ve always struggled with providing constructive criticism. It’s much easier to hurl pointers from the sideline. So I have to acknowledge, I still like my local chapter of global-coffee-giant because of the people who work there. Its just a shame that maybe in ten, twenty or a hundred years, someone else will get you a super convenient cuppa with more style and heart. I guess at that time the super nice people’s great grandchildren will work their while they go to college.

The Manifesto

Feelings Rule the World

The world is changed by feelings, more than ideas. Becasue when you feel good you can do so much more. A great smile can make a bad day better. Feeling good gives rise to kindness, confidence and even energy to make it happily through the day, all of which create more chances for feeling good in the future.

There is immense value in feeling good, even if it’s hard to measure. Empathising and apologising can be more powerful than simply fixing someone’s problem.

Good communicators know that facts don’t win people over – make them feel something.

If you want to make a difference in someone’s life, you don’t have to give them a million dollars. Make them feel like a million dollars and they’ll do the rest themselves. The destitute are more out of hope and confidence than anything else. Give each other a reason to go on.

Show, don’t tell.

Don’t just take people to the conclusion – let them arrive themselves. Let them own the story, the message, the facts. It goes for everything, wherever possible – and precludes the possibility of bullshit.

Escaping prophecies is difficult.

We build the future with every action. Every day has been planned by our past. Creating a better future is hard because you experience the meagre results of yesterday while you lay better foundations for tomorrow. You need to put in more than you immediately get back and it doesn’t feel worth it. This is why we need hope, faith and patience. Foster them and change your life, the lives of those around you, your organisation – and the world.

It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do.

Some people like to think our beliefs define us, but they only really differentiate us.

Beliefs are just words in our heads. They can help or hinder us in our interaction with the world. You may or may not agree on the name or concept of God, but I’m sure you can agree helping those in need is never out of fashion.

The danger of beliefs though is that if they are ends in themselves they become fences. The potential of beliefs is that they can inspire actions that make things better.

Forgive anyone who believes something differently to you. What really matters?

It’s not all about technology.

Technology gets more powerful and efficient all the time. But the real bottleneck for consumers and industry is imagination. The first TV shows were of people reading radio-like scripts. We need technology, but to make any use of it, we need lateral thinking more than technical progress.

Technology makes our computers, apps and networks possible, but it’s human creativity that takes it from there. There’s so much left acheive, even without technical advances.

Time isn’t money.

You can live low for a decade, planting seeds that will oneday bloom into something unimaginably great and valuable.

Try to see the value, or lack of, in what you do – irrespective of the time it takes or the money it brings.

“Simple” is in the eye of the beholder.

It doesn’t mean simple to make, conceptually simple. It means the people who are meant to get it will.

Simpliciy, as a design trend, hardly relates to simplicity as an experience. It has nothing to do with the inherent complexity of a thing, it has everything to do with whether it is understood.

The old are young, the young are old.

It’s not only that age is a number, or a state of mind, but quite literally the old have all been young, not so long ago, and the young will be old in no time. See the young woman in the old – see the old man in the young. Be old when you’re young, without fear of the future. Be young when you’re old, without regret for the past.

We belong to each other.

Under the surface lies a web of interconnectivity. We eat food grown and delivered. We are mostly water managed by the local council. On our own, we’d be dead in days. Our knowledge of the world and universe, and our ideas and beliefs often inherited or borrowed. So sometimes, we should afford to measure success by wider metrics than usual.

Business should be designed to be busy.

A machine is most useful at capacity, but a cheap one will break.

When business is booming, more people are experiencing us at our most compromised. Are we ready for the business we need to succeed?

Cook chips how you like them.

There’s a million ways to cook potato chips. Everyone likes them differently, and you’ll never please them all. The only way you really know if chips are good or not is by your own standards. Then people who like chips like you do will come for miles to get the best chips in the world. Others will at least appreciate your consistency and integrity – at least you have an opinion and stand for something (eg: crispiness). And if you don’t stand for anything, ie: you really don’t care about chips, just don’t cook them.

Of course most of the people in the world cooking chips have no opinion. Hopefully they work for someone who does.

Always coming always going.

That person you used to love, you’re not in love with any more. The person you’ll love tomorrow, maybe you haven’t met yet.

Ups become downs, downs become ups. Take a wider view of your own experience. Get above this emotional roller-coaster and exercise strength from deeper within.

Parts of you will fall away or change. But something is always the same. That part is the centre of your revolving universe, never coming, never going, and is you.

Choose reality.

You can’t blame basically everyone for choosing emotional comfort over reality. The two things are not often mutual. But the more you stick to reality, the easier it gets, because reality is a place for deeper comfort.

There’s no such thing as customer service

Companies like to talk about their culture, and their customer service. They’re the same thing. Your internal culture will be passed down through the ranks to the customer. Efforts to manufacture a customer experience at the emotional expense of those delivering it will fail. Sure, systems and rules will make it easy to know what to serve the customer, but as to how, that’s your company culture. Treat everyone like your best customers.