A practical starter guide to (motion design) freelancing

I’ve been a freelance designer in San Francisco for five and a half years. That’s meant a lot of things – I’ve gotten to work on great UI and UX projects, have edited hours and hours of video, screamed at render farms, wrote a book and taught classes on 3D animation. I’m far from the foremost expert on anything in my field, but I’ve been doing it for awhile and know the industry in a really strange way that people in stable, salaried jobs might not.

The most frequent question I get from friends and current or former colleagues is “So I just picked up a freelance gig – any advice?” After years of receiving that nearly identical email, it seems like as good of a time as any to assemble everything I know about freelancing in one place.

A couple of quick caveats: I’m a motion design freelancer, which specifically means that most of the people who will hire me are looking for someone who knows After Effects and Cinema 4D, as well as Illustrator, Photoshop, and a working knowledge of a handful of other pieces of software that help me do my job. Save for a couple of months, most of my experience has been in San Francisco, which is a different world from LA, New York, Chicago, or anywhere else. I think there are things about my experience that apply no matter your area of the country or your area of expertise, which is why I’ve put motion design in parentheses in the header. 

Oh, and I want to make it clear, too: I’m a designer, not an accountant, lawyer, or agent of the IRS. I hope this gets you started and gives you things to think about, but this is just advice based on my experience.

What does “freelance” mean?

When someone tells you they’re a freelancer, it probably means that they don’t have one single, steady job. Freelancers rarely have one single desk that they report to at one single company every morning. “Contractor” often means something similar, but usually implies that they’re working steadily at one company for some duration of time. But people with regular, salaried jobs are also capable of picking up freelance work on the side. For some of us, it’s all we do. This is all to say that the term means nothing.

You can call yourself whatever you want when someone asks you about your job at happy hour, but when it comes to taxes, those words become a little more important. We’ll get to that soon. For now, keep in mind that “freelancing” likely means one of a couple of things:

  • You work for a company, on-site, on their equipment (or in some cases on your own laptop), as a temporary employee, meaning you do everything you’d do if you had a full-time salaried job at the company
  • You work with a company, off-site, on your equipment, which likely means the company took on more work than they could handle with their staff and decided to sub-contract a job out to you
  • You work with your own clients, one-on-one, on your equipment, with no agency standing between you and the end client.

Sometimes the line is a little blurred between all of those categories, and some people feel very strongly about their roles in all of those different types of relationships. Freelancing isn’t so different from any “real” job – it’s important to know your role in the pipeline to prevent issues down the line. Are you going to be in direct communication with the client, or taking direction from someone at the company? What’s that person’s role? You might not want to think of your superior at the company that’s subcontracting to you as your “boss”, and they might not be, but understanding the hierarchy of how you fit in to a project is important no matter how you get hired or paid.

How do you find gigs?

Patience. Or, these things, listed in somewhat ascending order of preference:

Craigslist – There are a lot of problems with Craigslist. For motion designers like myself, there’s a chance that appropriate gigs will be listed in art/media/design jobs (most likely), tv/film/video/radio jobs (though be warned that’s also where casting calls and whatnot end up), web/html/info design (because in San Francisco there are lots of interactive firms that occasionally need motion designers and posts can end up here) or creative gigs (which is a catch-all section that will include “I need my hair done” as well as “I need a video editor for three weeks”).

The reason I don’t recommend Craigslist, particularly the gigs section, is that my experience has been that posters will highly undervalue your work. This is the worst offender of people suggesting that you should give them thousands of dollars worth of your time for free because it’ll look good in your portfolio. Most recruiters I know use Craigslist as an absolute last-ditch effort, because they know they’re going to get inundated with replies from people lacking the necessary skillset or experience. It’s kind of a crapshoot. But, frankly, gigs are gigs, and you never know where you might find something.

Consider setting up an RSS feed that’s tailored to you – returning anything in art/media/design that mentions your skill or software of choice, for example. And with any of these suggestions, keep in mind that the people who might hire you could be creative directors, fellow motion designers needing help on a project, recruiters or HR folks who don’t have your specific skillset and might use slightly different terms than you do.

Third party recruiters – I could write a completely separate overly-wordy post about the experiences I’ve had working with third party recruiters, but they deserve a mention here, because you will definitely end up interacting with some. There are a number of these companies in San Francisco, and the second you change that LinkedIn headline to mention that you’re looking for work, recruiters will find you and will invite you in to sign up with their agency.

The way it works is that you now have a recruiter on your side, so when a company contacts them and says they need a motion designer, they’ll go to their roster and look for an appropriate candidate to recommend for the job. It’s really appealing for companies to use these sorts of firms when they need a freelancer, because recruiting is hard work and it’s not always cost-effective to keep a recruiter in-house or to have other employees take time away from their primary job to find candidates to come on board for a few weeks. Some companies only use third-party recruiters to find candidates. Most of these firms work with companies looking for contract, contract-to-hire (you’ll work with them for a few months, and if it’s a good fit they may extend a salaried offer to you), or salaried positions, so know which one you’re ultimately seeking when you speak to someone.

If a staffing agency finds you a gig, you’ll technically be their employee, which can be great. You’ll likely be W-2 instead of 1099 (we’ll discuss the two later), and you’ll likely be paid weekly and immediately. The work you do Tuesday of this week will be submitted in a timesheet this Friday, and you’ll receive a paycheck next Friday. You get to skip all the potential frustration of invoicing and following up and being NET30 or waiting for their client to pay them before they can pay you – a shiny direct deposit a week after you do the work is pretty great. They’ll contact you when they have a gig that they’d like to submit you to, and while it’s different from company to company, most will have some sort of mailing list or website where you can see additional jobs they have open that might be suitable for you.

The way these companies make their money is by taking it out of the hourly rate for the job. So, for example, a company can afford to spend $90 per hour total, and the agency decides that means they can pay you $50 and keep the remaining $40 for their internal overhead. (Those numbers are completely made up and just for an example; I have very little insight into the algorithm that decides what percentage companies usually take.) Ultimately it’s up to the recruiting agency, not the client, to decide how that shakes out. I’ve had recruiters come to me with jobs that’d be great for me but the hourly rate is too low, and they make the decision to bump my pay up just a little bit because it’s still a good thing overall for their company if they can get me to take the job.

I’m not here to speak ill of recruiters, and I know some third-party recruiters who are very lovely people, but I will caution you to be careful. Especially when you’re first starting out, it’s really compelling to meet with everyone you can and get excited when they tell you that they’ve got all sorts of gigs that you’re great for and that they’ll keep you employed. I’ve had recruiters push the idea that they’re saving me money since I don’t have to take the time to look for gigs myself, which should totally justify making less than half my hourly rate that I make when I take jobs on my own. Their job is a balancing act – they’re working as your agent, but they’re also working as the client’s agent. Don’t be afraid to stand up for the hourly rate you know you need for your financial situation.

Industry-specific job boards – Often connected to popular websites for a specific industry, job boards can be great. Much more tailored and exclusive than Craigslist, and the mere fact that a gig is posted there proves that the company is up on what’s standard in the industry. Everyone’s got their favorites. I like Motionographer and Coroflot; there are many, many more. I keep a couple of alerts set up with Indeed, even though isn’t industry-specific, and have a filter setup in Gmail to redirect them to a folder I can check if I’m ever looking for work. (Incidentally, I also have all of the mailing lists from my various recruiters set up to go to the same folder.)

Word of mouth – This sounds a lot like cheating. I list it here not to say that my actual advice is “Oh, man, just wait for someone to think about you and you’ll totally get hired!”, but to say “keep in touch with people”. The industry isn’t as big as you think it is and there’s always work out there. Show up, be friendly, do good work, and people will remember you. I get emails all the time about gigs that aren’t quite right for me, and I’m always happy to recommend folks I’ve worked with in the past. We’re a chatty bunch, and we’re all better off if we can keep everyone working.

A note on “networking events” – I hate networking events. I’m no good at walking up to strangers and introducing myself and they just make me uncomfortable. I know that when I feel ridiculously uncomfortable, it’s probably evident when I’m talking to people, and that’s just never seemed like the best professional version of myself. My version of networking involves staying in touch with people I’ve worked with in the past, accepting happy hour invitations, and doing my best to always quickly respond to emails. It’s worked for me.

How do I get paid? What’s the difference between 1099 and W-2?

If you’re working with a company that routinely hires freelancers, chances are they have a system in place. Chances are that you’ll be hired as a 1099 contractor, but companies who routinely take freelancers for long-term contracts may want to hire you on a W-2 basis. There are legal reasons for each, and I’m going to wimp out here and point you straight to the IRS website if you want to further research the differences.

Something to be aware of with 1099 contracting versus W-2 is your liability for self-employment tax. Regardless of your filing status, your income is subject to a 15.3% payroll tax, split between social security and medicare. (12.4% and 2.9%, respectively.) Folks who are employed at a company where their taxes are reported W-2 split that 15.3% with their employer – you’re liable for 7.65% and they’re liable for 7.65%. When your income is reported via 1099, the company you’re working with isn’t liable for payroll tax, which puts the additional financial burden on you, referred to as self-employment tax. So you’ll ultimately make more money if you report W-2 (and most people find it easier to pay a little along the way as opposed to a huge sum at the end), but there are also benefits for reporting 1099.

I always advise people to try and get a little bit of both 1099 and W-2 work. Being a 1099 contractor allows you to expense things, which you will greatly appreciate the first time you drop thousands of dollars on a new computer. There’s no reason for you to pay taxes on the $3000 of your “income” you spent for the machine you work on every day. If you’ve got a dedicated room in your home that you intend to use as an office, you can expense part of your rent or mortgage. You can expense internet and phone bills. Taxes for freelancers are painful, so the more you’re capable of writing off, the better. And whatever you do, force yourself to save money along the way. Your first tax bill isn’t going to be pretty.

If you’re 1099, you’ll likely submit an invoice. Ask upfront what their payment terms are – NET30, while frustrating (because it means you’re waiting until 30 days after the job is completed to receive payment), is pretty standard. If you’re working on a longer gig, it’s not out of the question for you to invoice weekly or bi-weekly. Otherwise, imagine a six week gig – the work you do on the first week of January is invoiced mid-February, and you won’t receive payment until mid-March. For most freelancers, that’s a long time to go without getting paid. If you’re W-2, you’ll likely report through whatever their internal payroll system is, often what all the full-time employees at the company use.

How much should I charge?

That’s a personal question, and one that only you can answer. I’d love to give a range of hourly rates here, but the truth of the matter is that I have no idea what everyone in our industry charges. I don’t know what designers at any level actually make on average. I know what I make, and that’s about it. That’s terrible advice, right?

My hourly rate is personal to my expenses and lifestyle, and I have to assume it’s within the standard range for my experience level because I don’t get a lot of pushback about it. There are lots of salary guides out there if you worry too much about the number you come up with. For me, personally, I’ve got rent, internet, phone, utilities, and student loans. I don’t own a home, I don’t have children, I don’t have a credit card. The amount of money you need to stay afloat is probably wildly different from mine.

In addition to your expenses, consider your financial goals. Consider that you’ll want to set aside a liberal percentage of your income in preparation for your taxes. (I try to save 40% because I’m a paranoid monster and do a considerable amount of 1099 work; I’d rather be surprised that I had money leftover than freak out and find that I didn’t save enough. 30% is likely sufficient.) Don’t overlook your business expenses. You need computers and software licenses to do your job. Set a budget and then try to build in a cushion. No one is ever going to hear your hourly rate and tell you it’s too low – be prepared for the idea that people might try to talk you down, and consider what your lowest threshold could be.

Also, consider that you’re probably not going to be working full-time. In my entire career, I have never once had an entire year where I worked 40 hours a week. It’s difficult, as a freelancer, to always have your calendar full. This project or that will get extended, pushed back, cancelled. Booking one project that ends Friday and another that starts Monday is a guarantee that you’re going to run into problems with one of the two of them. You’ll figure out your own schedule and client management over time, but do yourself a favor and don’t base your hourly rate on a 40 hour work week.

I’ve only spoken about hourly rates up to this point, but let’s not neglect day rates. I’ve never once had a design firm ask me for a day rate – they’re much more common in video production houses. It’s a great way to estimate how much you’re going to make off of a job, and it’s easier for the company to estimate their overall costs. It’s also a really easy way to not pay people overtime – and I don’t mean to make that sound sinister, because I’ve been lucky enough to rarely have that become a problem. Most of the designers and editors I know that work on day rates base theirs on a ten hour day, because that will likely balance out over time. You might run into a few fourteen hour days and feel frustrated that you don’t make overtime, but it balances out after a few shorter days. If you get the sense that the job is going to be weeks worth of sixteen hour days and are worried about being adequately compensated, bump your rate up. You’re a freelancer; it’s your right to charge what you feel is appropriate on a project-by-project basis.

What about flat-rate projects?

Estimate high, or write a really, really explicit contract and be explicit about the scope of the project and what will happen if the client exceeds that scope. (Preferably both.) It’s so much more difficult to negotiate terms in the middle of a project; get all of that out of the way as early as possible.

My strategy has always been honesty and transparency, and I’m always happier with how projects work out if I’ve been upfront from moment one. When I’m asked to bid a flat-rate project, I always return a number with a detailed explanation of how I came to that number based off of my day rate and the number of days I think it’ll take to complete a project. For example, if I’m creating a motion graphics piece for a client who already has a script and a general idea of the desired look and feel, I might suggest 2-3 days for style board development, 3-5 days for storyboards, 10 days for animation and a few more days for anticipated revisions. That means we’re looking at around 18 days from start to finish, multiplied by my day rate to give a number that I’m comfortable with.

Giving all of that information does two things: One, it gives a clear overview of the project timeline, which is helpful for the client to understand the process and what they should expect. If you run into problems down the line, you’ll always have that timeline (and later, a contract) to point to. Two, it gives you a starting point for discussion if that budget isn’t in line with what they were thinking. If someone replies to your email proposing a budget that’s 10% of the figure you quoted, you’ve already laid the groundwork to politely decline the project.

That’s not to say that you should necessarily set a hard line when you propose a dollar amount and be unwilling to budge. I like to provide a range when I can, and if someone needs me to lower the bid, I reply by letting them know exactly where we’re going to shave those days. I can turn a project around for less money, but it’s going to be less animation, less time for storyboarding, etc. The creative process is a tricky one to understand sometimes, and I’ve always found that additional communication makes everyone feel more comfortable and makes for an easier client relationship.

But you don’t have to report all your income, right?

Don’t get paid under the table. Just don’t. I mean, if your cousin needs a logo design and you really like her and she gives you a six-pack because she’s broke but really grateful, okay. (Don’t tell the IRS I said that was okay. Re-read that part above about how I’m not a lawyer.) I’m not saying that your mother should fill out a 1099 when you design the family holiday newsletter. I am saying that if you quote a client a $2000 job and they offer you $1500 in cash instead, maybe don’t do that. I haven’t been audited and I have no plans to, but I assume it’s not fun. If you want to be serious about freelancing, just get used to the paperwork, and it’ll get a little easier every time. Insist on accountability.

What else?

Find an accountant. Someone with experience with freelancers, who doesn’t mind answering your panicky questions, who can handle your taxes and make sure everything’s okay. I have an accountant that I pay a few hundred dollars every April who answers my emails within the hour and has been absolutely integral to my career. I’m convinced that his knowledge of deductions and what I can and can’t claim has saved me money over the years. Just find an accountant and let yourself outsource something.

Lots of freelancers choose to file an LLC. I haven’t discussed it here because most of what I’ve focused on is working with companies, not taking on individual clients. If you’re always finding yourself working for others, you may not find it to be all that advantageous.  If you’ve got assets to protect and are taking on clients of your own (rather than working through an agency), or routinely hiring other designers, it’s likely a good idea.

Some people have a huge preference for on- or off-site work. I like both. There’s something to be said for working cross-legged without real pants, but there’s also beauty in setting an alarm and leaving the house in the morning. Figure out a system that works for you. If you’re working off-site, realize it’s okay to walk away from the computer for an hour and get yourself a real meal and see the outside world. Email will wait.

Cut a demo reel you care about. Don’t make it too long. Create a portfolio that’s easy to update. There is no excuse in 2014 to have an unattractive portfolio. If you’re not a strong coder or web designer, use a service like Squarespace or Cargo. Keep your projects on Vimeo, too. You don’t have to spam every social media channel, but there’s no harm in letting folks know you’ve finished a new project.

And finally: I know I mentioned it before, but keep in touch with people. I sat in an office a few months ago with people I hadn’t worked with before, at a company that needed to hire a video editor for a project on a quick turnaround. Their regular go-to freelancers were all booked, so we started rattling off names of good editors we had worked with in the past. We were all surprised at both how many colleagues we had in common as well as how many names we didn’t recognize.

The way you can be that person someone else thinks of when they need an extra set of hands is to show up and do good work. Have just enough of an ego to know how to defend your work and not much more. Fight the battles that matter and let yourself compromise on the battles that matter less. Call colleagues you haven’t seen in a few months and ask them where they’re working and see if you can take them out for a drink after work. If you finish a job and someone asks you to keep in touch with them about your availability, they probably mean that and you should do it. If a gig comes up that isn’t for you, think of who you know that might be a good fit and recommend them. Be awesome and people will remember it.

Side note: Fellow freelancers, I would love to hear your stories and input on any of the above. One person’s experience is far from gospel. Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments, shoot me an email (rizzo . jen @gmail.com), or give me a shout on Twitter @jrizzo

On women in tech, and why this all matters.

I was a theatre geek in high school. I was a musician first, which transitioned nicely into musical theatre, and then I settled down with a local theatre company that gave me opportunities for straight dramatic roles. I have never been satisfied with only knowing one side of the process, so I spent a few years working in technical theatre as well. I’ve never had an ear for sound, but lighting appealed to me immensely. Being a good lighting designer requires an artistic vision, an understanding of space and the people who will fill it, but executing that vision requires a strong technical knowledge base as well. I moved on from theatre over a decade ago, but I still regularly pull out things I learned then to apply to the motion design work I do now.

My usual partner in crime – who wore the hat of producer, director, technical producer, and lighting director over the course of our time together – was a year older than myself, considerably taller, bigger and stronger. He and I raced all over town for years, carefully constructing a deathtrap Jenga game of light fixtures filling every square inch of my 1990 Mercury Sable. We’d walk into dark spaces we had memorized from previous collisions with knees and elbows, taking longer than you’d imagine to realize we hadn’t actually turned on a light yet. We moved heavy things from place to place, always inevitably choosing the wrong one first and having to do it all over again. I was small, but I was fast, and I didn’t mind sweating a lot.

Our usual work day involved me hanging heavy pieces of equipment above my head while he shouted orders from the lighting booth. We were both happiest this way – he had about 50 pounds on me at the time, a number that becomes extremely important when you’re teetering atop a 1970s cherry picker two stories above a stage. (My mother once walked in to bring us lunch, saw that I had tangled my legs up in the bars of the cherry picker so that I could make myself an inch or two taller, and promptly walked back out. She called ahead of time from there on out whenever she knew I was having a lighting day.)

Our roles were unspoken, him and I. I was smaller and loved heights; he had the vision and needed to watch what was happening from afar and wanted as little to do with being 30 feet above a stage as possible. I ended up with most of the bruises and there’s a particularly great story about slicing my entire right hand open when I was unscrewing a fixture in the dark and didn’t realize I was running my fingers over a piece of jagged metal over and over and over. But it only made sense for us to do things that way. And after all of that respect for my strength and ability, at least once per production, I’d be asked by someone I barely knew if I needed a big, strong man to come do the real lifting for me.

 

My first college internship interview was a disaster. I was 19 years old, only a few short quarters into my design education. I was too young to afford real business attire, so I hustled together my most professional ensemble, prepared my portfolio, and went to downtown Cincinnati to meet with an agency that appeared to do great work. After making me wait 25 minutes past the scheduled time, I was pulled into a room with a creative director whose first question to me was “So, what is digital design, anyway?” The question struck me off guard, since this company had approached my digital design internship head and asked for qualified candidates.

He asked me two more questions after that and didn’t bother looking at my portfolio. He took me around the office so I could see the space and meet all of his colleagues, confirming that the only woman employed there was the one sitting at the reception desk. I got in my car, called my internship advisor, told her that I just had the worst interview of my life, and went home. A female classmate of mine shared the same experience with me the next morning in line for coffee. I wasn’t angry until I spoke to one of my male classmates the next day who had an hour-long interview where they joked around the whole time and gave constructive criticism on his portfolio. He got the job the next day.

 

When I was 21 years old, a few short weeks away from getting married, my digital design class required me to work on an animatic telling a personal story. I chose to focus on the stress of the wedding process, for a couple of reasons. One, it was a story with which I was intimately familiar by that point. Two, my entire home was covered in wedding bullshit, which meant I had infinite props for 4 a.m. “it’d be great if I had just one more shot” photo shoots.

If I hadn’t been so young and so stressed, maybe I would have seen the inherent problem there – I was already pushed to my brink, and I was choosing to submit my personal story for critique to a room of seventeen men, one female classmate (one of my bridesmaids, incidentally), and a female professor known for ripping ideas to shreds. My then-fiance and I had a particularly impressive fight one night, stress-fueled and loud and dishonest, and there was nothing I wanted less than to finish the rough draft of that animation. Grades are grades, and I was paying about $7000 per ten-week quarter as an out-of-state student, so I did it anyway. It was hastily completed, largely unsuccessful, but I had trapped myself into a corner.

My professor tore it apart, and she was probably right to do so. It was when she got repetitive and continued to make me feel like the worst third-year designer alive that I just couldn’t take it anymore. I tried repeatedly to get myself out of that conversation, because there was nothing more to get out of that feedback loop. The way it all happened is lost to time, but I realized I was going to break, and I was choking back tears. Her barrage of criticism continued even though everyone in the room realized that it had gone too far, and I walked out of the class. Seventeen men, my colleagues and my competition for limited internships, watched a woman twenty years my senior call “There’s no crying in design” after me, as if I didn’t know that already. (Verbatim. Real story.)

 

The above stories are just a small snippet of the ridiculous things people have said to me throughout my lifetime about my gender and my ability to perform in my field as a result of it. Overall, I am privileged to have led a life filled with emotional support. I don’t come from a particularly well-off family, and we struggled my entire life. I took on my own student loans, and aside from a couple hundred dollars here and there from my parents when they could afford it, have supported myself since the day I turned 18. My parents and grandparents recognized my independence and headstrong nature at a young age and would never have dreamed of telling me that I couldn’t do something because I was a girl. They did not blink when I moved across the country to pursue whatever it was I wanted at the time, nor when I did it again, nor when I did it a couple more times after that. The suggestion that I cannot do something because I am a woman is not one that I’ve heard out of the mouths of anyone who professes to care about me, and I am grateful for that.

My mother lives with a woman and her soon-to-be fifteen year old daughter. She’s a talented violinist and loves to draw; the fact that she still runs to her room whenever I’m in town to show me her latest creation is one of the greatest joys in my life. She is smart and thoughtful and kind and I have an awful lot of faith in the person she’s going to grow up to be. I’ve known her for over seven years now and she’s changed her life plans as many times as you’d imagine. I’m not sure what she wants to be these days, but (despite having a mother who went back to school to begin a career in IT later in life) I imagine she won’t end up taking a career in tech.

If she did, on paper I’d be a pretty good advisor for her. I’m fourteen years her senior. I live in San Francisco and work in tech. I’ve been my own boss for five and a half years. There have been ups and downs, but overall my career has been wildly successful. By the age of 28 I’ve worked hard and have enough to be proud of, even though I’m not the CEO of my own startup. I like creating things much more than I like having meetings, and I’ve chosen to make my career move a little slower so I could develop the skills I was never all that good at.

The real problem is that I don’t have the faintest idea what I’d tell a young girl who wants to get into tech today. I genuinely believe that if you want something and you work hard, you can have it. As a person with six figures worth of student debt to get this career, I know it’s not easy. It’s hard to understand the world when you’re 18 years old and it’s even harder, at 18 years old, to know that.

I have worked with two female creative directors over the course of my career. Two. Total. (And they were spectacular.) I have worked with thousands of people in my lifetime with hundreds of clients and companies, and I have worked with two women in high-level positions of power in my industry. I have never been in a meeting with a female developer. I’m not the only female designer I know, thankfully, which occasionally gives me hope that the industry is changing and balancing a little. If the female designers I know that are at my level stay in the industry, in theory I’ll be seeing quite a few female directors ten years from now. I hope that theory is right.

I have worked with brilliant, thoughtful male creative directors. Men who understand people, who listen patiently and think for a second before they respond, who are empathic and produce beautiful work and care about the people who produce it with them. I have seen many successful projects completed by teams that did not have women on them whatsoever. So why is it important?

Perspective is everything, and some things can only be understood as we live them. I can’t tell you why there should be more women in “tech”, as a whole, because there are too many branches of tech that my life hasn’t crossed. For me to pretend like I understand everything about tech circles I don’t participate in would be exactly as harmful as men pretending they know everything about a female audience. I don’t believe that gender balance on a team is more important than (or cancels out) the need for any other sort of diversity. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

Why do we need that sort of diversity? Because two dudes stood up at TechCrunch to give a presentation on their new app Titstare. Because a highly-compensated CTO’s poor finger got tired blocking everyone who had the nerve to mention that maybe women are underrepresented in this industry. Because the Texas legislature decided it was okay to confiscate tampons, and the NFL wants to make sure you display them as you wind through a male-dominated crowd at a game. Because smart young women are being turned away from tech because of asshole 16-year-old kids in their programming classes, and male teachers sit there doing nothing to stop it. By letting the industry be bad and unappealing now, we are not laying groundwork for the industry to get better. Why would a young woman want to get into this industry? The only advice I can give a young woman right now is that you have to want it and you have to fight, and I know in my heart that isn’t the same advice I’d give a young man.

The reason we need diversity in this industry is that we are making things for a variety of people. Women are buying your products, subscribing to your services. You can hire a market research firm to tell you what women want, or you can save yourself a few bucks over time and hire a couple of ‘em yourself to see how your organization changes. If there’s another reason for all-male teams than “because it’s way more convenient to tell dick jokes when everyone in the room has one”, I would love to hear it.

And if your reason is “because there are no qualified women out there”, hell, you might be right. The talent pool is smaller. I would have a very hard time not hiring a highly qualified man because I was waiting for a highly qualified woman to come along. I bristled on a kickoff call a few months ago when a female account director confided in me how happy she was to find a woman to work with because things just go so much easier when it’s all women, you know? The problem exists on both sides. If you genuinely feel that way – that you’d hire a woman if there were any out there worth hiring – just try to be conscious of why you can’t find any. If you can’t find qualified female employees and you know a woman who might be interested in tech, maybe take five minutes and have a chat with her about why our industry is so great. That we create things, that we can help people, that we’re all working hard to make each other better. (And if you say all that, I’d really appreciate it if you meant it.) That is the advice I want to give to young women.

If all goes to plan, I’ve likely got about forty more years in this industry. I have reason to doubt that we’ll ever see a 50-50 gender split. But I’m holding out hope that we’ll get a little closer.

Google Maps Preview

Google recently announced that they were getting ready to roll out a new version of Maps, a product I use pretty heavily. Living in a city like San Francisco that doesn’t heavily depend on a grid system and being a person who gets around via bicycle or public transportation means I rarely have any idea how to get where I’m going, but access to searchable, customizable web-based mapping software means I at least look like I know what I’m doing. (Most of the time.)

I signed up to be an early tester and recently gained access to the new system. I haven’t spent hours with it, but so far I’m pretty impressed. Their team has addressed a number of problems that I’ve had with Maps in the past. Visually, I find it generally more appealing than previous iterations, but I question a couple of their UX decisions.

Note: I’m browsing in Lite Mode, because the non-Lite mode apparently requires OS 10.8. None of my computers use it, so I’m sure there are things I’m missing out on. I hope that when the new Maps actually rolls out, it’s more accessible.

Driving

Driving DirectionsWelcome to the new Google Maps. Let’s start with driving directions.

The usual players are here: turn by turn directions, point A to point B. I got Beer Revolution’s address by searching for it in my directions bar, an experience that has wildly improved. It’s hard to quantify why, but something about the searching I’ve done so far has felt faster, smoother, and more accurate at predicting what business I’m actually looking for.

Current Google Maps users will notice that we’ve got much more screen real estate than we used to, all dedicated to the map. I like this a lot. The overview is great and the map is generally what I’m most interested in, so removing the sidebar (used in previous versions for photos from surrounding locations, links to business reviews and other content) is a welcome change. More map is a great thing.

driving02_traffic

One great thing about the Google Maps app is its access to traffic information. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been a passenger in a car coming home over the Golden Gate Bridge, only to hit a wall of traffic somewhere in Marin County. I’ll immediately reach for my phone to pull up Google Maps and get an update on how long we’ll be sitting here and where the major snags are. (Like it matters; we’re stuck there anyway. Still, knowledge is power.) The timing is often scary-accurate.

The problem with how traffic is interpreted in the desktop version of Maps is that aside from one “Currently…” message in the top bar, it’s difficult to really understand what’s going on. There are a lot of conflicting line weights here, and the label for the route still claims it’ll take 24 minutes (despite the “Currently 51 minutes” message a few pixels to the right).

Turn-by-turn driving directionsOpening the step-by-step panel creates an additional issue, but let’s tackle the traffic problem first. Despite sticking with the traffic overlay (as it should), there is now no indicator whatsoever that you’re going to be in traffic for 27 minutes longer than anticipated. This is a trip that will take twice as long as it would if it wasn’t 3:45 in the afternoon. That’s a really necessary piece of information that’s getting lost in the shuffle. Worse, it’s not even getting lost – the largest type at the top of the directions list is just blatantly wrong.

When I clicked the step-by-step link, I assumed the natural behavior would be to expand the panel shown in the previous image. Instead, we’re taken to a brand new view. It’s not unattractive – quite the opposite – but it is completely inconsistent with the previous experience. It doesn’t appear to me that there’s a good justification for that decision. If that panel was expanded, it’d still be larger than the previous iterations of Maps, allowing for greater type legibility and the same visually clean approach we see here. The two layouts feel startlingly disconnected.

Bicycling

Bicycling

It was a really great day for me when Maps came out with bicycling directions. San Francisco is a hilly place, but there’s usually a smarter route you can take within a few blocks that will be a much more pleasant experience. Dedicated bike lanes and wide, sharrow-painted streets abound if you know where to look. The Bay Area is also a particularly pleasant place to ride your bike great distances, like the one shown above.

Previous versions of Maps would show you every single nearby bike route with a green overlay when you looked for cycling directions, which is fun to explore but not always necessary when you’re just trying to get from one point to the next. I like that they’ve simplified the layout here, making it more consistent with other modes of transportation. (Though I haven’t found overlay options, which makes me wonder if that’s a Lite view issue. If you have access to non-Lite and yours looks completely different, please let me know and I’ll update accordingly.)

I’m given two basic bicycle routes, both of which I’ve ridden and are good routes to take. I love the hidden card visual choice here – it’s reminiscent of Google Now, which I’ve raved about in the past and continue to love. I like the gray vs. blue approach to differentiate the paths and I’m particularly pleased with how the times and distances are labeled.

Bicycling step-by-step

The same issues apply on step-by-step directions here that we saw in driving directions. Also frustrating is that the option to see my alternate route has been removed. I appreciate the decision to simplify (there might not actually be a reason for you to compare the two routes in a turn-by-turn list format), but deciding between two routes is now a feature exclusively limited to the visual overview. Jumping in and out of step-by-step mode to explore options feels unnecessary.

Walking

WalkingWalking directions are great, represented with a blue dotted line instead of the solid line used for faster modes of transportation. (I’ll skip getting catty over neighborhood names, but I’d just like to point out that no one has ever asked me to meet them in Dolores Heights in my entire life.) The alternate route representation that I like in bicycling directions finds a home here as well, but the same issue of hiding alternate routes in step-by-step vs. full map view still applies.

It’s a nice touch to have a simplified version of nearby rail options represented on the walking map. San Francisco has two major transit agencies within the city: BART, a rapid transit option that runs underground through downtown and into the Mission District, and Muni, which operates both buses and rail. Including bus stops might be beneficial for more rural areas, but if you were to do that on the map above you’d have literally hundreds of dots at nearly every intersection. By streamlining to just nearby rail stops, you remind walkers that there’s a shortcut if they’re interested, without beating them over the head with options they never asked for. 

Transit

TransitTransit directions are where Maps has always really shined, and the new version of Maps has made some great improvements. In dense urban areas, there are often many different transit lines you can take, depending on how much you’re willing to walk. From my corner of the city, you could feasibly take BART, the 12, the 14, the 27, and five or six other options if you’re willing to hoof it half a mile or so. There’s a lot of overlap between some of those routes – if you’re going from, say, 26th and Mission to 16th and Mission and want to rest your feet, the 14 and the 49 are identical choices.

There’s a lot of information represented on the map above. You can take either the Pittsburgh/Bay Point or the Richmond BART line to 12th street, and then you can take one of six buses down Broadway. (Or, as shown in the second option, you can walk a few blocks down Broadway and actually shave a minute off your travel time.) Google Maps used to represent all of these permutations as completely different routes, which, for the purposes of this specific destination, they aren’t. You can get on either of those BART lines and any of those buses and get where you’re going. It’s a very thoughtful way to represent all of those options.

transit02The step-by-step directions are similar to what we’ve seen before, and I know I’ve criticized how visually different the two layouts are, but I do want to commend the Maps team for their work on the timeline at the top. It’s not unusual for transit users to look up their options well before leaving the house – sometimes transit times can surprise you. I love the timeline view. The minute-by-minute view makes it so easy to see how long you’ll be walking, how long you’ll be sitting on a train, and makes it pretty easy to tell if you should walk or take a bus for a couple of stops. The second line suggesting that you could walk a few blocks or take the 72 for a really short period of time goes a long way to convince someone that they should just walk it instead, a thing that’s harder to understand on a map view.

There was a BART delay yesterday, and you can see that represented on the step-by-step instructions. I really wish that was represented on the map view, and it makes little sense that it wasn’t. It was a system-wide issue, reported on BART’s official website. Transit delays are notoriously difficult to predict, so I don’t mind the time not being updated, but a heads-up before you view the full route breakdown would have helped. I use these lines regularly, and if it wouldn’t have been for wanting to get a screenshot for this post I wouldn’t have gone to the step-by-step page at all. I suspect I’m not alone on that.

So the new Google Maps is rad.

I’m really looking forward to watching Google roll out Maps across devices. I don’t know if a mobile version is in the works, but I’d be surprised if it was terribly far behind. Their preview page declares “the more you use the new Google Maps, the more helpful it becomes”, which sounds promising. There’s a lot of intuition here that I recognize from Google Now, and I think that’s great. I’ve had previous issues with Maps’ intuitive features – recognizing “home”, for example, has always been inconsistent for me – but the newest version made searching and getting where I wanted to go a breeze. A little more attention could be paid to visual consistency, but this is still a huge step up from where Maps has been for years.

A couple edits:

A few friends who are also in preview mode have noticed a couple of issues that I didn’t cover here. Hopefully they’ll be fixed in the final launch, because they’re pretty big ones. I assume Maps is rolling out in preview in a limited capacity, but a couple things you may notice as you’re moving around:

@jrizzo I really hope they integrate and expand the “My Maps” functionality. Right not it reverts to old maps when clicked.

— Brian Stechschulte (@AllOverBeer) June 5, 2013

@jrizzo New google maps. Route point a to b. now try C. D. E. They killed multi-route directions. I switched back in ten seconds.

— Dan Fisher (@dbfish) June 5, 2013

UX Motion Design, Part 2: Anticipation

Welcome! This is part two in an ongoing series about how to integrate motion design into the user experience. The introduction is located here, and part one is located here.

Today, let’s talk about one of the most important design principles: Anticipation.

Anticipation has always been a key ingredient for animators. Imagine you’re going to jump, straight up. In order to propel your body up into the air, you’ll likely need to bend your knees a little bit. In the case of my boyfriend who has studied gymnastics, he prepares himself by rising up on his toes a little bit first. If your ankles are strong enough, you might be able to get away without bending your knees. But try to simply propel yourself upward with both feet firmly on the floor to start, and you’ll find that it simply doesn’t work. Your body has to do a little something. Objects are motivated to start in one way or another, and that starting point does a lot in helping us perceive them as “real”.

When it comes to motion design for interfaces and other user experiences, it’s easy to overlook anticipation. After all, a button isn’t “real”, and unless you’re going for a skeuomorphic experience, there aren’t many existing models for how your content should move. So, how can we best harness the power of anticipation in motion design?

Video games have long integrated anticipation as a tool to keep the user grounded in a confusing, ever-changing environment. Tetris lets you know what the next brick will be so you can plan where to drop your current brick appropriately. (The Tetris model is interesting because it shows the upcoming brick in a separate area from the main screen focus. If a 2013, HTML5/CSS3/responsive version was made, I expect we’d want a ghosted image of the brick to appear at the top of the screen. I also expect that Tetris purists would hate me for that suggestion, but take comfort in knowing that I’m not very good at Tetris.) First-person shooters often have an indicator on the screen showing if you’ve been shot from the front, back, left or right to tell you in which direction your next victim might lurk. In the Flash/iPhone/Android game Jetpack Joyride, an indicator appears on the right side of the screen to let you know a missile is incoming.

Jetpack Joyride - Incoming Missiles

Jetpack Joyride – Incoming Missiles

Infographics have been on the rise for the last few years, and for good reason: lots of information on a single topic contained in beautiful, fun-to-look-at images. With the rise of dynamic content over the last few years, it was a logical progression for designers to start bringing those infographics to life. Google’s new How Search Works is one of the newest and most widespread examples, but Designed to Move and Dangers of Fracking are also beautifully-designed examples. The Milwaukee Police Department famously created a parallax-heavy page for their 2012 crime stats that proved single-page scrolling websites aren’t just for design firms. They’re all beautiful and engaging, but each one suffers from a degree of difficulty with anticipation.

My household recently had a large debate over websites like this, and it turned out we ultimately shared the same issue: legibility. Websites like this exist for a very good reason, which is to create an educational experience by masking it in a dynamic, fun one. I live in San Francisco and have little reason to read Milwaukee crime statistics. In fact, the chances of me stumbling across that content on my own are slim to none. But they created a visually engaging experience that was striking enough to be spread across the web, and it stuck with me so much that when I asked my boyfriend if he remembered what the URL was, he immediately knew what I was talking about. (He couldn’t remember the URL, either, but “one page police website” got us there, which is telling in its own way.) You likely wouldn’t want a law textbook laid out like this, and I’m not 100% sure I’d be comfortable with my heart surgeon learning how to crack my chest this way, but as an experience with the side benefit of educating people you might not otherwise have the opportunity to educate, it’s a great tool.

All the examples listed above are generally done really, really well. They take new technology and create valuable experiences with it. I spent more time on them than I would have in just about any other form. The issue, however, is that they’re all using motion design in a way that decreases their legibility and makes for a less linear progression than I imagine the web designers intended. Let’s start with Dangers of Fracking. It’s beautifully illustrated, and its scrolling, “animated” approach to giving you breaks between information is great for pacing users in a situation where users are ultimately pacing their own journeys based on how quickly they choose to move.

The one thing they got wrong is anticipation. As you scroll, text is introduced in boxes. In some cases, as you scroll further, that box expands with additional information – it’s a way of pacing you out and giving things to you one step at a time instead of throwing all of the type at you at once. An effective idea to be sure, but done too late. In each instance, it’s all too compelling to read the information in the box and then start scrolling, only to see once you’ve scrolled past it that it turns out that box will be expanding.

fracking

Sometimes boxes expand, sometimes they don’t. In the case above, the box doesn’t expand until it’s 32.6% from the top of the page. Why not begin to fade in the content when it’s 80% away from the top, having the entire message appear when it resides around 35-65% of the available browser height, and animate out as the user progresses to the next section? (There’s also a case to be made for not animating out, because the user has already watched a transition take place once, and if they want to move back and forth and re-read something, it may make for a more disorienting experience to constantly have to re-live a transition. It has long confounded me that Google’s The Mobile Playbook re-starts everything from one page to the next, and is particularly frustrating considering the subject matter.)

Inception Explained does a really beautiful job of using single-page scrolling to tell a story. The “animation” is entirely scroll-based, but doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Information remains on the screen long enough to be legible, information fades in and out to let you know you’re about to learn something new, and their visual design is so heavily designed that it makes a very linear path out of content that’s anything but. It’s important to remember that UX motion is just as much about how things move as it is about the method used to move them. Scrolling motion is still motion triggered by the user. Inception Explained tackles its motion from place to place with a very different approach from How Search Works, but they’re accomplishing the same things. Since How Search Works is defining the timing of its transitions rather than allowing the user to define them, it makes for a very different experience.

The final thing to remember about anticipation is that you shouldn’t overlook termination. Despite both being Google products, How Search Works and The Mobile Playbook handle termination very differently. The former leaves content right where you left it, while the latter reloads every time you navigate back and forth. I admitted earlier to being perplexed about the decisions they made to reload their content every page, and I think their newest infographic handles termination significantly better. Still, there are arguments to make for each. If the transitions in your content are simply fading in as you scroll, there’s probably not much harm in having them fade out as well. The chances of the user reading your content when it’s in the top 10% of the browser are pretty low, and removing the final traces of that content allows for more interesting things to happen in the background. If you’re using a horizontal scroll instead of a vertical one, removing that content makes even more sense. With vertical scrolling, you can still read the final few words even if 90% of the content is gone. If even a small percentage of the left or right side of a paragraph is taken out, reading that content is out of the question.

Taking elements out, as a general rule, should be a shorter and simpler transition. We’ve already seen them. The more an element moves, the more it’s given weight. Fade it quickly, get it out of the way, and open the stage to showcase your new content. Termination is equally as important as anticipation, but equal importance doesn’t have to mean equal treatment.

To sum up: Think about how you bring elements in, and think about how you’re going to get them back out. When it comes to anticipation, a little goes a long way in keeping your users oriented and engaged. In the next part of this series, I’ll address motion design for mobile and the specific challenges and benefits of integrating animation in a handheld environment.

UX Motion Design, Part 1: Why?

Welcome! This is part one in an ongoing series about how to integrate motion design into the user experience. The introduction is located here.

Remember Flash intros? (I write that sentence optimistically as if they’re really a thing of the past; I recognize that even in 2013 we still see too many of them.) The worst, right? But they did one very important thing: they let the user know something was happening. Flash became popular before broadband connections were considered standard. This led to famously long load times. As a result, loading animations became standard – if that bar is progressing, you know something’s happening. If a user doesn’t see something change, they’re going to assume that their input hasn’t been recognized or that something’s wrong. As soon as a user is confused, what we know about their behavior starts to unravel. They might try reloading. They might re-click (or in the mobile space they might re-tap, re-swipe, and so on). They might think something’s wrong with their device. Or they might decide that something’s wrong with your website and abandon the process entirely. If you’re delivering content and you can’t reassure the user that content is in fact on its way, they’re likely gone.

Users need to be rewarded, and they need to be reassured. On the web, we can generally be confident that we know a few things about how the user is accessing content, but with an ever-increasing number of mobile users, the landscape is changing a bit. Karen McGrane summed up the current state of affairs in her book Content Strategy for Mobile:

With a desktop machine, we can assume the user has a monitor, and we can know with almost total certainty that the monitor has a resolution of 1024×768 pixels or higher. We can assume the user has a pointer, controlled by an external pointing device like a mouse or a trackpad. We can probably assume that the user has a broadband connection.

When we say someone is on mobile, all we know is they’re using a device that… not a desktop. We know very little about what they see and how they interact.

We might not know what they see, but we can take steps to make sure the user knows that we’ve seen their input and are working on something. The animation below is an animated UI demo I created for a client a couple of years ago. The app was simple: You and your friends answer questions, and you receive points based on how you answer. (Before you go searching for it, full disclosure: QuizTime is a fake name for the app, as the company would later decide to take their product in a completely different direction.) We wanted the app to have personality but the client wanted to pursue a clean aesthetic, since they’d have no control over how complex the photos were that users chose as backgrounds for their quizzes. About 10 seconds in, you can see how we chose to inject personality and create visual connections for the user by using motion.

When the user taps their response, four things happen:

  1. The answer turns green and a green dot appears over its radio button
  2. The green dot sends your points up to the top bar (where your overall points are tracked), increasing the number accordingly
  3. All answers show the percentage of users who have previously selected them
  4. Arrows appear next to the question, directing you to move forward

The user answered the question and immediately received feedback. And they were rewarded with all of that step-by-step information (here’s your score, here’s your new total, here’s how other people answered, here’s how to move on when you’re ready) in only 3.5 seconds. Motion design allows us to tell a story while providing visual guidance.

Giving users visual cues in an interface isn’t anything new. We use rollover states for our buttons to let the user know this is something that can be clicked. We provide linked and unlinked page numbers at the bottom of multi-page articles and forms to let users know where they are in the process. With the resources we have available to us as designers and developers – HTML5, CSS3, and well-developed mobile toolkits – there’s now one more opportunity to subtly teach the user where to go and how to get there.

Motion design allows for visual simplicity and opens up screen real estate for legibility. Animation can tell a user what to do or reassure them that they’ve done the right thing, or put them on the correct path if they’ve strayed from what we need them to do. It can move a user in the direction we want or encourage them to explore. Furthermore, it’s universal – imagine how much easier things are if you’re developing an app that needs to have international appeal and you don’t have to translate written instructions. What icons have done to cross barriers in visual design, motion design can do for navigation and interaction.

Now that we’ve worked on why, we’ll talk about how! The next post in this series is about anticipation.

An introduction to motion design for UX

When I was taking print design classes a decade ago, a commonly heard refrain in critiques was about moving eyes around the page. It’s a big thing – you want to engage people as long as possible so they read your content, and if you’re really doing it right, you’re establishing a hierarchy of information. What should the reader know first? If they’re ten feet away from the poster, what are they going to learn? If they’re holding it in their hands, how does the message change? As designers, we want to give you information in a way that hooks you in, gets you interested, and educates you.

Those same principles held true when I started studying web design. Move the eyes around the page. Compel people to look here, and then here, and then here. Make sure there’s incentive to check everything out.

Mobile was a different story. You’re looking at limited screen area, very little is standardized, and we can assume people are coming to you for information first, playing second. The state of interaction changed significantly when mobile started gaining traction. Rollover states long reigned supreme for giving interactive hints to your users, and that was great, because instead of cluttering up your otherwise straight-forward beautiful design with things users might not need, you could cleverly hide them away. Pop-up hints, previews of things to come, all possible as soon as a user’s mouse moves to investigate content a little further.

In mobile space, there are no rollovers, but there are gestures. We’ve spent the last few years hearing that gestures are not only helpful, they’re the way of the future. Apple introduced the Magic Trackpad in 2010, offering desktop users some of the multi-touch capability they had been (theoretically) enjoying on their laptops and mobile devices. Hardware runs in cycles the same way software does – we become convinced that there are better ways to do something, so we see five competing solutions come on the market, and ultimately one will emerge supreme. The issue is that we begin to think there’s necessary value in gearing every solution toward the victor. Remember when Apple changed scrolling direction with the release of Lion? You’re likely used to the new method now, but well before it was even released to customers, tech blogs were flooded with speculation that Apple was trying to kill off the desktop, that they were moving everything about their OS to be in line with mobile standards. I knew how to go about switching it back to the old way well before I ever used the OS.

There are a lot of issues with moving toward a gestural interface, but in general they don’t seem to outweigh the benefits. Mobile screens are getting larger and clearer year by year, but we’re still looking at limited real estate. If your content supports it, there are a lot of great reasons to not waste screen space on navigation. You do, however, have to come up with an elegant solution that teaches your users how to use the system. Designer Max Rudberg posted his thoughts on his blog a few weeks ago (If you see a UI walkthrough, they blew it), and he makes some great points. He also provides some great visual examples of UI animation used in lieu of navigation. Luke Wroblewski also briefly addresses motion design in his book Mobile First:

Lastly, visible affordances, tips and animations can help ease the transition as well. You can start out by using the interface elements to explicitly call out where gestures are possible, then gradually reduce their presence as people become more familiar with where they can use gestures to get things done. Just be aware that when you’ve got too much help text explaining how things work, the gesture-based interactions in your app might not be as natural as you might think.

Motion design – be it for web, mobile, or responsive design that manages to satisfy all platforms – is important in more than just teaching people how to play and interact. Flash became so popular in the early-to-mid-2000s for a lot of reasons, and its animation capabilities were right at the top of that list. We could move one step beyond basic layout principles and make the things you need to see literally jump out at you. On an otherwise static canvas, your eye is going to go directly to whatever’s moving. There was a period of time in our web design history where we saw truly, truly awful solutions, but they came out of somewhere earnest – remember <blink> and <marquee>? They were early stabs at using motion design to control the way users receive information. They were awful, but they were effective. (Anyone learning how to design in the late 90s that tells you they never threw an animated gif inside of a marquee tag is a liar and shouldn’t be trusted.)

There’s no denying it, there’s a lot of bad Flash out there: the irrelevant Hollywood blockbuster-style intro, the complex, drawn-out transfomrations triggered by a simple click of a button, the noise and the drama. It might make the designer feel good, but it sure as heck isn’t making the user’s experience better. True, there is a time and a place for a long Flash intro movie and for complex interactive interfaces. Generally, however, web site visitors are looking for some information and more often that super-cool Flash movie stands between them and their goal, instead of helping them reach it.

Want to make a guess at what year that was written? You’d have to look well before Steve Jobs wrote his letter about why Flash had no place on the iPhone, well before Adobe acquired Macromedia. Michelangelo Capraro and Duncan McAlester had the right idea 11 years ago in their book Skip Intro – technology is great and it’s good to know we can do things, but it is all too compelling to forget whether or not we should. (Also, you can just pry my worn copy of this book out of my cold, dead hands. It remains one of my favorite design books to this day.)

Good motion design can be center stage or it can be nearly transparent. There are great arguments for both. Regardless of which method you choose, motion design is necessary to reassure your users that they’re accomplishing a task. Users need to know that something is happening, otherwise they’re prone to be confused, re-click (or drag, or swipe), or abandon the process entirely. Instapaper fades out your previous content and briefly shows both pages as the new content fades in, iBooks falls in line with Apple’s traditionally skeuomorphic approach by physically showing a page turning.

photo

Whatever your chosen approach, it’s more important than ever to keep your users aware that things are happening. If a website isn’t loading quickly enough, people will check the loading indicator in their browser. It’s why we came up with Flash intros in the first place – make something happen while all of that content is loading in the background. Thankfully we’re seeing a move away from such things now that there’s a reasonable expectation that users have a monitor with decent resolution and a high speed internet connection, but motion is still important. The uncertainty we see in mobile design is reminiscent of the uncertainty we experienced in the early 2000s – 640×480 or 1024×768? Netscape or Internet Explorer or Firefox? We’ve just transferred those concerns over to iOS, Android, Windows or Blackberry.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be showcasing examples of great motion design in interfaces for mobile and web, as well as providing guidance on sequencing, timing, and information hierarchy. I’ll introduce as much technical information as I can, though I’ll be writing from my experiences as a designer and not as a programmer. (That said, if anyone out there is particularly well-versed in UX animation from the other side, I’d be happy to speak with you about your experiences.) This is not meant to be a how-to, but a theoretical guide to what’s important and why. Motion design as part of the user experience is still a little uncharted, but it’s my goal to share what I’ve learned so far with you, and hopefully I’ll gain a little from the designers around me in the meantime. Stay tuned!

The iPad mini experience

I have been a proud iPad mini owner for exactly one week now, thanks to luck and a generous donation to the Designers + Geeks raffle. My experience with it has really surprised me – I thought it would be a cool toy, and I was really excited to win one, but I had no delusions that it was going to change the way I browse and interact online. It could be that it’s my new toy, but as I’ve been trying to both experience using a new device and analyze my own behavior simultaneously, I believe the way I want to browse the web has actually changed.

Context is important when it comes to experiences like this, so here are a couple of things to keep in mind about me:

I have never owned an iOS device before this one. When the first iPhone came out, the price was just too high for me to consider, and I didn’t have an interest in paying for a data plan. Life was complicated for me for a couple years afterward, and I was actively rejecting the idea of having a smartphone. Sprint was a client of mine in 2009 and I was heavily testing all of their devices as they were released, and the Android platform really appealed to me. I became a smartphone user with the HTC Hero, and then replaced it almost two years later with Samsung’s Nexus S, the device I’m still using today.

I am not an early adopter. At all. I held on to my HTC Hero for longer than was reasonable. I knew six months in that it was never going to receive an Android OS update. I was using Android 1.6 (Donut?) until September of 2011. If you’re unfamiliar with the Android release schedule, you can check it out here, but the important thing to note is that I used an outdated mobile device for at least 18 months. I am the type of person who wants to buy one thing, run it into the ground, and not reevaluate my strategy. I’m also much more likely to sit around and complain rather than actively go out and spend more money. I throw money at my problems when it comes to Muni versus Uber, but that’s pretty much where my willingness to spend ends.

I spend much more time in bed than you might think I do. Look, I don’t know. Maybe you spend all your time sitting at a desk. Maybe you’re smart enough to pay attention to your posture. Maybe you do your browsing from one location and you enjoy that experience. All I know is that I live in a 500 square foot apartment, I hate my desk chair, I have a very comfortable bed, and I’m really good at balancing a four year old laptop against my knees. Since I work from home, sitting at my desk very much feels like I’m working, and I don’t much care to read AV Club or check Facebook in the exact same way that I work.

I’ve suspected for awhile that a tablet might be ideal for me, but I’m surprised at exactly how true that has turned out to be. A couple of observations:

I have read more in the last week than I probably did in the previous six months.

I understand the irony in this, but you should know that I am a person who regularly balks at reading 4000 word articles. (I know. I know.) The reason for that, however, is that I learned long ago that I just can’t stare at a computer screen – laptop or desktop – long enough to read extensive articles. I spend so much time staring at a screen for my job that I’m already on constant Headache Watch. Focusing on type for twenty minutes is a bad idea for me. As a result, I turn away from articles that I would probably enjoy.

Instapaper

The day I got the iPad, I immediately subscribed to Marco Arment’s The Magazine. I devoured all of the back issues within a couple of days. I also purchased his Instapaper app and started sending articles to it. Instapaper is particularly valuable to me as a non-3G iPad user, since articles are stored locally on my device. I started using Flipboard again, which has just been running too slowly on my phone to be valuable, and I started to actively seek out longer content. It’s been a joy and a relief to focus more and bounce around less. I can only assume I’m going to turn into an eBook person sometime soon. (I also received the entire A Book Apart series from my boyfriend for Christmas, and have spent equal time reading both their print editions and their eBook versions on the iPad.)

The 7″ screen size is perfect for my tiny little hands.

Maybe your hands continued to grow as you entered puberty and adulthood, but mine topped out around age 11. Every person who has ever heard me mention my little hands immediately doesn’t believe me, and every one of them has lost to me in a tiny-hand-off afterward. They’re small. I worried that the iPad mini was going to be too small for me, that I would find myself wanting more screen real estate, but I can’t imagine that being the case. It falls into a delightful window for me where I can thumb-type if I rotate my hands correctly and just need to enter a search term or something else short, but if I rotate it horizontally my hands are actually small enough to type on it in real-keyboard-mode. I never feel particularly strained if I need to reach for something in my non-dominant corner – I’m right-handed and hold it at the bottom of the screen generally, but hitting things in the upper left to close or navigate backward doesn’t feel like a huge disconnect.

ally

I do think it’ll be interesting to see if the mini comes into its own as a device, or if it will always be “the small iPad”. There are some layout issues with iPad apps that were clearly designed for the larger size (looking at you, Words With Friends and Facebook). It’s also ridiculous that iPhone apps look as bad on the device as they do – the iPhone 5 has a resolution of 640×1136 and the mini comes in at 1024×768. There has to be a better way to do this.

(I’m calling out Ally’s app simply because it’s one of two iPhone apps I haven’t immediately rejected and I needed screenshots from something. I have no complaints about their app on my phone, and I understand that the iPad is still newish and native iPad apps aren’t standard yet, but every single one looks exactly this bad. There is little excuse for that.)

Facebook

The Facebook app (contacts blurred for friends’ privacy) is particularly frustrating. I have zero interest in seeing my contact list as a permanent feature. I’d be happy to slide it to the other side and just constantly have the FB dashboard taking up real estate instead of my contacts, but sliding the dashboard out hides the right side of my content. Facebook. Why.

It’s fast. Really fast.

As I mentioned before, I’ve never been an iOS user. I test things on iOS, sure, but I’ve never owned one, so maybe this is just an iOS thing. No idea. Regardless, it’s a quick little device. The experience feels completely seamless. There’s something about it that feels much faster than my (admittedly out of date) mobile phone, and it feels significantly faster than my laptop or desktop. It’s connected to the same wi-fi as all of my other devices, but it is by far the most responsive thing I own. Maybe it’s something about that little screen, maybe it’s something in the architecture of how content loads, but regardless, having the information I want the second I’ve asked for it feels really rewarding, even if I’m ultimately talking about a difference of a couple of seconds.

I sincerely prefer the experience of tablet browsing to laptop browsing.

The laptop I use when I’m casually browsing is an older 15″ MacBook Pro. It runs a little hot, but that’s probably due to its age and my regular insistence on keeping too many tabs open at once. But it’s heavy, and most of its heft is coming from the part that I don’t care about – the keyboard, which I employ only occasionally, and all of the hardware that takes up a lot of space. The iPad screen is considerably smaller than the screen I’m used to, but it turns out I have little interest in all that space. Take now, for instance. I’m writing in my WordPress window, which is about 600 pixels wide and maybe 350 pixels tall. I’ve got seven tabs open, but most of them are just pages I looked up to link in the above paragraphs and forgot to close. One of them is my gmail tab that’s always open. I can see some Finder windows in the background. I have a lot of formatting and tagging options on my right and a smaller space dedicated to the other WordPress dashboard items on my left.

The truth of the matter is that I don’t need any of that. I need the keyboard that I’m typing on (there’s a reason I grabbed the laptop for the first time today instead of trying to compose on the iPad), but I don’t need all of the extra information I can see. I’m focused on a smaller-than-the-iPad window, and there’s a world where I could just swipe or tap to all of that other stuff. There are desktop apps that accomplish this for you, removing everything but the most necessary information so that you can focus, but they’ve always seemed like they’re engineering a solution to a problem that could be worked around in another way. I’m glad they exist and seem to work for a lot of people, but they just make me feel anxious and like I’m missing something.

I’m engaging slower but taking in more, and my digital social life is changing.

I’ve been a Google chat user for about seven years now. It’ll sound silly if you’ve never experienced it, but I’ve made some of my closest friendships that way – Twitter friends became Google chat friends and we learned things about one another by typing at one another all day. Since the iPad entered my life, I’ve stopped using it. I assume there are multiple chat apps that are probably really great that I could keep myself signed into, but I haven’t bothered to look for them. I’ve been much more content to sit around reading and browsing and saving.

That said, I’ve been more engaged with Twitter and Facebook than I’m used to. I’ve turned off all of those notifications on my phone because I don’t have much interest in my phone constantly buzzing at me, but for some reason they don’t disrupt me on the iPad at all. It’s not that they’re any more or less intrusive, it just doesn’t bug me to see one flip down from the top of my screen and tap on it when I finish the paragraph I’m reading. Last night I sat in front of the television and watched the Golden Globes while constantly refreshing Twitter, a thing I realize exists but I’ve never once experienced for myself in the five and a half years I’ve been using the service. I’m starting to get the appeal of livetweeting, even if I don’t participate in it myself.

I don’t feel as compelled to immediately interact with things.

I have a really, really selective memory. I’ll remember that restaurant we went to that one time and I know who was there and I can recite the funny part of the conversation verbatim, but if I check my email and don’t immediately respond to you, you probably aren’t getting a response from me at all. (I also can’t remember movie plots. Any of them. Ever.) It appears to me at the iPad just does what it does so well that I’m not in a hurry to jump off of my current task, even if I’ve been notified that there’s something that needs my attention. I’m still trying to figure out exactly why this is, but it’s a really calming turn of events that I’m enjoying.

And I suppose that’s what it all comes down to – it’s just really, really nice to use. It’s an enjoyable experience. It feels like it’s adding value to my life – reading more, thinking more, jumping around less. I’m looking forward to revisiting this list in about six months and seeing if it’s as integral to my home browsing then as it was when it was a new toy, as well as what other habits I find myself developing.

Put your address on the landing page: design, usability and interaction for restaurants

Restaurants, I’ve got a serious beef with you. (That’s the last pun.) (I’m probably lying.)

Your websites are awful. Just terrible.

Not all of them, of course. They’re getting better with every passing year, which is encouraging from both a design and an eating standpoint. But comparatively, bar and restaurant websites across the board take the cake for most embarrassingly bad decisions. I get it. New restaurants, especially in a town where 500 sq. ft. spaces are now renting for $30,000 a month, are often already operating on a shoestring budget. It’s just one more thing in the way of making and sharing food.

I’m far from the first person to have made the observation that restaurant websites are terrible, but instead of complaining, I’d like to help. Without further ado, here is all of the advice I have for you, even though I may have never been in your restaurant and know nothing about your food. It is long, it is detailed, and it is basic.

(A note: I point out a couple of specific problems in the paragraphs below, but this is not a “can you believe they did this” article. This stuff isn’t easy, and I’m not here to be catty or criticize anyone for trying.)

Put your address on the landing page. This is not optional.

The question your users are asking if they go to your website is “How can I find you?” They should always be able to know where you are. If you have multiple locations, provided you don’t have thirty of them, you should put all of them on your landing page. (I don’t know where exactly the break is between one and thirty; I suspect that it’s much lower than I imagine. I feel very confident about four being okay.) Realize that people will be coming to your website from a desktop, a tablet, or a phone. Put nothing behind an animated intro. (We’ll talk more about that soon.) Don’t require people to shuffle awkwardly to a contact page.

And while you’re at it, consider adding cross streets, a map, and transit directions. If your location is somewhere really strange, tell people that. I specify transit because the chances of someone using their GPS to drive to your restaurant are relatively high (if they don’t know how to get there by cross streets alone), and if you’re serving alcohol, you should be much more concerned about non-drivers being able to find you. Exact transit directions aren’t necessary, but nearby Muni lines or BART stations (or your local equivalent) are always helpful. Local’s Corner does a beautiful job of getting people in the doors.

There are other lines you could take, but they keep it simple: six lines is already a lot of options. The map is at a legible scale, zoomed out just enough to provide adequate context.

A phone number is necessary, too. If someone’s on their way to a reservation and needs to contact you, they may not know which 415 number you are from their past few days of calls. Also, you can save yourself a lot of time by listing your hours by the phone number.

A daily updated menu is great, but at least a sample menu is required.

With the rise of restaurants across the country focusing their efforts on local, sustainable agriculture, it’s not uncommon for a restaurant’s menu to be different every day. Whether it’s a fear of potential customers complaining that such-and-such dish isn’t on the menu or a lack of desire to regularly change website content as the seasons shift, it’s become a major crutch for restaurants to simply describe their cuisine and say that it’s different every day and that’s the end of it.

Beyond your address, a sample menu is the most significant reason a user will visit your website. At least thirty restaurants in my neighborhood alone could be described as “New American” or “Californian”, and using an “About” page to write your personal dining philosophy is just not going to cut it. Even if a menu changes daily, you can likely admit that there’s a theme – there’s always a pasta dish in the $18-20 region with some sort of braised meat, or you always have a $20-24 vegetarian main, a seafood dish, and so on. You have a specific focus that makes you unique, or you experiment with many different techniques and your menu represents that. Whatever your concept, diners can handle the idea that this might not be 100% accurate, and sample menus for seasonal restaurants are common enough that there’s no longer a reason to not open up about your food. With the line between casual and fine dining blurring more every day, “pizza joint” can mean $3 slices or $35 pies. (Not to speak ill of either, but expectation and how it meets reality are important.) Your 30 taps could be 26 taps of Bud-Miller-Coors macrobrew or it could be exclusively beers brewed within a 50 mile radius of your barstools. Make sure your customer knows what to expect and everyone comes out happier.

ETA (1/9/13) – From Jesse Friedman on Twitter – “the only addition i have to your rest website rant is including prices on the menu. drives me nuts when they are left off.” He makes an excellent point. In a town where eggs benedict could cost you $8 or $22, please, please let your customers know what they’re in for. 

If you’re absolutely concerned with keeping your menu up to date, your designer and developer can set up a system that allows you to update easily (even from your phone at the farmer’s market) and quickly. Make it a pre-opening duty for a tech-savvy line cook and give them the ten minutes they need to get it right. Monk’s Kettle updates their extensive beer list constantly; Pal’s Take Away and Kitchenette keep both their websites and their Twitter feeds updated every day.

Speaking of, social media gives you a free, opt-in way to get in front of potential customers every single day.

69% of internet users participate in social media. Many of them are college-educated, many of them are in middle- to high-income brackets, many of them in San Francisco are likely to live in smaller spaces and be more accustomed dining out. Increasing numbers of them are conscious of their decisions and willing to pay for them, many are in the much-desired “double income, no kids” demographic. It’s likely that users check Twitter either while they’re eating breakfast, on the train or bus heading to work, or at their desk as they start their day, giving you an opportunity to invite them in for your lunch special. If someone is on their way home and checking Facebook as they kill time thinking about where to eat dinner, you can remind them that you’re on the way and show them a photo of what they could eat for dinner. You can grab them before they leave the office and have even had a chance to think about dinner. Incanto updates their specials, including their odds-and-ends board, every day. Pi Bar updates their Facebook (and cross-posts to Twitter) just before opening time. The Sycamore reminds you that they have a patio when the sun comes out and that they serve bottomless mimosas right as you’re getting drunk with your friends the night before and think drinking again in 12 hours is the best idea. And for that constant, one-on-one interaction, you pay exactly nothing. Hapa Ramen posts to Tumblr with not only photos of their daily menu before their 10-2 shifts but when they’ve perfected something new in the kitchen for a pop-up. Nopa posts to Tumblr when they’re inspired by something and they write with such an infectiously excited voice from such a straightforward educational perspective that you can’t help but want to share it with them.

Users retweet and reblog and respond and email and share. You have an opportunity to excite a potential customer and have them try to excite other potential customers for you, for free. Never has it been more possible for a customer to maintain a relationship with you and your food.

Your voice matters. Know how to interact. 

The restaurant/bar+Twitter conversation I have most often with friends is about just how badly incompetent some people are at connecting. (We’re fun at parties.) It’s really, really hard to gauge tone on the internet. Customers will react strangely to things you’d never imagine. I’m not here to tell you how to act and speak, but do make sure you’re comfortable with the face you’re putting on. If you wouldn’t be an asshole to someone if they were in your restaurant, don’t be an asshole to them on the internet. (If you would absolutely be an asshole to someone in your restaurant if they started it, feel free. I cannot tell you how proud I am every time I see a chef standing up for themselves and their restaurant. Realize that even when you’re right, someone is going to refer to it as “Twitter drama” and be okay with that.)

Tone aside, there are some really annoying things you can do to alienate followers, so please don’t do those. Don’t beg people to follow you on Twitter on Twitter. Chances are you’re preaching at the choir of people already following you. If you can make the time, try to engage when someone asks you a question. But don’t feel obligated.

Don’t retweet every single thing someone says to or about you. If someone had a great meal or took a beautiful photo or said something insightful, great. But don’t get into the habit of doing it for everything. There are probably a lot of “Went to X tonight, good food” tweets you can just let go.

Don’t let your Twitter feed just be a cross-posting machine. Facebook and Twitter share a considerable amount of overlap, but they have unique features – encourage people to keep up with you in multiple places by using them in interesting ways. Exclusively cross-posting is a quick way to make sure they follow you in one spot only. (And I don’t mean to discourage you from ALL cross-posting – letting them know you have a new Tumblr post is great and encouraged. But use multiple accounts for multiple reasons.)

If you’re advertising an event, fit everything into one tweet. You’re hoping that people will retweet it; recognize that people are probably just going to retweet one if you use multiple, meaning second-hand readers are only getting part of the story.

What are the technical requirements for this whole thing?

Well, that’s ultimately up to you.

At bare minimum, you need to purchase a URL. It’ll run you about $10 a year. Preferably, your URL leads to your actual website, but you can always use it to redirect to Twitter in the meantime. A placeholder page with at least an address, phone number and connection to social media can do wonders in the interim while you figure everything out.

If you want your own website, you’ll end up paying a monthly fee for hosting. Discuss this process with your designer. Having a web presence shouldn’t run you more than $10 a month, unless you’re paying someone to keep your content updated for you, in which case it defers to their hourly or flat rates and whatever you agree on before they begin the job.

Your restaurant will have a Yelp page; make sure that your URL and additional contact information are correct. (Say what you will about Yelp, but it continues to be the superior app and website for finding nearby spots and has standardized contact information for businesses. It’s going to be toward the top of your Google results no matter what, so lean the slightest bit into it and check every once in awhile to make sure everything is accurate.)

When it’s time to change content on your website, your designer can set up an update system – or at the very least can show you the basic editing steps to change code on your own. Much of this will have to do with the content management system you choose, and much more technical designers than I am can cover those options in many other blog posts. Have that conversation with the person or people designing your website on Day 1. If they’re qualified to take on your gig, they’ll be able to come up with a strategy that works for you.

If I may, allow me to caution you against using a PDF for your menu. PDF, or Portable Document Format, is a file type that was created to standardize documents independently of platform or software. In the earlier days of the web, visual design options were limited by a lack of built-in code options, leading to clunky workarounds. PDFs were used as a way to ensure consistency in viewing.

It’s an attractive option because PDFs can be exported from all word processing and visual design software, so a folder can be synced to upload new content at regular intervals, and when someone makes a change to a menu, they simply save over the existing file and the links update automatically. It’s a hassle-free solution. But from a user perspective, and being considerate of the ever-increasing number of mobile users, it’s not the best idea. Some users may have their browser set to download PDFs by default. Particularly if they’re not warned that the link leads to a PDF, they now have to take another step to read your menu, leading to frustrated users waiting to find the file and open their software of choice. Mobile users may not have a preview option and may not have a system in place on their phone to handle downloaded documents. Since we’re no longer typographically or otherwise layout-limited, there is little need to add in an additional hard-to-regulate step.

Do not use Flash.

I’m very careful in this whole thing to not tell any of my fellow designers how to do their jobs, because a) everyone has their own process and there are thousands of ways to go about things, and b) I just hate when people tell me how to do my job. But there is one thing you need to know, and that is Do Not Use Flash. If your designer tells you that you have to use Flash, call me and give me their phone numbers and I will come over and slap the Photoshop right out of their mouths.

That was perhaps a little dramatic.

But don’t use Flash. It’s solution that has little place in a 2013 web design. For a long time, it was the easiest way to integrate motion into a website. Adding the dimension of time changed basic information into “interactive content” and heavily influenced the way the current web behaves. Three years ago, Steve Jobs wrote why Apple will not have a relationship with Flash; last year Adobe agreed that it was no longer an effective solution. It is ineffective on mobile and there are few compelling reasons to use it even on a desktop.

And while we’re at it, your website does not need music. I don’t care that you want people to really feel like they’re in Italy.

What should my website look like?

That’s between you and your designer and the experience you’d like to create. You know which restaurants you’re trying to compete with in this city – take a look at what they’re doing. Don’t copy them, don’t assume that you should do the same things they’re doing, but do consider how you want to posture yourself. Look at what’s working and what isn’t. If you’re friendly with them, talk to them about why they’ve made the decisions they’ve made and what they like and dislike about their current strategy.

Everyone has their own aesthetic, and what works for one place may not be appropriate for another. Everything I’ve linked to thus far is something I like specifically for the reason I’ve included it here. There are other options I could have chosen for many of the points I was trying to illustrate, but I’m particularly partial to the examples I’ve chosen as an overall experience.

Beast and the Hare is probably my favorite restaurant website in this city. Hours, phone number, address that links to Google map, sample menus for everything, single scrollable page that has the address again on the bottom, as well as links to social media engagement (which they update with decent regularity).

Public House has made it incredibly clear that they are committed to you having all the information you could possibly want without having to pick up the phone and try to have a conversation with someone in an echoey, packed mega-beer-bar. Food menu to beer menu to which games they’ll be showing, and delivering that information via a well-designed desktop site, mobile site and iPhone app. I’d ultimately prefer if they had one design that addressed all three simultaneously, but they’ve clearly put a lot of care into giving you the information you need as quickly as they can.

Consider making mobile access your #1 priority.

If you can make the time, please flip through a copy of Mobile First by Luke Wroblewski. It’s geared toward designers, but if you’re really serious about your web presence it makes a very compelling argument for designing with mobile in mind. The idea is that if you begin with a mobile mindset, it’ll force you to make tough decisions about what content is really important and how we can get the user to their destination as quickly as possible. It urges designers to make visual decisions that are simple and direct. No matter whether someone looks up your website from a phone or laptop, chances are that they’ve looked you up to get answers to a question, and you want to make those answers available.

Does that mean I need an app?

You wouldn’t be the first one to do it, but the short answer is no, you do not need an app. There are restaurants out there that have done it, and some of them even happen to have really beautiful ones, but a few problems arise:

  1. Are you designing for iPhone, Android, and Blackberry, or picking one? You cannot design native apps for all of them at the same time – they’re built on different rules, and it doesn’t work that way. The wireframe of the user experience can transfer over, but visual elements and code will have to be completely created from scratch each time. The reason companies often design for just one (with the second or third coming soon) is because it’s costly. It requires maintenance on multiple pieces when you want to make a change. It’s rare to find someone who independently develops for more than just one or maybe two platforms. Magnolia Pub and Brewery, one of my favorite brunch spots, has an app – a beautiful one. And while that’s great, they don’t have a mobile site, meaning they’re only reaching 13% of smartphone users. (I do suspect that number is dramatically low; I’m willing to believe that a much larger chunk of Magnolia customers have iPhones. That said, even if the number is closer to “half”, it’s still an unsatisfied market.)
  2. People have to know you have an app. You can tell them at their desktop, but if you want them to download it you’re going to need to tell them on their mobile device. By that point, they’re already at your mobile site. No one is going to start their search for you in the app store.
  3. People have to be willing to wait for your app to download and install. Many customers will – if I had an iPhone, I would absolutely use Magnolia’s app. But you should consider an app to be most useful to your regulars, who will probably keep coming even if you don’t have an app.
  4. The reason people design apps is to access pieces of the device’s hardware that browsers aren’t allowed to access, and you do not need those pieces. Maps and the dialer are accessible from the browser – anything else you need from the hardware of a mobile device might be overdoing it.

I suggest you speak with your designer about the benefits and limitations of multiple approaches and see what they recommend based on your needs, but if you’re going to go mobile, you’re probably best off starting with a cross-platform mobile site.

How do I do all this?

I promise I haven’t been writing all of this as an elaborate buildup to a sales pitch, but the truth is that you need to hire somebody. (I’ve been writing all of this because I am frankly so sick of seeing terrible restaurant websites in 2013, and because I really love any excuse to nerd out about food.)

This is not be a guide on how much money you should spend, because I have no right to set an expectation for someone else’s hourly rate. But consider the idea that hiring an experienced professional may cost less (percentage-wise) than you think, because experience in our industry often directly correlates to efficiency. Don’t immediately balk at hourly rates. The types of designers that you’ll be encountering fall somewhere on a sliding continuum from User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX) design. A UI designer spends their time creating a visual story (how your website looks). A UX designer spends their time creating wireframes and developing the idea of how users will move through your website. A UX designer decides what you’ll want to see and learn, and a UI designer makes sure you can see and learn it effectively. Many people fall somewhere between the two, and if they happen to be all the way at either end of the spectrum, they’ll likely have someone on deck that complements their skillset.

The thing you should do now, today, is start a Twitter feed and/or a Facebook account, and give consideration to how you will want them to integrate with the content on your eventual website. It is possible to get away with just a social media account for quite some time. If you already have one, take a second to consider how you’re engaging potential customers. Decide what you are and aren’t comfortable with – if you don’t think you can effectively use Twitter for reservations, make a habit of responding to such mentions with your phone number or an OpenTable link. If you post content that’s interesting, people will happily redistribute your information to all of their followers, giving you access to a wide audience with minimal effort.

As for visual design, if you’re hesitant to hire somone, there are many great free Tumblr and WordPress themes. If you’re willing to shell out a couple bucks, there are even more great paid themes. Within an hour you can piece together an acceptable “website”. There are also paid DIY options like Squarespace. I can’t recommend any of them from personal use (I in fact know Squarespace through their advertising on the Earwolf podcast network), but they appear to be increasing in popularity and quality.

And that’s it. That’s all. I know it’s really silly to say “that’s all” after 3800 words about what you should and shouldn’t do, but it comes down to this: don’t hide information from your customers. Remind them that you’re there. Ever wonder how some restaurants are getting their Kickstarters funded and have lines down the block upon opening? Those are the restaurants that reached out. They’re food trucks or pop-ups who tweeted every couple of days about what’s going on. They’ve already made their customers feel like a part of the process. And you can do that, too. Just keep in touch, make good food and put your address on your landing page.

(Fellow diners or designers, what did I miss? What did I get wrong? What’s a particularly effective feature you’ve seen from one of your local restaurants? Get in touch and let me know, and I’ll update this as necessary.)

On listening, learning, and guessing at what will grow

There is no way to issue a job order for a specific subtype of a good with multiple subtypes. If you have a mandate to make piccolos, the best you can do is to order instruments and hope for the best.

Three things happened to me within a couple of minutes on a recent Saturday morning:

  1. I was reading Frank Chimero’s The Shape of Design, a fascinating look at design and solutions that focuses much more on the “why” of creation rather than the “how”.
  2. My boyfriend read me the above quote from the wiki for Dwarf Fortress, a largely text-based game with a system more expansive than any other video game I’ve ever encountered.
  3. I checked in on my Pocket Frogs game to see if my efforts last night to breed my incredibly time-consuming Level 15 frog had been successful.

For weeks, I have also had a friend-of-a-friend’s written voice rattling around in my head. Lindsay Markel is a phenomenal writer, and you owe it to yourself to keep her in your thoughts because she occasionally writes things like this:

In Rick’s prize-winning backyard with river rocks strung up with copper wire and daisy heads drifting in a glass bowl, I say the closer I get to thirty, the less I want to pretend that I know anything I don’t. I confess: when I bought the pair of decorative sweet potato vines and planted them at the edge of my garden, I thought I’d be harvesting armfuls of sweet potatoes by fall. He laughs with his cigarette, shakes his head, says a hundred times that I grew up on a farm, hon; don’t I know these things?

I just dig holes in the ground and see what happens, I tell him. Guess at what will grow.

My favorite part of the design process – whether it’s mine or someone else’s – is the “guessing at what will grow” stage. It’s the part of the process that allows a product to sink or swim. At it’s best, it’s the Twitter phenomenon – plant a seed, create a basic structure, watch it grow. The other side of the coin is the Apple Maps debacle – create a product, put it in your users’ hands, and find out immediately that you have a massive problem. They skipped a couple of important steps.

The top quote in this post is from the Dwarf Fortress wiki. Lawson has been playing it for weeks and it hasn’t seemed to get old yet. My understanding of the basic structure is this: It’s a time management game, sort of. In traditional time management games, you have a set amount of time and a certain number of things that have to be produced. As you progress, the timeline gets longer, but the objects become more complex and you need to create more of them. Usually, by the end, you have to go through a three step process, give or take, often of the “gather raw materials”, “create thing from raw materials”, “create second thing from combination of first thing”. In Dwarf Fortress, what you don’t know is that there are forty variations on the thing you could be creating, and you’ll certainly only find out that you made the wrong one after you’ve invested all your resources in creating it.

Bear with me while I tell you about Pocket Frogs. You begin the game with a small number of frogs. Your objectives, handed to you in various ways and with various rewards, are to breed specific types of frogs. Frogs have three characteristics: color, secondary color and pattern. Breed frogs, fulfill objectives, gain experience. Experience gets you to new levels, new levels give you new frogs. You’re literally guessing at what will grow, but basic genetics limit you to eight options when you breed two frogs together. If the two frogs you’re breeding share any one of the three characteristics, then, your options are reduced to four. Simple middle school biology. A mandate for piccolos, so you order instruments. It would be infuriating as a desktop game, of course, because it takes literal real-world time for these things to happen. As a mobile game, it’s perfect. Wake up in the morning, check on my frogs, maybe do something with them, let frogs do frog stuff for the rest of the day, check on frogs before bed.

I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about the user experience a lot lately. I’ve got two ongoing UX/UI projects that I’d really like to share with you soon, and they’re both utilitarian daily-use products. It’s been a little overwhelming to think about all of the use cases, to imagine how everyone but myself might use them. Since they’re both personal projects and not for paying clients, it’s easy to sit back and scribble page after page of all of the what-ifs, but after weeks (and months, in one of the two cases) of considering every option, I’m thinking about taking a step back.

The thing that I have to constantly remind myself about design is that the more I read, the more I write, the more I learn, the better of a designer I’m going to be. The job doesn’t end at 5:00. It’s one of the first things I can remember realizing about design school – you take one typography class and you start to see terrible type everywhere. You walk through supermarkets complaining about kerning. You start to see systems everywhere. It’s what makes you hear a quote about a computer game and link it to your book, your mobile game, your friend-of-a-friend’s anecdote. Everything is in play.

A designer’s brain often craves order and reason. It makes our jobs easier if everything fits into tiny little compartments. The easy problems require us to solve for X. The harder problems don’t even bother to define their variables. So we create schedules – we decide on a launch date and we work our way backwards. We can solve this part in eight days, this part in ten, this one only gets four unless we can manage to take one away from the ten. We set budgets that are often arbitrary and we let those dictate the entire process. We shy away from what might be the best idea because it would mean we can’t release our product one week later and time is money.

I worked with a client a few years back that needed their videos encoded in a very specific way that was relatively antiquated. We were re-developing their website at the same time, but most of the content (and therefore most of the budget) was devoted to video. There was an interactive component that our team was working on day and night and I was concerned that the way we were choosing to embed video in it was less than ideal. The reason? The client had paid another company to design a video player five years before, and therefore saw no reason to “reinvent the wheel”. The problem? The player was created using technology that, five years later, was completely out of date. Worse yet, the client would eventually admit that the video player itself had been a rush job, a response to a need that arose at the time and had little vision for the future. (Presumably because there wasn’t budget for it then, either.)

The solution might be as easy as communicating. Everyone, all of us, doing as much listening as we do talking. It’s hard to put a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but I think there’s value in asking why not. Is it that there isn’t enough surface area for all of the cutting boards or is it that our egos get in the way of agreeing on what we should serve? We might not be able to build a bigger kitchen, but I suspect that’s not actually the issue.

I recently had an incredibly valuable conversation with a good friend regarding our most productive professional relationships. Our stories were remarkably similar: the best products we’ve ever put out have come from situations where the key players on all sides were willing to listen to one another. Not everyone needs to be an art director or know how to animate or know how to code, but in order to be successful at any of those three things, you have to have a basic understanding of the constraints on the other side. I can open Photoshop, create an interface, bring it into After Effects and animate it – but if I don’t have a basic understanding of the steps to its actual implementation after my work is done, much of the value of that step is lost. A little education could go a long way and save everyone a lot of time and headache. I have to know some basic concepts about mobile implementation, they have to know some basic concepts about animation. Maybe there’s value in sitting down for half an hour and discussing what keyframe easing means and we’ll figure out the math together.

It’s harder than you’d think. We work hard, and we’re passionate, and it’s sometimes hard to see the higher-level problems with the work we put into the world. The economy is terrible and people are scared of admitting that they don’t know something. We argue, we stick to our guns, and sometimes we develop a destructive sort of tunnel vision that keeps us from seeing a great solution that’s just outside.

So what can we do, in a practical sense? I’d love to hear your thoughts – designers, engineers, writers, musicians, everyone – but for me, it comes down to a couple of things that I’m going to strive to be conscious of as I move into my next project:

  1. Look for inspiration outside of what’s supposed to inspire me. Read more, write more, spend at least an hour looking elsewhere before I start looking for comparative inspiration. If I’m starting on a new Android UI layout, no opening Photoshop, no picking up my cell phone, no opening my RSS reader to look through my go-to interface blogs. None of it. Surround myself with more things and try to be more conscious of what I’m seeing; allow myself to be less stressed overall and try to be open to ideas that originally seem dumb.
  2. Listen first, ask thoughtful questions second. I’m guilty of not paying enough attention sometimes; I think we all are. It’s easy to immediately let your mind run forward after hearing one interesting piece of information, but you might miss the thought that would come up after you’ve heard everything there is to hear. If something doesn’t make sense, ask for clarification. There is a chance of looking stupid for asking a simple question; there is a higher chance that the assumptions you have to make based on not really knowing the answer are going to lead you down the wrong path.
  3. The “do unto others” idea – respond to questions thoughtfully, even if the asker “should” know the answer. It only works if we’re all doing it.
  4. Allow yourself the freedom to be wrong. My senior year of college, I was thrown into a studio with a huge mix of majors – various design majors as well as various business majors, graduate and undergrad. We were all put on mixed teams with the goal of everyone bringing their individual knowledge to the table. Instead, what happened is that a ton of “stupid” ideas were generated. One group would immediately shut down the other – I am as guilty of it as anyone else in the class. We didn’t allow ourselves the freedom to be wrong. There could have been value in those “stupid” ideas, and if we had given each of them their fair share of time, we could have learned something. Instead, we all disliked one another and disliked the class. It could have been different. Should have been. If we never walk out of a meeting again asking what the hell so-and-so was thinking, we’ll all maybe be better for it. Be deliberately wrong. See what happens. It’s freeing.

It’s about relationships, it’s about listening, it’s about connecting dots that we don’t always know we should connect in the beginning. We’ll all get there. Jon Stewart’s speech in the Rally to Restore Sanity two years ago today was speaking politically, but it keeps coming back to me:

And yet these millions of cars must somehow find a way to squeeze one by one into a mile-long, thirty-foot wide tunnel carved underneath a mighty river. Carved by people who by the way I’m sure had their differences. And they do it. Concession by concession. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. You go, then I’ll go. Oh my God, is that an NRA sticker on your car? Is that an Obama sticker on your car? Ah, well that’s okay, you go, then I’ll go.

And sure, at some point there will be a selfish jerk who zips up the shoulder and cuts in at the last minute. But that individual is rare, and he is scorned not hired as an analyst.

Because we know instinctively as a people that if we are to get through the darkness and back into the light, we have to work together.

You go, then I’ll go; order instruments; guess at what will grow. Let’s try it.

Google Now: Traffic

I’ve been an Android user for three years now. We’ve been through ups and downs, but ultimately I’m happy with the platform and the flexibility it allows me. Yesterday morning, I awoke to see that Jelly Bean was available and downloaded it without a second thought or any research. I’ve only spent a day with it and the differences have been subtle – a new loading animation (sadly), a different lock screen, a few little visual things here and there. Late last night as I was getting ready to go to bed, my finger slipped, and that’s how I learned that the new lock screen actually allows me to access something brand new: Google Now.

If you’re unfamiliar with the idea of Google Now, take a look at their website. (The video, like most Google demos, is worth a watch and very well done.) The idea is one that mobile manufacturers have been pushing for years: All The Things You Need, Right At Your Fingertips. I’ve become skeptical of this line of thinking over the years, because it seems every new solution comes at a cost. I’ve watched friends of mine with iPhones use Siri to great enjoyment exactly as often as I’ve watched them repeat the same question four times over and ultimately not get the information they need, resorting to traditional search methods. It’s one of the most difficult problems to solve, because while there certainly are categories of users and lots of research to go on, everyone is different, and a device put in someone’s hand is inevitably going to be used for something you never even expected.

Google Now works off of “cards” and promises to give you information at the moment you need it – the weather when you wake up in the morning, the scores from your favorite teams, flight details when you’re on the way to the airport – but the information given to you when you sign up for it through your phone doesn’t really say “how” that’s going to work. A cursory glance at it last night showed a few things that I could see being useful to me, such as schedules for upcoming lines when you’re near a transit station. Could be useful, could be a huge battery drain. Nonetheless, I decided to enable it and let it learn from my behavior for a couple of days.

One of the greatest benefits to me as an Android user is that my life is incredibly google-heavy. I sit at a computer most of the day and really don’t use my cell phone much, because I work from home and it feels really silly to grab my 3.5″ screen when I’ve got two 23″ screens in front of me. I’m a heavy hitter when I’m out of the house, but those moments are far from constant. One thing I’ve always appreciated is that when I search on Google Maps from my desktop and then perform the same search from my phone, the information I recently looked for is right there in my hand as a recent search. It’s not a huge time saver, but it is convenient. When I took a three week road trip this summer, I can’t express how often I needed that feature.

My boyfriend and I are attending a wine tasting party tonight, and he volunteered to pick up a bottle for us. He didn’t know a good wine shop, and I happen to know one around the corner from his office. Before he left this morning, I looked up their address on our laptop, closed the tab, and didn’t think anything else of it. Fast forward to a few hours later when I checked my notifications bar, and here’s what I found:

It took me a couple of minutes to figure out why my phone was subtly hinting at me that it wanted a drink. Then, I realized this was actually Google Now doing the job it promised to do!

Clicking on it takes me to my Google Now homepage, where I can access all of my cards. I was pretty impressed so far, but a little disappointed that this wouldn’t be a feature that’s terribly relevant to me – I don’t drive. I walk, I ride a bike, and I take transit. The driving option would be really useful on vacation, but that represents a fraction of my time.

Clicking on the map gives the traditional Android options for which app you’d like to use. I’ll most likely end up setting this to Maps, always, because I rarely use Google Earth.

The real strength in Google Now lies in its settings. Don’t want to be bothered by these notifications all the time? Change their priority. If you’re not like me and don’t want your Google searches linked, that’s okay too – you can turn that off with the very top setting. And then there’s the one that means the most to me – driving.

I don’t like to engage in platform wars; I think that whatever works for you is the tool you should use, period. I was giving consideration to switching to the new iPhone, in fact, right up until I heard that they removed Google Maps and now there are no transit or walking directions. Figuring out how to get from where I am to somewhere else on public transit is one of my most-used features, so that’s a complete dealbreaker for me. It warms my heart to see Google’s commitment to those of us who choose to not drive.

Immediately, my card updates to the directions that are relevant to me. And it’s even got the BART overlay!

I haven’t taught it much about me so far, but it has figured out that I’m a Giants fan. I’m currently learning that its in-game updates are really great as well. I love my MLB at-bat app for lots of reasons, but the new Google Now box score certainly is attractive (and easy to check in on while I look at other things).

As I’d hoped, my notifications bar is updated with my new transit directions. Since I’ve set that as my default setting for all “traffic” related things, it should continue to do so.

I’m really, really excited about this new feature. One more way to link what I do at my desk to what I need to do when I’m out in the wild. One nice thing is that while it appears in my notifications bar, it doesn’t work the same way that, say, a text notification does. No icon in the top bar, no noise made by my phone. There might be an option to change that, but I prefer it this way – background information there with the swipe of a finger, not making me rush across the room only to find out that it was just updating me on a traffic situation. Definitely looking forward to seeing how this feature develops over time.