One for the Thumbs

 

I spent two decades writing reviews for technology products that featured a mandatory score on a five-point rating scale1. The idea of applying a numerical rating to a product appears to be an early 20th century invention, most famously adopted by film critics. I was never a fan of the idea, to be honest. Step away from the objective world of precise measurements and things get squishy awfully fast. You end up using the precision of numbers to measure the imprecision of sentiment. Beyond telling you if I like the product or not—if Roger Ebert likes the movie or not—does the difference between a 3.5 and a 4 really tell you much? (When I started at Macworld, the magazine had just instituted a completely bonkers rating system where every product was scored twice, both out of five stars and out of 100 points (actually out of 10 points with a mandatory tenth rating, wasting a lot of perfectly good periods), so you’d end up with ratings like 4 stars/8.7. If you’re reviewing hard drives I suppose it’s arguable that you might need to differentiate between a 7.3 and a 7.4, but in most cases that level of precision is pointless and arbitrary.)

Read the full story here

Net ​nostalgia: the online museums preserving dolphin gifs and spinning Comic Sans

 

Scott is interested in conserving the stuff we have forgotten has value. Increasingly, our culture plays itself out on the internet, yet even now we have a tendency to view what we do on there as trivial. Or we make the mistake of assuming that digital means for ever. “The problem is, the internet’s systems have been designed as though everything goes on indefinitely,” he says. “There are no agreed-upon shutdown procedures. When users die, what do you do? Because their accounts live on, and suddenly Facebook is telling you your dead friend also likes Snickers bars. Often, you don’t even know who’s running a site. It’s as if you didn’t know who was in charge of your water supply; then one day, it just stopped …”

Read the full story here

Net ​nostalgia: the online museums preserving dolphin gifs and spinning Comic Sans

 

Scott is interested in conserving the stuff we have forgotten has value. Increasingly, our culture plays itself out on the internet, yet even now we have a tendency to view what we do on there as trivial. Or we make the mistake of assuming that digital means for ever. “The problem is, the internet’s systems have been designed as though everything goes on indefinitely,” he says. “There are no agreed-upon shutdown procedures. When users die, what do you do? Because their accounts live on, and suddenly Facebook is telling you your dead friend also likes Snickers bars. Often, you don’t even know who’s running a site. It’s as if you didn’t know who was in charge of your water supply; then one day, it just stopped …”

Read the full story here

How the internet is trying to design out toxic behaviour

 Troll

A few years ago, Facebook managers noticed a rush of complaints from users about friends posting photographs of them that they didn’t like. The pictures weren’t explicit; they just reminded users of something they would rather forget, or made them look stupid. These complaints were invariably rejected because no rules had been broken, yet friendships were being strained as a result. “We tried saying, ‘Why don’t you just message the person?’, but people didn’t quite know what to say,” says Milner, adding tactfully that not everybody “has the social skills” to resolve such petty squabbles. So, Facebook introduced social reporting, which works like a teacher gently helping kids in a playground dispute to resolve things between themselves. Complainants get a template message to send to their friend, explaining how the picture makes them feel and asking politely for its removal. Usually, that’s all it takes – it is, says Milner, “helping you have an empathetic response” that leaves everyone feeling good. “We set up our systems to encourage people to be nice – to think about things before you post.” It’s a classic example of what BJ Fogg, a Stanford-based behavioural scientist who specialises in the psychology of Facebook, calls persuasive design: if you want people to do something, don’t explain why, just show them how. Humans learn by imitation, which means modelling nice behaviour beats lecturing people to be nice.

Read the full story here

Forbes forces readers to turn off ad blockers, promptly serves malware

Forbes

Shocking (no, not really) news on the adblocking front

For the past few weeks, Forbes.com has been forcing visitors to disable ad blockers if they want to read its content. Visitors to the site with Adblock or uBlock enabled are told they must disable it if they wish to see any Forbes content. […] What sets Forbes apart, in this case, is that it didn’t just force visitors to disable ad blocking — it actively served them malware as soon as they did.

Add this to the list of why the scourge of online advertising is not adblockers, but the crappy ads and practices that encourage people to use them.

(original hat tip to Daring Fireball)

Every web designer – and publisher – should read this

fatcat01

Every web designer and site owner needs to read this article by John Allsop on the epidemic of website bloat. To sum up:

There is only one honest measure of web performance: the time from when you click a link to when you’ve finished skipping the last ad.

Everything else is bullshit.

[…]

Web designers! It’s not all your fault.

You work your heart out to create a nice site, optimized for performance. You spend the design process trying to anticipate the user’s needs and line their path with rose petals.

Then, after all this work is done, your client makes you shit all over your hard work by adding tracking scripts and ads that you have no control over, whose origin and content will be decided at the moment the page loads in the user’s browser, and whose entire purpose is to break your design and distract the user from whatever they came to the site to do.

The user’s experience of your site is dominated by hostile elements out of your control.

It’s a rather revealing article (actually the transcript of a talk, the video of which is here).

When I started out in web design, before it had even got past the ‘it’s just a fad’ phase, a big part of the job was squeezing images until they sat on the border between small enough that a typical modem would download them in less than five seconds, but not so compressed that they looked awful. Nowadays, I admit, I don’t bother with that just assuming that everyone’s on broadband or a decent mobile plan.

But all that is moot anyway given that the biggest culprit in page bloat is advertising and tracking. The reason for this is simple, but shocking.

Accepted practice today is for ad space to be auctioned at page load time. The actual ads (along with all their javascript surveillance infrastructure) are pulled in by the browser after the content elements are in place.

In terms of user experience, this is like a salesman arriving at a party after it has already started, demanding that the music be turned off, and setting up their little Tupperware table stand to harass your guests. It ruins the vibe.

So to reiterate. Page designers, writers and even site owners don’t know what their site will look like because ads are sold and positioned when the page is viewed. In print journalism, ad space is sold in a way that means the publisher knows what the finished publication will look like. From the advertisers’ point of view that makes a lot of sense. You don’t want your ad for a car to go next to a feature article on the wonders of cycling (and neither does the writer).

Imagine what server-side ad layout would mean for designers. You would actually know what your pages are going to look like. You could load assets in a sane order. You could avoid serving random malware.

Giant animations would no longer helicopter in at page load time, destroying your layout and making your users hate you.

This isn’t just ‘dodgy’ sites either.

Here’s a grab from The Guardian just now after I disabled my ad blocker.

Guardian page

Notice two things. Firstly, a window popped up asking me to update Flash. Why? Because The Guardian serves ads using Flash, despite having run several articles about the security risks posed by Flash.

Secondly, the ad on the right is for clothes retailer Namshi. I’ve never heard of them, they appear to be an Arabian company that doesn’t trade in the UK, and I’m a bloke so how well-spent was that ad budget?

Is it any wonder I block the ads? They’re annoying and completely irrelevant to me. Now I link to a lot of Guardian articles here, so am I being a bit of a hypocrite? No – I pay an annual fee for The Guardian iOS app and I read via that rather than the web. But in The Guardian’s case I pay as much not to see ads as much as I pay for the journalism – and the fact there’s something wrong with that is down to the business model, not me.

The only question for publishers is whether to get ahead of this and reap the benefits, or circle down the drain with everybody else.

I’ve said this in other posts – the great debate last year about ad blockers seemed to think that readers were being devious in blocking ads when in fact the issue really was the shit that made people want to.

I mean things like this:

Bad web ad

I’ve seen ads like that on prestigious websites. It’s not just the clickbait places.

Advertising in magazines and newspapers, on the radio and TV and in cinemas doesn’t track the reader, listener or viewer. There’s no reason it needs to on the web. And with a few exceptions ads in old media tend to be well-executed and well thought out. I can’t remember the last time anyone got excited about the latest web ad in the same way they do for, say, the annual John Lewis Christmas ad.

Content providers should sell advertising space directly, or use an old-fashioned agency to do it for them. And they should take responsibility for what’s in the ads. The number of links I’ve clicked on recently where the screen has been filled with an ad with no design, no context, just a link to something I’m really not interested in… more often than not I close the page. Whatever was there is not so interesting I’m prepared to be visually assaulted and robbed at the same time.

Running ads like this, abdicating editorial responsibility to an algorithm, devalues your brand. If you think what you’re producing is good enough that you should be paid for it, then either find a business model that allows you to charge your visitors, or use your impressions and demographics to sell ads to relevant people (Jon Gruber makes a living doing just that).

Don’t sell your users, or more importantly, their location, their sexual preferences, and their recent search history (which might just be an indicator of their sexual preferences anyway). And let’s get back to the days when web pages were crafted to load as quickly as possible without starting up your laptop’s fan just to autoplay an ad for a shoe shop in Dubai.

Newspapers face up to the ad crunch in print and digital

The print advertising market, which still remains the lifeblood of income for most publishers on the path to digital sustainability, has been down unprecedented levels of as much as 30% in some weeks over the past six months. Most of the UK’s top 10 newspaper advertisers have stripped their budgets: the biggest, Sky, has cut its spend by 20% in the first nine months, according to unofficial figures. Second ranked BT has lopped 18% off its national newspaper ad budget so far, Asda is down 47% and the once ever-reliable Tesco is down 39%.

Read the full story here

UI, UX: Who Does What? A Designer’s Guide To The Tech Industry | Co.Design | business + design

Design is a rather broad and vague term. When someone says “I’m a designer,” it is not immediately clear what they actually do day to day. There are a number of different responsibilities encompassed by the umbrella term designer.

Design-related roles exist in a range of areas from industrial design (cars, furniture) to print (magazines, other publications) to tech (websites, mobile apps). With the relatively recent influx of tech companies focused on creating interfaces for screens, many new design roles have emerged. Job titles like UX or UI designer are confusing to the uninitiated and unfamiliar even to designers who come from other industries.

Read the full story here

How to save online advertising

At root is an intrinsically toxic relationship between the three parties to the advertising ecosystem: advertisers, publishers and readers. Advertisers buy publishers’ inventory to sell things to readers, but publishers sell inventory to publishers because they want money, not because they want to help sell products. Readers want to read what the publishers are publishing. A tiny fraction of readers want to buy what the advertisers are selling, and this microscopic minority subsidises the whole operation. It’s easy to see the way this plays out for the worse. Unscrupulous publishers have made a practice of defrauding advertisers, spoofing the number of times their ads are shown in order to make more money from the same amount of readers. Advertisers have leaned on publishers to make ads more obtrusive – first with pop-up ads, then, after blockers became standard, with roll-downs, interrupters, pop-unders, ads that scroll with the page (eating your CPU in the process), and the whole parade of mutated attention-economy market-failures that fill your browser every day. Readers respond by installing ad-blockers, meaning that fewer readers are counted by the advertisers, meaning that the publishers get paid less and have to allow advertisers to serve more obtrustive ads in order to keep the money flowing.

Read the full story here