Version 33

Back in the early aughts when I unknowingly started my web design career as part of a blog ring, every layout you designed for your blog represented a new version of your site.

Several of us Automatticians are dogfooding Twenty Twenty, the default theme for WordPress 5.3, as we approach the Gutenberg Block Editor’s first birthday (smash cake, anyone?). Twenty Twenty includes full support for the Block Editor, as well as functionality that narrows the gap between form and function. That’s all to say that it represents an exciting evolution for WordPress themes and the WordPress project altogether.

Since my design focus is on the underlying architecture of the end-to-end WordPress.com experience, it made sense to use it for my own blog and see how I can manipulate it. So far, it feels like being in a country where people speak a different language, but it’s close enough to one I speak. To me, this is one of the more exciting forms of awkward.

A Simple Note

Simplenote is a lightweight note-taking application made by Automattic. The first time I used it was about eight years ago, at a rave at the DC Armory. There was a group of deaf people there–hearing is not a requirement for raving, one can use different objects to feel the vibrations of the music. In this case, balloons. I had never seen people experience music this way though, and it permanently changed my perspective on what it means to feel music.

There was a guy there who started harassing them, knowing that they were deaf, trying to get them to move out of the way so he could make his way to the front of the show. I can’t stand this type of crap. If raves lower inhibitions, in my case it boosted my confidence, because I went up to him, shoved him and told him off–fully knowing that this person was much bigger than me and I was at the show alone.

Well, I didn’t expect the group to notice, but they did. They asked me to join their group at the front of the show. I don’t know any ASL, so I scrambled to figure out a way to communicate. Hey, what about that app my friend told me to try? I’ve refused to delete this note in Simplenote ever since:

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While I am very much a hardass, I’m also a very sentimental person. I mean, I’m on version 32 of my blog! But I think there’s something in the memories I have, where Simplenote happened to be, that specific phase of my life, and now working at Automattic. I keep coming back to this theme of connecting the dots backwards on my career, and holding onto certain things about the earlier internet that I feel a sense of duty to preserve. Simplenote, like me, hasn’t really changed much since then, in the essence. We remain, compared to most others, subdued, but ready.

What makes us creative?

As an industry, we’ve been proclaiming the good news of mobile-first for years. Yet as much as we talk the talk, we don’t always walk the walk. It’s not a bad thing; things are just rarely black or white in real life and in our day-to-day work.

Earlier this year, the Automattic design team conducted the most extensive user research in the team’s history. We knew we would prioritize building a seamless experience that could be fully used across any device, so we could do things right. Be future-friendly. And inclusive, too. For growing numbers of people (especially outside the U.S.), the phone is their only computer.

So consider how surprised I was, while conducting an interview with a small business owner, to hear her say that she wanted nothing to do with making a website on a phone. Then another interviewee said the same thing. And another.

As a product designer, my job is to listen to user’s needs and solve for them. But again, things aren’t black or white. I also make design decisions based on best practices, the current state of the product or service, the goals of the business, and the state of the web overall. Which his why we get so excited to design mobile-first whenever we can.

Our research found that mobile use was extensive, but not exclusive, among our target audience. While participants reported using their phones more than their laptop or desktop computers, this was mostly for communications-related tasks (calls, texts, emails, etc). A mobile experience that was 1:1 with a desktop experience was seen as unnecessary and potentially overwhelming.

For example, accessibility was an issue for older participants. Most gravitated to larger screens for content-production related tasks as working on a smaller screen was difficult and potentially painful.

And so it begins–how do we prioritize user needs? Is it right to play favorites with our users? Do we know best? What about good design?

Whenever we run into these design paradoxes, I think we need to ask ourselves bigger questions instead of smaller ones. Small questions might help us produce requirements, or put together a roadmap. But the bigger questions are the ones that will let us be truly visionary–and inclusive.

The truth is, we still don’t have a unified mental model of how people make websites.

When I listened to that participant elaborate on why she didn’t want to make her website on a phone, she sounded like someone who craved a large, blank canvas. Or a clean sheet of paper.

I’ve also noticed that, for as much as we can create with our phones, freely and repeatedly throughout the day, the vast portion of our time spent using them is for consuming. Our brains go into a passive state when it consumes–which is why the time we spend swiping and scrolling and “liking” can feel so mindless.

We all have a lot to say about ourselves, and who we are. But people rarely–and truly–ask. I wonder if, as we’ve gotten used to sharing so much of ourselves in these passive ways online, when we are actually asked to share who we are, it’s become even harder to know what to say, or how to start. Creation is active. It draws from our truest selves.

So now, instead of trying to identify all the granular things that I can design to make sure that people can build a website on their phone the same way that they do on a computer, I’m asking myself a bigger question:

What makes us creative?