The Web Has No Design Standards

A reader recently complained to me about the hyperlinks on this blog. The reader thought the links were too hard to distinguish from the rest of the text. And the reader’s right. The Swedish Greys desktop theme that I thought looked cool eight years ago, while attractive in an aesthetic sense (to me at least), is not the most usable or accessible. I’ll be looking for another theme.

I was able to style my blog however I wanted to and it looks the same in all browsers. That’s the flexibility of good HTML/CSS standards. Every site can look and behave exactly as the creator envisioned. It’s also why the Web’s a usability nightmare. We have to learn to use every site we visit because every site is designed differently. How come when we talk about Web standards the focus is almost entirely on technical standards? Where is the worry about design standards?

I recently finished reading the classic book The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and it talks about standards. Normans says “When all else fails, standardize.” Basically when you have no other way of implementing good design, you turn to standardization so at least every user only needs to learn how to use the similar things (in this case web pages) once. And I think we have no other way, because if we did, we would have figured it out in the past 30 years.

It wasn’t always this way. I remember using the pre-CSS and pre-JavaScript Web as a little kid on Mosaic. You knew there that the blue underlined text was always a hyperlink. And you knew that the back button always took you back a page. And you didn’t have to worry what different actions buttons did, because there was no JavaScript. I’m not saying we should go back there, but in many ways having the constraints made pages easier to use. There was no need to think. Now we have no constraints, but that’s why we need standards.

Every other major consumer computing platform but the Web has design standards. Apple’s platforms are famous for their Human Interface Guidelines. They are an attempt to ensure all apps follow some standard design conventions. Not every app does, but Apple has some ability to enforce them through its app stores, and some users even demand developers follow them. So, they are at least kinda sorta followed by most major apps. If the Web had design standards, maybe users would demand developers follow them too. Google and Microsoft have design suggestions and guidelines for their developers. This is why a good app for each platform feels “at home.”

But we have no design guidelines for the Web that are widely accepted. Sure, people have tried. But the only way we’re going to get something that’s actually followed is if we have a standard. And a standard needs to come from a standards body (Apple, Microsoft, and Google are the standards bodies for their respective platforms). W3C, please put some focus on a design standard. Not everybody will be forced to follow it, but it could do a lot of good in terms of usability.

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Classic Computer Science Problems in Java is Published

I am pleased to announce that my fourth book, Classic Computer Science Problems in Java, has been published. It is now available for purchase from the publisher’s website. As Manning’s deal of the day, the book is available today (January 5, 2021) for 50% off.

Classic Computer Science Problems in Java is a continuation of the Classic Computer Science Problems series, with previous incarnations in Swift and Python. They teach problem solving techniques from the realm of computer science in an approachable code-centric tutorial-like fashion. They are relatively light on theory and heavier on analogies, examples, and code. You don’t need a computer science education to pick up the books. In fact they were designed with self-taught programmers in mind. You do need to be at least an intermediate programmer. You can find out more about the contents of the series at classicproblems.com.

The Java book follows the success of Classic Computer Science Problems in Python which has sold more than ten thousand English copies and has been translated into eight other human languages including Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, German, Russian, Polish, Korean, Traditional Chinese, and Japanese. Beyond the three original book programming languages, the source code has been ported by the community into five additional languages including Go, C++, Ruby, PHP, and JavaScript.

I don’t know if the Java book will be as successful as the Python book, but I do know that there will be a lot less readers upset about the inclusion of type annotations. Manning provides a short free sample of the book on their website, so you can check it out before you buy. Let me know if you have any questions on Twitter. I’m @davekopec.

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Book Review: The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs

I give a lot of presentations. As a college instructor, I present at least once every week, and usually multiple times. I’ve also presented in business contexts and to general audiences. The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs: How to Be Insanely Great in Front of Any Audience by Carmine Gallo caused me to rethink how I’m delivering my content. I had seen every Steve Jobs video available online, including all of his keynotes, before reading the book. But it took Gallo’s insights to distill what made Jobs’s presentations so great in a digestible form that I could use.

Gallo’s book is based on the premise that Steve Jobs’s presentations were excellent. If you don’t agree with that and you didn’t like his style, then don’t pick up this book. You can watch any of Jobs’s presentations on YouTube. And if you haven’t, I highly recommend watching some of the most famous ones (introduction of the iPhone for example) before picking up the book. They will give you context because Gallo refers to specific presentations in just about every chapter. In fact, if you haven’t seen them, you may want to watch them as they’re introduced in the book, although it will add many hours to your reading experience.

Most of Jobs’s presentations featured slides. Therefore a significant amount of the advice in the book relates to making slides. If your presentations don’t involve slides, you will find about one third of the book’s content not applicable to you. Jobs’s slides were very different from most of the slides we see in business and academia. They had almost no text. Gallo clearly explains how Jobs made this work

Much of the non-slide advice is common sense: practice, vary your use of voice, be passionate when presenting, use demos, break up your presentation, etc. Yet the combination of all of it into a single volume and the way that Gallo elucidates these points make the book a one stop shop for improving your slides. I never got bored reading this common sense because I love Steve Jobs and even though I already knew almost all of the anecdotes in this book, they really made the advice come alive. If you don’t know much about Steve Jobs then you might not find the book quite as exciting.

The Presentation Secrets of Steve Jobs is a great book to improve your presenting skills, especially if you make presentations with slides. Its advice about making slides is unconventional and will make you rethink how you do them. Its other advice is mostly common sense but is really well illustrated. If you’re not familiar with Steve Jobs or you have not watched his keynotes you should watch some of them either prior to reading the book or simultaneously with when they are presented in each chapter. If you don’t like Steve Jobs/Apple then this is not a book you will enjoy.

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Book Review: Edison by Edmund Morris

Thomas Alva Edison is almost inarguably the greatest inventor of all time. The first device for recording and playing back sound, the first large scale power distribution system, the first practical light bulb, and the first commercially successful video recording and playback device were just a few of his numerous inventions. His inventions span the gamut from mining, to electricity, to chemistry, to telecommunications, to optics, to mechanics, and even to botany. Edmund Morris’s Edison is an excellent book by a very experienced biographer that takes you through every one of Edison’s major inventions with enough context to help you understand how and why they came about. But Morris made a very strange structural decision that, while interesting, takes away from the book’s enjoyment.

Morris’s biography dispels two myths that I had heard about Edison (having only previously read a dime store biography of him and a book about his movie production company). The first is that Edison doesn’t deserve credit for his inventions because it was his workers who really came up with most of them. It’s clear from this meticulously sourced biography that Edison was not only the visionary behind his inventions, but that he also had a thorough scientific knowledge that allowed him to work hand-in-hand with his workers, directing them at every step. This is all the more amazing since he had no formal education and was thoroughly a self-made person. Edison was incredibly studious and consumed volumes and volumes of both scientific and non-scientific literature. Most of his major inventions really were his ideas. Some of them were improvements on the work of other inventors, and some of them were co-invented with his workforce, but he was the indispensable figure who created the first industrial research laboratory, making this all possible and directing it meticulously from his own mind.

The second myth I had heard about Edison is that he was a good scientist but a terrible businessman. It depends what you mean by “businessman.” Morris makes it clear that Edison was poor at managing his finances. But what is also clear from Morris’s account is that Edison was an amazing entrepreneur. He was able to see what inventions had practical commercial potential. He turned ideas into money. Did he then subsequently run those businesses well? Not generally. He was a great entrepreneur, but not a great manager.

Beyond invention, Edison’s life was filled with serendipity, interesting personal stories, and meetings with the greatest figures of his generation. Morris spends about three fourths of the biography on Edison’s inventions and business pursuits, and the remainder on the rest. He was perhaps the most famous person alive during his lifetime, and for good reason—his inventions utterly changed the every day lives of the masses. Reading the biography, you will get a sense of this, but it’s not delved into in any great detail. The majority of the pages are spent on the inventions.

The explanations of the inventions are clear enough that you do not need a scientific background to understand the gist of their purpose. You won’t understand them at a fundamental level, but you will understand why they were important and how they connected to the rest of the Gilded Age world. There’s not room, even in eight hundred pages, to go into all of Edison’s inventions, nor all of his personal life. His journey was just that amazing. But you get a sense that Morris chose the important highlights well.

So, Edison is a well-written and balanced biography about one of the most interesting figures of all time. What is not to like? The structure. Morris chose to bizarrely present Edison’s life in reverse chronological order. Each chapter covers a decade of his life. And the book starts with his last decade, and ends with his first. As we all know, lifetimes progress linearly. We’re used to hearing stories in order. It’s hard to keep track of characters, when we are abruptly and repeatedly thrown back ten years in their lives. The result is that it’s very hard to keep straight the lives of Edison’s associates and family members as you read Edison. It’s interesting in the last two chapters, knowing what you know about his life, to hear about how it started. It’s interesting, but I don’t think the trade off was worth making the rest of the book harder to read and keep track of. Morris died about five months before Edison was published. I wonder if he had lived longer, if he would have rethought the structure upon further reflection. Some reviewers have suggested reading the book backwards. I don’t think it would hurt you much to do this.

Thomas Edison was an amazing, interesting, and world-changing figure who deserves a thoroughly researched extensive biography by a great writer. In Edison, we have that. Its bizarre structure notwithstanding, if you are at all interested in technology, business, or even just history, you should give Edison a read.

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Book Review - No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention

No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention is not a history of Netflix. It’s an extended account of the corporate values that have resulted in Netflix’s success as told by its cofounder/CEO Reed Hastings and accomplished business writer & academic Erin Meyer. This well written and clearly explained book offers insight into managing a creative company using non-traditional management techniques that give employees greater freedom and responsibility. However, the techniques are likely not as widely applicable as the authors imply.

No Rules Rules follows a unique format, in which each author’s voice is clearly pointed out in their sections of each chapter, leading to a kind of dialogue between the two. This format creates balance. Each point is discussed from the insider/pragmatic perspective of Hastings and the more academic perspective of Meyer. Meyer will sometimes backup Hastings’s assertions with research outside of Netflix, or gently pushback against some of his more absolutist tendencies. Meyer appears to have had significant access to employees throughout Netflix while doing her research. However, there’s no section in which she completely disagrees with Hastings, and throughout most of the book the reader is simply getting the same point from multiple perspectives.

The book revolves around the benefits of a corporate culture that empowers individual contributors to make decisions without bureaucratic tape and draconian oversight. This is meant to increase efficiency, improve flexibility, and help employees feel more satisfied with their roles. A couple specific examples are employees deciding for themselves the appropriate amount of vacation to take each year (no vacation policy) and signing contracts without getting approval from their managers. To get to this place of what the book calls “freedom and responsibility” there are certain prerequisites defined by the authors. These include a culture of candid feedback and achieving a high “talent density.”

These corporate values have obviously served Netflix well, but they may not quite be the panacea they seem from reading the book. Unfortunately, despite Meyer’s involvement, the values are somewhat myopically presented within the confines of Netflix. Probably the most controversial point in the book is its assertion that “adequate” employees (sometimes interchangeably referred to as “good” employees) should be let go to make room for hiring “great” employees. This is presented rather uncritically, without the obvious introspection that it is easy for an industry leading organization like Netflix to have its pick of “great” employees waiting at the gates to get an opportunity to work for it when they let go of the “good” employees.

The authors only caveat is that safety or process oriented companies (think nuclear reactor or industrial manufacturing) cannot risk freedom and responsibility. Yet, there are many other creative types of companies that cannot fulfill the prerequisites outlined by No Rules Rules. For example, there are creative companies that due to the limited profits in their industry cannot pay top-dollar and cannot risk letting go of “good” employees because there will be no “great” employees waiting to take their place.

No Rules Rules is a good book for learning more about Netflix, how its corporate culture works, and how it has helped to make it successful. It’s sprinkled with enough interesting anecdotes and good writing to keep your attention. The unique format adds value and the non-traditional management techniques are interesting and surely have some merit. Yet, the book’s failure to acknowledge the unique circumstances of Netflix that make its unique culture possible, stop it from being a “great” book. It’s just a “good” book.

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On Taking Criticism

I am what I would call a non-famous public person. What do I mean by that? I mean that I have jobs where people publicly review my work. As a college instructor, I receive student reviews. Some of them get read internally at our school, and some of them get posted publicy. And they’re attached to my name. They’re not some product where people might just know my company or my brand. They know me, and they’re reviewing me. As an author, my books get reviewed. Some of those reviews are by editors and official reviewers internal to the publisher. Some of those reviews are by email. But most of those reviews are posted online. As a software developer and hobbyist podcaster I also get public reviews.

To anyone in a personalized creative field who cares deeply about their work, bad reviews hurt. It’s not just about being sensitive (although I am sensitive and that doesn’t help). It’s that when you really pour your heart into something, as I do my teaching for example, then the product is an extension of you. Nobody would deny that the way a class or a book turns out is an extension of the personality, knowledge, and ability of the teacher/author. And when the product is criticized, it’s like you are being criticized.

My dad, who was also a college instructor, and the producer of nine books and nine instructional videos among many other public creative ventures, had a very thin skin. He couldn’t stand me reading him a bad review. That stuck with me. This very accomplished man, couldn’t stand even a little criticism. When I get too sensitive, I try to remember how his inability to accept criticism hurt some of his products. He was much more about getting things done than doing them perfectly. If he had a little bit more of a perfectionist streak in him, he would have done even better. But maybe he would have done less…

It doesn’t matter if I receive eighteen great reviews for a class. It’s the words of the two bad reviews that stick with me. And do you know why? Because almost always there’s a kernel of truth to those reviews. Does that mean we should listen to them? Well if I only listened to the bad reviews, I would never produce anything. I would just stay in bed. The fact is the people who are getting no bad reviews, are the people who are not taking the risk of putting themselves out there. So, we have to not let ourselves get so discouraged that we stop producing. And we have to remember that while we may not have served those two students well, we may have served those other eighteen students better than they would have been served in a world without us teaching them.

We can’t please every student or every customer. Nothing that gets watched/read by more than a few people is going to be liked by all of them. Even Mother Theresa would get a downvote on YouTube. So, if we’re serving the majority, we don’t want to let the critiques of a few steer us in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, being like my dad is dangerous too. No, the customer is not always right. But usually the customer has a point. We have to always be working to get better. Because we’re not perfect, and there’s always room for improvement. And we need to read those bad reviews to find those spaces for improvement. It doesn’t mean they’re right, but it does mean we need to think about them.

My dad accomplished an amazing amount. If he let those bad reviews slow him down too much, it’s very possible he would have not accomplished as much. But if he could have found a few tweaks, a few changes, to serve a few customers better, well then he could have grown through them. I want to grow, but I also don’t want to stop. So, I can’t let the reviews get me too down, but I have to read them.

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Book Review: Let It Go by Stephanie Shirley

A child refugee builds the first wholly female software company, putting feminism into practice, and goes on to become one of the most noted philanthropists in her country. It’s a story fit for Hollywood. Stephanie Shirley tells it with gusto, raw honesty, and compelling writing in her autobiography, Let It Go.

As a half-Jewish child during the beginning of World War 2, Shirley was saved from the horrors of Nazism by escaping on a train as a child refugee. In England she would build a new life, and build a software consulting company. Freelance Programmers (later F International) employed female programmers who were under-appreciated and discriminated against by the business world at the time. Many of these women worked from home part-time or while raising children in a world that wouldn’t allow them to work otherwise. They would work on large technical projects for some of the largest companies in Britain. Let It Go is a strong feminist treatise drawn from reality, not abstractions.

Shirley was a pioneer in many ways. Creating a software company in and of itself was still a new idea in 1962 when she got started. Creating a company of freelancers decades before “the gig economy” was an innovation. Employing almost all women in a technology company (although women were many of the first programmers) was unheard of. In Let It Go Shirley takes you through the early struggles of building Freelance Programmers. The reader receives a strong understanding of how the company operated, how it acquired clients, and the challenges that it faced as it grew from her cottage into a multi-million dollar enterprise. While Shirley covers the early period in the right level of detail, the company’s later growth is not as well recounted in the book.

Let It Go is also a deeply personal book. Shirley goes into detail about her relationships, her family life, and her struggles taking care of her child, Giles, who is affected by a severe form of autism. She weaves the personal stories well into the business narrative, making it a more “full picture” story than most business books. Her personal life affected her business and vice versa. That’s true of almost anybody, and to think otherwise is a folly. Yet many business memoirs almost completely exclude personal details.

One of the things I appreciate most about Let It Go is that Shirley held nothing back. Even embarrassing or difficult details were not left out. If she felt jealousy or betrayal over a colleague’s actions, she explained it. She covered her mental breakdown. She covered marriage difficulties. She covered her fraught relationship with her parents. It was real. It was raw. And it made for a more realistic, interesting, and insightful journey.

The latter half of the book deals primarily with three topics: Shirley’s transformation of her company into a partially employee-owned operation, her struggles to help her son with his condition, and her philanthropy. Shirley ended up being a leading figure in philanthropy in Britain, and in autism philanthropy in particular. She founded a school for children with autism, the country’s largest autism charity, and too many other philanthropic initiatives to mention here.

The theme of the book can be seen as “relinquishing control,” hence the title Let It Go. Shirley ultimately let go of her personal tragedies, her business, and many of her philanthropic ventures (to other managers). And she sees them as more successful as a result of it. It’s a powerful message that can only be fully understood by reading the book. If you have any interest in the early software consulting business, the evolution of autism care, women working in technology, or just want to read a great life story, Let It Go is worth your time.

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