There is never a dull moment at Pippin Design. So we thought we would share our insight, thoughts and ideas, from design inspiration, to new media marketing techniques and beyond.

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Karen McGrane on Content: WYSIWTF

May 2nd, 2013

Arguing for “separation of content from presentation” implies a neat division between the two. The reality, of course, is that content and form, structure and style, can never be fully separated. Anyone who’s ever written a document and played around to see the impact of different fonts, heading weights, and whitespace on the way the writing flows knows this is true. Anyone who’s ever squinted at HTML code, trying to parse text from tags, knows it too.

On one hand, the division of labor between writing and presentation can be seen at every point in our history. Ancient scribes chiseling stone tablets, medieval monks copying illuminated manuscripts, printers placing movable type—we’ve never assumed that the person who produces the document and the person who comes up with the ideas must be one and the same.

And yet, we know that medium and message are intertwined so tightly, they can’t be easily split apart. Graphic designers rail against the notion that “look and feel” can be painted on at the end of the process, because design influences meaning. The more skilled we are as communicators, the more we realize that the separation of content from presentation is an industrial-age feint, an attempt to standardize and segment tasks that are deeply connected.

Today, we try to enforce the separation of content and form because it’s good for the web. It’s what makes web standards possible. It enables social sharing and flexible reuse of content. It supports accessibility. It’s what will keep us sane as we try to get content onto hundreds of new devices and form factors.

When talking about how best to separate content from presentation, designers and developers tend to focus on front-end code—which makes sense, because that’s what we have the most control over. But, as with so many challenges we have with content on the web, the real issue lies in the tools we give content creators to help them structure, manage, and publish their content. The form that content takes depends as much on CMS as it does on CSS.

How should content management tools guide content creators to focus on meaning and structure? What’s the right amount of control over presentation and styling in the CMS? And how should these tools evolve as we break out of the web page metaphor and publish content flexibly to multiple platforms? Let’s look at three tools that sit at the intersection of content and form.

Preview button

Even the most die-hard structured content editors still like seeing what their work is going to look like. Writers print out documents for editing to give them a different view from what they see on the screen. Bloggers instinctively hit the preview button to look at their work the way a user will see it.

Whoops. Decades of work refining the emulators between desktop publishing programs and laser printers means that writers can feel confident that their document will look virtually identical, regardless of where it’s printed. We’ve carried that assumption over to the web, where it’s categorically untrue. Different browsers render content in their own vexingly special way. Users can change the font size—even add their own custom style sheet. Today, the same document will render differently on desktops, tablets, and mobile devices. The preview button is a lie.

Yet we can’t just throw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, seeing content in context becomes even more important as our content now lives across devices and platforms. Instead of throwing up our hands and saying “preview is broken,” it’s time to invent a better preview button.

One publishing company I know of has built its own custom preview rendering interface, which shows content producers an example of how each story will appear on the desktop web, the mobile web, and an app. Is it perfect? Far from it. Content will appear in many more contexts than just those three. Is it better than nothing? Absolutely.

WYSIWYG

The desktop publishing revolution ushered in by the Macintosh allowed the user to see a document on screen in a form that closely mirrored the printed version. The toolbar at the top of the screen enabled the user to add formatting—change the font, insert an image, add typographic effects like headings and bullets, and much more.

In an effort to carry over this ease of use to the web, we allow content creators to embed layout and styling information directly into their content. Unfortunately, the code added by content creators can be at odds with the style sheet, and it’s difficult for developers to parse what’s style and what’s substance. When it comes time to put that content on other platforms, we wind up with a muddled mess.

What is the right amount of formatting control to give content creators? That’s a difficult question to answer, because it pierces right to the heart of what’s stylistic and what’s semantic. Even something as simple as adding bold and italic text forces us to ask if we’re really just styling the text, or adding semantic meaning (say, a book title or a warning message.)

Better content modeling can solve some of these problems, encouraging content creators to appropriately “chunk” their text. By banishing blobs of text with formatting embedded and replacing them with chunks of clean, presentation-independent content, we’re building in the distinction between content and form right from the start.

But imagining that each “chunk” of content is a field in the database (with its own input field) rapidly devolves into the absurd. That way lies madness. The real solution isn’t necessarily to “banish blobs,” but to replace the WYSIWYG toolbar with semantic markup. Rather than entering all text into discrete fields, content authors wrap text that describes what it is. Our book title doesn’t need to be a separate field if we can wrap it in the proper tags.

Defining what goes in a field and what goes in a tag requires a tighter collaboration between content authors, CMS architects, and front-end developers. It’s time we started having these conversations.

Inline editing

We’re evolving. Not satisfied to rely just on tools that are vestiges of the desktop publishing era, we’re developing new and innovative ways to mix up content and formatting that are unique to the way the web works. There’s no better example of this than inline editing.

Inline editing allows content creators to directly manipulate content in the interface, with no separation between the editing screen and the display. Medium offers an editing interface that’s identical to the desktop display and in-place editing is being added to Drupal 8 core.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is “how can I get my content creators to understand why it’s so important to add structure and metadata to their content?” This, I believe, is one of the fundamental challenges we’re facing on the web, particularly as we adapt to a multi-channel future. Inline editing encourages content creators to focus on the visual presentation of the desktop interface. Just at the moment when we need content creators to think about the underlying structure, we’re investing in tools that obscure the “connective tissue.”

Jeff Eaton sums up this problem nicely in a post called Inline Editing and the Cost of Leaky Abstractions:

The editing interfaces we offer to users send them important messages, whether we intend it or not. They are affordances, like knobs on doors and buttons on telephones. If the primary editing interface we present is also the visual design seen by site visitors, we are saying: “This page is what you manage! The things you see on it are the true form of your content.”

The best solution isn’t to build tools that hide that complexity from the user, that make them think that the styling they’re adding to the desktop site is the “real” version of the content. Instead, our goal should be to communicate the appropriate complexity of the interface, and help guide users to add the right structure and styling.

The era of “desktop publishing” is over. Same goes for the era where we privilege the desktop web interface above all others. The tools we create to manage our content are vestiges of the desktop publishing revolution, where we tried to enable as much direct manipulation of content as possible. In a world where we have infinite possible outputs for our content, it’s time to move beyond tools that rely on visual styling to convey semantic meaning. If we want true separation of content from form, it has to start in the CMS.

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Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart at May 2nd, 2013 under Content.

Scott Berkun Speaking at AEA: The Five Most Dangerous Ideas

April 18th, 2013

In this 60-minute video from An Event Apart Boston, Scott Berkun tackles designer disempowerment. He discusses how power actually works, and why developing salesmanship skills is a must, even if your job isn’t public-facing.

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Posted by The fine folks at A List Apart at April 18th, 2013 under News.

What Is User Experience Design? Overview, Tools And Resources

November 23rd, 2010

Websites and Web applications have become progressively more complex as our industry’s technologies and methodologies advance. What used to be a one-way static medium has evolved into a very rich and interactive experience. But regardless of how much has changed in the production process, a website’s success still hinges on just one thing: how users perceive it. “Does this website give me value? Is it easy to use? Is it pleasant to use?” These are the questions that run through the minds of visitors as they interact with our products, and they form the basis of their decisions on whether to become regular users. What Is User Experience? User experience (abbreviated as UX) is how a person feels when interfacing with a system. The system could be a website, a web application or desktop software and, in modern contexts, is generally denoted by some form of human-computer interaction (HCI). Those who work on UX (called UX designers) study and evaluate how users feel about a system, looking at such things as ease of use, perception of the value of the system, utility, efficiency in performing tasks and so forth. UX designers also look at sub-systems and processes within a system. For example, they might study the checkout process of an e-commerce website to see whether users find the process of buying products from the website easy and pleasant. They could delve deeper by studying components of the sub-system, such as seeing how efficient and pleasant is the experience of users filling out input fields in a Web form. Compared to many other disciplines, particularly Web-based systems, UX is relatively new. The term “user experience” was coined by Dr. Donald Norman, a cognitive science researcher who was also the first to describe the importance of user-centered design (the notion that design decisions should be based on the needs and wants of users).

Why Is UX Important?

Nowadays, with so much emphasis on user-centered design, describing and justifying the importance of designing and enhancing the user experience seems almost unnecessary. We could simply say, “It’s important because it deals with our users’ needs — enough said,” and everyone would probably be satisfied with that. However, those of us who worked in the Web design industry prior to the codification of user-centered design, usability and Web accessibility would know that we used to make websites differently. Before our clients (and we) understood the value of user-centered design, we made design decisions based on just two things: what we thought was awesome and what the client wanted to see. With all of these sweeping changes, the websites that have consistently stood out were the ones that were pleasant to use. The driving factor of how we build websites today has become the experience we want to give the people who will use the websites.

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Posted by Pippin Design at November 23rd, 2010 under Usability, Websites.

Site Redesign: Fogle Fine Art & Consultation

July 15th, 2009

Our friends at Fogle Fine Art & Consultation asked us to redesign their website to establish a new look and feel that reinforces company branding and clearly represents the company's status as a industry leader. We worked to create a comprehensive content management system with a sophisticated visual design. Our focus was to develop the site to be more responsive, more logically organized and more informative. We also wanted to provide a fully scalable foundation to allow for continued growth. The new site is scheduled to launch this month and promises to enhance usability and provide a more powerful visitor experience. We're making the final touches and look forward to making the official announcement.

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Posted by Pippin Design at July 15th, 2009 under LinkedIn, News, redesign.

New Website: Aviation Recruiting

April 6th, 2009

When Aviation Recruiting came to us with the desire to improve their website's search engine rankings, we were more than happy to provide SEO and web analytics services. But only so much can be done to a site without solid code as a foundation. Creating clean, semantic code should be considered in any search engine optimization campaign. So we worked together to build a modern, visually appealing and user-friendly site from the ground up. Utilizing the latest in cross-browser XHTML and CSS, we provided the client a clean, updated and effective web presence. Aviation Recruiting features hundreds of jobs and attracts visitors from around the world. To allow the client to easily update content, Pippin Design utilized a state-of-the-art CMS -- or Content Management System -- to allow the client to easily access, edit and manage all content. With the CMS in place, content is pulled dynamically, vastly improving the web experience for both the client and end user. Explore Aviation Recruiting's new website, as well as our entire portfolio of web development work.

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Posted by Pippin Design at April 6th, 2009 under News.

New Website Launch

October 7th, 2008

We have been looking forward to launching the new Pippin Design website since August when we started sketching ideas and mixing colors. Our goal for the website is to provide a comprehensive overview of our services as we continue developing long term partnerships with our clients. On this new website we have updated our project portfolio with some of our most recent work, and improved the overall navigation to showcase all of our services. We hope you enjoy your visit and look forward to hearing your comments.

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Posted by John Pippin at October 7th, 2008 under News, Site Updates.