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Snowzilla: January, 2016 Blizzard

As a Florida boy, I can now say that I dug out of a blizzard. Snowzilla, a historic snow storm has hit the Washington, D.C. area, and is still going strong. As I write this, we’ve seen about 20 inches fall in Reston, Va., a suburb west of Washington, D.C., with more on the way this afternoon. I’ll update this post as the storm progresses and reaches its end.

Update (January 24, 2016): I added more photos to the gallery showing the effects of Snowzilla. Official snowfall totals for our area, Reston, Va, are 28 inches.

Here are a few photos of the storm.

Why I Love Working with the Web

Remy Sharp has a nice post on his blog about his love for working on the Web. It’s worth a read, and maybe even a response on your own site.

He refers to Douglas Crockford’s famous quote:

The Web is the most hostile software engineering environment imaginable.

And says:

This hostile environment is what gets me excited. That challenge of getting my page to render everywhere. Getting the code just right so that it progressively enhances so that everyone can view the page.

That is also what excites me about working on the Web. Our work here, in this medium, is ephemeral. It will carry little meaning decades from now, at least at the technical level. Better, more advanced work will eclipse it. That’s okay. My work on the Web – our work – will last because it’s open. People will learn from it, and carry that knowledge forward into their own endeavors, whether they work on the Web or not.

The Web represents this giant book that we’re all writing and learning from. Who wouldn’t get excited about that?

Don’t Use Slack? (Or Why Aren’t We Better at Accessibility?)

In Don’t Use Slack, Christian Heilmann raises some critical questions about why accessibility doesn’t happen more in modern-day apps and startups, highlighting some issues he observed when a former  colleague who’s blind needed to use Slack. He also touched on why Slack is a fantastic tool, and has some on-point conclusions about the nature of open source and proprietary development, and the advantages of each:

… [O]pen and accessible doesn’t beat usable and intelligent.

Agreed.

Diving deeper into the real problem, Hint – it’s not that Slack’s app has some accessibility issues:

As the people who love open, free, available and accessible we have to ask ourselves a few questions: why is it much easier to create an inaccessible interface than an accessible one? How come this is the status quo? How come that in 2016 we still have to keep repeating basic things like semantic HTML, alternative text and not having low contrast interfaces? When did this not become a simple delivery step in any project description? It has been 20 years and we still complain more than we guide.

Heilmann says that we (Slack’s users) should just talk to them. Communicate. It makes sense. Accessibility is hard because it’s everywhere when you think about a web product’s lifecycle: planning, research, user experience, design, code, delivery, maintenance, etc. Everyone has to be involved, and everyone shouldn’t be afraid to talk about accessibility. It’s a people problem above all else, and most people don’t realize they already have the skills to make what they work on accessible.

More Parenting Advice, Sorry

So I’ve handed out some parenting advice before to one of my colleagues. Today, we chatted about him joining the ranks of fatherhood any day. I had more advice – even though I got annoyed when people constantly gave me advice when they found out I was going to be a dad soon. :)

Advice for being a dad, or questions to ask yourself when your baby is doing something new:

  1. Is this a safety issue?
  2. Will this end in forming bad habits?

If no on both, try to talk to them about what’s happening and teach them something new.

If yes, correct the issue (or clean up the mess) as best as you can.

Then, always end by making a funny face or weird noise to go for laughs and smiles.

This has worked well for me so far.

Conan O’Brien Interviews Jack White

I listened to this interview Conan O’Brien did with Jack White a few years ago, and it touches on a number of interesting subjects. These include creativity, art, technology and digital manipulation. It’s great to listen to if you’re a modern-day digital creator.

One of my favorite aspects that White hits on is deadlines. In the interview, he describes how he often won’t start writing songs until a day or two before he has studio time booked. That limitation helps him just work, and the work is creating. I love how that approach blends creativity with regular, every day work and craftsmanship.

Hat tip: Jonathan Snook.

2016

We’re at the dawn of a new year. I’ve always tried to take a critical look at the past year and look ahead to what’s next around this time, and this year is no different.

Last Year

I focused on habits in 2015, and had some decent success. I wanted to:

  • average at least eight posts a month on my blog. Accomplished: I averaged 15 posts a month, with most of my blogging happening before the fall when I trailed off. I had an 86-day streak, and my most popular post was Thinking About Web Accessibility Differently.
  • try one new recipe a month. I only did this for January and February, so I’ll have to do better this year. I did cook more, just not as many new dishes as I had hoped.
  • keep contributing to my two favorite open source projects: WordPress and Underscores. I did that, helping make Underscores more accessible, and contributing more to default themes for WordPress and reviewing themes for accessibility as part of the accessibility-ready tag.
  • pick back up regular exercise. I did this, joining a new CrossFit gym in April and going about twice a week most weeks.

This Year

With last year’s focus on habits, I obviously want to keep the habits going, and continue work on the one that I didn’t do as well forming. Aside from that, I want to take a different approach to 2016. I’d like to focus on three habits and/or goals:

1. Schedule two hours a week of thinking time for myself. I read a post about this recently, and liked the idea of having time to just think through whatever challenges, strategies or ideas that came to mind. No other agenda. One hour will be for work and one hour will be personal. I’ll set this in Habit List as a reminder for myself.

2. Listen more. I realized as I do almost every year when I tried to come up with Christmas gift ideas for family and close friends that I struggled mightily. I let life get in the way of this, checking my phone constantly, and wasting time on other distractions. I want to know people better, and build a foundation for a more thoughtful life. One where I pick up on more of the simple, but essential joys of life. I believe that won’t happen unless I’m a better listener. I’m not sure how I’ll track this, but I plan to set a reminder in Habit List for every quarter and ask my wife, Joeleen, how I’m doing with this. She’s always honest with me, and will be the one person who will know if I’m doing better.

3. Make progress on a book about accessibility. That’s hard to write because it’s scary to put out there. I’ve always had a goal of writing a book, and I think I now have a subject and idea where I can contribute something new and worthwhile to my field. I’ll count “progress” as almost anything, including something as simple as finishing an outline for the book. I’d also say I’m open to it being different than a traditional book because it’s more important to me that I author something than what the format might be.

Previous years: 2015, 2014, 2012, 2011.

See you in the new year!

WordPress 4.4 and More

The last few weeks have turned out to be a pretty amazing stretch for me professionally. I attended WordCamp U.S., my first “big” WordCamp, and gave a talk there called Themes are for Users. You can watch it on WordPress.tv. I also got invited to the Community Summit and helped out at Contributor Day. Plus, a few days ago, WordPress 4.4 came out, which included a new default theme, Twenty Sixteen that I helped build. It’s on WordPress.com too.

That doesn’t even count all the great people from the WordPress community I met in real life at WordCamp U.S., putting faces and voices behind the Gravatars. I can’t wait for the next year in WordPress.

Themes are for Users

This is an adaption of my talk for the 2015 WordCamp U.S. Download the PDF slides (23 MB) or view the talk on WordPress.tv.

I love themes because they’re central to the WordPress experience. After they install WordPress, users view the front end of their site and start configuring their theme. Despite this, themes have become very disconnected from users. Many theme authors approach themes by building for everyone, but when you build for everyone, you build for no one. Themers need to bring users into their theming process.

Meet Michelle

Michelle
Source.

Meet Michelle. She wants to build a website to showcase the creativity that goes into her handmade purses and handbag accessories. She’s a full-time college student in her second year studying fashion marketing and management. She works part time at the school library and enjoys reading, photography and rowing as hobbies. She’s 20 years-old, maintains a 3.6 grade point average and is goal oriented. She’s interested in photo blogging about her creative process and building a community of followers on her blog. She’s fairly tech-savvy, owns an iPhone 5s and Chromebook. She loves browsing Etsy for pattern ideas, symbols and other neat inspiration that could adorn her handbags.

What Happens When Many Users Meet a Theme

Sounds like Michelle could be your ideal WordPress user. Right? She searches through the available themes, and believes she’s found the one. Michelle visits the demo and wonders how to make her site look like that. “It can’t be that hard,” she says to herself and activates the theme. She follows standard WordPress instructions to set her home page as a static page, and then sets a special home page template for the same page. But when she visits the site, she sees nothing but a blank page. Next, she clicks the “Customize” link in her toolbar and finds her way to the “Theme Options” panel. There, she sees a giant list of options and doesn’t know where to start. Understandably, Michelle gets frustrated. She plays with a few of the settings in the theme’s options, but gives up.

Michelle isn’t alone. Tons of WordPress users give up on themes they had their hearts set on. These are quotes from actual WordPress.com users who asked for refunds for their premium theme purchases:

So, I thought I could make my page look professional on my own…No way in ****. This is for technologically savvy only, I suppose.

Too hard to use! Disappointed!

Lovely theme but I just don’t have the time and patience to learn it, I discovered.

Those aren’t happy users. We see themes with misleading screenshots and demos. Themes with tons of options and complex setups too. This leaves users with false hopes and countless ways to fail. It doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at why we’re many people leave the theme experience disappointed.

People Resist Complicated

First, we need to start with the way the brain works. It is, after all, the chief instrument we’ll use in building our site.

Your brain, and yes, Michelle’s brain – our poor user who gave up on building her fashion blog, can only handle so much information. As you take in more information when working on something critical, like setting up a theme, the part of your brain that controls decision making and emotions can hit overload. When it does, it will shut off. Once that happens, Michelle could be prone to making stupid mistakes and bad choices.

The brain can also do tricky things when it comes to choices. In a fantastic Ted Talk, psychologist Barry Schwartz highlights the paradox of choice. Imagine a dairy aisle filled with endless varieties of yogurt. Sounds good, right? It may, but Schwartz says, “With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all.” Give a user too many theme options and you could have indecision and unsatisfied users. On the flip side, Schwartz says, “…Even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from.” Why? Because we expect more? Michelle, our user saw all those options and thought she could make exactly what she wanted, but it didn’t turn out that way.

You may see a pattern developing here – less is more. The same approach has greater effect when looking at a number of steps a person has to finish before calling a task done. In 100 Things Every Designer Should Know About People, Susan Weinschenk points out that people focus on what’s left more than what’s completed. A study she sighted said people were more motivated to continue when they focused on what was left to do, so shorter lists help keep users like Michelle motivated.

Lastly, focusing on your user and the overall experience can impact your bottom line in a big way. As an example, when one major hotel chain launched various user improvements to its site, it saw a year-over-year revenue growth of 83 percent. Other branded websites within the industry saw a growth of 33 percent for the same time period. Michelle will buy more themes or services from you, and recommend you, if she has a better experience.

Creating a Mindful Process

So how do we give Michelle a better experience? We need to examine our process. The process for many themes might start with an idea. Great, we have an idea – let’s flesh that out in a design. Once we nudge all our pixels into place, we can start building. As we build, we’ll test the major aspects, and launch. Finished theme! Now, we’ll set back and watch the download counter rise!

However, it’s not that easy. You can’t find Michelle, her needs or voice anywhere in that process. In that process, the opportunity for failure, feedback and improvement doesn’t exist. Our process needs to embrace iteration more. What if it looked more like this? You have a discovery phase where you do research, like looking at analytics, creating surveys or conducting user interviews. A build phase where you sketch, create wireframes, style guides and start designing and coding your solution. Lastly, you evaluate all of that, running more user tests, looking at analytics and analyzing any data that will help you determine what has worked and what hasn’t.

That simplifies a lot of work into three major phases, but one thing to realize is that you can:

  • make this process a cycle, repeating it as you move along.
  • break up your project into chunks and use this method on different aspects.
  • launch at nearly any point, from showing a user test to design tweak to the full project.

This puts iteration at the forefront of your theming process. Sure, it can become messy at times, but that’s part of what makes creating fun. It’s how the creating, the making happens. You need feedback to get a more accurate view of how users will actually use your themes, and it will help you make better decisions and know why you made them.

Bringing Better User Experience to Your Themes

We know we need to alter our process somewhat to help create the best possible themes for Michelle. But how? Let’s look at the discover phase and what you can do to bring a mature user experience process into your theming workflow. It may seem intimidating to dive into research, especially if you haven’t done it much before, but it helps form a solid foundation to work from for all your future design decisions.

Discover

Here are some ways you can dive into your own “discover” phase:

  • Look at your analytics. What patterns do you see?
  • Look at your competitors. What themes are they building? What gaps in the marketplace have they not filled?
  • Talk to your support staff, or do support. What pain points do you notice?
  • Run surveys with your customers. They’ll tell you more than you think.
  • Interview users formally, and create user personas.
  • Test a current theme, asking users to perform specific tasks.

Build

After the “discover” phase, you move onto the “build” phase. You may think of the build phase of your theming project as just for writing code, but it’s for any process where you create an artifact that would be something tangible. Here are some of those tangible items and tools that may help you create them:

  • Sketch (pencil and paper)
  • Moodboard (Sketch or Photoshop)
  • Style Guides (HTML/CSS/JS or CodePen)
  • Wireframes (Balsamiq)
  • Prototype (HTML/CSS/JS or CodePen)
  • Get feedback (Yes, again.)
  • User testing (Yes, again.)

Evaluate

Lastly, after you “build” what you need to build, you should evaluate whether or not it proved to be effective. You can loop back to some of the data you gathered or analyzed during the “discover” phase to compare it all. See if you see a change in your analytics, or your support staff hear something different from your customers – as an example. Of course, you’ll want to make changes based on what you find out. Small changes work best since they’re less risky and easier to test and measure against.

Moving into Theming

Once you begin making decisions based on user feedback and data you’ll find that:

your theme options become simpler:

  • they become what they truly are: optional.
  • they start to actually enhance a theme’s purpose.
  • you start to put them into logical groups.

When you’re working with your theme setup, you’ll find:

  • you’re following logical patterns across the web for common interactions.
  • you’re building your theme setup in layers, where each one works independently without need the others.
  • you’ll get your users from theme activation to complete setup in fewer steps.

Your theme documentation will:

  • be created in less time and easier to maintain.
  • no longer be required reading for users who want to get started using your themes.

Your screenshot and demo will:

  • be realistic in what it shows.

As you move through your theming process:

  • Before the theme: Research and focus.
  • While theming: Build your theme in chunks. Test as you go, and don’t be afraid to make and learn from your mistakes.
  • After theming: Ask yourself what you’ve learned. Iterate.

My favorite thing on the Internet is clicking on a link and landing on a personal site, customized by the author. A good WordPress theme can open up a new world to those using it, and in turn, reveal something unique about the site’s owner to the world. A theme can become the centerpiece to someone’s story. That can’t happen without all of us making better WordPress themes. Themes that just work for users like Michelle. Let’s build them.