UX

Brutalist Web Design

The term brutalism is often associated with Brutalist Architecture, however it can apply to other forms of construction, such as web design.

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The term brutalism is derived from the French béton brut, meaning “raw concrete”. Although most brutalist buildings are made from concrete, we’re more interested in the term raw. Concrete brutalist buildings often reflect back the forms used to make them, and their overall design tends to adhere to the concept of truth to materials.

A website’s materials aren’t HTML tags, CSS, or JavaScript code. Rather, they are its content and the context in which it’s consumed. A website is for a visitor, using a browser, running on a computer [or mobile device] to read, watch, listen, or perhaps to interact. A website that embraces Brutalist Web Design is raw in its focus on content, and prioritization of the website visitor.

Brutalist Web Design is honest about what a website is and what it isn’t. A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.

They list the following principles:

In defence of boring UX

The Pale King, the late David Foster Wallace’s final novel, was published in 2011. It’s about IRS employees in Peoria, Illinois

And it’s incredibly boring.

I’m not being cruel — The Pale King contains an intricate description of a traffic jam, a long list of tax forms, and an entire chapter devoted to mundane office tasks. As Michael Pietsch, the book’s editor notes, “David set out to write a novel about some of the hardest subjects in the world — sadness and boredom.”

Defending boring UX is a slightly easier task. I just want to get you excited about the invisible, unsung work required to build useful and understandable digital products that truly satisfy user needs.

Boring defined

Boring user experience is clear and straightforward content, design, and code that solves key pain points. No surprise. No delight. It’s the non-design of IA Writer or the simple poetry of plain language.

Unboring is an error message that requires a PhD to unpack or Microsoft Word’s everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink approach to software.

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Boring UX emerged in 2012 with the launch of GOV.UK, a government site that proved straightforward digital design can improve the lives of millions of people. As the jury who awarded the site Design of the Year 2013 put it, “It may not look particularly exciting or pretty, but that is not the point. This is design in the raw, providing vital services and information in the simplest, most logical way possible.”

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Boring doesn’t always save lives, but it usually improves them. The titans of the web — Wikipedia, Reddit, Google, Amazon, Dropbox, GitHub — look boring when compared to Snapchat, The Outline, or Bejeweled. But boring companies have millions of repeat users because their products actually work.

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“Only when a product is functional, reliable, and usable can users appreciate the delightful, pleasurable, or enjoyable aspects of the experience,” notes Fessenden. In other words, boring underpins delight — and sometimes boring is delightful. Popular apps like Pocket and Instapaper, along with Safari’s reader view, turn exciting into boring by rescuing content from the evil clutches of hyperactive design and indestructible retargeting ads.

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If you’re truly user-centric, admit that the most meaningful life stuff happens beyond the borders of tiny glowing rectangles. UX folks are brokers and intermediaries, not rock stars or ninjas. Your job is to swallow some boredom so people can live better lives.

And if that sounds a bit dreary, remember the words of David Wallace in The Pale King: “If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”

When text truncation fails

I understand that it’s tough to get people excited about boring tools and approaches, especially invisible things like semantic HTML, edge cases, and truncation. But without foundational, behind-the-scenes work, products and features can break in terrible ways. Just ask Karen McGrane. She’s an accomplished digital strategist who has spent the past few years warning the UX community that truncation is not a content strategy. But people continue to ignore her, even though she’s written not one, but two great books.

Why? Because solving for truncation is low glory work. To be blunt, it’s a pain in the ass. But Karen is right. And when truncation fails, it can be far more painful:

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The Perfect Paragraph

Walking down an aisle in a library, I no more than glance at the vast majority of books shelved on either side of me. Only a madman would suggest that my disregard of these books should sanction their pages being torn out. Nonetheless, because research has shown that visitors don’t read the average Web page in full, and because the “success” of a page is more easily measured by user action than cognition, we are often encouraged to marginalize our writing in favor of visual signifiers or action cues.

Sure, most people will “bounce” your content, but if you really have something to say, don’t alienate the people who are willing to give your writing a chance. Good typography does justice to your words, and good wording does justice to your ideas. If readers are comfortable reading your type, then they will more likely be comfortable with what you are writing about.

Users Don't Hate Change. They Hate Our Design Choices.

For years, we studied teams rolling out new designs, to see if we could mitigate negative reaction to new releases and design changes. We studied hundreds of product and service rollouts. We watched and learned from the reactions of thousands of users.

When we dug into what those users’ reactions [were], patterns emerged. The users told us the changes inconvenienced them. They had no idea the change was coming and suddenly it was in their face. Users were upset because they were surprised.

They also told us the old version worked fine. Even when it took a while to get comfortable, they learned it. Many users mastered difficult-to-use designs.

Everything was different when the new version arrived. What they’d mastered before didn’t help them now. The company said it was an improved design, but they couldn’t see the improvements. Why should these users learn something new that doesn’t help them? Users were upset because they couldn’t see the value.

We also saw many instances where users didn’t react negatively to changes. Often, they didn’t react at all. We saw new designs that didn’t affect the users’ behaviors and they didn’t pay attention to it.

In these cases, the changes were often not noticeable. Sometimes the changes were small and isolated. Yet, we also saw users seemingly not notice several updates with extensive changes. (In more than one instance, an entire application’s infrastructure had been rewritten without a single user noticing.)

In cases when the design changes were noticeable, the designers gave the users control to switch when they wanted. The designers showed why the change was valuable to the users. And the designers made the transition easy by taking the knowledge and experience their users already had with the product into account.

Reader Mode: The Button to Beat

A reminder of why reader modes exist in browsers and to embrace them as a user’s right:

Good design isn’t about forcing someone to walk a tightrope across your carefully manicured lawn. Nor is it a puzzle box casually tossed to the user, hoping they’ll unlock it to reveal a hidden treasure. Good design is about doing the hard work to accommodate the different ways people access a solution to an identified problem.

For reading articles, the core problem is turning my ignorance about an issue into understanding (the funding model for this is a whole other complicated concern). The more obstructions you throw in my way to achieve this goal, the more I am inclined to leave and get my understanding elsewhere—all I’ll remember is how poor a time I had while trying to access your content. What is the value of an ad impression if it ultimately leads to that user never returning?

Using UI System Fonts

For perhaps the first time since the original Macintosh, we can get excited about using system UI fonts. They’re an interesting, fresh alternative to web typography — and one that doesn’t require a web-font delivery service or font files stored on your server. How do we use system UI fonts on a website, and what are the caveats? System UI fonts being amazing kind of snuck up on us. Google has been toiling away at Roboto with great success (including regular updates), Apple made a splash with San Francisco, and Mozilla asked renowned type designer Erik Spiekermann to create Fira Sans.

Code language: CSS

font-family:
/* 1 */ -apple-system, BlinkMacSystemFont,
/* 2 */ 'Segoe UI', 'Roboto', 'Oxygen', 'Ubuntu', 'Cantarell', 'Fira Sans', 'Droid Sans',
/* 3 */ 'Helvetica Neue', sans-serif;

The first grouping is CSS properties that map to the system’s UI font. That covers a lot of ground, and there is no chance that these fonts will be mistaken for something else:

  • -apple-system targets San Francisco in Safari on Mac OS X and iOS, and it targets Neue Helvetica and Lucida Grande on older versions of Mac OS X. It properly selects between San Francisco Text and San Francisco Display depending on the text’s size.
  • BlinkMacSystemFont is the equivalent for Chrome on Mac OS X.

The second grouping is for known system UI fonts:

  • Segoe UI targets Windows and Windows Phone.
  • Roboto targets Android and newer Chrome OS’. It is deliberately listed after Segoe UI so that if you’re an Android developer on Windows and have Roboto installed, Segoe UI will be used instead.
  • Oxygen targets KDE, Ubuntu targets… well, you can guess, and Cantarell targets GNOME. This is beginning to feel futile because some Linux distributions have many of these fonts.
  • Fira Sans targets Firefox OS.
  • Droid Sans targets older versions of Android.
  • Note that we don’t specify San Francisco by name. On both iOS and Mac OS X, San Francisco isn’t obviously accessible, but rather exists as a “hidden” font.
  • We also don’t specify San Francisco using .SFNSText-Regular, the internal PostScript name for San Francisco on Mac OS X. It only works in Chrome and is less versatile than BlinkMacSystemFont.

The third grouping is our fallback fonts:

  • Helvetica Neue targets pre-El Capitan versions of Mac OS X. It is listed close to the end because it’s a popular font on other non-El Capitan computers.
  • sans-serif is the default sans-serif fallback font.