The Census: a Failure of National Humility

Categories Scratched

Let the Australian census debacle be our lesson about arrogance rather than technology.

Last night, you may have heard, the Australian Bureau of Statistics took the census offline after several malicious denial of service (DoS) attacks.

This should have been expected. Its possibility should have been discussed by the ABS and the government in the lead-up to the census.

The possibility of a kind of failure should have been made apparent at all stages. Instead, however, everyone publicly backed themselves.

Everything we do in technology is a trial of some kind. We base entire project methodologies around the idea of failure. (Look at the Agile and Lean concepts.) It is ridiculous to mix this level of expected and controlled whoopsies with the arrogance of a government prioritising being correct over being careful.

Government has become more about not admitting mistakes than actually governing.

The Schadenfreude you see expressed by libertarians on social media this morning is not a response to technology failing as much as it is the comeuppance of an arrogant government.

Last night the Prime Minister tweeted that he successfully completed the census at his house. Then he offered no further tweets about the problems other people were having.

He offered no comment about the unfortunate people struggling in ABS server rooms or about how great it was to attempt something so bold as a predominantly online census.

Of course he couldn’t do that because we live in a culture where mistakes are treated with excuses rather than ownership and compassion.

Coulda, woulda, shoulda

Imagine a different scenario: the government publicly treated the online census with caution. In this alteraverse they referred to the project as a “trial” and encouraged people to use it first and, if it failed, to swap to the paper form they were provided.

Maybe we could have supported them, in this other reality, if they had announced a plan to do something inventive and obviously for the public good with unused offline survey booklets:

The different ministries worked together and came up with a plan that conservationists, economists and social service workers universally applauded. The will turn unused census booklets into insulation or construction materials for makeshift housing for our increasing homeless population.

That’s not a real quote from anywhere. It’s a made up alternative universe; a dream; a fantasy.

Snap back to reality

Last night was a failure of our collective attitude towards big projects. We are so scared of being wrong that we would rather see everything come crashing down and do a piss-bolt out of the scene than preempt the possibility of things failing with public contingencies.

This morning’s news overflows with experts saying it was never going to work. That doesn’t help. What would those experts have done if it did work? Would they announce it as a triumph, hooking their trailer onto that passing star? Would they have stayed quiet? I doubt we’d see announcements from them saying they didn’t think it was possible.

We can’t keep dealing with technology issues in terms of absolutes. It does nothing but breed lack of confidence in our leaders and, more importantly, the technology to grow our reputation on an international competitive stage.

Australia: The Cautiously Optimistic Country

We need to get used to saying: “We’re not sure if this will work but we’re going to give it a go. And, by the way, this is the plan we have in place if it doesn’t work.”

Because a clever country plans. We have to stop saying we’re a clever country, stop hoping we’re a lucky country, and actually do the things we constantly pat ourselves on the back for. We need to encourage attitudes of planning, long-term research and revisiting premises.

We need to look beyond tomorrow’s headlines and next week’s opinion polls and beyond the interest of the power-hungry individuals who got us into this mess. They don’t care about us. We should stop giving them the power to hold us back. We’re better than this.

How we’re all broken

Categories Scratched

I wanted to write over the past few weeks but, instead, I researched ways I could post on my blog without having to log in to my WordPress site.

Then I changed the theme.

I started to adjust the theme: About 30 minutes lost researching new Google fonts I could use in the theme to make it more mine.

Returning to my earlier challenge, I searched again for ways to post directly to WordPress from Sublime Text 3, my chosen text editor. It turns out there used to be a way but it hasn’t been updated in years and everyone says it’s broken.

Meanwhile, ideas & brilliant thoughts, they all vanished from my head.

Important discussion points about how the world works, that I felt so necessary to impart, are now disappeared into the procrastiverse.

At some point I made choices withouth actual awareness.

Like that point, earlier today, when I picked up my phone to look at something and then forgot which cute and shiny icon I wanted to tap.

This is mindfulness’s opposite.

Australia and the Death Penalty

Categories Scratched

Today’s report is an important reminder that the AFP must not expose people to the risk of the death penalty. Evidence shows that the AFP is putting around 370 people a year at risk of execution, more than 95% of which are for drug cases.

Emily Howie quoted in “Parliamentary committee delivers blueprint for Australia’s global leadership to abolish the death penalty”, Human Rights Law Centre

It’s exciting to see some actual movement in this area.

Just over a year since the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran in Indonesia, and a parliamentary report talks about, not just how it could have been avoided, but how it is our duty to try to stop the death penalty around the world.

I’m very proud of all the people I know who have been a part of this battle. This is a tiny step. Recommendations are not the same as taking action.

Now you have something concrete and meaningful to speak to your local member and candidates about over the next few weeks.

The entire report is available at the Parliament House of Australia website.

Standard Bearing

Categories Scratched

An end-user may not notice or care if you stick a form class on your form element, but you should. You should care about bloating your markup and slowing down the user experience. You should care about readability. And if you’re getting paid to do this stuff, you should care about being the sort of professional who doesn’t write redundant slop.

Tim Baxter in ‘Meaningful CSS: Style Like You Mean It’A List Apart

I’ve had this argument with colleagues a lot over the years. Attention to detail is important. The errors that come from a lack of attention to detail are what used to separate professionals from dilettantes. It doesn’t matter that most people won’t notice. It should matter that you know the difference between excellence and slop and that you reach for the former and are ashamed of the latter.

It’s why having standards is so important.

Hashtag ‘Winning’

Categories Scratched

My life is winning. I win. I know how to win. Most people don’t know how to win.

Donald Trump, quoted in ‘Your Wednesday Evening Briefing: Donald Trump, Elizabeth II, Harriet Tubman’ – The New York Times

Now I’m sure Donald “Drumpf” Trump hired Charlie Sheen as an advisor.

Dissuading Clients from WYSIWYG Interfaces

Categories Scratched

Microsoft and Apple have a lot to answer for. Yes, Xerox PARC created Bravo, seen as the first WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) interface, but Microsoft and Apple made WYSIWYG the expected interface putting content into a computer. What we called “word processors” were actually desktop publishers, giving users the ability to see on the screen something very similar to what would come out on the printer.

That user expectation crept into the world of web designers with HotDog, WYSIWYG content management systems (CMS) and phrases like “above the fold”.

At the time none of us were thinking about screens as their own medium. WYSIWYG refers to paper. “Above the fold” refers to paper. Websites have nothing to do with paper and WYSIWYG should have no place in creating websites.

To start with, when a piece of paper’s size changes, its content and value changes with it.

Responsiveness

If we’re asked to come up with a new website design in 2016, there is no question that we have to make it responsive. WYSIWYG and responsiveness cannot coexist. We can’t demand that everybody set their screens to the size we’ve designed for. We tried that in 1999 and it was stupid even then.

WYSIWYG exists as an opportunity for people to design how the screen will appear. The problem, obviously, is that the screen will almost never appear that way.

Karen McGrane explained this well in her 2013 A List Apart piece, “WYSIWTF”.

By allowing clients to continue to use WYSIWYG, we are doing them a disservice: allowing them to engage in an ongoing self-deception that content is going to look a certain way when it’s published. It’s part of the same self-deception that publication is final and no further maintenance is required.

Building a better experience for everyone

When we start discouraging clients from pursuing a WYSIWYG solution, we will encounter resistance.

Many people think that WYSIWYG is the only way. Its existence popularised word processing and personalised the act of typing. People expect the ability to control how their content appears in the world.

We have to show them the value in the alternative. That’s a difficult path because it involves more work up front.

If we do our job properly at the start of a project, we can work out all the different kinds of content our clients are likely to have on their websites. (At Floate we did this with ANZ’s Shareholder Centre redesign) by auditing all of their content and identifying different types like “personnel”, “events”, “securities”, “protected pages”, “disclaimers”, etcetera.)

Then we work out the rules for these types of content:

  • When do they display and how do they appear?
  • What options do they come with?
  • How do images work with prose?
  • What are the maximum sizes that images can appear at the maximum width of the website?
  • What can be automated to reduce the size (both in dimensions and bytes) of images before they are served to the user?
  • How do we make it easy for people to apply semantics to text without specifying a visual treatment?

What’s a semantic-whosit-now?

This last question raises one of WYSIWYG’s biggest issues: It has clouded over the difference between visual-treatment applied to some text and the meaning that visual treatment was intended to provide.

Italics are a perfect example of this. Let’s quickly look at the needs of a music news publication. They might have a style guide that says something like:

Album titles are to be italicised (eg Carrie & Lowell refers to the Sufjan Stevens album) and song titles should be in double quotation marks (eg “Carrie & Lowell” to refer to the song by Sufjan Stevens). This will avoid ambiguity in reading and also remove the need for constant reiteration of which you are referring to.

That’s great for printing on paper that’s going to have that consistent style forever. We can’t guarantee that web-styles will perpetuate but the hope is to have the content remain available forever. We also can’t guarantee other technologies (non-visual technologies) are going to convey the meaning provided by the font-treatment or the quotation marks.

The visual treatment in print was implying metadata but on computers we have the opportunity to embed the metadata. Album titles can be assigned a property of being an album title, rather than just emphasised text the reader has to interpret.

It’s our job to teach our clients the differences here and help them adjust their workflows and concepts of the content they’re creating. It’s our job to facilitate our clients putting meaningful content into the world.

But clients don’t want to learn html

Nobody should be expected to learn Markdown or HTML or Textile just to add content to a website. They should be able to type and apply semantic classification of different bits of text in a graphical user interface (GUI) that they can recognise and use easily.

Entering content into the site should have a pretty short and shallow learning curve. That means that if people are used to highlighting text and clicking on a button on a toolbar to assign it some kind of role, then that functionality should be available to them.

This also means that we should remove buttons like The "italics" button icon represented by the letter <abbr>i<abbr> for italics and the "bold" button represented by the letter <abbr>b<abbr> for bold and replace them with buttons for [emphasis] and [strong] and other buttons that might give a similar visual treatments but include different meaning in the metadata like [cite].

A view of the WordPress edit screen with the "Kitchen Sink" option enabled.
WordPress’s ‘Kitchen Sink’ formatting toolbar gives the user the ability to align text left, right, centred or justified and to define the text’s colour. All of these inline style choices will end up in the database.

If all you do is change the code for the [I] button so that it produces <em> tags, you’re telling the client “We all know that italics is the same as emphasis, so let’s just use this shorthand.” By doing that, you are perpetuating this idea that the visual treatment is meaning when it’s actually an abstraction of the meaning. Remember, our job is to give clients the right tool to help them understand what they are doing. We can’t continue misleading them because it’s easier in the short run.

You can create a visual editor that still applies visible changes to the text as it’s entered into the CMS. It can use colours and visual treatments to differentiate assignments of meaning to text that requires it. This will make the client’s job easier.

Importantly, though, when we talk about this content editor with the client, we cannot call that WYSIWYG and should not lead clients to think that it is WYSIWYG.

So, what the hell is WYSIWYG?

WYSIWYG literally tells people that what they see in their interface is what will be produced on the other side. It implies that someone can change fonts and font sizes and that they can decide on text-wrapping and colours. These are aspects of the design that should all be defined in the CSS, performing a number of efficiencies including:

  • protecting the brand by having a central control over visual style
  • reducing the time it takes someone to enter content.

If we give content-enterers the control to define how the final product is displayed, those visual embellishments end up saved in the database (because they are inline in the code, by nature). Subsequently, any update to the design of the website will not be able to override those inline embellishments. That might result in text being unreadable or images appearing out of alignment. Then it becomes somebody’s job to clean up content that doesn’t work with the new styles.

In that scenario, we’ve avoided doing some extra work now that might end up costing the client many thousands of dollars in years to come or forcing them to compromise their visual identity.

The Big Challenge

We have to convince people who are used to a certain amount of control that a bit of a learning curve up front will save the company a lot of effort down the track. Even more difficult than that is the discussion we have to have with project owners that a bit of extra hard work at the start will mean a truer responsive website, future-proofing the investment while also helping to minimise future costs of adding and maintaining content.

This post was originally published in the Floate Design Partners blog