Dissuading Clients from WYSIWYG Interfaces

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.


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

Years later…

Years ago, when I realised there was a big hole in my music where the Go-Betweens should exist, someone on social media told me to get "Tallulah". (Actually, I believe they followed that up with "or any one of their records that contain double letters in the title".)

Recently Lyndal found it in a second-hand record store in the suburbs of Osaka, showed it to me and I took the opportunity to be more complete. Thanks to whoever suggested it originally and, of course, to Lyndal for her keen eye and insistence on having "just a quick look in this store".

Prisons, Prisoners and Governments

The new sentencing-reform bills now moving through the Senate and House would help reduce some of the longest mandatory-minimum sentences, including ending the use of life without parole for drug crimes, and would give judges more power to impose a shorter sentence when the facts of a case warrant it.

Source: “Cut Sentences for Low-Level Drug Crimes” editorial, New York Times

Last week I finished reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

Stevenson is a lawyer, living in Alabama and dedicating his working life to helping the innocent and unfairly punished be spared a death in prison. He started with capital punishment cases and broadened his slate to include, among others, juveniles sentenced as adults to die in prison. Often this was under mandatory sentencing laws.

It’s easy for us to read the stories in Stevenson’s book and think about how horrible the USA often is for the underprivileged.

It’s easy because it distracts us from what happens at home.

I first became interested in the concept of incarceration and the fairness of prison sentences a number of years ago. More recently, though, after reading David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, I started to question the validity of incarceration as a means of justice.

Then, as a result of social connections, I was tangentially involved in the campaign to spare the lives of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. Later I became a supporter of the Human Rights Law Centre because of the excellent work they continue to do for the rights of Australians and the people Australian governments affect through policy and action.

What I’ve learnt through this time is that we choose to abstract people from the equation. We talk about politicians and police and drunks and drug smugglers as if they are defined by that one role and not every part of themselves.

Myuran Sukumaran was a drug smuggler. But he was also an artist, a son and a brother. When the Indonesian government executed him, he was also a repentant man who lived his life in the service of improving other people and, as a result, the society around his incarcerated life.

So many people in prison now are, arguably, not the people who committed the crime. They are victims of a sad coincidence: They share a body with an idiot who made a mistake.

And that’s one of the biggest problems with the way we seek justice. We send punishments into the future for damaging acts committed in the past – acts that cannot be undone. But we have the power to make the future better by helping those same damaging actors contribute to society rather than just continue to take from it.

From Australia, and while looking at my own governments, I applaud this move by the USA’s government to amend sentencing policy. Over time they have admitted errors made in the past and tried to improve the lives of their citizens.

Maybe, in time, that same opportunity to try to make up for a mistake will be given to people currently cut off from the society they so need to improve.

Opinions != Science: a meditation on a dilemma of responsibility

This morning I saw Sept. 11 conspiracy theories in my Facebook feed.

There is so much wrong with this that I don't even know where to begin.

Can we start with gravity? It's not a speed. It's an accelerative force.

Actually, I changed my mind. I shouldn't begin at all because it's not going to make a shred of difference.

The situation is hopeless. People will continue to believe the lies they choose and criticise others for doing the same in the opposite direction.

Maybe we can adapt Newton's third law into a means of accepting that people will find a way to justify their opinions:

For every truth, there is an equal and opposite lie.

At least then it's out of our hands. It's a law of nature.

If I can accept that there's nothing I can do to stop people spouting hateful bullshit that helps no one, then I don't get dragged into an argument about it. Then there is a bit more peace in the world.

On the other hand, if I don't fight ignorance at every turn, am I letting it win? Will it grow and take over?

Maybe, instead of looking at the argument, I need to look behind the argument. Maybe I need to ask why someone is more willing to believe that a secret cabal coordinated a massive lie and cover-up operation after murdering thousands of humans.

I need to find out what is causing them to think that's a more plausible theory than the one we witnessed.

If I can work out how it helps them live, maybe I can provide an alternative source of that same mental or emotional sustanance that won't lead them to cause other people harm.

Because this is what stabs me in the gut whenever I see these conspiracy theories: the people spreading them might not even know how hurtful they are. They don't take into consideration the families who look for closure in their mourning. They don't consider that their accusations can snowball into a lynch-mob looking for an outsider to blame. They don't take into account any of the consequences of their own actions.

They've probably never seen "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street". 

So maybe the solution is sitting them down, making them watch it, and then opening a dialogue about their actions rather than their beliefs.

Because it's not the difference in belief that matters; it's how we act in respect to that belief that impacts our society's stability.

Cool. I have that on DVD. This is going to be easy.