Jeff Croft

I’m a product designer in Seattle, WA. I lead Design at a stealthy startup. I recently worked at Simply Measured, and previously co-founded Lendle.

Some of my past clients include Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and the University of Washington.

I’ve authored two books on web and interactive design and spoken at dozens of conferences around the world.

But seriously, who gives a shit?

Blog entry // 12.25.2011 // 2:08 PM // 22 Comments

In 2012, let’s stop talking web design and start talking product design

On Christmas Eve, I said on Twitter:

My hope for 2012 is that some of the old guard of well-respected web gurus stop talking HTML and CSS and start talking serious development. I love the way many of the old guard write and evangelize, but I’m tired of discussing basically the same stuff we were in 2006.”

I wasn’t specifically referring to Jeffrey Zeldman, but he (somewhat arrogantly) assumed I was, and responded with a sarcastic, “And a merry Christmas to you, sir.”

And while I wasn’t thinking of Zeldman and his books, conferences, and magazine, they do happen to be good examples of the issue I was referring to. All of these resources, whose slogans indicate that they are “for people who make websites”, are incredibly well-done. An Event Apart is as well-staged and put together as any conference I’ve ever been to. A List Apart is beautifully designed, managed, edited, and curated. Every book in the A Book Apart series has been a true gem. The content presented in all of these forums is top-notch, and the people presenting it are even better than that. There can’t possibly be a better set of resources for learning about markup, CSS, and content strategy out there.

But markup, CSS, and content strategy only represent a small sliver of what makes up a successful modern web project. Today’s web is a series of complex digital products, and building one means expertise in technology architecture, scaling, server-side application programming, client-side application programming, deployment, social media, marketing, user experience, interaction design—and yes, content strategy, CSS, and HTML markup (and probably several more things that are escaping me at the moment).

You may be thinking, “but I can’t do all that myself.” No, you probably can’t. But the greatest products on today’s web are cases where teams have integrated each of these thoughtfully and elegantly. The true beauty of any great digital product lies in the intersection between these various aspects. Without people understanding the big picture of how a modern web project works, from top to bottom, there is bound to be failure at these all-important integration points.

Think about the products you truly love on today’s web. Maybe it’s Twitter. Or Facebook. Or Foursquare. Or Instagram. Or whatever. Now ask yourself: are the books you’re reading, online resources you’re using, and conferences you’re attending giving you a well-rounded enough education that you’d be able to oversee the building of a product along these lines, understanding how each piece works and fits together with the others? If not, I’d suggest your education may not be diverse enough.

The trouble (as Nathan Smith thoughtfully observed), is that the limited scope of these resources, despite the inclusive-sounding tone of the slogan (“for people who make websites”), gives designers and front-end developers the distinct impression that they can’t, or shouldn’t, dive any deeper (or go any higher) into the “stack.”

Of course, there are plenty of resources out there for these other topics. There are social media conferences, sites like StackOverflow helping people learn to program, and books on just about every topic under the sun. Unfortunately, though, each of these resources generally exists in a vacuum, fragmenting the community (“people who make websites”), and ensuring that we fail at the intersection points. If the community isn’t talking about the integration points, and isn’t neatly integrated itself, then the products we build won’t be neatly integrated, either.

I came up in this field in the early 2000s, studying the bible of Zeldman and buying into every bit of the dogma. And then I got lucky enough, in 2006, to be thrown into an environment where Zeldman wasn’t God, Guido was. I learned how much more there was to a great digital product than HTML and CSS. Since then, I’ve been straddling both worlds and trying to figure out how to integrate the two (and some other worlds, too), because all of the truly great things I know of come from teams that have figured out how to do this.

My feeling is that the people who make the truly great digital products—the ones that make our world a better place to live—are the folks who are well-rounded enough to make sense of the entire stack, at least as a high level, and my hope for the new year is that more of the professional development resources our community offers will begin looking at things holistically.

Comments

  1. 001 // Mika // 12.25.2011 // 3:20 PM

    I agree with you on all points but it’s nothing new. But it seems to me that good agencies and in-house digital teams have been thinking that way for a long time. There’s the front-end expert, the back-end guru, the wordsmith, the social media wizard, the designer extraordinaire. Each will talk, writ, read and work within their own specialty. Zeldman is a HTML/CSS expert and when I go read his articles, I don’t expect to learn something about Python.

    You are completely right though when you say that the magic happens at the intersections of different talents and that the big picture is what’s important. But in my opinion this is the result of people focused on their expertise and working together. It already happens. :)

  2. 002 // Matt Wilcox // 12.25.2011 // 3:25 PM

    I agree with the general thrust of the post. Even though there is much more to consider in 2011 in terms of required skill with HTML/CSS/JS, and much more diverse devices to support and techniques to know - it feels like the web is moving on to ‘experiences’ that are a lot more than ‘web pages’ from 2006.

    Sure, we now need to know about CSS3, SASS/LESS, WCAG2, HTML5, design patterns like SMACSS, etc. - but it feels like that’s not enough to make a stand-out modern site. Technical knowledge used to be enough because what you could do was limited, and what people expected was limited. It used to be the amateur web, full of barely-designed pages and lots of content. Then it became a business web, full of more grown-up offerings that were non-the-less old-school: a company presents the viewer with a service/product. For those scenarios you don’t need over-arching awareness of product design issues, though knowledge of design practice helps a lot.

    Modern site’s are still largely these things, but a new breed of ‘experience’ is emerging where pure technical prowess and knowledge of design theory is not sufficient. I’d like to hear more about the processes, possibilities, and problems involved.

    I’d also like to see more people accept that the “web developer” of old is a dying breed. There is rapidly becoming a point (if not already passed) that there is simply too much to know for one person to be truly proficient at all things, and stay up-to-date, and produce work. We are going to have to start thinking about how we decide what to learn and what not. How in-depth a knowledge we require of a given topic.

  3. 003 // Jeff Croft // 12.25.2011 // 3:36 PM

    Zeldman is a HTML/CSS expert and when I go read his articles, I don’t expect to learn something about Python.

    I don’t expect Jeffrey to write about Python, either. But I do expect a site whose slogan is “for people who make websites” to cover all aspects of, you know, making websites. There are countless brilliant people out there that could be writing about these topics on ALA if Jeffrey wanted them on there, but it doesn’t seem to be a priority.

    And I suppose that’s their prerogative. Maybe Zeldman’s products just need a more accurate sloan. Their focus is clearly design, markup, CSS, and content strategy. But their slogan implies a much broader scope than that.

    It doesn’t have to be AEA, ALA, etc. that pick up the torch here. I don’t care who it is. Maybe it’ll be me. But someone needs to bring the state of web education into the modern age.

    It already happens. :)

    Totally agree that it already happens in a lot of places. But it doesn’t happen in a lot of places, too. And I’m not talking about making it happen, I’m talking about making it part of the education and professional development our community is offering. The “lot of places” where it already happens are the cutting edge of our industry. So let’s teach the rest of the industry what it’s like on the cutting edge.

  4. 004 // Jeff Croft // 12.25.2011 // 3:42 PM

    I’d also like to see more people accept that the “web developer” of old is a dying breed. There is rapidly becoming a point (if not already passed) that there is simply too much to know for one person to be truly proficient at all things, and stay up-to-date, and produce work. We are going to have to start thinking about how we decide what to learn and what not. How in-depth a knowledge we require of a given topic.

    Great point. It’s totally true that no one developer is likely to be able to handle all of the stuff that goes into a modern digital product on their own. Specialization is necessary (maybe a necessary evil?).

    But in order to build great things, someone has to understand the big picture, and make sense of how all the pieces work and fit together. This is the part I think we’re failing at. We’re making great programmers. We’re making great designers. We’re making great marketers. But where’s the content about how all these people fit together, work together, and are managed and overseen?

    Someone’s gotta be looking out for the big picture. I’m not sure we’re producing this person.

  5. 005 // Mika // 12.25.2011 // 4:50 PM

    You’re right, Jeff. Your comment helps make your point much clearer. (And that made me think that NetTuts might just be the new ALA…)

  6. 006 // George Hammerton // 12.25.2011 // 6:52 PM

    You’re preaching to the choir :) We just launched our new site last week but you’re never just a site. I wish I’d read this sooner, now.

    Happy Holidays, Jeff!

  7. 007 // Allen // 12.25.2011 // 7:58 PM

    Sounds like you’re ready to move from design to product. =)

    I don’t fault the web design community for wanting to talk about, well, web design. Other than the simplest sites, I don’t think anybody thought that HTML and CSS can, by themselves, build a product; even marketing and content strategies require some product-driven content to make sense.

    But product itself is a wholly different beast, and I’d say that anybody who wants to think about the “whole picture” wouldn’t have enough hours in the day to also care about engineering, design, or marketing. The modern product requires a team of people, each being able to focus on a separate layer; obviously each person should know a little about everything, but there’s a good reason for the separation of responsibilities.

    One more point: product (and the unwritten rules for them) is varied across industries, moreso than other areas, which is why you see conferences revolving around topics as opposed to skillsets. Instead of a web developer’s gathering or a DBA’s meetup, we have things like social media and gaming-centric conferences. The big picture may very well be more than websites.

  8. 008 // Alex // 12.25.2011 // 10:10 PM

    HTML & CSS should be regarded as fundamentals for any web designer. I’m still amazed when I come across “web-designers” who can’t code their way out of a pre-made template, or are still building Flash based sites. HTML & CSS should be right up there with Typography, Color, Balance and all those other core fundamentals we were taught in Design 101… but sadly their not.

    When I graduated with a graphic design degree in 2007 I couldn’t write a lick of code. Fortunately, I was able to land a job with a small agency and was more or less baptized by fire in the ways of the web. However, I don’t think things have changed much in terms of design curriculum within universities, and the majority of design students are still being taught how to design for the printed page and come out of school with no understanding of how the web works (which is a whole other can of worms). For the process to become truly integrated, designers need to shift their mindset from that of a decorator and start thinking more along the lines of an architect.

    However, to say that we’re still ‘discussing basically the same stuff we were in 2006’ is a bit like saying that we’re still talking about the same stuff as we were in 1496 because we are still talking about Typography. The fact is, the web, and most web designers, are lightyears ahead of where they were in 2006; and a lot of that can be accredited to placing an emphasis on Web Standards as well as solid HTML & CSS markup, which Zeldman has certainly made his agenda, and more power to him.

    Additionally, there has been an abundant dialogue in terms of product design. Khoi Vinh, Coudal Partners, and 37 Signals, (just to name a few) have all been strong advocates for reshaping the design community by churning out quality, design-centric, well-rounded products, and even abandoning client services altogether.

    Perhaps I’m missing something, but it seems like product design is so 2011…

  9. 009 // Matt Wilcox // 12.26.2011 // 12:51 AM

    @Jeff

    I see your point, and I agree with it. It sounds like you’re explaining that the current web resources are great at making workers, but need to look at how to produce responsible managers/leaders. Given my experiences at the small agencies I’ve worked at I would have to agree (no disrespect to any colleagues and employers past or present).

  10. 010 // Matthew Pennell // 12.26.2011 // 1:05 AM

    I think you’re being a little unreasonable in singling out ALA and associated brands simply for having a somewhat fuzzy strapline. I’m sure that for every topic in the list you linked to yesterday there is a Zeldman-analog; we in the design community simply don’t know who they are or what they have done in their own community over the years. There are conferences being organised and books being written on all of those topics - is it really reasonable to expect a single site, company or person to cover all possible bases?

    …designers and front-end developers [have] the distinct impression that they can’t, or shouldn’t, dive any deeper (or go any higher) into the “stack.”

    I disagree. To me it looks more like designers are trying to find the perfect role for themselves within that stack. Witness this year’s various arguments over exactly what ‘UX’ should be, whether ‘UX Designer’ is a valid title, what it encompasses, and so on. I don’t see anything wrong with that - a designer doesn’t need to know how to optimise MySQL queries for sharded databases, and propagating the idea that to be a true ‘craftsman’ one should grok the entire stack risks creating another generation of web workers who know a little bit of everything but master no one subject.

    Really, how many really great cross-functional designer/developers do you know? Shaun Inman is the only person I’d really consider to truly excel in all fields.

  11. 011 // Jay Fienberg // 12.26.2011 // 1:17 AM

    The web is a big place—even just thinking about it terms of people who are serious about making it. Most “people who make websites” aren’t particularly still discussing what the old guard were talking about in 2006; and they weren’t particularly discussing it in 2006, either.

    Creators of the web, by and large, are several steps outside of the dialog around the Zeldmans & Guidos & Mullenwegs & Eichs & Fieldings &c.; And they / we aren’t particularly following behind them, or looking up to them as central authorities, either. We do all follow links to each other, but the links do not all point, by and large, to any one community.

    Except, some (many?) communities spend a lot of time linking to themselves, over and over and over. Redundancy isn’t all bad, but, imho, if you get the point, it’s better to move on: link to, learn and talk about other web things with different web people.

    If you’re seeing the web in terms of the same web things with the same web people, you’re probably missing out on 99% of the work of “people who make websites.”

  12. 012 // Matthew Pennell // 12.26.2011 // 1:18 AM

    (Sorry, didn’t realise I’d put that many “really”s in one sentence!)

    Something else that just occurred to me: I wonder whether the emphasis on ‘pure’ frontend design and development is a result of the prevalence of agency and freelance people on the conference circuit? If you look at web celebrities over the last few years, it definitely seems like most have come from that sort of background (Happy Cog, Clearleft and so on), where they have the freedom to write about what they are doing and to arrange work around speaking engagements, but also are only involved at the design and user experience level - handing off beautiful templates to other people to do the grunt work and worry about the technical stuff.

    Speaking as an in-house designer, I definitely have more exposure to the real “people who make websites” than I would in a design agency or working freelance (even freelance as a backend developer).

  13. 013 // Jeff Croft // 12.26.2011 // 8:38 AM

    @MatthewPennell:

    I think you’re being a little unreasonable in singling out ALA and associated brands simply for having a somewhat fuzzy strap line.

    I also think that’s unfair, and frankly, I wasn’t doing that (on Twitter) until Zeldman decided to be a dickhole. But you’re right, the singing out of Zeldman’s brands is only my pettiness that comes from me being sick and tied of years of bullying and dickholeishness from him towards me.

    I think my points apply cleanly to many other conferences and resources, but the personal pettiness comes through in the post, and that lessens the impact of it. I agree. I just don’t care, because I’m sick and tired of his attitude towards me.

    I’m sure that for every topic in the list you linked to yesterday there is a Zeldman-analog; we in the design community simply don’t know who they are or what they have done in their own community over the years.

    Yes! Absolutely. And that’s why I had the whole paragraph about trying to integrate these communities better. The communities for the other topics do exist, it’s just that people in our community generally have no idea about them. To me, that’s an issue.

    …a designer doesn’t need to know how to optimise MySQL queries for sharded databases, and propagating the idea that to be a true ‘craftsman’ one should grok the entire stack risks creating another generation of web workers who know a little bit of everything but master no one subject.

    You’re right. And I said so in the post (“You may be thinking, “but I can’t do all that myself.” No, you probably can’t.”). An individual acting as a designer doesn’t need to to know how to optimize MySQL, you’re right—but she does need to know how the templates and JavaScript she’s writing will perform against a MySQL database, or at least have access to the people who know. Again, it’s the integration points where the magic happens. If these communities continue to be so segregated, I worry that the integration points in apps and sites will suffer.

    Really, how many really great cross-functional designer/developers do you know? Shaun Inman is the only person I’d really consider to truly excel in all fields.

    They’re very far and few between. I don’t think everyone should be a hybrid designer/developer, and I don’t think the post implies that I do. But I do think all pieces of a team have to work together and integrate the various aspects elegantly, and for that to happen, someone has to be looking out for the big picture.

    Something else that just occurred to me: I wonder whether the emphasis on ‘pure’ frontend design and development is a result of the prevalence of agency and freelance people on the conference circuit? If you look at web celebrities over the last few years, it definitely seems like most have come from that sort of background (Happy Cog, Clearleft and so on), where they have the freedom to write about what they are doing and to arrange work around speaking engagements, but also are only involved at the design and user experience level - handing off beautiful templates to other people to do the grunt work and worry about the technical stuff.

    This is definitely part of the issue with AEA specifically. AEA has always basically been an old boys club of Jeffrey’s friends, and it’s very difficult for anyone else to break into. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with Jeffrey deciding he wants to work with his friends, but on the other, it does result in a very narrow conference without much diversity in opinions and topics.

  14. 014 // Jeff Croft // 12.26.2011 // 8:41 AM

    If you’re seeing the web in terms of the same web things with the same web people, you’re probably missing out on 99% of the work of “people who make websites.”

    Very fine point, sir.

  15. 015 // Matthew Pennell // 12.26.2011 // 9:21 AM

    This is definitely part of the issue with AEA specifically. AEA has always basically been an old boys club of Jeffrey’s friends, and it’s very difficult for anyone else to break into. On one hand, there’s nothing wrong with Jeffrey deciding he wants to work with his friends, but on the other, it does result in a very narrow conference without much diversity in opinions and topics.

    It’s not just AEA though; all of the well-known, ‘must attend’ conferences - @media, FOWD, Web Directions, and latterly dConstruct - usually include at least one or two talks that are squarely aimed at people working within the traditional agency setup, and more and more I’m also noticing talks on how to be a better freelancer. Now I’m not saying that these aren’t useful for some, but it’s rare to find the in-house or backend-tech-aware equivalent track. New typography tricks with CSS3 are sexy in a way that “Cookie Size Considerations When Designing The User Flow” just isn’t.

    Hopefully a project we’re launching in the new year will help to address this gap in our community’s invaluable knowledge-sharing tradition.

  16. 016 // Dan Denney // 12.26.2011 // 1:53 PM

    There are some great points in here that make it worthwhile to pursue creating ways of educating people on the full stack of products. More collaboration in any way would be a game changer.

    Conferences and talks are always a good thing and they’ll win over new people to checking everything out. However, it would probably reach many more people if there was a group project to create something like: http://www.20thingsilearned.com, where thought leaders from each role contribute information. That way, people can get that top-down approach from the group. If something like that was built and then supplemented with ongoing articles covering all of the areas of digital product design, we’d be on the road to better education.

    Just my $.02

  17. 017 // Bridget Stewart // 12.27.2011 // 10:14 AM

    Hiya, Jeff! Sorry it took so long to throw my 2 pennies in this fountain, since I was so quick to toss them in on Christmas Eve via Twitter. :)

    But in order to build great things, someone has to understand the big picture, and make sense of how all the pieces work and fit together. This is the part I think we’re failing at. We’re making great programmers. We’re making great designers. We’re making great marketers. But where’s the content about how all these people fit together, work together, and are managed and overseen?

    I think you’re talking about a PM, here. A really good PM. Whether the P in PM stands for project or product doesn’t matter, imo. I don’t think a good PM even needs to know, in grueling detail, how to accomplish all of the subjects in The List™, but at least be aware of everything that goes into building a modern web product. They also need to be surrounded with people who are good in their specialized area, who can be trusted to do the work in each of those areas.

    Someone’s gotta be looking out for the big picture. I’m not sure we’re producing this person.

    You might be right, but for me the jury is still out. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some really good PMs (both product and project) who were able to keep us on track, ask the right questions, and get all the moving parts to come together at appropriate intervals so that we could make sure that all the goals for each area aligned with other parts of The Big Picture™. :)

    I’ve read enough of the Twitter comments and replies on this post to grasp that no one conference or website or magazine would do well to try to cover the full gamut of topics that go into generating a good online product. But I’m not even sure that there is any conference, website, or magazine can provide for us the solution regarding most important ingredient for a team of folks who work on the same product: Communication.

    I don’t believe there is a forumula for the type of communication varied teams need. Communication is key. Communication is vital. Communication is critical or failure is practically a certainty. But the problem with communication is that different people have different needs when it comes to communicating and no one way is The Holy Grail to communicate to a team working on a product.

    It certainly wouldn’t hurt us to hear the “war stories” from the people who make products we love. There would be plenty to learn from anecdotes and such about strategies to try in various group make-ups. But it really comes down to something more individualistic - as each team, each product, each environment has its own culture. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for another.

    I say what I have in the paragraph above, based on my having worked in a whole bunch of different places across different fields during my 40+ years on this planet. I’ve been in places that were awesome. I’ve been in places that sucked. I’ve been in places that were neither of the previous. When I look back on all of those experiences, they were classified as they were based on communication (or a perceived lack thereof). Little did I know it at the time. Stupid hindsight!

    And there you have it. My opinion. Have a great day!

  18. 018 // Matt // 12.27.2011 // 10:30 AM

    Zeldman is a HTML/CSS expert …”

    No, Zeldman is an XHTML/CSS evangelist. The two are not the same.

  19. 019 // Hassan Schroeder // 12.27.2011 // 11:35 AM

    While I agree that there’s an ever-growing amount to learn/know in the web field, there have always been both generalists and specialists.

    As the first webmaster of Sun Microsystems (1994) I had to be able to basically do everything associated with the site, but there were others who contributed in specific areas.

    Maybe those of us who started doing web work in the mid-‘90s have an edge on being generalists because the technology choices were more constrained then :-)

    Still, it’s an individual choice to specialize in one area or explore multiple areas to build up a broader understanding.

  20. 020 // Off the Mesh // 12.27.2011 // 10:24 PM

    Web ‘site’ management vs. Product management is not so different, in my opinion. If a person looks at the web site as a product, then similar rules would apply. When did HTML+CSS become a product, and not a set of tech tools to build out actual products with?

    Is the discussion context from a team/group that outputs HTML and/or CSS standards specifications?

  21. 021 // Jason Fladlien // 01.04.2012 // 1:42 AM

    I have always struggled with programming. I always found it hard to get my head round it. There at the start of the book is a chapter about “hello world”. Now I understand you need to learn the basics but where is bit that takes you all the way from the beginning to an end product. I would love it if the 37 signals guys brought out a book like that.

    Maybe something along the lines of “How we made Ta-da List from start to finish”. This book includes everything from the early planning stages to getting the server ready and dealing with growing pains.

  22. 022 // Michael Gunner // 01.09.2012 // 10:51 AM

    Hi Jeff.

    I agree with your article, however, your title is mis—leading.

    Product Design is a specific practise of design that refers to tangible, physical products. A product designer is somebody who designs items such as mobile phones, televisions, furniture etc.

    That the word “Product” is in the title does not mean it encompasses anything we might consider to be a “product”.

    Product Design is a specific discipline that does not include the web. I know, because I have studied it for 5 years and have a degree in the subject from a top UK University.

    So whilst I agree with your post, please try to refrain from the use of the term Product Design. It does not mean what you seem to think it does. It’s not a generic term, it is a specific discipline.

    Thank you.