Few people can take the fun out of something quicker than an over-zealous user experience nerd.
Impressed to see someone really pushing the envelope of modern front-end web development, I tweeted out a link to the site. Depressingly (but perhaps not surprisingly), I was deluged with negative tweets, declaring the UI for the blog, “over the top” and “ridonkulous,” complaining that it scrolled slowly in some browsers and fired up laptop fans, calling the technology a “gimmick,” and nitpicking about details like less-than-perfect antialiasing. I heard countless comparisons to “splash screens” and other traditionally-Flash applications. People suggested, basically, that it was “neat for the sake of being neat.”
You know what I say to that? Fuck yes it’s neat for the sake of being neat. And dammit, that’s great. We need more experimentation, innovation, tinkering, and envelope-pushing, not less.
The academic, science-y side of the UX industry has done a whole lot of good for us in recent years, but they’ve also pushed us to a place where we shit on good, old-fashioned playing around and trying new things. There are countless maxims in interface design that basically say, “do what’s been done before, because your users will be familiar with it, and understand it.” That’s fine if you’re building the next mainstream web app for mass consumption. But dammit, someone has to be pushing the limits of what can be done, or we’ll be looking at apps in five years that look pretty much just like the ones we have today. If Apple had never thought out of the box on interaction design, what would the iPhone have looked like?
Other industries encourage this kind of innovation. The automobile industry has entire conventions dedicated to the idea of concept cars — extravagant, over-the-top vehicles that will likely never make it into production, but in which auto designers are free to try big ideas and celebrate their success or failure just the same. And while those cars aren’t usually found on the streets, design ideas from them make their way into future models, and the cutting-edge technologies they employ eventually trickle down into vehicles for the rest of us. After the tweets I got on acko.net, I sort of expect that web designers would greet an envelope-pushing, over-the-top, never-before-seen concept car with, “the gas tank is kind of hard to open.” If NASA announces it’s found life on another planet, we’d probably say, “based on the size of the alien’s hands, they should have gone with bigger buttons on their ATMs.”
When someone goes to the lengths Wittens did with acko.net, we need to look deeper and see the bigger picture. Wittens is a programmer, not a UI designer (although I’d say he’s clearly a programmer with a natural knack for design, as well), and what is interesting here is the technology, not the UI. Don’t like Wittens’ blog UI? Fine. But look deeper, and perhaps you can see how it portends future three dimensional UIs you may like. It comes off as narrow-minded and even a bit vain to assume that everything out there was built to comply with your academic concept of what interfaces should be like.
Take off your UX nerd blinders, people. The technology behind today’s gimmick may well be writing your paychecks tomorrow.