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 // 01.16.2012 // 2:51 PM // 17 Comments

Forest, trees, and acko.net

Few people can take the fun out of something quicker than an over-zealous user experience nerd.

Over the weekend, I came across Steven Wittens’ blog acko.net. If you read Steven’s About Page, you’ll discover that he’s a programmer who likes to “build and design cool pieces of technology.” And that’s exactly what he’s done with the latest version of his personal site. The entire UI is done in 3D, using Javascript, CSS, and not a single image. In order to build it, he had to first build his own 3D scene editor for Three.js. The end result is a mind-bending UI that not only animates perspective changes on each individual page as you scroll, but also neatly uses the HTML5 pushState API to animate changes from page to page. The whole thing is responsive, and gracefully degrades for smaller screens and browsers without support for the 3D goodness.

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.

Comments

  1. 001 // Greg // 01.16.2012 // 3:05 PM

    I missed your announcement on Twitter. It’s a shame so many people responded with short sighted vision. I wish someone on my crew had thought of this as that’s the kind of thinking that leads to innovation that will be used all over the web. Back in the mid 90’s designers and developers used to complain about the new fangled cascading style sheet. Now look where we are.

    We need more experimentation, innovation, tinkering, and envelope-pushing, not less.

    Hell yes.

  2. 002 // Eric Guess // 01.16.2012 // 3:05 PM

    AMEN.

    Wish I had more to add than that, but I don’t. You nailed it.

  3. 003 // Anton Peck // 01.16.2012 // 3:13 PM

    Well said, Jeff. Bravo.

  4. 004 // Dave S. // 01.16.2012 // 3:16 PM

    The tendency to find fault in a piece of work for not fitting into someone’s own criteria of what it should be is nothing new. I received a lot of criticism all those years ago when I launched the CSS Zen Garden. It’s not accessible for x% of the population. Some of the designs are ugly. Too many images, not enough CSS. Too many hacks and tricks. All the designs are fixed width. It doesn’t work in Netscape 4. And on and on.

    Lots of it was valid. Plenty of the critiques of Steven’s work are equally valid. And when phrased as thoughtful criticism, it can be far more helpful than harmful. I learned a lot from the feedback I received.

    What’s different now is the forum for feedback. It used to be you could write long reasoned responses and actually have a dialogue. Today we’re limited to 140 characters, barely enough to make a point let alone cushioning it in less acidic wording. And when you’re reduced to drive-by reactionary feedback, the creator is forced into defensiveness. Enough of that, and how likely will they be to continue creating and sharing?

    This sort of behaviour is creating a culture of fear about doing things differently. Great way to end up in a world of mediocrity.

  5. 005 // Igor Ivankovic // 01.16.2012 // 3:25 PM

    I agree. This guy is pushing the envelope and playing around. Experimentation is what makes things happen over and over. People who pick on bits and pieces don’t understand how cool the page is and how it should be viewed. To me Mona Lisa isn’t that special, but I don’t piss on the color scheme of the art piece, instead look at what makes it so great as it is. I truly recognize the talent behind acko.net and hard work it took to produce this site. Props for the site and the creative use of technology!

  6. 006 // Steve Dennis // 01.16.2012 // 3:45 PM

    The animation even degrades gracefully. It’s his site, he can do whatever the hell he likes :)

  7. 007 // Heath Huffman // 01.16.2012 // 3:47 PM

    Thank You Jeff. I know exactly how you feel. I’m the owner/creator of Doodlekit and I can’t tell you how many ‘web design experts’ nit pick at the layouts we have. They see things only in one dimension - as if to build just their one website. Having to look at everything from a completely ‘dynamic’ view is under appreciated and mis-understood. Designing the tools that designer will use to build a website takes a little more effort than just designing a single website.

    I do know that feeling of criticism from others who simply just don’t get it.

  8. 008 // Steven Wittens // 01.16.2012 // 4:04 PM

    Thank you for getting it.

    Few people seem to realize how much of Acko.net’s look is determined by browser restrictions. I was stuck with solid rectangles for memory reasons, and Chrome was a flickering mess that took 3 days to hack around (no z-buffer). Designers who operate from the luxury of the Adobe suite really have no idea.

    Which shows how meek people have been with this stuff, if the implementations are that bad. The same happened with Canvas: I made a comic maker with it in 2007 (now dead) , and back then it sucked. Getting Safari and Firefox to draw the same thing was not obvious, and IE had to use VML. But Canvas was already powering Dashboard widgets on millions of Macs while few people noticed.

    I’m interested to see how one might combine WebGL’s APIs with CSS 3D to get the best of both worlds. Smooth CSS animations, applied natively to complex user objects. But this is for the browsers to tackle.

    What cracks me up though is that the people complaining about the design were probably creaming themselves over ‘WipEout’ back in the day…

  9. 009 // Kevin // 01.16.2012 // 6:22 PM

    Shudder to think what things would be like if we didn’t have things like Joshua Davis’ Once Upon a Forrest and other experimental sites back in the 90s. Experimentation sites allow for playing around with the “what if”. Sure it’ll break a few rules but that’s why they’re experiments. Honest critiques are great and beneficial to us all. But, the out of hand dismissal of anything not meeting a certain criteria is maddening.

  10. 010 // Grant // 01.16.2012 // 8:32 PM

    When did we stop treating personal sites as playgrounds in this industry? If there is a single place on the entire web to go “over the top”, it’s with our own sites.

    I hate to admit I’ve allowed myself to be affected by the current “damned-if-you-do-if-you-don’t” attitudes of the industry, but I’ve found myself holding some things back, or purposefully not announcing things simply because I worry that it won’t be well-received (even when I think it’s good work). This is a good reminder to look past that petty bullshit.

  11. 011 // Justin // 01.17.2012 // 2 AM

    I’m sure people weren’t going to lose sleep over this.

    As everyone is surely aware these days the internet is full of people who are right and like to complain about things.

    That, unfortunately, is the world we live in today.

    Kudos to everyone that uses their personel and/or business site to test new features out…. it helps to convey the message to people that nothing is permanent on the web. It is an ever evolving thing and that world will not stop if you’re site happens to for a few minutes (unless your twitter, facebook, google or wikipedia that is).

  12. 012 // Tim Houghton // 01.17.2012 // 2:06 AM

    +1.

  13. 013 // James // 01.17.2012 // 11:38 AM

    I didn’t really like it from a visual point but I loved it at the same time for all the reasons above. Great experiment and amazing pushing of the figurative envelope. Bravo.

    J.

  14. 014 // Gail Swanson // 01.17.2012 // 7:36 PM

    There is a time and place for everything, as they say. I’m a die hard UX designer, and most of the time I am looking for new ways to solve problems to make people’s lives easier. But there is also agreat need for wild UI experimentation. A blog is the perfect place to play around for the sake of it. Heck, most blogs are created so that we can hear our own voices echo across the chasm of the Internet.

    That said, we need to embrace the constructive tension between experimentation and usability. Touchscreen interfaces would be all wizzbang craziness if the awesome ideas created by experimentation were not fined and tempered by UX folk. The two work together to generate the next generation of amazing interfaces.

  15. 015 // Mike Yan // 01.19.2012 // 7:05 AM

    Wow, what a trip! Found your blog from a post on forrst, then went to look at acko and then scrolled down, then I fell out of my chair.

  16. 016 // Lea // 01.19.2012 // 2:05 PM

    Whew, just saw this and I also 100% agree! It’s clearly experimental and “neat for the sake of being neat.” That’s cool. What I don’t understand is why anyone would criticize this experimentation.

    If there’s irritation over this, where was that for http://lostworldsfairs.com/ ? Another clearly experimental way to show how browsers and some design choices are advanced and to see how we can push these concepts. I didn’t hear anyone really say, OMG, why do those site samples look like posters? Don’t they know that websites aren’t posters? etc.

    People are strange. :)

  17. 017 // Andres Lopez Josenge // 01.19.2012 // 2:25 PM

    The first one through the wall always gets bloody.” - Moneyball

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