Coming soon: Glitch!

Some news today grabbed my attention via Powazek: Stewart Butterfield and his fantastic crew are getting ready to release Glitch. There’s a lot more information in an article about the new endeavour: Watching the birth of Flickr co-founder’s gaming start-up.

This is really exciting news for me. I was a devotee of GNE, the pre-Flickr project from Stewart’s (and Caterina Fake’s) former company, Ludicorp, and this promises to once again take gaming down a wickedly fun road. While I don’t assume Glitch will be simply an expansion on that, having read about it and seen the intro video they’ve posted, I can already see enough of the amazingly quirky touches in this new project. I’ve never been into MMO games; but I’m very confident (read: terrified) that this one will be a very satisfying time-sink (!).

And I have to add: it makes me happy to know that this great dev team (arguably one of the greatest ever assembled, both by my subjective judgement and by any objective measure you could come up with) is back at it again.

Not sure what this does:

I like GNE.

Dan Gillmor

: “I’m not a thief. I’m a customer. When you treat me like a thief, I won’t be your customer.”

Anyone still think the CDA was the worst part of the Telecommunications Reform Act? Hint: it was a smokescreen to deflect criticism and protest over everything else in the law, which of course was signed in 1996.

Many people

have weighed in on the question of CSS now that the issue has become a “live” one in the weblog world. A representative opinion on one “side” of the thing (if sides here makes sense, which I don’t actually think it does) is that of Matt Bridges in CounterProductive. He wrote, “When a designer uses CSS to mimic what can be done with tables, separating content into different boxes that are placed at specific parts of the screen, they tie that content to that layout. This completely defeats the purpose of separation of style from content.”

It’s a perfectly reasonable statement, and having worked on some CSS layouts I do see the drawbacks alongside the advantages. The problem is, however, that most people seem to have the foundational principles wrong. And their error leads in ugly directions.

CSS is about style. But there’s something much more important than that. Implementing CSS also returns structure to HTML. And that is where the value is – it’s not about separating content from style – that’s what a CMS is for. Rather, it’s to return the third variable – structure – to its rightful place in the mix. So that not only do you have the flexibility to do anything you want with the content (in the CMS), and to redesign that site as you like, but there’s also a fully degradeable version at the heart of the human-readable, “published” version that any device can read, as long as it can interpret HTML in some rudimentary way.

Earlier today

Ed quoted a post by Christina Wodtke referring to JJG‘s article:

I’ve always held that information architecture is architecture in the information space, and must embrace content architecture (a.k.a. little or narrow IA), interaction design and information/interface design, and the architects are those who practice and excel in those arts.

Christina goes on to say that, “a lack of thoughful [...] architecture results in sites that are difficult to navigate, difficult to use, unprofitable, unrealized and generally stinky.”

I agree that is often the case, but I don’t think the solution either begins or ends with IA, whether referring to the practitioner or the discipline. I think it starts much earlier, which is what I was getting at earlier today.

Ed suggested that a web designer should be a part of the solution, and on that we agree, though I would underline that a web designer is not simply a graphic designer working in Photoshop. A web designer (I prefer “developer”) works with the graphics and the code, realizing the graphical concept she or he has come up with in working HTML/XHTML/CSS etc.

For me there are four equally important tasks to complete once a web project has been given the go-ahead. Design, IA, content (or editorial) definition, and application/DB development. Further, none of those tasks can be completed in a vacuum – the job of each relies on the work of the others. Hence, for instance, the person doing the content definition must know what happens in the code, at least superficially, and the apps people have to know about what the IA is going on about.

All of the tasks have to be completed to a high level of quality, of course, whether it is one person trying to do it or a team of 10.

There’s one other person that needs to be in the mix: the project manager, or as I say sometimes, the product manager. This person has to know the web, they have to have lived in it, and has probably filled at least one of the other roles at some point in their career. This person is the one who figures out (and documents) the initial strategy (in consultation with “the business”), and who works with whomever is necessary to research things before high-priced specialists are brought in to make it happen for real. The project manager, to me, isn’t just a process person, it’s fundamentally a bridge position between the business needs that form the reason for doing a project in the first place and the more techie folks who will develop the specific elements that become the finished product.

It seems to me that the heady days of the dot-com bubble introduced a lot of inefficient processes to the web world. Most importantly, maybe, was the introduction of the idea that the “boss” didn’t have to know what the “web folks” are actually doing day to day. For me, that’s the foundational problem behind why there are so many “generally stinky” sites out there. IA is important, for sure. As are the other roles in a web project (don’t get me started about how important it is to have a real “jack of all codes” technical lead when a project has moved into a more quotidian integration or maintenance phases). But those disparate tasks, usually completed by people who quite literally speak different languages, need to be brought together by a skilled and experienced person who has a good idea of what each of them is doing. It might be Information Architects who often get pulled into that role, but it’s not strictly an IA role that they’re filling. It’s a layer away from what I understand IAs (the required tasks) to do: it starts earlier, and it ends long after. Maybe never, as long as a site is alive.

Luckily for the field of IA, it’s just that kind of project manager who knows the value of IA people, and would only consent to developing a site without one under great pain!

Zeldman

: “Our stupid industry pitifully undervalues good web writing.” Bravo! In my experience this is completely correct. Sadly a lot of writers resist learning about the web as well, and so can’t transition to becoming good web writers in the first place.

Zeldman does repeat the old saw that people don’t read, though, which I simply don’t believe. They don’t read everything on every page. But if there’s actual unique content, they’ll read it. They do every day – millions of people read websites very thoroughly. But in general I agree with the proposition.

I approach this from the point of view that the workflow involved in developing sites is fatally flawed. Contrary to many, I don’t believe websites are primarily IS/IT projects, or that they should be managed by technical managers. Of all the activities that must be carried out to make a successful website, only about 30% of these are “technical” in the sense that a programmer, DBA, or other coder must be involved. Content development, graphic design, IA – all these are more fundamental to the development of a website than ANY technical function. The leadership of a web project should be done by a person who can speak intelligently to all of those folks: the editors and writers, the programmers doing any application development or DB work, the IA person and the graphic designer. And each of those functions should be done in concert with all the others on the team.

There’s also an

interesting thread going on over at Peter Merholz’ site following his post, “Thoughts on the definition and community of ‘information architecture’“.

For my part, everything I’ve seen lately about IA suggests that it expands far beyond the range of things that I generally consider IA. In many ways the role as it is currently being defined is what I consider to be the product or project manager’s role. And I don’t think that’s the right way to go. In my work, I absolutely would not want the IA person to have the designer report to her or him. It is precisely the tension between these two related, but different, roles that I think gives the best opportunity of getting it right.

Same goes for content definition. I want the tension between the conflicting ideas of the IA and a site’s editor (assuming it’s a content-rich site you’re working on) to go to work, which if managed properly will produce interesting results.

In my ideal org chart, there is a project manager and reporting to her or him are a) an editor; b) a lead designer; c) a lead programmer/application developer; and, d) an IA. They do their work, each taking the lead on different aspects of the project but working as a team.

Owen Briggs has

redesigned and improved upon his CSS Box Lessons. It’s not only useful, it’s beautiful. “Here be dragons” indeed.

Mr. Derek Powazek

has given birth to his book, Design for Community! Huzzah! Huzzah!

I’ve never written a book, but I have had the experience of holding a book I helped produce (I co-designed, layed out, and helped edit) in my hot little hands when it first arrived from the publisher. I have had very few more satisfying feelings than that one – so I can just imagine how great Derek feels holding his book having written the thing!

All of which prompted an expensive day at Amazon yesterday. I bought DfC, Jeff Veen’s book, and the new-ish edition of Rheingold’s classic The Virtual Community, in which I believe my name is mentioned (among many others, a testament more to Howard’s supreme graciousness than to any contribution I may have made) in the Forward.

Ummm, it’s about both

. The Talking Moose waded out of the mud and into the fire with his piece yesterday. It’s the most ridiculous thing the Moose, who has otherwise been a very interesting read, has ever published.

The poor Moose clearly doesn’t understand what web designers, as opposed to code monkeys or integrators, do for a living. He seems to think they need or want to code every page or something inane like that. On personal sites that may be true, but that’s just for fun.

You can’t do content management properly – or even do it at all – without a damn good designer figuring out how to make it look, and with a damn good coder to make that design work with the content management system, and without a damn good architect to make sure that it fits together well through time.

I’m just old school enough to think that all of those roles – designer, coder, and architect – are best done by a single person. But none of those interests are antithetical to using a content management system to actually make it all happen on a day-to-day basis. In fact, a CMS can’t be implemented efficiently unless those folks do good work first – otherwise, the benefit of the CMS is lost in a miasma of snippets and included code and exception-fixing.

Of course the irony is that the Talking Moose site itself is a good example of this fact. Bryan Bell couldn’t have casually changed the design of the Moose had his code (made up of HTML and CSS) not been clean and useful to begin with. Likewise, had Dave and the gang at Userland not built a weblog architecture whose function enabled the weblog form (with the calendar-based navigation etc.), Bell’s work would have been useless. And the “design” (defined strictly) would be a secondary concern had both of those things not been done well for the task at hand.

It’s absolutely about design and the kind of work people like Zeldman do and it’s all about integrating content management systems as closely as possible to the writers and other “content people” who are doing the publishing. There’s no fight here, though the Moose seems to have wanted to stir one up.