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A List Apart: The Full Feed
Articles for people who make web sites.
  • Voice Content and Usability

    We’ve been having conversations for thousands of years. Whether to convey information, conduct transactions, or simply to check in on one another, people have yammered away, chattering and gesticulating, through spoken conversation for countless generations. Only in the last few millennia have we begun to commit our conversations to writing, and only in the last few decades have we begun to outsource them to the computer, a machine that shows much more affinity for written correspondence than for the slangy vagaries of spoken language.

    Computers have trouble because between spoken and written language, speech is more primordial. To have successful conversations with us, machines must grapple with the messiness of human speech: the disfluencies and pauses, the gestures and body language, and the variations in word choice and spoken dialect that can stymie even the most carefully crafted human-computer interaction. In the human-to-human scenario, spoken language also has the privilege of face-to-face contact, where we can readily interpret nonverbal social cues.

    In contrast, written language immediately concretizes as we commit it to record and retains usages long after they become obsolete in spoken communication (the salutation “To whom it may concern,” for example), generating its own fossil record of outdated terms and phrases. Because it tends to be more consistent, polished, and formal, written text is fundamentally much easier for machines to parse and understand.

    Spoken language has no such luxury. Besides the nonverbal cues that decorate conversations with emphasis and emotional context, there are also verbal cues and vocal behaviors that modulate conversation in nuanced ways: how something is said, not what. Whether rapid-fire, low-pitched, or high-decibel, whether sarcastic, stilted, or sighing, our spoken language conveys much more than the written word could ever muster. So when it comes to voice interfaces—the machines we conduct spoken conversations with—we face exciting challenges as designers and content strategists.

    Voice Interactions

    We interact with voice interfaces for a variety of reasons, but according to Michael McTear, Zoraida Callejas, and David Griol in The Conversational Interface, those motivations by and large mirror the reasons we initiate conversations with other people, too (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-01). Generally, we start up a conversation because:

    • we need something done (such as a transaction),
    • we want to know something (information of some sort), or
    • we are social beings and want someone to talk to (conversation for conversation’s sake).

    These three categories—which I call transactional, informational, and prosocial—also characterize essentially every voice interaction: a single conversation from beginning to end that realizes some outcome for the user, starting with the voice interface’s first greeting and ending with the user exiting the interface. Note here that a conversation in our human sense—a chat between people that leads to some result and lasts an arbitrary length of time—could encompass multiple transactional, informational, and prosocial voice interactions in succession. In other words, a voice interaction is a conversation, but a conversation is not necessarily a single voice interaction.

    Purely prosocial conversations are more gimmicky than captivating in most voice interfaces, because machines don’t yet have the capacity to really want to know how we’re doing and to do the sort of glad-handing humans crave. There’s also ongoing debate as to whether users actually prefer the sort of organic human conversation that begins with a prosocial voice interaction and shifts seamlessly into other types. In fact, in Voice User Interface Design, Michael Cohen, James Giangola, and Jennifer Balogh recommend sticking to users’ expectations by mimicking how they interact with other voice interfaces rather than trying too hard to be human—potentially alienating them in the process (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-01).

    That leaves two genres of conversations we can have with one another that a voice interface can easily have with us, too: a transactional voice interaction realizing some outcome (“buy iced tea”) and an informational voice interaction teaching us something new (“discuss a musical”).

    Transactional voice interactions

    Unless you’re tapping buttons on a food delivery app, you’re generally having a conversation—and therefore a voice interaction—when you order a Hawaiian pizza with extra pineapple. Even when we walk up to the counter and place an order, the conversation quickly pivots from an initial smattering of neighborly small talk to the real mission at hand: ordering a pizza (generously topped with pineapple, as it should be).

    Alison: Hey, how’s it going?

    Burhan: Hi, welcome to Crust Deluxe! It’s cold out there. How can I help you?

    Alison: Can I get a Hawaiian pizza with extra pineapple?

    Burhan: Sure, what size?

    Alison: Large.

    Burhan: Anything else?

    Alison: No thanks, that’s it.

    Burhan: Something to drink?

    Alison: I’ll have a bottle of Coke.

    Burhan: You got it. That’ll be $13.55 and about fifteen minutes.

    Each progressive disclosure in this transactional conversation reveals more and more of the desired outcome of the transaction: a service rendered or a product delivered. Transactional conversations have certain key traits: they’re direct, to the point, and economical. They quickly dispense with pleasantries.

    Informational voice interactions

    Meanwhile, some conversations are primarily about obtaining information. Though Alison might visit Crust Deluxe with the sole purpose of placing an order, she might not actually want to walk out with a pizza at all. She might be just as interested in whether they serve halal or kosher dishes, gluten-free options, or something else. Here, though we again have a prosocial mini-conversation at the beginning to establish politeness, we’re after much more.

    Alison: Hey, how’s it going?

    Burhan: Hi, welcome to Crust Deluxe! It’s cold out there. How can I help you?

    Alison: Can I ask a few questions?

    Burhan: Of course! Go right ahead.

    Alison: Do you have any halal options on the menu?

    Burhan: Absolutely! We can make any pie halal by request. We also have lots of vegetarian, ovo-lacto, and vegan options. Are you thinking about any other dietary restrictions?

    Alison: What about gluten-free pizzas?

    Burhan: We can definitely do a gluten-free crust for you, no problem, for both our deep-dish and thin-crust pizzas. Anything else I can answer for you?

    Alison: That’s it for now. Good to know. Thanks!

    Burhan: Anytime, come back soon!

    This is a very different dialogue. Here, the goal is to get a certain set of facts. Informational conversations are investigative quests for the truth—research expeditions to gather data, news, or facts. Voice interactions that are informational might be more long-winded than transactional conversations by necessity. Responses tend to be lengthier, more informative, and carefully communicated so the customer understands the key takeaways.

    Voice Interfaces

    At their core, voice interfaces employ speech to support users in reaching their goals. But simply because an interface has a voice component doesn’t mean that every user interaction with it is mediated through voice. Because multimodal voice interfaces can lean on visual components like screens as crutches, we’re most concerned in this book with pure voice interfaces, which depend entirely on spoken conversation, lack any visual component whatsoever, and are therefore much more nuanced and challenging to tackle.

    Though voice interfaces have long been integral to the imagined future of humanity in science fiction, only recently have those lofty visions become fully realized in genuine voice interfaces.

    Interactive voice response (IVR) systems

    Though written conversational interfaces have been fixtures of computing for many decades, voice interfaces first emerged in the early 1990s with text-to-speech (TTS) dictation programs that recited written text aloud, as well as speech-enabled in-car systems that gave directions to a user-provided address. With the advent of interactive voice response (IVR) systems, intended as an alternative to overburdened customer service representatives, we became acquainted with the first true voice interfaces that engaged in authentic conversation.

    IVR systems allowed organizations to reduce their reliance on call centers but soon became notorious for their clunkiness. Commonplace in the corporate world, these systems were primarily designed as metaphorical switchboards to guide customers to a real phone agent (“Say Reservations to book a flight or check an itinerary”); chances are you will enter a conversation with one when you call an airline or hotel conglomerate. Despite their functional issues and users’ frustration with their inability to speak to an actual human right away, IVR systems proliferated in the early 1990s across a variety of industries (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-02, PDF).

    While IVR systems are great for highly repetitive, monotonous conversations that generally don’t veer from a single format, they have a reputation for less scintillating conversation than we’re used to in real life (or even in science fiction).

    Screen readers

    Parallel to the evolution of IVR systems was the invention of the screen reader, a tool that transcribes visual content into synthesized speech. For Blind or visually impaired website users, it’s the predominant method of interacting with text, multimedia, or form elements. Screen readers represent perhaps the closest equivalent we have today to an out-of-the-box implementation of content delivered through voice.

    Among the first screen readers known by that moniker was the Screen Reader for the BBC Micro and NEEC Portable developed by the Research Centre for the Education of the Visually Handicapped (RCEVH) at the University of Birmingham in 1986 (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-03). That same year, Jim Thatcher created the first IBM Screen Reader for text-based computers, later recreated for computers with graphical user interfaces (GUIs) (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-04).

    With the rapid growth of the web in the 1990s, the demand for accessible tools for websites exploded. Thanks to the introduction of semantic HTML and especially ARIA roles beginning in 2008, screen readers started facilitating speedy interactions with web pages that ostensibly allow disabled users to traverse the page as an aural and temporal space rather than a visual and physical one. In other words, screen readers for the web “provide mechanisms that translate visual design constructs—proximity, proportion, etc.—into useful information,” writes Aaron Gustafson in A List Apart. “At least they do when documents are authored thoughtfully” (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-05).

    Though deeply instructive for voice interface designers, there’s one significant problem with screen readers: they’re difficult to use and unremittingly verbose. The visual structures of websites and web navigation don’t translate well to screen readers, sometimes resulting in unwieldy pronouncements that name every manipulable HTML element and announce every formatting change. For many screen reader users, working with web-based interfaces exacts a cognitive toll.

    In Wired, accessibility advocate and voice engineer Chris Maury considers why the screen reader experience is ill-suited to users relying on voice:

    From the beginning, I hated the way that Screen Readers work. Why are they designed the way they are? It makes no sense to present information visually and then, and only then, translate that into audio. All of the time and energy that goes into creating the perfect user experience for an app is wasted, or even worse, adversely impacting the experience for blind users. (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-06)

    In many cases, well-designed voice interfaces can speed users to their destination better than long-winded screen reader monologues. After all, visual interface users have the benefit of darting around the viewport freely to find information, ignoring areas irrelevant to them. Blind users, meanwhile, are obligated to listen to every utterance synthesized into speech and therefore prize brevity and efficiency. Disabled users who have long had no choice but to employ clunky screen readers may find that voice interfaces, particularly more modern voice assistants, offer a more streamlined experience.

    Voice assistants

    When we think of voice assistants (the subset of voice interfaces now commonplace in living rooms, smart homes, and offices), many of us immediately picture HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey or hear Majel Barrett’s voice as the omniscient computer in Star Trek. Voice assistants are akin to personal concierges that can answer questions, schedule appointments, conduct searches, and perform other common day-to-day tasks. And they’re rapidly gaining more attention from accessibility advocates for their assistive potential.

    Before the earliest IVR systems found success in the enterprise, Apple published a demonstration video in 1987 depicting the Knowledge Navigator, a voice assistant that could transcribe spoken words and recognize human speech to a great degree of accuracy. Then, in 2001, Tim Berners-Lee and others formulated their vision for a Semantic Web “agent” that would perform typical errands like “checking calendars, making appointments, and finding locations” (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-07, behind paywall). It wasn’t until 2011 that Apple’s Siri finally entered the picture, making voice assistants a tangible reality for consumers.

    Thanks to the plethora of voice assistants available today, there is considerable variation in how programmable and customizable certain voice assistants are over others (Fig 1.1). At one extreme, everything except vendor-provided features is locked down; for example, at the time of their release, the core functionality of Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana couldn’t be extended beyond their existing capabilities. Even today, it isn’t possible to program Siri to perform arbitrary functions, because there’s no means by which developers can interact with Siri at a low level, apart from predefined categories of tasks like sending messages, hailing rideshares, making restaurant reservations, and certain others.

    At the opposite end of the spectrum, voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home offer a core foundation on which developers can build custom voice interfaces. For this reason, programmable voice assistants that lend themselves to customization and extensibility are becoming increasingly popular for developers who feel stifled by the limitations of Siri and Cortana. Amazon offers the Alexa Skills Kit, a developer framework for building custom voice interfaces for Amazon Alexa, while Google Home offers the ability to program arbitrary Google Assistant skills. Today, users can choose from among thousands of custom-built skills within both the Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant ecosystems.

    Fig 1.1: Voice assistants like Amazon Alexa and Google Home tend to be more programmable, and thus more flexible, than their counterpart Apple Siri.

    As corporations like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google continue to stake their territory, they’re also selling and open-sourcing an unprecedented array of tools and frameworks for designers and developers that aim to make building voice interfaces as easy as possible, even without code.

    Often by necessity, voice assistants like Amazon Alexa tend to be monochannel—they’re tightly coupled to a device and can’t be accessed on a computer or smartphone instead. By contrast, many development platforms like Google’s Dialogflow have introduced omnichannel capabilities so users can build a single conversational interface that then manifests as a voice interface, textual chatbot, and IVR system upon deployment. I don’t prescribe any specific implementation approaches in this design-focused book, but in Chapter 4 we’ll get into some of the implications these variables might have on the way you build out your design artifacts.

    Voice Content

    Simply put, voice content is content delivered through voice. To preserve what makes human conversation so compelling in the first place, voice content needs to be free-flowing and organic, contextless and concise—everything written content isn’t.

    Our world is replete with voice content in various forms: screen readers reciting website content, voice assistants rattling off a weather forecast, and automated phone hotline responses governed by IVR systems. In this book, we’re most concerned with content delivered auditorily—not as an option, but as a necessity.

    For many of us, our first foray into informational voice interfaces will be to deliver content to users. There’s only one problem: any content we already have isn’t in any way ready for this new habitat. So how do we make the content trapped on our websites more conversational? And how do we write new copy that lends itself to voice interactions?

    Lately, we’ve begun slicing and dicing our content in unprecedented ways. Websites are, in many respects, colossal vaults of what I call macrocontent: lengthy prose that can extend for infinitely scrollable miles in a browser window, like microfilm viewers of newspaper archives. Back in 2002, well before the present-day ubiquity of voice assistants, technologist Anil Dash defined microcontent as permalinked pieces of content that stay legible regardless of environment, such as email or text messages:

    A day’s weather forcast [sic], the arrival and departure times for an airplane flight, an abstract from a long publication, or a single instant message can all be examples of microcontent. (http://bkaprt.com/vcu36/01-08)

    I’d update Dash’s definition of microcontent to include all examples of bite-sized content that go well beyond written communiqués. After all, today we encounter microcontent in interfaces where a small snippet of copy is displayed alone, unmoored from the browser, like a textbot confirmation of a restaurant reservation. Microcontent offers the best opportunity to gauge how your content can be stretched to the very edges of its capabilities, informing delivery channels both established and novel.

    As microcontent, voice content is unique because it’s an example of how content is experienced in time rather than in space. We can glance at a digital sign underground for an instant and know when the next train is arriving, but voice interfaces hold our attention captive for periods of time that we can’t easily escape or skip, something screen reader users are all too familiar with.

    Because microcontent is fundamentally made up of isolated blobs with no relation to the channels where they’ll eventually end up, we need to ensure that our microcontent truly performs well as voice content—and that means focusing on the two most important traits of robust voice content: voice content legibility and voice content discoverability.

    Fundamentally, the legibility and discoverability of our voice content both have to do with how voice content manifests in perceived time and space.

  • Designing for the Unexpected

    I’m not sure when I first heard this quote, but it’s something that has stayed with me over the years. How do you create services for situations you can’t imagine? Or design products that work on devices yet to be invented?

    Flash, Photoshop, and responsive design

    When I first started designing websites, my go-to software was Photoshop. I created a 960px canvas and set about creating a layout that I would later drop content in. The development phase was about attaining pixel-perfect accuracy using fixed widths, fixed heights, and absolute positioning.

    Ethan Marcotte’s talk at An Event Apart and subsequent article “Responsive Web Design” in A List Apart in 2010 changed all this. I was sold on responsive design as soon as I heard about it, but I was also terrified. The pixel-perfect designs full of magic numbers that I had previously prided myself on producing were no longer good enough.

    The fear wasn’t helped by my first experience with responsive design. My first project was to take an existing fixed-width website and make it responsive. What I learned the hard way was that you can’t just add responsiveness at the end of a project. To create fluid layouts, you need to plan throughout the design phase.

    A new way to design

    Designing responsive or fluid sites has always been about removing limitations, producing content that can be viewed on any device. It relies on the use of percentage-based layouts, which I initially achieved with native CSS and utility classes:

    .column-span-6 {
      width: 49%;
      float: left;
      margin-right: 0.5%;
      margin-left: 0.5%;
    }
    
    
    .column-span-4 {
      width: 32%;
      float: left;
      margin-right: 0.5%;
      margin-left: 0.5%;
    }
    
    .column-span-3 {
      width: 24%;
      float: left;
      margin-right: 0.5%;
      margin-left: 0.5%;
    }

    Then with Sass so I could take advantage of @includes to re-use repeated blocks of code and move back to more semantic markup:

    .logo {
      @include colSpan(6);
    }
    
    .search {
      @include colSpan(3);
    }
    
    .social-share {
      @include colSpan(3);
    }

    Media queries

    The second ingredient for responsive design is media queries. Without them, content would shrink to fit the available space regardless of whether that content remained readable (The exact opposite problem occurred with the introduction of a mobile-first approach).

    Wireframes showing three boxes at a large size, and three very narrow boxes at a mobile size
    Components becoming too small at mobile breakpoints

    Media queries prevented this by allowing us to add breakpoints where the design could adapt. Like most people, I started out with three breakpoints: one for desktop, one for tablets, and one for mobile. Over the years, I added more and more for phablets, wide screens, and so on. 

    For years, I happily worked this way and improved both my design and front-end skills in the process. The only problem I encountered was making changes to content, since with our Sass grid system in place, there was no way for the site owners to add content without amending the markup—something a small business owner might struggle with. This is because each row in the grid was defined using a div as a container. Adding content meant creating new row markup, which requires a level of HTML knowledge.

    Row markup was a staple of early responsive design, present in all the widely used frameworks like Bootstrap and Skeleton.

    <section class="row">
      <div class="column-span-4">1 of 7</div>
      <div class="column-span-4">2 of 7</div>
      <div class="column-span-4">3 of 7</div>
    </section>
    
    <section class="row">
      <div class="column-span-4">4 of 7</div>
      <div class="column-span-4">5 of 7</div>
      <div class="column-span-4">6 of 7</div>
    </section>
    
    <section class="row">
      <div class="column-span-4">7 of 7</div>
    </section>
    Wireframe showing three rows of boxes
    Components placed in the rows of a Sass grid

    Another problem arose as I moved from a design agency building websites for small- to medium-sized businesses, to larger in-house teams where I worked across a suite of related sites. In those roles I started to work much more with reusable components. 

    Our reliance on media queries resulted in components that were tied to common viewport sizes. If the goal of component libraries is reuse, then this is a real problem because you can only use these components if the devices you’re designing for correspond to the viewport sizes used in the pattern library—in the process not really hitting that “devices that don’t yet exist”  goal.

    Then there’s the problem of space. Media queries allow components to adapt based on the viewport size, but what if I put a component into a sidebar, like in the figure below?

    Wireframes showing different configurations of boxes at three different sizes
    Components responding to the viewport width with media queries

    Container queries: our savior or a false dawn?

    Container queries have long been touted as an improvement upon media queries, but at the time of writing are unsupported in most browsers. There are JavaScript workarounds, but they can create dependency and compatibility issues. The basic theory underlying container queries is that elements should change based on the size of their parent container and not the viewport width, as seen in the following illustrations.

    Wireframes showing different configurations of boxes at different sizes
    Components responding to their parent container with container queries

    One of the biggest arguments in favor of container queries is that they help us create components or design patterns that are truly reusable because they can be picked up and placed anywhere in a layout. This is an important step in moving toward a form of component-based design that works at any size on any device.

    In other words, responsive components to replace responsive layouts.

    Container queries will help us move from designing pages that respond to the browser or device size to designing components that can be placed in a sidebar or in the main content, and respond accordingly.

    My concern is that we are still using layout to determine when a design needs to adapt. This approach will always be restrictive, as we will still need pre-defined breakpoints. For this reason, my main question with container queries is, How would we decide when to change the CSS used by a component? 

    A component library removed from context and real content is probably not the best place for that decision. 

    As the diagrams below illustrate, we can use container queries to create designs for specific container widths, but what if I want to change the design based on the image size or ratio?

    Wireframes showing different layouts at 600px and 400px
    Cards responding to their parent container with container queries
    Wireframes showing different configurations of content at the same size
    Cards responding based on their own content

    In this example, the dimensions of the container are not what should dictate the design; rather, the image is.

    It’s hard to say for sure whether container queries will be a success story until we have solid cross-browser support for them. Responsive component libraries would definitely evolve how we design and would improve the possibilities for reuse and design at scale. But maybe we will always need to adjust these components to suit our content.

    CSS is changing

    Whilst the container query debate rumbles on, there have been numerous advances in CSS that change the way we think about design. The days of fixed-width elements measured in pixels and floated div elements used to cobble layouts together are long gone, consigned to history along with table layouts. Flexbox and CSS Grid have revolutionized layouts for the web. We can now create elements that wrap onto new rows when they run out of space, not when the device changes.

    .wrapper {
      display: grid;
      grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, 450px);
      gap: 10px;
    }

    The repeat() function paired with auto-fit or auto-fill allows us to specify how much space each column should use while leaving it up to the browser to decide when to spill the columns onto a new line. Similar things can be achieved with Flexbox, as elements can wrap over multiple rows and “flex” to fill available space. 

    .wrapper {
      display: flex;
      flex-wrap: wrap;
      justify-content: space-between;
    }
    
    .child {
      flex-basis: 32%;
      margin-bottom: 20px;
    }

    The biggest benefit of all this is you don’t need to wrap elements in container rows. Without rows, content isn’t tied to page markup in quite the same way, allowing for removals or additions of content without additional development.

    A wireframe showing seven boxes in a larger container
    A traditional Grid layout without the usual row containers

    This is a big step forward when it comes to creating designs that allow for evolving content, but the real game changer for flexible designs is CSS Subgrid. 

    Remember the days of crafting perfectly aligned interfaces, only for the customer to add an unbelievably long header almost as soon as they're given CMS access, like the illustration below?

    Cards unable to respond to a sibling’s content changes

    Subgrid allows elements to respond to adjustments in their own content and in the content of sibling elements, helping us create designs more resilient to change.

    Wireframes showing several boxes with the contents aligned across boxes
    Cards responding to content in sibling cards
    .wrapper {
      display: grid;
      grid-template-columns: repeat(auto-fit, minmax(150px, 1fr));
         grid-template-rows: auto 1fr auto;
      gap: 10px;
    }
    
    .sub-grid {
      display: grid;
      grid-row: span 3;
      grid-template-rows: subgrid; /* sets rows to parent grid */
    }

    CSS Grid allows us to separate layout and content, thereby enabling flexible designs. Meanwhile, Subgrid allows us to create designs that can adapt in order to suit morphing content. Subgrid at the time of writing is only supported in Firefox but the above code can be implemented behind an @supports feature query. 

    Intrinsic layouts 

    I’d be remiss not to mention intrinsic layouts, the term created by Jen Simmons to describe a mixture of new and old CSS features used to create layouts that respond to available space. 

    Responsive layouts have flexible columns using percentages. Intrinsic layouts, on the other hand, use the fr unit to create flexible columns that won’t ever shrink so much that they render the content illegible.

    fr units is a way to say I want you to distribute the extra space in this way, but...don’t ever make it smaller than the content that’s inside of it.

    —Jen Simmons, “Designing Intrinsic Layouts”

    Intrinsic layouts can also utilize a mixture of fixed and flexible units, allowing the content to dictate the space it takes up.

    A slide from a presentation showing two boxes with max content and one with auto
    Slide from “Designing Intrinsic Layouts” by Jen Simmons

    What makes intrinsic design stand out is that it not only creates designs that can withstand future devices but also helps scale design without losing flexibility. Components and patterns can be lifted and reused without the prerequisite of having the same breakpoints or the same amount of content as in the previous implementation. 

    We can now create designs that adapt to the space they have, the content within them, and the content around them. With an intrinsic approach, we can construct responsive components without depending on container queries.

    Another 2010 moment?

    This intrinsic approach should in my view be every bit as groundbreaking as responsive web design was ten years ago. For me, it’s another “everything changed” moment. 

    But it doesn’t seem to be moving quite as fast; I haven’t yet had that same career-changing moment I had with responsive design, despite the widely shared and brilliant talk that brought it to my attention. 

    One reason for that could be that I now work in a large organization, which is quite different from the design agency role I had in 2010. In my agency days, every new project was a clean slate, a chance to try something new. Nowadays, projects use existing tools and frameworks and are often improvements to existing websites with an existing codebase. 

    Another could be that I feel more prepared for change now. In 2010 I was new to design in general; the shift was frightening and required a lot of learning. Also, an intrinsic approach isn’t exactly all-new; it’s about using existing skills and existing CSS knowledge in a different way. 

    You can’t framework your way out of a content problem

    Another reason for the slightly slower adoption of intrinsic design could be the lack of quick-fix framework solutions available to kick-start the change. 

    Responsive grid systems were all over the place ten years ago. With a framework like Bootstrap or Skeleton, you had a responsive design template at your fingertips.

    Intrinsic design and frameworks do not go hand in hand quite so well because the benefit of having a selection of units is a hindrance when it comes to creating layout templates. The beauty of intrinsic design is combining different units and experimenting with techniques to get the best for your content.

    And then there are design tools. We probably all, at some point in our careers, used Photoshop templates for desktop, tablet, and mobile devices to drop designs in and show how the site would look at all three stages.

    How do you do that now, with each component responding to content and layouts flexing as and when they need to? This type of design must happen in the browser, which personally I’m a big fan of. 

    The debate about “whether designers should code” is another that has rumbled on for years. When designing a digital product, we should, at the very least, design for a best- and worst-case scenario when it comes to content. To do this in a graphics-based software package is far from ideal. In code, we can add longer sentences, more radio buttons, and extra tabs, and watch in real time as the design adapts. Does it still work? Is the design too reliant on the current content?

    Personally, I look forward to the day intrinsic design is the standard for design, when a design component can be truly flexible and adapt to both its space and content with no reliance on device or container dimensions.

    Content first 

    Content is not constant. After all, to design for the unknown or unexpected we need to account for content changes like our earlier Subgrid card example that allowed the cards to respond to adjustments to their own content and the content of sibling elements.

    Thankfully, there’s more to CSS than layout, and plenty of properties and values can help us put content first. Subgrid and pseudo-elements like ::first-line and ::first-letter help to separate design from markup so we can create designs that allow for changes.

    Instead of old markup hacks like this—

    <p>
      <span class="first-line">First line of text with different styling</span>...
    </p>

    —we can target content based on where it appears.

    .element::first-line {
      font-size: 1.4em;
    }
    
    .element::first-letter {
      color: red;
    }

    Much bigger additions to CSS include logical properties, which change the way we construct designs using logical dimensions (start and end) instead of physical ones (left and right), something CSS Grid also does with functions like min(), max(), and clamp().

    This flexibility allows for directional changes according to content, a common requirement when we need to present content in multiple languages. In the past, this was often achieved with Sass mixins but was often limited to switching from left-to-right to right-to-left orientation.

    In the Sass version, directional variables need to be set.

    $direction: rtl;
    $opposite-direction: ltr;
    
    $start-direction: right;
    $end-direction: left;

    These variables can be used as values—

    body {
      direction: $direction;
      text-align: $start-direction;
    }

    —or as properties.

    margin-#{$end-direction}: 10px;
    padding-#{$start-direction}: 10px;

    However, now we have native logical properties, removing the reliance on both Sass (or a similar tool) and pre-planning that necessitated using variables throughout a codebase. These properties also start to break apart the tight coupling between a design and strict physical dimensions, creating more flexibility for changes in language and in direction.

    margin-block-end: 10px;
    padding-block-start: 10px;

    There are also native start and end values for properties like text-align, which means we can replace text-align: right with text-align: start.

    Like the earlier examples, these properties help to build out designs that aren’t constrained to one language; the design will reflect the content’s needs.

    Wireframe showing different text alignment options

    Fixed and fluid 

    We briefly covered the power of combining fixed widths with fluid widths with intrinsic layouts. The min() and max() functions are a similar concept, allowing you to specify a fixed value with a flexible alternative. 

    For min() this means setting a fluid minimum value and a maximum fixed value.

    .element {
      width: min(50%, 300px);
    }
    Wireframe showing a 300px box inside of an 800px box, and a 200px box inside of a 400px box

    The element in the figure above will be 50% of its container as long as the element’s width doesn’t exceed 300px.

    For max() we can set a flexible max value and a minimum fixed value.

    .element {
      width: max(50%, 300px);
    }
    Wireframe showing a 400px box inside of an 800px box, and a 300px box inside of a 400px box

    Now the element will be 50% of its container as long as the element’s width is at least 300px. This means we can set limits but allow content to react to the available space. 

    The clamp() function builds on this by allowing us to set a preferred value with a third parameter. Now we can allow the element to shrink or grow if it needs to without getting to a point where it becomes unusable.

    .element {
      width: clamp(300px, 50%, 600px);
    }
    Wireframe showing an 800px box inside of a 1400px box, a 400px box inside of an 800px box, and a 300px box inside of a 400px box

    This time, the element’s width will be 50% (the preferred value) of its container but never less than 300px and never more than 600px.

    With these techniques, we have a content-first approach to responsive design. We can separate content from markup, meaning the changes users make will not affect the design. We can start to future-proof designs by planning for unexpected changes in language or direction. And we can increase flexibility by setting desired dimensions alongside flexible alternatives, allowing for more or less content to be displayed correctly.

    Situation first

    Thanks to what we’ve discussed so far, we can cover device flexibility by changing our approach, designing around content and space instead of catering to devices. But what about that last bit of Jeffrey Zeldman’s quote, “...situations you haven’t imagined”?

    It’s a very different thing to design for someone seated at a desktop computer as opposed to someone using a mobile phone and moving through a crowded street in glaring sunshine. Situations and environments are hard to plan for or predict because they change as people react to their own unique challenges and tasks.

    This is why choice is so important. One size never fits all, so we need to design for multiple scenarios to create equal experiences for all our users.

    Thankfully, there is a lot we can do to provide choice.

    Responsible design 

    “There are parts of the world where mobile data is prohibitively expensive, and where there is little or no broadband infrastructure.”

    I Used the Web for a Day on a 50 MB Budget

    Chris Ashton

    One of the biggest assumptions we make is that people interacting with our designs have a good wifi connection and a wide screen monitor. But in the real world, our users may be commuters traveling on trains or other forms of transport using smaller mobile devices that can experience drops in connectivity. There is nothing more frustrating than a web page that won’t load, but there are ways we can help users use less data or deal with sporadic connectivity.

    The srcset attribute allows the browser to decide which image to serve. This means we can create smaller ‘cropped’ images to display on mobile devices in turn using less bandwidth and less data.

    <img 
      src="/image-file.jpg"
      srcset="large.jpg 1024w,
                 medium.jpg 640w,
                 small.jpg 320w"
         alt="Image alt text" />

    The preload attribute can also help us to think about how and when media is downloaded. It can be used to tell a browser about any critical assets that need to be downloaded with high priority, improving perceived performance and the user experience. 

    <link rel="stylesheet" href="/style.css"> <!--Standard stylesheet markup-->
    <link rel="preload" href="/style.css" as="style"> <!--Preload stylesheet markup-->

    There’s also native lazy loading, which indicates assets that should only be downloaded when they are needed.

    <img src="/image.png" loading="lazy" alt="…">

    With srcset, preload, and lazy loading, we can start to tailor a user’s experience based on the situation they find themselves in. What none of this does, however, is allow the user themselves to decide what they want downloaded, as the decision is usually the browser’s to make. 

    So how can we put users in control?

    The return of media queries 

    Media queries have always been about much more than device sizes. They allow content to adapt to different situations, with screen size being just one of them.

    We’ve long been able to check for media types like print and speech and features such as hover, resolution, and color. These checks allow us to provide options that suit more than one scenario; it’s less about one-size-fits-all and more about serving adaptable content. 

    As of this writing, the Media Queries Level 5 spec is still under development. It introduces some really exciting queries that in the future will help us design for multiple other unexpected situations.

    For example, there’s a light-level feature that allows you to modify styles if a user is in sunlight or darkness. Paired with custom properties, these features allow us to quickly create designs or themes for specific environments.

    @media (light-level: normal) {
      --background-color: #fff;
      --text-color: #0b0c0c;  
    }
    
    @media (light-level: dim) {
      --background-color: #efd226;
      --text-color: #0b0c0c;
    }

    Another key feature of the Level 5 spec is personalization. Instead of creating designs that are the same for everyone, users can choose what works for them. This is achieved by using features like prefers-reduced-data, prefers-color-scheme, and prefers-reduced-motion, the latter two of which already enjoy broad browser support. These features tap into preferences set via the operating system or browser so people don’t have to spend time making each site they visit more usable. 

    Media queries like this go beyond choices made by a browser to grant more control to the user.

    Expect the unexpected

    In the end, the one thing we should always expect is for things to change. Devices in particular change faster than we can keep up, with foldable screens already on the market.

    We can’t design the same way we have for this ever-changing landscape, but we can design for content. By putting content first and allowing that content to adapt to whatever space surrounds it, we can create more robust, flexible designs that increase the longevity of our products. 

    A lot of the CSS discussed here is about moving away from layouts and putting content at the heart of design. From responsive components to fixed and fluid units, there is so much more we can do to take a more intrinsic approach. Even better, we can test these techniques during the design phase by designing in-browser and watching how our designs adapt in real-time.

    When it comes to unexpected situations, we need to make sure our products are usable when people need them, whenever and wherever that might be. We can move closer to achieving this by involving users in our design decisions, by creating choice via browsers, and by giving control to our users with user-preference-based media queries. 

    Good design for the unexpected should allow for change, provide choice, and give control to those we serve: our users themselves.

  • Asynchronous Design Critique: Getting Feedback

    “Any comment?” is probably one of the worst ways to ask for feedback. It’s vague and open ended, and it doesn’t provide any indication of what we’re looking for. Getting good feedback starts earlier than we might expect: it starts with the request. 

    It might seem counterintuitive to start the process of receiving feedback with a question, but that makes sense if we realize that getting feedback can be thought of as a form of design research. In the same way that we wouldn’t do any research without the right questions to get the insights that we need, the best way to ask for feedback is also to craft sharp questions.

    Design critique is not a one-shot process. Sure, any good feedback workflow continues until the project is finished, but this is particularly true for design because design work continues iteration after iteration, from a high level to the finest details. Each level needs its own set of questions.

    And finally, as with any good research, we need to review what we got back, get to the core of its insights, and take action. Question, iteration, and review. Let’s look at each of those.

    The question

    Being open to feedback is essential, but we need to be precise about what we’re looking for. Just saying “Any comment?”, “What do you think?”, or “I’d love to get your opinion” at the end of a presentation—whether it’s in person, over video, or through a written post—is likely to get a number of varied opinions or, even worse, get everyone to follow the direction of the first person who speaks up. And then... we get frustrated because vague questions like those can turn a high-level flows review into people instead commenting on the borders of buttons. Which might be a hearty topic, so it might be hard at that point to redirect the team to the subject that you had wanted to focus on.

    But how do we get into this situation? It’s a mix of factors. One is that we don’t usually consider asking as a part of the feedback process. Another is how natural it is to just leave the question implied, expecting the others to be on the same page. Another is that in nonprofessional discussions, there’s often no need to be that precise. In short, we tend to underestimate the importance of the questions, so we don’t work on improving them.

    The act of asking good questions guides and focuses the critique. It’s also a form of consent: it makes it clear that you’re open to comments and what kind of comments you’d like to get. It puts people in the right mental state, especially in situations when they weren’t expecting to give feedback.

    There isn’t a single best way to ask for feedback. It just needs to be specific, and specificity can take many shapes. A model for design critique that I’ve found particularly useful in my coaching is the one of stage versus depth.

    A chart showing Depth on one axis and Stage on another axis, with Depth decreasing as Stage increases

    Stage” refers to each of the steps of the process—in our case, the design process. In progressing from user research to the final design, the kind of feedback evolves. But within a single step, one might still review whether some assumptions are correct and whether there’s been a proper translation of the amassed feedback into updated designs as the project has evolved. A starting point for potential questions could derive from the layers of user experience. What do you want to know: Project objectives? User needs? Functionality? Content? Interaction design? Information architecture? UI design? Navigation design? Visual design? Branding?

    Here’re a few example questions that are precise and to the point that refer to different layers:

    • Functionality: Is automating account creation desirable?
    • Interaction design: Take a look through the updated flow and let me know whether you see any steps or error states that I might’ve missed.
    • Information architecture: We have two competing bits of information on this page. Is the structure effective in communicating them both?
    • UI design: What are your thoughts on the error counter at the top of the page that makes sure that you see the next error, even if the error is out of the viewport? 
    • Navigation design: From research, we identified these second-level navigation items, but once you’re on the page, the list feels too long and hard to navigate. Are there any suggestions to address this?
    • Visual design: Are the sticky notifications in the bottom-right corner visible enough?

    The other axis of specificity is about how deep you’d like to go on what’s being presented. For example, we might have introduced a new end-to-end flow, but there was a specific view that you found particularly challenging and you’d like a detailed review of that. This can be especially useful from one iteration to the next where it’s important to highlight the parts that have changed.

    There are other things that we can consider when we want to achieve more specific—and more effective—questions.

    A simple trick is to remove generic qualifiers from your questions like “good,” “well,” “nice,” “bad,” “okay,” and “cool.” For example, asking, “When the block opens and the buttons appear, is this interaction good?” might look specific, but you can spot the “good” qualifier, and convert it to an even better question: “When the block opens and the buttons appear, is it clear what the next action is?”

    Sometimes we actually do want broad feedback. That’s rare, but it can happen. In that sense, you might still make it explicit that you’re looking for a wide range of opinions, whether at a high level or with details. Or maybe just say, “At first glance, what do you think?” so that it’s clear that what you’re asking is open ended but focused on someone’s impression after their first five seconds of looking at it.

    Sometimes the project is particularly expansive, and some areas may have already been explored in detail. In these situations, it might be useful to explicitly say that some parts are already locked in and aren’t open to feedback. It’s not something that I’d recommend in general, but I’ve found it useful to avoid falling again into rabbit holes of the sort that might lead to further refinement but aren’t what’s most important right now.

    Asking specific questions can completely change the quality of the feedback that you receive. People with less refined critique skills will now be able to offer more actionable feedback, and even expert designers will welcome the clarity and efficiency that comes from focusing only on what’s needed. It can save a lot of time and frustration.

    The iteration

    Design iterations are probably the most visible part of the design work, and they provide a natural checkpoint for feedback. Yet a lot of design tools with inline commenting tend to show changes as a single fluid stream in the same file, and those types of design tools make conversations disappear once they’re resolved, update shared UI components automatically, and compel designs to always show the latest version—unless these would-be helpful features were to be manually turned off. The implied goal that these design tools seem to have is to arrive at just one final copy with all discussions closed, probably because they inherited patterns from how written documents are collaboratively edited. That’s probably not the best way to approach design critiques, but even if I don’t want to be too prescriptive here: that could work for some teams.

    The asynchronous design-critique approach that I find most effective is to create explicit checkpoints for discussion. I’m going to use the term iteration post for this. It refers to a write-up or presentation of the design iteration followed by a discussion thread of some kind. Any platform that can accommodate this structure can use this. By the way, when I refer to a “write-up or presentation,” I’m including video recordings or other media too: as long as it’s asynchronous, it works.

    Using iteration posts has many advantages:

    • It creates a rhythm in the design work so that the designer can review feedback from each iteration and prepare for the next.
    • It makes decisions visible for future review, and conversations are likewise always available.
    • It creates a record of how the design changed over time.
    • Depending on the tool, it might also make it easier to collect feedback and act on it.

    These posts of course don’t mean that no other feedback approach should be used, just that iteration posts could be the primary rhythm for a remote design team to use. And other feedback approaches (such as live critique, pair designing, or inline comments) can build from there.

    I don’t think there’s a standard format for iteration posts. But there are a few high-level elements that make sense to include as a baseline:

    1. The goal
    2. The design
    3. The list of changes
    4. The questions

    Each project is likely to have a goal, and hopefully it’s something that’s already been summarized in a single sentence somewhere else, such as the client brief, the product manager’s outline, or the project owner’s request. So this is something that I’d repeat in every iteration post—literally copy and pasting it. The idea is to provide context and to repeat what’s essential to make each iteration post complete so that there’s no need to find information spread across multiple posts. If I want to know about the latest design, the latest iteration post will have all that I need.

    This copy-and-paste part introduces another relevant concept: alignment comes from repetition. So having posts that repeat information is actually very effective toward making sure that everyone is on the same page.

    The design is then the actual series of information-architecture outlines, diagrams, flows, maps, wireframes, screens, visuals, and any other kind of design work that’s been done. In short, it’s any design artifact. For the final stages of work, I prefer the term blueprint to emphasize that I’ll be showing full flows instead of individual screens to make it easier to understand the bigger picture. 

    It can also be useful to label the artifacts with clear titles because that can make it easier to refer to them. Write the post in a way that helps people understand the work. It’s not too different from organizing a good live presentation. 

    For an efficient discussion, you should also include a bullet list of the changes from the previous iteration to let people focus on what’s new, which can be especially useful for larger pieces of work where keeping track, iteration after iteration, could become a challenge.

    And finally, as noted earlier, it’s essential that you include a list of the questions to drive the design critique in the direction you want. Doing this as a numbered list can also help make it easier to refer to each question by its number.

    Not all iterations are the same. Earlier iterations don’t need to be as tightly focused—they can be more exploratory and experimental, maybe even breaking some of the design-language guidelines to see what’s possible. Then later, the iterations start settling on a solution and refining it until the design process reaches its end and the feature ships.

    I want to highlight that even if these iteration posts are written and conceived as checkpoints, by no means do they need to be exhaustive. A post might be a draft—just a concept to get a conversation going—or it could be a cumulative list of each feature that was added over the course of each iteration until the full picture is done.

    Over time, I also started using specific labels for incremental iterations: i1, i2, i3, and so on. This might look like a minor labelling tip, but it can help in multiple ways:

    • Unique—It’s a clear unique marker. Within each project, one can easily say, “This was discussed in i4,” and everyone knows where they can go to review things.
    • Unassuming—It works like versions (such as v1, v2, and v3) but in contrast, versions create the impression of something that’s big, exhaustive, and complete. Iterations must be able to be exploratory, incomplete, partial.
    • Future proof—It resolves the “final” naming problem that you can run into with versions. No more files named “final final complete no-really-its-done.” Within each project, the largest number always represents the latest iteration.

    To mark when a design is complete enough to be worked on, even if there might be some bits still in need of attention and in turn more iterations needed, the wording release candidate (RC) could be used to describe it: “with i8, we reached RC” or “i12 is an RC.”

    The review

    What usually happens during a design critique is an open discussion, with a back and forth between people that can be very productive. This approach is particularly effective during live, synchronous feedback. But when we work asynchronously, it’s more effective to use a different approach: we can shift to a user-research mindset. Written feedback from teammates, stakeholders, or others can be treated as if it were the result of user interviews and surveys, and we can analyze it accordingly.

    This shift has some major benefits that make asynchronous feedback particularly effective, especially around these friction points:

    1. It removes the pressure to reply to everyone.
    2. It reduces the frustration from swoop-by comments.
    3. It lessens our personal stake.

    The first friction point is feeling a pressure to reply to every single comment. Sometimes we write the iteration post, and we get replies from our team. It’s just a few of them, it’s easy, and it doesn’t feel like a problem. But other times, some solutions might require more in-depth discussions, and the amount of replies can quickly increase, which can create a tension between trying to be a good team player by replying to everyone and doing the next design iteration. This might be especially true if the person who’s replying is a stakeholder or someone directly involved in the project who we feel that we need to listen to. We need to accept that this pressure is absolutely normal, and it’s human nature to try to accommodate people who we care about. Sometimes replying to all comments can be effective, but if we treat a design critique more like user research, we realize that we don’t have to reply to every comment, and in asynchronous spaces, there are alternatives:

    • One is to let the next iteration speak for itself. When the design evolves and we post a follow-up iteration, that’s the reply. You might tag all the people who were involved in the previous discussion, but even that’s a choice, not a requirement. 
    • Another is to briefly reply to acknowledge each comment, such as “Understood. Thank you,” “Good points—I’ll review,” or “Thanks. I’ll include these in the next iteration.” In some cases, this could also be just a single top-level comment along the lines of “Thanks for all the feedback everyone—the next iteration is coming soon!”
    • Another is to provide a quick summary of the comments before moving on. Depending on your workflow, this can be particularly useful as it can provide a simplified checklist that you can then use for the next iteration.

    The second friction point is the swoop-by comment, which is the kind of feedback that comes from someone outside the project or team who might not be aware of the context, restrictions, decisions, or requirements—or of the previous iterations’ discussions. On their side, there’s something that one can hope that they might learn: they could start to acknowledge that they’re doing this and they could be more conscious in outlining where they’re coming from. Swoop-by comments often trigger the simple thought “We’ve already discussed this…”, and it can be frustrating to have to repeat the same reply over and over.

    Let’s begin by acknowledging again that there’s no need to reply to every comment. If, however, replying to a previously litigated point might be useful, a short reply with a link to the previous discussion for extra details is usually enough. Remember, alignment comes from repetition, so it’s okay to repeat things sometimes!

    Swoop-by commenting can still be useful for two reasons: they might point out something that still isn’t clear, and they also have the potential to stand in for the point of view of a user who’s seeing the design for the first time. Sure, you’ll still be frustrated, but that might at least help in dealing with it.

    The third friction point is the personal stake we could have with the design, which could make us feel defensive if the review were to feel more like a discussion. Treating feedback as user research helps us create a healthy distance between the people giving us feedback and our ego (because yes, even if we don’t want to admit it, it’s there). And ultimately, treating everything in aggregated form allows us to better prioritize our work.

    Always remember that while you need to listen to stakeholders, project owners, and specific advice, you don’t have to accept every piece of feedback. You have to analyze it and make a decision that you can justify, but sometimes “no” is the right answer. 

    As the designer leading the project, you’re in charge of that decision. Ultimately, everyone has their specialty, and as the designer, you’re the one who has the most knowledge and the most context to make the right decision. And by listening to the feedback that you’ve received, you’re making sure that it’s also the best and most balanced decision.

    Thanks to Brie Anne Demkiw and Mike Shelton for reviewing the first draft of this article.

  • Asynchronous Design Critique: Giving Feedback

    Feedback, in whichever form it takes, and whatever it may be called, is one of the most effective soft skills that we have at our disposal to collaboratively get our designs to a better place while growing our own skills and perspectives.

    Feedback is also one of the most underestimated tools, and often by assuming that we’re already good at it, we settle, forgetting that it’s a skill that can be trained, grown, and improved. Poor feedback can create confusion in projects, bring down morale, and affect trust and team collaboration over the long term. Quality feedback can be a transformative force. 

    Practicing our skills is surely a good way to improve, but the learning gets even faster when it’s paired with a good foundation that channels and focuses the practice. What are some foundational aspects of giving good feedback? And how can feedback be adjusted for remote and distributed work environments? 

    On the web, we can identify a long tradition of asynchronous feedback: from the early days of open source, code was shared and discussed on mailing lists. Today, developers engage on pull requests, designers comment in their favorite design tools, project managers and scrum masters exchange ideas on tickets, and so on.

    Design critique is often the name used for a type of feedback that’s provided to make our work better, collaboratively. So it shares a lot of the principles with feedback in general, but it also has some differences.

    The content

    The foundation of every good critique is the feedback’s content, so that’s where we need to start. There are many models that you can use to shape your content. The one that I personally like best—because it’s clear and actionable—is this one from Lara Hogan.

    An equation: Observation plus impact plus question equals actionable feedback.

    While this equation is generally used to give feedback to people, it also fits really well in a design critique because it ultimately answers some of the core questions that we work on: What? Where? Why? How? Imagine that you’re giving some feedback about some design work that spans multiple screens, like an onboarding flow: there are some pages shown, a flow blueprint, and an outline of the decisions made. You spot something that could be improved. If you keep the three elements of the equation in mind, you’ll have a mental model that can help you be more precise and effective.

    Here is a comment that could be given as a part of some feedback, and it might look reasonable at a first glance: it seems to superficially fulfill the elements in the equation. But does it?

    Not sure about the buttons’ styles and hierarchy—it feels off. Can you change them?

    Observation for design feedback doesn’t just mean pointing out which part of the interface your feedback refers to, but it also refers to offering a perspective that’s as specific as possible. Are you providing the user’s perspective? Your expert perspective? A business perspective? The project manager’s perspective? A first-time user’s perspective?

    When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back.

    Impact is about the why. Just pointing out a UI element might sometimes be enough if the issue may be obvious, but more often than not, you should add an explanation of what you’re pointing out.

    When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back. But this is the only screen where this happens, as before we just used a single button and an “×” to close. This seems to be breaking the consistency in the flow.

    The question approach is meant to provide open guidance by eliciting the critical thinking in the designer receiving the feedback. Notably, in Lara’s equation she provides a second approach: request, which instead provides guidance toward a specific solution. While that’s a viable option for feedback in general, for design critiques, in my experience, defaulting to the question approach usually reaches the best solutions because designers are generally more comfortable in being given an open space to explore.

    The difference between the two can be exemplified with, for the question approach:

    When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back. But this is the only screen where this happens, as before we just used a single button and an “×” to close. This seems to be breaking the consistency in the flow. Would it make sense to unify them?

    Or, for the request approach:

    When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back. But this is the only screen where this happens, as before we just used a single button and an “×” to close. This seems to be breaking the consistency in the flow. Let’s make sure that all screens have the same pair of forward and back buttons.

    At this point in some situations, it might be useful to integrate with an extra why: why you consider the given suggestion to be better.

    When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back. But this is the only screen where this happens, as before we just used a single button and an “×” to close. This seems to be breaking the consistency in the flow. Let’s make sure that all screens have the same two forward and back buttons so that users don’t get confused.

    Choosing the question approach or the request approach can also at times be a matter of personal preference. A while ago, I was putting a lot of effort into improving my feedback: I did rounds of anonymous feedback, and I reviewed feedback with other people. After a few rounds of this work and a year later, I got a positive response: my feedback came across as effective and grounded. Until I changed teams. To my shock, my next round of feedback from one specific person wasn’t that great. The reason is that I had previously tried not to be prescriptive in my advice—because the people who I was previously working with preferred the open-ended question format over the request style of suggestions. But now in this other team, there was one person who instead preferred specific guidance. So I adapted my feedback for them to include requests.

    One comment that I heard come up a few times is that this kind of feedback is quite long, and it doesn’t seem very efficient. No… but also yes. Let’s explore both sides.

    No, this style of feedback is actually efficient because the length here is a byproduct of clarity, and spending time giving this kind of feedback can provide exactly enough information for a good fix. Also if we zoom out, it can reduce future back-and-forth conversations and misunderstandings, improving the overall efficiency and effectiveness of collaboration beyond the single comment. Imagine that in the example above the feedback were instead just, “Let’s make sure that all screens have the same two forward and back buttons.” The designer receiving this feedback wouldn’t have much to go by, so they might just apply the change. In later iterations, the interface might change or they might introduce new features—and maybe that change might not make sense anymore. Without the why, the designer might imagine that the change is about consistency… but what if it wasn’t? So there could now be an underlying concern that changing the buttons would be perceived as a regression.

    Yes, this style of feedback is not always efficient because the points in some comments don’t always need to be exhaustive, sometimes because certain changes may be obvious (“The font used doesn’t follow our guidelines”) and sometimes because the team may have a lot of internal knowledge such that some of the whys may be implied.

    So the equation above isn’t meant to suggest a strict template for feedback but a mnemonic to reflect and improve the practice. Even after years of active work on my critiques, I still from time to time go back to this formula and reflect on whether what I just wrote is effective.

    The tone

    Well-grounded content is the foundation of feedback, but that’s not really enough. The soft skills of the person who’s providing the critique can multiply the likelihood that the feedback will be well received and understood. Tone alone can make the difference between content that’s rejected or welcomed, and it’s been demonstrated that only positive feedback creates sustained change in people.

    Since our goal is to be understood and to have a positive working environment, tone is essential to work on. Over the years, I’ve tried to summarize the required soft skills in a formula that mirrors the one for content: the receptivity equation.

    Another equation: Timing plus attitude plus form equals respectful feedback.

    Respectful feedback comes across as grounded, solid, and constructive. It’s the kind of feedback that, whether it’s positive or negative, is perceived as useful and fair.

    Timing refers to when the feedback happens. To-the-point feedback doesn’t have much hope of being well received if it’s given at the wrong time. Questioning the entire high-level information architecture of a new feature when it’s about to ship might still be relevant if that questioning highlights a major blocker that nobody saw, but it’s way more likely that those concerns will have to wait for a later rework. So in general, attune your feedback to the stage of the project. Early iteration? Late iteration? Polishing work in progress? These all have different needs. The right timing will make it more likely that your feedback will be well received.

    Attitude is the equivalent of intent, and in the context of person-to-person feedback, it can be referred to as radical candor. That means checking before we write to see whether what we have in mind will truly help the person and make the project better overall. This might be a hard reflection at times because maybe we don’t want to admit that we don’t really appreciate that person. Hopefully that’s not the case, but that can happen, and that’s okay. Acknowledging and owning that can help you make up for that: how would I write if I really cared about them? How can I avoid being passive aggressive? How can I be more constructive?

    Form is relevant especially in a diverse and cross-cultural work environments because having great content, perfect timing, and the right attitude might not come across if the way that we write creates misunderstandings. There might be many reasons for this: sometimes certain words might trigger specific reactions; sometimes nonnative speakers might not understand all the nuances of some sentences; sometimes our brains might just be different and we might perceive the world differently—neurodiversity must be taken into consideration. Whatever the reason, it’s important to review not just what we write but how.

    A few years back, I was asking for some feedback on how I give feedback. I received some good advice but also a comment that surprised me. They pointed out that when I wrote “Oh, […],” I made them feel stupid. That wasn’t my intent! I felt really bad, and I just realized that I provided feedback to them for months, and every time I might have made them feel stupid. I was horrified… but also thankful. I made a quick fix: I added “oh” in my list of replaced words (your choice between: macOS’s text replacement, aText, TextExpander, or others) so that when I typed “oh,” it was instantly deleted. 

    Something to highlight because it’s quite frequent—especially in teams that have a strong group spirit—is that people tend to beat around the bush. It’s important to remember here that a positive attitude doesn’t mean going light on the feedback—it just means that even when you provide hard, difficult, or challenging feedback, you do so in a way that’s respectful and constructive. The nicest thing that you can do for someone is to help them grow.

    We have a great advantage in giving feedback in written form: it can be reviewed by another person who isn’t directly involved, which can help to reduce or remove any bias that might be there. I found that the best, most insightful moments for me have happened when I’ve shared a comment and I’ve asked someone who I highly trusted, “How does this sound?,” “How can I do it better,” and even “How would you have written it?”—and I’ve learned a lot by seeing the two versions side by side.

    The format

    Asynchronous feedback also has a major inherent advantage: we can take more time to refine what we’ve written to make sure that it fulfills two main goals: the clarity of communication and the actionability of the suggestions.

    Clarity plus Actionability

    Let’s imagine that someone shared a design iteration for a project. You are reviewing it and leaving a comment. There are many ways to do this, and of course context matters, but let’s try to think about some elements that may be useful to consider.

    In terms of clarity, start by grounding the critique that you’re about to give by providing context. Specifically, this means describing where you’re coming from: do you have a deep knowledge of the project, or is this the first time that you’re seeing it? Are you coming from a high-level perspective, or are you figuring out the details? Are there regressions? Which user’s perspective are you taking when providing your feedback? Is the design iteration at a point where it would be okay to ship this, or are there major things that need to be addressed first?

    Providing context is helpful even if you’re sharing feedback within a team that already has some information on the project. And context is absolutely essential when giving cross-team feedback. If I were to review a design that might be indirectly related to my work, and if I had no knowledge about how the project arrived at that point, I would say so, highlighting my take as external.

    We often focus on the negatives, trying to outline all the things that could be done better. That’s of course important, but it’s just as important—if not more—to focus on the positives, especially if you saw progress from the previous iteration. This might seem superfluous, but it’s important to keep in mind that design is a discipline where there are hundreds of possible solutions for every problem. So pointing out that the design solution that was chosen is good and explaining why it’s good has two major benefits: it confirms that the approach taken was solid, and it helps to ground your negative feedback. In the longer term, sharing positive feedback can help prevent regressions on things that are going well because those things will have been highlighted as important. As a bonus, positive feedback can also help reduce impostor syndrome.

    There’s one powerful approach that combines both context and a focus on the positives: frame how the design is better than the status quo (compared to a previous iteration, competitors, or benchmarks) and why, and then on that foundation, you can add what could be improved. This is powerful because there’s a big difference between a critique that’s for a design that’s already in good shape and a critique that’s for a design that isn’t quite there yet.

    Another way that you can improve your feedback is to depersonalize the feedback: the comments should always be about the work, never about the person who made it. It’s “This button isn’t well aligned” versus “You haven’t aligned this button well.” This is very easy to change in your writing by reviewing it just before sending.

    In terms of actionability, one of the best approaches to help the designer who’s reading through your feedback is to split it into bullet points or paragraphs, which are easier to review and analyze one by one. For longer pieces of feedback, you might also consider splitting it into sections or even across multiple comments. Of course, adding screenshots or signifying markers of the specific part of the interface you’re referring to can also be especially useful.

    One approach that I’ve personally used effectively in some contexts is to enhance the bullet points with four markers using emojis. So a red square 🟥 means that it’s something that I consider blocking; a yellow diamond 🔶 is something that I can be convinced otherwise, but it seems to me that it should be changed; and a green circle 🟢 is a detailed, positive confirmation. I also use a blue spiral 🌀 for either something that I’m not sure about, an exploration, an open alternative, or just a note. But I’d use this approach only on teams where I’ve already established a good level of trust because if it happens that I have to deliver a lot of red squares, the impact could be quite demoralizing, and I’d reframe how I’d communicate that a bit.

    Let’s see how this would work by reusing the example that we used earlier as the first bullet point in this list:

    • 🔶 Navigation—When I see these two buttons, I expect one to go forward and one to go back. But this is the only screen where this happens, as before we just used a single button and an “×” to close. This seems to be breaking the consistency in the flow. Let’s make sure that all screens have the same two forward and back buttons so that users don’t get confused.
    • 🟢 Overall—I think the page is solid, and this is good enough to be our release candidate for a version 1.0.
    • 🟢 Metrics—Good improvement in the buttons on the metrics area; the improved contrast and new focus style make them more accessible.
    •  🟥  Button Style—Using the green accent in this context creates the impression that it’s a positive action because green is usually perceived as a confirmation color. Do we need to explore a different color?
    • 🔶Tiles—Given the number of items on the page, and the overall page hierarchy, it seems to me that the tiles shouldn’t be using the Subtitle 1 style but the Subtitle 2 style. This will keep the visual hierarchy more consistent.
    • 🌀 Background—Using a light texture works well, but I wonder whether it adds too much noise in this kind of page. What is the thinking in using that?

    What about giving feedback directly in Figma or another design tool that allows in-place feedback? In general, I find these difficult to use because they hide discussions and they’re harder to track, but in the right context, they can be very effective. Just make sure that each of the comments is separate so that it’s easier to match each discussion to a single task, similar to the idea of splitting mentioned above.

    One final note: say the obvious. Sometimes we might feel that something is obviously good or obviously wrong, and so we don’t say it. Or sometimes we might have a doubt that we don’t express because the question might sound stupid. Say it—that’s okay. You might have to reword it a little bit to make the reader feel more comfortable, but don’t hold it back. Good feedback is transparent, even when it may be obvious.

    There’s another advantage of asynchronous feedback: written feedback automatically tracks decisions. Especially in large projects, “Why did we do this?” could be a question that pops up from time to time, and there’s nothing better than open, transparent discussions that can be reviewed at any time. For this reason, I recommend using software that saves these discussions, without hiding them once they are resolved. 

    Content, tone, and format. Each one of these subjects provides a useful model, but working to improve eight areas—observation, impact, question, timing, attitude, form, clarity, and actionability—is a lot of work to put in all at once. One effective approach is to take them one by one: first identify the area that you lack the most (either from your perspective or from feedback from others) and start there. Then the second, then the third, and so on. At first you’ll have to put in extra time for every piece of feedback that you give, but after a while, it’ll become second nature, and your impact on the work will multiply.

    Thanks to Brie Anne Demkiw and Mike Shelton for reviewing the first draft of this article.

  • That’s Not My Burnout

    Are you like me, reading about people fading away as they burn out, and feeling unable to relate? Do you feel like your feelings are invisible to the world because you’re experiencing burnout differently? When burnout starts to push down on us, our core comes through more. Beautiful, peaceful souls get quieter and fade into that distant and distracted burnout we’ve all read about. But some of us, those with fires always burning on the edges of our core, get hotter. In my heart I am fire. When I face burnout I double down, triple down, burning hotter and hotter to try to best the challenge. I don’t fade—I am engulfed in a zealous burnout

    So what on earth is a zealous burnout?

    Imagine a woman determined to do it all. She has two amazing children whom she, along with her husband who is also working remotely, is homeschooling during a pandemic. She has a demanding client load at work—all of whom she loves. She gets up early to get some movement in (or often catch up on work), does dinner prep as the kids are eating breakfast, and gets to work while positioning herself near “fourth grade” to listen in as she juggles clients, tasks, and budgets. Sound like a lot? Even with a supportive team both at home and at work, it is. 

    Sounds like this woman has too much on her plate and needs self-care. But no, she doesn’t have time for that. In fact, she starts to feel like she’s dropping balls. Not accomplishing enough. There’s not enough of her to be here and there; she is trying to divide her mind in two all the time, all day, every day. She starts to doubt herself. And as those feelings creep in more and more, her internal narrative becomes more and more critical.

    Suddenly she KNOWS what she needs to do! She should DO MORE. 

    This is a hard and dangerous cycle. Know why? Because once she doesn’t finish that new goal, that narrative will get worse. Suddenly she’s failing. She isn’t doing enough. SHE is not enough. She might fail, she might fail her family...so she’ll find more she should do. She doesn’t sleep as much, move as much, all in the efforts to do more. Caught in this cycle of trying to prove herself to herself, never reaching any goal. Never feeling “enough.” 

    So, yeah, that’s what zealous burnout looks like for me. It doesn’t happen overnight in some grand gesture but instead slowly builds over weeks and months. My burning out process looks like speeding up, not a person losing focus. I speed up and up and up...and then I just stop.

    I am the one who could

    It’s funny the things that shape us. Through the lens of childhood, I viewed the fears, struggles, and sacrifices of someone who had to make it all work without having enough. I was lucky that my mother was so resourceful and my father supportive; I never went without and even got an extra here or there. 

    Growing up, I did not feel shame when my mother paid with food stamps; in fact, I’d have likely taken on any debate on the topic, verbally eviscerating anyone who dared to criticize the disabled woman trying to make sure all our needs were met with so little. As a child, I watched the way the fear of not making those ends meet impacted people I love. As the non-disabled person in my home, I would take on many of the physical tasks because I was “the one who could” make our lives a little easier. I learned early to associate fears or uncertainty with putting more of myself into it—I am the one who can. I learned early that when something frightens me, I can double down and work harder to make it better. I can own the challenge. When people have seen this in me as an adult, I’ve been told I seem fearless, but make no mistake, I’m not. If I seem fearless, it’s because this behavior was forged from other people’s fears. 

    And here I am, more than 30 years later still feeling the urge to mindlessly push myself forward when faced with overwhelming tasks ahead of me, assuming that I am the one who can and therefore should. I find myself driven to prove that I can make things happen if I work longer hours, take on more responsibility, and do more

    I do not see people who struggle financially as failures, because I have seen how strong that tide can be—it pulls you along the way. I truly get that I have been privileged to be able to avoid many of the challenges that were present in my youth. That said, I am still “the one who can” who feels she should, so if I were faced with not having enough to make ends meet for my own family, I would see myself as having failed. Though I am supported and educated, most of this is due to good fortune. I will, however, allow myself the arrogance of saying I have been careful with my choices to have encouraged that luck. My identity stems from the idea that I am “the one who can” so therefore feel obligated to do the most. I can choose to stop, and with some quite literal cold water splashed in my face, I’ve made the choice to before. But that choosing to stop is not my go-to; I move forward, driven by a fear that is so a part of me that I barely notice it’s there until I’m feeling utterly worn away.

    So why all the history? You see, burnout is a fickle thing. I have heard and read a lot about burnout over the years. Burnout is real. Especially now, with COVID, many of us are balancing more than we ever have before—all at once! It’s hard, and the procrastinating, the avoidance, the shutting down impacts so many amazing professionals. There are important articles that relate to what I imagine must be the majority of people out there, but not me. That’s not what my burnout looks like.

    The dangerous invisibility of zealous burnout

    A lot of work environments see the extra hours, extra effort, and overall focused commitment as an asset (and sometimes that’s all it is). They see someone trying to rise to challenges, not someone stuck in their fear. Many well-meaning organizations have safeguards in place to protect their teams from burnout. But in cases like this, those alarms are not always tripped, and then when the inevitable stop comes, some members of the organization feel surprised and disappointed. And sometimes maybe even betrayed. 

    Parents—more so mothers, statistically speaking—are praised as being so on top of it all when they can work, be involved in the after-school activities, practice self-care in the form of diet and exercise, and still meet friends for coffee or wine. During COVID many of us have binged countless streaming episodes showing how it’s so hard for the female protagonist, but she is strong and funny and can do it. It’s a “very special episode” when she breaks down, cries in the bathroom, woefully admits she needs help, and just stops for a bit. Truth is, countless people are hiding their tears or are doom-scrolling to escape. We know that the media is a lie to amuse us, but often the perception that it’s what we should strive for has penetrated much of society.

    Women and burnout

    I love men. And though I don’t love every man (heads up, I don’t love every woman or nonbinary person either), I think there is a beautiful spectrum of individuals who represent that particular binary gender. 

    That said, women are still more often at risk of burnout than their male counterparts, especially in these COVID stressed times. Mothers in the workplace feel the pressure to do all the “mom” things while giving 110%. Mothers not in the workplace feel they need to do more to “justify” their lack of traditional employment. Women who are not mothers often feel the need to do even more because they don’t have that extra pressure at home. It’s vicious and systemic and so a part of our culture that we’re often not even aware of the enormity of the pressures we put on ourselves and each other. 

    And there are prices beyond happiness too. Harvard Health Publishing released a study a decade ago that “uncovered strong links between women’s job stress and cardiovascular disease.” The CDC noted, “Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States, killing 299,578 women in 2017—or about 1 in every 5 female deaths.” 

    This relationship between work stress and health, from what I have read, is more dangerous for women than it is for their non-female counterparts.

    But what if your burnout isn’t like that either?

    That might not be you either. After all, each of us is so different and how we respond to stressors is too. It’s part of what makes us human. Don’t stress what burnout looks like, just learn to recognize it in yourself. Here are a few questions I sometimes ask friends if I am concerned about them.

    Are you happy? This simple question should be the first thing you ask yourself. Chances are, even if you’re burning out doing all the things you love, as you approach burnout you’ll just stop taking as much joy from it all.

    Do you feel empowered to say no? I have observed in myself and others that when someone is burning out, they no longer feel they can say no to things. Even those who don’t “speed up” feel pressure to say yes to not disappoint the people around them.

    What are three things you’ve done for yourself? Another observance is that we all tend to stop doing things for ourselves. Anything from skipping showers and eating poorly to avoiding talking to friends. These can be red flags. 

    Are you making excuses? Many of us try to disregard feelings of burnout. Over and over I have heard, “It’s just crunch time,” “As soon as I do this one thing, it will all be better,” and “Well I should be able to handle this, so I’ll figure it out.” And it might really be crunch time, a single goal, and/or a skill set you need to learn. That happens—life happens. BUT if this doesn’t stop, be honest with yourself. If you’ve worked more 50-hour weeks since January than not, maybe it’s not crunch time—maybe it’s a bad situation that you’re burning out from.

    Do you have a plan to stop feeling this way? If something is truly temporary and you do need to just push through, then it has an exit route with a
    defined end.

    Take the time to listen to yourself as you would a friend. Be honest, allow yourself to be uncomfortable, and break the thought cycles that prevent you from healing. 

    So now what?

    What I just described is a different path to burnout, but it’s still burnout. There are well-established approaches to working through burnout:

    • Get enough sleep.
    • Eat healthy.
    • Work out.
    • Get outside.
    • Take a break.
    • Overall, practice self-care.

    Those are hard for me because they feel like more tasks. If I’m in the burnout cycle, doing any of the above for me feels like a waste. The narrative is that if I’m already failing, why would I take care of myself when I’m dropping all those other balls? People need me, right? 

    If you’re deep in the cycle, your inner voice might be pretty awful by now. If you need to, tell yourself you need to take care of the person your people depend on. If your roles are pushing you toward burnout, use them to help make healing easier by justifying the time spent working on you. 

    To help remind myself of the airline attendant message about putting the mask on yourself first, I have come up with a few things that I do when I start feeling myself going into a zealous burnout.

    Cook an elaborate meal for someone! 

    OK, I am a “food-focused” individual so cooking for someone is always my go-to. There are countless tales in my home of someone walking into the kitchen and turning right around and walking out when they noticed I was “chopping angrily.” But it’s more than that, and you should give it a try. Seriously. It’s the perfect go-to if you don’t feel worthy of taking time for yourself—do it for someone else. Most of us work in a digital world, so cooking can fill all of your senses and force you to be in the moment with all the ways you perceive the world. It can break you out of your head and help you gain a better perspective. In my house, I’ve been known to pick a place on the map and cook food that comes from wherever that is (thank you, Pinterest). I love cooking Indian food, as the smells are warm, the bread needs just enough kneading to keep my hands busy, and the process takes real attention for me because it’s not what I was brought up making. And in the end, we all win!

    Vent like a foul-mouthed fool

    Be careful with this one! 

    I have been making an effort to practice more gratitude over the past few years, and I recognize the true benefits of that. That said, sometimes you just gotta let it all out—even the ugly. Hell, I’m a big fan of not sugarcoating our lives, and that sometimes means that to get past the big pile of poop, you’re gonna wanna complain about it a bit. 

    When that is what’s needed, turn to a trusted friend and allow yourself some pure verbal diarrhea, saying all the things that are bothering you. You need to trust this friend not to judge, to see your pain, and, most importantly, to tell you to remove your cranium from your own rectal cavity. Seriously, it’s about getting a reality check here! One of the things I admire the most about my husband (though often after the fact) is his ability to break things down to their simplest. “We’re spending our lives together, of course you’re going to disappoint me from time to time, so get over it” has been his way of speaking his dedication, love, and acceptance of me—and I could not be more grateful. It also, of course, has meant that I needed to remove my head from that rectal cavity. So, again, usually those moments are appreciated in hindsight.

    Pick up a book! 

    There are many books out there that aren’t so much self-help as they are people just like you sharing their stories and how they’ve come to find greater balance. Maybe you’ll find something that speaks to you. Titles that have stood out to me include:

    • Thrive by Arianna Huffington
    • Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
    • Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis
    • Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

    Or, another tactic I love to employ is to read or listen to a book that has NOTHING to do with my work-life balance. I’ve read the following books and found they helped balance me out because my mind was pondering their interesting topics instead of running in circles:

    • The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart
    • Superlife by Darin Olien
    • A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived by Adam Rutherford
    • Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway 

    If you’re not into reading, pick up a topic on YouTube or choose a podcast to subscribe to. I’ve watched countless permaculture and gardening topics in addition to how to raise chickens and ducks. For the record, I do not have a particularly large food garden, nor do I own livestock of any kind...yet. I just find the topic interesting, and it has nothing to do with any aspect of my life that needs anything from me.

    Forgive yourself 

    You are never going to be perfect—hell, it would be boring if you were. It’s OK to be broken and flawed. It’s human to be tired and sad and worried. It’s OK to not do it all. It’s scary to be imperfect, but you cannot be brave if nothing were scary.

    This last one is the most important: allow yourself permission to NOT do it all. You never promised to be everything to everyone at all times. We are more powerful than the fears that drive us. 

    This is hard. It is hard for me. It’s what’s driven me to write this—that it’s OK to stop. It’s OK that your unhealthy habit that might even benefit those around you needs to end. You can still be successful in life.

    I recently read that we are all writing our eulogy in how we live. Knowing that your professional accomplishments won’t be mentioned in that speech, what will yours say? What do you want it to say? 

    Look, I get that none of these ideas will “fix it,” and that’s not their purpose. None of us are in control of our surroundings, only how we respond to them. These suggestions are to help stop the spiral effect so that you are empowered to address the underlying issues and choose your response. They are things that work for me most of the time. Maybe they’ll work for you.

    Does this sound familiar? 

    If this sounds familiar, it’s not just you. Don’t let your negative self-talk tell you that you “even burn out wrong.” It’s not wrong. Even if rooted in fear like my own drivers, I believe that this need to do more comes from a place of love, determination, motivation, and other wonderful attributes that make you the amazing person you are. We’re going to be OK, ya know. The lives that unfold before us might never look like that story in our head—that idea of “perfect” or “done” we’re looking for, but that’s OK. Really, when we stop and look around, usually the only eyes that judge us are in the mirror. 

    Do you remember that Winnie the Pooh sketch that had Pooh eat so much at Rabbit’s house that his buttocks couldn’t fit through the door? Well, I already associate a lot with Rabbit, so it came as no surprise when he abruptly declared that this was unacceptable. But do you recall what happened next? He put a shelf across poor Pooh’s ankles and decorations on his back, and made the best of the big butt in his kitchen. 

    At the end of the day we are resourceful and know that we are able to push ourselves if we need to—even when we are tired to our core or have a big butt of fluff ‘n’ stuff in our room. None of us has to be afraid, as we can manage any obstacle put in front of us. And maybe that means we will need to redefine success to allow space for being uncomfortably human, but that doesn’t really sound so bad either. 

    So, wherever you are right now, please breathe. Do what you need to do to get out of your head. Forgive and take care.

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  • Best wireless keyboards: Hand-tested reviews of Bluetooth and USB models

    The best wireless keyboards do more than free you from a cable. They let you toss the crummy keyboard you got for free with your PC—does anyone like that one?—and they also give you options. The models we’ve reviewed range from full-size desktop slabs to portable models that skip easily from laptop to tablet to phone. Whatever you need to type with, there’s a keyboard for it. 

    Keyboard choice can be very subjective. That said, we’ve based our reviews on hours spent with each model, banging away on work projects, surfing the web, and keeping up on social media. 

    There’s truly no one size to fit all, but our reviews aim to give you enough specifics to make a sound decision. Check out our buying advice at the end to help you choose from other models you find.

    To read this article in full, please click here

  • What is Valve Proton? The Steam Deck's live-or-die Linux software, explained

    Looking at the spec sheet alone, the just-revealed $399 Steam Deck gaming handheld should be a winner. Valve’s PC-centric Nintendo Switch rival features a big 7-inch touchscreen, plenty of control inputs, an all-AMD chip based on the same hardware inside the Xbox Series S|X and PlayStation 5, and the ability to double as a full-fledged Linux PC. But forget the hardware. While it’s impressive indeed, the Steam Deck will sink or swim based on its software, and that means Valve awesome Proton technology is about to be thrust into the spotlight.

    To read this article in full, please click here

  • How to change your mouse DPI

    Everything connected to a PC should go faster. The processor, the GPU, the storage drive, the printer (like that'll ever happen), and even the mouse. Yes, the mouse. You may not know it if you're using a regular office mouse, but that little handheld pointer is unacceptably slow. Upping its DPI setting can help.

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    Razer Synapse supports greater control over mouse DPI for the company's gaming peripherals.

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