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A List Apart: The Full Feed
Articles for people who make web sites.
  • Humility: An Essential Value

    Humility, a designer’s essential value—that has a nice ring to it. What about humility, an office manager’s essential value? Or a dentist’s? Or a librarian’s? They all sound great. When humility is our guiding light, the path is always open for fulfillment, evolution, connection, and engagement. In this chapter, we’re going to talk about why.

    That said, this is a book for designers, and to that end, I’d like to start with a story—well, a journey, really. It’s a personal one, and I’m going to make myself a bit vulnerable along the way. I call it:

    The Tale of Justin’s Preposterous Pate

    When I was coming out of art school, a long-haired, goateed neophyte, print was a known quantity to me; design on the web, however, was rife with complexities to navigate and discover, a problem to be solved. Though I had been formally trained in graphic design, typography, and layout, what fascinated me was how these traditional skills might be applied to a fledgling digital landscape. This theme would ultimately shape the rest of my career.

    So rather than graduate and go into print like many of my friends, I devoured HTML and JavaScript books into the wee hours of the morning and taught myself how to code during my senior year. I wanted—nay, needed—to better understand the underlying implications of what my design decisions would mean once rendered in a browser.

    The late ’90s and early 2000s were the so-called “Wild West” of web design. Designers at the time were all figuring out how to apply design and visual communication to the digital landscape. What were the rules? How could we break them and still engage, entertain, and convey information? At a more macro level, how could my values, inclusive of humility, respect, and connection, align in tandem with that? I was hungry to find out.

    Though I’m talking about a different era, those are timeless considerations between non-career interactions and the world of design. What are your core passions, or values, that transcend medium? It’s essentially the same concept we discussed earlier on the direct parallels between what fulfills you, agnostic of the tangible or digital realms; the core themes are all the same.

    First within tables, animated GIFs, Flash, then with Web Standards, divs, and CSS, there was personality, raw unbridled creativity, and unique means of presentment that often defied any semblance of a visible grid. Splash screens and “browser requirement” pages aplenty. Usability and accessibility were typically victims of such a creation, but such paramount facets of any digital design were largely (and, in hindsight, unfairly) disregarded at the expense of experimentation.

    For example, this iteration of my personal portfolio site (“the pseudoroom”) from that era was experimental, if not a bit heavy- handed, in the visual communication of the concept of a living sketchbook. Very skeuomorphic. I collaborated with fellow designer and dear friend Marc Clancy (now a co-founder of the creative project organizing app Milanote) on this one, where we’d first sketch and then pass a Photoshop file back and forth to trick things out and play with varied user interactions. Then, I’d break it down and code it into a digital layout.

    Figure 1: “the pseudoroom” website, hitting the sketchbook metaphor hard.

    Along with design folio pieces, the site also offered free downloads for Mac OS customizations: desktop wallpapers that were effectively design experimentation, custom-designed typefaces, and desktop icons.

    From around the same time, GUI Galaxy was a design, pixel art, and Mac-centric news portal some graphic designer friends and I conceived, designed, developed, and deployed.

    Figure 2: GUI Galaxy, web standards-compliant design news portal

    Design news portals were incredibly popular during this period, featuring (what would now be considered) Tweet-size, small-format snippets of pertinent news from the categories I previously mentioned. If you took Twitter, curated it to a few categories, and wrapped it in a custom-branded experience, you’d have a design news portal from the late 90s / early 2000s.

    We as designers had evolved and created a bandwidth-sensitive, web standards award-winning, much more accessibility-conscious website. Still ripe with experimentation, yet more mindful of equitable engagement. You can see a couple of content panes here, noting general news (tech, design) and Mac-centric news below. We also offered many of the custom downloads I cited before as present on my folio site but branded and themed to GUI Galaxy.

    The site’s backbone was a homegrown CMS, with the presentation layer consisting of global design + illustration + news author collaboration. And the collaboration effort here, in addition to experimentation on a ‘brand’ and content delivery, was hitting my core. We were designing something bigger than any single one of us and connecting with a global audience.

    Collaboration and connection transcend medium in their impact, immensely fulfilling me as a designer.

    Now, why am I taking you down this trip of design memory lane? Two reasons.

    First, there’s a reason for the nostalgia for that design era (the “Wild West” era, as I called it earlier): the inherent exploration, personality, and creativity that saturated many design portals and personal portfolio sites. Ultra-finely detailed pixel art UI, custom illustration, bespoke vector graphics, all underpinned by a strong design community.

    Today’s web design has been in a period of stagnation. I suspect there’s a strong chance you’ve seen a site whose structure looks something like this: a hero image / banner with text overlaid, perhaps with a lovely rotating carousel of images (laying the snark on heavy there), a call to action, and three columns of sub-content directly beneath. Maybe an icon library is employed with selections that vaguely relate to their respective content.

    Design, as it’s applied to the digital landscape, is in dire need of thoughtful layout, typography, and visual engagement that goes hand-in-hand with all the modern considerations we now know are paramount: usability. Accessibility. Load times and bandwidth- sensitive content delivery. A responsive presentation that meets human beings wherever they’re engaging from. We must be mindful of, and respectful toward, those concerns—but not at the expense of creativity of visual communication or via replicating cookie-cutter layouts.

    Pixel Problems

    Websites during this period were often designed and built on Macs whose OS and desktops looked something like this. This is Mac OS 7.5, but 8 and 9 weren’t that different.

    Figure 3: A Mac OS 7.5-centric desktop.

    Desktop icons fascinated me: how could any single one, at any given point, stand out to get my attention? In this example, the user’s desktop is tidy, but think of a more realistic example with icon pandemonium. Or, say an icon was part of a larger system grouping (fonts, extensions, control panels)—how did it also maintain cohesion amongst a group?

    These were 32 x 32 pixel creations, utilizing a 256-color palette, designed pixel-by-pixel as mini mosaics. To me, this was the embodiment of digital visual communication under such ridiculous constraints. And often, ridiculous restrictions can yield the purification of concept and theme.

    So I began to research and do my homework. I was a student of this new medium, hungry to dissect, process, discover, and make it my own.

    Expanding upon the notion of exploration, I wanted to see how I could push the limits of a 32x32 pixel grid with that 256-color palette. Those ridiculous constraints forced a clarity of concept and presentation that I found incredibly appealing. The digital gauntlet had been tossed, and that challenge fueled me. And so, in my dorm room into the wee hours of the morning, I toiled away, bringing conceptual sketches into mini mosaic fruition.

    These are some of my creations, utilizing the only tool available at the time to create icons called ResEdit. ResEdit was a clunky, built-in Mac OS utility not really made for exactly what we were using it for. At the core of all of this work: Research. Challenge. Problem- solving. Again, these core connection-based values are agnostic of medium.

    Figure 4: A selection of my pixel art design, 32x32 pixel canvas, 8-bit palette

    There’s one more design portal I want to talk about, which also serves as the second reason for my story to bring this all together.

    This is K10k, short for Kaliber 1000. K10k was founded in 1998 by Michael Schmidt and Toke Nygaard, and was the design news portal on the web during this period. With its pixel art-fueled presentation, ultra-focused care given to every facet and detail, and with many of the more influential designers of the time who were invited to be news authors on the site, well... it was the place to be, my friend. With respect where respect is due, GUI Galaxy’s concept was inspired by what these folks were doing.

    Figure 5: The K10k website

    For my part, the combination of my web design work and pixel art exploration began to get me some notoriety in the design scene. Eventually, K10k noticed and added me as one of their very select group of news authors to contribute content to the site.

    Amongst my personal work and side projects—and now with this inclusion—in the design community, this put me on the map. My design work also began to be published in various printed collections, in magazines domestically and overseas, and featured on other design news portals. With that degree of success while in my early twenties, something else happened:

    I evolved—devolved, really—into a colossal asshole (and in just about a year out of art school, no less). The press and the praise became what fulfilled me, and they went straight to my head. They inflated my ego. I actually felt somewhat superior to my fellow designers.

    The casualties? My design stagnated. Its evolution—my evolution— stagnated.

    I felt so supremely confident in my abilities that I effectively stopped researching and discovering. When previously sketching concepts or iterating ideas in lead was my automatic step one, I instead leaped right into Photoshop. I drew my inspiration from the smallest of sources (and with blinders on). Any critique of my work from my peers was often vehemently dismissed. The most tragic loss: I had lost touch with my values.

    My ego almost cost me some of my friendships and burgeoning professional relationships. I was toxic in talking about design and in collaboration. But thankfully, those same friends gave me a priceless gift: candor. They called me out on my unhealthy behavior.

    Admittedly, it was a gift I initially did not accept but ultimately was able to deeply reflect upon. I was soon able to accept, and process, and course correct. The realization laid me low, but the re-awakening was essential. I let go of the “reward” of adulation and re-centered upon what stoked the fire for me in art school. Most importantly: I got back to my core values.

    Always Students

    Following that short-term regression, I was able to push forward in my personal design and career. And I could self-reflect as I got older to facilitate further growth and course correction as needed.

    As an example, let’s talk about the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC was designed “to help answer some of the fundamental open questions in physics, which concern the basic laws governing the interactions and forces among the elementary objects, the deep structure of space and time, and in particular the interrelation between quantum mechanics and general relativity.” Thanks, Wikipedia.

    Around fifteen years ago, in one of my earlier professional roles, I designed the interface for the application that generated the LHC’s particle collision diagrams. These diagrams are the rendering of what’s actually happening inside the Collider during any given particle collision event and are often considered works of art unto themselves.

    Designing the interface for this application was a fascinating process for me, in that I worked with Fermilab physicists to understand what the application was trying to achieve, but also how the physicists themselves would be using it. To that end, in this role,

    I cut my teeth on usability testing, working with the Fermilab team to iterate and improve the interface. How they spoke and what they spoke about was like an alien language to me. And by making myself humble and working under the mindset that I was but a student, I made myself available to be a part of their world to generate that vital connection.

    I also had my first ethnographic observation experience: going to the Fermilab location and observing how the physicists used the tool in their actual environment, on their actual terminals. For example, one takeaway was that due to the level of ambient light-driven contrast within the facility, the data columns ended up using white text on a dark gray background instead of black text-on-white. This enabled them to pore over reams of data during the day and ease their eye strain. And Fermilab and CERN are government entities with rigorous accessibility standards, so my knowledge in that realm also grew. The barrier-free design was another essential form of connection.

    So to those core drivers of my visual problem-solving soul and ultimate fulfillment: discovery, exposure to new media, observation, human connection, and evolution. What opened the door for those values was me checking my ego before I walked through it.

    An evergreen willingness to listen, learn, understand, grow, evolve, and connect yields our best work. In particular, I want to focus on the words ‘grow’ and ‘evolve’ in that statement. If we are always students of our craft, we are also continually making ourselves available to evolve. Yes, we have years of applicable design study under our belt. Or the focused lab sessions from a UX bootcamp. Or the monogrammed portfolio of our work. Or, ultimately, decades of a career behind us.

    But all that said: experience does not equal “expert.”

    As soon as we close our minds via an inner monologue of ‘knowing it all’ or branding ourselves a “#thoughtleader” on social media, the designer we are is our final form. The designer we can be will never exist.

  • Personalization Pyramid: A Framework for Designing with User Data

    As a UX professional in today’s data-driven landscape, it’s increasingly likely that you’ve been asked to design a personalized digital experience, whether it’s a public website, user portal, or native application. Yet while there continues to be no shortage of marketing hype around personalization platforms, we still have very few standardized approaches for implementing personalized UX.

    That’s where we come in. After completing dozens of personalization projects over the past few years, we gave ourselves a goal: could you create a holistic personalization framework specifically for UX practitioners? The Personalization Pyramid is a designer-centric model for standing up human-centered personalization programs, spanning data, segmentation, content delivery, and overall goals. By using this approach, you will be able to understand the core components of a contemporary, UX-driven personalization program (or at the very least know enough to get started). 

    A chart answering the question Do you have the resources you need to run personalization in your organization? Globally, 13% don’t 33% have limited access, 39% have it (on demand), and 15% have it dedicated.

    Growing tools for personalization: According to a Dynamic Yield survey, 39% of respondents felt support is available on-demand when a business case is made for it (up 15% from 2020).

    Source: “The State of Personalization Maturity – Q4 2021” Dynamic Yield conducted its annual maturity survey across roles and sectors in the Americas (AMER), Europe and the Middle East (EMEA), and the Asia-Pacific (APAC) regions. This marks the fourth consecutive year publishing our research, which includes more than 450 responses from individuals in the C-Suite, Marketing, Merchandising, CX, Product, and IT.

    Getting Started

    For the sake of this article, we’ll assume you’re already familiar with the basics of digital personalization. A good overview can be found here: Website Personalization Planning. While UX projects in this area can take on many different forms, they often stem from similar starting points.      

    Common scenarios for starting a personalization project:

    • Your organization or client purchased a content management system (CMS) or marketing automation platform (MAP) or related technology that supports personalization
    • The CMO, CDO, or CIO has identified personalization as a goal
    • Customer data is disjointed or ambiguous
    • You are running some isolated targeting campaigns or A/B testing
    • Stakeholders disagree on personalization approach
    • Mandate of customer privacy rules (e.g. GDPR) requires revisiting existing user targeting practices
    Two men and a woman discussing personalization using a card deck. They are seated at a round table in a hotel conference room. The workshop leaders, two women, are at a podium in the background.
    Workshopping personalization at a conference.

    Regardless of where you begin, a successful personalization program will require the same core building blocks. We’ve captured these as the “levels” on the pyramid. Whether you are a UX designer, researcher, or strategist, understanding the core components can help make your contribution successful.  

    The Personalization Pyramid visualized. The pyramid is stacks labeled, from the bottom, raw data (1m+), actionable data (100k+), user segments (1k+), contexts & campaigns (100s), touchpoints (dozens), goals (handful). The North Star (one) is above. An arrow for prescriptive, business driven data goes up the left side and an arrow for adaptive user-driven data goes down the right side.
    From the ground up: Soup-to-nuts personalization, without going nuts.

    From top to bottom, the levels include:

    1. North Star: What larger strategic objective is driving the personalization program? 
    2. Goals: What are the specific, measurable outcomes of the program? 
    3. Touchpoints: Where will the personalized experience be served?
    4. Contexts and Campaigns: What personalization content will the user see?
    5. User Segments: What constitutes a unique, usable audience? 
    6. Actionable Data: What reliable and authoritative data is captured by our technical platform to drive personalization?  
    7. Raw Data: What wider set of data is conceivably available (already in our setting) allowing you to personalize?

    We’ll go through each of these levels in turn. To help make this actionable, we created an accompanying deck of cards to illustrate specific examples from each level. We’ve found them helpful in personalization brainstorming sessions, and will include examples for you here.

    A deck of personalization brainstorming cards (the size of playing cards) against a black background.
    Personalization pack: Deck of cards to help kickstart your personalization brainstorming.

    Starting at the Top

    The components of the pyramid are as follows:

    North Star

    A north star is what you are aiming for overall with your personalization program (big or small). The North Star defines the (one) overall mission of the personalization program. What do you wish to accomplish? North Stars cast a shadow. The bigger the star, the bigger the shadow. Example of North Starts might include: 

    1. Function: Personalize based on basic user inputs. Examples: “Raw” notifications, basic search results, system user settings and configuration options, general customization, basic optimizations
    2. Feature: Self-contained personalization componentry. Examples: “Cooked” notifications, advanced optimizations (geolocation), basic dynamic messaging, customized modules, automations, recommenders
    3. Experience: Personalized user experiences across multiple interactions and user flows. Examples: Email campaigns, landing pages, advanced messaging (i.e. C2C chat) or conversational interfaces, larger user flows and content-intensive optimizations (localization).
    4. Product: Highly differentiating personalized product experiences. Examples: Standalone, branded experiences with personalization at their core, like the “algotorial” playlists by Spotify such as Discover Weekly.
    Function: React to basic user inputs
    Feature: personalized modules
    Experience: Integrated personalization
    North star cards. These can help orient your team towards a common goal that personalization will help achieve; Also, these are useful for characterizing the end-state ambition of the presently stated personalization effort.

    Goals

    As in any good UX design, personalization can help accelerate designing with customer intentions. Goals are the tactical and measurable metrics that will prove the overall program is successful. A good place to start is with your current analytics and measurement program and metrics you can benchmark against. In some cases, new goals may be appropriate. The key thing to remember is that personalization itself is not a goal, rather it is a means to an end. Common goals include:

    • Conversion
    • Time on task
    • Net promoter score (NPS)
    • Customer satisfaction 
    NPS: Net Promoter Score
    Time on Task: Users move quicker
    Conversion: Move more of the thing
    Goal cards. Examples of some common KPIs related to personalization that are concrete and measurable.

    Touchpoints

    Touchpoints are where the personalization happens. As a UX designer, this will be one of your largest areas of responsibility. The touchpoints available to you will depend on how your personalization and associated technology capabilities are instrumented, and should be rooted in improving a user’s experience at a particular point in the journey. Touchpoints can be multi-device (mobile, in-store, website) but also more granular (web banner, web pop-up etc.). Here are some examples:

    Channel-level Touchpoints

    • Email: Role
    • Email: Time of open
    • In-store display (JSON endpoint)
    • Native app
    • Search

    Wireframe-level Touchpoints

    • Web overlay
    • Web alert bar
    • Web banner
    • Web content block
    • Web menu
    In-store Display: End-cap interfaces
    Email: Time, personalize at time of open
    Content Block: Into the woodwork
    Touchpoint cards. Examples of common personalization touchpoints: these can vary from narrow (e.g., email) to broad (e.g., in-store).

    If you’re designing for web interfaces, for example, you will likely need to include personalized “zones” in your wireframes. The content for these can be presented programmatically in touchpoints based on our next step, contexts and campaigns.

    Targeted Zones: Examples from Kibo of personalized “zones” on page-level wireframes occurring at various stages of a user journey (Engagement phase at left and Purchase phase at right.)

    Source: “Essential Guide to End-to-End Personaliztion” by Kibo.

    Contexts and Campaigns

    Once you’ve outlined some touchpoints, you can consider the actual personalized content a user will receive. Many personalization tools will refer to these as “campaigns” (so, for example, a campaign on a web banner for new visitors to the website). These will programmatically be shown at certain touchpoints to certain user segments, as defined by user data. At this stage, we find it helpful to consider two separate models: a context model and a content model. The context helps you consider the level of engagement of the user at the personalization moment, for example a user casually browsing information vs. doing a deep-dive. Think of it in terms of information retrieval behaviors. The content model can then help you determine what type of personalization to serve based on the context (for example, an “Enrich” campaign that shows related articles may be a suitable supplement to extant content).

    Personalization Context Model:

    1. Browse
    2. Skim
    3. Nudge
    4. Feast

    Personalization Content Model:

    1. Alert
    2. Make Easier
    3. Cross-Sell
    4. Enrich

    We’ve written extensively about each of these models elsewhere, so if you’d like to read more you can check out Colin’s Personalization Content Model and Jeff’s Personalization Context Model

    Cross Sell: You may also like…
    Enrich: You might find this interesting
    Browse: Lean back, shallow engagement
    Campaign and Context cards: This level of the pyramid can help your team focus around the types of personalization to deliver end users and the use-cases in which they will experience it.

    User Segments

    User segments can be created prescriptively or adaptively, based on user research (e.g. via rules and logic tied to set user behaviors or via A/B testing). At a minimum you will likely need to consider how to treat the unknown or first-time visitor, the guest or returning visitor for whom you may have a stateful cookie (or equivalent post-cookie identifier), or the authenticated visitor who is logged in. Here are some examples from the personalization pyramid:

    • Unknown
    • Guest
    • Authenticated
    • Default
    • Referred
    • Role
    • Cohort
    • Unique ID
    Authenticated: Logged in with token
    Unknown: Could be anyone really
    Guest: Dropped a cookie
    Segment cards. Examples of common personalization segments: at a minimum, you will need to consider the anonymous, guest, and logged in user types. Segmentation can get dramatically more complex from there.

    Actionable Data

    Every organization with any digital presence has data. It’s a matter of asking what data you can ethically collect on users, its inherent reliability and value, as to how can you use it (sometimes known as “data activation.”) Fortunately, the tide is turning to first-party data: a recent study by Twilio estimates some 80% of businesses are using at least some type of first-party data to personalize the customer experience. 

    Chart that answers the question "Why is your company focusing on using first-party data for personalization?" The top answer (at 53%) is "it’s higher quality." That is followed by "It’s easier to manage" (46%), "it provides better privacy" (45%), "it’s easier to obtain" (42%), "it’s more cost-effective" (40%), "it’s more ethical" (37%), "our customers want us to" (36%), "it’s the industry norm" (27%), "it’s easier to comply with regulations" (27%), and "we are phasing out 3rd party cookies" (21%).
    Source: “The State of Personalization 2021” by Twilio. Survey respondents were n=2,700 adult consumers who have purchased something online in the past 6 months, and n=300 adult manager+ decision-makers at consumer-facing companies that provide goods and/or services online. Respondents were from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand.Data was collected from April 8 to April 20, 2021.

    First-party data represents multiple advantages on the UX front, including being relatively simple to collect, more likely to be accurate, and less susceptible to the “creep factor” of third-party data. So a key part of your UX strategy should be to determine what the best form of data collection is on your audiences. Here are some examples:

    Quizes: Tell us what you like
    Behavioral profiling: Males 40+ who wear fedoras
    Campaign Source: Your discount code 29780…
    Chart showing the impact of personalization across different phases of personalization maturity. It shows that effort is high in the early phases, but drops off quickly starting in phase 3 (machine learning) while at the same time conversion rates, AOV, and ROI increase from a relatively low level to off the chart.
    Figure 1.1.2: Example of a personalization maturity curve, showing progression from basic recommendations functionality to true individualization. Credit: https://kibocommerce.com/blog/kibos-personalization-maturity-chart/

    There is a progression of profiling when it comes to recognizing and making decisioning about different audiences and their signals. It tends to move towards more granular constructs about smaller and smaller cohorts of users as time and confidence and data volume grow.

    While some combination of implicit / explicit data is generally a prerequisite for any implementation (more commonly referred to as first party and third-party data) ML efforts are typically not cost-effective directly out of the box. This is because a strong data backbone and content repository is a prerequisite for optimization. But these approaches should be considered as part of the larger roadmap and may indeed help accelerate the organization’s overall progress. Typically at this point you will partner with key stakeholders and product owners to design a profiling model. The profiling model includes defining approach to configuring profiles, profile keys, profile cards and pattern cards. A multi-faceted approach to profiling which makes it scalable.

    Pulling it Together

    While the cards comprise the starting point to an inventory of sorts (we provide blanks for you to tailor your own), a set of potential levers and motivations for the style of personalization activities you aspire to deliver, they are more valuable when thought of in a grouping. 

    In assembling a card “hand”, one can begin to trace the entire trajectory from leadership focus down through a strategic and tactical execution. It is also at the heart of the way both co-authors have conducted workshops in assembling a program backlog—which is a fine subject for another article.

    In the meantime, what is important to note is that each colored class of card is helpful to survey in understanding the range of choices potentially at your disposal, it is threading through and making concrete decisions about for whom this decisioning will be made: where, when, and how.

    Cards on a table. At the top: Function is the north star & customer satisfaction is the goal. User segment is unknown, the actionable data is a quiz, context is a nudge, campaign is to make something easier, and the touchpoint is a banner.
    Scenario A: We want to use personalization to improve customer satisfaction on the website. For unknown users, we will create a short quiz to better identify what the user has come to do. This is sometimes referred to as “badging” a user in onboarding contexts, to better characterize their present intent and context.

    Lay Down Your Cards

    Any sustainable personalization strategy must consider near, mid and long-term goals. Even with the leading CMS platforms like Sitecore and Adobe or the most exciting composable CMS DXP out there, there is simply no “easy button” wherein a personalization program can be stood up and immediately view meaningful results. That said, there is a common grammar to all personalization activities, just like every sentence has nouns and verbs. These cards attempt to map that territory.

  • Mobile-First CSS: Is It Time for a Rethink?

    The mobile-first design methodology is great—it focuses on what really matters to the user, it’s well-practiced, and it’s been a common design pattern for years. So developing your CSS mobile-first should also be great, too…right? 

    Well, not necessarily. Classic mobile-first CSS development is based on the principle of overwriting style declarations: you begin your CSS with default style declarations, and overwrite and/or add new styles as you add breakpoints with min-width media queries for larger viewports (for a good overview see “What is Mobile First CSS and Why Does It Rock?”). But all those exceptions create complexity and inefficiency, which in turn can lead to an increased testing effort and a code base that’s harder to maintain. Admit it—how many of us willingly want that?

    On your own projects, mobile-first CSS may yet be the best tool for the job, but first you need to evaluate just how appropriate it is in light of the visual design and user interactions you’re working on. To help you get started, here’s how I go about tackling the factors you need to watch for, and I’ll discuss some alternate solutions if mobile-first doesn’t seem to suit your project.

    Advantages of mobile-first

    Some of the things to like with mobile-first CSS development—and why it’s been the de facto development methodology for so long—make a lot of sense:

    Development hierarchy. One thing you undoubtedly get from mobile-first is a nice development hierarchy—you just focus on the mobile view and get developing. 

    Tried and tested. It’s a tried and tested methodology that’s worked for years for a reason: it solves a problem really well.

    Prioritizes the mobile view. The mobile view is the simplest and arguably the most important, as it encompasses all the key user journeys, and often accounts for a higher proportion of user visits (depending on the project). 

    Prevents desktop-centric development. As development is done using desktop computers, it can be tempting to initially focus on the desktop view. But thinking about mobile from the start prevents us from getting stuck later on; no one wants to spend their time retrofitting a desktop-centric site to work on mobile devices!

    Disadvantages of mobile-first

    Setting style declarations and then overwriting them at higher breakpoints can lead to undesirable ramifications:

    More complexity. The farther up the breakpoint hierarchy you go, the more unnecessary code you inherit from lower breakpoints. 

    Higher CSS specificity. Styles that have been reverted to their browser default value in a class name declaration now have a higher specificity. This can be a headache on large projects when you want to keep the CSS selectors as simple as possible.

    Requires more regression testing. Changes to the CSS at a lower view (like adding a new style) requires all higher breakpoints to be regression tested.

    The browser can’t prioritize CSS downloads. At wider breakpoints, classic mobile-first min-width media queries don’t leverage the browser’s capability to download CSS files in priority order.

    The problem of property value overrides

    There is nothing inherently wrong with overwriting values; CSS was designed to do just that. Still, inheriting incorrect values is unhelpful and can be burdensome and inefficient. It can also lead to increased style specificity when you have to overwrite styles to reset them back to their defaults, something that may cause issues later on, especially if you are using a combination of bespoke CSS and utility classes. We won’t be able to use a utility class for a style that has been reset with a higher specificity.

    With this in mind, I’m developing CSS with a focus on the default values much more these days. Since there’s no specific order, and no chains of specific values to keep track of, this frees me to develop breakpoints simultaneously. I concentrate on finding common styles and isolating the specific exceptions in closed media query ranges (that is, any range with a max-width set). 

    This approach opens up some opportunities, as you can look at each breakpoint as a clean slate. If a component’s layout looks like it should be based on Flexbox at all breakpoints, it’s fine and can be coded in the default style sheet. But if it looks like Grid would be much better for large screens and Flexbox for mobile, these can both be done entirely independently when the CSS is put into closed media query ranges. Also, developing simultaneously requires you to have a good understanding of any given component in all breakpoints up front. This can help surface issues in the design earlier in the development process. We don’t want to get stuck down a rabbit hole building a complex component for mobile, and then get the designs for desktop and find they are equally complex and incompatible with the HTML we created for the mobile view! 

    Though this approach isn’t going to suit everyone, I encourage you to give it a try. There are plenty of tools out there to help with concurrent development, such as Responsively App, Blisk, and many others. 

    Having said that, I don’t feel the order itself is particularly relevant. If you are comfortable with focusing on the mobile view, have a good understanding of the requirements for other breakpoints, and prefer to work on one device at a time, then by all means stick with the classic development order. The important thing is to identify common styles and exceptions so you can put them in the relevant stylesheet—a sort of manual tree-shaking process! Personally, I find this a little easier when working on a component across breakpoints, but that’s by no means a requirement.

    Closed media query ranges in practice 

    In classic mobile-first CSS we overwrite the styles, but we can avoid this by using media query ranges. To illustrate the difference (I’m using SCSS for brevity), let’s assume there are three visual designs: 

    • smaller than 768
    • from 768 to below 1024
    • 1024 and anything larger 

    Take a simple example where a block-level element has a default padding of “20px,” which is overwritten at tablet to be “40px” and set back to “20px” on desktop.

    Classic min-width mobile-first

    .my-block {
      padding: 20px;
      @media (min-width: 768px) {
        padding: 40px;
      }
      @media (min-width: 1024px) {
        padding: 20px;
      }
    }

    Closed media query range

    .my-block {
      padding: 20px;
      @media (min-width: 768px) and (max-width: 1023.98px) {
        padding: 40px;
      }
    }

    The subtle difference is that the mobile-first example sets the default padding to “20px” and then overwrites it at each breakpoint, setting it three times in total. In contrast, the second example sets the default padding to “20px” and only overrides it at the relevant breakpoint where it isn’t the default value (in this instance, tablet is the exception).

    The goal is to: 

    • Only set styles when needed. 
    • Not set them with the expectation of overwriting them later on, again and again. 

    To this end, closed media query ranges are our best friend. If we need to make a change to any given view, we make it in the CSS media query range that applies to the specific breakpoint. We’ll be much less likely to introduce unwanted alterations, and our regression testing only needs to focus on the breakpoint we have actually edited. 

    Taking the above example, if we find that .my-block spacing on desktop is already accounted for by the margin at that breakpoint, and since we want to remove the padding altogether, we could do this by setting the mobile padding in a closed media query range.

    .my-block {
      @media (max-width: 767.98px) {
        padding: 20px;
      }
      @media (min-width: 768px) and (max-width: 1023.98px) {
        padding: 40px;
      }
    }

    The browser default padding for our block is “0,” so instead of adding a desktop media query and using unset or “0” for the padding value (which we would need with mobile-first), we can wrap the mobile padding in a closed media query (since it is now also an exception) so it won’t get picked up at wider breakpoints. At the desktop breakpoint, we won’t need to set any padding style, as we want the browser default value.

    Bundling versus separating the CSS

    Back in the day, keeping the number of requests to a minimum was very important due to the browser’s limit of concurrent requests (typically around six). As a consequence, the use of image sprites and CSS bundling was the norm, with all the CSS being downloaded in one go, as one stylesheet with highest priority. 

    With HTTP/2 and HTTP/3 now on the scene, the number of requests is no longer the big deal it used to be. This allows us to separate the CSS into multiple files by media query. The clear benefit of this is the browser can now request the CSS it currently needs with a higher priority than the CSS it doesn’t. This is more performant and can reduce the overall time page rendering is blocked.

    Which HTTP version are you using?

    To determine which version of HTTP you’re using, go to your website and open your browser’s dev tools. Next, select the Network tab and make sure the Protocol column is visible. If “h2” is listed under Protocol, it means HTTP/2 is being used. 

    Note: to view the Protocol in your browser’s dev tools, go to the Network tab, reload your page, right-click any column header (e.g., Name), and check the Protocol column.

    Chrome dev tools, Network tab filtered by document, Protocol column
    Note: for a summarized comparison, see ImageKit’s “HTTP/2 vs. HTTP/1.”

    Also, if your site is still using HTTP/1...WHY?!! What are you waiting for? There is excellent user support for HTTP/2.

    Splitting the CSS

    Separating the CSS into individual files is a worthwhile task. Linking the separate CSS files using the relevant media attribute allows the browser to identify which files are needed immediately (because they’re render-blocking) and which can be deferred. Based on this, it allocates each file an appropriate priority.

    In the following example of a website visited on a mobile breakpoint, we can see the mobile and default CSS are loaded with “Highest” priority, as they are currently needed to render the page. The remaining CSS files (print, tablet, and desktop) are still downloaded in case they’ll be needed later, but with “Lowest” priority. 

    Chrome dev tools, Network tab filtered by css, Priority column

    With bundled CSS, the browser will have to download the CSS file and parse it before rendering can start.

    While, as noted, with the CSS separated into different files linked and marked up with the relevant media attribute, the browser can prioritize the files it currently needs. Using closed media query ranges allows the browser to do this at all widths, as opposed to classic mobile-first min-width queries, where the desktop browser would have to download all the CSS with Highest priority. We can’t assume that desktop users always have a fast connection. For instance, in many rural areas, internet connection speeds are still slow. 

    The media queries and number of separate CSS files will vary from project to project based on project requirements, but might look similar to the example below.

    Bundled CSS

    <link href="/site.css" rel="stylesheet">

    This single file contains all the CSS, including all media queries, and it will be downloaded with Highest priority.

    Separated CSS

    <link href="/default.css" rel="stylesheet"><link href="/mobile.css" media="screen and (max-width: 767.98px)" rel="stylesheet"><link href="/tablet.css" media="screen and (min-width: 768px) and (max-width: 1083.98px)" rel="stylesheet"><link href="/desktop.css" media="screen and (min-width: 1084px)" rel="stylesheet"><link href="/print.css" media="print" rel="stylesheet">

    Separating the CSS and specifying a media attribute value on each link tag allows the browser to prioritize what it currently needs. Out of the five files listed above, two will be downloaded with Highest priority: the default file, and the file that matches the current media query. The others will be downloaded with Lowest priority.

    Depending on the project’s deployment strategy, a change to one file (mobile.css, for example) would only require the QA team to regression test on devices in that specific media query range. Compare that to the prospect of deploying the single bundled site.css file, an approach that would normally trigger a full regression test.

    Moving on

    The uptake of mobile-first CSS was a really important milestone in web development; it has helped front-end developers focus on mobile web applications, rather than developing sites on desktop and then attempting to retrofit them to work on other devices.

    I don’t think anyone wants to return to that development model again, but it’s important we don’t lose sight of the issue it highlighted: that things can easily get convoluted and less efficient if we prioritize one particular device—any device—over others. For this reason, focusing on the CSS in its own right, always mindful of what is the default setting and what’s an exception, seems like the natural next step. I’ve started noticing small simplifications in my own CSS, as well as other developers’, and that testing and maintenance work is also a bit more simplified and productive. 

    In general, simplifying CSS rule creation whenever we can is ultimately a cleaner approach than going around in circles of overrides. But whichever methodology you choose, it needs to suit the project. Mobile-first may—or may not—turn out to be the best choice for what’s involved, but first you need to solidly understand the trade-offs you’re stepping into.

  • Designers, (Re)define Success First

    About two and a half years ago, I introduced the idea of daily ethical design. It was born out of my frustration with the many obstacles to achieving design that’s usable and equitable; protects people’s privacy, agency, and focus; benefits society; and restores nature. I argued that we need to overcome the inconveniences that prevent us from acting ethically and that we need to elevate design ethics to a more practical level by structurally integrating it into our daily work, processes, and tools.

    Unfortunately, we’re still very far from this ideal. 

    At the time, I didn’t know yet how to structurally integrate ethics. Yes, I had found some tools that had worked for me in previous projects, such as using checklists, assumption tracking, and “dark reality” sessions, but I didn’t manage to apply those in every project. I was still struggling for time and support, and at best I had only partially achieved a higher (moral) quality of design—which is far from my definition of structurally integrated.

    I decided to dig deeper for the root causes in business that prevent us from practicing daily ethical design. Now, after much research and experimentation, I believe that I’ve found the key that will let us structurally integrate ethics. And it’s surprisingly simple! But first we need to zoom out to get a better understanding of what we’re up against.

    Influence the system

    Sadly, we’re trapped in a capitalistic system that reinforces consumerism and inequality, and it’s obsessed with the fantasy of endless growth. Sea levels, temperatures, and our demand for energy continue to rise unchallenged, while the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Shareholders expect ever-higher returns on their investments, and companies feel forced to set short-term objectives that reflect this. Over the last decades, those objectives have twisted our well-intended human-centered mindset into a powerful machine that promotes ever-higher levels of consumption. When we’re working for an organization that pursues “double-digit growth” or “aggressive sales targets” (which is 99 percent of us), that’s very hard to resist while remaining human friendly. Even with our best intentions, and even though we like to say that we create solutions for people, we’re a part of the problem.

    What can we do to change this?

    We can start by acting on the right level of the system. Donella H. Meadows, a system thinker, once listed ways to influence a system in order of effectiveness. When you apply these to design, you get:

    • At the lowest level of effectiveness, you can affect numbers such as usability scores or the number of design critiques. But none of that will change the direction of a company.
    • Similarly, affecting buffers (such as team budgets), stocks (such as the number of designers), flows (such as the number of new hires), and delays (such as the time that it takes to hear about the effect of design) won’t significantly affect a company.
    • Focusing instead on feedback loops such as management control, employee recognition, or design-system investments can help a company become better at achieving its objectives. But that doesn’t change the objectives themselves, which means that the organization will still work against your ethical-design ideals.
    • The next level, information flows, is what most ethical-design initiatives focus on now: the exchange of ethical methods, toolkits, articles, conferences, workshops, and so on. This is also where ethical design has remained mostly theoretical. We’ve been focusing on the wrong level of the system all this time.
    • Take rules, for example—they beat knowledge every time. There can be widely accepted rules, such as how finance works, or a scrum team’s definition of done. But ethical design can also be smothered by unofficial rules meant to maintain profits, often revealed through comments such as “the client didn’t ask for it” or “don’t make it too big.”
    • Changing the rules without holding official power is very hard. That’s why the next level is so influential: self-organization. Experimentation, bottom-up initiatives, passion projects, self-steering teams—all of these are examples of self-organization that improve the resilience and creativity of a company. It’s exactly this diversity of viewpoints that’s needed to structurally tackle big systemic issues like consumerism, wealth inequality, and climate change.
    • Yet even stronger than self-organization are objectives and metrics. Our companies want to make more money, which means that everything and everyone in the company does their best to… make the company more money. And once I realized that profit is nothing more than a measurement, I understood how crucial a very specific, defined metric can be toward pushing a company in a certain direction.

    The takeaway? If we truly want to incorporate ethics into our daily design practice, we must first change the measurable objectives of the company we work for, from the bottom up.

    Redefine success

    Traditionally, we consider a product or service successful if it’s desirable to humans, technologically feasible, and financially viable. You tend to see these represented as equals; if you type the three words in a search engine, you’ll find diagrams of three equally sized, evenly arranged circles.

    A Venn diagram with three overlapping circles representing Viable, Desirable, and Feasible with the target directly in the central intersection of all three.

    But in our hearts, we all know that the three dimensions aren’t equally weighted: it’s viability that ultimately controls whether a product will go live. So a more realistic representation might look like this:

    A Venn diagram with two circles (Desirable and Feasible) overlapping. An arrow points from their intersection to a separate circle marked as Viable, with a target inside it.

    Desirability and feasibility are the means; viability is the goal. Companies—outside of nonprofits and charities—exist to make money.

    A genuinely purpose-driven company would try to reverse this dynamic: it would recognize finance for what it was intended for: a means. So both feasibility and viability are means to achieve what the company set out to achieve. It makes intuitive sense: to achieve most anything, you need resources, people, and money. (Fun fact: the Italian language knows no difference between feasibility and viability; both are simply fattibilità.)

    A Venn diagram with two circles (Viable and Feasible) overlapping. An arrow points from their intersection to a separate circle marked as Desirable, with a target inside it.

    But simply swapping viable for desirable isn’t enough to achieve an ethical outcome. Desirability is still linked to consumerism because the associated activities aim to identify what people want—whether it’s good for them or not. Desirability objectives, such as user satisfaction or conversion, don’t consider whether a product is healthy for people. They don’t prevent us from creating products that distract or manipulate people or stop us from contributing to society’s wealth inequality. They’re unsuitable for establishing a healthy balance with nature.

    There’s a fourth dimension of success that’s missing: our designs also need to be ethical in the effect that they have on the world.

    The original Venn diagram of three circles (Desirable, Viable, and Feasible) overlapping with the target in their central intersection. This time, a fourth circle named Ethical encompasses all three.

    This is hardly a new idea. Many similar models exist, some calling the fourth dimension accountability, integrity, or responsibility. What I’ve never seen before, however, is the necessary step that comes after: to influence the system as designers and to make ethical design more practical, we must create objectives for ethical design that are achievable and inspirational. There’s no one way to do this because it highly depends on your culture, values, and industry. But I’ll give you the version that I developed with a group of colleagues at a design agency. Consider it a template to get started.

    Pursue well-being, equity, and sustainability

    We created objectives that address design’s effect on three levels: individual, societal, and global.

    An objective on the individual level tells us what success is beyond the typical focus of usability and satisfaction—instead considering matters such as how much time and attention is required from users. We pursued well-being:

    We create products and services that allow for people’s health and happiness. Our solutions are calm, transparent, nonaddictive, and nonmisleading. We respect our users’ time, attention, and privacy, and help them make healthy and respectful choices.

    An objective on the societal level forces us to consider our impact beyond just the user, widening our attention to the economy, communities, and other indirect stakeholders. We called this objective equity:

    We create products and services that have a positive social impact. We consider economic equality, racial justice, and the inclusivity and diversity of people as teams, users, and customer segments. We listen to local culture, communities, and those we affect.

    Finally, the objective on the global level aims to ensure that we remain in balance with the only home we have as humanity. Referring to it simply as sustainability, our definition was:

    We create products and services that reward sufficiency and reusability. Our solutions support the circular economy: we create value from waste, repurpose products, and prioritize sustainable choices. We deliver functionality instead of ownership, and we limit energy use.

    In short, ethical design (to us) meant achieving wellbeing for each user and an equitable value distribution within society through a design that can be sustained by our living planet. When we introduced these objectives in the company, for many colleagues, design ethics and responsible design suddenly became tangible and achievable through practical—and even familiar—actions.

    Measure impact 

    But defining these objectives still isn’t enough. What truly caught the attention of senior management was the fact that we created a way to measure every design project’s well-being, equity, and sustainability.

    This overview lists example metrics that you can use as you pursue well-being, equity, and sustainability:

    A list of example metrics for ethical impact at individual, societal, and planetary levels. Individual well-being examples include increased calmness, lower screen time, improved safety and privacy. Societal equity examples include improved accessibility, increased team and stakeholder diversity, and increased progressive enhancement. Finally, planetary sustainability examples include reduced energy use, reduced website carbon emissions and device turnover, and increased expert involvement.

    There’s a lot of power in measurement. As the saying goes, what gets measured gets done. Donella Meadows once shared this example:

    “If the desired system state is national security, and that is defined as the amount of money spent on the military, the system will produce military spending. It may or may not produce national security.”

    This phenomenon explains why desirability is a poor indicator of success: it’s typically defined as the increase in customer satisfaction, session length, frequency of use, conversion rate, churn rate, download rate, and so on. But none of these metrics increase the health of people, communities, or ecosystems. What if instead we measured success through metrics for (digital) well-being, such as (reduced) screen time or software energy consumption?

    There’s another important message here. Even if we set an objective to build a calm interface, if we were to choose the wrong metric for calmness—say, the number of interface elements—we could still end up with a screen that induces anxiety. Choosing the wrong metric can completely undo good intentions. 

    Additionally, choosing the right metric is enormously helpful in focusing the design team. Once you go through the exercise of choosing metrics for our objectives, you’re forced to consider what success looks like concretely and how you can prove that you’ve reached your ethical objectives. It also forces you to consider what we as designers have control over: what can I include in my design or change in my process that will lead to the right type of success? The answer to this question brings a lot of clarity and focus.

    And finally, it’s good to remember that traditional businesses run on measurements, and managers love to spend much time discussing charts (ideally hockey-stick shaped)—especially if they concern profit, the one-above-all of metrics. For good or ill, to improve the system, to have a serious discussion about ethical design with managers, we’ll need to speak that business language.

    Practice daily ethical design

    Once you’ve defined your objectives and you have a reasonable idea of the potential metrics for your design project, only then do you have a chance to structurally practice ethical design. It “simply” becomes a matter of using your creativity and choosing from all the knowledge and toolkits already available to you.

    A set of example methods and tools for practicing at the individual, societal, and planetary level. Individual tools include the principle of minimum necessary data, white-hat persuasion techniques, calm-technology guidelines, and more. Societal tools include stakeholder mapping, inclusive sampling and testing, progressive enhancement, accessibility principles, and more. Planetary tools include the flourishing business canvas, extended-service blueprint, website carbon calculators, product-lifecycle mapping, and more.

    I think this is quite exciting! It opens a whole new set of challenges and considerations for the design process. Should you go with that energy-consuming video or would a simple illustration be enough? Which typeface is the most calm and inclusive? Which new tools and methods do you use? When is the website’s end of life? How can you provide the same service while requiring less attention from users? How do you make sure that those who are affected by decisions are there when those decisions are made? How can you measure our effects?

    The redefinition of success will completely change what it means to do good design.

    There is, however, a final piece of the puzzle that’s missing: convincing your client, product owner, or manager to be mindful of well-being, equity, and sustainability. For this, it’s essential to engage stakeholders in a dedicated kickoff session.

    Kick it off or fall back to status quo

    The kickoff is the most important meeting that can be so easy to forget to include. It consists of two major phases: 1) the alignment of expectations, and 2) the definition of success.

    In the first phase, the entire (design) team goes over the project brief and meets with all the relevant stakeholders. Everyone gets to know one another and express their expectations on the outcome and their contributions to achieving it. Assumptions are raised and discussed. The aim is to get on the same level of understanding and to in turn avoid preventable miscommunications and surprises later in the project.

    For example, for a recent freelance project that aimed to design a digital platform that facilitates US student advisors’ documentation and communication, we conducted an online kickoff with the client, a subject-matter expert, and two other designers. We used a combination of canvases on Miro: one with questions from “Manual of Me” (to get to know each other), a Team Canvas (to express expectations), and a version of the Project Canvas to align on scope, timeline, and other practical matters.

    The above is the traditional purpose of a kickoff. But just as important as expressing expectations is agreeing on what success means for the project—in terms of desirability, viability, feasibility, and ethics. What are the objectives in each dimension?

    Agreement on what success means at such an early stage is crucial because you can rely on it for the remainder of the project. If, for example, the design team wants to build an inclusive app for a diverse user group, they can raise diversity as a specific success criterion during the kickoff. If the client agrees, the team can refer back to that promise throughout the project. “As we agreed in our first meeting, having a diverse user group that includes A and B is necessary to build a successful product. So we do activity X and follow research process Y.” Compare those odds to a situation in which the team didn’t agree to that beforehand and had to ask for permission halfway through the project. The client might argue that that came on top of the agreed scope—and she’d be right.

    In the case of this freelance project, to define success I prepared a round canvas that I call the Wheel of Success. It consists of an inner ring, meant to capture ideas for objectives, and a set of outer rings, meant to capture ideas on how to measure those objectives. The rings are divided into five dimensions of successful design: healthy, equitable, sustainable, desirable, feasible, and viable.

    The wheel of success. The central circle reads 'The product is a success when it is'. The next ring outside lists example values such as healthy, equitable, sustainable, viable, feasible, and desirable. The next ring out lists out measurable objectives for those values, and the outermost ring lists tools that can measure those objectives.

    We went through each dimension, writing down ideas on digital sticky notes. Then we discussed our ideas and verbally agreed on the most important ones. For example, our client agreed that sustainability and progressive enhancement are important success criteria for the platform. And the subject-matter expert emphasized the importance of including students from low-income and disadvantaged groups in the design process.

    After the kickoff, we summarized our ideas and shared understanding in a project brief that captured these aspects:

    • the project’s origin and purpose: why are we doing this project?
    • the problem definition: what do we want to solve?
    • the concrete goals and metrics for each success dimension: what do we want to achieve?
    • the scope, process, and role descriptions: how will we achieve it?

    With such a brief in place, you can use the agreed-upon objectives and concrete metrics as a checklist of success, and your design team will be ready to pursue the right objective—using the tools, methods, and metrics at their disposal to achieve ethical outcomes.

    A drawing of a set of mountains that also looks vaguely like a graph. The leftmost valley has 'Pursue the right objective' pointing at it. The middle valley has 'Solve the right problem' and the rightmost valley is labelled 'Build the right solution.' Below the mountains, a timeline shows from left to right: Kick-off, Problem space, Solution space, and Development.

    Conclusion

    Over the past year, quite a few colleagues have asked me, “Where do I start with ethical design?” My answer has always been the same: organize a session with your stakeholders to (re)define success. Even though you might not always be 100 percent successful in agreeing on goals that cover all responsibility objectives, that beats the alternative (the status quo) every time. If you want to be an ethical, responsible designer, there’s no skipping this step.

    To be even more specific: if you consider yourself a strategic designer, your challenge is to define ethical objectives, set the right metrics, and conduct those kick-off sessions. If you consider yourself a system designer, your starting point is to understand how your industry contributes to consumerism and inequality, understand how finance drives business, and brainstorm which levers are available to influence the system on the highest level. Then redefine success to create the space to exercise those levers.

    And for those who consider themselves service designers or UX designers or UI designers: if you truly want to have a positive, meaningful impact, stay away from the toolkits and meetups and conferences for a while. Instead, gather your colleagues and define goals for well-being, equity, and sustainability through design. Engage your stakeholders in a workshop and challenge them to think of ways to achieve and measure those ethical goals. Take their input, make it concrete and visible, ask for their agreement, and hold them to it.

    Otherwise, I’m genuinely sorry to say, you’re wasting your precious time and creative energy.

    Of course, engaging your stakeholders in this way can be uncomfortable. Many of my colleagues expressed doubts such as “What will the client think of this?,” “Will they take me seriously?,” and “Can’t we just do it within the design team instead?” In fact, a product manager once asked me why ethics couldn’t just be a structured part of the design process—to just do it without spending the effort to define ethical objectives. It’s a tempting idea, right? We wouldn’t have to have difficult discussions with stakeholders about what values or which key-performance indicators to pursue. It would let us focus on what we like and do best: designing.

    But as systems theory tells us, that’s not enough. For those of us who aren’t from marginalized groups and have the privilege to be able to speak up and be heard, that uncomfortable space is exactly where we need to be if we truly want to make a difference. We can’t remain within the design-for-designers bubble, enjoying our privileged working-from-home situation, disconnected from the real world out there. For those of us who have the possibility to speak up and be heard: if we solely keep talking about ethical design and it remains at the level of articles and toolkits—we’re not designing ethically. It’s just theory. We need to actively engage our colleagues and clients by challenging them to redefine success in business.

    With a bit of courage, determination, and focus, we can break out of this cage that finance and business-as-usual have built around us and become facilitators of a new type of business that can see beyond financial value. We just need to agree on the right objectives at the start of each design project, find the right metrics, and realize that we already have everything that we need to get started. That’s what it means to do daily ethical design.

    For their inspiration and support over the years, I would like to thank Emanuela Cozzi Schettini, José Gallegos, Annegret Bönemann, Ian Dorr, Vera Rademaker, Virginia Rispoli, Cecilia Scolaro, Rouzbeh Amini, and many others.

  • Breaking Out of the Box

    CSS is about styling boxes. In fact, the whole web is made of boxes, from the browser viewport to elements on a page. But every once in a while a new feature comes along that makes us rethink our design approach.

    Round displays, for example, make it fun to play with circular clip areas. Mobile screen notches and virtual keyboards offer challenges to best organize content that stays clear of them. And dual screen or foldable devices make us rethink how to best use available space in a number of different device postures.

    Sketches of a round display, a common rectangular mobile display, and a device with a foldable display.

    These recent evolutions of the web platform made it both more challenging and more interesting to design products. They’re great opportunities for us to break out of our rectangular boxes.

    I’d like to talk about a new feature similar to the above: the Window Controls Overlay for Progressive Web Apps (PWAs).

    Progressive Web Apps are blurring the lines between apps and websites. They combine the best of both worlds. On one hand, they’re stable, linkable, searchable, and responsive just like websites. On the other hand, they provide additional powerful capabilities, work offline, and read files just like native apps.

    As a design surface, PWAs are really interesting because they challenge us to think about what mixing web and device-native user interfaces can be. On desktop devices in particular, we have more than 40 years of history telling us what applications should look like, and it can be hard to break out of this mental model.

    At the end of the day though, PWAs on desktop are constrained to the window they appear in: a rectangle with a title bar at the top.

    Here’s what a typical desktop PWA app looks like:

    Sketches of two rectangular user interfaces representing the desktop Progressive Web App status quo on the macOS and Windows operating systems, respectively. 

    Sure, as the author of a PWA, you get to choose the color of the title bar (using the Web Application Manifest theme_color property), but that’s about it.

    What if we could think outside this box, and reclaim the real estate of the app’s entire window? Doing so would give us a chance to make our apps more beautiful and feel more integrated in the operating system.

    This is exactly what the Window Controls Overlay offers. This new PWA functionality makes it possible to take advantage of the full surface area of the app, including where the title bar normally appears.

    About the title bar and window controls

    Let’s start with an explanation of what the title bar and window controls are.

    The title bar is the area displayed at the top of an app window, which usually contains the app’s name. Window controls are the affordances, or buttons, that make it possible to minimize, maximize, or close the app’s window, and are also displayed at the top.

    A sketch of a rectangular application user interface highlighting the title bar area and window control buttons.

    Window Controls Overlay removes the physical constraint of the title bar and window controls areas. It frees up the full height of the app window, enabling the title bar and window control buttons to be overlaid on top of the application’s web content. 

    A sketch of a rectangular application user interface using Window Controls Overlay. The title bar and window controls are no longer in an area separated from the app’s content.

    If you are reading this article on a desktop computer, take a quick look at other apps. Chances are they’re already doing something similar to this. In fact, the very web browser you are using to read this uses the top area to display tabs.

    A screenshot of the top area of a browser’s user interface showing a group of tabs that share the same horizontal space as the app window controls.

    Spotify displays album artwork all the way to the top edge of the application window.

    A screenshot of an album in Spotify’s desktop application. Album artwork spans the entire width of the main content area, all the way to the top and right edges of the window, and the right edge of the main navigation area on the left side. The application and album navigation controls are overlaid directly on top of the album artwork.

    Microsoft Word uses the available title bar space to display the auto-save and search functionalities, and more.

    A screenshot of Microsoft Word’s toolbar interface. Document file information, search, and other functionality appear at the top of the window, sharing the same horizontal space as the app’s window controls.

    The whole point of this feature is to allow you to make use of this space with your own content while providing a way to account for the window control buttons. And it enables you to offer this modified experience on a range of platforms while not adversely affecting the experience on browsers or devices that don’t support Window Controls Overlay. After all, PWAs are all about progressive enhancement, so this feature is a chance to enhance your app to use this extra space when it’s available.

    Let’s use the feature

    For the rest of this article, we’ll be working on a demo app to learn more about using the feature.

    The demo app is called 1DIV. It’s a simple CSS playground where users can create designs using CSS and a single HTML element.

    The app has two pages. The first lists the existing CSS designs you’ve created:

    A screenshot of the 1DIV app displaying a thumbnail grid of CSS designs a user created.

    The second page enables you to create and edit CSS designs:

    A screenshot of the 1DIV app editor page. The top half of the window displays a rendered CSS design, and a text editor on the bottom half of the window displays the CSS used to create it.

    Since I’ve added a simple web manifest and service worker, we can install the app as a PWA on desktop. Here is what it looks like on macOS:

    Screenshots of the 1DIV app thumbnail view and CSS editor view on macOS. This version of the app’s window has a separate control bar at the top for the app name and window control buttons.

    And on Windows:

    Screenshots of the 1DIV app thumbnail view and CSS editor view on the Windows operating system. This version of the app’s window also has a separate control bar at the top for the app name and window control buttons.

    Our app is looking good, but the white title bar in the first page is wasted space. In the second page, it would be really nice if the design area went all the way to the top of the app window.

    Let’s use the Window Controls Overlay feature to improve this.

    Enabling Window Controls Overlay

    The feature is still experimental at the moment. To try it, you need to enable it in one of the supported browsers.

    As of now, it has been implemented in Chromium, as a collaboration between Microsoft and Google. We can therefore use it in Chrome or Edge by going to the internal about://flags page, and enabling the Desktop PWA Window Controls Overlay flag.

    Using Window Controls Overlay

    To use the feature, we need to add the following display_override member to our web app’s manifest file:

    {
      "name": "1DIV",
      "description": "1DIV is a mini CSS playground",
      "lang": "en-US",
      "start_url": "/",
      "theme_color": "#ffffff",
      "background_color": "#ffffff",
      "display_override": [
        "window-controls-overlay"
      ],
      "icons": [
        ...
      ]
    }
    

    On the surface, the feature is really simple to use. This manifest change is the only thing we need to make the title bar disappear and turn the window controls into an overlay.

    However, to provide a great experience for all users regardless of what device or browser they use, and to make the most of the title bar area in our design, we’ll need a bit of CSS and JavaScript code.

    Here is what the app looks like now:

    Screenshot of the 1DIV app thumbnail view using Window Controls Overlay on macOS. The separate top bar area is gone, but the window controls are now blocking some of the app’s interface

    The title bar is gone, which is what we wanted, but our logo, search field, and NEW button are partially covered by the window controls because now our layout starts at the top of the window.

    It’s similar on Windows, with the difference that the close, maximize, and minimize buttons appear on the right side, grouped together with the PWA control buttons:

    Screenshot of the 1DIV app thumbnail display using Window Controls Overlay on the Windows operating system. The separate top bar area is gone, but the window controls are now blocking some of the app’s content.

    Using CSS to keep clear of the window controls

    Along with the feature, new CSS environment variables have been introduced:

    • titlebar-area-x
    • titlebar-area-y
    • titlebar-area-width
    • titlebar-area-height

    You use these variables with the CSS env() function to position your content where the title bar would have been while ensuring it won’t overlap with the window controls. In our case, we’ll use two of the variables to position our header, which contains the logo, search bar, and NEW button. 

    header {
      position: absolute;
      left: env(titlebar-area-x, 0);
      width: env(titlebar-area-width, 100%);
      height: var(--toolbar-height);
    }
    

    The titlebar-area-x variable gives us the distance from the left of the viewport to where the title bar would appear, and titlebar-area-width is its width. (Remember, this is not equivalent to the width of the entire viewport, just the title bar portion, which as noted earlier, doesn’t include the window controls.)

    By doing this, we make sure our content remains fully visible. We’re also defining fallback values (the second parameter in the env() function) for when the variables are not defined (such as on non-supporting browsers, or when the Windows Control Overlay feature is disabled).

    Screenshot of the 1DIV app thumbnail view on macOS with Window Controls Overlay and our CSS updated. The app content that the window controls had been blocking has been repositioned.
    Screenshot of the 1DIV app thumbnail view on the Windows operating system with Window Controls Overlay and our updated CSS. The app content that the window controls had been blocking has been repositioned.

    Now our header adapts to its surroundings, and it doesn’t feel like the window control buttons have been added as an afterthought. The app looks a lot more like a native app.

    Changing the window controls background color so it blends in

    Now let’s take a closer look at our second page: the CSS playground editor.

    Screenshots of the 1DIV app CSS editor view with Window Controls Overlay in macOS and Windows, respectively. The window controls overlay areas have a solid white background color, which contrasts with the hot pink color of the example CSS design displayed in the editor.

    Not great. Our CSS demo area does go all the way to the top, which is what we wanted, but the way the window controls appear as white rectangles on top of it is quite jarring.

    We can fix this by changing the app’s theme color. There are a couple of ways to define it:

    • PWAs can define a theme color in the web app manifest file using the theme_color manifest member. This color is then used by the OS in different ways. On desktop platforms, it is used to provide a background color to the title bar and window controls.
    • Websites can use the theme-color meta tag as well. It’s used by browsers to customize the color of the UI around the web page. For PWAs, this color can override the manifest theme_color.

    In our case, we can set the manifest theme_color to white to provide the right default color for our app. The OS will read this color value when the app is installed and use it to make the window controls background color white. This color works great for our main page with the list of demos.

    The theme-color meta tag can be changed at runtime, using JavaScript. So we can do that to override the white with the right demo background color when one is opened.

    Here is the function we’ll use:

    function themeWindow(bgColor) {
      document.querySelector("meta[name=theme-color]").setAttribute('content', bgColor);
    }

    With this in place, we can imagine how using color and CSS transitions can produce a smooth change from the list page to the demo page, and enable the window control buttons to blend in with the rest of the app’s interface.

    Screenshot of the 1DIV app CSS editor view on the Windows operating system with Window Controls Overlay and updated CSS demonstrating how the window control buttons blend in with the rest of the app’s interface.

    Dragging the window

    Now, getting rid of the title bar entirely does have an important accessibility consequence: it’s much more difficult to move the application window around.

    The title bar provides a sizable area for users to click and drag, but by using the Window Controls Overlay feature, this area becomes limited to where the control buttons are, and users have to very precisely aim between these buttons to move the window.

    Fortunately, this can be fixed using CSS with the app-region property. This property is, for now, only supported in Chromium-based browsers and needs the -webkit- vendor prefix. 

    To make any element of the app become a dragging target for the window, we can use the following: 

    -webkit-app-region: drag;

    It is also possible to explicitly make an element non-draggable: 

    -webkit-app-region: no-drag; 

    These options can be useful for us. We can make the entire header a dragging target, but make the search field and NEW button within it non-draggable so they can still be used as normal.

    However, because the editor page doesn’t display the header, users wouldn’t be able to drag the window while editing code. So let's use a different approach. We’ll create another element before our header, also absolutely positioned, and dedicated to dragging the window.

    <div class="drag"></div>
    <header>...</header>
    .drag {
      position: absolute;
      top: 0;
      width: 100%;
      height: env(titlebar-area-height, 0);
      -webkit-app-region: drag;
    }

    With the above code, we’re making the draggable area span the entire viewport width, and using the titlebar-area-height variable to make it as tall as what the title bar would have been. This way, our draggable area is aligned with the window control buttons as shown below.

    And, now, to make sure our search field and button remain usable:

    header .search,
    header .new {
      -webkit-app-region: no-drag;
    }

    With the above code, users can click and drag where the title bar used to be. It is an area that users expect to be able to use to move windows on desktop, and we’re not breaking this expectation, which is good.

    An animated view of the 1DIV app being dragged across a Windows desktop with the mouse.

    Adapting to window resize

    It may be useful for an app to know both whether the window controls overlay is visible and when its size changes. In our case, if the user made the window very narrow, there wouldn’t be enough space for the search field, logo, and button to fit, so we’d want to push them down a bit.

    The Window Controls Overlay feature comes with a JavaScript API we can use to do this: navigator.windowControlsOverlay.

    The API provides three interesting things:

    • navigator.windowControlsOverlay.visible lets us know whether the overlay is visible.
    • navigator.windowControlsOverlay.getBoundingClientRect() lets us know the position and size of the title bar area.
    • navigator.windowControlsOverlay.ongeometrychange lets us know when the size or visibility changes.

    Let’s use this to be aware of the size of the title bar area and move the header down if it’s too narrow.

    if (navigator.windowControlsOverlay) {
      navigator.windowControlsOverlay.addEventListener('geometrychange', () => {
        const { width } = navigator.windowControlsOverlay.getBoundingClientRect();
        document.body.classList.toggle('narrow', width < 250);
      });
    }

    In the example above, we set the narrow class on the body of the app if the title bar area is narrower than 250px. We could do something similar with a media query, but using the windowControlsOverlay API has two advantages for our use case:

    • It’s only fired when the feature is supported and used; we don’t want to adapt the design otherwise.
    • We get the size of the title bar area across operating systems, which is great because the size of the window controls is different on Mac and Windows. Using a media query wouldn’t make it possible for us to know exactly how much space remains.
    .narrow header {
      top: env(titlebar-area-height, 0);
      left: 0;
      width: 100%;
    }

    Using the above CSS code, we can move our header down to stay clear of the window control buttons when the window is too narrow, and move the thumbnails down accordingly.

    A screenshot of the 1DIV app on Windows showing the app’s content adjusted for a much narrower viewport.

    Thirty pixels of exciting design opportunities


    Using the Window Controls Overlay feature, we were able to take our simple demo app and turn it into something that feels so much more integrated on desktop devices. Something that reaches out of the usual window constraints and provides a custom experience for its users.

    In reality, this feature only gives us about 30 pixels of extra room and comes with challenges on how to deal with the window controls. And yet, this extra room and those challenges can be turned into exciting design opportunities.

    More devices of all shapes and forms get invented all the time, and the web keeps on evolving to adapt to them. New features get added to the web platform to allow us, web authors, to integrate more and more deeply with those devices. From watches or foldable devices to desktop computers, we need to evolve our design approach for the web. Building for the web now lets us think outside the rectangular box.

    So let’s embrace this. Let’s use the standard technologies already at our disposal, and experiment with new ideas to provide tailored experiences for all devices, all from a single codebase!


    If you get a chance to try the Window Controls Overlay feature and have feedback about it, you can open issues on the spec’s repository. It’s still early in the development of this feature, and you can help make it even better. Or, you can take a look at the feature’s existing documentation, or this demo app and its source code

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  • Gmail’s basic HTML view is getting killed off in 2024

    Death and taxes may be the most famous of life’s certainties, but you can also always count on Google to kill off another service or feature. It’s often something fiercely beloved or downright useful, too. (No, I’m still not over losing Google Reader.) And unfortunately, the Grim Reaper has appeared once again. This time the scythe is coming for one of the company’s oldest features—Gmail’s basic HTML view. In January 2024, that simple interface heads for the great beyond. 

    According to The Verge, the impending death was announced quietly in a Google help page around mid-September. 

    For many, this news may seem like a no-brainer—most people are familiar with the standard view, which is the default when you log into Gmail through the web. It’s full featured, with support for modern fonts, a customizable inbox, integrated chat features, rich text formatting, and more. Meanwhile, the basic HTML view is exactly as described—it looks like something from 2005 and behaves like it, too. All you can really do is read your email (and on mobile web, you’d better hope there’s a properly formatted text version, because it doesn’t render fancier formats well).

    Gmail basic HTML view
    The basic HTML view isn’t much to look at, but it works great in areas with slow internet.

    PCWorld

    But that simplicity is what made the basic HTML view so perfect. Because it takes so little data to access, you could still access Gmail with a bad internet connection or while on an ancient device. Or both. More than one member of the PCWorld staff uses the basic HTML view—some during trade shows or conventions, others wherever local reception is bad. Even if service crawls along at the equivalent of 2G or slower speeds, you’re not shut out of your inbox. Starting next year, though, we’re all out of luck.

    While this development is disappointing, it’s not surprising. Google’s been pushing multiple products and projects onto the chopping block (and into the graveyard) as of late. Google Domains is gone, as is the Pixel Pass program (much to the ire of subscribers who never got their promised phone upgrade). It’s a stark contrast with Microsoft, which not only gives reprieves to venerable apps once marked for retirement, but decides to soup them up, too.

    Personal Software
  • Windows 11’s next big update hits Sept. 26: AI Copilot and more

    Microsoft’s next huge Windows 11 feature update, code-named Windows 11 23H2, has a big addition: AI. Microsoft is readying for the era of the AI PC with the addition of Windows Copilot, powered by Bing Chat. And it will debut on Sept. 26 in preview form before a wider release in October, called the Windows 11 2023 Update.

    It’s the closest thing to a theme that we’ve seen within a Windows 11 update in some time. AI will power Windows Copilot, of course, but also recommended files in File Explorer and Start as well as a designated AI-specific section within the Microsoft Store app. You should also expect various small improvements across Windows, both in terms of ease-of-use and functional updates, like the ability to restore apps from a backup.

    Microsoft unveiled the new update during press event on Sept. 21 in New York City, showcasing some of these new features. However, there’s a small twist: the features that are coming to Windows 11 are arriving first in an update to the current version of Windows 11, Windows 11 22H2. Windows 11 23H2 will then roll out in the fourth quarter as a cumulative update that rolls up all of the new features. What does this mean to you? Not a whole lot, but the point is that you probably won’t see all of these features right away.

    • When can you expect Windows 11 23H2 to arrive on your PC? Microsoft said that Windows 11 23H2 will be released on Sept. 26 in an update to Windows 11 22H2, before rolling out to all Windows 11 PCs later as Windows 11 23H2.
    • What will Windows 11 23H2 be known as? Windows 11 23H2 will be known as the Windows 11 2023 Update. The Windows 11 22H2 update is being delivered as KB5030310, also known as the “Cumulative Update Preview for Windows 11 Version 22H2 for x64-Based Systems.”
    • How much will Microsoft charge for Windows 11 23H2? It will be a free update, and we have seen just a single small update feature that is reserved for the more expensive Windows 11 Pro.
    • How long will Windows 11 23H2 take to download and install? Though downloading Windows 11 23H2 can be done in the background, the installation/reboot process could take 20 minutes to a half hour, depending on how long Microsoft takes to apply the updates to your PC. Installing the Windows 11 22H2 patch (with Copilot included) took about five minutes on a 13th-gen Intel Core laptop with an SSD.

    Microsoft will make Windows 11 23H2 available as a preview on September 26 ahead of a larger rollout in October. Previously, Microsoft has pushed updates via the Windows 11 update stack, shooting incremental code updates to your PC in a matter of moments. But with some of the fundamental changes Microsoft is adding to your PC, it’s possible that Windows 11 23H2 may be a bit more involved. To date, Microsoft hasn’t released Windows 11 23H2 to testers in its Release Preview Channel in one fell swoop, but in incremental updates alongside its more experimental Beta Channel.

    As @Microsoft's Yusef Mehdi announces, #Copilot is coming to @Windows shortly, with both a chat-style interaction model for settings and a number of new #genai powered creative apps. pic.twitter.com/1JYTXlZ5o8

    — Bob O'Donnell (@bobodtech) September 21, 2023

    Although Windows 11 23H2 will include fundamental changes to Windows, it will also include app updates as well. Here are what we believe the new features of Windows 11 23H2 will include, based upon what Microsoft has released publicly to its Windows Insider Release Preview channel and then what Microsoft has subsequently announced.

    We’ve also noted what features we’re seeing first in the Sept. 26 update Windows 22H2.

    What’s new in Windows 11 23H2 (and the Sept. 26 update to Windows 11 22H2)

    Windows Copilot (now just Copilot)

    Think of Windows Copilot as a combination of Bing Chat and Cortana: part cloud AI assistant, with the ability to process a few tasks locally on your PC. Make no mistake: launching Windows Copilot requires an Internet connection, and you’ll have the same, neutral experience as you would using Bing Chat on the Web. (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    New logo for @microsoft's Copilot which, as @satyanadella says, we're going to see a lot of today. #Microsoftevent pic.twitter.com/NW8cUQvmct

    — Bob O'Donnell (@bobodtech) September 21, 2023

    Microsoft previously referred to Copilot as “Windows Copilot,” with Copilots for Edge, and so on. Now it’s all just one Copilot for your Windows PC, and without the “Windows”.

    The difference is that Copilot appears to be smart enough to help you through a few common tasks on your PC, without the need to dig through setup menus and control panels. When we tested Windows Copilot in June, it could switch to light or dark mode, take a screenshot, and little else. Copilot is more about potential than what it can do right now. If Microsoft adds enough to it make it a real-time, robust help tool, than Windows Copilot could be really something.

    Windows 11 Copilot

    Mark Hachman / IDG

    There’s one hitch: Microsoft released Windows Copilot as a Dev Channel preview to date, though that might change soon.

    An updated Settings home page

    We know that there will be an updated Settings Home screen, as it’s already there now in public Release Preview builds. (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    Windows 11 23H2 settings page

    Mark Hachman / IDG

    It might not be anything profound — just a summary of the various sub-pages within the Settings menu, all bundled together in a nice single-page summary that uses the available space on your screen. But it’s a handy improvement anyway.

    RGB lighting controls

    Some people adore RGB lighting (especially those who don’t have to sleep in the same room as their PC). Some people despise it. What we haven’t had, to date, is a unified Windows control panel to manage RGB lighting across various peripherals, even though we’ve asked for it for years. Dynamic Lighting is Windows’ answer to this longstanding problem.

    (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    Windows 11 Dynamic Lighting Controls

    Microsoft

    What peripherals will support Windows 11’s Dynamic Lighting control? Unfortunately, this still appears to be a long list of Razer peripherals, but perhaps more will be added soon.

    AI-powered recommendations in File Explorer

    In March (and then later in May), Microsoft told us that it was bringing AI-powered recommended files to File Explorer. You should see these as a new “carousel” of images at the top of File Explorer — through with a catch! You have to have a SharePoint account as well, which Microsoft will tap to prioritize files based upon their importance.

    While we’re not seeing the carousel view that Microsoft shows here, we are seeing “Recommended” files (or at least a section for them) and a new “Gallery” view that looks like Photos. (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    Microsoft Windows 11 23H2 File Explorer carousel
    Windows 11 File Explorer will have a new “carousel” view in Windows 11 23H2.

    Microsoft

    Microsoft has also been making changes to File Explorer to better show off which files live in the cloud and which are on your PC. Hitting ALT + Shift + P to bring up the Properties menu of a file now emphasizes with whom it’s been shared. Weirdly, this is where Windows 11 Pro comes into play.

    If you have a Sharepoint account and Windows 11 Pro, you’ll see this richer file preview. An example is below.

    Microsoft Windows 11 23H2 file explorer preview

    Microsoft

    Windows Backup and Restore

    Migrating to a new PC is something we’ve all done, and it can take time out of your day. Microsoft is introducing a new Windows Backup app — push everything to the OneDrive cloud! — as well as a new Out of the Box Experience (OOBE) to take that backup and migrate it to a new PC during the Windows 11 setup process. We haven’t tried migrating from one PC to another, but we are seeing the Windows Backup app on our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.

    Users will see pins for their desktop app restored on the taskbar and Start Menu, including desktop apps that were not installed from the Microsoft Store, Microsoft says. Click on the pin and the app will download and install. (We wouldn’t expect this for games you installed, say, via Steam, though.)

    Microsoft Windows 11 23H2 restore
    This is the so-called OOBE Restore experience in Windows 11 23H2.

    Microsoft

    Passkeys

    Passkeys are a simple, powerful tool: instead of asking for a password, a passkey can authenticate you to a website using biometrics — we’ve already seen this with some mobile apps, which require a fingerprint to log in. Windows is promising this, too.

    Well, sort of. Microsoft has implied that we should be seeing a Settings page (Settings>Accounts>Passkeys) similar to how Edge stores passwords, where passkeys are stored instead. (This feature is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    A new Volume Mixer in Quick Settings

    I wrestle with the Volume Mixer on a regular basis, especially when I swap between headphones, earbuds, an ANC pair of headphones, or just an old Hardon Karmon Invoke that’s now just a Bluetooth speaker. Microsoft appears to be bringing better audio controls to Windows, even potentially on a per-app basis. (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    Microsoft Windows 11 23H2 volume mixer
    The new volume mixer in Windows 11 23H2.

    Microsoft

    There’s a new shortcut (WIN+CTRL+V) to control it all, too.

    In-field inking for Windows Ink

    It’s easier to just say what this does. Ii you write “cat” inside of a Windows field (like a search box), Windows will interpret your inked word “cat” as you typing in “cat” into the same field. Simple, right? That’s how you would expect inking to work, anyway, but it historically hasn’t.

    Microsoft has signaled that this feature is headed to Windows 11 23H2, and for those who ink on a regular basis (hello, Surface Pro 9 users!) this is welcome news.

    Our test laptops don’t include inking capabilities, but we’ll try this later.

    Microsoft Windows 11 Windows Ink

    Microsoft

    Improved Voice Editing and Controls

    Voice editing with Windows is kind of fun. But it can always get better. Microsoft is adding new voice controls (“Select from [text 1] to [text 2]”, or “bold that”) as well as revamping the Voice access home page to make the list of commands easier to understand.

    Microsoft is also expanding the list of English accents that are now supported, including the UK, India, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

    Voice access (or voice control) is gaining more of a foothold, too, with Microsoft promising that you’ll be able to log in with your PIN, via voice, if your PC is set up for it. A Windows Settings setting (Accessibility > Speech) allows you to turn on voice access before you sign into your PC. (This is in our Windows 22H2 update build, KB5030310.)

    What’s new in Windows 11 23H2

    Microsoft has told us which features are arriving within Windows 11 23H2, and some of the features above are already released. We can assume that those below will either be released when Windows 11 2023 Update (23H2) launches, or before.

    Snipping Tool’s new audio, text extraction features

    The Windows 11 Snipping Tool added screen capture late in 2022. Now, you’ll be able to capture audio from the screen and your mic as well.

    Snipping Tool is also adding the ability to extract text via OCR from anything you’ve captured, and, conversely, redact it. That’s good news for those of us who capture screenshots with potentially personal, confidential information.

    Photos’ AI background blur and search

    Microsoft announced background blur (aka the “portrait mode” found in smartphones) was coming to the Photos app. It’s not quite here yet, though. Microsoft will also allow you to search the Photos archive by scene info, such as a “beach” shot.

    An improved Paint app

    Paint (Paint!) is getting transparency and layers, a real surprise for an app that was once left for dead. When combined with the recently added background removal tool, these new features now let you create rudimentary composite images in Paint. So far, we’re seeing this in just a Windows Insider preview, but we think that this updated Paint should be there on or about the time Windows 11 23H2 launches.

    Unfortunately, we’re not seeing the updated Paint in our Windows 11 22H2 update, which is probably consistent with Microsoft’s timeline.

    Paint with layer support in Windows 11 (Insider build)

    Microsoft

    Other tweaks in Windows 11 23H2:

    • Taskbar badging: Some people (me included, on occasion) like when an app pinned to the Taskbar shows you what it actually is, instead of an icon. This feature is in Personalization > Taskbar within the Settings menu in the Windows 11 22H2 update.
    • Wake on approach: Microsoft will dim your screen if you look away, and wake up your PC if it senses you nearby. You’ll need a webcam that supports this, though, and Microsoft hasn’t really detailed the hardware requirements. We’re not seeing this yet in Windows 11 22H2.
    • Windows Spotlight improvements: I love Windows Spotlight, which gives me new, beautiful 4K wallpaper images daily. Microsoft is promising a better preview experience at full screen, with “multiple opportunities to learn more about each image and a minimized experience.”
    • Sharing improvements: When you right-click and share a file, Microsoft is now leaning harder on making files available for Nearby Share, Windows’ answer to AirDrop. This appears to be in Windows 11 22H2’s update.
    • Instant Gaming: Microsoft is promising a tweak to the Microsoft Store app that will allow very small games to be “instantly” launched. So far, this seems to be reserved for Windows 11 22H3.
    • Screen casting: If you do a lot of switching between desktops, Microsoft may pop up a screen reminding you that Screen casting to other devices exists.
    • Emoji 15: Microsoft implied Emoji 15 (just released on Sept. 15) would arrive in Windows 11 23H2, though it has only debuted in the Beta Channel.
    • Copying 2FA codes from Notifications: If Your Phone is connected to your PC and you receive a 2FA code via text, Windows will recognize it and offer to copy it.
    • VPN logo: If you’re running a VPN, Windows should show you a small logo to identify it.
    • Bing improvements: Bing is a cloud service, and not part of Windows, but it will add text-based image creation with Dall-E 3.
    • Clipchamp’s AI composer: This is not tied to Windows 11 22H2 or even 22H3, but you should see an AI-powered creation option if you open Clipchamp.

    get windows 11 pro cheap in pcworld's software store

    Windows 11 Pro

    Windows 11 Pro

    This story was updated at 12:33 PM on Sept. 26 with new information from Microsoft and our own testing.

    Windows
  • SteamVR 2.0 beta adds tons of new features

    It seems like VR gaming has been in kind of a holding pattern for the last year or two, ever since Half-Life: Alyx came out. I suspect that, with Facebook/Meta pushing hard to get AR into the hands of more regular consumers, and the looming threat of Apple’s Vision Pro next year, a lot of companies are using this time to shore up their core products. Like Valve, for example — it just published a huge update to the SteamVR platform, now in its 2.0.1 beta release.

    For the uninitiated, SteamVR refers to both the platform (the system and APIs that a lot of VR games on Steam use) and the user interface that Steam uses for virtual reality. This update is mostly about the latter, which has been given a fairly sizeable facelift and functionality boost. SteamVR 2.0 introduces a new dashboard, new store page, new keyboard interface — it’s just a lot of work done across the board. Steam Chat and Voice Chat are now available while using a headset.

    Perhaps most important is the revamp to the Steam store’s presentation while in VR, which now puts VR content “front and center.” There are tons of smaller tweaks for ease of use and smooth operation. A particularly interesting one noted by the update page is that SteamVR won’t show you an inter-pupillary distance (IPD) slider if you’re using a Meta-branded headset, since the Meta hardware covers that already.

    This is still a beta release, and there’s no indication of when it’ll graduate to the full version. Some are reporting that Valve may be sprucing up its software in anticipation of a new Index headset. While Valve has confirmed that new VR hardware is in development, there’s no sign of when it might be coming to market, either.

    Virtual Reality
  • Most Windows 11 users will have to wait for their AI Copilot

    Microsoft’s next Windows 11 feature update won’t roll out overnight. In fact, several pieces will take some time to deliver — including the launch of the highly anticipated Windows Copilot feature.

    Today, you can begin downloading some of the future features of Windows 11 as part of the new update. But there’s still an unexpected twist: The new Windows 11 features we thought were scheduled for Windows 11 23H2 are part of a new update to Windows 11 22H2 instead. There is in fact a separate Windows 11 23H2 update, due sometime in the fourth quarter, which will be known as the Windows 11 2023 Update.

    “These experiences, including Copilot in Windows and more, will start to become available on Sept. 26 as part of our latest update to Windows 11, version 22H2,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s consumer marketing chief, wrote in a blog post describing the new features, some of which Microsoft showed off last week.

    Is this just semantics? Yes, mostly, such as the renaming of Windows Copilot to just Copilot. Right now, the Windows 11 2023 Update is described as a “cumulative” update, with all of the features announced in Windows 11 22H2 update. It will have the same servicing branch and code base as Windows 11, version 22H2. Put another way, these new Windows 11 features will trickle out to Windows PCs over the next few months. Windows 11 23H2 will be the backup safety net that gathers them all up and possibly adds a few new bits.

    Windows 11 Copilot
    Copilot is the flagship feature of Windows 11 22H2’s latest update and the Windows 11 23H2 or Windows 11 2023 Update.

    Mark Hachman / IDG

    We can’t help thinking, though, that things are a little weird in Redmond right now. Microsoft’s passionate chief product officer, Panos Panay, departed on the eve of the Microsoft event, where the company showed off the Surface Laptop Studio 2 and the Surface Laptop Go 3 — though not the Surface Go 4 for Business and the Surface Hub 3, which it also announced. Add to that the uncertainty surrounding the scheduling, and well, we’re just along for the ride.

    Microsoft released its new information in a blog post by John Cable, vice president of Windows servicing and delivery, and we’ll try to break down what it all means.

    When will you get the latest Windows 11 update?

    You’re forgiven if you thought that Microsoft would be releasing Windows 11 23H2 today, on Sept. 26, as Carmen Zlateff, the vice president of Windows, said during Microsoft’s fall launch last week. “Get the new update and you’ll see the benefits of Windows 11,” she said.

    That’s true, to some extent. The Windows 11 22H2 update will be released as a “moment,” a servicing release that will be pushed to your PC as what Microsoft calls a “controlled feature rollout.” To make sure you’re first in line, you can go to the Windows 11 Settings menu (Settings > Windows Update) and toggle on the switch that says, “Get the latest updates as soon as they’re available.”

    That’s the easy way. Otherwise, Microsoft is going to push the bits and pieces and features of what will be Windows 11 23H2 over the next few weeks, and that’s where it gets confusing. “Windows 11 devices will get new functionality at different times, as we will be gradually rolling out some of these new features over the coming weeks initially via controlled feature rollout (CFR) to consumers,” Cable wrote.

    Microsoft is only saying that the Windows 11 2023 Update will be released during the fourth quarter of 2023. “We anticipate broad availability for most new features by the November 2023 security update release for all devices,” Cable adds.

    What new features will (eventually) arrive in the Windows 11 2023 Update?

    What people may not understand is that the new Windows 11 updates brings features tied to the core operating system, plus a separate suite of new and/or updated Windows apps. We’ve tried to summarize both in our list of Windows 11 2023 Update (23H2) features, but the process is different. If you want to try out Windows 11 23H2 immediately, you’ll need to download the update and visit the Microsoft Store app to search out new app updates for your PC.

    The core features that Microsoft is associating with the update that’s rolling out now include:

    • Windows Copilot (now just Copilot): Microsoft’s AI-powered combination of Bing Chat and Cortana, tied into Copilot-branded features in Edge.
    • Passkeys: Tired of passwords? Microsoft wants to replace actual passwords with the biometric identification via passkeys in Windows Hello, and passkeys are the way of managing those sites.
    • Voice Access: The ability to navigate with your voice within Windows is now more prevalent, so you can use your voice to “log in to your PC” by narrating a PIN, for example.
    • New Narrator voices in Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and English (UK, India).
    • Sensor-based presence sensing: If your gaze drifts, your webcam (provided it supports it) may dim your screen to save power. If you walk away, it may lock your PC.
    • Windows 365 Boot: This enterprise feature allows business customers to log onto a cloud PC, rather than a local one, and switch between them.
    • AI-powered File Explorer: Another business feature, for those with SharePoint accounts. If you meet the criteria, Windows will now highlight recommended files via a carousel view.
    • Instant Games: In much the same way some Android apps can “instantly launch” if they’re not installed, Microsoft is also trying this out with some casual games.
    • An improved volume mixer
    Windows Paint Cocreator
    Windows Paint Cocreator will add AI art capabilities to Paint.

    Microsoft

    The new and/or updated apps that will be associated with the Windows 11 2023 Update include:

    • Microsoft Paint: Now with the ability to perform AI-driven background removal, Photoshop-like layers, and a new feature: Paint Cocreator. The latter will add generative AI art capabilities to Paint, much like Bing Image Creator does. (Bing Image Creator now uses the advanced DALL-E 3 algorithm.)
    • Dynamic Lighting: Want to control your RGB devices? Dynamic Lighting solves this problem.
    • Microsoft Clipchamp: Microsoft’s slick new Clipchamp video editor now includes AI-based suggestions for getting started with scenes, edits, and a “narrative” for you.
    • Snipping Tool: Microsoft’s snipping tool began as just a sophisticated screenshot tool. In December 2022, Microsoft added the ability to record video as a screen recorder. Now, Snipping Tool can record audio as well. Moreover, it can now extract text from any screenshot, as well as redact text you don’t want it to show, like personal information.
    • Photos: Microsoft is adding background blurring and enhanced search, such as by scenes of a “beach” or “snow.”
    • Windows Backup: This app allows you to back up “most” files, apps, settings, and credentials to the Microsoft cloud and then restore them when you add or migrate to a new PC.
    • Microsoft Store: The app will allow you to select where you want to install games, and will carve out a new games page on the Store app for you.
    • Outlook for Windows: the new look for Outlook is available for free, right now.

    Will all of the new Windows 11 2023 Update features arrive at launch?

    Nope. And that’s why we’re here.

    Copilot, for example, simply won’t be available right away. “Copilot in Windows will start to release in preview to a select set of global markets,” Cable said. “It is our intention to continue to broaden availability over time.”

    Copilot also appears to be arriving for primarily commercial customers first, then consumers. “On September 26, Copilot in Windows will start to roll out in a September 2023 optional non-security update for Windows 11, version 22H2 — and will be available behind the commercial control for continuous innovation,” Microsoft wrote. “It will later be included in Windows 11, version 23H2, the annual feature update for Windows 11, which will be released in Q4 of this calendar year. With the feature update, Copilot in Windows will be on by default, but under your control with Microsoft Intune policy or Group Policy.”

    That’s the most disappointing omission, because AI and Copilot are the Windows 11 2023 Update’s selling points. Microsoft isn’t saying when Copilot will be broadly available, which could lessen its impact.

    But there are other caveats, too. Paint Cocreator will be available, but only in preview to Windows Insiders and via a waitlist. Instant Games is in preview. Microsoft’s improvements to game installations, including the Microsoft Store changes and the choice of where to install games, will be out later this month. Windows Backup and Restore will be available at launch, but not in China.

    What does it all mean for you?

    If you’re an enthusiast who chases the latest Windows 11 features, this rollout is more chaotic than usual. Microsoft’s essentially adding an extra update — but not really. Copilot may not be readily available. Some of the new features attached to the new apps won’t be immediately ready, either.

    The fact is, though, that Copilot hasn’t been that impressive. Passkeys sound great, but really haven’t made an impact. Some of the new apps integrate functions from other Microsoft apps and services.

    If you’re a casual Windows user, the updates will eventually hit your PC regardless. With no major changes to the Start menu or the Taskbar, the only addition will be Copilot, whenever it arrives. You can ignore the drama, at least for now.

    Windows
  • Hands-on: Windows 11’s new AI tools aren’t ready for prime time

    AI will change the way that we work. Or so says the most fervent purveyors of the tech, which now includes Microsoft. But after seeing ChatGPT, Dall-E, and other AI systems integrated into the latest versions of Windows 11, Office, and the company’s Microsoft 365 platform, I can’t say that I agree. 

    Make no mistake, Microsoft is pushing new tools like its Copilot system hard, integrating it into systems that are staples for the company and hundreds of millions of users. But speaking as a power user — and accepting the limited perspective that gives me for many who are not  — I can’t see these new tools being anything more than an occasional curiosity. 

    They won’t change the way that I work, and I think even those who stand to benefit the most from them will be hesitant to try. 

    It works, until it doesn’t

    To be sure, there are elements of the system that can be beneficial. ChatGPT-based AI text generation is dramatic, filling in pages of information in just a minute or two, far faster than the most frantic keyboard jockey could manage. Image generation is just as impressive, spitting out incredibly detailed and photorealistic images with just a few lines of text prompt. If you’re not a natural writer, and you can’t navigate your way around Paint, this stuff seems like Arthur C. Clarke’s classic technology “indistinguishable from magic.” 

    Until it doesn’t. The term “Artificial Intelligence” brings science fiction staples like Star Trek’s Commander Data to mind. But this is a misnomer, and frankly, I think it’s a deliberately misleading one. Even the most impressive things that AI spits out in its current form is based on pre-existing algorithms. Incredibly and near-incomprehensively complex algorithms, but algorithms nonetheless. And they follow a law of computing that hasn’t changed in the better part of a century: they can’t do anything they haven’t been designed, or told, to do. 

    I’ll use the new AI-infused Paint as an example. At Microsoft’s fall Surface event in New York, I was shown Paint automatically distinguishing between the foreground and background, effortlessly blurring the beach in a photo of a dog running across it. Impressive, and useful for those who aren’t acclimated to Photoshop’s tools (or don’t want to pay for them). But these are tricks mobile apps have been doing for years, which don’t require the massive resources of a remote data center and an always-on connection. 

    Something that does require that “big iron” power is image generation. A photo of a large ornate building was separated from the sky in just a few clicks, with the new layering tools allowing the demonstrator to put in anything I asked for behind it. I asked for a tornado, and it delivered a Dall-E-generated image of a twister right out of a Texas tall tale. 

    Paint AI co-cocreator

    Microsoft

    But this was a separate image from the building, on a separate layer, not using the building as a reference at all. I could place it behind the building, squishing together two completely different images with lighting and perspective that didn’t match up. What the new AI-infused Paint can’t do, and what I suspect Microsoft would like you to imagine that it can, is place that tornado in the existing image of the building as if it was an effect from a movie or a professional marketing studio. 

    The limits the AI image generation tools are hitting are the kind of thing even an intermediate user could learn to do with half an hour of tutelage on YouTube and an image search. What does that do for you? It saves you about half an hour, at best. For a result that looks like, well, half an hour’s work in Paint. As someone who uses graphic design tools daily, it didn’t inspire any immediate fears of human obsolescence. 

    Sifting through the Word salad

    Speaking of which: text generation. ChatGPT’s ability to gobble up and spit out huge amounts of textual info is, indeed, impressive. But when you want to do more nuanced things with that text — things that humans need a lot of time and attention to do — it falters. A demonstrator took a 5000-word written document and told Copilot to summarize it in Word. This brought the count down to a little over 2000 words…which is still more than you’d want to read in front of a full table of your coworkers or across a Zoom screen. 

    When I asked him to chop it down to under 1000 words, the system choked. There was simply too much information for it to compress without losing the essentials. A human could do it, even if you needed someone who’s skilled enough to sift the croutons of actionable and immediate information from the word salad. Copilot couldn’t, giving near-identical, non-requested results several times. 

    And after several minutes of a Microsoft Azure server thinking to itself, the demonstrator noted that you’d still need to read through the resulting wall of text to check that it’s accurate. Or perhaps more distressingly, that the system didn’t wholly invent information that wasn’t there. 

    An Outlook demonstration did just that with an auto-generated reply of a few hundred words, inserting ideas that the human operator never had. Ideas which might have gotten him in trouble if he claimed they were his own, and which he didn’t remember later. We’ve seen this kind of thing happen already for people eager to replace their online selves with AI-powered facsimiles

    So how much work is this actually saving, if the system’s limits are well below that of a human operator and its output still needs to be checked by hand and eye? Not enough for a manager to confidently chop headcount, which I suspect is the outcome many executives were hoping for. And that’s in the best-case scenario, when the system worked without returning an error from the remote server. That happened more than once, and at least once at every demo I was shown. 

    Copilot’s ability to save time is remarkable in highly specific situations. For example, working with that same 5000-word document, the demonstrator was able to generate a 20-slide PowerPoint deck with relevant bullet points. It even had fairly attractive formatting, complete with non-copyrighted image backdrops that were unspecific, but broke up the black-and-white slides nicely. The system could insert auto-generated images, license-free images from a Bing search, or images saved in a local folder. 

    That’s a time saver. In the span of a few minutes the system generated a PowerPoint presentation that would have taken an expert around an hour to put together. But again, the result would require almost as much time to check manually…and its results weren’t entirely reliable or repeatable. And a system that can’t be consistently relied upon isn’t one that can replace a human worker, even a low-level one, though it might augment your work on occasion. 

    Remembering the lessons of Windows 8…or not

    Which brings up another point: Why is Microsoft demonstrating all this new technology, and pushing it so quickly into its corporate tools, when it’s clearly missing so much functionality? The closest comparison that comes to mind is the quick shift to touch-based interfaces in Windows 8, anticipating a world full of people working on touch-primary tablets in the wake of the iPad’s launch. 

    A world that, a decade later, doesn’t seem to have arrived. We’re back to the old Start button and menu, as gently evolved as it might be, and work in Windows is still primarily driven by mouse and keyboard. Even its impressive support for touch is, largely, replicating existing tools like cursors and scroll wheels. That mobile-inspired revolution never came. 

    So after Microsoft learned from that experience and walked much of its concepts back in Windows 10, why is it so eager to leap off yet another uncertain technological precipice? I can’t say with certainty. But if I were to put on my tech analyst hat — a big, floppy, somewhat ridiculous hat, worn in the hopes that no one confuses what I’m about to say for investment advice — I’d put the blame on the a lot of hot air blowing around in the tech market. 

    Microsoft windows AI copilot art

    Microsoft

    I suspect that investors, eager to get on the AI trend and hoping that its most fantastical promises come to fruition, have caught the ear of Microsoft’s executive team. Those promises include replacing a huge portion of jobs filled by squishy, entitled humans, demanding such unreasonable expenses as office space and health insurance benefits. Even a small amount of low-level workers replaced by an Azure cloud would represent a huge savings, and a huge potential profit for Microsoft if it can get the monetization right. 

    Microsoft, its investors, or some combination of both may be experiencing a Fear Of Missing Out, motivated by AI tools of questionable utility cropping up at more or less every competitor. Perhaps it has more applications at the enterprise level, where huge, number-crunching systems that have been in place for decades might benefit from a new generation of algorithmic processing. But here at user level, the big change — and the big dread — is AI replacing low- and mid-level human workers.

    We’re already seeing attempts at this. And so far they’ve resulted in problems so predictable, ChatGPT itself could have told you they were coming. As impressive as these tools are becoming, and as much as they’ll be refined in the future, I can’t see them effectively replacing tons of human writers, analysts, artists, et cetera. 

    Not that people won’t try — especially people who hold the purse strings. It’s going to come down to how much of a reduction in quality those making the final call are willing to tolerate in order to save money on employees. And how expensive those results will be to produce, even if they’re inevitably cheaper than using squishy humans. Azure data centers don’t grow on trees, and neither do terawatts of power needed to run them. 

    Full speed ahead, wherever we’re going

    Microsoft executives are well aware of all these issues, to a far more nuanced degree than you and I. But I think someone’s told them to go full speed ahead on AI, and damn the torpedoes of actual functionality and results. The push is coming from the top, and a certain amount of pain at the bottom (for both Microsoft’s product team and its corporate customers) will be tolerated. At least for now. 

    windows rainbow logo

    Microsoft

    We won’t see the aftermath for a couple of years at least. Will this be a Windows 8 moment, remembered mostly as a painful lesson in what not to do? Or will I be proven wrong, and will AI become an essential part of every worker’s digital worker’s toolkit…what workers remain after so many of them are replaced?

    Time will tell. I hope I’ll be around to help time tell it. 

    Windows
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