Category Archives: Design

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The power of microformats

Considering a Descent A few months ago I attended a really interesting talk by Eric Meyer where he touched on the use of microformats.  You might know Eric from his excellent O’Reilly Press CSS books.

What are microformats?  Before giving an example, I’ll give a little context.  When Tim Berners-Lee created the web, he tried to make HTML simple, flexible, and meaningful.  He succeeded on the first two counts but the third was quickly left by the wayside – many designers didn’t care what a particular tag meant, so long as it could be used for page layout.  The use of tables to arrange graphic elements instead of holding tabular data is a perfect example.

So Berners-Lee has been talking for years about the next step – the semantic web.  In the semantic web, tags are used to say what a particular piece of content is, with all styling done with stylesheets.  There is, of course, more to the semantic web than just separating content and presentation, after all you can work that way with HTML and CSS now.  One other key component is the web of trust, where people and web sites are able to describe relationships to each other so that search engines can help you find trustworthy content automatically.

Unfortunately, the semantic web has not really taken off.  There have been lots of meetings and XML schemas but it’s all too complicated, the process is too bureaucratic, and everything is being designed from the top down.

This is where microformats come in.  Let’s say you have a blog and you’ve tagged all your articles.  You’d like to let search engines and aggregators like Technorati know what your tags are.  But HTML doesn’t have anything like this:

<tag>semantic web<tag>

So what do you do?  Simple, use the rel-tag microformat:

<a href=”” rel=”tag”>semantic web</a>

The microformat makes use of existing html tags and attributes and just follows simple conventions.  But now that this little bit of meaning can be interpreted by spiders and other programs, we’ve actually added a pretty powerful bit of functionality to the web.

Most blog software, including WordPress, includes does microformatting for you.  If install my tag cloud plugin Altocumulous, and view source, you can see for yourself.

For intranet purposes, the hCard and hCalendar microformats look promising.  Take a look at to see why I think so.  I’ll write more on it later.

The importance of design – Can you read this at 60 MPH?

The New York Times had a great article a few months ago about redesigning the font used on highway signs.  You’ve probably seen the current font, Highway Gothic, a million times without ever thinking about it – it’s been in use for more than 50 years.

Granphic from the New York TimesWorrying about the font on the signs seems pretty silly compared to all the engineering and resources that go into a single bridge, let alone the entire highway system.  Why does this merit an article in the Times and what does this have to do with programing, web development, social software, or any of the topics many visitors to this blog are interested in?

Programmers and analysts sometimes doubt the value of design.  It’s hard work gathering all the requirements and writing all the code – we don’t have time to worry about how pretty it looks.  A lot of projects we work on, though, involve creating user interfaces, often web applications.  That means that, when it comes down to it, your job is to support the user’s tasks.

Now if someone wanted to add 10% to your hours to pick just the right shade of chartruse, you would be justifiably miffed.  But good interface designers will have good, empirically-tested reasons for their work and the guidelines they live by.  Highway signs are a great example of this kind of empirical benefit:

Intrigued by the early positive results, the researchers took the prototype out onto the test track. Drivers recruited from the nearby town of State College drove around the mock highway. From the back seat, Pietrucha and Garvey recorded at what distance the subjects could read a pair of highway signs, one printed in Highway Gothic and the other in Clearview. Researchers from 3M came up with the text, made-up names like Dorset and Conyer ? words that were easy to read. In nighttime tests, Clearview showed a 16 percent improvement in recognition over Highway Gothic, meaning drivers traveling at 60 miles per hour would have an extra one to two seconds to make a decision.

A one or two second gain in legibility matters a lot when your life depends on it.  Few web applications present the same kind of physical danger, but multiply a small gain over an application with 10,000 users, operating 24 hours a day for a year, and you can see how this can impact the business.  Good design is part of the larger concept of usability.  As anyone who’s done any usability testing can tell you, most applications have many small, easy-to-change pitfalls that can quickly add up to huge wastes of time and effort.

20 years ago, we had an excuse for bad user interfaces…

When I was a kid, computers were slow. They had little or no storage, the most reliable connection was sneakernet, and having more than four colors on the screen at the same time was amazing. So the user experience looked a lot like this…

For quite some time now we really haven’t had those same excuses, so why does this video remind you of the point-of-sale system at work, or the database HR is still using, or the software that came with your MP3 player?