Wireframe Episode 6: Inclusivity Is a Recipe for Good Design

Here it is, our last episode of the first season of “Wireframe,”” the podcast that tells the stories behind good interaction design. This installment tells the story of the shift from designing for accessibility to designing inclusively. Along the way, it looks at the challenges of tweaking the design of the WordPress interface and how hacking the Xbox game controller opened the door to new gamers. The story actually starts in an unexpected place: the kitchen of Julia Child’s “French Chef” cooking show, which, I was surprised to learn, was the first TV show ever to broadcast captions for the hearing impaired. It all ties together, believe me!

On a personal note, putting together these six episodes (plus our short bonus episode) has been amazing for me. I learned so much. Not just about podcasting, of which I knew very little beforehand, but also about design too. I thought I knew how to talk about what designers do, but the process of translating our ideas, methods and work into relatable, compelling stories was eye-openingly challenging. The language of design is so biased towards those already in the know and aimed pretty much only at other designers while remaining opaque to the uninitiated. Forging these stories showed me how valuable it can be to open up our culture. I’ve heard from so many people who enjoy “Wireframe” who would otherwise never dig into the subject at all. I also heard from so many designers who saw their work in a new light because of the way “Wireframe” helped put it into a broader context. Design doesn’t have to be a niche conversation.

To be clear, I can only claim a fraction of the credit for this. None of these stories would have been possible without the amazing talents of the Gimlet Creative team. They did the heavy lifting, they were the ones who sweated each and every episode, who did the reporting, the interviewing, the editing, the endless revisions and tweaking that brought the show to the level of quality that, I don’t mind saying, outclasses every other design podcast out there. I’m particularly grateful to the core of the team, producers Isabella Kulkarni (who joins me for today’s episode), Rikki Novetsky and Amy Standen, all of whom you hear on various episodes. And especially senior producer Abbie Ruzicka, whom you never hear but who was instrumental in guiding each and every show. And I should also say that there would be no podcast at all without the efforts of my colleagues at Adobe: not only did Lindsay Munro, Leah Walker and Paige Young actually master the funding and logistics that made this possible, but from the start they had an even bigger vision for what it could be than I did. I learned from every one of these people.

If you haven’t listened to “Wireframe,” it’s not too late! It’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post. And—we hope to return for a second season before too long. Stay tuned for more on that!

Finally, one last bit on the subject of podcasting. Last week, the Pocket Casts app launched a major new redesign. I had used previous versions on Android but I was pleasantly surprised by how elegantly executed the new iOS version is. (There’s a great write up of it over at MacStories.) After only a few days, it became my default podcast app. All of this was before (I swear!) I noticed that the marketing site for the app features the “Wireframe” show art right in the main image. So you know they have great taste over there. Give the app a try.

Pocket Casts Website
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Wireframe Episode 5: Is Good Design Good for You?

Our fifth episode of the “Wireframe” digs into the intersection of design and ethical practice. In it we trace the origins of Facebook’s famous Like button back in time to a frenzied hackathon in the last decade when it was conceived as a way of easily spreading positivity all over the Internet. We then look at the massive, unintended consequences of that tiny but momentous bit of UI, and how it demonstrates a model for creating products you love so much you can’t put down, for better or worse. This was one of my favorite episodes because it endeavors to ask questions every designer should be thinking about in his or her work.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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Goodbye to Filmstruck

Goodbye to Filmstruck

This graphic gathers together just about all the posters for the sixty or so films—most of them amazing, wonderful experiences—that I’ve watched over the past two years on FilmStruck, the indie, arthouse and classic films streaming service that, it was announced two weeks ago, will be shutting down at the end of this month. If you weren’t already familiar with the service, this is the way I described it in my subscriber-only newsletter earlier this year:

It’s basically like Netflix, but with good movies instead. Lots of good movies. Actually, most of the best movies ever made. If I had to make a choice, I would cancel Netflix in order to preserve my FilmStruck collection—in a heartbeat.

Looking back now, I realize I inadvertently referred to “my FilmStruck collection,” which of course is not accurate. As its impending demise underscores, nothing on the service was actually mine; I just had a month-to-month lease on it. It just felt like mine because it was so special to me.

Most of us accept the maxim that the modern internet makes it possible to have virtually any content at any time, from high-resolution scans of great works of art to obscure television shows from long ago. But it’s clear from this news that there’s a heavy bias towards that which is optimized for today’s consumption habits—the new, the novel, the binge-able.

That’s fine. Capitalism, et cetera. But what galls me about the closure of FilmStruck is that the service was doing more than just servicing a particular niche of movie fandom. It was a portal to film history, a rich trove of our cultural heritage.

To a lot of people, that sounds like homework, like tedium. I get it. But the genius of FilmStruck, what made it more than just an academic indulgence, was how the team behind it focused so much on making our collective cinematic back catalog accessible and fun. It combined the Criterion Collection’s peerless catalog of challenging films with Turner Classic Movie’s bevy of some of the most entertaining, crowd-pleasing Hollywood fare ever released.

And it was all curated brilliantly, with not just evident passion for film but also a sense of how film’s past continues to be relevant to its present. There was terrific original content, interviews with today’s filmmakers talking about how they were inspired by the movies you could now find on the service. And often, a current release in theaters would inspire terrific editorial collections. For the recent remake of “A Star Is Born,” for example, the editors put forward all the previous versions of that film that have been made over the decades.

That curation helped turn just the simple act of browsing FilmStruck into a pleasure—and an education. You couldn’t help but continually learn more and more about cinema as you perused the thumbnails and read the brief summaries, each one like a ray of light emanating from a doorway behind which laid a trove of cinematic history that might previously have been hidden to you. And that was just the individual films; the staff was constantly turning out all kinds of wonderful collections of movies, grouped by director or theme, usually illustrated with eye-catching graphics that underscored how special the whole experience of film was. Just the bundling of films together like this was a treasure, so beautifully designed and thoughtfully adorned with bonus materials and related films. It was like getting a new boxed set of special edition DVDs every time you opened the app.

As I alluded to in my quote above, I frequently thought about how my experience with FilmStruck compared to my experience with Netflix. I paid for both, so it was natural to weigh the value I was deriving from each. Not long I ago I realized that when I add a movie to my Netflix list, it’s with a feeling of resignation, practically a sense of defeat. It’s as if I do so with no real intention of ever watching it, just this vague idea that I may as well try and separate some of the wheat from Netflix’s abdundance of chaff.

By contrast, each and every movie that I saved to my FilmStruck watchlist was a movie that I knew that one day soon I would absolutely watch. I’ve gotten so much value from the two short years since the service launched that I expected to be a subscriber for life. I was looking forward to decades of great moviewatching.

So to see FilmStruck’s death sentence come so quickly is utterly heartbreaking. It also seems terribly shortsighted. The service’s operational cost can’t possibly represent anything more than a rounding error to its corporate parents, especially given how it serves as a beacon not just for quality, but also as a commitment to cultural history. I would’ve thought that you can’t put a price on that kind of cachet, but apparently I was wrong.

Maybe the saddest thing of all about this news is that there is nothing to replace FilmStruck. Sure, there are other services like Fandor, which can provide a substitute for some of what FilmStruck did (and they’re even offering a discount to aggrieved FilmStruck customers right now). But it seems unlikely that any other single service will be able to give us the same breadth and depth. When Oyster, a “Netflix for books,” shut down its subscription service, avid readers could still go to their public libraries. And if Spotify were to shut down, you could easily switch to a competitor. But it seems unlikely anyone else out there will be able to replicate the utterly unique, harmonious pairing of the Turner and Criterion catalogs—the nature of film licensing makes that a near impossibility.

What the FilmStruck team did was truly special: a destination that you could point your browser, phone or tablet to that was truly wonderful and legitimately enriching. Its impending demise makes for a terrible comment on the current state of our culture. We can make infinite room for “binge-worthy” shows that go on for far too many episodes, and for an endless parade of useless photos of ourselves. But we can’t spare a relatively tiny haven for a century’s worth of some of our richest cultural heritage. It makes me sad for the kind of Internet we’re building.

If you’re in favor of a reprieve for FilmStruck, you can sign the petition at bringbackfilmstruck.org. At this writing, more than 37,000 people had signed it, including Guillermo Del Toro, Bill Hader and others.

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Wireframe Episode 4: Why You’re Not Wearing AR Glasses

Two things that I highly recommend today: first, go vote. And make sure everyone you know at home and at work goes to vote, too. This essay from the legendary Roger Angel sums it up nicely: “What we can all do at this moment is vote.” Save it to Pocket or Instapaper so that you can read it while waiting in line to cast your ballot.

My second recommendation is: listen to episode four of “Wireframe,” out today. The title is “Good Design Is Why You’re Not Wearing AR Glasses,” and it digs into what role design plays in this new immersive technology. In it, you’ll meet a guy who’s been wearing a computer on his face since even before Google Glass made it cool!

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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Wireframe Bonus Episode: Good Design According to You

Wireframe’s Airstream Trailer at Adobe MAX 2018

Bad news: We’re already halfway through the six episodes planned for this first season of “Wireframe.” Hopefully we’ll be back—if you want another season, be sure to let us know.

Good news: while we were at Adobe MAX 2018 in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, the folks at Gimlet and I recorded a special bonus episode, and here it is. We actually set up a makeshift recording studio inside of a brand new Airstream trailer so that folks walking around the show floor couldn’t miss us. We invited a whole bunch of MAX attendees to step inside, sit down with us and talk about what good design means to them. The answers were great, so we put them together in this five-minute episode. Yes, it’s basically a clip show, but it’s pretty entertaining nevertheless. And we’ll be back next week with the back half of the season, all in our signature full-on storytelling style.

You can listen to the entire episode above. Be sure to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcatcher to get each episode as it’s released.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique, high quality design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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The Ride to Vote

Earlier this month I was pretty hard on Uber and Lyft in a blog post about the deleterious effects of ride hailing on, well, everything. But credit where credit is due: this Election Day, Tue 6 Nov, both companies are helping to get voters to the polls by offering discounts on their services.

Lyft is offering half-off rides to your voting place. Just get a coupon code at lyft.com/theridetovote. Weirdly, that URL resolves to a Buzzfeed page where you can enter your zip code, apparently so that millennials won’t think voting is somehow uncool or something. Fittingly, Uber has a more complex approach which involves partner non-profit groups and selecting the cheapest ride option available—I couldn’t figure out all the rules but maybe you can at this page.

It’s not clear to me how much these companies want people to actually know about these promotions though. I haven’t seen mention of them in the Lyft app (I never use Uber) and really only became aware of this while walking around Manhattan’s Lower East Side yesterday, where I came across the billboard/installation below. It’s papered with what are meant to be representations of the millions of ballots that did not get cast in 2016 when voters simply opted our of their right to vote. It was pretty eye-catching and well done, even if it was hidden at a not particularly well trafficked corner of the city.

Lyft Billboard for Rides to the Polls
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Demoing Voice Live at Adobe MAX 2018

For the record, here is the entire keynote address from last week’s Adobe MAX 2018 conference in Los Angeles. Jump to about forty minutes in and you’ll see the demo that I gave of what’s new in Adobe XD.

In a post last week I went into some detail about the groundbreaking new voice design and prototyping features included in the latest release, but this demo also shows a slew of additional major improvements: seamless import of Photoshop files (also works with Illustrator files); linked symbols now working between documents; a painless new approach to responsive design that we call “responsive resize;” two plugins from XD’s brand new plugins ecosystem (which already features dozens of third-party developers); a whole new approach to effortlessly creating microinteractions called “auto-animate;” and the aforementioned voice features. (That’s just the design segment of the keynote; there are tons of other products announcements if you watch the whole thing.)

As an added bonus I also showed a preview of a voice feature coming next year: the ability to run your XD prototypes directly on an Amazon Echo Show. For both that segment and the earlier part of the demo where I show voice interactions for the first time, you might notice a sincere moment of genuine relief when the features actually work as expected. In truth I was less intimidated by the nearly 12,000 attendees in the hall watching my demo than I was by the relatively unknown quantity of demonstrating voice on stage. The medium is so young still and so there’s no great playbook for how to handle a technical malfunction. You also don’t get a lot of cues as to what might be going on when voice fails—did the system fail to understand what I said, or did it fail to produce a response? It’s hard to tell, and really frightening to demo.

This is the new reality though—before too long voice is going to be a common feature of most product demos. More than that, voice is going to change the world around us. I was speaking to an architect recently who talked about how designs for new workplaces are already starting to anticipate a future where we’ll all be speaking to our computers. Immersive media is going to bring about new norms in how we think about our physical world. There’s a certain inevitability to it, and that’s why it’s so important that designers start working with this stuff now, when the rules are being written for the first time.

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Wireframe Episode 3: Good Design Is 💩

The other day, a designer who I admire greatly described my new podcast “Wireframe” as something “like investigative journalism crossed with UX/UI case studies.” That is a really flattering characterization that reflects our ambitions for this whole series. So much goes into the production of each episode in terms of research, reporting, fact-checking and editorial review that I’m not afraid of saying there’s no other design show like it out there.

Put another way, this is a serious production—even if the title of today’s post contains a, um, a poo emoji in it. That’s right, poo. Sometimes design journalism just takes you to unexpected places.

In this case, as we dug into the design history of emoji and how they became an essential part of our communications in this century, it was hard to ignore the auspicious place that that particular pictogram occupies in our collective imagination. If you’re grossed out though, don’t worry—the entire story is actually not particularly bathroom-focused. It covers the origins of this funny iconic language, explores its linguistic evolution, and shows how design can take some unexpected paths to success. Like I said: serious very stuff. Plus there’s 💩.

You can listen to the entire episode above. Be sure to subscribe in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcatcher to get each episode as it’s released.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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Movies Watched, September 2018

Still from “Crazy Rich Asians”

Late summer 2018 was a huge breakthrough for Asian-Americans in film and I was there for it. Sort of. First, “Crazy Rich Asians,” became an instant hit and a cultural touchstone despite a late-August theatrical release, not usually a time for huge box office numbers. Almost concurrently, Netflix released “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a charming teen romantic comedy in the John Hughes mold with an Asian American girl as its lead. And then Asian-American actor John Cho, one of the best performers of any ethnicity working today, starred in the innovative and superbly reviewed “Searching.”

That’s three better-than-average movies where Asian-Americans figured prominently in front of and/or behind the camera. I still haven’t been able to watch “Searching” but I did get to see the first two, both of which I started with great enthusiasm and then finished with decidedly mixed feelings. Though “Crazy Rich Asians” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” are drastically different kinds of films, they both ask discerning movie watchers to choose between celebrating breakthroughs in ethnic representation in film or criticizing their narrative shortcomings.

This amounts to a terrible choice, especially in the case of “Crazy Rich Asians,” which is a triumph in so many ways. It can’t be overestimated how meaningful it is to have a major Hollywood studio film with the first predominantly Asian cast and crew in twenty-five years. And the fact that the film was met with such popular and financial success makes its achievements all the sweeter.

But “Crazy Rich Asians” is hardly a well-honed example of filmmaking craft, even for a romantic comedy. At best, I would call it only nominally romantic and only mildly comedic. Mostly, it’s just regrettably shallow and tediously meandering which, to be fair, is about par for the course. For decades, the romantic comedy genre has been essentially defined as an exercise in lowering its audiences’ expectations.

Where “Crazy Rich Asians” is markedly worse than what we could have hoped for is in its treatment of class. Romantic comedies have a long-standing fascination with the courting rituals of the rich, it’s true (and granted, for this film, that’s advertised up front in the very name). This has been with us since even the golden age of screwball, when the combination of romance and comedy resulted in some of the most enduring cinema in Hollywood history. But classics of the genre like “Holiday” and “The Awful Truth” (two of my all time favorites of any genre, by the way) merely took their upper crust milieus as a way of contrasting the humanity of their protagonists against the lack thereof in their antagonists. Those movies often rejected wealth, or found their resolutions in spite of it. In “Crazy Rich Asians,” there is a disturbing unwillingness to choose between disdaining the trappings of extreme wealth and also embracing its vulgar excesses. The film is determined to have it both ways, repeatedly lampooning rich Singaporeans while also giving its characters no agency outside of their riches—every emotion, every expression, every plot point rests on the articulation of money. Even the class divide at the heart of the conflict isn’t between rich and poor but between the mega-rich and the upper-middle class. And, spoiler alert, in the end, no one winds up a cent poorer. It’s gross.

Worse, “Crazy Rich Asians” is egregiously evasive about race. Its setting in Singapore is strangely monocultural for a tiny city-state where a quarter of its population are ethnic minorities. And yet the world of “Crazy Rich Asians” is almost exclusively ethnic Chinese. Or, to put a finer point on it, light-skinned. There’s hardly a dark-skinned figure on the screen at any time.

You could say that this film is a moment for ethnic Chinese representation specifically, and not every breakthrough movie should be held responsible for carrying the full freight of underrepresented minorities. That would be a reasonable defense. And yet, I lived and worked in Singapore briefly, and what I recall was that any given day was full of chance encounters with ethnic Malay and Indian residents, to say nothing of the countless foreign nationals in the expatriate community. You really had to go out of your way not to see the wider spectrum of racial diversity in the country, and that’s what I found so galling about “Crazy Rich Asians.” They say there are no accidents in what makes it into a film, so we should be clear that it was no accident that “Crazy Rich Asians” went out of its way to exclude ethnic Malay Singaporeans, specifically, and other ethnicities, broadly. For a film that’s supposed to be representationally progressive, that’s disappointing to say the least.

A compromised racial outlook also undermines the otherwise perfectly entertaining “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” a suburban teen comedy with a thoroughly delightful Asian-American lead in actor Lana Condor. Unfortunately her charms are not enough to drown out the movie’s deafening silence on the mixed-race, Asian/Caucasian ficitional family at the heart of the film. The mother is Korean and the father white but Condor and the actors that play her two sisters look like they were born from entirely different ethnicities. The script compounds this problem by conspicuously failing to address the disparities altogether, ignoring race almost entirely. Aside from a single rudimentary mention of her Korean-American heritage early on, there’s not a single character trait in Condor’s role that is specific at all to her racial identity. Not one of the boys she has a romantic interest in is Asian, and in fact there are no substantive parts for Asian males altogether. Also, coincidentally, Condor’s mother is dead, handily dispensing with the need to actually represent her heritage more fully.

This approach struck me as disturbingly Orientialist, a hallmark of which is the tendency to group different Eastern ethnicities together as generically “Asian.” Maybe it’s really true that, to some American audiences—and maybe to some American film producers?—all Asians look the same. Or maybe the filmmakers were under the misapprehension that the best way to handle race is to pretend it doesn’t exist at all, deferring instead to a blandly pervasive notion of “American” identity. Either way, for me, the lack of nuance in respecting Asian identity was fatally distracting, like one of those restaurants where they serve sushi and General Tso’s chicken at the same buffet. Those places are fine and all, but if one comes to your town, don’t mistake it for progress.

Here is the full list of twelve films I watched in September.

If you’re interested, here is what I watched in August, July,
June, May, April, March, February and January. You can also see my complete list of everything I watched in 2017 and follow along with my film diary over at letterboxd.com.

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Wireframe Episode 2: Good Design Is Good Civics

If you enjoyed the inaugural episode of “Wireframe”, you’ll love this second installment, just released today. The title is “Good Desgn Is Good Civics,“ and it looks at how the city of Boston tried to package its municipal government into app form, and what it learned along the way about how design serves its people. You can listen to it above but be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode.

If you’re not familiar with “Wireframe,” it’s a unique kind of design podcast, hosted by yours truly. Instead of merely interviewing well known designers, we dig into the world of interaction design via deeply researched reporting and engaging narratives. In other words, the focus is on stories instead of résumés. You can read more in this blog post.

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