Dickbars and Other Readability Excrement

John Gruber in Medium and the Scourge of Persistent Sharing Dickbars:

Medium seems to continue to grow in popularity as a publishing platform, and as it does, I’m growing more and more frustrated by their on-screen “engagement” turds. Every Medium site displays an on-screen “sharing” bar that covers the actual content I want to read. This is particularly annoying on the phone, where screen real estate is most precious. Now on iOS they’ve added an “Open in App” button that literally makes the last 1–2 lines of content on screen unreadable. To me these things are as distracting as having someone wave their hand in front of my face while I try to read…

This is now a very common design pattern for mobile web layouts. Medium is far from alone. It’s getting hard to find a news site that doesn’t put a persistent sharing dickbar down there.

I had quite forgotten about the elegantly evocative appellation Mr. Gruber coined lo these many moons ago: the dickbar.

I’ve periodically collected screenshots of especially egregious examples of readability excrement over the last couple of years. For this post, I’ve cropped out OS or app interface cruft to show only content. Or should that be “content”?

While Gruber’s recent rant about the dickbar was triggered by Medium’s mobile site, which is supposedly mobile-friendly and well-designed — and which should presumably strive to do better than the norm — a similar set of problems has been at least as bad on desktop versions of sites for a long time.

Wall Street Journal, Mobile Site

Wall Street Journal, Mobile Site

On mobile, or on desktop websites, financial news usually seems to be among the worst offenders.

The Wall Street Journal wants me to whitelist their site and not use a blocker, and in return they generously give me about 3/4 of my screen with which to read their articles. It’s like trying to read through the slit in the top of a Kleenex box.

How about the generositiousness[1] of of Fortune, who use a vastly larger desktop display to spray ad bukkake in your face while serving up a content column that’s basically the same width as my ancient iPhone 5s. Actually, it’s more readable on an iPhone since more than 3–4 words a line fit on the screen in mobile view.

Fortune’s Ad B ukkake .

Fortune’s Ad Bukkake.

Tech sites are also terrible. Cnet is basically unusable.

Cnet, y u no lt mi c?

Cnet, y u no lt mi c?

Where the #^¢* is the actual content? You can’t even read the full headline covering the absurdly large “hero” image without a host of popups, pop-ins, and other “look at meeee!!11!eleven!” elements partially covering it. Add a “bonus” autoplay video for flavor. Fun!

Here’s a slideshow on Cnet.

Ultimate(?) iPhone Quiz

Ultimate(?) iPhone Quiz

Quick, how do you advance the slideshow? The forward arrow didn’t appear for several seconds, then worked intermittently, failing about one time every five clicks, and the thumbnail images were unresponsive for several more seconds when I accessed the site.

And how about that sidebar? Wait, sidebar? You thought that was an ad section? Yeah, that’s what I thought too. It’s supposed to be the caption. Oh, you can’t read the caption? Let’s just scroll that a bit… Except, scrolling within that bar is so broken as to be completely useless.

Don’t believe me, try it yourself. Shitshow doesn’t begin to cover it. I took those screenshots about two years ago and have avoided ever going back to Cnet for any reason since.

Surprisingly, one of the really bad websites I found was the Cambridge Dictionary.

Cambridge, Just a Hint: Dictionaries Contain  Words.

Cambridge, Just a Hint: Dictionaries Contain Words.

Dickbar + persistent navigation toolbar + share button turds + ads + ads + ads + provide your email for spam[2] + a topper of the “required” EU cookies notice = a shitty user experience.

Even on an “unlimited” data plan, I’ve run into rate limits before the end of a month when I’m doing nothing more data intensive than using my iPhone normally and occasionally tethering for data access for work when I don’t have wi-fi access. Rate limits for my plan on DoCoMo kick in at 7GB, and I don’t watch goddamn YouTube tethered through my phone.

When tethered, besides web access, I sync primarily text files and occasional images through Dropbox, and Numbers or Pages documents through iCloud. I’m pretty damn sure it’s not syncing my actual work that’s eating up data.

Publishers, if you want me to stop running an ad blocker, stop doing shit like this:

Wait, How Many #^¢*ing Scripts Is That‽

Wait, How Many #^¢*ing Scripts Is That‽

  1. Don’t tell me this isn’t a real word. It’s a perfectly cromulent word. In fact I made it up just now to explain the truthiness of my argument. So there.  ↩

  2. Oh please, oh please!  ↩

Facebook Instant Articles

From a NY Times article published in May:

Facebook’s long-rumored plan to directly host articles from news organizations will start on Wednesday, concluding months of delicate negotiations between the Internet giant and publishers that covet its huge audience but fear its growing power …

… Most important for impatient smartphone users, the company says, the so-called instant articles will load up to 10 times faster than they normally would since readers stay on Facebook rather than follow a link to another site.

The last thing I wanted in my Facebook feed was more news articles, so the technical improvement of faster load times does not benefit me in the slightest. The only reason I ever go to Facebook is to see what’s going on with family members. I already have to sort through the listicles, quizzes, and “surveys” that are shared on Facebook to get to their posts. Anything that makes it harder for me to see actual activity from the people I know is just more clutter.

Granted, given the quality of what is usually shared, it will probably be more interesting, higher-brow clutter, but still clutter. I had already started skipping over the regular timeline to exclusively check messages and alerts on the infrequent occasions I visited Facebook. Increasing clutter will make me less likely to bother looking through my timeline since I know it will be about as rewarding as looking though an email inbox with spam filtering disabled.

I can see the appeal for publishers, since most of the public is not as discerning jaded and cantankerous as me, and there are 1.25 billion active users on Facebook.

Let that sink in; that’s active users, as in people who actually log in and use Facebook on a monthly or more frequent basis. There must be many more registered users than 1.25 billion, since active use is typically much, much lower than registration.

That’s a metric asstonne[1] of people. The active users alone represent 17% of the current world population of 7.3 billion, so by the numbers, theoretically nearly 1 in 5 of people on the entire planet use Facebook right now. And it’s still growing.

The problem for publishers is that joining any social network is hazardous in the long term. Letting someone else publish your content means that you both relinquish control and eventually become a commodity on that platform. When you are one of several sources for a similar service, it becomes simple and easy to replace you if you decide not to participate anymore. Should Facebook later decide to play hardball, and The Times opt-out of publishing on Facebook’s platform, even they — with their strong reputation and mind-share in news — probably wouldn’t be particularly missed.

News publishing is in flux, and it’s increasingly clear that the older publishers are facing very difficult circumstances. Ironically, this consolidation approach was already tried on the internet in the past, and was generally resisted by the public.

Remember the buzz around web portals in the early days of the public internet? It’s one of the reasons AOL became infamous online, when their membership campaigns[2] resulted in floods of clueless “newbies” who knew naught of online etiquette honed on usenet in countless flamewars.

Becoming the latest implementation of a webportal is probably a good long-term strategy for Facebook, but it places it about a half-step in stodginess from “You’ve got mail!” territory. Hell, the only reason I got a Facebook account was due to social pressure from older family members. It was already losing enough social cachet a few years ago, when I finally caved, that a dude in his mid–30s didn’t think it was the cool new tech thing.

  1. Equal to 1.102 Imperial asstons, but substantially smaller than a Goatse.  ↩

  2. Kids: ask your parents to tell about the “free” frisbees and drink coasters AOL used to send to to everyone’s houses.  ↩

Baby Hair Brushes

No, not brushes for brushing your baby's hair. Calligraphy brushes made out of your baby's hair. More practical than bronzed shoes, you have to admit. Akachan (赤ちゃん) translates as "baby" and a fude (筆) is a brush for writing kanji characters.

Oh, and for the few regular readers who still think Japan is high-tech, the catalog is a PDF of a print catalog. The way I found this was through a flyer left in my mailbox. They used their phone number as the referral URL, which resolves to the link above. If you're interested, you can order by phone or fax, and if you call the toll-free (in Japan) number, you can get a catalog sent to you by mail for free!

Trust Your Designer

… We understand that it’s hard sometimes to let go of the familiar. For instance, we recently had a client that was having a hard time letting go of their preconceived design expectations for their website. They were set on a particular color and typeface that didn’t necessarily appeal to their ideal audience. They were hesitant to allow “white space” (empty space for design purposes) on their website and were adamant about filling up every open spot with their company tagline.

This reminds me of a video I saw recently, featuring an engineer talking to business people. People who don’t know what they don’t know are particularly tiring to deal with. Very few people besides actual designers have any training in design, so nearly every conversation about design must feel a bit like that.

Part of hiring professionals is letting them do their jobs. Presumably, you’re hiring someone to do something you recognize you are unable to execute well, or in some cases at all. Believe me, anyone who isn’t laboring under a cognitive bias recognizes quality when they see it. They also can see when that Dunning–Kruger effect is in full effect by how their eyes bleed from the horrible appearance of a web page and the curses stream from their mouths after their sign-up password is rejected for the third time under previously undisclosed criteria imposed by an incompetent design.

Other fun things for a designer are being told how to do their jobs by someone who would probably not comprehend how anything in my previous links applies to them — but who would oh, so very much benefit from any slight amount of understanding — and being asked to work for free. To the latter, there is only one reply.

To all those who hire professionals and actually trust them to do their work, THANK YOU. The world needs more of you.

Google Ads Everywhere

While Barbara Hambly is no futurist, she nailed this one in Knight of the Demon Queen. She portrayed a slightly more technologically advanced alternate universe in which people have ads playing all around them all the time in order to offset their living costs. Only the well-off can afford to have anything resembling privacy by disallowing advertising.

For the medieval-world character who gets temporarily stuck there, it’s a version of hell. And it appears to be coming to our future. Ain’t technology grand? Remember: at Google their product is you.

Hey, Big Boy!

Matt Alt, “Japan's Nose Obsession”:

By now you've undoubtedly read the brou-ha-ha over the "racist" ANA commercial featuring a Japanese dude wearing a huge prosthetic nose in an attempt to look foreign. Putting aside for a moment how much of a transgression the commercial represents, there's no question that "foreigners" and "long noses" go hand in hand in Japan. What IS the deal with that?

My earlier take on this issue.

And then there‘s this:

Is that your nose, or are you just happy to see me?

Is that your nose, or are you just happy to see me?

Racist All Nippon Airlines Commercial

Brian Ashcraft for Kotaku:

In Japan, there is stock imagery for foreigners—nee, gaijin. The imagery consists of blond hair, a large nose, and a comically bad Japanese accent.

The stock imagery described is for “desirable” foreigners: American/European whites. The imagery for blacks and many other ethnicities would probably be called tantamount to hate crimes in many places.

This commercial is as completely tone-deaf as using blackface to promote awareness of Martin Luther King Day would be. The whole point apparently was to show how “international” ANA is. Nice job, guys! Nothing says, “sophisticated and cosmopolitan”, like crude racial stereotyping.

On the other hand, Americans apparently still suck at race relations too, with a recent How I Met Your Mother episode drawing fire for yellowface shenanigans. Oops.

While it’s gotten better in the last few years, Chinese and Koreans were often cast as Japanese with uncomfortable frequency. Compounding the problem is that most Japanese actors and actresses either don’t speak English — or any other languages — well enough to function in non-Japanese films, or have an acting style more suited to native-style melodrama than the more naturalistic performances expected in most of the rest of the world.

Conversely, the handful of Japanese actors and actresses who have been successful abroad often haven’t done particularly well in their home country. Kikuchi Rinko, for example, was nominated for an Academy Award for her outstanding performance in Babel, and has gotten continuing attention internationally since then, but has been virtually ignored in Japan, even after headlining in the kick-ass homage to Japanese monster movies, Pacific Rim (not that many Japanese necessarily recognize the references).