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!  ↩

Twitter’s Missing Manual

One of Twitter’s problems is that it’s tilted a little too far towards the vim end of the scale. It looks like a dead-simple service, but those humble 140 characters have been crammed full of features over the years, and the ways they interact aren’t always obvious. There are rules, and the rules generally make sense once you know them, but it’s also really easy to overlook them.

I’ve known about Twitter since around 2006, but I’ve only been using it — haphazardly at first — from maybe 2011. Even though I’m pretty good about figuring out unwritten rules (see: living in Japan), as a semi-newb to the service there are a lot of things about how it works that I really didn’t know. This is a fantastic resource.

Three takeaways for web developers after two weeks of painfully slow internet access

This writeup on Medium is a great article for app and website developers. Like designing for accessibility, considering and designing for slow data access can vastly improve user experience.

I had to use tethering to get work done over the last month due to a very flaky wi-fi access point at a work location. Because of that, I managed to hit my data cap before the end of the month, and spent over a week with horribly throttled access that rendered anything without an offline mode or a robust low-data mode basically useless. Most syncing worked — slowly; most browsing or even non-text Twitter didn’t.

Third-party apps fared the worst. I could get pages to load in Safari on my iPhone that Tweetbot was unable to display. This experience, not long after the announcement of Safari View Controller across apps in iOS 9, made me fully appreciate just how big of a change more open developer access to Safari will be. Developers won’t have to write their own browsers, and users will get access to all of the caching and performance tweaks implemented in the system browser. When you’re running at 0.12 Mb/s up and down, you really, really appreciate optimizations and performance fallback modes.

Accessibility and iOS

I’m way late in linking and sharing these:

Global Accessibility Awareness Day and why it matters

Why making your apps accessible is just the right thing to do

If you want to find out what it’s like for a blind or partially-sighted person to use an iPhone, set it to Accessibility Mode: Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> VoiceOver On. There are options in that menu for Braille output devices and other assistive settings. You can set VoiceOver to toggle on and off with a triple click on the home button in Settings -> General -> Accessibility -> Accessibility Shortcut; which can be found at the bottom of the Accessibility page.

It’s interesting to experiment with alternative UI (User Interfaces) like this. Those settings are semi-hidden since most people will never need them, but they are essential for some. Since iOS 3 introduced VoiceOver APIs, Apple has steadily added all kinds of features for disabled users.

In addition to literally making the difference between independence and dependence for the people who use their software, some programmers have said that designing an app with usability in mind makes them concentrate on the details. That focus may actually result in better apps for people with unimpaired sight and mobility as well.

Why I'm Not Interested in Owning an  Watch

I’ve been thinking about this at least since it was first announced[1], but the capabilities of the Apple Watch as of right now do not present a good use-model or value proposition. It’s a more interesting product than the alternatives like Pebble, because of better integration with iOS which will give it more capabilities than any third-party device will ever have. The design is beautiful, and the aspirational engineer in me drools over the details of how Apple makes the watch. But that’s not enough to make me want to actually buy one.

I wear a watch for two reasons:

  1. I want a consistently reliable alternative to my phone for telling the time.
  2. (Distant second) I want a fashion accessory.

A smart-watch would add this benefit:

  1. A more accessible and portable alternative to my phone, particularly when in motion.

The Apple Watch will, at least for now, work only as adjunct to an iPhone. That means it’s not as useful as a pure wearable in most situations since it negates the portability. If I have to carry my iPhone to use the Watch, I’d rather just carry the iPhone. The lack of GPS and need for tethering basically eliminates the main use I’d have for it — as a device for tracking workouts or runs.

The interactions do not generally look useful to me. I do more production than reception on my phone. I have almost all notifications turned off, and only use messaging or email occasionally since I often can’t respond during work hours unless on an explicit break. I had to change my notification settings for messages and email because even vibration-only is noticeable in some situations at work.

All models of the Apple Watch are aesthetically pleasing, which makes them very desirable objects, but the fashion aspect and object-lust is not enough to make its appeal irresistible. I have two nice, moderately expensive watches. Only one — the old dumb mechanical watch — actually gets worn because it’s rock-solid reliable. The other looks good, but proved to be useless as a timepiece.

I’ve found that the most important aspect of a watch is reliability. I could easily do without one, and in fact didn’t wear a watch at all for a few years after I started carrying a cell phone regularly. I started wearing one again after my wife insisted on buying a watch as a wedding present. (For the record, I was a cheap bastard, so I told her not to spend too much on me, otherwise she probably would have bought a lower-end Rolex or something similar.)

The user-hostile design of that Citizen watch quickly made me very leery of using it at all. If you’re going to break a user interaction model, you’d damn well better do it for a good reason. They didn’t have one.

In addition to being rendered useless when I went overseas, within the next 2 years (right after the warranty expired, in fact) it had stopped working reliably at all. It would sometimes completely stop, as if it had run out of power, even after I left it in a place with direct access to sunlight for a whole day to charge. I got it serviced, which mostly fixed that problem, but soon after it started to reset itself to the wrong time even after I manually reset it using the ridiculously complicated procedure Citizen’s engineers implemented. I got it serviced again, but the problem randomly re-occurred. I never wear it anymore because it was not just unreliable, it was unpredictably unreliable.

For nearly 20 years, I’ve had an Omega[2] that I also got as a gift. I have had only routine service performed on it twice. It has an all-mechanical self-winding movement. It’s not ridiculously accurate — it will drift several seconds[3] over a week or so — and you have to wear it for at least a few hours every day to keep it running without manual winding, but it’s a workhorse. If it doesn’t work, it’s inevitably because I have not worn it recently and the power reserve has run out. It has run consistently for years without stopping. With some care, it will probably be keeping reasonably accurate time for one of my grandkids, and will probably still be worth as much as a comparable contemporary watch.

I love tech stuff. I am nearly as susceptible as other geeks to the sparkly lure of new shiny gadgets. I lust after the sheer technical meticulousness of the construction of it. But I don’t think I’ll be buying an Apple Watch … at least, not yet. Maybe when it becomes more of a stand-alone device, or auto-syncs with an iPhone when it gets back within tethering range. Or, if over the next few months after it comes out I see uses that I hadn’t imagined that are compelling enough, then maybe I’ll consider buying one.

For right now, it seems to be an interesting beautiful toy that I kind of want, but can’t really justify buying. (If I could justify it, I’d get the 42mm version of this bad-boy, though).

  1. Or a couple of years farther back if you count from when the iPod Nano straps came out and the success of the original Pebble project pushed tech-watches back into the forefront of public consciousness, including my own.  ↩

  2. A Seamaster model 2532.80.00, which probably retailed for half of what that model goes for in near-mint condition now. Mine is nowhere near mint; it would probably be categorized as “well-abused”.  ↩

  3. According to an watch-enthusiast site, Omega Seamaster automatic models have an accuracy of –4 to +6 seconds per day  ↩

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.


Kanjilicious is a game/study tool looking for funding on Kickstarter. He’ll be using the funds to buy rights for assets like music and illustrations, as well as paying some people for app-related work. I’m personally not a big fan of gamifying study. I get better results by working alone most of the time (shocker), but I’m not most people.

The huge popularity of games like Words with Friends and Letterpress show that a lot of people like competitive word/puzzle games. I think he’s going about it in the right way, by setting up a base that he can build on for future games and kanji sets.

Kanjilicious has a learning tool at its base, and even anti-social humbugs like me may find that the social gaming feature of the app gets them to open the app and review more often, whether they actually engage in game matches or not. My son will very shortly be getting to the point where he could really use bilingual learning tools (he’ll be turning 4 in a couple of weeks) and this might be an app that he’ll use for learning to read in Japanese.

I’m in for $25 because I think this is an interesting approach — and having only the first set unlocked would make it really, really pointless for me. The game aspect will probably make it appealing even to people who only have a casual interest in learning Japanese, which I think is a Very Good Thing. Demystifying a subject for people is nearly always positive, in my experience. If you have even a slight interest in learning the Japanese writing systems, backing this project would probably pay off for you.

I’ve used iFlash on my Mac from around 2005 for learning Japanese vocabulary and kanji. I also have used the free Japanese dictionary imiwa? since I got my first iPhone, back when it used to be called Kotoba!

I’ve tried several other apps for making study more fun or ingraining habits, like 30Day Japanese Words and similar structured study apps, but the ones I’ve found most “sticky” are ones that were multiply useful. imiwa? has a Favorites list that I can export and use to make a personalized deck of words which I’ve had to look up recently. iFlash is a venerable tool that I’ve used for memorization practice for years, and the creator set up a deck-sharing feature that I’ve found interesting; I recently downloaded a Russian cyrillic letter deck, for example.

I won’t know until I actually use it, but it looks like the kind of app I’ll find useful enough to launch on a regular basis.

Design Is about Intent

The Three Design Evasions The opposite of design, then, is the failure to develop and employ intent in making creative decisions. This doesn’t sound hard, but, astonishingly, no other leading tech company makes intentional design choices like Apple. Instead, they all commit at least one of what I term the Three Design Evasions:

He goes on to explain in detail about Preserving, Copying, and Delegating. This is one of the most cogent and precise explanations I’ve seen of what makes a good design process, and what cripples one.

10,000 Year Clock

The time scale humans operate on is extremely short by geological standards. To provide some reference for how ambitious this project is, the famous pyramids in Egypt are only about 5,000 years old. The history of agriculture itself only goes back about 12,000 years. Ten-thousand years ago, nearly every human on this planet was a hunter-gatherer, and now nearly every human lives in an industrial society. This clock, even if it lasts only half as long as planned, is likely to outlast nearly every other significant artifact of our culture.