Thanksgiving 2.0

Thanksgiving overhaulSeasonal content always gives us an opportunity to improve the design and functionality of the site. (Compare to the Topics page design from the year before.) [link]

Last year the product team focused on just getting *something* together for Thanksgiving on a tight deadline, but this time we had the luxury of an existing code base to work with, a year's worth of experience making these pages, and a much longer lead time. One of the things that I really enjoy about working on a site with lots of evergreen, seasonal content is that I have the opportunity to revisit ideas, put gained knowledge into practice and make improvements. We decided to focus on integrating a new visual design language, refactoring the existing code and improving the editorial workflow.

Over the summer we worked with a design firm on a new visual design for the site. Updating the Thanksgiving section was the perfect time to execute the new look and feel and build our stylesheets from the ground up because it's mostly self contained. The current site relies on Bootstrap, but it's been feeling too kitchen sink-y and I often find myself overriding many default styles that I didn't need in the first place. I chose Bourbon after evaluating other frameworks like Pure and Foundation as it seemed the least obtrusive and most flexible. Although there was a bit of an adjustment going from LESS to Sass, I'm happy that I made the switch. Bourbon (and its related packages) has a tiny footprint compared to Bootstrap and the extends and syntax help keep the project more organized. Semantic naming for layout and columns is supported and the responsive grid is easy to modify. I set up naming conventions based on SMACSS principles, which should allow us to scale the stylesheet more easily and enable others to jump in and contribute with more consistency. Moving towards packages managed on the command line will enable us to keep the framework at the most up to date version.

We also refactored the template code with what we've learned over the past year by chunking out blocks of functionality for reuse in other areas. Just as we're approaching the visual design in a more modular way, we've been creating patterns with context based rules.

Lastly, we set up a new way of collecting questions from readers. Rather than just soliciting questions in comments or Twitter, we set up a form on the Thanksgiving landing page It was important to build a solution that fit into the existing editorial workflow, as the editors would be more likely to use it since it's less cognitive time spent on learning something new. Considering the size of the Product team (two!!) it was also imperative that we follow the path of least resistance and quickest implementation. 

When a reader submits a question, Formstack syncs the submission to a Google sheet. An editor reviews and copies approved questions into the master spreadsheet, and a script exports the data as a JSON file on the server. Google spreadsheets are already a part of the daily workflow and the data can be easily updated with a single command. We had used this technique in previous projects inspired by this solution, but this time we made it into a reusable script customized for our environment and data. (And we were heartened to know that other publishers are using a similar technique!)  We're excited about using this for an upcoming gift guide and ideas that require more flexibility than our current CMS allows. One tradeoff of flexibility that we've run into is that the process can be prone to error; we can't lock down parts of the spreadsheet that are crucial to exporting the JSON file (column headers, anyone?), so we'd have to think about error handling to make this process scale better.

The biggest takeaway, for me, is how tightly visual design and front end development have become woven together; in fact, I don't really see much separation between the two. Projects are most successful when they're taken through an iterative process and it's especially crucial for responsive design, where I need to see it in action before I can decide whether or not it works. And overhauling a limited area of the site is much less risky and allows time for testing. It also gives us the opportunity to refine the design because we can see it in the wild and get feedback -where does it not work? How can it be improved? Where can we take chunks of design and code and make them reusable in other places? Ultimately I hope that the experience we've put together will help improve everyone's Thanksgiving game!

In Need of a Haircut

Responsive viewsExample of responsive redesign that launched in August of 2014. [link]

Last month we launched some updates to Serious Eats - the site hasn't had a major visual overhaul in a few years, and we wanted to address some immediate issues while working on a larger reorganization and redesign project in parallel. We weren't adding any new features, if anything we were focused on paring down and identifying what could we do based on what already existed.

The percentage of visitors on mobile and tablet devices has steadily increased and, although our overall traffic has been going up, the time spent on the page has slowly been decreasing. A few years ago we had experimented with a mobile site that served stripped down pages from a mobile sub domain. It became neglected as it was a completely separate set of templates, which meant double work to keep feature parity. We wanted to stop using the "mobile" templates, make the existing design responsive and have one canonical URL for any given piece of content.

Going responsive was an immediate fix, with the goal of increasing the time spent on page and more pages per session. But going responsive for a publishing company doesn't just mean adding media queries to the stylesheet. We had to consider how advertising was going to be integrated at various widths. We settled on using an asynchronous loading method so we could load the correct size depending on the screen width. And given the timeframe, we settled on a single breakpoint at 768px. To solve for the less than ideal width in portrait view on tablets, the viewport metatag is omitted to force the viewport to zoom out to display the (wider) site within the screen. It's a handy hack!

The site was also badly in need of a cleanup; over time, pages had become cluttered with unnecessary widgets, colors and scripts that were just adding visual noise and slowing the page down. There was also a proliferation of styles as various projects were launched, and we wanted to make the styling more consistent across the board. Internally we dubbed this project "the haircut". We wanted to get out of the way and let readers read!

 And finally we had to change our templating system. (Not a small task, props to Paul!) We had already built a number of projects with ChApp and we were finally ready to cut the cord with using Movable Type to render pages. MT is now set to publish JSON feeds while ChApp handles all the rendering logic. ChApp gives us more flexibility and we no longer need to rebuild the entire site, we just push the templates via git and restart the server only if settings have changed. 

But we had to do it in two stages: first recreate every template in ChApp that mirrored the old blog structure, then we worked on consolidating the templates. We now have a single template that renders stories and one that renders recipes; we previously had one story template per blog. There are still a few dynamic templates like user profiles and registration that MT handles, but for the most part we're now on a much more flexible platform where we can make changes much more quickly and easily. It cut our launch time down to about an hour - compare that to the last major update, which took four or five hours and then a site rebuild over another day or so. And it gives us the ability to make much quicker releases rather than having to wait to rebuild the site to reflect any changes. 

So the big question is: how effective has the haircut been? It's consistently more than doubled the time on page and decreased the bounce rate by about 10%, and the page load time has decreased on average by 4 seconds. Readers are thrilled that the content is optimized for reading no matter what kind of device they're on. 

For the future, we want to continually focus on performance. For instance, we want more control over displaying images so we can serve the appropriate size according to bandwidth and screen capability. We're also in the midst of a larger taxonomy project to dramatically improve the search experience, especially for recipes. And we're making a bigger effort to surface evergreen content - we started doing this with a custom-built related content widget at the bottom of posts - and will extend to bigger projects like what we've been doing with our holiday collection pages. So stay tuned! 

Making Sandwiches

I do admit that I get to work on some fun stuff at Serious Eats. The process for building the sandwich page was a great example of a successful collaboration between editorial and the design/dev team. It was a quick process - Kenji came to me and Paul with the idea on Monday afternoon and we had launched it on Friday. Over the past six months we've modularized a lot of our code so it's pretty easy to drop components in without having to worry if they work or not. 

Kenji showed us an idea he had for a sandwich graphic - he wanted it to be more interactive and possibly with some animation. 

Kenji's concept sketch for the sandwich page

Talking through, it seemed like it was a bit more straightforward than the maps we've done in the past, plus we had some code that we had already written that could be reused for this project. 

First I created quick and dirty comps in Illustrator to establish a clear look and feel. I've switched to Illustrator recently after having been a die-hard Photoshop nerd when it comes to comps - I love the multiple artboard aspect, it's perfect for working on proposed interactions at various screen sizes. I wanted the sandwich layers to pop off the page, but have a more refined sense of typography that I've been trying to work into some of the seasonal pages and maps. I focused on organizing the layout in a way that would make responsive aspects easier since we knew we had a tight deadline. 

Illustrator comp for sandwich page

Kenji had also prepped all of the photography ahead of time into transparent layers, so it saved me an enormous amount of time when it came to prepping the artwork for use in the page. I exported each layer of the composite Photoshop file into a png so that we could wrap the img tag with a div, assign a unique class name, and independently manipulate each layer with javascript.

Paul looked at a number of animation libraries and he chose animate.css. It's lightweight and comes with a number of nice CSS transitions. CSS transitions seemed the way to go for animations since they're supported in modern browsers. The content was collected in a google doc spreadsheet. That way Kenji could make a custom data structure, add and change content as he went, and have other editors review. All Paul had to do was match the data structure on the front end, export the sheet as JSON and drop it onto our static server. This is a piece we'd like to automate a bit more at some point though. 

This was the perfect project to take advantage of the programmatic aspects of LESS to make the CSS writing faster and trivial to update. Each layer of each sandwich has a slightly longer delay than the next, so it was pretty straightforward to write a loop in LESS to output a series of numbered classes. I could also reuse the LESS mixin to make another set of classes for each sandwich. [Check out these sweet gists of the LESS mixins and the compiled CSS!]

 By mid day Wednesday we had a working prototype and we got some feedback from Kenji - there was additional content I hadn't accounted for. The next day or so we worked on incorporating the feedback, making the page responsive and squashing bugs. Surprisingly we had very few browser bugs, it was certainly more about getting it to look great across the range of device widths. Getting the breakpoints right is still a bit tricky, but this page was simple enough that I could adjust the breakpoints on the fly, directly in the CSS, rather than having to go back and do more refining in Illustrator.

The sandwich page at multiple screen widths.

And voila, Friday we launched! 

The feedback we received was enormously positive and we're hoping to do more and more of these collaborations in the future. 

I Want a Better Writing App

[Note: I wrote this a week before Writer Pro was released! And guess what! It's taken me that long to publish it!]

I write on my phone a lot. For pleasure, to get ideas out, to work things through, to produce, to share. But none of the apps I've tried actually address the process of writing. Sure, I have maybe weird requirements in that I do most of my writing on the subway so I have no internet. (This is when I am least distracted and I can just...write.) I edit things over a few days before I publish rather than being spontaneous. And I tend to do a first pass at editing on the phone and then I move to the desktop if I want to be more ruthless. (Tap/hold/drag only gets you so far.)

So many of the writing apps I've looked at are only concerned with the interface around the writing part and making it beautiful/minimal. Cool! I think y'all have gotten that done. But I need a tool that can help me refine my writing and prepare it for publishing. (I am *not* asking for a tool to actually publish!!) and I mean "publish" in a loose way. It may be for private or public consumption. Sometimes it ends up in an email, sometimes on a web page, sometimes in a (gasp!) a PDF. Sometimes I want it to go to one of my numerous Tumblrs or my personal blog or my business blog. Sometimes it just ends up being notes for myself. Products like Editorially and Draftin are great...but, no internet. So much of my writing ends up languishing in this phone's local directory. (If it's a blog post that's never published, is it a blog post?) 

I know it is not easy to design and produce an app! However, I have some suggestions to writing app developers for my weird/selfish use case:

  1. Modes: Draft/editing/to publish/archived. I have a huge directory of text files and I have no idea what is in what stage. Tagging? Toggle? Some way of organizing. 
  2. Also the ability to associate more metadata please. 
  3.  Time shifting! Auto sync: queue my text file for syncing to my chosen publishing tool for that particular piece of text the next time there is a connection. Not just Dropbox. Bywords has a feature that is similar but I don't use any of those services. Make a service-agnostic option (JSON...? Hell, Markdown). Harder said than done, obvs.
  4. Saving to Dropbox/"the cloud" without creating an error when I don't have an internet connection (I'm looking at you, Writing Kit). I've had to resort to emailing unfinished text files to myself with my current writing app and the lack of versioning is driving me up a wall. 
  5. Nag/nudge notifications: it be GREAT if my phone gently reminded me of something that's in draft mode. "Hey, looks like you haven't worked on that in a few days. Wanna take a another look? Or have more ideas?" Sometimes I just need a few days to think something over and let it percolate, but sometimes I just...forget. And then I look in the app a month later and I'm like, WHY DID I NOT FINISH THAT. 
  6. Personality: following up on the previous item, give the app some personality. (You don't need to go all Clippy the Paperclip though). I'm not a professional writer by any means, but I enjoy writing and will take all the encouragement I can get. 
  7. Bonus: Associating photos: Nothing fancy. But hey - I've got this photo of a prototype I was working on that would be perfect for the post. Associate it with the writing please! 
  8. That said, please make it focused. I don't need to be presented with 500 options all at once. Step me through the tasks - writing/editing/publishing - in a way that makes it easy to understand. 
  9. Lastly, yes I would pay good money for this and think others would too. 

Experience Isn't a Dirty Word

Observational Sketch, Süleymaniye CamiiJuly 2010, Istanbul

A piece that I read on Medium recently called "Experience Slows You Down" kind of bothered me for a while. I agreed to some extent that experience doesn't automatically make you an expert. However, the author misses the point that experience is valuable when it's done with intention and attention. I'm reminded of two principles in karate that I return to often - shoshin, beginners' mind, and renma, the act of polishing.

Shoshin is akin to what the author described in his piece. I try to approach every project as if I've never done it before. It doesn't matter if I'm doing kata - a series of predefined moves - or working on a site design, or planting a garden. The worst thing that I can do is to say to myself, "oh hey I know this already so it's all good." I run the danger of making the same mistakes, doing things by rote and not actually solving the problem at hand. Maintaining my awareness is what's crucial, not that I've never done it before.

For the month leading up to earning a black belt, you're asked to switch back to a white belt and attend white belt class to remind oneself of what it felt like when one started and had no preconceptions. When I start with beginners' mind, I'm often led to insights that I would have missed otherwise. I try to keep curiosity and playfulness at the forefront and realize that the more I know, the more I find out that I don't know.

Experience becomes valuable through the concept of renma, or constant polishing of technique. Take whatever the essential building block of the medium is - a punch, sketching from observation, setting type, practicing scales - and do it ad infinitum. A deeper understanding and skill level gradually develops through repetition. Since last year I've hand-rolled thousands of tortillas. To some it may appear to be drudgery. But through doing it with attention, I now know exactly how hot the grill needs to be, what the optimal temperature the dough should be for rolling, and how long it takes for the dough to puff up to fluffy perfection. I wouldn't have been able to acquire this information any other way as it's a long process of trial and error. But now I can be confident in our choices for a permanent set up that will give us tortillas of the same consistency, taste and quality. In doing things like this, I aspire to even a thousandth of the skillfulness of a chicken yakitori master we had encountered in our travels in Tokyo - a man, well into his 60s, who effortlessly and gracefully rotated skewers with the flick of his wrist until each piece of chicken was charred to perfection.

John Singer Sargent: White Ships 1908, Watercolor

The great artists and designers that have left a cultural legacy understood these principles. They weren't geniuses who were born fully formed, they worked extremely hard at their craft and had the ability to have an open mind that enabled them to come up with interesting, insightful ways to communicate. I was just reminded of this with some of the watercolors that were on display at the JS Sargent show at the Brooklyn Museum - you can see a huge difference in the mastery between an earlier, tentative piece and the Carrara quarry paintings a decade or two later. I'm inspired all over again to put these principles into practice. 

It's the intersection of beginners' mind and polishing technique that I believe one has the ability to achieve a deeper understanding and that creative solutions come about. And by no means do I think this is easy to achieve! It's something I strive for every day but I know that my attention wanders. Often.

Mapping Burgers

I've been really excited about the projects that I've been working on at Serious Eats, and the burger map that we published yesterday is a great example of how the design and development team has been working closely with editorial to rapidly produce new areas of the site to showcase Serious Eats content. One of the things that I love about Serious Eats is the deep archive of writing about all things food, but it's always been hard to find and surface (for a number of reasons which I won't get into here).  

Kenji and the editorial team came to us at the beginning of June with an idea for a burger map for the Fourth of July; they'd choose 50 burgers and gather links and photos to previous recipes and reviews. They had a vague idea that it should be clickable but beyond that it was up to us. We told the editors to gather their data in a Google spreadsheet for now, since they're used to that workflow already, and I dove into design. 

Two early conceptual sketches in Photoshop

These days I'm using Photoshop just for rough sketching rather than fully fleshing out the entire design, which has been a major sense of relief for me. The aim is to convey overall look and feel in the vein of style tiles rather than making specific layout choices or details. For those that argue that jumping right into CSS kills creativity, I would counter that it provides a set of constraints that one must be creative within. I know what's possible and where I can push the limits. It frees me from doing theoretical finished comps in Photoshop that would never work in the real world; so many of the issues that need to be solved with a responsive design only come to light as you interact with the page, and there is no way you can see that with flat comps. And we didn't have much finished content to work with since we were working in parallel with the editors. 

Development-wise we had recently built NearMe as a way to explore and organize location-based content, but this wasn't quite the right tool for this project. However, the templating system that 29th Street Publishing had put into place was exactly what we needed. On top of that, we found a script for exporting a Google spreadsheet to JSON and an svg library called Raphael.js for the map. The script enabled the editors to continue their workflow undisturbed and we didn't need to build anything custom to store the data; maybe it won't scale if we're doing many maps a week, but we just needed to ship it quickly. 

Now we've got a reusable base of design and code that we can spin off into other projects and a better idea of where we can take things. I definitely want to explore more mapping possibilities with MapBoxLeaflet, and OpenStreetMap (this is a really inspiring example!), as I think it's an effective way to group content to tell a larger story. And I finally feel like I'm getting comfortable with the process that responsive design requires to tackle some larger changes on Serious Eats. 

Ever forward!