• The WordPress design system exists and needs nurturing

    It’s hard to miss something small if you walk past it or don’t look. The shoot of green in the ice thick grass as the first melt of the season occurs, perhaps, the drop of water might have fallen on the desert where the rain hasn’t fallen for so long.

    Even maybe for that needle, you dropped on the thick carpet, and now you need to find it. Perhaps it’s that tool you put in the shed and long forgot about, yet now need to do the task it fits. The WordPress design system is a bit like that.

    Back what seems so long ago at WordCamp Europe, I stood up and talked about how the WordPress design system needs careful tending and care. What exists today in the project isn’t what you’d call a design system. I think that’s where I’ll start this because, all too often, when people talk about the two words together, they can mean far more. There is a difference between Apple’s HIG guidelines and a system for a brand – it’s not clear and defining the need of the system is the start. The projects issue is in part the success, organic growth of a system. I am writing this today because I haven’t written the talk up and after reading a recent post my thoughts feel still very of the moment.

    A design system encompasses so much, from pattern libraries, and style guides through to any other artefacts and in my talk I went through a lot of this, including the excellent maturity model for design systems that John Gully and Marcel Somers. The design isn’t the design system; it’s part of it.  There’s a lot of nuance and opinions that whilst I dance with in my talk, right now probably distract. The system also needs a start, nurturing and a process to grow it. WordPress currently has the start, and it has that foundation in the block.

    Now, that might seem a bit strange to say. Not everything is ‘blocks’ in WordPress. No, but a block is a component, and if you think about components as the macro-level of our system, the blocks are. If you think about how those block principles are and have started to slowly translate through older experiments and newer audits in the Figma libraries (again, Figma isn’t a design system, and neither are experiments, frameworks or many things even I have put a badge on in the past and called a system). The green shoot poking through is a block shape – it’s a component, and we have those. We also have a lot documented. Shoots! There are absolutely principles and foundations, many of them refined overtime now and matured around those. Those shoots have begun to form roots.

    WordPress likely needs a decoupled approach to the system. One in code, detached from the design, but rooted in strong principles that already are shooting up from the ice. It’s winter and cold here, so I am going with that visual. What is needed though still from my talk in June, is an audit and that collaboration, the uniting. What isn’t needed, I would gently persuade with an open ear to conversation, is to throw out the shoots or not see them; casting light and using them is far more sustainable. They are there you just have to look or collaborate with those that know they are there and they can help – open source grows so well when we do that.

    I’ll share a section from my talk at WCEU here that perhaps is apt for now.

    Imagine a space where every component (front and editor) was visibly, easily, documented, up to date, where anyone could extend that, spin it out and add their own styling layer. There is a lot of potential and with things like package management perhaps this could be.

    If nothing else, having a reliable source to pull into your own design system is powerful. Right now, that’s just not something possible. There isn’t that flexibility, reliability, or extendability.

    Back then, I was working with ideas around this in a role I have moved on from as life like seasons change. I still see the strong need for that truly open source approach to the system. I also see it happening within core, I see those green shoots, which like most things, have grown organically and are fragile. Design is an area many of us would love investment and support around contribution to the system. In my talk, I touch on needing to know user cases because they matter – this is in many ways creating a product and that’s how all the design systems have been typically worked on eventually with a product mindset.

    I am going to close today with what I shared in the talk as my close because it feels what is in my heart as I look forward to the year ahead still and what needs nurturing. This is more about a base of truth, than a source of truth because many agencies to plugin creators are going to need to be able to adapt and form on top of this foundation. This is a challenge, and one many other systems don’t have. Like many things in open source, this needs to be done a little differently.

    “We get there through collaboration, and that’s something we are pretty amazing at in WordPress. We get there by all roles being included because that is how we are stronger…..

    This isn’t a single ownership, this isn’t a single user base. This is not a technical project. This system needs to be collaborative…. To truly get the benefits of a WP design system once and for all that isn’t problematic, we are going to need to put it at the heart of work across disciplines.

    We have started already, we have begun various auditing tickets, we have Figma, storybook.. A lot of this is just bringing it together.

    The organic path can rapidly spiral so we need to be cautious. If we realise now, we can bake in strong accessibility and usability patterns that benefit everyone, raise the entire ecosystem. We can raise up the quality of anything built on WordPress. Make contributing easier and set up for the future through easy extending and experimentation.

    Let’s democratise design by growing the WordPress design system and empowering as many as possible to create with it, contribute to it and nurture it together.”

    I will conclude this longer than intended post by sharing simply an offer of conversation and collaboration if this resonated with you. The same one I did back in June and have for many years. I am not alone in seeing the possibilities, many are even much further along working on it now in core and that’s how we get it done, because also this is a need and we are good at working on those. Who knows, maybe we can tend to those shoots together.

  • The need for standardisation

    It’s almost adorable the way we accept in most of our theme processes in WordPress the lack of standardisation. However, it has to stop for business, productivity and sheer sensibility. Standardising doesn’t mean removing creativity; in fact, lack of it often does. Which means the need for it is even more urgent.

    What do I mean by standardising? Well, from a theme perspective, an excellent place to start is naming conventions. For example, in his series of posts, Rich Tabor explores three possible areas, consistent, reliable colour slugs, font sizes and spacing. However, it doesn’t have to limit to those; they are a great starting point for thinking about a dependable theme design system we can all benefit from.

    I am skipping down a side street a little here; however, it’s worth exploring this tangent of a dependable core theme design system. The concept is a step from standardisation. Having a set of things, starting with naming, that you can use as a toolbox is powerful to build using.

    You could imagine it just like lego. The theme brings the styling; this keeps that separation: the blocks, the tools, template fallbacks, all in core. This system is growing with design tools and can grow more with a grid and other opportunities. This is the future, but it’s one possibility that starts with standardising.

    Let’s focus back, though, on the now. Why does standardisation make sense on a human level, though? Well, there are a few reasons. The biggest is clarity. It removes the ambiguity, the questions over naming, or the debate around what things could be called. That doesn’t link to creativity, though. How does this all allow for more creativity? To show that, I want to go right back to how we create colours.

    There are three primary colours: red, yellow and blue. The three secondary colours are a mixture of two primary colours, the six tertiary a combination of primary and adjacent secondary colours. You can already see how this is increasing just from the base of three colours. You have neutrals (achromatic colours) of black, white, grey. By combining all of these, you get almost infinite possibilities – but you start with those three, and the three neutrals make it lighter/darker.

    The human brain doesn’t do so well with unlimited choice. We experience guilt over what we didn’t choose, and we lose the ability to pattern match, impacting creativity. So by limiting options, creativity is more effortless; you can have more space for pattern matching – less worry or concern about options you might have made and spiral thoughts there.

    There is psychological proof that limiting increases creativity. There are countless stories of people finding their path through limits. Most art is taught this way, starting with very rigid limitations, building up to more freedom and often, the artist will set their confines. Maybe it’s materials, subject or time – the limits, though, lead to more creativity. Designers don’t create projects without specifications – the more substantial the specification, the better the brief, the better the project. Every creative will tell you the death to creativity: the open brief and a blank canvas. It sounds delightful but is a curse.

    If you are given unlimited options, what often happens is procrastination. This is a direct impact of survival instincts kicking in. You have nothing to compare against, so everything to lose. You have no boundaries, so nothing to measure. You can see how this rapidly leads the mind to want to preserve and enter the number one way to stop something being a problem – just don’t do ever start it.

    That’s the human aspect, but there is an experiential aspect to standardising. Having the foundations clear provide easier interchanging with no matter what theme someone is using – someone can change their theme without losing content or settings. For those creating, they can know and learn easier because of those reliable foundations.

    One final practical aspect that is often overlooked in a global project is that you can ease the linguistic issues when you standardise. Translation of one term is more straightforward than the translation of multiple. This feels like a minor point, but it’s vital to think of education and the global nature of a project like WordPress. Particularly, themes have for a long time been a space that has embraced international creators.

    Limitations are freeing on so many levels, from psychological empowerment to just making it easier to be creative – which leads me back to why it’s essential to set some boundaries and foundations in themes today. Starting with naming conventions in theme.json, spacing conventions, but it does not end there. I would like to see standardising go a step further, but that’s a conversation for another day. Another day where talk might be of a core parent theme or how far the fallbacks can go that exist today. Whatever the conversation, it needs to be focused on how we can unlock more creativity and a better experience for everyone through anything that happens.

  • Being Brave

    This post is from a talk given as part of the JS for WP conference and is the transcript presented. You can find the full slides here.

    The word ‘brave’, means different things to different people. What comes into your mind when you think of being brave? Is it of someone saving someone? Is it of someone pushing the boundaries of what they can do? Is it perhaps of someone just doing something they thought unable to do?

    This is the definition of bravery. Bravery is different for each person. We measure bravery by our own gauge. There are also levels of bravery. Courage is linked to the term bravery. It’s seen as a positive. People are congratulated when they show it. Bravery is something to be praised. Words like valour and fearlessness champion those that show it.

    Is being brave out of fashion?

    In this day and age, you could think so. Whilst not a robust data point to use to only base a theory on, this graph of the use of the word bravery in books, from Google I found really interesting.

    As mentioned, there are different levels of brave. It’s maybe easy to jump to the biggest ones when thinking of this. Bravery could be asking for a raise, it could be creating. It could be a small act or a large one. This all depends on our perspective. Without bravery though there is no progress. It takes someone to make the first step.

    When you are new to the business, you think if you give a really bad performance, that’s one they will print. You will be judged. You just have to be brave.

    Robbie Coltrane

    Limits to bravery

    The fear of being judged often gets in the way of bravery. This limit restricts and confines not just people but projects, entire generations. We learn the foundations of bravery through play. If you are fearful of play then you limit bravery. Without play, without just exploring there is no good performance.

    Play in children is a rehearsal, a space they experiment, test boundaries, learn and discover the world. Curious minds explore the possibilities and find the consequences of those in a safe environment of play.
    As adults, that fades, distilled by rigid minds, stuck notions of reality and the idea that fools play. Judgement weighs on people, crushing their imagination and limiting what could be.

    As a child, you are taught to colour inside the lines. It’s those that colour outside the lines that get to really push the boundaries of the world. The projects we work on limits us with their lines to confine, the tools, the regulations, the processes, each a hurdle to experimentation, to growth and a threat to the project’s future.

    Exclusion isn’t bravery. Thinking just in your headspace and colouring in the lines isn’t brave. Thinking for the 1% isn’t brave. Creating just for today isn’t brave. All of these things will limit, confine and again ultimately result in lack of growth.

    Are humans brave?

    Well. If it wasn’t for brave humans we’d never have got here. That’s sort of how natural selection, evolution works. Yes, our amygdala fuelled brain leans towards change aversion. But, really at the core of it, all bravery is what got us here as a species and it’s what is going to keep us going.

    Bravery isn’t a clear cut binary thing, there can be blocks to even the bravest of souls. There is a privilege of being brave. You need support, ground that is fertile, an opportunity. Access to even the tools or position needed to take that brave leap may need time and may need far more than someone has. The situation is often an agent of bravery.

    There also needs to be a dose of reality when talking about bravery. To be brave without thinking of consequence is rash and selfish. The bravery that moves forward is bravery of consideration regarding impacts. Ethics and inclusion don’t have to take a back seat to be brave. Bravery is a drink to sip and not drown in. Pushing forward then needs a time of stability, growth and assurance.

    Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

    Artistotle

    I want to talk about bravery in terms of creating. I am going to look specifically at how you can and should be braver in the work you do. How WordPress itself as a project needs to brave. How if we don’t, the future is uncertain and a lot less bountiful.

    Bravery isn’t something you can do once and be done. It’s about a mindset. The type of bravery I am talking about here isn’t about running into a burning building, it’s about daring, having the courage to colour outside the lines. It’s about practising bravery in our craft and from creating a culture that is pushing the boundaries of what if.

    How to be brave

    If you were to think of a guide to being brave in their work, it could probably be distilled to a few points.

    Know the foundations

    First, it’s about knowing the boundaries, after all, if you are going to colour outside the lines, you need to know where the lines are. This could involve thinking outside the process, outside what is possible today. Outside is a mindset. Knowing your own boundaries is also part of this. Level up what you don’t know, pair and don’t be afraid to learn. Once you know, you can push.

    Have an experimental mindset

    It’s crucial to have an experimental mindset. To be ok with things going wrong, things not working. Experimentation leads to discovery. Have a think, when was the last time you created something just because? Think again of all the progress in technology, most got there through experimentation. Practising this type of experimentation leads to discovery. It is how you move forward.

    Time is critical

    Time is critical to bravery. This could be time to experiment or time to just educate. Making time each week, be it a few hours or even a day, for that time to live the laboratory mindset, that’s really how you get to free yourself and explore.

    This could be seen a little as finding your bat cave. Your space to create. To think what if, to dream beyond. If you think of a camp or pillow fort as a kid, it was a space of possibilities. Maker spaces are adult versions of these. Think about how you create your own physical or virtual ones of those. It’s worth noting it doesn’t have to be a shed at the bottom of your garden, it could be a shed in your mind. This mind shed is where you can go, create.

    Play is important

    Play is also important. Having space to create with the purity of play.
    Having your own sandbox. These points all tie, because being brave is about setting the right conditions. When was the last time you sat down and just played, freely, without setting a goal or focusing on a deliverable?

    Start small

    Bravery doesn’t have to start big. Start small. If you are limited on time, start small there too. Little steps in bravery can become larger ones as your confidence grows. Maybe it is about learning something new. Do that thing 15 minutes a day, build up. Maybe it starts with setting aside one afternoon a month to play, see how far you can take something.

    You can’t expect to have the freedom of experimental play if you set a rigid, high goal to stick to. That’s why starting small eases you in. It’s practice, being brave is a mindset you want to become a habit.

    You need feedback

    To be brave in your work you need feedback. The phrase release early, release often not only sets the stage for this but it creates a space of fluidity within production. Having a culture of feedback also allows growth, but it takes cultivating, nurturing and growth. Without feedback though you will never grow as a creator. It has to also be feedback, not judgement. The feedback you can build on, the judgement you can only have feelings about.

    You can’t be brave without being inspired

    You can’t be brave without being inspired. I wanted to take a little time today to share some work that inspired me lately. Inspiration is the fuel of experimentation. For me, this often comes in the form of experiences or art.
    I wanted to share 2 sources of inspiration for me right now and after this talk, I would love to know what inspires you.

    It’s important to note that not everything has to be tangible, inspiration comes in all shapes and forms. You can be inspired on a walk, seeing a flower, a story or a work of art.

    Mirages and miracles combine ar with drawings and sculptures. There is an incredible video I would encourage you to check out. Drawings come alive through screens. Flowing and moving. Little figures dance over rocks and balance over stones. There’s a sense of delight in this work. The static images come alive through technology.

    Teamlab is an art collective that creates experiences that are totally immersive. They explore a new relationship between humans and nature, between oneself and the world, through art. I was lucky enough to experience Planets in Tokyo and recently their video piece in the Barbican.

    This is an experience that completely moves. To be able to create experiences that touch this deep, this whole, whilst yes this is an art piece, you can take this into the work you create. How can that emotion, the immerse experience, be translated for example into an application, the act of writing or of editing a photo.

    Past

    If that’s how to be brave yourself. Let’s look at the wider work of a project.
    How did we get to where we are today in technology, in WordPress as a project? Well, we didn’t get there by not being brave.

    WordPress as a project had a lot of ground untrodden to grow from what it was, to what it is today. This gave the opportunity for bravery, for exploration. There were even in some cases no lines to colour within, it’s easy to be brave when nothing matters as much. When it’s all an experiment. A lot of WP has been shaped by experimentation. By brave thoughts of what if. Plugins that tried something different, that explored. Patches that were just to see. Many features grew from a passion, an idea that someone had and took to the project, grew into a reality.

    Open source itself moves forward through these experiments, it doesn’t move ahead through cautious lack of bravery. Even the idea of open source is pretty brave itself when faced with the majority of the world. The idea of our community even functioning is a brave one.

    Gutenberg is the past now as far as phase one being grown. It was a brave idea seed. Created through experimentation. This was done in the open. To experiment in the open really takes bravery. Feedback comes in all shapes when you do this type of work. During Gutenberg phase one there were many ‘what if’ moments. Play leads to trying things that hadn’t been done before. Creation was done with a curious mind, an open to pushing beyond what was before. This is how we got to where we are today.

    Present

    That’s the past, what about the present? Today our situation is a space we’ve got to through bravery, experimentation and a passion for the project. How though can we get to the future?

    At times it can feel like we’re stuck, static. Our brain freezes because of too much, we are in overload. There has been an arms racing of tooling, a snowstorm of change and the space we’re in seems confusing, antagonistic and complicated. In times like this, we drown in nostalgia, it’s not a time to be brave, it’s a time to batten down our mental hatches and soothe our amygdala. Everything is big, everything is too important, deadlines mount and paralysis of options is the mode of work for many in this space.

    What if though, rather than being at a peak, rather than being stuck we were at a cliff edge… we could jump and soar but are we brave enough to make that leap?

    Last month, I had to install a package manager to install a package manager. That’s when I closed my laptop and slowly backed away from it.

    frankchimero.com/writing/everything-easy-is-hard-again

    Our tools bind us in the work we do. They are line enforcers. They have created this paralysing space where it’s easier to process out the same work than dream beyond.

    Creating today can make you feel like you are cast adrift on a sea of processes. A prime example of this feeling is even setting up a local development environment, something like Vagrant. Whilst the setup screen is fun if you want to pretend you are a hacker, one slight issue and it all falls down again. The technology we depend on seems shockingly fragile and so cryptic to fix when it inevitably does break.

    Even the process of committing has become so high it often leads to confusion. An example of this is Travis on a GitHub project, whilst this is amazing when it works as checks commit, when it doesn’t debug the cryptic messages is similar to reading ancient texts. If you are able to commit then you should be able to understand how to fix what you break, all too often that’s not the case. We shouldn’t be forcing people out of being able to commit because of overly complicated processes, they should make it easier for more to be included.

    So many of us have stopped blogging. The once space of our dreams and theories now lies vacant with the last post a year ago of ‘must blog more’. Maybe we make an excuse that we will update the theme and then suddenly be able to blog, or we are ignoring it hoping it will go away. Through posts, we used to share ideas, dare to dream. It all got a little too serious, too fearful that every word matters, will be analysed and you’ll be held up to it.

    The same goes for Codepens and design experiments. These are confined to our best work, nobody shows their sketchbooks anymore because all too many assumptions get made and blog posts hook into it being the ‘only way’, ignoring it’s just an idea, a flotsam of the mind. We are scared to share because everything is a big deal.

    In a climate like this what is created becomes predictable, stifled and limited. Safe becomes the style and suffocation of creativity in the process. There is a fear of deviation, a fear of standing out. Ideas are analysed with magnifying glasses and pitchforks, why would you create if space feels like that? It’s easier, safer and a lot less traumatic to just toe the line. To colour in the lines.

    Oh you’ve never used Contract, XXLJS with pikachu.js or the LSD-Module Cross-bow launcher that is backwards compatible with MollyJS, you’re like so last season!

    medium.com/@julienetienne/unnecessarily-complicating-front-end-development-to-feel-like-a-smarter-person-5e555fe650ed

    It seems like not a day, even hour, goes past without some new amazing framework or outstanding technique that you “just have to try”. Posts stream past social media on this breakthrough, that amazing new hotness and ‘oh my wow this just changes everything’! It feels like we are all stuck in some next framework idol popularity contest. In all this excitement, all this wonder, haven’t we forgotten something? What about the users? What about the users experiencing the product? What about those learning to create? There are many users and we’re failing them all in ways we can prevent.

    We in all the process.. forgot about what matters.. the users. Whilst we are caught up in this, those users cope. They learn the ‘way’ of processes and are forced into accepting experiences. They shout their frustrations in one room while most of us are in the other room having our minds blown by a process. This has to change, when that happens we can start to truly create experiences that are what users want, deserve and need. That isn’t created just for our headspace, our friends, our colleagues and bubble. That is inclusive and actually, enable those that use them. 

    WP of today is weighed down by history, by Trac legacy and a mindset of the ‘WP way’. This blinkers even the most enthusiastic, passionate contributor. You colour in the lines because there is just so much to do that it’s easier. The new ground seems non-existent. Everything feels like there’s already a solution, so why boundary push when there is no space to push into? There is too much to do, which clouds innovation and creative thought. Yet, there are glimmers…there are people coming fresh to this project and questioning the ‘WP way’. This is a seed of bravery.

    The Gutenberg of today is a huge, daunting repo. Finding new ground seems impossible. Where do you start? Maintenance mounts up in vast towering stacks, overshadowing any space to create or experiment. But, like the seeds in WP, there is a light. There are people are showing the way. Gutenberg has created a foundation that is enabling people to explore in brave, exciting ways. There are plugins sprouting up with leaves of potential. Nimble, free to think ‘what if’ and play with the new toys available. This is the present but a path to the future.

    Future

    I may have painted quite a bleak present but it isn’t untruly the space we’re in. There is hope. Nimble minds and free expressions are that hope. There are tools, often too many and not the right ones.. but there is a foundation, an environment that could if we are aware lead to incredible, exciting, brave growth.

    The mindset really does have to be one of going back to the lab, to discover the paths and explore them. We need to myth bust the ‘WP way’ and look to what the future ways could be. We don’t grow as a project accepting what we know now as the only route forward. Creating a lab means creating a space for experimenting. A nurturing, supporting community that accepts not everything is fully baked. One that is ok seeing cookie dough and first pancakes. One that gives feedback not judgement. That has enough structure enough to encourage growth, but not so much it’s paralysed by hierarchy and process. A collective focused on what could be.

    Our tools need to be rooted in play. Contributions should be grown through play not through wading through the process. It all just needs to be fun again. Applications like Glitch show a glimmer of what this could be. Space where experimentation, remixing is the mindset. As a project, we could learn so much from this. How do we make contribution fun again? How do we grow through play?

    One little brave step was recently taken by the design team with the design experiments plugin. This, as shown here, doesn’t have to be just the individual, sometimes it’s scary to be brave alone. By being collectively brave you can start to really see what if. This plugin has a series of things either talked about in Slack conversations or in dusty Trac tickets, now made real. It’s designed to not be used in production, to always be experimental. No weight, no expectations but all the freedom to just see. Going back and forth in theory only gets you so far. There is something powerful in just trying. In doing. This type of plugin shows what can happen when some just try. When the conversation turns to action.

    To get to the future one point needs to be underlined. We don’t get there by clinging to job titles or judging those that step between. Developers should be allowed to experiment in design, designers if they want to code. No matter what you want to do, an experiment should be given feedback (never judged) on its own merit, not on the background of the person. This is easier said than done but we’ve not got this far by drawing lines around roles and territorial mindset, intact whenever that happens we regress, where we limit.

    The future can be incredibly bright but we get there by less closed groups, more open sharing. Fewer conversations and more ‘do’. We get there by letting anyone play in the sandbox and create castles.

    Like many, I learnt to code by following the example of others, viewing the source and making connections. I remember starting to discover writing themes for WordPress and learning by the example of Kubrick. It was simple, open code that I could easily access and understand. I learnt by connecting the dots, finding the paths. When I learnt to design, the tools were simple. You just opened and used, there was no design system, framework or complex syncing. Countless people have learnt to work this way, you’re likely amongst them too. I wonder though if I was starting today would I have been able to learn so easily?

    The flip side of this is that a system that enables this type of fast, rapid onboard benefits. A good, design system does that. A good process does that. We need that going forward.

    How can you progress and learn when you do so from a bubble? It’s cosy certainly but this bubble thinking only stalls causes growth problems. It’s a basic lesson learnt but one we all too easily forget when we get caught up in the new. Within the bubble grows a state of acceptance.

    The steep learning curve is seen as a rite of passage over a problem that needs to be fixed. The complicated language hurdle becomes the norm and blinked thinking is standard. It seems almost like the web is being split into lands with really high, difficult borders to scale, rather than the fluid universe of discovery it was meant to be. It’s bad enough for those of us that live in this state, meanwhile, users live in another universe completely, outside any bubble, out of mind.

    Brave thoughts

    I want to finish up today by sharing some of my own brave thoughts. I share these not as unique things only I think, human nature means others will also be thinking the same. I share them because after talking about being brave, it’s a good time to share.

    The devices of tomorrow aren’t those of today. What we create for today isn’t going to be what we will create for tomorrow.
    We can guess, but we can’t really know. If you are limiting your experience to just one device, you also limit your mind to what you can create. Play comes in using different platforms, different devices. Explore, change up your phone. Start exploring what is coming up, make yourself aware of the changing space.

    Similarly, the situations and use cases we create for today, aren’t those of tomorrow either. Looking to explorations in wearables and future thinking is where maybe we can start to see what could be. As creators, playing and exploring these is crucial to really grow into that future. Don’t focus on the new shiny of this year or the next. Look beyond what is coming up.

    Figlab: future interfaces group, is an interdisciplinary research lab within the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. This is just one of the many places exploring what the future of interaction could be. They have some pretty interesting explorations worth exploring. There is also a GitHub account for fig lab that has some OS goodies.

    What if everything we thought we knew about interfaces today was wrong Experiments like this one show what could be.

    The users of today aren’t those of tomorrow.

    We can and should run usability tests but we have to also consider who is coming. Who are the upcoming markets, what are their needs? Who aren’t we serving today as an experience? This is where looking into how accessible or diverse our experience can be, matters. To grow as a platform, you need to look beyond those you serve today.

    The creators of today aren’t those of tomorrow.

    In this all, in all this overcomplexity and confusion, where are the future creators? How can someone learn to code? To design on the web? Where in the sea of this is a way for them to learn? Our processes aren’t inclusive, they have not only a barrier to learn but also a hurdle to access. You have to know where is the right information. They are processes of privilege. How can a web truly for everyone be created when the system to create isn’t inclusive?

    When you have this disconnect and lack of diversity in those creating, you ensure a fast track to products that also aren’t inclusive. The bubble has created a system of privilege that applies not just to those making the product but actually making it.

    It doesn’t matter who you are or what level you are, the next solution may be something you hold. Hierarchy, when focused on instead of creativity, limits our growth to discovery. As a project within WordPress we have to leave room for happy accidents and welcome everyone. Elitism is the death of projects. If we judge we will limit that growth and become the 1%.

    The experience of today isn’t natural.

    Users accept way too much than they should. We have formed mental models around how we interact with products, also as to how we create. Understanding how really humans work gets you to the point of being able to understand what is natural. Just like looking outside of the bubble, looking into psychology and neurology to really understand how humans’ work is essential to creating the future.

    We only get to where we are going by putting users at the heart of everything. Perfect polished robots failed to take off as they were too perfect. Humans are imperfect. We have to understand that. We have to put users and their experience at the heart of everything. If we remove the human element, we remove the growth, we remove connection and we won’t grow.

    The technology of today harms

    To build a future it needs to enable, empower and break down barriers not create them. This ties in with the two previous points. Too much today is gamified to the point it harms. Sticky to the point it sucks humanity from those interacting.

    There is so much good can come from technology, it just takes being brave to not follow the fastest path to clickbait. Experiences for good are the way forward as people aren’t stupid and cynicism is growing in those that interact.

    The solution isn’t within WP.

    The future lies outside. What is WordPress today won’t be WordPress tomorrow. The product you work on today, won’t be the one you work on tomorrow. Look to art, look to science.. look to science fiction. Look outside the daily work you do. Be open to all that the future could be.

    Dream and think beyond the confines of what your experience is today.
    Bravery doesn’t come with limiting yourself to this reality. You get to the future by visualising it. By learning, by being open, what is WP can evolve. If it’s closed then it will wither and not be around for long. Evolution of technology is natural, we sometimes forget to look outside our bubble. Outside is where the good stuff is going on and how we truly create a platform for the future.

    The legacy of our technology matters.

    The future lies in less, not more. Recently the race for technology has seen an ignoring of the world around, this can’t continue and to truly create experiences that connect, empower and enable, they have to respect and not damage the space people inhabit.

    What we create today is the rubbish of tomorrow, the toxic digital waste that will have to be cleared or lived around. We can do better, we can create with a mind that doesn’t focus within the microchip, but on the space the person interacting inhabits.

    We can look outside the processor and ensure the footprint, the digital legacy isn’t one that forces people to retreat into screens to escape the broken world. That is just as good for people as it is for the environment they exist in.

    These are brave thoughts about the future, about how we maybe can start to get there as a project within WordPress, as creators and as those that want to create a better future. Let’s think more about what if because that’s how we move forward.

    You’ll never do a whole lot unless you’re brave enough 
    to try. 

    Dolly Parton

    When I was thinking about this, I wanted to create one just for this conference. It’s a luxury I was grateful for. I had no limits on what to speak about and that really was exciting. As I began writing this, I didn’t realise I’d be not only writing a talk but a promise to myself. You see, somewhere along the line I also forgot to be as brave as I was before. I stopped sharing my sketchbook. That was a lesson I learnt studying art and somewhere along the line, I unlearnt it. It all got a little too serious. It all became about work, about the release.. it all became too big. I stopped playing as much and I stopped if I am honest having as much fun as I was. In writing this talk I got to reflect, to remember and I was given a space to have some brave thoughts.

    If I can leave you with one point, I would encourage you to take that first step. Write that blog post on an idea, sketch that thought, create that experiment… build up your time in your lab. I promise I am going to and I can’t wait to see what everyone does when we all are a little braver.

  • Thinking back to the role of design in enabling community

    As 2019 begins and the noise of social networks rings in our ears, I can’t but help reflect on the state of communities online. Can anything be salvaged from this current state of noise? What can design bring to the table in enabling communities.

    Back in 2013, I was lucky enough in May of that year to speak at Future of Web Design on ‘Beyond the noise of Social Networks‘. The noise and pressure felt intense back then, ironically it’s even more intense now but it feels we’ve all just reluctantly accepted this as the norm. Living in a constant state of reaction to tweets, pokes, dms and interruptions doesn’t get anything productive done, it’s not a natural state for any of us or one we thrive in.

    Before moving to my current job, my focus for a long time was on designing and enabling niche communities to grow. I worked on a wide range of projects and each one bolstered my feeling that the connections within those were far closer than any social network. A community like that can be a support system and research resource for someone with a medical condition. They all had real connections in common and a safe space for people coming together.

    A community is not a social network

    There is this foundational confusion that a social network is a community. It ‘could’ be one but it rarely is. Whilst a community unites for the same reason, to say a social network does based on ‘connecting’ is a little flimsy a baseline to call something a community. In many ways they mask as a community and that’s where a lot of the problems come from.

    Social networks won’t foster passion, commitment, or identity on a large scale. For that, you need to form relationships and gradually form the gravitational attraction between them that characterizes community.

    Andy Oram ‘Social networks are not communities and other discussions from the Community Leadership Summit

    This quote for me whilst a little older, still stands. In a lot of respects communities are about uniting and often social networks are almost the opposite, dividing. History is marked by people grouping together to do more than the single, isolated human can. It could be uniting to take down a large animal, or to overthrow a government. 

    Social networks are often about the individual. Their connections, their promotion. Interactions are at a distance, a casual like or thumbs up. Carefully curated plastic profiles tell a story that is often removed from the real person. Any connection is often not a true one, it’s half presences uniting with other unrealities.

    The rise of Slack

    Slack has risen up as a connector. It’s a step towards a community but I would argue it’s not one in itself. Community comes not just from a platform or application. What it has given is an opportunity for niche communities to form, this is something social networks promised but never delivered.  The addition of apps to Slack also combines to try and take it beyond just communication. They don’t fill the void though and it’s still whilst a powerful tool not the right out of the box option.

    Ownership of the community

    I still believe strongly one aspect social networks that apps often fail to solve, is owning the content is key. The WordPress mission is ‘democratise publishing’, I feel a similar drive towards community tools. How can people be empowered to create the communities that people need? In this day of privacy concerns and the nature of communities often being sensitive, owning that content is crucial for trust to form.

    I don’t feel there is as easy option that exists today. This was missing back in 2013 and I still feel projects like BuddyPress could be that, yet aren’t currently. That isn’t saying they won’t and I sincerely truly hope they do grow to meet that need.

    The rise of collaborative communities

    The need for a space to create together is a strong drive. Glitch is one shining example of a space that really works well. There are a lot of these collaborative spaces with some interesting, personal takes on what community looks like for their members. This is one area that really shows a path forward and has right now some of the more forward thinking explorations into design thinking being used to enable a community.

    Where now?

    I don’t claim to have a single solution here. I’ve been thinking again lately about where design fits in providing an alternative to the dysfunctional social networks. Community isn’t something you can simply add design to and say it’s complete. Design thinking can be used to create a space and enable that community.

    The future is beyond the noise of social networks. Niche communities to me still are even more so the way forward than they ever were. It’s about meaningful connections where the experience is focused and united. To get there exploration needs to start happening again and this is something I am really interested in doing this year.

  • Speaking when you are not made for speaking

    This weekend I spoke at WordCamp Manchester and again feel privileged for every chance I get to have space for my voice. This isn’t a talk where I share my slides and notes though, this is a little more personal.

    Speaking for me often seems something every part of me isn’t made for. This isn’t where I ask for sympathy though as I want to be clear there are many reasons why I do speak, one being every time I do it improves me. What do I mean though by being not made for speaking? I am Dyslexic and whilst that’s not in itself a reason to not speak, for me it manifests verbally at times with word retrieval being difficult. This happens more when stressed and standing on a stage in front of people is never stressful right?

    Like many I also am by nature shy. If I know you then I am talkative but it’s not my default. I have spent many of my 43 years learning from people who aren’t and I am a good mimic. My wish to be in the shadows is perpetual though and my happy place is being unnoticed. I also have some hearing loss in my left ear. Whilst daily not an issue to me, this causes some difficulties when on stage with noise behind me or heavy accents asking questions in quiet voices high up in a dimly lit audience. I have at times totally mixed up what question was being asked and then ended up answering a different one. Little fact, around 1 in 6 people in the UK have some form of hearing loss, it is incredibly common, also that increases with age. Combining hearing complications with my under pressure brain’s stumbling to process complex language fast, can make for an interesting interpretation of any question. 

    I repeat though this isn’t a post asking for hugs and puppies. Every single person has their own story, their own experience and this is just mine. It’s easy to assume when you see a rehearsed speaker who they are and what they are experiencing. Different people have different motivations for speaking. Just like the swan, gracefully gliding on the top of the water, yet underneath all action below frantically paddling. You never see what goes on underneath the speaker’s surface you see. 

    About now you are probably wondering why I even speak. Why I stood in front of an audience yesterday and mentally reached for a word having to on spot swap for another. I found the new word and moved on. For anyone that this happens to every success is therapeutic. You prove to yourself survival and thriving. Those that know me will see when this happens and support by not pointing it out. The reality I have accepted over time is those that don’t know me, rarely notice, despite what my mind assumes. This single fact has given me confidence and along with both speaking and practicing speaking, I have learnt and grown in my coping mechanisms.

    There are things that enable me to speak. Over time learning to appear to make eye content but not making it really was something opened up question sessions for me. If you look in-between the eyes it is easier. Rehearsing and reaching for words as I forget has given me a range of options to swap in. Similarly taking time with questions asked me, learning to repeat them back to those that asked and even asking for it to be said again, these add up to a great confidence practice. Dark mode for keynote has also been incredible for me. I make notes in my own ‘me-hand’ that makes sense for me and likely makes no sense for anyone, but allows me to have a support in speaking. I distill from full sentences as they would mean I’d be more likely to misread if had to lean on them.

    Why I do this goes beyond the therapeutic, beyond the challenge and not accepting anything I feel or experience I can’t (stubborn is my natural state). I am driven to share my experience, like many. It’s a privilege to speak. I have been supported in doing this and that matters. Giving space to anyone to speak is something crucial, it’s how we get more voices. Over time I’ve realised nobody is really made for speaking. Speaking for me actually has benefits it doesn’t for others. It’s given me confidence, skills to communicate in large groups and made me realise I have things worth saying, that can be said by me. I am who I am today and can do what I do today because of speaking. It is exercise for me and I am growing stronger every talk.

  • The user is the casualty of our modern building process

    It seems like not a day, even hour, goes past without some new amazing framework or outstanding technique that you just have to try. Posts stream past social media on this break through, that amazing new hotness and ‘oh my wow this just changes everything’! In all this excitement, all this wonder, haven’t we forgotten something? What about the users?

    The actual process of building a site is now heavy burden wise. There’s so much to learn, so much to get your head around and deal with. Optimising this, making sure you know the latest x, y and z, keeping up with everything just makes your head spin. The seemingly endless noise of debates over this right way or that. Does any of it really matter though? Isn’t the voice we should be hearing the loudest that of the users? Yet, we can’t hear them because we’re too busy listening to an argument about what new editor is the best.

    Don’t get me wrong in all this, I absolutely believe that a lot of new processes do actually bring user benefits. There are some truly amazing experience gains. My point is more about the ratio of sound, about what we’re paying attention to in our limited span. Usability matters for everyone, it’s not just something you should pay attention to if your job title contains the words ‘User Experience’. The problem is that the majority of the time no focus at all is given to even how the new shiny will benefit the users. It very well may, but in not saying it’s taking the focus away from something that should be at the heart of our conversations, our posts, our Twitter streams.

    We are fickle with our focus, if it’s not being talked about it just isn’t part of our headspace. This has happened to users. We’ve filled the space full of cosmic code and incredible tools. Our soundtrack is podcasts about the next big thing, whilst putting down the current big thing and saying the next next big thing will be the one. Our conference tracks are full of demos to blow minds and impractical practicals.

    Meanwhile, users cope. Users learn the ‘way’ of applications and are forced into accepting experiences. They shout their frustrations in one room while most of us are in the other room having our minds blown by a function. This has to change and I am optimistic the signs are showing that this year it will happen. I hope the ratio of noise on our self important modern building process dials down. As it does, we can start to truly create experiences that listen to users. That aren’t created just for our headspace, our friends, our colleagues and bubble. That are inclusive and actually enable those that use them.

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