Perfection Meets Reality
In: Columns > View Source
Published on November 13, 2006
It’s easy to sit back and preach about how a web team should operate, but it’s rare that we really consider and appreciate the realities and challenges involved. We’re going to take a look at how the team behind NYTimes.com, a real team with real constraints, has learned to work together to create one of the best online news experiences in the world. While their situation isn’t perfect, it’s an impressive story of unity, balance, and communication that makes the few imperfections of the site that much more interesting.
Khoi Vinh, the team’s design director, shared some insight about how it happens, and not surprisingly there were several themes that resonated throughout our dialogue. One of the aspects of NYTimes.com that I was most curious about was the transition to a tableless layout, and not surprisingly, Khoi had nothing but good things to say about the change.
We went over to a basically ninety-five percent table-free site in April with the launch of this latest redesign. Well, it’s been great because it’s allowed us to be more flexible with the look and feel strictly through style sheets.
The more subtle point here is the “ninety-five percent.” For creative professionals, anything less than a hundred percent is often hard to swallow. However, in the context of the real world, we often have to look past that five percent, and see the bigger picture. That ninety-five percent is enough to enable flexibility and create a great experience for the visitor. The last five percent is sometimes not worth the investment.
Be Reasonable About Reality
It’s important—no, imperative—to appreciate the reality of being a creative professional and the constraints we face. Whether designing or coding, creative professionals are tasked with a responsibility to think outside of the box and create visionary solutions to every problem. At the same time, management expects us to keep it in the box of time and money.
So right off the bat, we’re faced with diametrically opposing forces, and both groups need to understand and respect that situation. At times, the creative professionals need to scale back their ideas or quality to meet deadlines. On the flip side, management needs to respect and trust their team’s advice that sometimes quality is more important than the deadline. In my experience, there are very few deadlines or resource plans that are truly inflexible, and just as few projects that couldn’t stand to launch sooner and perform some cleanup after the fact.
The point here is that reducing quality and re-evaluating deadlines are both fair options. Sometimes, the former is the correct choice, and other times it will be the latter. The predicament is that the final decision-maker is usually the one responsible for the deadlines. So, it’s important that management respects the team members and their professional opinions when making these decisions, and weighs the options accordingly. As creative professionals, though, it’s important to recognize that we, as Khoi so eloquently states, “can’t exist in a vacuum outside of the business realities.” Both sides need to be reasonable about reality, and occasionally accept practical compromises for the greater good of the project and business.
A horrible product launched tomorrow is just as bad as a perfect product never launched. Somewhere in the middle is what we should aim for, while bearing in mind that we can march towards perfection with every update and release.
Pursue a Larger Shared Vision
That march toward perfection should happen in the context of a larger shared vision. At The New York Times, Khoi points out that, “By and large, everyone at the Times wants the same thing: to continue to provide the best journalism anywhere, and to make it as useful and relevant to people as possible.” For his team specifically, their sub-vision is, “deliver the news in as useful a manner as possible,” and, “deliver the news with a maximum of elegance using a minimum of ornamentation.”
Khoi goes on to explain how they judge everything by those standards. The vision will be different for every team, but articulating a vision breeds unity and a consistent measuring stick for making decisions when perfection and deadlines are competing. Otherwise, different individuals, by the very nature of their responsibilities, will have different priorities and values.
For The New York Times, the larger vision applies not just across the disciplines, it also applies across mediums. Khoi is quick to point out, it’s about “delivering the best journalism in the world in a way that’s useful and engaging to our audience,” and that it leads to a more unified team despite lower-level disagreements. Those disagreements, in my experience, are often the result of specialization bias.
Specialization bias is the situation where, when you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For instance, an engineer implementing a specific feature might run into part of a design that is incredibly difficult to code. Without consulting the team, he might choose to spend an extra couple of hours coding a solution. In this case, the engineer specializes in programming and as such, his perception is that writing additional code is always the solution. Perhaps if he’d communicate with other team members, he’d discover that the feature isn’t worth the level of effort required and that they should cut it and move on to more important pieces of the project.
Of course, for this to work effectively, either everyone on the team needs to have a solid understanding of the big picture, or the quality of communication needs to be especially high. By sharing, discussing, and exploring different options outside of a specialty, it’s more likely the the appropriate solution will be found.
Open the Lines of Communication
One of the easiest ways to work toward a balance is to create open lines of communication between the different disciplines. This includes management, technology, and user experience. If you have three groups with different criteria for measuring success, you’re going to find conflict. The more those groups share their problems and look for joint solutions, the more productive the team will be.
The NYTimes.com team, not surprisingly, embraces and encourages many of the easiest ways to open the lines of communication. The designers and technologists work hand-in-hand. Khoi does his best to build a team as “specialists each with a generalist’s open-mindedness to getting the job done,” and management respects the team’s professional opinions enough to provide the right amount of time and resources to do things properly.
On any team, that kind of respect and trust isn’t innate. It’s earned and nurtured the same way as any other relationship. It takes time, sharing, listening, and compromise. For example, in meetings or at every opportunity, team members can take the time to explain the why. That is, team members, particularly across disciplines, should make an effort to explain not only what they’re working on, but why. Khoi does this with his team through weekly meetings, but taking the time to more thoroughly communicate decisions can happen anytime.
Finding the Right Balance Across Disciplines and Mediums
Another benefit of explaining the why is that it implicitly helps team members see where to find the balance and make compromises when conflicts invariably arise. This why isn’t just important across disciplines, it can also come into play across mediums.
One of the cross-medium challenges we discussed was how a company traditionally grounded in one medium handled and responded to the rapidly changing environment of a new medium. Khoi admits that there is “discomfort with online practices from time to time,” but was quick to point out that they don’t encounter resistance or stubbornness, emphasizing that the process involves balance and compromise every step of the way.
In fact, he felt that the diversity of opinion across disciplines, under the right circumstances, creates a healthy atmosphere of debate and discussion. For instance, everyone may not agree with the translation of a print medium concept to the online medium, but the open-mindedness and ensuing discussion lead to a happy resolution for everyone.
Creating the Environment
Unfortunately, the environment for that discussion, debate, and sharing doesn’t just happen; it takes work—lots of it. Ideally, the environment in which high-quality user experiences could grow and evolve would just exist naturally. We wouldn’t have deadlines, equipment would be top of the line, and budgets would be unlimited. While that environment may never exist, the pursuit and creation of that environment, or one similar, can easily become a full-time job.
Khoi puts it best: “Design groups really need a strong, diplomatic leader who can help engender a climate for good design. There’s very little that can be done without that person, and it’s what I strive for every day in my job.” Performing that job and getting management buy-in requires building trust and respect. It’s about growing an understanding and educating the design and development teams—as well as management—so that all of the groups understand each other.
Maintain a Commitment to High Quality Code and Design
One of the areas that management may have difficulty understanding or valuing is that of investing time in writing good—or even great—code. Yet, high-quality code is critical for creating a site that can easily evolve. Thus, it behooves us to educate management so they understand that that creating better code engenders agility and flexibility, especially in terms of lower costs and quicker turnaround times on future updates.
Of course, the need for flexibility tomorrow comes at the cost of speed today. Balancing the present and the future becomes a constant, but valuable, struggle, and that struggle doesn’t end with code. Khoi makes an excellent point that it’s also important to create modular designs that not only translate nicely into code but have inherent flexibility for handling content changes elegantly, without requiring significant rework.
The job isn’t over for them though, and—as Khoi emphasizes with the team—setting aside time to go back and re-factor code that was launched on a deadline is often a lucrative investment. In fact, Khoi said they have gone to enormous lengths to do so. In some cases, it’s best to communicate with management that launching sooner means the team will need additional time afterwards to go back and make amends for any shortcuts that were taken to get the project out the door in time. Other times, as we’ve already discussed, it’s best to get that time up front.
Of course, merely writing good code isn’t always enough. In a good team, knowledge-sharing and communication often occurs through documentation. In the case of the NYTimes.com team, they make a concerted effort to fill a team wiki with their standards and guidelines to help streamline future work. This not only serves as a reference for current team members, it can help get new team members up to speed more rapidly.
A topic that isn’t limited to code is that of reuse. The NYTimes.com team is no stranger to reuse. Consistency in design, when appropriate, not only makes the experience more predictable for users, but enables modularity and encourages innate flexibility when that design is translated into code. However, as with any other aspect, the need for consistency must be balanced with the value of contextual relevance, and finding the sweet spot there is as challenging as anywhere else.
Good design and user experiences are extensions of the quality of the underlying team. The seamless integration of design, technology, and business realities doesn’t happen by accident. It happens when teams work together, communicate, and find the right balance to make everyone happier. It requires humility, respect, and an insatiable hunger for knowledge and understanding. Create or nurture these qualities within your team, and you’ll be on your way to more successful projects. It’s that easy.
Finally, in order to create an ideal user experience, many of these ideas assume that the team has a high level of pride and investment in their project. That pride has to be balanced with humility, but when combined with the incessant pursuit of the higher vision, it can lead to great things.
Garrett Dimon is a freelance designer and developer on a mission to make the Web a better place. He believes that a holistic approach to front-end development, design, and user experience is the way to make it happen and shares those thoughts on his personal blog as well. When he's not obsessed with the web, he can usually be found playing basketball or enjoying the outdoors.