Designer vs Developer # 8: Preserving Design’s past

In the eighth episode of Designer vs Developer, Google Design Advocate Mustafa Kurtuldu speaks to Addy Osmani, a Senior Staff Developer Programs Engineer on the Google Developer Relations Team, about how to design a great performance and speak about about Flash and days gone by.

Released every two weeks, each episode of this series deals with a different issue, from effective collaboration to whether too much testing and data ruins the creative process.

Kurtuldu writes an accompanying essay, dealing with the related theme.

So the queen is dead, long live the queen. How we can learn about Flash’s demise and populist ideas.

So this is it then. The era of Flash is officially over. When my teammates and I first heard the announcement, we collectively cried a tear and reminisced about the good old days. Long gone are the times when we would wait 10 hours for an intro to load. Gone are the whizzing sounds of our computers fans because they are about to choke. Bye bye to the era of designing and developing for an audience of one.

The article I wrote previously now seems somewhat prophetic to be honest, although the writing was on the wall for Flash. And despite how many of us posted about our old projects and spoke about how Flash gave us a chance to be designers on the web, hand on heart, when was the last time any of us opened that app?

I do think we have missed an opportunity. The last five year have seen a boom in prototyping tools, most seemly trying to mimic Flash and giving designers the freedom to create things that they like. Rabble rousers will talk about the flaws of Flash, how it was foreign to the web. How it wasn’t like traditional HTML and JavaScript, no, those technologies were real Web Values. Despite the fact that the native web can’t and won’t do the jobs that Flash could do. It’s a weird time to see another exit or Flexit if you will. Nothing like a bit of web nationalism to make you proud. And this is where the danger lies. We risk making user experience choices based on dogma.

But what I love about the web is that we do seem to learn as we progress. Despite our knee-jerk reaction, Flash did teach us about one thing, and that’s our industry’s ignorance when it came to performance and accessibility.

Designing for accessibility and performance is a relatively new thing for most web designers. But most design disciples treat both of these as part of the process. For example, when we look at the design of cities, the architects take all types of people into consideration, helping them navigate the city efficiently. Just looking at road crossings in London, we find they have many design utilities to help individuals with different use cases like tactile pavingand sound systems that beep when it’s time to cross work as a warning for those who have poor eyesight. One of my favorite design features are the rotating cones that sit under the push button, designed primarily for the blind and turns when it’s time to cross. So the user will place their hand underneath the push button waiting for it to turn. The cones help mitigate conditions where sound alone isn’t enough to support the crossing as it can be drowned out by city noise, or where sound is disabled such as in places that have two crossings close by. The great thing here is none of these features block any user from road crossing. In fact, you could say they enhance those experiences, as these days people are busy looking at their phones and not street traffic. Bodegraven, a town in the Netherlands, is even trialing LED’s which are added to the road crossing to help millennial pedestrians. In this way, we learn how design adapts and changes to suit the behavior of the users.

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

We should take inspiration from these design practices and stories. Flash helped us get to a better place, and we should be grateful to its inventors Jonathan Gay and Robert Tatsumi, as well as Macromedia and Adobe for developing it even further. But we should also never forget the technology as it is part of our industry’s history. Which is why I hope designers and developers open source their projects so future generations can see the things we created. Or even figure out a way to run those projects without a plugin like a runtime Web Assembly. Otherwise, we will end up losing an archive of crazy things we did back in the 90’s. Design history is critical as it gives us an opportunity to learn. A smart person learns from their mistakes, and a wise person learns from the mistakes of others. What we should learn from Flash is that the makers of things are not the primary users, so designing in context is critical as it lets us see how real people use things and the challenges they face. Tragically we also learn that populism is a dangerous thing; that when tides change against an idea, we should at least try to develop it or repurpose it for something else rather than killing it off entirely. Regret is a terrible thing and losing 20 years of work and design progress on the web without a backup plan to learn from it opens up the possibility of repeating the same mistakes in the future.

Download ‘Speed Matters — Designing for Mobile Performance’ ebook to learn more about designing for performance.

You can learn more about design and UX at Web Fundamentals.

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