The Wilson Project Blog of UX/Front-End Developer Ivan Wilson

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  • What One UI Developer Learned at the Opera

    (Originally published on CDG Interactive/Innate blog, edited by Jennifer Mayne Hoppe)

    Images of the Met production of Shostakovich’s The Nose, produced by William Kentridge –
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    A lot of people think of user interface (UI) developers as “tech guys,” but I see myself more as a designer. At its base, design is about solving problems. So I’m really a designer who solves problems through programming. Like any designer, I have to think creatively—and I often find inspiration from the wide world OUTSIDE of my cubicle. (Yes, despite appearances to the contrary, I can function away from the office from long periods of time, like a cubical lungfish…)

    Take, for example, a recent Saturday I spent at The Metropolitan Opera. I watched a performance of an opera titled The Nose. Composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, in 1930, the opera is about an official who wakes up and find his own nose missing, only to find out that it has full life of its own (as well as higher status than he does). The music and the singing were well done, but was really got my attention was the production’s design.

    The design was conceived by South African artist William Kentridge, who is well known for his work with stop animation from drawings and paper cutouts. In this production, Kentridge melds his own aesthetic with historically appropriate references from the 1930s. Specifically, the set design follows the artistic strain of Russia a movement was about breaking and re-interpreting of artistic conventions like the revolution that spawned it.

    Kentridge enhanced the on-stage elements by projecting stop animations into the production. Projected onto the back of the set, the animations looked like early abstract shape animations of the same period in which the opera took place. Then Kentridge mixed the animations with live film and archive film footage. Rather than distracting from the action on stage, these elements truly enhanced the satirical nature of the opera.

    And that’s what really good design does. It frames the content for maximum impact and engages your attention. Great design happens when someone examines a problem thoughtfully and creates a solution that fits so well, it seems like the only solution.

    So now that I’m back “home” in my cube at Innate, I’m taking inspiration from my afternoon at The Met, and striving to find the most elegant, effective, and engaging solutions to the design and technical challenges that I’m working on.

    Such is the life of a UI developer!

  • The Well-Dressed Submit Button

    (Originally published on CDG Interactive/Innate blog)

    Hello, again. This is CDG User Interface Developer Ivan Wilson with another lesson gleaned from the top of the snowy, white-capped mounds of work that keep me busy every day. As I explained in my last post, my job is about building the bridge between design and technology. I need to create things that function perfectly, look good, and are useful for users. Here’s how I tackled a recent challenge on-the-job.

    One of our clients, Mondial Assistance, is a large multinational provider of travel insurance. We’re in the midst of revising each of their national B2C sites—more than 20 sites in all, in a variety of different languages. Our core website needs to work as well for consumers in Germany as it does for consumers in Japan—and everywhere in between. And as every web pro knows, content is key.

    But what does content have to do with me, a developer who doesn’t deal (directly) with the spoken language? Allow me to explain!

    The truth is, content is inextricably tied to both design and technology. Think, for example, about the humble button on a web form, like this one. As a UI professional, I need to make sure that this button looks right from a design perspective, and also functions perfectly regardless of the browser or language.

    The simplest solution would be to just take that graphical image and turn into a submit button via HTML code. Or would it? Remember, this little button has to function across 20 sites and in multiple languages. Just imagine the following conversations…

    “Nice button. Nice style. Can you add it to the German site? Oh, don’t forget. The French site is launching next month. We need to use the same buttons there as well.”

    OK, open up Photoshop (or insert your preferred graphics program) and change the text to German. Done. Fine.

    Repeat again…this time in French.

    Repeat again…this time in [insert local language here]

    Before you know it, you’re creating 20 versions of the same button. And that’s just one button on the site. Take into account all of the other buttons that reside on the site, and it becomes an algebra problem: (# of buttons) x (# of languages) = massive headache.

    Let’s take a step back and look at the problem again.

    We need a submit button that is:

    1. Editable – It needs to be easy to translate and manage across sites
    2. Usable – We do not want to create problems or lock out the user, preventing them from finishing their task

    Graphical buttons are out. Sure, I could always use a linked image with a Javascript function to submit data upon clicking. But what if Javascript isn’t switched on? (Surely it won’t be on screen readers and mobile phones). Not good enough.

    The challenge is creating a default state for the button, which functions for everyone, and an enhanced state that looks perfect for top browsers.

    In the end, here’s what I did:

    1. Used an old fashionedHTML submit button
    2. Along with the button, I added an extra bit of code that displays the enhanced state:<span class=”startquote submit”><span>Start Quote</span></span>In this code, I’m using CSS to turn two tags (spans) and enclosed text to appear as the prior graphical button. And by adding Javascript, I can make this “button” act like a regular submit button.

    OK, but now we have two “buttons”. Here is where the magic comes in…

    If you load up the page (without CSS or Javascript), you are the “default” state and the standard HTML submit buttons shows up.

    Now, if you are using a top-of-the-line browser, you have Javascript and CSS well supported. That means that you are ready for the “options” state. When the HTML button loads up, you will get this functional stylized button. All along, the “default” button is still around, just hidden from sight.

    And as the topper, since the text is only text, it can be changed with a couple of keystrokes. Done right, it can stretch to accommodate different word lengths due to translation or editing. As seen below:

    Why only the Latin alphabet? What about Cyrillic? Japanese? Chinese?

    Everything works beautifully. (Well, actually, IE6 has problems with hover states…but it’s IE6, of course.)

    So, there it is. Highly stylized yet functional submit buttons – well dressed for any occasion. And best of all…useful.