Excuses

Update: read this first

Jason Fried is full of shit.

It’s really sad to see a supposed champion of user experience equivocating instead of dealing with a serious experience issue. Initially, the party line was that cross-browser WYSIWYG wasn’t possible. After we put that misconception out to pasture with dojo.widget.RichText and showed that the UI doesn’t have to be complicated to be functional (dojo.widget.Editor2), it’s amazing to see 37signals adopt all the classic signs of NIH-ism. Why would someone use Writeboard if they weren’t interested in sharing what they write? Almost all of the UI of Writeboard that isn’t taken up by content is dedicated to collaboration. The argument Jason makes takes the side of some mythical hermit writer who wants a crappy text editor that doesn’t have auto-save, is difficult to resize, can’t load files from disk or save to it, doesn’t feature spell-checking on most platforms, and can hardly function when not connected to the network. Umm…yeah.

Folks writing stuff down for consumption by others are necessarily concerned with how it’s presented to those other people. Sure, browsers make it a royal pain to do WYSIWYG reliably and consistently across browsers, but is the fact that it’s hard somehow a good reason to prevent users from expressing themselves with better fidelity? I argue that it’s not, esp. when you’re charging people money for a service. Folks who want to learn YAML can download any of a hundred Open Source wikis and start debating the finer points of reStructuredText vs. Textile vs. Markdown vs. MediaWIki syntax. These are people who don’t need 37signals to help them identify with the system model.

Which leaves us people who want to share things with other people, don’t really give a shit about figuring out what clever combination of keystrokes is going to make something bold, and would like their investment in UI idioms to be portable to the web. I humbly submit that this market represents most humans who interact with computers. When it comes to UI, only be different when you can be demonstrably better.

There are a lot of UI problems left to solve with WYSIWYG on the web today. What we can already do in browsers is a pretty poor baseline for what we should be giving users and hugely smart people have been hacking on the problem for a long time. It’s about time that we started evolving some truly “web-ish” idioms about how WYSIWYG should be done and how we can keep users happy but still informed about the limits of the medium. In the Dojo editor, we attacked this by stripping down the number of options to the point where the toolbar represents only what browsers natively support editing on, which falls neatly in line with what they reliably render without losing the semantic of what the user meant to convey. The new “snap-floating” toolbar in Editor2 is designed to keep the chrome in place when it’s needed but not break the page-centric idiom. The new editor in 6Apart’s Vox drops strange popup windows for much more intuitive in-page dialogs. The latest version of TinyMCE is also showing real creativity in helping users get where they’re going without sacrificing the “webishness” of the editing experience. I’m sure that the creative guys over at 37signals can do even better should they set their minds to it. Sadly, they seem too busy telling paying customers that they’re wrong.

Less is not better, better is better. That better may correlate with less some significant percentage of the time is in no way causal.

19 Comments

  1. Posted July 29, 2006 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Why are you so bitter about other people’s choices? Maybe some people like the products we offer, the ideas behind them, and the way we execute them. Why do you feel the need to call these people hermits who like crappy software? They’re just people like you who’ve made a difference choice about what’s important to them when it comes to software.

  2. Posted July 29, 2006 at 11:13 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jason,

    I’m not bitter, but I think it’s disingenuous of you to assume that I’m calling your users anything. Your comment threads and forums have multiple calls from people who want the choice to be able to better express what they are trying to convey. If you have a look at the latest version of Jot, you’ll see how a system can manage to support both classes of users without alienating either of them. But it requires trying.

    What frustrates me is when you spend time justifying your decisions based on some “writing is this and not that” BS. Your message to them with your blog post says “your content and writing style isn’t right”. How would you feel if you read that?

    Regards

  3. Jesse Kuhnert
    Posted July 30, 2006 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    User experience counts for so much though…We (as software developers) are used to thinking/dancing to the binary tune of our computers, but it frustrates/angers me whenever I’m helping a “normal” user with computer issues and they feel stupid when they don’t know how to use a program.

    I always have to remind them that it is not them that has failed, but the software. Not enough developers care about how people use and interact with a program. Those that do are usually very good at what they do. It’s fairly easy to write a program that techies can use, it’s quite another to create something that the “majority” can use.

    Cheers to Alex/Jot for being one of the good devs that cares about the little guy.

  4. Patrick Corcoran
    Posted July 31, 2006 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    Completely sidestepping the issue of RTE vs. plain-text, I find it patently ridiculous that it is the job of the web page author to build a word-processor into the web page if RTE is desired. Isn’t it about time users had a real WYSIWYG editor built into the browser? One which they could set global preferences which carry across from page to page?

    I don’t really care at this point if it’s an embedded object — I’m just sick to death of implementing word processors as part of the data of a web page. I mean, really. It’s stupid. Imagine if banking web sites had the responsibility of implementing strong encryption on the client? Or if vector-based graphics has to be built from the ground up using only client script? Dumb, dumb, dumb.

    (Thanks for listening… I realize frustration is only 5% of the journey towards change.)

  5. Posted July 31, 2006 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    Hey Patrick,

    I’m with you on that! It’s pretty ridiculous that we have to ship boatloads of JavaScript around just to provide a consistent API and a UI for what browsers already (inconsistently) expose. It doesn’t help that there hasn’t been standardization of the in-browser WYSIWYG APIs, the markup that they should generate, or the way to extend them. Mozilla did us a serious dis-service with their approach and I’m afraid we’re in for years of incompatibility as a result.

    As for vector graphics, stay tuned. In much the same way that dojo.widget.Editor2 gives you a nice unified API for WYSIWYG we’ll be releasing dojo.gfx to do the same for in-browser vector graphics before the end of the year.

    Regards

  6. Posted August 1, 2006 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    I think I’m somewhat to agree with Jason here. I think that in many ways rich text editing has historically done a disservice to the way people write.

    I find myself usually pulling out a plain text editor such as vi even for notes, or something like OmniOutliner when I care about structure, because I don’t want to worry about or think about formatting. It is too often the case that people spend a lot of time on formatting as a way to procrastinate the actual process of writing.

    That’s a different debate than the technological merits of rich text editing, or auto-save (the latter of which I think Jason would strongly agree helps the writing process and in no way gets in the way or getting your thoughts out).

    That said, there is a time and place when being able to style your document is highly valuable, and the Dojo Rich Text editing capabilities rock. And they certainly make it easier to not have to define whether your users should have such features at their disposal.

    But as a vi user yourself, you can certainly appreciate the desire to just put your thoughts to text, and think about formatting later. Well, except for whitespace of course. :)

  7. Posted August 1, 2006 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    Abe Fettig weighs in:
    http://fettig.net/weblog/2006/07/31/wysiwyg/

    Dylan: so I think what you’re saying is something that I agree with: writing is an iterative process. In school we were often admonished not to spend any time making things look right on the first draft. Hell, we were told never to erase or hit the backspace key if we happened to be doing any composing work at a terminal and I think it was probably good advice. It’s good for your “flow”.

    That said, there were always a couple of iterations involved, such that the time spent in the initial draft was completely overshadowed by subsequent iterations where increasing amounts of time are spent on making things feel more fluid. Formatting plays an important part of that and I think that the argument that WYSIWYG is bad because its distracting in a highly-personal first-draft process is a bit misleading. Perhaps we should all focus on some “upgrade” process where you are in draft mode and then get into “editing” mode, and perhaps yet another “published for shared editing” mode. In each case the exposed tools might be very different. I don’t know. But that was what I was getting to at the end of the post: we’re not doing well by our users and by equivocating about the status quo we don’t help anyone.

    More thinking about the process of writing and how we can support it: better.

    Regards

  8. -B-
    Posted August 5, 2006 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    Alex your emotion got in the way of your logic.

    Jason never said WYSIWYG was a bad idea. I\’m sure he supports it in tools like Indesign or Word or Illustrator. He just said it\’s not right for Writeboard. Writeboard isn\’t pretending to be the be-all-end-all writing/processing tool, it\’s just 37signals\’ version of what they think a simple writing tool should be. Can\’t you respect that without calling someone full of shit and disingenuous?

    Just because some people in the comments say they want more doesn\’t mean 37signals or anyone has to deliver exactly what someone asks for (especially when it\’s in the comments on a blog). I could sit here in your comments and tell you that I think WYSIWYG is wrong and that I want LESS out of Jot. Does that mean Jot doesn\’t listen to it\’s customers if you don\’t do what I tell you to do? Of course not.

    While we\’re at it, I don\’t like the colors on your site and I think this textarea should be bigger and I\’d like built in spellchecking. And hey man where\’s WYSIWYG in the comments field?!! I can\’t write without it!!! When can I expect these changes? If you don\’t make them you aren\’t listening to me and you are ignoring your readers.

    You call for more choice and 37signals is giving people more choice by offering their Writeboard product to the market. That\’s choice. If you don\’t like it don\’t use it but don\’t call someone \”full of shit\” because they disagree with you. That just makes you look petty and foolish which I doubt you really are.

  9. Posted August 5, 2006 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Hey -B-:

    I understand that Jason didn’t denounce WYSIWYG. Instead he gave a bogus explination for why 37signals isn’t implementing it. I took exception with the bogus part of his bogus explination and still do.

    Regards

  10. Posted August 6, 2006 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Alex,

    First off, I want to thank you for Dojo. It’s the best thing to happen to client-side technology in a LONG time, and it’s saved me a TON of time. I think it’ll be looked back on as one of the core enabling technologies in the next generation of rich applications. I’m working on a way to securely stream XMPP messages to and from the browser and it would have taken twice the amount of time without the foundation you’ve built up with Dojo and its comet support.

    And on this particular topic, I agree with you 100%. I have a big problem with 37 Signals, I feel that they constantly hide behind the “less is more” excuse time and time again in leiu of tackling hard problems and giving their users what they want. I actually wrote about this a while ago (http://jasonkolb.typepad.com/weblog/2006/04/big_egos_at_37s.html) and then pretty much gave up on talking about these guys since I have such a big problem with the way they work and I really don’t like being negative.

    Anyway, just wanted to give you my vote of support on this issue, and please keep up the good work. I love watching people like myself who aren’t afraid to tackle the big, hard problems head-on. It makes me happy to see smart, hard-working people make lazy people’s excuses sound dumb.

  11. Posted August 6, 2006 at 11:28 am | Permalink

    Hi Jason Kolb,

    I realize that text isn’t a good medium for nuance, but I think my point might be a little bit more subtle than “37signals sucks”. They clearly don’t.

    Instead, my point is that in this instance I think they haven’t been honesty with their users (and also possibly with themselves). If their products weren’t so good in so many other ways it wouldn’t be incongruous at all.

    Regards

  12. Posted August 6, 2006 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    “Instead he gave a bogus explination for why 37signals isn’t implementing it.”

    So let’s recap.

    1. I’m full of shit.
    2. I’m disingenuous.
    3. I’m a liar (since my statements are bogus).

    And this was surmised from a benign post about the difference between writing and word processing.

    I can’t wait to see what #4 is.

    And I’m with -B-: Where are the WYSIWYG widgets for leaving comments on this blog? I’d like to center some text, make a few things bold, and use italics for emphasis. Or are blog comments just for simple writing sans formatting?

  13. Jesse Kuhnert
    Posted August 6, 2006 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Jason:

    I don’t think (could be wrong), the he meant you were a “liar” in the sense that you were lying to your customers/blog reeders..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Self-deception

  14. DHH
    Posted August 6, 2006 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    So you don’t appreciate the split between writing and styling. Good for you. Make and use WYSIWYG tools. No one is forcing you (or anyone else for that matter) to use Writeboard.

    I, on the other hand, cowrote much of the Getting Real book in Writeboard and loved it. I’m currently writing all my new blog entries in WriteRoom, which has the same “just the text, thanks” mentality. I like separating writing and styling, especially when working with other people on a document. Does that make me full of shit too?

    What about all the comments we’ve received from customers who are equally happy about the fact that Writeboard doesn’t do WYSIWYG. Are they full of shit too?

    It’s quite interesting that because you don’t agree with our priorities that we must obviously be disingenuous, full of shit, and what have you.

    If it was simply because we couldn’t be bothered, why wouldn’t we just say so? I’ve never had any reservations admitting that I couldn’t be bothered doing X or Y when that’s the case.

    Abe ended his post on the note that this level of animosity is silly. I can only concur. You’re better than this.

  15. -B-
    Posted August 6, 2006 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    (sorry for the hashes in my comment above. my web proxy puts those in for some reason)

    \”he meant you were a \”liar\” in the sense that you were lying to your customers/blog reeders..\”

    Jesse, how exactly is Jason lying to his customers and blog readers by saying he believes there is a difference between writing and word processing and using Writeboard and WriteRoom (which isnt a 37signals product) as examples? Where is the lie exactly? I see an opinion, but nothing representing a lie.

    A lie would be \”Writeboard has WYSIWYG\” and then not actually providing it. Or a lie would be \”Writeboard is entirely web-based\” but then saying that it requires you to download software to your computer.

    A difference of opinion is not a lie. If I dont agree with you it doesnt make you a liar, it makes you someone I don\’t agree with.

    Something else I respond to earlier: Alex said Jason was \”full of shit\” and then Jason said Alex was bitter and then Alex said he wasn\’t bitter. So Im curious, Alex, do you go around calling everyone who you may not agree with \”full of shit?\” Is anyone who takes a different position than you \”full of shit?\” Is anyone who has a different take on software \”full of shit\” Because if you dont call everyone else full of shit, but you called Jason full of shit, I can only detect a chip on your shoulder as it relates to Jason. I don\’t know why it\’s there, but its in full view.

  16. Posted August 6, 2006 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    Jason: a fair question. I’ll try to get the Dojo editor integrated into WP. Shouldn’t be hard.

    DHH: the Writeboard users who want text-only aren’t wrong, nor are the ones who want WYSIWYG. Both camps have a valid point, which is the only reason I brought up the UI in Jot that lets you choose. I spent a good portion of the post discussing why we need better editing facilities that are more “webish”, and I don’t think that discussion is constrained to WYSIWYG or textarea-based UIs. For a while I’ve been contemplating doing a “supertextarea” that would provide nice resizing, auto-preview, auto-save, and a way to download to disk, and I think that would be a significant step in the right direction for everyone. Perhaps I wrongly singled out Wysiwyg as the one feature that needs to be improved upon, but it’s what Jason’s original post focused on. Had Jason said “wysiwyg is tremendously difficult to do right and we want to focus on other important problems until it gets sorted out by the JS community”, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Prioritization is different from equivocating and telling user that they’re wrong.

    -B-: no, I don’t generally call folks who dissagree with me “full of shit”. I probably used language that was too harsh, but I’m also not generally shy about pointing out what appear to be inconsistencies in reasoning, esp about topics I care greatly about.

    Regards

  17. Posted August 7, 2006 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    Of course I accept your apology. You’re a good man to step back and apologize. Thanks. There are definitely meaningful discussions to be had, but it tough to have them when the first retort is “you’re full of shit.” I’m glad we’re over that now ;)

  18. Posted August 7, 2006 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jason,

    Thanks for being so understanding of my gaffe.

    WYSIWYG us now enabled for comments on this blog. You can do a “view source” to see how it was integrated. Let me know if you run into any problems with it.

    Regards

  19. Posted August 10, 2006 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    It appears that none of the buttons actually do anything in Safari (version 2.whatever).I think this is the same problem Editor and Editor2 have had with Safari for awhile, due to Safari not implementing much of the rich text editor stuff.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Continuing Intermittent Incoherency » Mea Culpa on August 6, 2006 at 10:36 pm

    […] The tone of my last post was entirely out of order. There’s a serious UX issue at issue and my writing did nothing to bring that discussion to the fore. I hope Jason will accept my apology.   if(!mmposts){var mmposts=[];} mmposts[mmposts.length]=”571″; […]

  2. By SpaziDigitali | The Typer on August 21, 2006 at 9:21 am

    […] I was planning to start development after I completed Tiber (a web feed reader I’m working on) but then the spreading of the “no frills editor” meme around the blogsphere (see here, here and here) made me change my plans and I suspended Tiber, while working on this writer tool. […]