Infrequently Noted

Alex Russell on browsers, standards, and the process of progress.


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.