Biomimicry in the real world

There's good reason to believe nature has clues about how to do a good job — can it also help with web designs?

FestoRoboticBird

Festo’s Robotic Bird. Photo by Mike Loukides.

A couple of years ago, I visited the World Science Festival in New York and saw Festo’s robotic bird. It was amazing. I’ve seen things that looked more or less like a bird, and that flew, but clearly weren’t flying like a bird. An airplane has a body, has wings, and flies, but you wouldn’t mistake it for a bird. This was different: it looked like a giant seagull, with head and tail movements that were clearly modelled on a living bird’s.

Since then, Festo has built a robotic kangaroo; based on work they started in 2010, they have a robotic elephant’s trunk that learns, a robotic jellyfish, and no doubt many other animals that I haven’t yet seen.

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The evolving purpose of design

Design is about communication and respect as much as function.

Mine_Kafon

Massoud Hassani’s wind-powered land minesweeper, the Mine Kafon. Photo by Rene van der Hulst, courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art.

For more than a century, design has been determined by its applications to the physical world. As architect Louis Sullivan expressed in an 1896 essay, “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered“:

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.

But Paola Antonelli, senior curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, thinks that’s a law best consigned to the dustbin of history; she gets exasperated when design is presented as the subservient handmaiden of utility.

“There shouldn’t be any differentiation between form and function,” she maintained in a recent interview. “The idea that form must follow function, that’s out the window; it’s a tired cliché. A good object, a well-designed object, is encompassing. It is unified, the material embodiment of a strong idea.” Read more…

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HTML and CSS performance

Efficient, reusable markup reduces development work while boosting page load time

[Ed note: This is the third in a series of posts on web design and performance. You can see the first two posts here and here.]

Optimizing your markup can have a substantial impact on your site’s page load time. Bloated HTML leads to bloated CSS, and vice-versa. For example, during a semantics and reusability template cleanup, I was able to significantly reduce the file size of site-wide HTML, CSS, and stylesheet images.

site-cleanup

I achieved this by simply renaming existing elements to have more semantic meaning and then removed unnecessary elements in the HTML (also known as divitis) to focus on reusability. Later in the same cleanup effort, I was able to cut CSS by 39% by removing unused selectors, combining and condensing styles, and normalizing the colors used across the site.

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Web performance is user experience

Efforts to optimize your site have an effect on the entire experience for your users

Think about how you search for things on the web. How quick are you to close a tab and go to the next search engine result if a site takes too long to load? Now consider doing that on your phone while waiting in line for your coffee order–you have even less time, so your expectations for a site to load quickly are even higher.

Web performance is user experience. Fast page load time builds trust in your site; it yields more returning visitors, more users choosing your site over a competitor’s site, and more people trusting your brand. Users expect pages to load in two seconds, and after three seconds, up to 40% of users will abandon your site. Similar results have been noted by major sites like Amazon, who found that 100 milliseconds of additional page load time decreased sales by one percent, and Google, who lost 20% of revenue and traffic due to half a second increase in page load time. Akamai has also reported that 75% of online shoppers who experience an issue such as freezing, crashing, taking too long to load, or having a convoluted checkout process will not buy from that site.

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The altar of shiny

Web design trends often carry hefty performance costs

Web and mobile users continue to expect faster sites and apps–especially when it comes to mobile–and this year I’d like to see people who work on the web spend more time focusing on performance as a user experience priority instead of chasing trends.

I recently ran across this article in Forbes, which lists a number of web design goals/trends that Steve Cooper is eyeing for a site redesign of online magazine Hitched. My intention is not to pick on Hitched or Cooper per se, but the list is a molotov cocktail of potential performance woes:

  • Continuous scrolling
  • Responsive design
  • Parallax sites

You can use most of those techniques without creating performance nightmares, but it is unfortunately rare. I feel like I’m living in an alternate reality where I’m hearing that users want simpler, faster sites, and yet the trends in web design are marching in the opposite direction.

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Podcast: news that reaches beyond the screen

Finding ways to make media interact with the physical world

Reporters, editors and designers are looking for new ways to interact with readers and with the physical world–drawing data in through sensors and expressing it through new immersive formats.

In this episode of the Radar podcast, recorded at News Foo Camp in Phoenix on November 10, Jenn and I talk with three people who are working on new modes of interaction:

Along the way:

For more on the intersection of software and the physical world, be sure to check out Solid, O’Reilly’s new conference program about the collision of real and virtual.

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunesSoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

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