My computer’s out for repair this week. Thankfully, I was able to pull an older laptop out of a drawer and, with a few hours of software updates, I could get myself back up and running.
I was delighted to slog through all that setup, though. Thing is, I love this old laptop. I got it in 2011, which was a weird, interesting year for me: The Boston Globe’s redesign was in the process of launching; I wrote the first draft of Responsive Web Design on this little keyboard. There’s a lot of miles and memory wrapped up in this creaky old thing, and it feels good to take it down from the shelf, dust it off, and start working with it again.
But here’s the thing about browsing the modern web with a six year-old laptop: nearly every browser tab causes my fan to spin, and my laptop to warm. Elements of web pages slowly, noticeably, gracelessly ka-chunk-fall into place as they render. While I browse the web, I feel each one of my laptop’s six years.
When I’m traveling abroad, I get free data as part of my phone plan. (Which is amazing, and I love it.) The catch? It’s capped at ~2G speeds.
— well, I say “catch,” but I’m not complaining: I do a fair bit of writing and speaking about the network being slower and less reliable than we tend to think, but it’s always useful when I get to feel it.
This isn’t just about slow webpages, mind you. (Although.) More like…my habits change. I watch myself start to route around the spots of the network I know I won’t be able to access: I scroll past tweets with embedded images that haven’t loaded yet; videos, GIFs, and Slack are right out; apps that assume there’s an Internet connection won’t get opened until I’m home, and native app updates are right out; certain news sites are 2G-friendly, so I’ll read them more. (The other news sites, I won’t.)
Like I said, it’s helpful for me to get chances to step outside my view of the web. Most of the world relies on sub-3G speeds, and I need these reminders.
I should note I’m keenly aware of how privileged I am to have a backup laptop. I have a dear, old friend who lives in one of the more remote parts of an already-quite-rural state, a full-time writer and retired teacher who only recently got broadband at home. Before then, he was on dialup; if I sent him a large PDF, or a link to a video, he’d reply with a note of thanks, adding that he’d have to wait until his next library trip to see what I’d shared.
His laptop’s easily ten years old, a venerable piece of black plastic running Windows XP. Its keyboard makes satisfying
clack sounds as he types, and has one of those odd red nubs in the middle of its keys. Recently, his browser told him his operating system’s not modern enough, and that he’ll need to upgrade — either to a newer computer, or to a newer version of Windows. He’s on the latest version of Firefox that’s available to him, but there’s no guarantee that version will keep working on the websites he visits, on the services he relies on.
As more doors have started closing on his computer, and on him, I asked if he’d like to upgrade his laptop. He told me he’s comfortable with his old machine, and doesn’t relish having to change it. “If I could use this laptop until I die,” he once told me, “I’d be happy.”
The question of device labs often comes up in my work, both in my own consulting, and in the responsive design workshops that Karen and I offer. When an organization’s ready to invest in a device lab, and start buying phones and tablets for their design team — well, honestly, my first suggestion is that they read Destiny and Lara’s excellent book, Building a Device Lab. But after that, I recommend building a lab gradually, by investing in certain classes of devices over time. I tend to break down these devices into three different tiers:
- Baseline devices. Think older BlackBerrys, outdated iOS devices, and anything running Android 2.x.
- “Fringe” devices like handheld game consoles, Kindles, or other, less-traditional devices, like (look yes I know) smart TVs or smart watches.
- “Top-shelf” devices. Phones, tablets, and what-have-you running modern versions of Android and iOS.
We could probably quibble about that second item, I suppose. “Fringe” devices might not be priorities for your business, but I’ve found they inevitably tease out interesting design opportunities.
That said, the first and last items are the most important ones — and I think the order’s important, too. Newer devices are often the best-represented among the teams I work with, which means they usually have, well, the best representation in the design process. But it’s the older ones that need our time and attention: because even though these devices are of a vanishing breed, if not an outright obsolete one, they can help us understand how our design decisions will impact devices that don’t look like ours. How they’ll impact users who aren’t quite like us.
Jessamyn West frequently writes about the digital divides she sees — at the national level, sure, but also in her rural library’s technical support sessions. I’ve been thinking about this one a lot:
Drop-in time today: “I’ve been paying for internet for six months but don’t know how to use my computer.” Heartbreaking. #digitaldivide
User lives alone & came in w/ an assistant who took careful notes on how to help him get online. “Call Comcast” wasn’t going to work for him.
In our little industry, we often work on decent hardware, on reliable networks. But according to Pew Research, thirty percent of Americans don’t have broadband at home. One in ten American adults are smartphone-only internet users, while 13% of American adults don’t use the internet at all.
Meanwhile, we make mobile-friendly websites with widescreen devices, using broadband to design experiences for slow, unstable networks. In a lot of ways, we’re outliers among the people we’re designing for.
I have to work to remember this, every minute that I work. Maybe you do, too.
Note: The second section of this entry was taken from a little tweet thread/rant of mine.