Designing for Input: An Interview with Jason Grigsby

Jason Grigsby (AKA @grigs) has been obsessed with mobile web design since way before it was cool—or even practical. (Remember WAP? If you don't, be thankful.) He's the co-author, with Lyza Danger Gardener, of Head First Mobile Web (O'Reilly, 2012), and the co-founder of the design studio Cloud Four, where he has worked on high-profile projects including the Obama iPhone app. We caught up with the busy designer, coder, blogger, and speaker for a relaxed, yet fascinating, discussion of all things web and mobile, including Jason's current obsession—our wonderful world of multi-device inputs.

How did you get started working on the web?

Working on the web seems simultaneously like the most natural and most unlikely outcome from my youth. My parents were kind enough to buy a Commodore 64 when I was in the fourth grade. I added a modem in the fifth grade.

One of my favorite programs was GeoPublish, which I used to create newsletters and posters. Later, I was editor of our high school yearbook and went on to study journalism in college.

So the web seems natural in many ways. It combines my love of computers with publishing and expands the online world that my 300 baud modem introduced me to.

It also seems unlikely because I spent so many years hiding my interest in computers. It was utterly uncool to be a nerd back then. The last thing I needed was more harassment. I never imagined being able to make a living doing what I love.

My first introduction to the web was during college. I saw Mosaic and was unimpressed at its slow speed and graphics. “Why would anyone use this instead of gopher or a BBS?”

The next year, I was using Netscape and built my first website. The rest is history.

Tell us a bit about Cloud Four, including how you got the distinctive name.

The four founders of Cloud Four—Lyza Gardner, Aileen Jeffries, John Keith, and I—had worked together for over seven years. We became interested in working on mobile. The iPhone had just come out and at the time there were 3.3 billion phones for 6.6 billion people on the planet.

We realized that the company that where we were currently working wouldn't give us many opportunities to work on mobile. The clients were non-profit, standards-setting organizations. So we decided to forge ahead on our own.

Our name came from the fact that we wanted something that reflected our values and our location. We value transparency and clouds can be ethereal. As Portlanders, we see our fair share of clouds. There were four of us. The domain was available, and we liked the shape of the words when we typeset them.

Only later did we realize that everyone would hear ‘Cloud Four' and assume we work on cloud computing. The name has become a great way to screen sales people who don't take the time to understand what we do.

What are some tools, tricks, and/or techniques you can't work without?

Wow. I don't know how to answer this one. There are so many things I rely on daily from the web inspector to Rdio (sniff).

We host an open device testing lab for Portland so I'm spoiled in that regard. We get to experiment with a bunch of different devices. We've built up tools using Node, Gulp, and Browsersync that allow us to quickly see changes on multiple devices.

One unusual tool that I love is Charles Proxy. I use it to see what websites and native apps are doing behind the scenes.

What would you say is the most overlooked aspect of web design?

Accessibility. It is overlooked far too often. We do a disservice to our fellow humans when we ignore accessibility.

Plus, accessibility is often the foundation for supporting new, exciting types of input and devices.

You're bringing a brand-new talk to AEA, “Adapting to Input.” What's it all about, and what will people take away from it?

It's all about designing for the ever-changing, messy world of input, and I'm terribly excited about it.

We've come to recognize that we're designing for a continuum of screen resolutions. Responsive web design has helped us develop the techniques and skills we need to design for that continuum.

But screen resolution isn't the only continuum we face. Input is also a continuum across all form factors. We have phones that have physical keyboards and cursors. And we have desktop computers that have touch screens. Not to mention all of the devices that challenge classification—is that a tablet or a laptop?

And input is changing rapidly, with new forms showing up on a regular basis. Voice, gestures, camera, and even eye tracking are all shipping in devices today.

For the last three years I've been researching how to deal with all of these different types of input. I'm looking forward to sharing what I've learned, along with some design principles that I think make navigating this new terrain more manageable.

What has you most excited these days?

It may seem like a self-serving answer, but I'm most interested in input at the moment. Last week I bought four new devices—each with different types of input—for testing and research for my AEA talk. One of the devices is the Nokia 950, which is a phone that can connect to a dock and act as a full-blown desktop computer. It is truly mind-boggling.

I'm looking forward to some downtime around the holidays, when I can dig into these new devices and see how their various forms of input operate. There's nothing I love more than diving into a new problem space and figuring out how things work. Input is my current obsession!

Jason will bring “Adapting to Input” to An Event Apart Nashville and An Event Apart Seattle in 2016. Don't miss it! For more insight into what AEA is all about, enjoy the numerous free presentation videos on our site. And for your free guide to all things web, design, and developer-y, subscribe to The AEA Digest.