Journal

2757 sparkline

Thursday, February 25th, 2021

Fifty

Today is my birthday. I am one twentieth of a millenium old. I am eighteen and a quarter kilo-days old. I am six hundred months old. I am somewhere in the order of 26.28 mega-minutes old. I am fifty years old.

The reflected light of the sun that left Earth when I was born has passed Alpha Cephei and will soon reach Delta Aquilae. In that time, our solar system has completed 0.00002% of its orbit around the centre of our galaxy.

I was born into a world with the Berlin Wall. That world ended when I turned eighteen.

Fifty years before I was born, the Irish war of independence was fought while the world was recovering from an influenza pandemic.

Fifty years after I was born, the UK is beginning its post-Brexit splintering while the world is in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic.

In the past few years, I started to speculate about what I might do for the big Five Oh. Should I travel somewhere nice? Or should I throw a big party and invite everyone I know?

Neither of those are options now. The decision has been made for me. I will have a birthday (and subsequent weekend) filled with the pleasures of home. I plan to over-indulge with all my favourite foods, lovingly prepared by Jessica. And I want the finest wines available to humanity—I want them here and I want them now.

I will also, inevitably, be contemplating the passage of time. I’m definitely of an age now where I’ve shifted from “explore” to “exploit.” In other words, I’ve pretty much figured out what I like doing. That is in contrast to the many years spent trying to figure out how I should be spending my time. Now my plans are more about maximising what I know I like and minimising everything else. What I like mostly involves Irish traditional music and good food.

So that’s what I’ll be doubling down on for my birthday weekend.

Wednesday, February 24th, 2021

Accessibility on the Clearleft podcast

We’re halfway through the second season of the Clearleft podcast already!

The latest episode is on a topic close to my heart: accessibility. But I get out of the way early on and let much smarter folks do the talking. In this case, it’s a power trio of Laura, Cassie, and Léonie. It even features a screen-reader demo by Léonie.

I edited the episode pretty tightly so it comes in at just under 15 minutes. I’m sure you can find 15 minutes of your busy day to set aside for a listen.

If you like what you hear, please spread the word about the Clearleft podcast and pop that RSS feed into your podcast player of choice.

Monday, February 22nd, 2021

Ten down, one to go

The Long Now Foundation is dedicated to long-term thinking. I’ve been a member for quite a few years now …which, in the grand scheme of things, is not very long at all.

One of their projects is Long Bets. It sets out to tackle the problem that “there’s no tax on bullshit.” Here’s how it works: you make a prediction about something that will (or won’t happen) by a particular date. So far, so typical thought leadery. But then someone else can challenge your prediction. And here’s the crucial bit: you’ve both got to place your monies where your mouths are.

Ten years ago, I made a prediction on the Long Bets website. It’s kind of meta:

The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.

I made the prediction on February 22nd, 2011 when my mind was preoccupied with digital preservation.

One year later I was on stage in Wellington, New Zealand, giving a talk called Of Time And The Network. I mentioned my prediction in the talk and said:

If anybody would like to take me up on that bet, you can put your money down.

Matt was also speaking at Webstock. When he gave his talk, he officially accepted my challenge.

So now it’s a bet. We both put $500 into the pot. If I win, the Bletchly Park Trust gets that money. If Matt wins, the money goes to The Internet Archive.

As I said in my original prediction:

I would love to be proven wrong.

That was ten years ago today. There’s just one more year to go until the pleasingly alliterative date of 2022-02-22 …or as the Long Now Foundation would write it, 02022-02-22 (gotta avoid that Y10K bug).

It is looking more and more likely that I will lose this bet. This pleases me.

Sunday, February 21st, 2021

Reading resonances

In today’s world of algorithmic recommendation engines, it’s nice to experience some serendipity every now and then. I remember how nice it was when two books I read in sequence had a wonderful echo in their descriptions of fermentation:

There’s a lovely resonance in reading @RobinSloan’s Sourdough back to back with @EdYong209’s I Contain Multitudes. One’s fiction, one’s non-fiction, but they’re both microbepunk.

Robin agreed:

OMG I’m so glad these books presented themselves to you together—I think it’s a great pairing, too. And certainly, some of Ed’s writing about microbes was in my head as I was writing the novel!

I experienced another resonant echo when I finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell and then starting reading Rutger Bregman’s Humankind. Both books share a common theme—that human beings are fundamentally decent—but the first chapter of Humankind was mentioning the exact same events that are chronicled in A Paradise Built in Hell; the Blitz, September 11th, Katrina, and more. Then he cites from that book directly. The two books were published a decade apart, and it was just happenstance that I ended up reading them in quick succession.

I recommend both books. Humankind is thoroughly enjoyable, but it has one maddeningly frustrating flaw. A Paradise Built in Hell isn’t the only work that influenced Bregman—he also cites Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens. Here’s what I thought of Sapiens:

Yuval Noah Harari has fixated on some ideas that make a mess of the narrative arc of Sapiens. In particular, he believes that the agricultural revolution was, as he describes it, “history’s biggest fraud.” In the absence of any recorded evidence for this, he instead provides idyllic descriptions of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle that have as much foundation in reality as the paleo diet.

Humankind echoes this fabrication. Again, the giveaway is that the footnotes dry up when the author is describing the idyllic pre-historical nomadic lifestyle. Compare it with, for instance, this description of the founding of Jericho—possibly the world’s oldest city—where researchers are at pains to point out that we can’t possibly know what life was like before written records.

I worry that Yuval Noah Harari’s imaginings are being treated as “truthy” by Rutger Bregman. It’s not a trend I like.

Still, apart from that annoying detour, Humankind is a great read. So is A Paradise Built in Hell. Try them together.

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Design engineer

It’s been just over two years since Chris wrote his magnum opus about The Great Divide. It really resonated with me, and a lot of other people.

The crux of it is that the phrase “front-end development” has become so broad and applies to so many things, that it has effectively lost its usefulness:

Two front-end developers are sitting at a bar. They have nothing to talk about.

Brad nailed the differences in responsibilities when he described them as front-of-the-front-end and back-of-the-front-end web development:

A front-of-the-front-end developer is a web developer who specializes in writing HTML, CSS, and presentational JavaScript code.

A back-of-the-front-end developer is a web developer who specializes in writing JavaScript code necessary to make a web application function properly.

In my experience, the term “full stack developer” is often self-applied by back-of-the-front-end developers who perhaps underestimate the complexity of front-of-the-front development.

Me, I’m very much a front-of-the-front developer. And the dev work we do at Clearleft very much falls into that realm.

This division of roles and responsibilities reminds me of a decision we made in the founding days of Clearleft. Would we attempt to be a full-service agency, delivering everything from design to launch? Or would we specialise? We decided to specialise, doubling down on UX design, which was at the time an under-served area. But we still decided to do front-end development. We felt that working with the materials of the web would allow us to deliver better UX.

We made a conscious decision not to do back-end development. Partly it was a question of scale. If you were a back-end shop, you probably had to double down on one stack: PHP or Ruby or Python. We didn’t want to have to turn away any clients based on their tech stack. Of course this meant that we had to partner with other agencies that specialised in those stacks, and that’s what we did—we had trusted partners for Drupal development, Rails development, Wordpress development, and so on.

The world of front-end development didn’t have that kind of fragmentation. The only real split at the time was between Flash agencies and web standards (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript).

Overall, our decision to avoid back-end development stood us in good stead. There were plenty of challenges though. We had to learn how to avoid “throwing stuff over the wall” at whoever would be doing the final back-end implementation. I think that’s why we latched on to design systems so early. It was clearly a better deliverable for the people building the final site—much better than mock-ups or pages.

Avoiding back-end development meant we also avoided long-term lock-in with maintainence, security, hosting, and so on. It might sound strange for an agency to actively avoid long-term revenue streams, but at Clearleft it’s always been our philosophy to make ourselves redundant. We want to give our clients everything they need—both in terms of deliverables and knowledge—so that they aren’t dependent on us.

That all worked great as long as there was a clear distinction between front-end development and back-end development. Front-end development was anything that happened in a browser. Back-end development was anything that happened on the server.

But as the waters muddied and complex business logic migrated from the server to the client, our offering became harder to clarify. We’d tell clients that we did front-end development (meaning we’d supply them with components formed of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and they might expect us to write application logic in React.

That’s why Brad’s framing resonated with me. Clearleft does front-of-front-end development, but we liaise with our clients’ back-of-the-front-end developers. In fact, that bridging work—between design and implementation—is where devs at Clearleft shine.

As much as I can relate to the term front-of-front-end, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I don’t expect it to be anyone’s job title anytime soon.

That’s why I was so excited by the term “design engineer,” which I think I first heard from Natalya Shelburne. There’s even a book about it and the job description sounds very much like the front-of-the-front-end work but with a heavy emphasis on the collaboration and translation between design and implementation. As Trys puts it:

What I love about the name “Design Engineer”, is that it’s entirely focused on the handshake between those two other roles.

There’s no mention of UI, CSS, front-end, design systems, documentation, prototyping, tooling or any ‘hard’ skills that could be used in the role itself.

Trys has been doing some soul-searching and has come to the conclusion “I think I might be a design engineer…”. He has also written on the Clearleft blog about how well the term describes design and development at Clearleft.

Personally, I’m not a fan of using the term “engineer” to refer to anyone who isn’t actually a qualified engineer—I explain why in my talk Building—but I accept that that particular ship has sailed. And the term “design developer” just sounds odd. So I’m all in using the term “design engineer”.

I can imagine this phrase being used in a job ad. It could also be attached to levels: a junior design engineer, a mid-level design engineer, a senior design engineer; each level having different mixes of code and collaboration (maybe a head of design enginering never writes any code).

Trys has written a whole series of posts on the nitty-gritty work involved in design engineering. I highly recommend reading all of them:

Wednesday, February 17th, 2021

Employee experience design on the Clearleft podcast

The second episode of the second season of the Clearleft podcast is out. It’s all about employee experience design.

This topic came out of conversations with Katie. She really enjoys getting stuck into to the design challenges of the “backstage” tools that are often neglected. This is an area that Chris has been working in recently too, so I quized him on this topic.

They’re both super smart people which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable podcast episode. I usually have more guests on a single episode but it was fun to do a two-hander for once.

The whole thing comes in at just under seventeen minutes and there are some great stories and ideas in there. Have a listen.

And if you’re enjoying listening to the Clearleft podcast as much as I’m enjoying making it, be sure to spread the word wherever you share your recommnedations: Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, your own website, the rooftop.

Sunday, February 14th, 2021

The moment after eclipse

I’m almost finished reading a collection of short stories by Brian Aldiss. He was such a prolific writer that he produced loads of these collections, readily available from second-hand bookshops, published on cheap pulpy paper.

This collection is called The Moment Of Eclipse. It’s has some truly weird stories in there, as well as an undisputed classic with Super-Toys Last All Summer Long. I always find it almost unbearably sad.

Only recently, towards the end of the book, did the coincidence of the book’s title strike me: The Moment Of Eclipse.

See, last time I had the privelige of experiencing a total solar eclipse was on August 21st, 2017. Jessica and I were in Sun Valley, Idaho, right in the path of totality. We found a hill to climb up so we could see the surrounding landscape as the shadow of the moon raced across the Earth.

Checked in at Valley View Trail. Hiked up a hill for the eclipse — with Jessica

When it was over, we climbed down the hill and went online. That’s when I found out. Brian Aldiss had passed away.

Saturday, February 13th, 2021

Associative trails

Matt wrote recently about how different writers keep notes:

I’m also reminded of how writers I love and respect maintain their own reservoirs of knowledge, complete with migratory paths down from the mountains.

I have a section of my site called “notes” but the truth is that every single thing I post on here—whether it’s a link, a blog post, or anything else—is really a “note to self.”

When it comes to retrieving information from this online memex of mine, I use tags. I’ve got search forms on my site, but usually I’ll go to the address bar in my browser instead and think “now, what would past me have tagged that with…” as I type adactio.com/tags/... (or, if I want to be more specific, adactio.com/links/tags/... or adactio.com/journal/tags/...).

It’s very satisfying to use my website as a back-up brain like this. I can get stuff out of my head and squirreled away, but still have it available for quick recall when I want it. It’s especially satisfying when I’m talking to someone else and something they say reminds me of something relevant, and I can go “Oh, let me send you this link…” as I retrieve the tagged item in question.

But I don’t think about other people when I’m adding something to my website. My audience is myself.

I know there’s lots of advice out there about considering your audience when you write, but when it comes to my personal site, I’d find that crippling. It would be one more admonishment from the inner critic whispering “no one’s interested in that”, “you have nothing new to add to this topic”, and “you’re not quailified to write about this.” If I’m writing for myself, then it’s easier to have fewer inhibitions. By treating everything as a scrappy note-to-self, I can avoid agonising about quality control …although I still spend far too long trying to come up with titles for posts.

I’ve noticed—and other bloggers have corroborated this—there’s no correlation whatsover between the amount of time you put into something and how much it’s going to resonate with people. You might spend days putting together a thoroughly-researched article only to have it met with tumbleweeds when you finally publish it. Or you might bash something out late at night after a few beers only to find it on the front page of various aggregators the next morning.

If someone else gets some value from a quick blog post that I dash off here, that’s always a pleasant surprise. It’s a bonus. But it’s not my reason for writing. My website is primarily a tool and a library for myself. It just happens to also be public.

I’m pretty sure that nobody but me uses the tags I add to my links and blog posts, and that’s fine with me. It’s very much a folksonomy.

Likewise, there’s a feature I added to my blog posts recently that is probably only of interest to me. Under each blog post, there’s a heading saying “Previously on this day” followed by links to any blog posts published on the same date in previous years. I find it absolutely fascinating to spelunk down those hyperlink potholes, but I’m sure for anyone else it’s about as interesting as a slideshow of holiday photos.

Matt took this further by adding an “on this day” URL to his site. What a great idea! I’ve now done the same here:

adactio.com/archive/onthisday

That URL is almost certainly only of interest to me. And that’s fine.

Friday, February 12th, 2021

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Wednesday, February 10th, 2021

Design leadership on the Clearleft podcast

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards your podcast player of choice to be reborn?

Why it’s season two of the Clearleft podcast!

Yes, it’s that time again when you can treat your earholes to six episodes of condensed discussion on design-related topics at a rate of one episode per week.

The first episode of season two is all about design leadership. This was a lot of fun to put together. I was able to mine the rich seam of talks from the past few years of Leading Design conferences. I found some great soundbites from Jane Austin and Hannah Donovan. I was also able to include the audio from a roundtable discussion at Clearleft. These debates are a regular occurrence at the UX laundromat, where we share what we’re working on. I should record them more often. There was some quality ranting from Jon, Andy, and Chris.

Best of all, I interviewed Temi Adeniyi, a brilliant design leader based in Berlin. Hearing her journey was fascinating. She’s going to be speaking at this year’s online Leading Design Festival too.

I think you’ll enjoy this episode if you are:

  • a designer thinking about becoming a design leader,
  • a designer who wants to remain an individual contributor, or
  • a design leader who was once a hands-on designer.

Actually, the lessons here probably apply regardless of your field. Engineers and lead developers will probably relate to the quandaries raised.

The whole thing clocks in at just over 21 minutes.

Have a listen and see what you think. And if you like what you hear, be sure to share the Clearleft podcast with your friends and co-workers. Go on—drop it in a Slack channel.

If you’re not already subscribed to the podcast, you might want to pop the RSS feed into your podcast player.