Journal

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Thursday, April 8th, 2021

The state of UX

There is much introspection and navel-gazing in the world of user experience design. More than usual, I mean.

Jesse James Garrett recently said:

I don’t think I know anyone that’s been in UX more than a decade who’s happy with how it’s going.

In a recent issue of the dConstruct newsletter—which you really should subscribe to—I pointed to three bowls of porridge left out by three different ursine experience designers.

Mark Hurst wrote Why I’m losing faith in UX. Too hot!

Scott Berkun wrote How To Put Faith in Design. Too cold!

Peter Merholz wrote Waking up from the dream of UX. Just right!

As an aside, does it bother anyone else that the Goldilocks story violates the laws of thermodynamics?

Anyway, this hand-wringing around the role of UX today seemed like a suitably hot topic for one of our regular roundtable chats at Clearleft. We invited Peter along too and he was kind enough to give us his time.

It was a fun discussion. Peter pointed out that whenever he hears an older designer bemoaning the current state of design, he has to wonder what’s happened in their lives to make them feel that way (it’s like when people complain about the music of today and how it’s not as good as the music of whatever time period I was a teenager). And let’s face it, the good ol’ days weren’t so good for everyone. It was overwhelmingly dominated by privileged white dudes. The more that changes, the better …and it needs to change far, far more.

There was a general agreement that the current gnashing of teeth isn’t unique to UX. It’s something that just about any discipline will inevitably go through. Peter’s epiphany was to compare it with the hand-wringing around Agile:

The frustration exhibited with the “dream of UX” is (I think) identical to the frustration the original Agile community sees with how it has been industrialized (koff-SAFe-koff).

Perhaps the industrialisation of what once a cottage industry is the price of success. But that’s not necessarily bad, as long as you industrialise the right things. If UX has become the churning out of wireframes at scale, then something has gone very wrong. If UX has become the implementation of dark patterns at scale, then something has gone very wrong.

In some organisations, perhaps that’s exactly what’s happened. In which case, I can totally understand the disillusionment. But in other places, I see the opposite happening. I see UX designers bringing questions of ethics to the forefront. I see UX designers—dare I say it?—having their proverbial seat at the table.

Chris went so far as to claim that we are in fact in a golden age of user experience design. Controversial! But think about it, he said. Over the next few days, pay attention to interactions you have with technology, and consider the thought and skill that has gone into them.

I had Chris’s provocation in mind when I wrote about booking my vaccination appointment:

I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.

Maybe Chris is right. Maybe the golden age of UX is here. It’s just not evenly distributed. Yet.

It’s an interesting time for the discipline of user experience design. I’ve always maintained that the best way to get a temperature check for your chosen field is to go to a really good conference. If you’re a UX designer and you want to understand the state of the UX nation, you should get a ticket for the online UX Fest in June. See you there!

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

Of the web

I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.

Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!

But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.

Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.

Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.

His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.

Which type of novelty-seeking web developer are you?

It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.

In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.

In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:

I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.

Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.

I hadn’t thought of this before.

By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.

Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.

He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).

It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.

This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.

On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.

The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.

With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:

They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.

That’s my tagline right there.

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Monday, March 29th, 2021

Season two of the Clearleft podcast

Season two of the Clearleft podcast is in the can. Taking a step back and looking at the six episodes, I think it turned out very well indeed.

Episode One

Design Leadership. Lots of smart people in this one. And I like that the source material is a real mix: conference talks, a roundtable discussion, and an interview.

Episode Two

Employee Experience Design. More of a deep dive than a broad overview. It’s pretty much a two-hander from Chris and Katie.

Episode Three

Accessibility. This one got a lot of attention, and rightly so in my opinion. It’s got three excellent contributors: Laura, Léonie, and Cassie. My job was to get out of the way and string their knowledge bombs together.

Episode Four

Prototyping. I had three good stories to work with from Benjamin, Lorenzo, and Trys. Then at the last minute I was able to add an interview with Adekunle which ties the whole thing up nicely.

Episode Five

Diversity and Inclusion. I think this might be the highlight of the season. Again, it’s got a mix of source material from conference talks and interviews. The quality of the contributions is exceptionally good. Once again, I found my job was to mostly get out of the way and line things up so they flowed well.

Episode Six

Remote Work. I wish I could see that it was my perfect planning that led to this episode being released exactly one year on from the start of lockdown. But really it was just a very fortunate coincidence. It did give this episode some extra resonance though. And I like that the final episode of the season has the widest range of contributors. It’s like the whole cast came back for the season finale.

I also wrote a bit about what I did behind the scenes for each episode of this season:

  1. Design Leadership
  2. Employee Experience Design
  3. Accessibility
  4. Prototyping
  5. Diversity and Inclusion
  6. Remote Work

My sincerest thanks to everyone who contributed to this season of the Clearleft podcast, especially everyone outside Clearleft who kindly agreed to be interviewed: Temi, Laura, Léonie, Adekunle, Rifa, and Elaine.

The Clearleft podcast will take a little break now and so will I. But I’m already thinking about topics for the next season. I feel like I’m starting to get a feel for what’s working so you can another six-episode season down the line.

To make sure you don’t miss the next season, I recommend subscribing to the RSS feed, or you can subscribe on Apple, Spotify, Google, and anywhere else that dispenses podcasts.

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Five decades

Phil turned 50 around the same time as I did. He took the opportunity to write some half-century notes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and it got me thinking about my own five decades of life.

0–10

A lot happened in the first few years. I was born in England but my family back moved to Ireland when I was three. Then my father died not long after that. I was young enough that I don’t really have any specific memories of that time. I have hazy impressionistic images of London in my mind but at this point I don’t know if they’re real or imagined.

10–20

Most of this time was spent being a youngster in Cobh, county Cork. All fairly uneventful. Being a teenage boy, I was probably a dickhead more than I realised at the time. It was also the 80s so there was a lot of shittiness happening in the background: The Troubles; Chernobyl; Reagan and Thatcher; the constant low-level expectation of nuclear annihilation. And most of the music was terrible—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

20–30

This was the period with the most new experiences. I started my twenties by dropping out of Art College in Cork and moving to Galway to be a full-time slacker. I hitch-hiked and busked around Europe. I lived in Canada for six months. Eventually I ended up in Freiburg in southern Germany where I met Jessica. The latter half of this decade was spent there, settling down a bit. I graduated from playing music on the street to selling bread in a bakery to eventually making websites. Before I turned 30, Jessica and I got married.

30–40

We move to Brighton! I continue to make websites and play music with Salter Cane. Half way through my thirties I co-found Clearleft with Andy and Rich. I also start writing books and speaking at conferences. I find that not only is this something I enjoy, but it’s something I’m actually good at. And it gives me the opportunity to travel and see more of the world.

40–50

It’s more of the same for the next ten years. More Clearleft, more writing, more speaking and travelling. Jessica and I got a mortgage on a flat at the start of the decade and exactly ten years later we’ve managed to pay it off, which feels good (I don’t like having any debt hanging over me).

That last decade certainly feels less eventful than, say, that middle decade but then, isn’t that the way with most lives? As Phil says:

If my thirties went by more quickly than my twenties, my forties just zipped by.

You’ve got the formative years in your 20s when you’re trying to figure yourself out so you’re constantly dabbling in a bit of everything (jobs, music, drugs, travel) and then things get straighter. So when it comes to memories, your brain can employ a more rigourous compression algorithm. Instead of storing each year separately, your memories are more like a single year times five or ten. And so it feels like time passes much quicker in later life than it did in those more formative experimental years.

But experimentation can be stressful too—“what if I never figure it out‽” Having more routine can be satisfying if you’re reasonably confident you’ve chosen a good path. I feel like I have (but then, so do most people).

Now it’s time for the next decade. In the short term, the outlook is for more of the same—that’s the outlook for everyone while the world is on pause for The Situation. But once that’s over, who knows? I intend to get back to travelling and seeing the world. That’s probably more to do with being stuck in one place for over a year than having mid-century itchy feet.

I don’t anticipate any sudden changes in lifestyle or career. If anything, I plan to double down on doing things I like and saying “no” to any activities I now know I don’t like. So my future will almost certainly involve more websites, more speaking, maybe more writing, and definitely more Irish traditional music.

I feel like having reached the milestone of 50, I should have at least a few well-earned pieces of advice to pass on. The kind of advice I wish I had received when I was younger. But I’ve racked my brains and this is all I’ve got:

Never eat an olive straight off the tree. You know this already but maybe part of your mind thinks “how bad can it be really?” Trust me. It’s disgusting.

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2021

Service worker weirdness in Chrome

I think I’ve found some more strange service worker behaviour in Chrome.

It all started when I was checking out the very nice new redesign of WebPageTest. I figured while I was there, I’d run some of my sites through it. I passed in a URL from The Session. When the test finished, I noticed that the “screenshot” tab said that something was being logged to the console. That’s odd! And the file doing the logging was the service worker script.

I fired up Chrome (which isn’t my usual browser), and started navigating around The Session with dev tools open to see what appeared in the console. Sure enough, there was a failed fetch attempt being logged. The only time my service worker script logs anything is in the catch clause of fetching pages from the network. So Chrome was trying to fetch a web page, failing, and logging this error:

The service worker navigation preload request failed with a network error.

But all my pages were loading just fine. So where was the error coming from?

After a lot of spelunking and debugging, I think I’ve figured out what’s happening…

First of all, I’m making use of navigation preloads in my service worker. That’s all fine.

Secondly, the website is a progressive web app. It has a manifest file that specifies some metadata, including start_url. If someone adds the site to their home screen, this is the URL that will open.

Thirdly, Google recently announced that they’re tightening up the criteria for displaying install prompts for progressive web apps. If there’s no network connection, the site still needs to return a 200 OK response: either a cached copy of the URL or a custom offline page.

So here’s what I think is happening. When I navigate to a page on the site in Chrome, the service worker handles the navigation just fine. It also parses the manifest file I’ve linked to and checks to see if that start URL would load if there were no network connection. And that’s when the error gets logged.

I only noticed this behaviour because I had specified a query string on my start URL in the manifest file. Instead of a start_url value of /, I’ve set a start_url value of /?homescreen. And when the error shows up in the console, the URL being fetched is /?homescreen.

Crucially, I’m not seeing a warning in the console saying “Site cannot be installed: Page does not work offline.” So I think this is all fine. If I were actually offline, there would indeed be an error logged to the console and that start_url request would respond with my custom offline page. It’s just a bit confusing that the error is being logged when I’m online.

I thought I’d share this just in case anyone else is logging errors to the console in the catch clause of fetches and is seeing an error even when everything appears to be working fine. I think there’s nothing to worry about.

Update: Jake confirmed my diagnosis and agreed that the error is a bit confusing. The good news is that it’s changing. In Chrome Canary the error message has already been updated to:

DOMException: The service worker navigation preload request failed due to a network error. This may have been an actual network error, or caused by the browser simulating offline to see if the page works offline: see https://w3c.github.io/manifest/#installability-signals

Much better!

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

Good form

I got a text this morning at 9:40am. It was from the National Health Service, NHS. It said:

You are now eligible for your free NHS coronavirus vaccination. Please book online at https://www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination or by calling 119. You will need to provide your name, date of birth and postcode. Your phone number has been obtained from your GP records.

Well, it looks like I timed turning fifty just right!

I typed that URL in on my laptop. It redirected to a somewhat longer URL. There’s a very clear call-to-action to “Book or manage your coronavirus vaccination.” On that page there’s very clear copy about who qualifies for vaccination. I clicked on the “Book my appointments” button.

From there, it’s a sequence of short forms, clearly labelled. Semantic accessible HTML, some CSS, and nothing more. If your browser doesn’t support JavaScript (or you’ve disabled it for privacy reasons), that won’t make any difference to your experience. This is the design system in action and it’s an absolute pleasure to experience.

I consider myself relatively tech-savvy so I’m probably not the best judge of the complexity of the booking system, but it certainly seemed to be as simple as possible (but no simpler). It feels like the principle of least power in action.

SMS to HTML (with a URL as the connective tissue between the two). And if those technologies aren’t available, there’s still a telephone number, and finally, a letter by post.

This experience reminded me of where the web really excels. It felt a bit like the web-driven outdoor dining I enjoyed last summer:

Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

A native app would’ve been complete overkill. That may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often the overkill option is the default.

Give me a URL—either by SMS or QR code or written down—and make sure that when I arrive at that URL, the barrier to entry is as low as possible.

Maybe I’ll never need to visit that URL again. In the case of the NHS, I hope I won’t need to visit again. I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.

In five days time, I will get my first vaccine jab. I’m very thankful. Thank you to the NHS. Thank you to everyone who helped build the booking process. It’s beautiful.

Remote work on the Clearleft podcast

The sixth episode of season two of the Clearleft podcast is available now. The last episode of the season!

The topic is remote work. The timing is kind of perfect. It was exactly one year ago today that Clearleft went fully remote. Having a podcast episode to mark the anniversary seems fitting.

I didn’t interview anyone specifically for this episode. Instead, whenever I was chatting to someone about some other topic—design systems, prototyping, or whatever—I’d wrap up by asking them to describe their surroundings and ask them how they were adjusting to life at home. After two season’s worth of interviews, I had a decent library of responses. So this episode includes voices you last heard from back in season one: Paul, Charlotte, Amy, and Aarron.

Then the episode shifts. I’ve got excerpts from a panel discussion we held a while back on the future of work. These panel discussions used to happen up in London, but this one was, obviously, online. It’s got a terrific line-up: Jean, Holly, Emma, and Lola, all dialing in from different countries and all sharing their stories openly and honestly. (Fun fact: I first met Lola three years ago at the Pixel Up conference in South Africa and on this day in 2018 we were out on Safari together.)

I’m happy with how this episode turned out. It’s a fitting finish to the season. It’s just seventeen and a half minutes long so take a little time out of your day to have a listen.

As always, if you like what you hear, please spread the word.

Tuesday, March 16th, 2021

Done

Remember how I said I was preparing an online conference talk? Well, I’m happy to say that not only is the talk prepared, but I’ve managed to successfully record it too.

If you want to see the finished results, come along to An Event Apart Spring Summit on April 19th. To sweeten the deal, I’ve got a discount code you can use when you buy any multi-day pass: AEAJEREMY.

Recording the talk took longer than I thought it would. I think it was because I said this:

It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary.

Once I got that idea in my head, I think I became a lot fussier about the quality of the recording. “Would David Attenborough allow his documentaries to have the sound of a keyboard audibly being pressed? No! Start again!”

I’m pleased with the final results. And I’m really looking forward to the post-presentation discussion with questions from the audience. The talk gets provocative—and maye a bit ranty—towards the end so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that.

It feels good to have the presentation finished, but it also feels …weird. It’s like the feeling that conference organisers get once the conference is over. You spend all this time working towards something and then, one day, it’s in the past instead of looming in the future. It can make you feel kind of empty and listless. Maybe it’s the same for big product launches.

The two big projects I’ve been working on for the past few months were this talk and season two of the Clearleft podcast. The talk is in the can and so is the final episode of the podcast season, which drops tomorrow.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have my decks cleared. Nothing work-related to keep me up at night. But I also recognise the growing feeling of doubt and moodiness, just like the post-conference blues.

The obvious solution is to start another big project, something on the scale of making a brand new talk, or organising a conference, or recording another podcast season, or even writing a book.

The other option is to take a break for a while. Seeing as the UK government has extended its furlough scheme, maybe I should take full advantage of it. I went on furlough for a while last year and found it to be a nice change of pace.