Journal

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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.

Thursday, March 11th, 2021

When service workers met framesets

Oh boy, do I have some obscure browser behaviour for you!

To set the scene…

I’ve been writing here in my online journal for almost twenty years. The official anniversary will be on September 30th. But this website has been even online longer than that, just in a very different form.

Here’s the first version of adactio.com.

Like a tour guide taking you around the ruins of some lost ancient civilisation, let me point out some interesting features:

  • Observe the .shtml file extension. That means it was once using Apache’s server-side includes, a simple way of repeating chunks of markup across pages. Scientists have been trying to reproduce the wisdom of the ancients using modern technology ever since.
  • See how the layout is 100vw and 100vh? Well, this was long before viewport units existed. In fact there is no CSS at all on that page. It’s one big table element with 100% width and 100% height.
  • So if there’s no CSS, where is the border-radius coming from? Let me introduce you to an old friend—the non-animated GIF. It’s got just enough transparency (though not proper alpha transparency) to fake rounded corners between two solid colours.
  • The management takes no responsibility for any trauma that might befall you if you view source. There you will uncover JavaScript from the dawn of time; ancient runic writing like if (navigator.appName == "Netscape")

Now if your constitution was able to withstand that, brace yourself for what happens when you click on either of the two links, deutsch or english.

You find yourself inside a frameset. You may also experience some disorienting “DHTML”—the marketing term given to any combination of JavaScript and positioning in the late ’90s.

Note that these are not iframes, they are frames. Different thing. You could create single page apps long before Ajax was a twinkle in Jesse James Garrett’s eye.

If you view source, you’ll see a React-like component system. Each frameset component contains frame components that are isolated from one another. They’re like web components. Each frame has its own (non-shadow) DOM. That’s because each frame is actually a separate web page. If you right-click on any of the frames, your browser should give the option to view the framed document in its own tab or window.

Now for the part where modern and ancient technologies collide…

If you’re looking at the frameset URL in Firefox or Safari, everything displays as it should in all its ancient glory. But if you’re looking in Google Chrome and you’ve visited adactio.com before, something very odd happens.

Each frame of the frameset displays my custom offline page. The only way that could be served up is through my service worker script. You can verify this by opening the framest URL in an incognito window—everything works fine when no service worker has been registered.

I have no idea why this is happening. My service worker logic is saying “if there’s a request for a web page, try fetching it from the network, otherwise look in the cache, otherwise show an offline page.” But if those page requests are initiated by a frame element, it goes straight to showing the offline page.

Is this a bug? Or perhaps this is the correct behaviour for some security reason? I have no idea.

I wonder if anyone has ever come across this before. It’s a very strange combination of factors:

  • a domain served over HTTPS,
  • that registers a service worker,
  • but also uses framesets and frames.

I could submit a bug report about this but I fear I would be laughed out of the bug tracker.

Still …the World Wide Web is remarkable for its backward compatibility. This behaviour is unusual because browser makers are at pains to support existing content and never break the web.

Technically a modern website (one that registers a service worker) shouldn’t be using deprecated technology like frames. But browsers still need to be able support those old technologies in order to render old websites.

This situation has only arisen because the same domain—adactio.com—is host to a modern website and a really old one.

Maybe Chrome is behaving strangely because I’ve built my online home on ancient burial ground.

Update: Both Remy and Jake did some debugging and found the issue…

It’s all to do with navigation preloads and the value of event.preloadResponse, which I believe is only supported in Chrome which would explain the differences between browsers.

According to this post by Jake:

event.preloadResponse is a promise that resolves with a response, if:

  • Navigation preload is enabled.
  • The request is a GET request.
  • The request is a navigation request (which browsers generate when they’re loading pages, including iframes).

Otherwise event.preloadResponse is still there, but it resolves with undefined.

Notice that iframes are mentioned, but not frames.

My code was assuming that if event.preloadRepsonse exists in my block of code for responding to page requests, then there’d be a response. But if the request was initiated from a frameset, it is a request for a page and event.preloadRepsonse does exist …but it’s undefined.

I’ve updated my code now to check this assumption (and fall back to fetch).

This may technically still be a bug though. Shouldn’t a page loaded from a frameset count as a navigation request?

Wednesday, March 10th, 2021

Diversity and inclusion on the Clearleft podcast

The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is out. It’s the penultimate episode of season two already! This episode is all about diversity and inclusion.

This might be my favourite episode so far. That might be because I’m not in it very much at all. I’ve kept my editorialising to a minimum to focus on the important voices.

Margaret Lee tells a powerful personal story from her talk at Leading Design in New York two years ago, Insights from a Reluctant Leader.

From the same event, there’s Farai Madzima talking about Cultural bias in design(ers). If you’ve seen Farai speak, then you know how engaging he is. This segment also gave me the opportunity to splice in some music. That was a fun technical challenge.

I also talked to Rifa. As well as getting her story for the podcast, it was just really great to catch up with her again. It’s been far too long.

Finally, I’ve got an interview Elaine dela Cruz from Project 23, a consultancy that’s been engaged by Clearleft:

The mission is to make workplaces fairer, happier and more productive. Through bespoke workshops, coaching and consultancy services; we support organisations to make sustainable changes that are relevant for today’s societal and business needs.

It was a real pleasure to take these four fantastic voices and put them together into one narrative thread. I have to say, I’m really pleased with the end result. I hope you’ll give it a listen. It’s 23 minutes long.

And please share this episode if you think it deserves a wider hearing.

Just one more episode to go in this season! Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss the final episode next week: Apple, Spotify, Google, or just plain ol’ RSS.

Tuesday, March 9th, 2021

March

March 2020 was the month when the coronavirus really hit the fan for much of Europe and North America.

It’s now March 2021. People are understandably thinking about this time last year. Tantek wrote about this anniversary:

We reached our disembarkation stop and stepped off. I put my mask away. We hugged and said our goodbyes. Didn’t think it would be the last time I’d ride MUNI light rail. Or hug a friend without a second thought.

I recently added an “on this day” page to my site. Now that page is starting to surface events from this time last year.

Today, for example, is the one year anniversary of the last talk I gave in a physical space. Myself and Remy travelled to Nottingham to give our talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

The next morning, before travelling back to Brighton (where we’ve been ever since), we had breakfast together in a nice café.

I wrote:

Eating toast with @Rem.

Usually when I post toast updates, it’s a deliberate attempt to be banal. It harks back to the early criticism of blogging as just being people sharing what they’re having for lunch.

But now I look back at that little update and it seems like a momentous event worth shouting from the rooftops. Breaking bread with a good friend? What I wouldn’t give to do that again!

I can’t wait until I can be together with my friends again, doing utterly ordinary things together. To “wallow in the habitual, the banal” as the poet Patrick Kavanagh put it.

I miss hanging out with Tantek. I miss hanging out with Remy. I miss hanging out.

But I’m looking forward to being in a very different situation in March 2022, when I can look back at this time as belonging to a different era.

Between now and then, there’ll be a gradual, bumpy, asynchronous reintroduction of the everyday social pleasures. I won’t take them for granted. I’ll be posting about toast and other everyday occurrences “wherever life pours ordinary plenty.”