Journal

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Sunday, May 13th, 2018

Unworn Pleasures

I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and how Peter Saville’s iconic cover design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures always reminds of her.

There are many, many memetic variations of that design.

Spaghetti, All Lined Up Quite Nicely. Furr Division. Depeche Mode, Boys Don't Cry. What is this? I’ve seen it on Tumblr.

I assumed that somebody somewhere at some time must have made a suitable tribute to the discover of those pulses, but I’ve never come across any Jocelyn-themed variation of the Joy Division album art.

So I made my own.

Jocelyn T-shirt.

The test order I did just showed up, and it’s looking pretty nice (although be warned that the sizes run small—I ordered a large, and I probably should’ve gone for extra large). If your music/radio-astronomy Venn diagram overlaps like mine, then you too might enjoy being the proud bearer of this wearable tribute to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Choosing tools for scaling design

Tools and processes are intertwined. A company or a department or an individual has a way of doing things—that’s the process. They also have software to carry out the process—those are the tools.

Ideally, they should be loosely coupled. You should be able to change your tools without necessarily changing your process. So swapping out, say, one framework or library for another shouldn’t involve fundamentally changing the way you work. Likewise, trying a new way of working shouldn’t require you to use unfamiliar tools.

When it comes to scaling design within organisations, the challenges are almost always around switching processes (well, really it’s about trying to change culture, but that starts with changing processes—any sufficiently advanced process is indistinguishable from culture). All too often, though, I see people getting hung up on the tools.

We need to get more efficient in how we deliver designs …so let’s switch over to this particular design tool.

We should have a design system …so let’s get everyone using this particular JavaScript framework.

I understand this desire to shortcut the work of figuring out processes and jump straight to production solutions. For one thing, it allows you to create an easy list of requirements when it comes to recruiting talent: “Join our company—you must demonstrate experience and proficiency in this tool or that library.”

But when tools and processes become tightly coupled like this, there’s a real danger of stagnation. If a process can be defined as “the way we do things around here”, that’s not something you want to tie to any particular tool or technology. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re in the frustrating situation of using outdated tools, but you can’t swap them out for newer or better-suited technologies without disrupting everyone’s work.

This is technical debt (although it applies just as much to design). You’re paying a penalty in the present because of a decision that somebody made in the past. The problem isn’t so much with the decision itself, but with the longevity of its effects.

I think it’s important to remember what a tool is: it’s a piece of technology that enables you to work faster or better. You should enjoy using your tools, but you shouldn’t be utterly dependent on any particular one. Otherwise, the tail starts wagging the dog—you are now in service to the tool, instead of the other way around.

Treat your tools like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to any one technology to the detriment of missing out on others.

Mind you, if you constantly tried every single new tool or technology out there, you’d never settle on anything—I’m pretty sure that three new JavaScript frameworks have been released since you started reading this paragraph.

The tools you choose at any particular time should be suited to what you’re trying to accomplish at that time. In other words, you’ve got to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first (the vision), then figure out how you’re going to accomplish it (the process), and only then figure out which tools are the best fit. If you jump straight to choosing tools, you could end up trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.

Alas, I’ve seen plenty of consultants who conflate strategy with tooling. They’re brought in to solve process problems and, surprise, surprise, the solution always seems to involve purchasing the software that their company sells. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I see an organisation struggling to systemise their design patterns, and I think “Oh, they should use Fractal!” …but that’s jumping the gun. They might be better served with something simpler, or something more complex (I mean, Fractal is very, very flexible but it’s still just one option—there are plenty of other pattern library tools out there).

Once you separate out the tools from the process, there’s an added benefit. Making the right technology choice is no longer a life-or-death decision. You can suck it and see. Try out the technology and see if it works. If it’s working, great! Carry on using it. If it’s not working, that’s okay too. Try something different.

I realise I’m oversimplifying things, but I honestly believe that the real challenge is not choosing the right tools, but figuring out the right process for your team.

Google Duplicitous

I can’t recall the last time I was so creeped out by a technology as I am by Google Duplex—the AI that can make reservations over the phone by pretending to be a human.

I’m not sure what’s disturbing me more: the technology itself, or the excited reaction of tech bros who can’t wait to try it.

Thing is …when these people talk about being excited to try it, I’m pretty sure they are only thinking of trying it as a caller, not a callee. They aren’t imagining that they could possibly be one of the people on the other end of one of those calls.

The visionaries of technology—Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R Licklider—have always recognised the potential for computers to augment humanity, to be bicycles for the mind. I think they would be horrified to see the increasing trend of using humans to augment computers.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Alternative analytics

Contrary to the current consensual hallucination, there are alternatives to Google Analytics.

I haven’t tried Open Web Analytics. It looks a bit geeky, but the nice thing about it is that you can set it up to work with JavaScript or PHP (sort of like Mint, which I miss).

Also on the geeky end, there’s GoAccess which provides an interface onto your server logs. You can view the data in a browser or on the command line. I gave this a go on adactio.com and it all worked just fine.

Matomo was previously called Piwik, and it’s the closest to Google Analytics. Chris Ruppel wrote about using it as a drop-in replacement. I gave it a go on adactio.com and it did indeed collect analytics very nicely …but then I deleted it, because it still felt creepy to have any kind of analytics script at all (neither Huffduffer or The Session have any analytics tracking either).

Fathom isn’t out yet, but it looks interesting:

It will track users on a website, the key actions they are taking, and give you a non-nerdy breakdown of their journey. It’ll do so with user-centric rights and privacy, and without selling, sharing or giving away the data you collect.

I don’t think any of these alternatives offer quite the same ease-of-use that you’d get from Google Analytics. But I also don’t think that should be your highest priority. There’s a fundamental difference between doing your own analytics (self-hosted), and outsourcing the job to Google who can then track your site’s visitors across domains.

I was hoping that GDPR would put the squeeze on third-party tracking, but it looks like Google have found a way out. By declaring themselves a data controller (but not a data processor), they pass can pass the buck to the data processors to obtain consent.

If you have Google Analytics on your site, that’s you, that is.

Process and culture

Cameron has a bone to pick. Why, oh, why, he wonders, are we so quick to create processes when what we really need is a good strong culture?

Strong culture = less process

To stop people breaking stuff: make a process for it. Want to make people act responsibly: make a process for it. Tired of telling people about something? Make a process for it.

For any single scenario you can name it’ll be easier to create a process for it than build a culture that handles it automatically. But each process is a tiny cut away from the freedom that you want your team to enjoy.

I take his point, but I also think that some processes are not only inevitable, but downright positive. There should be a process for handling payroll. There should be a process for handling promotions. Leaving that to culture might sound nice and nimble, but it could also lead to unintentional bias and unfairness.

But let’s leave those kind of operational processes aside and focus on process and culture when it comes to design and engineering. Cameron’s point is well taken here. Surely you want people to just know the way things are done? Surely you want people to just get on with doing the work without putting hurdles in their way?

On the face of it, yes. If you’re trying to scale design at your organisation, then every extra bit of process is going to slow down your progress.

But what if speed isn’t the most important metric of success when it comes to scaling design? You’ve got to make sure you’re scaling the right things.

Mark writes:

This is a post in defence of process. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: ‘urgh, process is a thing put in place to make up for mediocre teams’; or ‘prioritise discussion over documentation’; or ‘I get enough red tape in other parts of my life’.

The example he gives is undeniably a process that will slow things down …deliberately.

Whenever someone asks me to do something that I think seems ill-conceived in some way, I ask them to write it down. That’s it. Because writing is high effort. Making sentences is the easy bit, it’s the thinking I want them to do. By considering their request it slows them down. Maybe 30% of the time or something, they come back and say ‘oh, that thing I asked you to do, I’ve had a think and it’s fine, we don’t need to do it’.

I’ve seen this same tactic employed in standards bodies. Somebody bursts into a group and says “I’ve got a great idea—we should make this a thing!” The response, no matter what the idea is, is to say “Document use-cases.” It’s a stumbling block, and also a bit of a test—if they do come back with use-cases, the idea can be taken seriously; the initial enthusiasm needs to be backed up with hard graft.

(On a personal level, I sometimes use a little trick when it comes to email. If someone sends me a short email that would require a long response from me, I’ll quickly fire back a clarifying question: “Quick question: did you mean X or Y?” Now the ball is back in their court. If they respond swiftly with an answer to my question, then they’ve demonstrated their commitment and I honour their initial request.)

Anyway, it sounds like Cameron is saying that process is bad, and Mark is saying process can be good. Cody Cowan from Postlight thinks they’re both right:

To put it bluntly: people, not process, are the problem.

Even so, he acknowledges Cameron’s concern:

One of the biggest fears that people have about process is that something new is going to disrupt their work, only to be replaced by yet another rule or technique.

I think we can all agree that pointlessly cumbersome processes are bad. The disagreement is about whether all processes are inherently bad, or whether some processes are not only necessary, but sometimes even beneficial.

When Cameron talks about the importance of company culture, he knows whereof he speaks. He’s been part of Canva’s journey from a handful of people to hundreds of people. They’ve managed to scale their (excellent) culture along the way. That’s quite an achievement—scaling culture is really, really challenging. Scaling design is hard. Scaling culture is even harder.

But you know what’s even more challenging than scaling culture? Changing culture.

What if your company didn’t start with a great culture to begin with? What if you’re not Canva? What if you’re not AirBnB? What are your options then?

You can’t create a time travel machine to go back to the founding of the company and ensure a good culture from the outset.

You can’t shut down your existing company and create a new company from scratch, this time with a better culture.

You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your company culture, but it’s not going to be easy. Culture is pretty far down the stack of pace layers—it’s slow to change. But you can influence culture by changing something that’s less slow to change. I would argue the perfect medium for this is …process.

Once you know what values you’re trying to embed into your culture, create processes that amplify and reward those values. I totally understand the worry that these processes will reduce autonomy and freedom, but I think that only applies if the company already has a strong culture of autonomy and freedom. If you’re trying to create a culture of autonomy and freedom, then—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—you can start by putting processes in place.

Then, over time, those processes can seep into the day-to-day understanding of how things are done. Process dissolves into culture. It’s a long game to play, but as Cameron points out, that’s the nature of culture change:

Where culture pays off is in the long run. It’s hard work: defining the culture, hiring for the culture and communicating the culture again, and again, and again. But if you want to make a company where people are empowered, passionate, and champions of your organisation then it’s the only path forward.

Monday, May 7th, 2018

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Good griddance

I’m not great at estimation, but I still try to do it on any project I’m working, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I break down different bits of the work, and ask myself two questions:

  1. How important is this?
  2. How long will it take?

If I were smart, I’d plot the answers on a graph. I start doing the important stuff, beginning with whatever won’t take too long. Then I’ve got a choice: either do the stuff that’s not all that important, but won’t take long—or do the stuff that will take quite a while, but is quite important. Finally, there’s stuff that’s not important and will take quite a while to do. I leave that to the end. If it never ends up getting done, it’s not the end of the world.

I guess it’s not really about estimation; it’s more about prioritisation.

Anyway, I’m working on a fun little project right now—the website for one of Clearleft’s many excellent events. There was one particular part of the design that I had estimated would take quite a while to do, so I didn’t get around to it until today. It was a layout that I figured would take maybe half a day of wrangling CSS.

I used CSS grid and I was done in five minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. It was literally five minutes.

I thought to myself, “Well, I want these elements to be arranged in two rows of three columns, but I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.”

Normally my next step would be to figure out how to translate those wishes into floats and clears, or maybe flexbox. But this time, there was almost no translation. I could more or less write the CSS like I would write English.

I want these elements to be arranged in rows of three columns.

display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr fr

I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.

grid-row: 1;
grid-column: 3;

That was it. I was done.

I think I may need to recalibrate the estimation part of my brain to account for just how powerful CSS grid is.

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

Thanos

I’m going to discuss Avengers: Infinity War without spoilers, unless you count the motivations of the main villain as a spoiler, in which case you should stop reading now.

The most recent book by Charles C. Mann—author of 1491 and 1493—is called The Wizard And The Prophet. It profiles two twentieth century figures with divergent belief systems: Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. (Trust me, this will become relevant to the new Avengers film.)

I’ve long been fascinated by Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. It is quite possible that he is responsible for saving more lives than any other single human being in history (with the possible exception of Stanislav Petrov who may have saved the entire human race through inaction). In his book, Mann dubs Borlaug “The Wizard”—the epitome of a can-do attitude and a willingness to use technology to solve global problems.

William Vogt, by contrast, is “The Prophet.” His groundbreaking research crystalised many central tenets of the environmental movement, including the term he coined, carrying capacity—the upper limit to a population that an environment can sustain. Vogt’s stance is that there is no getting around the carrying capacity of our planet, so we need to make do with less: fewer people consuming fewer resources.

Those are the opposing belief systems. Prophets believe that carrying capacity is fixed and that if our species exceed this limit, we are doomed. Wizards believe that technology can treat carrying capacity as damage and route around it.

Vogt’s philosophy came to dominate the environmental movement for the latter half of the twentieth century. It’s something I’ve personally found very frustrating. Groups and organisations that I nominally agree with—the Green Party, Greenpeace, etc.—have anti-technology baggage that doesn’t do them any favours. The uninformed opposition to GM foods is a perfect example. The unrealistic lauding of country life over the species-saving power of cities is another.

And yet history so far has favoured the wizards. The Malthusian population bomb never exploded, partly thanks to Borlaug’s work, but also thanks to better education for women in the developing world, which had enormously positive repercussions.

Anyway, I find this framing of fundamental differences in attitude to be fascinating. Ultimately it’s a stand-off between optimism (the wizards) and pessimism (the prophets). John Faithful Hamer uses this same lens to contrast recent works by Steven Pinker and Yuval Noah Harari. Pinker is a wizard. Harari is a prophet.

I was not expecting to be confronted with the wizards vs. prophets debate while watching Avengers: Infinity War, but there’s no getting around it—Thanos is a prophet.

Very early on, we learn that Thanos doesn’t want to destroy all life in the universe. Instead, he wants to destroy half of all life in the universe. Why? Carrying capacity. He believes the only way to save life is to reduce its number (and therefore its footprint).

Many reviews of the film have noted how the character of Thanos is strangely sympathetic. It’s no wonder! He is effectively toeing the traditional party line of the mainstream environmental movement.

There’s even a moment in the film where Thanos explains how he came to form his opinions through a tragedy in the past that he correctly predicted. “Congratulations”, says one of his heroic foes sarcastically, “You’re a prophet.”

Earlier in the film, as some of the heroes are meeting for the first time, there are gags and jokes referring to Dr. Strange’s group as “the wizards.”

I’m sure those are just coincidences.

Service worker resources

At the end of my new book, Going Offline, I have a little collection of resources relating to service workers. Here’s how I introduce them:

If this book were a podcast, then this would be the point at which I would be imploring you to rate me on iTunes (or I’d be telling you about a really good mattress). Instead, I’d like to give you some hyperlinks so that you can explore some of the topics in this brief book in more detail.

It always feels a little strange to publish a list of hyperlinks in a physical book, so I figured I’d republish them here for easy access…

Explanations

Guides

Examples

Progressive web apps

Tools

Documentation

Wednesday, April 25th, 2018

Acknowledgements

It feels a little strange to refer to Going Offline as “my” book. I may have written most of the words in it, but it was only thanks to the work of others that they ended up being the right words in the right order in the right format.

I’ve included acknowledgements in the book, but I thought it would be good to reproduce them here in the form of hypertext…

Everyone should experience the joy of working with Katel LeDû and Lisa Maria Martin. From the first discussions right up until the final last-minute tweaks, they were unflaggingly fun to collaborate with. Thank you, Katel, for turning my idea into reality. Thank you, Lisa Maria, for turning my initial mush of words into a far more coherent mush of words.

Jake Archibald and Amber Wilson were the best of technical editors. Jake literally wrote the spec on service workers so I knew I could rely on him to let me know whenever I made any factual missteps. Meanwhile Amber kept me on the straight and narrow, letting me know whenever the writing was becoming unclear. Thank you both for being so generous with your time.

Thanks to my fellow Clearlefty Danielle Huntrods for giving me feedback as the book developed.

Finally, I want to express my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has ever taken the time to write on their website about their experiences with service workers. Lyza Gardner, Ire Aderinokun, Una Kravets, Mariko Kosaka, Jason Grigsby, Ethan Marcotte, Mike Riethmuller, and others inspired me with their generosity. Thank you to everyone who’s making the web better through such kind acts of openness. To quote the original motto of the World Wide Web project, let’s share what we know.