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Design research on the Clearleft podcast

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

Episode three is all about design research. I like the narrative structure of this. It’s a bit like a whodunnit, but it’s more like a whydunnit. The “why” question is “why aren’t companies hiring more researchers?”

The scene of the crime is this year’s UX Fest, where talks by both Teresa Torres and Gregg Bernstein uncovered the shocking lack of researchers. From there, I take up the investigation with Maite Otondo and Stephanie Troeth.

I won’t spoil it but by the end there’s an answer to the mystery.

I learned a lot along the way too. I realised how many axes of research there are. There’s qualitative research (stories, emotion, and context) and then there’s quantitative research (volume and data). But there’s also evualative research (testing a hyphothesis) and generative research (exploring a problem space before creating a solution). By my count that gives four possible combos: qualitative evaluative research, quantitative evaluative research, qualitative generative research, and quantitative generative research. Phew!

Steph was a terrific guest. Only a fraction of our conversation made it into the episode, but we chatted for ages.

And Maite kind of blew my mind too, especially when she was talking about the relationship between research and design and she said:

Research is about the present and design is about the future.

🤯

I’m going to use that quote again in a future episode. In fact, this episode on design research leads directly into the next two episodes. You won’t want to miss them. So if you’re not already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should get on that, whether it’s via the RSS feed, Apple, Google, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you get your podcasts from.

Have a listen to this episode on design research and if you’re a researcher yourself, remember that unlike most companies we value research at Clearleft and that’s why we’re hiring another researcher right now. Come and work with us!

Writing the Clearleft newsletter

The Clearleft newsletter goes out every two weeks on a Thursday. You can peruse the archive to see past editions.

I think it’s a really good newsletter, but then again, I’m the one who writes it. It just kind of worked out that way. In theory, anyone at Clearleft could write an edition of the newsletter.

To make that prospect less intimidating, I put together a document for my colleagues describing how I go about creating a new edition of the newsletter. Then I thought it might be interesting for other people outside of Clearleft to get a peek at how the sausage is made.

So here’s what I wrote…

Topics

The description of the newsletter is:

A round-up of handpicked hyperlinks from Clearleft, covering design, technology, and culture.

It usually has three links (maybe four, tops) on a single topic.

The topic can be anything that’s interesting, especially if it’s related to design or technology. Every now and then the topic can be something that incorporates an item that’s specifically Clearleft-related (a case study, an event, a job opening). In general it’s not very salesy at all so people will tolerate the occasional plug.

You can use the “iiiinteresting” Slack channel to find potential topics of interest. I’ve gotten in the habit of popping potential newsletter fodder in there, and then adding related links in a thread.

Tone

Imagine you’re telling a friend about something cool you’ve just discovered. You can sound excited. Don’t worry about this looking unprofessional—it’s better to come across as enthusiastic than too robotic. You can put real feelings on display: anger, disappointment, happiness.

That said, you can also just stick to the facts and describe each link in turn, letting the content speak for itself.

If you’re expressing a feeling or an opinion, use the personal pronoun “I”. Don’t use “we” unless you’re specifically referring to Clearleft.

But most of the time, you won’t be using any pronouns at all:

So-and-so has written an article in such-and-such magazine on this-particular-topic.

You might find it useful to have connecting phrases as you move from link to link:

Speaking of some-specific-thing, this-other-person has a different viewpoint.

or

On the subject of this-particular-topic, so-and-so wrote something about this a while back.

Structure

The format of the newsletter is:

  1. An introductory sentence or short paragraph.
  2. A sentence describing the first link, ending with the title of the item in bold.
  3. A link to the item on its own separate line.
  4. An excerpt from the link, usually a sentence or two, styled as a quote.
  5. Repeat steps 2 to 4 another two times.


Take a look through the archive of previous newsletters to get a feel for it.

Subject line

Currently the newsletter is called dConstruct from Clearleft. The subject line of every edition is in the format:

dConstruct from Clearleft — Title of the edition

(Note that’s an em dash with a space on either side of it separating the name of the newsletter and the title of the edition)

I often try to come up with a pun-based title (often a punny portmanteau) but that’s not necessary. It should be nice and short though: just one or two words.

Design engineering on the Clearleft podcast

If you’re subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, then the latest episode is winging its way through the ether to your podcast software. The topic is one close to my heart: design engineering.

I wrote about this role back in February. I think my fervour comes across in that post and you can probably hear it in the podcast episode too.

As ever, I end up asking the question, “So what exactly is insert topic of the podcast episode here?”

I’ve got some smart folks answering that question. There’s an excerpt from Tobias Ahlin’s talk at this year’s UX Fest. And when I interviewed Adekunle Oduye for a previous episode on prototyping, we also discussed design engineering so I pulled out the relevant bits. But the bulk of the episode features the voice of Trys Mudford.

As you can gather from the many posts on Trys’s blog, he has a lot to say on the topic of design engineering. Luckily for me, he says it all with a clear, articulate delivery—the perfect podcast guest!

This episode finishes with a call to action (oh, the synergy!). If, after listening to 23 minutes of discussion on design engineering, you find yourself thinking “Hey, I think I might be a design engineer!”, then you should definitely head along to this job opening at Clearleft:

We’re currently looking for a design-friendly front-end developer with demonstrable skills in pattern-based prototyping and production.

Have a listen to episode two of season three of the Clearleft podcast and if you like what you hear, come and join us!

Accessibility testing

I was doing some accessibility work with a client a little while back. It was mostly giving their site the once-over, highlighting any issues that we could then discuss. It was an audit of sorts.

While I was doing this I started to realise that not all accessibility issues are created equal. I don’t just mean in their severity. I mean that some issues can—and should—be caught early on, while other issues can only be found later.

Take colour contrast. This is something that should be checked before a line of code is written. When designs are being sketched out and then refined in a graphical editor like Figma, that’s the time to check the ratio between background and foreground colours to make sure there’s enough contrast between them. You can catch this kind of thing later on, but by then it’s likely to come with a higher cost—you might have to literally go back to the drawing board. It’s better to find the issue when you’re at the drawing board the first time.

Then there’s the HTML. Most accessibility issues here can be caught before the site goes live. Usually they’re issues of ommission: form fields that don’t have an explicitly associated label element (using the for and id attributes); images that don’t have alt text; pages that don’t have sensible heading levels or landmark regions like main and nav. None of these are particularly onerous to fix and they come with the biggest bang for your buck. If you’ve got sensible forms, sensible headings, alt text on images, and a solid document structure, you’ve already covered the vast majority of accessibility issues with very little overhead. Some of these checks can also be automated: alt text for images; labels for inputs.

Then there’s interactive stuff. If you only use native HTML elements you’re probably in the clear, but chances are you’ve got some bespoke interactivity on your site: a carousel; a mega dropdown for navigation; a tabbed interface. HTML doesn’t give you any of those out of the box so you’d need to make your own using a combination of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and ARIA. There’s plenty of testing you can do before launching—I always ask myself “What would Heydon do?”—but these components really benefit from being tested by real screen reader users.

So if you commission an accessibility audit, you should hope to get feedback that’s mostly in that third category—interactive widgets.

If you get feedback on document structure and other semantic issues with the HTML, you should fix those issues, sure, but you should also see what you can do to stop those issues going live again in the future. Perhaps you can add some steps in the build process. Or maybe it’s more about making sure the devs are aware of these low-hanging fruit. Or perhaps there’s a framework or content management system that’s stopping you from improving your HTML. Then you need to execute a plan for ditching that software.

If you get feedback about colour contrast issues, just fixing the immediate problem isn’t going to address the underlying issue. There’s a process problem, or perhaps a communication issue. In that case, don’t look for a technical solution. A design system, for example, will not magically fix a workflow issue or route around the problem of designers and developers not talking to each other.

When you commission an accessibility audit, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it. Don’t squander it on issues that you can catch and fix yourself. Make sure that the bulk of the audit is being spent on the specific issues that are unique to your site.

Stakeholders of styling

When I wrote about the new accent-color property in CSS, I pondered how much control a web developer should have over styling form controls:

Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately, I came down on the side of granting authors more control:

If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

This question of “who gets to decide?” used to be much more prevelant in the early days of the web. One way to think about this is that there are three stakeholders involved in the presentation of a web page:

  1. The author of the page. “Author” is spec-speak for designer or developer.
  2. The user.
  3. The browser, or user agent. A piece of software tries to balance the needs of both author and user. But, as the name implies, the user takes precedence.

These days we tend to think of web design a single-stakeholder undertaking. The author decides how something should be presented and then executes that decision using CSS.

But as Eric once said, every line of you CSS you write is a suggestion to the browser. That’s not how we think about CSS though. We think of CSS like a series of instructions rather than suggestions. Never mind respecting the user’s preferences; one of the first things we do is reset all the user agent’s styles.

In the early days of the web, more consideration was given to the idea of style suggestions rather than instructions. Heck, users could always over-ride any of your suggestions with their own user stylesheet. These days, users would need to install a browser extension to do the same thing.

The first proposal for CSS had a concept called “influence”:

h2.font.size = 20pt 40%

Here, the requested influence is reduced to 40%. If a style sheet later in the cascade also requests influence over h2.font.size, up to 60% can be granted. When the document is rendered, a weighted average of the two requests is calculated, and the final font size is determined.

I think the only remnant of “influence” left in CSS is accidental. It’s in the specificity of selectors …and the !important declaration.

I think it’s a shame that user stylesheets are no longer a thing. But I get why they were dropped from browsers. They date from a time when it was mostly nerds using the web, before “regular folks” came on board. I understand why it became a little-used feature, suitable for being dropped. But the principle of it still rankles slightly.

But in recent years there has been a slight return to the multi-stakeholder concept of styling websites. Thanks to prefers-reduced-motion and prefers-color-scheme, a responsible author can choose to bow to the wishes of the user.

I was reminded of this when I added a dark mode to my website:

Y’know, when I first heard about Apple adding dark mode to their OS—and also to CSS—I thought, “Oh, great, Apple are making shit up again!” But then I realised that, like user style sheets, this is one more reminder to designers and developers that they don’t get the last word—users do.

Accent all areas

Whenever a new version of Chrome comes out, there’s an accompanying blog post listing what’s new. Chrome 93 just came out and, sure enough, Pete has written a blog post about it.

But what I think is the most exciting addition to the browser isn’t listed.

What is this feature that’s got me so excited?

Okay, I’ve probably oversold it now because actually, it looks like a rather small trivial addition. It’s the accent-color property in CSS.

Up until now, accent colour was controlled by the operating system. If you’re on a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “General”. There you’ll see an option to change your accent colour. Try picking a different colour. You’ll see that change cascade down into the other form fields in that preference pane: checkboxes, radio buttons, and dropdowns.

Your choice will also cascade down into web pages. Any web page that uses native checkboxes, radio buttons and other interface elements will inherit that colour.

This is how interface elements are supposed to work. The browser inherits the look’n’feel of the inputs from the operating system.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice, form elements—such as dropdowns—can look different from browser to browser, something that shouldn’t be happening if the browsers are all inheriting from the operating system.

Anyway, it’s probably this supposed separation of responsibility between browser and operating system which has led to the current situation with form fields and CSS. Authors can style form fields up to a point, but there’s always a line that you don’t get to cross.

The accent colour of a selected radio button or a checkbox has historically been on the other side of that line. You either had to accept that you couldn’t change the colour, or you had to make your own checkbox or radio button interface. You could use CSS to hide the native element and replace it with an image instead.

That feels a bit over-engineered and frankly kind of hacky. It reminds me of the bad old days of image replacement for text before we had web fonts.

Now, with the accent-color property in CSS, authors can over-ride the choice that the user has set at the operating system level.

On the one hand, this doesn’t feel great to me. Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately I think it’s a good thing that authors can now specify an accent colour. What makes me think that is the behaviour that authors have shown if they don’t have this ability—they do it anyway, and in a hackier manner. This is why I think the work of the Open UI group is so important. If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

The purpose of Open UI to the web platform is to allow web developers to style and extend built-in web UI controls, such as select dropdowns, checkboxes, radio buttons, and date/color pickers.

Trying to stop developers from styling checkboxes and radio buttons is like trying to stop teenagers from having sex. You might as well accept that it’s going to happen and give them contraception so they can at least do it safely.

So I welcome this new CSS condom.

You can see accent-color in action in this demo. Change the value of the accent-color property to see the form fields update:

:root {
  accent-color: rebeccapurple;
}

Applying it at the document level like that will make it universal, but you can also use the property on an element-by-element basis using whatever selector you want.

That demo works in Chrome and Edge 93, the current release. It also works in Firefox 92, which literally just landed (like as I was writing this blog post, support for accent-color magically arrived!).

As for Safari, well, who knows? If Apple published a roadmap, then developers would have a clue when to expect a property like this to land. But we mere mortals cannot be trusted with such important hush-hush information.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Can I Use. And lack of support on one browser is no reason not to use accent-color anyway. It’s a progressive enhancement. Add it to your CSS today and it will work in more browsers in the future.

Coaching on the Clearleft podcast

Season three of the Clearleft podcast is here!

The first episode is a nice gentle one to ease into things. It’s about coaching …and training …and mentorship. Basically I wanted to find out what the differences are between those three things.

But I must confess, there’s a commercial reason why this episode is coming out now. There’s a somewhat salesy promotion of an upcoming coaching programme with Julia Whitney. This is definitely the most overt marketing I’ve done on the Clearleft podcast, but if you listen to the episode, I think you’ll agree that it fits well with the theme.

Fear not, future episodes will not feature this level of cross-promotion. Far from it. You can expect some very revealing podcast episodes that pull no punches in getting under the skin of design at Clearleft.

The stars of this episode are my colleagues Rebecca and Chris, who were an absolute joy to interview.

Have a listen and hear for yourself.

Season three of the Clearleft podcast

If you’re not already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, you should probably remedy that. The third season is about to drop any day now.

Once again, the season will comprise six episodes released on a weekly schedule.

That’s a cadence I more or less picked at random, but I think it’s working out well. Six episodes are enough for the podcast to sustain your interest without overstaying its welcome. And by taking nice long breaks between seasons, you’re never going to end up with that podcast problem of having a backlog of episodes that you never seem to get around to listening to.

That said, if you did fancy going through the backlog, there’s a mere twelve episodes for you to catch up on. Six from season one and six from season two. None of the episodes are overly long. Again, I don’t want this podcast to overstay its welcome. I respect your time. A typical episode is somewhere between 20 and 25 minutes of multiple viewpoints and voices.

You can subscribe to the RSS feed or use whichever service you prefer to get your podcasts from: Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, Pocket Casts, Player FM, or my own personal choice, Overcast.

Or you could just huffduff whichever episodes sound most appealing to you. But honestly, and I may be biased here, they’re all pretty darn great so I recommend subscribing.

If you subscribe now, then the episodes from season three will magically appear in your podcast software of choice. Again, I know I’m biased, but this is going to be an excellent season featuring some very smart folks sharing their stories.

Just to be clear, in case you haven’t listened to the Clearleft podcast before, this isn’t your usual podcast format. Yes, I interview people but I don’t release one interview per episode. Instead, each episode zeroes in one topic, and features different opinions from different people. It’s tight and snappy with no filler. That involves a lot of production and editing work, but I think it’s worth it for the end result.

Can you tell that I’m excited?

Airport time

I went and spoke at an actual real live conference. As expected, it felt good …and weird. All at the same time.

It felt strange to be inside a building with other humans sharing an experience. At times it felt uncomfortable. The speaker’s dinner the night before the conference was lovely …and anxiety-inducing. Not just because it was my first time socialising in ages, but also just because it was indoors. I’ve been avoid indoor dining.

But the travel to Zürich all went smoothly. The airport wasn’t too busy. And on the airplane, everyone was dutifully masked up.

There’s definitely more paperwork and logistics involved in travelling overseas now. Jessica and I had to fill in our passenger locator forms for Switzerland and the UK. We also needed to pre-book a Covid test for two days after we got back. And we had to get a Covid test while we were in Switzerland so that we could show a negative result on returning to England. It doesn’t matter if you’re double-vaccinated; these tests are mandatory, which is totally fair.

Fortunately the conference organisers took care of booking those tests, which was great. On the first day of the conference I ducked out during the first break to go to the clinic next door and have a swab shoved up my nose. Ten minutes later I was handed a test result—negative!—complete with an official-looking stamp on it.

Two days later, after the conference was over, we had time to explore Zürich before heading to the airport to catch our evening flight. We had a very relaxing day which included a lovely boat trip out on the lake.

It was when we got to the airport that the relaxation ended.

We showed up at the airport in loads of time. I subscribe to the Craig Mod school of travel anyway, but given The Situation, I wanted to make sure we accounted for any extra time needed.

We went through security just fine and waited around for our gate to come up on the screen of gates and flights. Once we had a gate, we made our way there. We had to go through passport control but that didn’t take too long.

At the gate, there was a queue so—being residents of England—we immediately got in line. The airline was checking everyone’s paperwork.

When we got to the front of the line, we showed all our documents. Passport? Check. Boarding pass? Check. Passenger locator form? Check. Negative Covid result? Che …wait a minute, said the member of staff, this is in German. According to gov.uk, the test result needs to be in English, French, or Spanish.

I looked at the result. Apart from the heading at the top, all of the actual information was international: names, dates, and the test result itself said “neg.”

Not good enough.

My heart sank. “Call or email the clinic where you got the result. Get them to send you an English or French version” said the airline representative. Okay. We went off to the side and started doing that.

At this point there was still a good 40 or 50 minutes ’till the flight took off. We could sort this out.

I phoned the clinic. It was late Saturday afternoon and the clinic was closed. Shit!

Jessica and I went back to the gate agent we were dealing with and began pleading our case (in German …maybe that would help). She was very sympathetic but her hands were tied. Then she proposed a long shot. There was a Covid-testing centre in the airport. She would call them and tell them we were coming. But at this point it was 35 minutes until the flight left. We’d really have to leg it.

She scribbled down vague directions for where we had to go, and we immediately pelted off.

At this point I feel I should confess. I did not exhibit grace under pressure. I was, to put it mildy, freaking out.

Perhaps because I was the one selfishly indulging in panic, Jessica kept her head. She reminded me that we weren’t travelling to a conference—there wasn’t anywhere we had to be. Worst case scenario, we’d have to spend an extra night in Zürich and get a different flight tomorrow. She was right. I needed to hear that.

I was still freaking out though. We were running around like headless chickens trying to find where we needed to go. The instructions had left out the crucial bit of information that we actually needed to exit through passport control (temporarily re-entering Swiss territory) in order to get to the testing centre. Until we figured that out, we were just running hither and tither in a panic while the clock continued to count down.

It was a nightmare. I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean, I’m pretty sure I’ve had this exact nightmare. I’m in a building with a layout I don’t know and I need to get somewhere urgently but I don’t know how to get there.

Even the reason for this panicked situation felt like it had a dream logic to it. You know when you wake up from a bad dream and you examine the dream in retrospect and you realise it doesn’t actually make any sense? Well, that’s how this felt. You’ve got a negative test result but it needs it to be in one of these three languages …I mean, that sounds like the kind of nonsensical reasoning that should dissolve upon awakening.

Time was slipping away. Our flight leaves in twenty minutes.

Finally we realise that we need to go back through passport control. On the other side we run around some more until we spot the location that matches the vague description we’ve been given. There’s a sign! Covid testing centre!

We burst in through the doors. The gate agent had called ahead so we were expected. The young doctor on duty was cool as a cucumber. He must have to deal with this situation all day long. He calmly got us both to start filling in the appropriate online forms to pay for the tests, but instead of waiting for us to finish doing that, he started the testing straight away. Smart!

This felt like another nightmare I’ve had. I don’t mean having a swab shoved up my nose until it tickles my brain—that was probably the least uncomfortable part of this whole ordeal. I mean I need to fill out this web form accurately. On a touch screen device. And do it as quickly as possible!

Well, we did it. Filled in the forms, got the swabs. But now it was less than fifteen minutes until our flight time and we knew we still had to get back through passport control where there were lines of people.

“You’ll have the test results by email in ten minutes,” said the doctor. “Go!”

We sprinted out of there and went straight for the passport lines. Swallowing my pride, I went to the people at the end of a line. “Our flight leaves in ten minutes! Can we please cut in front!?”

“No.”

Right, next line. “Our flight leaves in…”

“Yes, yes! Go!”

“Thank you! Thank you so much!”

We repeated this craven begging until we got to the front of the line and gave our passports to the same guy who had orginally stamped them first time we came through. He was unfazed.

Then we ran back to the gate. Almost everyone had boarded by this point, but the gate was still open. Maybe we could actually make it!

But we still needed our test results. We both stood at the gate with our phones in hand, the email app open, frantically pulling to refresh.

The minutes were ticking by. At this point the flight departure time had arrived, but the gate agent said there was a slight delay. They could wait one or two minutes more.

Pull, refresh. Pull, refresh.

“I’ve got mine!” shouted Jessica. Half a minute later, mine showed up.

We showed the gate agent the results. She stamped whatever needed to be stamped and we were through.

I couldn’t believe it! Just 15 minutes ago I had been thinking we might as well give up—there was absolutely no way we were going to make it.

But here we were boarding the plane.

We got to our seats and strapped in. We were both quite sweaty and probably looked infectious …but we also had fresh proof that neither of had the ’rona.

We just sat there smiling, looking at each other, and shaking our heads. I just couldn’t believe we had actually made it.

The captain made an announcement. They were having a little technical difficulty with the plane’s system—no doubt the cause of the slight delay, luckily for us. They were going to reboot the system in the time-honoured fashion of turning it off and again.

The lights briefly went out and then came back on as the captain executed this manouvre.

Meanwhile Jessica and I were coming down from our adrenaline rush. Our breathing was beginning to finally slow down.

The captain’s voice came on again. That attempt at fixing the glitch hadn’t worked. So to play it safe, we were going to switch planes. The new plane would take off in an hour and a half from a different gate.

As the other passengers tutted and muttered noises of disapproval, Jessica and I just laughed. A delay? No problem!

But oh, the Alanis Morissette levels of irony! After all that stress at the mercy of the ticking clock, it turned out that time was in plentiful supply after all.

Everything after that proceeded without incident. We got on the replacement plane. We flew back to England. We breezed across the border and made our way home.

It felt good to be home.

SafarIE

I was moaning about Safari recently. Specifically I was moaning about the ridiculous way that browser updates are tied to operating system updates.

But I felt bad bashing Safari. It felt like a pile-on. That’s because a lot of people have been venting their frustrations with Safari recently:

I think it’s good that people share their frustrations with browsers openly, although I agree with Baldur Bjarnason that’s good to avoid Kremlinology and the motivational fallacy when blogging about Apple.

It’s also not helpful to make claims like “Safari is the new Internet Explorer!” Unless, that is, you can back up the claim.

On a recent episode of the HTTP 203 podcast, Jake and Surma set out to test the claim that Safari is the new IE. They did it by examining Safari according to a number of different measurements and comparing it to the olden days of Internet Explorer. The result is a really fascinating trip down memory lane along with a very nuanced and even-handed critique of Safari.

And the verdict? Well, you’ll just to have to listen to the podcast episode.

If you’d rather read the transcript, tough luck. That’s a real shame because, like I said, it’s an excellent and measured assessment. I’d love to add it to the links section of my site, but I can’t do that in good conscience while it’s inaccessible to the Deaf community.

When I started the Clearleft podcast, it was a no-brainer to have transcripts of every episode. Not only does it make the content more widely available, but it also makes it easier for people to copy and paste choice quotes.

Still, I get it. A small plucky little operation like Google isn’t going to have the deep pockets of a massive corporation like Clearleft. But if Jake and Surma were to open up a tip jar, I’d throw some money in to get HTTP 203 transcribed (I recommend getting Tina Pham to do it—she’s great!).

I apologise for my note of sarcasm there. But I share because I care. It really is an excellent discussion; one that everyone should be able to access.

Update: the bug with that episode of the HTTP 203 podcast has been fixed. Here’s the transcript! And all future episodes will have transcripts too:

Upgrade paths

After I jotted down some quick thoughts last week on the disastrous way that Google Chrome rolled out a breaking change, others have posted more measured and incisive takes:

In fairness to Google, the Chrome team is receiving the brunt of the criticism because they were the first movers. Mozilla and Apple are on baord with making the same breaking change, but Google is taking the lead on this.

As I said in my piece, my issue was less to do with whether confirm(), prompt(), and alert() should be deprecated but more to do with how it was done, and the woeful lack of communication.

Thinking about it some more, I realised that what bothered me was the lack of an upgrade path. Considering that dialog is nowhere near ready for use, it seems awfully cart-before-horse-putting to first remove a feature and then figure out a replacement.

I was chatting to Amber recently and realised that there was a very different example of a feature being deprecated in web browsers…

We were talking about the KeyboardEvent.keycode property. Did you get the memo that it’s deprecated?

But fear not! You can use the KeyboardEvent.code property instead. It’s much nicer to use too. You don’t need to look up a table of numbers to figure out how to refer to a specific key on the keyboard—you use its actual value instead.

So the way that change was communicated was:

Hey, you really shouldn’t use the keycode property. Here’s a better alternative.

But with the more recently change, the communication was more like:

Hey, you really shouldn’t use confirm(), prompt(), or alert(). So go fuck yourself.

Browsers

I mentioned recently that there might be quite a difference in tone between my links and my journal here on my website:

’Sfunny, when I look back at older journal entries they’re often written out of frustration, usually when something in the dev world is bugging me. But when I look back at all the links I’ve bookmarked the vibe is much more enthusiastic, like I’m excitedly pointing at something and saying “Check this out!” I feel like sentiment analyses of those two sections of my site would yield two different results.

My journal entries have been even more specifically negative of late. I’ve been bitchin’ and moanin’ about web browsers. But at least I’m an equal-opportunities bitcher and moaner.

I wish my journal weren’t so negative, but my mithering behaviour has been been encouraged. On more than one occasion, someone I know at a browser company has taken me aside to let me know that I should blog about any complaints I might have with their browser. It sounds counterintuitive, I know. But these blog posts can give engineers some ammunition to get those issues prioritised and fixed.

So my message to you is this: if there’s something about a web browser that you’re not happy with (or, indeed, if there’s something you’re really happy with), take the time to write it down and publish it.

Publish it on your website. You could post your gripes on Twitter but whinging on Jack’s website is just pissing in the wind. And I suspect you also might put a bit more thought into a blog post on your own site.

I know it’s a cliché to say that browser makers want to hear from developers—and I’m often cynical about it myself—but they really do want to know what we think. Share your thoughts. I’ll probably end up linking to what you write.

Foundations

There was quite a kerfuffle recently about a feature being removed from Google Chrome. To be honest, the details don’t really matter for the point I want to make, but for the record, this was about removing alert and confirm dialogs from cross-origin iframes (and eventually everywhere else too).

It’s always tricky to remove a long-established feature from web browsers, but in this case there were significant security and performance reasons. The problem was how the change was communicated. It kind of wasn’t. So the first that people found out about it about was when things suddenly stopped working (like CodePen embeds).

The Chrome team responded quickly and the change has now been pushed back to next year. Hopefully there will be significant communication before that to let site owners know about the upcoming breakage.

So all’s well that ends well and we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about the importance of communication.

Or have we?

While this was going on, Emily Stark tweeted a more general point about breakage on the web:

Breaking changes happen often on the web, and as a developer it’s good practice to test against early release channels of major browsers to learn about any compatibility issues upfront.

Yikes! To me, this appears wrong on almost every level.

First of all, breaking changes don’t happen often on the web. They are—and should be—rare. If that were to change, the web would suffer massively in terms of predictability.

Secondly, the onus is not on web developers to keep track of older features in danger of being deprecated. That’s on the browser makers. I sincerely hope we’re not expected to consult a site called canistilluse.com.

I wasn’t the only one surprised by this message.

Simon says:

No, no, no, no! One of the best things about developing for the web is that, as a rule, browsers don’t break old code. Expecting every website and application to have an active team of developers maintaining it at all times is not how the web should work!

Edward Faulkner:

Most organizations and individuals do not have the resources to properly test and debug their website against Chrome canary every six weeks. Anybody who published a spec-compliant website should be able to trust that it will keep working.

Evan You:

This statement seriously undermines my trust in Google as steward for the web platform. When did we go from “never break the web” to “yes we will break the web often and you should be prepared for it”?!

It’s worth pointing out that the original tweet was not an official Google announcement. As Emily says right there on her Twitter account:

Opinions are my own.

Still, I was shaken to see such a cavalier attitude towards breaking changes on the World Wide Web. I know that removing dangerous old features is inevitable, but it should also be exceptional. It should not be taken lightly, and it should certainly not be expected to be an everyday part of web development.

It’s almost miraculous that I can visit the first web page ever published in a modern web browser and it still works. Let’s not become desensitised to how magical that is. I know it’s hard work to push the web forward, constantly add new features, while also maintaining backward compatibility, but it sure is worth it! We have collectively banked three decades worth of trust in the web as a stable place to build a home. Let’s not blow it.

If you published a website ten or twenty years ago, and you didn’t use any proprietary technology but only stuck to web standards, you should rightly expect that site to still work today …and still work ten and twenty years from now.

There was something else that bothered me about that tweet and it’s not something that I saw mentioned in the responses. There was an unspoken assumption that the web is built by professional web developers. That gave me a cold chill.

The web has made great strides in providing more and more powerful features that can be wielded in learnable, declarative, forgiving languages like HTML and CSS. With a bit of learning, anyone can make web pages complete with form validation, lazily-loaded responsive images, and beautiful grids that kick in on larger screens. The barrier to entry for all of those features has lowered over time—they used to require JavaScript or complex hacks. And with free(!) services like Netlify, you could literally drag a folder of web pages from your computer into a browser window and boom!, you’ve published to the entire world.

But the common narrative in the web development community—and amongst browser makers too apparently—is that web development has become more complex; so complex, in fact, that only an elite priesthood are capable of making websites today.

Absolute bollocks.

You can choose to make it really complicated. Convince yourself that “the modern web” is inherently complex and convoluted. But then look at what makes it complex and convoluted: toolchains, build tools, pipelines, frameworks, libraries, and abstractions. Please try to remember that none of those things are required to make a website.

This is for everyone. Not just for everyone to consume, but for everyone to make.

Updating Safari

Safari has been subjected to a lot of ire recently. Most of that ire has been aimed at the proposed changes to the navigation bar in Safari on iOS—moving it from a fixed top position to a floaty bottom position right over the content you’re trying to interact with.

Courage.

It remains to be seen whether this change will actually ship. That’s why it’s in beta—to gather all the web’s hot takes first.

But while this very visible change is dominating the discussion, invisible changes can be even more important. Or in the case of Safari, the lack of changes.

Compared to other browsers, Safari lags far behind when it comes to shipping features. I’m not necessarily talking about cutting-edge features either. These are often standards that have been out for years. This creates a gap—albeit an invisible one—between Safari and other browsers.

Jorge Arango has noticed this gap:

I use Safari as my primary browser on all my devices. I like how Safari integrates with the rest of the OS, its speed, and privacy features. But, alas, I increasingly have issues rendering websites and applications on Safari.

That’s the perspective of an end-user. Developers who have to deal with the gap in features are more, um, strident in their opinions. Perry Sun wrote For developers, Apple’s Safari is crap and outdated:

Don’t get me wrong, Safari is very good web browser, delivering fast performance and solid privacy features.

But at the same time, the lack of support for key web technologies and APIs has been both perplexing and annoying at the same time.

Alas, that post also indulges in speculation about Apple’s motives which always feels a bit too much like a conspiracy theory to me. Baldur Bjarnason has more to say on that topic in his post Kremlinology and the motivational fallacy when blogging about Apple. He also points to a good example of critiquing Safari without speculating about motives: Dave’s post One-offs and low-expectations with Safari, which documents all the annoying paper cuts inflicted by Safari’s “quirks.”

Another deep dive that avoids speculating about motives comes from Tim Perry: Safari isn’t protecting the web, it’s killing it. I don’t agree with everything in it. I think that Apple—and Mozilla’s—objections to some device APIs are informed by a real concern about privacy and security. But I agree with his point that it’s not enough to just object; you’ve got to offer an alternative vision too.

That same post has a litany of uncontroversial features that shipped in Safari looong after they shipped in other browsers:

Again: these are not contentious features shipping by only Chrome, they’re features with wide support and no clear objections, but Safari is still not shipping them until years later. They’re also not shiny irrelevant features that “bloat the web” in any sense: each example I’ve included above primarily improving core webpage UX and performance. Safari is slowing that down progress here.

But perhaps most damning of all is how Safari deals with bugs.

A recent release of Safari shipped with a really bad Local Storage bug. The bug was fixed within a day. Yay! But the fix won’t ship until …who knows?

This is because browser updates are tied to operating system updates. Yes, this is just like the 90s when Microsoft claimed that Internet Explorer was intrinsically linked to Windows (a tactic that didn’t work out too well for them in the subsequent court case).

I don’t get it. I’m pretty sure that other Apple products ship updates and fixes independentally of OS releases. I’m sure I’ve received software updates for Keynote, Garage Band, and other pieces of software made by Apple.

And yet, of all the applications that need a speedy update cycle—a user agent for the World Wide Web—Apple’s version is needlessly delayed by the release cycle of the entire operating system.

I don’t want to speculate on why this might be. I don’t know the technical details. But I suspect that the root cause might not be technical in nature. Apple have always tied their browser updates to OS releases. If Google’s cardinal sin is avoiding anything “Not Invented Here”, Apple’s downfall is “We’ve always done it this way.”

Evergreen browsers update in the background, usually at regular intervals. Firefox is an evergreen browser. Chrome is an evergreen browser. Edge is an evergreen browser.

Safari is not an evergreen browser.

That’s frustrating when it comes to new features. It’s unforgivable when it comes to bugs.

At least on Apple’s desktop computers, users have the choice to switch to a different browser. But on Apple’s mobile devices, users have no choice but to use Safari’s rendering engine, bugs and all.

As I wrote when I had to deal with one of Safari’s bugs:

I wish that Apple would allow other rendering engines to be installed on iOS devices. But if that’s a hell-freezing-over prospect, I wish that Safari updates weren’t tied to operating system updates.

A Few Notes on A Few Notes on The Culture

When I post a link, I do it for two reasons.

First of all, it’s me pointing at something and saying “Check this out!”

Secondly, it’s a way for me to stash something away that I might want to return to. I tag all my links so when I need to find one again, I just need to think “Now what would past me have tagged it with?” Then I type the appropriate URL: adactio.com/links/tags/whatever

There are some links that I return to again and again.

Back in 2008, I linked to a document called A Few Notes on The Culture. It’s a copy of a post by Iain M Banks to a newsgroup back in 1994.

Alas, that link is dead. Linkrot, innit?

But in 2013 I linked to the same document on a different domain. That link still works even though I believe it was first published around twenty(!) years ago (view source for some pre-CSS markup nostalgia).

Anyway, A Few Notes On The Culture is a fascinating look at the world-building of Iain M Banks’s Culture novels. He talks about the in-world engineering, education, biology, and belief system of his imagined utopia. The part that sticks in my mind is when he talks about economics:

Let me state here a personal conviction that appears, right now, to be profoundly unfashionable; which is that a planned economy can be more productive - and more morally desirable - than one left to market forces.

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what-works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources. The market, for all its (profoundly inelegant) complexities, remains a crude and essentially blind system, and is — without the sort of drastic amendments liable to cripple the economic efficacy which is its greatest claimed asset — intrinsically incapable of distinguishing between simple non-use of matter resulting from processal superfluity and the acute, prolonged and wide-spread suffering of conscious beings.

It is, arguably, in the elevation of this profoundly mechanistic (and in that sense perversely innocent) system to a position above all other moral, philosophical and political values and considerations that humankind displays most convincingly both its present intellectual immaturity and — through grossly pursued selfishness rather than the applied hatred of others — a kind of synthetic evil.

Those three paragraphs might be the most succinct critique of unfettered capitalism I’ve come across. The invisible hand as a paperclip maximiser.

Like I said, it’s a fascinating document. In fact I realised that I should probably store a copy of it for myself.

I have a section of my site called “extras” where I dump miscellaneous stuff. Most of it is unlinked. It’s mostly for my own benefit. That’s where I’ve put my copy of A Few Notes On The Culture.

Here’s a funny thing …for all the times that I’ve revisited the link, I never knew anything about the site is was hosted on—vavatch.co.uk—so this most recent time, I did a bit of clicking around. Clearly it’s the personal website of a sci-fi-loving college student from the early 2000s. But what came as a revelation to me was that the site belonged to …Adrian Hon!

I’m impressed that he kept his old website up even after moving over to the domain mssv.net, founding Six To Start, and writing A History Of The Future In 100 Objects. That’s a great snackable book, by the way. Well worth a read.

Reader

I’ve written before about how I don’t have notifications on my phone or computer. But that doesn’t stop computer programmes waving at me, trying to attract my attention.

If I have my email client open on my computer there’s a red circle with a number in it telling me how many unread emails I have. It’s the same with Slack. If Slack is running and somebody writes something to me, or @here, or @everyone, then a red circle blinks into existence.

There’s a category of programmes like this that want my attention—email, Slack, calendars. In each case, emptiness is the desired end goal. Seeing an inbox too full of emails or a calendar too full of appointments makes me feel queasy. In theory these programmes are acting on my behalf, working for me, making my life easier. And in many ways they do. They help me keep things organised. But they also need to me to take steps: read that email, go to that appointment, catch up with that Slack message. Sometimes it can feel like the tail is wagging the dog and I’m the one doing the bidding of these pieces of software.

My RSS reader should, in theory, fall into the same category. It shows me the number of unread items, just like email or Slack. But for some reason, it feels different. When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

I’ve managed to wire my neurological pathways to put RSS in the books category instead of the productivity category. I’m very glad about that. I would hate if catching up on RSS feeds felt like catching up on email. Maybe that’s why I’m never entirely comfortable with newsletters—if there’s an option to subscribe by RSS instead of email, I’ll always take it.

I have two folders in my RSS reader: blogs and magazines. Reading blog posts feels like catching up with what my friends are up to (even if I don’t actually know the person). Reading magazine articles feels like spending a lazy Sunday catching up with some long-form journalism.

I should update this list of my subscriptions. It’s a bit out of date.

Matt made a nice website explaining RSS. And Nicky Case recently wrote about reviving RSS.

Oh, and if you want to have my words in your RSS reader, I have plenty of options for you.

Hope

My last long-distance trip before we were all grounded by The Situation was to San Francisco at the end of 2019. I attended Indie Web Camp while I was there, which gave me the opportunity to add a little something to my website: an “on this day” page.

I’m glad I did. While it’s probably of little interest to anyone else, I enjoy scrolling back to see how the same date unfolded over the years.

’Sfunny, when I look back at older journal entries they’re often written out of frustration, usually when something in the dev world is bugging me. But when I look back at all the links I’ve bookmarked the vibe is much more enthusiastic, like I’m excitedly pointing at something and saying “Check this out!” I feel like sentiment analyses of those two sections of my site would yield two different results.

But when I scroll down through my “on this day” page, it also feels like descending deeper into the dark waters of linkrot. For each year back in time, the probability of a link still working decreases until there’s nothing but decay.

Sadly this is nothing new. I’ve been lamenting the state of digital preservation for years now. More recently Jonathan Zittrain penned an article in The Atlantic on the topic:

Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.

In one sense, linkrot is the price we pay for the web’s particular system of hypertext. We don’t have two-way linking, which means there’s no centralised repository of links which would be prohibitively complex to maintain. So when you want to link to something on the web, you just do it. An a element with an href attribute. That’s it. You don’t need to check with the owner of the resource you’re linking to. You don’t need to check with anyone. You have complete freedom to link to any URL you want to.

But it’s that same simple system that makes the act of linking a gamble. If the URL you’ve linked to goes away, you’ll have no way of knowing.

As I scroll down my “on this day” page, I come across more and more dead links that have been snapped off from the fabric of the web.

If I stop and think about it, it can get quite dispiriting. Why bother making hyperlinks at all? It’s only a matter of time until those links break.

And yet I still keep linking. I still keep pointing to things and saying “Check this out!” even though I know that over a long enough timescale, there’s little chance that the link will hold.

In a sense, every hyperlink on the World Wide Web is little act of hope. Even though I know that when I link to something, it probably won’t last, I still harbour that hope.

If hyperlinks are built on hope, and the web is made of hyperlinks, then in a way, the World Wide Web is quite literally made out of hope.

I like that.

Solarpunk

My talk on sci-fi and me for Beyond Tellerrand’s Stay Curious event was deliberately designed to be broad and expansive. This was in contrast to Steph’s talk which was deliberately narrow and focused on one topic. Specifically, it was all about solarpunk.

I first heard of solarpunk from Justin Pickard back in 2014 at an event I was hosting. He described it as:

individuals and communities harnessing the power of the photovoltaic solar panel to achieve energy-independence.

The sci-fi subgenre of solarpunk, then, is about these communities. The subgenre sets up to be deliberately positive, even utopian, in contrast to most sci-fi.

Most genres ending with the -punk suffix are about aesthetics. You know the way that cyberpunk is laptops, leather and sunglasses, and steampunk is zeppelins and top hats with goggles. Solarpunk is supposedly free of any such “look.” That said, all the examples I’ve seen seem to converge on the motto of “put a tree on it.” If a depiction of the future looks lush, verdant, fecund and green, chances are it’s solarpunk.

At least, it might be solarpunk. It would have to pass the criteria laid down by the gatekeepers. Solarpunk is manifesto-driven sci-fi. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It’s one thing to apply a category to a piece of writing after it’s been written, but it’s another to start with an agenda-driven category and proceed from there. And as with any kind of classification system, the edges are bound to be fuzzy, leading to endless debates about what’s in and what’s out (see also: UX, UI, service design, content design, product design, front-end development, and most ironically of all, information architecture).

When I met up with Steph to discuss our talk topics and she described the various schools of thought that reside under the umbrella of solarpunk, it reminded me of my college days. You wouldn’t have just one Marxist student group, there’d be multiple Marxist student groups each with their own pillars of identity (Leninist, Trotskyist, anarcho-syndicalist, and so on). From the outside they all looked the same, but woe betide you if you mixed them up. It was exactly the kind of situation that was lampooned in Monty Python’s Life of Brian with its People’s Front of Judea and Judean People’s Front. Steph confirmed that those kind of rifts also exist in solarpunk. It’s just like that bit in Gulliver’s Travels where nations go to war over the correct way to crack an egg.

But there’s general agreement about what broadly constitutes solarpunk. It’s a form of cli-fi (climate fiction) but with an upbeat spin: positive but plausible stories of the future that might feature communities, rewilding, gardening, farming, energy independence, or decentralisation. Centralised authority—in the form of governments and corporations—is not to be trusted.

That’s all well and good but it reminds of another community. Libertarian preppers. Heck, even some of the solarpunk examples feature seasteading (but with more trees).

Politically, preppers and solarpunks couldn’t be further apart. Practically, they seem more similar than either of them would be comfortable with.

Both communities distrust centralisation. For the libertarians, this manifests in a hatred of taxation. For solarpunks, it’s all about getting off the electricity grid. But both want to start their own separate self-sustaining communities.

Independence. Decentralisation. Self-sufficiency.

There’s a fine line between Atlas Shrugged and The Whole Earth Catalog.

Safari 15

If you download Safari Technology Preview you can test drive features that are on their way in Safari 15. One of those features, announced at Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference, is coloured browser chrome via support for the meta value of “theme-color.” Chrome on Android has supported this for a while but I believe Safari is the first desktop browser to add support. They’ve also added support for the media attribute on that meta element to handle “prefers-color-scheme.”

This is all very welcome, although it does remind me a bit of when Internet Explorer came out with the ability to make coloured scrollbars. I mean, they’re nice features’n’all, but maybe not the most pressing? Safari is still refusing to acknowledge progressive web apps.

That’s not quite true. In her WWDC video Jen demonstrates how you can add a progressive web app like Resilient Web Design to your home screen. I’m chuffed that my little web book made an appearance, but when you see how you add a site to your home screen in iOS, it’s somewhat depressing.

The steps to add a website to your home screen are:

  1. Tap the “share” icon. It’s not labelled “share.” It’s a square with an arrow coming out of the top of it.
  2. A drawer pops up. The option to “add to home screen” is nowhere to be seen. You have to pull the drawer up further to see the hidden options.
  3. Now you must find “add to home screen” in the list
  • Copy
  • Add to Reading List
  • Add Bookmark
  • Add to Favourites
  • Find on Page
  • Add to Home Screen
  • Markup
  • Print

It reminds of this exchange in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy:

“You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them had you? I mean like actually telling anyone or anything.”

“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard.’”

Safari’s current “support” for adding progressive web apps to the home screen feels like the minimum possible …just enough to use it as a legal argument if you happen to be litigated against for having a monopoly on app distribution. “Hey, you can always make a web app!” It’s true in theory. In practice it’s …suboptimal, to put it mildly.

Still, those coloured tab bars are very nice.

It’s a little bit weird that this stylistic information is handled by HTML rather than CSS. It’s similar to the meta viewport value in that sense. I always that the plan was to migrate that to CSS at some point, but here we are a decade later and it’s still very much part of our boilerplate markup.

Some people have remarked that the coloured browser chrome can make the URL bar look like part of the site so people might expect it to operate like a site-specific search.

I also wonder if it might blur “the line of death”; that point in the UI where the browser chrome ends and the website begins. Does the unified colour make it easier to spoof browser UI?

Probably not. You can already kind of spoof browser UI by using the right shade of grey. Although the removal any kind of actual line in Safari does give me pause for thought.

I tend not to think of security implications like this by default. My first thought tends to be more about how I can use the feature. It’s only after a while that I think about how bad actors might abuse the same feature. I should probably try to narrow the gap between those thoughts.

An email to The Guardian

Hello,

My name is Jeremy and I’ve been a paid subscriber to The Guardian for a few years now. But I’m considering cancelling my account after reading this editorial.

On the face of it, the headline of the article sound reasonable and hard to disagree with. But the substance of the article downplays anti-trans views as simply being “gender critical.” This is akin to describing segregationist views as “integration critical.”

This line is particularly egregious:

As a society, we need to resolve the question of how to protect the privacy, dignity and rights of trans women while also respecting the privacy, dignity and rights of those born female.

Setting up these positions as though one in any way invalidates the other gives oxygen to those who wish to paint someone’s identity as a threat. I’m very disappointed to see this viewpoint expressed in an editorial on The Guardian website.

Yours,

Jeremy Keith