Journal tags: art

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The State of the Web — the links

An Event Apart Spring Summit is happening right now. I opened the show yesterday with a talk called The State Of The Web:

The World Wide Web has come a long way in its three decades of existence. There’s so much we can do now with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: animation, layout, powerful APIs… we can even make websites that work offline! And yet the web isn’t exactly looking rosy right now. The problems we face aren’t technical in nature. We’re facing a crisis of expectations: we’ve convinced people that the web is slow, buggy, and inaccessible. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no fate but what we make. In this perspective-setting talk, we’ll go on a journey to the past, present, and future of web design and development. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and by the end, you’ll be ready to make the web better.

I wrote about preparing this talk and you can see the outline on Kinopio. I thought it turned out well, but I never actually know until people see it. So I’m very gratified and relieved that it went down very well indeed. Phew!

Eric and the gang at An Event Apart asked for a round-up of links related to this talk and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ve separated them into some of the same categories that the talk covers.

I know that these look like a completely disconnected grab-bag of concepts—you’d have to see the talk to get the connections. But even without context, these are some rabbit holes you can dive down…

Apollo 8

Hypertext

The World Wide Web

NASA

This (somewhat epic) slidedeck is done.

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.

Preparing an online conference talk

I’m terrible at taking my own advice.

Hana wrote a terrific article called You’re on mute: the art of presenting in a Zoom era. In it, she has very kind things to say about my process for preparing conference talks.

As it happens, I’m preparing a conference talk right now for delivery online. Am I taking my advice about how to put a talk together? I am on me arse.

Perhaps the most important part of the process I shared with Hana is that you don’t get too polished too soon. Instead you get everything out of your head as quickly as possible (probably onto disposable bits of paper) and only start refining once you’re happy with the rough structure you’ve figured out by shuffling those bits around.

But the way I’ve been preparing this talk has been more like watching a progress bar. I started at the start and even went straight into slides as the medium for putting the talk together.

It was all going relatively well until I hit a wall somewhere between the 50% and 75% mark. I was blocked and I didn’t have any rough sketches to fall back on. Everything was a jumbled mess in my brain.

It all came to a head at the start of last week when that jumbled mess in my brain resulted in a very restless night spent tossing and turning while I imagined how I might complete the talk.

This is a terrible way of working and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

The problem was I couldn’t even return to the proverbial drawing board because I hadn’t given myself a drawing board to return to (other than this crazy wall of connections on Kinopio).

My sleepless night was a wake-up call (huh?). The next day I forced myself to knuckle down and pump out anything even if it was shit—I could refine it later. Well, it turns out that just pumping out any old shit was exactly what I needed to do. The act of moving those fingers up and down on the keyboard resulted in something that wasn’t completely terrible. In fact, it turned out pretty darn good.

Past me said:

The idea here is to get everything out of my head.

I should’ve listened to that guy.

At this point, I think I’ve got the talk done. The progress bar has reached 100%. I even think that it’s pretty good. A giveaway for whether a talk is any good is when I find myself thinking “Yes, this has good points well made!” and then five minutes later I’m thinking “Wait, is this complete rubbish that’s totally obvious and doesn’t make much sense?” (see, for example, every talk I’ve ever prepared ever).

Now I just to have to record it. The way that An Event Apart are running their online editions is that the talks are pre-recorded but followed with live Q&A. That’s how the Clearleft events team have been running the conference part of the Leading Design Festival too. Last week there were three days of this format and it worked out really, really well. This week there’ll be masterclasses which are delivered in a more synchronous way.

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. I guess this is what life is like for YouTubers.

I think the last time I was in a cinema before The Situation was at the wonderful Duke of York’s cinema here in Brighton for an afternoon showing of The Proposition followed by a nice informal chat with the screenwriter, one Nick Cave, local to this parish. It was really enjoyable, and that’s kind of what Leading Design Festival felt like last week.

I wonder if maybe we’ve been thinking about online events with the wrong metaphor. Perhaps they’re not like conferences that have moved online. Maybe they’re more like film festivals where everyone has the shared experience of watching a new film for the first time together, followed by questions to the makers about what they’ve just seen.

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

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

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

Here’s what I wrote:

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

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

Much like behavioural advertising.

In the zone

I went to art college in my younger days. It didn’t take. I wasn’t very good and I didn’t work hard. So I dropped out before they could kick me out.

But I remember one instance where I actually ended up putting in more work than my fellow students—an exceptional situation.

In the first year of art college, we did a foundation course. That’s when you try a bit of everything to help you figure out what you want to concentrate on: painting, sculpture, ceramics, printing, photography, and so on. It was a bit of a whirlwind, which was generally a good thing. If you realised you really didn’t like a subject, you didn’t have to stick it out for long.

One of those subjects was animation—a relatively recent addition to the roster. On the first day, the tutor gave everyone a pack of typing paper: 500 sheets of A4. We were told to use them to make a piece of animation. Put something on the first piece of paper. Take a picture. Now put something slightly different on the second piece of paper. Take a picture of that. Repeat another 498 times. At 24 frames a second, the result would be just over 20 seconds of animation. No computers, no mobile phones. Everything by hand. It was so tedious.

And I loved it. I ended up asking for more paper.

(Actually, this was another reason why I ended up dropping out. I really, really enjoyed animation but I wasn’t able to major in it—I could only take it as a minor.)

I remember getting totally absorbed in the production. It was the perfect mix of tedium and creativity. My mind was simultaneously occupied and wandering free.

Recently I’ve been re-experiencing that same feeling. This time, it’s not in the world of visuals, but of audio. I’m working on season two of the Clearleft podcast.

For both seasons and episodes, this is what the process looks like:

  1. Decide on topics. This will come from a mix of talking to Alex, discussing work with my colleagues, and gut feelings about what might be interesting.
  2. Gather material. This involves arranging interviews with people; sometimes co-workers, sometimes peers in the wider industry. I also trawl through the archives of talks from Clearleft conferences for relevent presentations.
  3. Assemble the material. This is where I’m chipping away at the marble of audio interviews to get at the nuggets within. I play around with the flow of themes, trying different juxtapositions and narrative structures.
  4. Tie everything together. I add my own voice to introduce the topic and segue from point to point.
  5. Release. I upload the audio, update the RSS feed, and publish the transcript.

Lots of podcasts (that I really enjoy) stop at step two: record a conversation and then release it verbatim. Job done.

Being a glutton for punishment, I wanted to do more of an amalgamation for each episode, weaving multiple conversations together.

Right now I’m in step three. That’s where I’ve found the same sweet spot that I had back in my art college days. It’s somewhat mindless work, snipping audio waveforms and adjusting volume levels. At the same time, there’s the creativity of putting those audio snippets into a logical order. I find myself getting into the zone, losing track of time. It’s the same kind of flow state you get from just the right level of coding or design work. Normally this kind of work lends itself to having some background music, but that’s not an option with podcast editing. I’ve got my headphones on, but my ears are busy.

I imagine that is what life is like for an audio engineer or producer.

When I first started the Clearleft podcast, I thought I would need to use GarageBand for this work, arranging multiple tracks on a timeline. Then I discovered Descript. It’s been an enormous time-saver. It’s like having GarageBand and a text editor merged into one. I can see the narrative flow as a text document, as well as looking at the accompanying waveforms.

Descript isn’t perfect. The transcription accuracy is good enough to allow me to search through my corpus of material, but it’s not accurate enough to publish as is. Still, it gives me some nice shortcuts. I can elimate ums and ahs in one stroke, or shorten any gaps that are too long.

But even with all those conveniences, this is still time-consuming work. If I spend three or four hours with my head down sculpting some audio and I get anything close to five minutes worth of usable content, I consider it time well spent.

Sometimes when I’m knee-deep in a piece of audio, trimming and arranging it just so to make a sentence flow just right, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “You know that no one is ever going to notice any of this, don’t you?” I try to ignore that voice. I mean, I know the voice is right, but I still think it’s worth doing all this fine tuning. Even if nobody else knows, I’ll have the satisfaction of transforming the raw audio into something a bit more polished.

If you aren’t already subscribed to the RSS feed of the Clearleft podcast, I recommend adding it now. New episodes will start showing up …sometime soon.

Yes, I’m being a little vague on the exact dates. That’s because I’m still in the process of putting the episodes together.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to put my headphones on and enter the zone.

Speaking online

I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.

Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.

But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).

Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.

Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.

I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.

Time to prepare a conference talk.

Performance and people

I was helping a client with a bit of a performance audit this week. I really, really enjoy this work. It’s such a nice opportunity to get my hands in the soil of a website, so to speak, and suggest changes that will have a measurable effect on the user’s experience.

Not only is web performance a user experience issue, it may well be the user experience issue. Page speed has a proven demonstrable direct effect on user experience (and revenue and customer satisfaction and whatever other metrics you’re using).

It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).

I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.

This week, for example, I uncovered three performance issues. One was definitely technical. One was definitely human. One was halfway between.

The technical issue was with web fonts. It’s a lot of fun to dive into this aspect of web performance because quite often there’s some low-hanging fruit: a relatively simple technical fix that will boost the performance (or perceived performance) of a website. That might be through resource hints (using link rel=“preload” in the HTML) or adjusting the font loading (using font-display in the CSS) or even nerdier stuff like subsetting.

In this case, the issue was with the file format of the font itself. By switching to woff2, there were significant file size savings. And the great thing is that @font-face rules allow you to specify multiple file formats so you can still support older browsers that can’t handle woff2. A win all ‘round!

The performance issue that was right in the middle of the technical/human continuum was with images. At first glance it looked like a similar issue to the fonts. Some images were being served in the wrong formats. When I say “wrong”, I guess I mean inappropriate. A photographic image, for example, is probably going to best served as a JPG rather than a PNG.

But unlike the fonts, the images weren’t in the direct control of the developers. These images were coming from a Content Management System. And while there’s a certain amount of processing you can do on the server, a human still makes the decision about what file format they’re uploading.

I’ve seen this happen at Clearleft. We launched an event site with lean performant code, but then someone uploaded an image that’s megabytes in size. The solution in that case wasn’t technical. We realised there was a knowledge gap around image file formats—which, let’s face it, is kind of a techy topic that most normal people shouldn’t be expected to know.

But it was extremely gratifying to see that people were genuinely interested in knowing a bit more about choosing the right format for the right image. I was able to provide a few rules of thumb and point to free software for converting images. It empowered those people to feel more confident using the Content Management System.

It was a similar situation with the client site I was looking at this week. Nobody is uploading oversized images in order to deliberately make the site slower. They probably don’t realise the difference that image formats can make. By having a discussion and giving them some pointers, they’ll have more knowledge and the site will be faster. Another win all ‘round!

At the other end of continuum was an issue that wasn’t technical. From a technical point of view, there was just one teeny weeny little script. But that little script is Google Tag Manager which then calls many, many other scripts that are not so teeny weeny. Third party scripts …the bane of web performance!

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

Remember when I did a countdown of the top four web performance challenges? At the number one spot is other people’s JavaScript.

Now one technical solution would be to remove the Google Tag Manager script. But that’s probably not very practical—you’ll probably just piss off some other department. That said, if you can’t find out which department was responsible for adding the Google Tag Manager script in the first place, it might we well be an option to remove it and then wait and see who complains. If no one notices it’s gone, job done!

More realistically, there’s someone who’s added that Google Tag Manager script for their own valid reasons. You’ll need to talk to them and understand their needs.

Again, as with images uploaded in a Content Management System, they may not be aware of the performance problems caused by third-party scripts. You could try throwing numbers at them, but I think you get better results by telling the story of performance.

Use tools like Request Map Generator to help them visualise the impact that third-party scripts are having. Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Find out why those scripts are being requested. What are the outcomes they’re working towards? Can you offer an alternative way of providing the data they need?

I think many of us developers are intimidated or apprehensive about approaching people to have those conversations. But it’s necessary. And in its own way, it can be as rewarding as tinkering with code. If the end result is a faster website, then the work is definitely worth doing—whether it’s technical work or people work.

Personally, I just really enjoy working on anything that will end up improving a website’s performance, and by extension, the user experience. If you fancy working with me on your site, you should get in touch with Clearleft.

Design Principles For The Web—the links

I’m speaking today at an online edition of An Event Apart called Front-End Focus. I’ll be opening up the show with a talk called Design Principles For The Web, which ironically doesn’t have much of a front-end focus:

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

That explains why I’ve been writing so much about design principles …well, that and the fact that I’m mildly obsessed with them.

To avoid technical difficulties, I’ve pre-recorded the talk. So while that’s playing, I’ll be spamming the accompanying chat window with related links. Then I’ll do a live Q&A.

Should you be interested in the links that I’ll be bombarding the attendees with, I’ve gathered them here in one place (and they’re also on the website of An Event Apart). The narrative structure of the talk might not be clear from scanning down a list of links, but there’s some good stuff here that you can dive into if you want to know what the inside of my head is like.

References

adactio.com

Wikipedia

Putting design principles into action

I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.

At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.

I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.

You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:

In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).

My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.

When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.

I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:

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

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:

Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.

There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Or Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.

It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:

Because of observation A, apply action B.

For example:

Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.

Or in its full form:

Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:

The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.

For example, even though devices, browsers, and networks are much, much better now than they were, say, ten years ago, that doesn’t mean that websites have become better or faster. Instead, it’s precisely because there’s more power available that people think nothing of throwing megabytes of JavaScript at users. See Scott’s theory that 5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe:

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:

Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.

A decade apart

Today marks ten years since the publication of HTML5 For Web Designers, the very first book from A Book Apart.

I’m so proud of that book, and so honoured that I was the first author published by the web’s finest purveyors of brief books. I mean, just look at the calibre of their output since my stumbling start!

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jason wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Mandy wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jeffrey wrote ten years ago.

They started something magnificent. Ten years on, with Katel at the helm, it’s going from strength to strength.

Happy birthday, little book! And happy birthday, A Book Apart! Here’s to another decade!

A Book Apart authors, 1-6

Nice

Yesterday was Wednesday. Wednesday evening is when I play in an Irish trad session at The Jolly Brewer. It’s a highlight of my week.

Needless to say, there was no session yesterday. I’ll still keep playing tunes while we’re all socially distancing, but it’s not quite the same. I concur with this comment:

COVID-19 has really made me realize that we need to be grateful for the people and activities we take for granted. Things like going out for food, seeing friends, going to the gym, etc., are fun, but are not essential for (physical) survival.

It reminds of Brian Eno’s definition of art: art is anything we don’t have to do. It’s the same with social activities. We don’t have to go to concerts—we can listen to music at home. We don’t have to go the cinema—we can watch films at home. We don’t have to go to conferences—we can read books and blog posts at home. We don’t have to go out to restaurants—all our nutritional needs can be met at home.

But it’s not the same though, is it?

I think about the book Station Eleven a lot. The obvious reason why I’d be thinking about it is that it describes a deadly global pandemic. But that’s not it. Even before The Situation, Station Eleven was on my mind for helping provide clarity on the big questions of life; y’know, the “what’s it all about?” questions like “what’s the meaning of life?”

Part of the reason I think about Station Eleven is its refreshingly humanist take on a post-apocalyptic society. As I discussed on this podcast episode a few years back:

It’s interesting to see a push-back against the idea that if society is removed we are going to revert to life being nasty, brutish and short. Things aren’t good after this pandemic wipes out civilisation, but people are trying to put things back together and get along and rebuild.

Related to that, Station Eleven describes a group of people in a post-pandemic world travelling around performing Shakespeare plays. At first I thought this was a ridiculous conceit. Then I realised that this was the whole point. We don’t have to watch Shakespeare to survive. But there’s a difference between surviving and living.

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

Liveblogging An Event Apart 2019

I was at An Event Apart in San Francisco last week. It was the last one of the year, and also my last conference of the year.

I managed to do a bit of liveblogging during the event. Combined with the liveblogging I did during the other two Events Apart that I attended this year—Seattle and Chicago—that makes a grand total of seventeen liveblogged presentations!

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
  12. Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell
  13. Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
  14. Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby
  15. The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
  16. The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
  17. The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

For my part, I gave my talk on Going Offline. Time to retire that talk now.

Here’s what I wrote when I first gave the talk back in March at An Event Apart Seattle:

I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.

I’m happy with how it turned out. I had quite a few people come up to me to say how much they appreciated how I was explaining the code. That was very nice to hear—I really wanted this talk to be approachable for everyone, even though it included plenty of JavaScript.

The dates for next year’s Events Apart have been announced, and I’ll be speaking at three of them:

The question is, do I attempt to deliver another practical code-based talk or do I go back to giving a high-level talk about ideas and principles? Or, if I really want to challenge myself, can I combine the two into one talk without making a Frankenstein’s monster?

Come and see me at An Event Apart in 2020 to find out.

The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.

I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…

“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mina said:

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.

When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.

Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.

Sell

He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:

  • Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
  • Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
  • Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
  • Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
  • Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
  • Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
  • Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.

Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.

Kick off

Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.

How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.

Plan

Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.

How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.

Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.

Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?

You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.

Design and build

Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:

Embrace the snowflakes.

The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.

When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.

The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.

—Jina

Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.

It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.

The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.

Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.

You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.

Launch

What does it mean to “launch” a design system?

A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. Most integrated: consumable compents.

Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.

Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.

Maintain

Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.

A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.

—Nathan Curtis

What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.

That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.

Summary

This is hard.

  • Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
  • Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
  • Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
  • Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
  • Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
  • Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
  • Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.

You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.

The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham

It’s day two of An Event Apart San Francisco. The brilliant Mina Markham is here to talk to us about design systems (so hot right now!). I’m going to attempt to liveblog it:

Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.

Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.

Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!

There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.

Myth 1: Designers “own” the design system

Mina was once talking to a product designer about design systems and was getting excited. The product designer said, nonplussed, “Aren’t you an engineer? Why do you care?” Mina explained that she loved design systems. The product designer said “Y’know, design systems should really be run by designers” and walked away.

Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.

Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.

The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.

What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.

Myth 2: design systems kill creativity

Mina hears this one a lot. It’s intertwined with some other myths: that design systems don’t work for editorial content, and that design systems are just a collection of components.

Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.

But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.

Design systems encompass more than components:

  • High level principles.
  • Brand guidelines.
  • Coding standards.
  • Accessibility compliance.
  • Governance.

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

—Mina

Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.

For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.

It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:

There’s a time and place for both—illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.

Yesenia says:

Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.

If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.

There are strict and loose systems.

Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.

A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:

Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.

Yesenia again:

A good design sytem helps you improvise.

Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.

Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.

A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.

Myth 3: a design system is a side project

Brad guffaws at this one.

Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.

“Later” is a mythical creature—a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.

Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.

Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.

The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…

Myth 4: a design system should be on the product roadmap

At a previous company, Mina once put a design system on the product roadmap because she saw it wasn’t getting the attention it needed. The answer came back: nah. Mina was annoyed. She had tried to “just do it” and now when she tried to do it through the right channels, she’s told she can’t.

But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.

A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.

Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”

A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.

—Nathan Curtis

The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).

Myth 5: our system should do what XYZ’s system did

It’s great that there are so many public design systems out there to look to and get inspired by. We can learn from them. “Let’s do that!”

But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.

Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.

Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:

  • Establish common language.
  • Reduce technical debt.
  • Allow for modularity.

But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.

Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.

Myth 6: everything is awesome!

When you think about design systems, everything is nice and neat and orderly. So you make one. Then you look at someone else’s design system. Your expectations don’t match the reality. Looking at these fully-fledged design systems is like comparing Instagram to real life.

The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.

The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.

For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.

Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.

Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.

Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.

Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.

Third party

The web turned 30 this year. When I was back at CERN to mark this anniversary, there was a lot of introspection and questioning the direction that the web has taken. Everyone I know that uses the web is in agreement that tracking and surveillance are out of control. It seems only right to question whether the web has lost its way.

But here’s the thing: the technologies that enable tracking and surveillance didn’t exist in the early years of the web—JavaScript and cookies.

Without cookies, the web was stateless. This was by design. Now, I totally understand why cookies—or something like cookies—were needed. Without some way of keeping track of state, there’s no good way for a website to “remember” what’s in your shopping cart, or whether you’ve authenticated yourself.

But why would cookies ever need to work across domains? Authentication, shopping carts and all that good stuff can happen on the same domain. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, seem custom made for tracking and frankly, not much else.

Browsers allow you to disable third-party cookies, though it’s not yet the default. If enough people do it—and complain about the sites that stop working when third-party cookies are disabled—then maybe it can become the default.

Firefox is taking steps in this direction, automatically disabling some third-party cookies—the ones that known trackers. Safari is also taking steps to prevent cross-site tracking. It’s not too late to change the tide of third-party cookies.

Then there’s third-party JavaScript.

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

I imagine if JavaScript were being specced today, it would almost certainly be restricted to the same origin by default. But I guess the precedent had been set with images and style sheets: they could be embedded regardless of whether their domain names matched yours. Still, this is executable code we’re talking about here: that’s quite a footgun that the web has given site owners. And boy, oh boy, has it been used by the worst people to do the most damage.

Again, as with cookies, if we were to imagine what the web would be like if JavaScript was restricted by a same-domain policy, there are certainly things that would be trickier to do.

  • Embedding video, audio, and maps would get a lot finickier.
  • Analytics would need to be self-hosted. I don’t think that would bother any site owners. An analytics platform like Google Analytics that tracks people across domains is doing it for its own benefit rather than that of site owners.
  • Advertising wouldn’t be creepy and annoying. Instead of what’s so euphemistically called “personalisation”, advertisers would have to rely on serving relevant ads based on the content of the site rather than an invasive psychological profile of the user. (I honestly think that advertisers would benefit from this kind of targetting.)

It’s harder to imagine putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to third-party JavaScript than it is with third-party cookies. All the same, I wish that browsers made it easier to experiment with it. Just as I can choose to accept all cookies, reject all cookies, or only accept same-origin cookies, I wish I could accept all JavaScript, reject all JavaScript, or only accept same-origin JavaScript.

As it is, browsers are making it harder and harder to exercise any control over JavaScript at all. So we reach for third-party tools. We don’t call them JavaScript managers though. We call them ad blockers. But honestly, most of the ad-blocker users I know—myself included—are not bothered by the advertising; we’re bothered by the tracking. We should really call them surveillance blockers.

If third-party JavaScript weren’t the norm, not only would it make the web more secure, it would make it way more performant. Read the chapter on third parties in this year’s newly-released Web Almanac. The figures are staggering.

93% of pages include at least one third-party resource, 76% of pages issue a request to an analytics domain, the median page requests content from at least 9 unique third-party domains that represent 35% of their total network activity, and the most active 10% of pages issue a whopping 175 third-party requests or more.

I don’t think all the web’s performance ills are due to third-party scripts; developers are doing a bang-up job of making their sites big and bloated with their own self-hosted frameworks and code. But as long as third-party JavaScript is allowed onto a site, there’s a limit to how much good developers can do to improve the performance of their sites.

I go to performance-related conferences and you know who I’ve never seen at those events? The people who write the JavaScript for third-party tracking scripts. Those developers are wielding an outsized influence on the health of the web.

I’m very happy to see the work being done by Mozilla and Apple to normalise the idea of rejecting third-party cookies. I’d love to see the rejection of third-party JavaScript normalised in the same way. I know that it would make my life as a developer harder. But that’s of lesser importance. It would be better for the web.

Request mapping

The Request Map Generator is a terrific tool. It’s made by Simon Hearne and uses the WebPageTest API.

You pop in a URL, it fetches the page and maps out all the subsequent requests in a nifty interactive diagram of circles, showing how many requests third-party scripts are themselves generating. I’ve found it to be a very effective way of showing the impact of third-party scripts to people who aren’t interested in looking at waterfall diagrams.

I was wondering… Wouldn’t it be great if this were built into browsers?

We already have a “Network” tab in our developer tools. The purpose of this tab is to show requests coming in. The browser already has all the information it needs to make a diagram of requests in the same that the request map generator does.

In Firefox, there’s a little clock icon in the bottom left corner of the “Network” tab. Clicking that shows a pie-chart view of requests. That’s useful, but I’d love it if there were the option to also see the connected circles that the request map generator shows.

Just a thought.

The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland

It’s Patty Toland’s first time at An Event Apart! She’s from the fantabulous Filament Group. They’re dedicated to making the web work for everyone.

A few years ago, a good friend of Patty’s had a medical diagnosis that required everyone to pull together. Another friend shared an article about how not to say the wrong thing. This is ring theory. In a moment of crisis, the person involved is in the centre. You need to understand where you are in this ring structure, and only ever help and comfort inwards and dump concerns and problems outwards.

At the same time, Patty spent time with her family at the beach. Everyone reads the same books together. There was a book about a platoon leader in Vietnam. 80% of the story was literally a litany of stuff—what everyone was carrying. This was peppered with the psychic and emotional loads that they were carrying.

A month later there was a lot of coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. People were outraged to see refugees carrying smartphones as though that somehow showed they weren’t in a desperate situation. But smartphones are absolutely a necessity in that situation, and most of the phones were less expensive, lower-end devices. Refugeeinfo.eu was a useful site for people in crisis, but the navigation was designed to require JavaScript.

When people thing about mobile, they think about freedom and mobility. But with that JavaScript decision, the developers piled baggage on to the users.

There was a common assertion that slow networks were a third-world challenge. Remember Facebook’s network challenges? They always talked about new markets in India and Africa. The implication is that this isn’t our problem in, say, Omaha or New York.

Pew Research provided a lot of data back then that showed that this thinking was wrong. Use of cell phones, especially smartphones and tablets, escalated dramatically in the United States. There was a trend towards mobile-only usage. This was in low-income households—about one third of the population. Among 5,400 panelists, 15% did not have a JavaScript-enabled device.

Pew Research provided updated data this year. The research shows an increase in those trends. Half of the population access the web primarily on mobile. The cost of a broadband subscription is too expensive for many people. Sometimes broadband access simply isn’t available.

There’s a term called “the homework gap.” Two thirds of teachers assign broadband-dependent homework, while one third of students have no access to broadband.

At most 37% of people have unlimited data. Most people run out of data on a frequent basis.

Speed also varies wildly. 4G doesn’t really mean anything. The data is all over the place.

This shows that network issues are definitely not just a third world challenge.

On the 25th anniversary of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said the web’s potential was only just beginning to be glimpsed. Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the web serves all of humanity. In his contract for the web, Tim outlined what governments, companies, and users need to do. This reminded Patty of ring theory. The user is at the centre. Designers and developers are in the next circle out. Then there’s the circle of companies. Then there are platforms, browsers, and frameworks. Finally there’s the outer circle of governments.

Are we helping in or dumping in? If you look at the data for the average web page size (2 megabytes), we are definitely dumping in. The size of third-party JavaScript has octupled.

There’s no way for a user to know before clicking a link how big and bloated the page is going to be. Even if they abandon the page load, they’ve still used (and wasted) a lot of data.

Third party scripts—like ads—are really bad at dumping in (to use the ring theory model). The best practices for ads suggest that up to 100 additional HTTP requests is totally acceptable. Unbelievable! It doesn’t matter how performant you’ve made a site when this crap gets piled on top of it.

In 2018, the internet’s data centres alone may already have had the same carbon footprint as all global air travel. This will probably triple in the next seven years. The amount of carbon it takes to train a single AI algorithm is more than the entire life cycle of a car. Then there’s fucking Bitcoin. A single Bitcoin transaction could power 21 US households. It is designed to use—specifically, waste—more and more energy over time.

What should we be doing?

Accessibility should be at the heart of what we build. Plan, test, educate, and advocate. If advocacy doesn’t work, fear can be a motivator. There’s an increase in accessibility lawsuits.

Our websites should be as light as possible. Ask, measure, monitor, and optimise. RequestMap is a great tool for visualising requests. You can see the size and scale of third-party requests. You can also see when images are far, far bigger than they need to be.

Take a critical guide to everything and pare everything down. Set perforance budgets—file size budgets, for example. Optimise images, subset custom fonts, lazyload images and videos, get third-party tools out of the critical path (or out completely), and seek out lighter frameworks.

Test on real devices that real people are using. See Alex Russell’s data on the differences between the kind of devices we use and typical low-end devices. We literally need to stop people in JavaScript.

Push the boundaries. See the amazing work that Adrian Holovaty did with Soundslice. He had to make on-the-fly sheet music generation work on old iPads that musicians like to use. He recommends keeping old devices around to see how poorly your product is working on it.

If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

—Toni Morrison

Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby

Jason is on stage at An Event Apart Chicago in a tuxedo. He wants to talk about how we can make web forms magical. Oh, I see. That explains the get-up.

We’re always being told to make web forms shorter. Luke Wroblewski has highlighted the work of companies that have reduced form fields and increased conversion.

But what if we could get rid of forms altogether? Wouldn’t that be magical!

Jason will reveal the secrets to this magic. But first—a volunteer from the audience, please! Please welcome Joe to the stage.

Joe will now log in on a phone. He types in the username. Then the password. The password is hodge-podge of special characters, numbers and upper and lowercase letters. Joe starts typing. Jason takes the phone and logs in without typing anything!

The secret: Jason was holding an NFC security key in his hand. That works with a new web standard called WebAuthn.

Passwords are terrible. People share them across sites, but who can blame them? It’s hard to remember lots of passwords. The only people who love usernames and passwords are hackers. So sites are developing other methods to try to keep people secure. Two factor authentication helps, although it doesn’t help us with phishing attacks. The hacker gets the password from the phished user …and then gets the one-time code from the phished user too.

But a physical device like a security key solves this problem. So why aren’t we all using security keys (apart from the fear of losing the key)? Well, until WebAuthn, there wasn’t a way for websites to use the keys.

A web server generates a challenge—a long string—that gets sent to a website and passed along to the user. The user’s device generates a credential ID and public and private keys for that domain. The web site stores the public key and credential ID. From then on, the credential ID is used by the website in challenges to users logging in.

There were three common ways that we historically proved who we claimed to be.

  1. Something you know (e.g. a password).
  2. Something you have (e.g. a security key).
  3. Something you are (e.g. biometric information).

These are factors of identification. So two-factor identification is the combination of any of those two. If you use a security key combined with a fingerprint scanner, there’s no need for passwords.

The browser support for the web authentication API (WebAuthn) is a bit patchy right now but you can start playing around with it.

There are a few other options for making logging in faster. There’s the Credential Management API. It allows someone to access passwords stored in their browser’s password manager. But even though it’s newer, there’s actually better browser support for WebAuthn than Credential Management.

Then there’s federated login, or social login. Jason has concerns about handing over log-in to a company like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, but then again, it means fewer passwords. As a site owner, there’s actually a lot of value in not storing log-in information—you won’t be accountable for data breaches. The problem is that you’ve got to decide which providers you’re going to support.

Also keep third-party password managers in mind. These tools—like 1Password—are great. In iOS they’re now nicely integrated at the operating system level, meaning Safari can use them. Finally it’s possible to log in to websites easily on a phone …until you encounter a website that prevents you logging in this way. Some websites get far too clever about detecting autofilled passwords.

Time for another volunteer from the audience. This is Tyler. Tyler will help Jason with a simple checkout form. Shipping information, credit card information, and so on. Jason will fill out this form blindfolded. Tyler will first verify that the dark goggles that Jason will be wearing don’t allow him to see the phone screen. Jason will put the goggles on and Tyler will hand him the phone with the checkout screen open.

Jason dons the goggles. Tyler hands him the phone. Jason does something. The form is filled in and submitted!

What was the secret? The goggles prevented Jason from seeing the phone …but they didn’t prevent the screen from seeing Jason. The goggles block everything but infrared. The iPhone uses infrared for Face ID. So the iPhone, it just looked like Jason was wearing funky sunglasses. Face ID then triggered the Payment Request API.

The Payment Request API allows us to use various payment methods that are built in to the operating system, but without having to make separate implementations for each payment method. The site calls the Payment Request API if it’s supported (use feature detection and progressive enhancement), then trigger the payment UI in the browser. The browser—not the website!—then makes a call to the payment processing provider e.g. Stripe.

E-commerce sites using the Payment Request API have seen a big drop in abandonment and a big increase in completed payments. The browser support is pretty good, especially on mobile. And remember, you can use it as a progressive enhancement. It’s kind of weird that we don’t encounter it more often—it’s been around for a few years now.

Jason read the fine print for Apple Pay, Google Pay, Microsoft Pay, and Samsung Pay. It doesn’t like there’s anything onerous in there that would stop you using them.

On some phones, you can now scan credit cards using the camera. This is built in to the operating system so as a site owner, you’ve just got to make sure not to break it. It’s really an extension of autofill. You should know what values the autocomplete attribute can take. There are 48 different values; it’s not just for checkouts. When users use autofill, they fill out forms 30% faster. So make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of autofill in your forms.

Jason proceeds to relate a long and involved story about buying burritos online from Chipotle. The upshot is: use the autocomplete, type, maxlength, and pattern attributes correctly on input elements. Test autofill with your forms. Make it part of your QA process.

So, to summarise, here’s how you make your forms disappear:

  1. Start by reducing the number of form fields.
  2. Use the correct HTML to support autofill. Support password managers and password-pasting. At least don’t break that behaviour.
  3. Provide alternate ways of logging in. Federated login or the Credentials API.
  4. Test autofill and other form features.
  5. Look for opportunities to replace forms entirely with biometrics.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

Don’t our users deserve magical experiences?

Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz

Cheryl Platz is speaking at An Event Apart Chicago. Her inaugural An Event Apart presentation is all about voice interfaces, and I’m going to attempt to liveblog it…

Why make a voice interface?

Successful voice interfaces aren’t necessarily solving new problems. They’re used to solve problems that other devices have already solved. Think about kitchen timers. There are lots of ways to set a timer. Your oven might have one. Your phone has one. Why use a $200 device to solve this mundane problem? Same goes for listening to music, news, and weather.

People are using voice interfaces for solving ordinary problems. Why? Context matters. If you’re carrying a toddler, then setting a kitchen timer can be tricky so a voice-activated timer is quite appealing. But why is voice is happening now?

Humans have been developing the art of conversation for thousands of years. It’s one of the first skills we learn. It’s deeply instinctual. Most humans use speach instinctively every day. You can’t necessarily say that about using a keyboard or a mouse.

Voice-based user interfaces are not new. Not just the idea—which we’ve seen in Star Trek—but the actual implementation. Bell Labs had Audrey back in 1952. It recognised ten words—the digits zero through nine. Why did it take so long to get to Alexa?

In the late 70s, DARPA issued a challenge to create a voice-activated system. Carnagie Mellon came up with Harpy (with a thousand word grammar). But none of the solutions could respond in real time. In conversation, we expect a break of no more than 200 or 300 milliseconds.

In the 1980s, computing power couldn’t keep up with voice technology, so progress kind of stopped. Time passed. Things finally started to catch up in the 90s with things like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that was still about vocabulary, not grammar. By the 2000s, small grammars were starting to show up—starting an X-Box or pausing Netflix. In 2008, Google Voice Search arrived on the iPhone and natural language interaction began to arrive.

What makes natural language interactions so special? It requires minimal training because it uses the conversational muscles we’ve been working for a lifetime. It unlocks the ability to have more forgiving, less robotic conversations with devices. There might be ten different ways to set a timer.

Natural language interactions can also free us from “screen magnetism”—that tendency to stay on a device even when our original task is complete. Voice also enables fast and forgiving searches of huge catalogues without time spent typing or browsing. You can pick a needle straight out of a haystack.

Natural language interactions are excellent for older customers. These interfaces don’t intimidate people without dexterity, vision, or digital experience. Voice input often leads to more inclusive experiences. Many customers with visual or physical disabilities can’t use traditional graphical interfaces. Voice experiences throw open the door of opportunity for some people. However, voice experience can exclude people with speech difficulties.

Making the case for voice interfaces

There’s a misconception that you need to work at Amazon, Google, or Apple to work on a voice interface, or at least that you need to have a big product team. But Cheryl was able to make her first Alexa “skill” in a week. If you’re a web developer, you’re good to go. Your voice “interaction model” is just JSON.

How do you get your product team on board? Find the customers (and situations) you might have excluded with traditional input. Tell the stories of people whose hands are full, or who are vision impaired. You can also point to the adoption rate numbers for smart speakers.

You’ll need to show your scenario in context. Otherwise people will ask, “why can’t we just build an app for this?” Conduct research to demonstrate the appeal of a voice interface. Storyboarding is very useful for visualising the context of use and highlighting existing pain points.

Getting started with voice interfaces

You’ve got to understand how the technology works in order to adapt to how it fails. Here are a few basic concepts.

Utterance. A word, phrase, or sentence spoken by a customer. This is the true form of what the customer provides.

Intent. This is the meaning behind a customer’s request. This is an important distinction because one intent could have thousands of different utterances.

Prompt. The text of a system response that will be provided to a customer. The audio version of a prompt, if needed, is generated separately using text to speech.

Grammar. A finite set of expected utterances. It’s a list. Usually, each entry in a grammar is paired with an intent. Many interfaces start out as being simple grammars before moving on to a machine-learning model later once the concept has been proven.

Here’s the general idea with “artificial intelligence”…

There’s a human with a core intent to do something in the real world, like knowing when the cookies in the oven are done. This is translated into an intent like, “set a 15 minute timer.” That’s the utterance that’s translated into a string. But it hasn’t yet been parsed as language. That string is passed into a natural language understanding system. What comes is a data structure that represents the customers goal e.g. intent=timer; duration=15 minutes. That’s sent to the business logic where a timer is actually step. For a good voice interface, you also want to send back a response e.g. “setting timer for 15 minutes starting now.”

That seems simple enough, right? What’s so hard about designing for voice?

Natural language interfaces are a form of artifical intelligence so it’s not deterministic. There’s a lot of ruling out false positives. Unlike graphical interfaces, voice interfaces are driven by probability.

How do you turn a sound wave into an understandable instruction? It’s a lot like teaching a child. You feed a lot of data into a statistical model. That’s how machine learning works. It’s a probability game. That’s where it gets interesting for design—given a bunch of possible options, we need to use context to zero in on the most correct choice. This is where confidence ratings come in: the system will return the probability that a response is correct. Effectively, the system is telling you how sure or not it is about possible results. If the customer makes a request in an unusual or unexpected way, our system is likely to guess incorrectly. That’s because the system is being given something new.

Designing a conversation is relatively straightforward. But 80% of your voice design time will be spent designing for what happens when things go wrong. In voice recognition, edge cases are front and centre.

Here’s another challenge. Interaction with most voice interfaces is part conversation, part performance. Most interactions are not private.

Humans don’t distinguish digital speech fom human speech. That means these devices are intrinsically social. Our brains our wired to try to extract social information, even form digital speech. See, for example, why it’s such a big question as to what gender a voice interface has.

Delivering a voice interface

Storyboards help depict the context of use. Sample dialogues are your new wireframes. These are little scripts that not only cover the happy path, but also your edge case. Then you reverse engineer from there.

Flow diagrams communicate customer states, but don’t use the actual text in them.

Prompt lists are your final deliverable.

Functional prototypes are really important for voice interfaces. You’ll learn the real way that customers will ask for things.

If you build a working prototype, you’ll be building two things: a natural language interaction model (often a JSON file) and custom business logic (in a programming language).

Eventually voice design will become a core competency, much like mobile, which was once separate.

Ask yourself what tasks your customers complete on your site that feel clunkly. Remember that voice desing is almost never about new scenarious. Start your journey into voice interfaces by tackling old problems in new, more inclusive ways.

May the voice be with you!

Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell

The brilliant Cyd Harrell is opening up day two of An Event Apart in Chicago. I’m going to attempt to liveblog her talk on making research count…

Research gets done …and then sits in a report, gathering dust.

Research matters. But how do we make it count? We need allies. Maybe we need more money. Perhaps we need more participation from people not on the product team.

If you’re doing real research on a schedule, sharing it on a regular basis, making people’s eyes light up …then you’ve won!

Research counts when it answers questions that people care about. But you probably don’t want to directly ask “Hey, what questions do you want answered?”

Research can explain oddities in analytics weird feedback from customers, unexpected uses of products, and strange hunches (not just your own).

Curious people with power are the most useful ones to influence. Not just hierarchical power. Engineers often have a lot of power. So ask, “Who is the most curious engineer, and how can I drag them out on a research session with me?”

At 18F, Cyd found that a lot of the nodes of power were in the mid level of the organisation who had been there a while—they know a lot of people up and down the chain. If you can get one of those people excited about research, they can spread it.

Open up your practice. Demystify it. Put as much effort into communicating as into practicing. Create opportunities for people to ask questions and learn.

You can think about communities of practice in the obvious way: people who do similar things to us, and other people who make design decisions. But really, everyone in the organisation is affected by design decisions.

Cyd likes to do office hours. People can come by and ask questions. You could open a Slack channel. You can run brown bag lunches to train people in basic user research techniques. In more conventional organisations, a newsletter is a surprisingly effective tool for sharing the latest findings from research. And use your walls to show work in progress.

Research counts when people can see it for themselves—not just when it’s reported from afar. Ask yourself: who in your organisation is disconnected from their user? It’s difficult for people to maintain their motivation in that position.

When someone has been in the field with you, the data doesn’t have to be explained.

Whoever’s curious. Whoever’s disconnected. Invite them along. Show them what you’re doing.

Think about the qualities of a good invitation (for a party, say). Make the rules clear. Make sure they want to come back. Design the experience of observing research. Make sure everyone has tools. Give everyone a responsibility. Be like Willy Wonka—he gave clear rules to the invitied guests. And sure, things didn’t go great when people broke the rules, but at the end, everyone still went home with the truckload of chocolate they were promised.

People who get to ask a question buy in to the results. Those people feel a sense of ownership for the research.

Research counts when methods fit the question. Think about what the right question is and how you might go about answering it.

You can mix your methods. Interviews. Diary studies. Card sorting. Shadowing. You can ground the user research in competitor analysis.

Back in 2008, Cyd was contacted by a company who wanted to know: how do people really use phones in their cars? Cyd’s team would ride along with people, interviewing them, observing them, taking pictures and video.

Later at the federal government, Cyd was asked: what are the best practices for government digital transformation? How to answer that? It’s so broad! Interviews? Who knows what?

They refined the question: what makes modern digital practices stick within a government entity? They looked at what worked when companies were going online, so see if there was anything that government could learn from. Then they created a set of really focused interview questions. What does digital transformation mean? How do you know when you’re done? What are the biggest obstacles to this work? How do you make changes last?

They used atechnique called cluster recruiting to figure out who else to talk to (by asking participants who else they should be talking to).

There is no one research method that will always work for you. Cutting the right corners at the right time lets you be fast and cheap. Cyd’s bare-bones research kit costs about $20: a notebook, a pen, a consent form, and the price of a cup of coffee. She also created a quick score sheet for when she’s not in a position to have research transcribed.

Always label your assumptions before beginning your research. Maybe you’re assuming that something is a frustrating experience that needs fixing, but it might emerge that it doesn’t need fixing—great! You’ve just saved a whole lotta money.

Research counts when researchers tell the story well. Synthesis works best as a conversational practice. It’s hard to do by yourself. You start telling stories when you come back from the field (sometimes it starts when you’re still out in the field, talking about the most interesting observations).

Miller’s Law is a great conceptual framework:

To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.

You’re probably familiar with the “five whys”. What about the “five ways”? If people talk about something five different ways, it’s virtually certain that one of them will be an apt metaphor. So ask “Can you say that in a different way?” five time.

Spend as much time on communicating outcomes as you did on executing the work.

After research, play back how many people you spoke to, the most valuable insight you gained, the themes that are emerging. Describe the question you wanted to answer, what answers you got, and what you’re going to do next. If you’re in an organisation that values memos, write a memo. Or you could make a video. Or you could write directly into backlog tickets. And don’t forget the wall work! GDS have wonderfully full walls in their research department.

In the end, the best tool for research is an illuminating story.

Cyd was doing research at the Bakersfield courthouse. The hypothesis was that a lot of people weren’t engaging with technology in the court system. She approached a man named Manuel who was positively quaking. He was going through a custody battle. He said, “I don’t know technology but it doesn’t scare me. I’m shaking because this paperwork just gets to me—it’s terrifying.” He said who would gladly pay for someone to help him with the paperwork. Cyd wrote a report on this story. Months later, they heard people in the organisation asking questions like “How would this help Manuel?”

Sometimes you do have to fight (nicely).

People will push back on the time spent on research—they’ll say it doesn’t fit the sprint plan. You can have a three day research plan. Day 1: write scripts. Day 2: go to the users and talk to them. Day 3: play it back. People on a project spend more time than that in Slack.

People will say you can’t talk to the customers. In that situation, you could talk to people who are in the same sector as your company’s customers.

People will question the return on investment for research. Do it cheaply and show the very low costs. Then people stop talking about the money and start talking about the results.

People will claim that qualitative user research is not statistically significant. That’s true. But research is something else. It answers different question.

People will question whether a senior person needs to be involved. It is not fair to ask the intern to do all the work involved in research.

People will say you can’t always do research. But Cyd firmly believes that there’s always room for some research.

  • Make allies in customer research.
  • Find the most curious engineer on the team, go to lunch with them, and feed them the most interesting research insights.
  • Record a pain point and a send a video to executives.
  • If there’s really no budget, maybe you can get away with not paying incentives, but perhaps you can provide some other swag instead.

One of the best things you can do is be there, non-judgementally, making friends. It takes time, but it works. Research is like a dandelion in flight. Once it’s out and about, taking root, the more that research counts.