Journal tags: ba

135

sparkline

Principles and the English language

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

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

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

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

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

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

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

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

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

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

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

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

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

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

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

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

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

Season two of the Clearleft podcast

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

Episode One

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

Episode Two

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

Episode Three

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

Episode Four

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

Episode Five

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

Episode Six

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remote work on the Clearleft podcast

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

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

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

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

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

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

Employee experience design on the Clearleft podcast

The second episode of the second season of the Clearleft podcast is out. It’s all about employee experience design.

This topic came out of conversations with Katie. She really enjoys getting stuck into to the design challenges of the “backstage” tools that are often neglected. This is an area that Chris has been working in recently too, so I quized him on this topic.

They’re both super smart people which makes for a thoroughly enjoyable podcast episode. I usually have more guests on a single episode but it was fun to do a two-hander for once.

The whole thing comes in at just under seventeen minutes and there are some great stories and ideas in there. Have a listen.

And if you’re enjoying listening to the Clearleft podcast as much as I’m enjoying making it, be sure to spread the word wherever you share your recommnedations: Twitter, LinkedIn, Slack, your own website, the rooftop.

Web Audio API weirdness on iOS

I told you about how I’m using the Web Audio API on The Session to generate synthesised audio of each tune setting. I also said:

Except for some weirdness on iOS that I had to fix.

Here’s that weirdness…

Let me start by saying that this isn’t anything to do with requiring a user interaction (the Web Audio API insists on some kind of user interaction to prevent developers from having auto-playing sound on websites). All of my code related to the Web Audio API is inside a click event handler. This is a different kind of weirdness.

First of all, I noticed that if you pressed play on the audio player when your iOS device is on mute, then you don’t hear any audio. Seems logical, right? Except if using the same device, still set to mute, you press play on a video or audio element, the sound plays just fine. You can confirm this by going to Huffduffer and pressing play on any of the audio elements there, even when your iOS device is set on mute.

So it seems that iOS has different criteria for the Web Audio API than it does for audio or video. Except it isn’t quite that straightforward.

On some pages of The Session, as well as the audio player for tunes (using the Web Audio API) there are also embedded YouTube videos (using the video element). Press play on the audio player; no sound. Press play on the YouTube video; you get sound. Now go back to the audio player and suddenly you do get sound!

It’s almost like playing a video or audio element “kicks” the browser into realising it should be playing the sound from the Web Audio API too.

This was happening on iOS devices set to mute, but I was also getting reports of it happening on devices with the sound on. But it’s that annoyingly intermittent kind of bug that’s really hard to reproduce consistently. Sometimes the sound doesn’t play. Sometimes it does.

Following my theory that the browser needs a “kick” to get into the right frame of mind for the Web Audio API, I resorted to a messy little hack.

In the event handler for the audio player, I generate the “kick” by playing a second of silence using the JavaScript equivalent of the audio element:

var audio = new Audio('1-second-of-silence.mp3');
audio.play();

I’m not proud of that. It’s so hacky that I’ve even wrapped the code in some user-agent sniffing on the server, and I never do user-agent sniffing!

Still, if you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Audio

I spent the last couple of weekends rolling out a new feature on The Session. It involves playing audio in a web page. No big deal these days, right? But the history involves some old file formats…

The first venerable format is ABC notation. File extension: .abc, mime type: text/vnd.abc. It’s an ingenious text format for musical notation using ASCII. The metadata of the piece of music is defined in JSON-like key/value pairs. Then the contents are encoded with letters: A, B, C, etc. Uppercase and lowercase denote different octaves. Numbers can be used for note lengths.

The format was created by Chris Walshaw in 1997 when dial-up was the norm. With ABC, people were able to swap tunes on email lists or bulletin boards without transferring weighty image or sound files. If you had ABC software on your computer, you could convert that lightweight text file into sheet music …or audio.

That brings me to the second old format: midi files. File extension: .mid, mime-type: audio/midi. Like ABC, it’s a lightweight format for encoding the instructions for music instead of the music itself.

Think of it like SVG: instead of storing the final pixels of an image, SVG stores the instructions for drawing the image instead. The instructions in a midi file are like “play this note for this long on this instrument.” Again, as with ABC, you need some software to turn the instructions into sound.

There was a time when lots of software could play midi files. Quicktime on the Mac, for example. You could even embed midi files in web pages. I mean literally embed them …with the embed element. No Geocities page was complete without an autoplaying midi file.

On The Session, people submit tunes in ABC format. Then, using the amazing ABCJS JavaScript library, the ABC is turned into SVG on the fly! For years I’ve also offered midi files, generated on the server from the ABC notation.

But times have changed. These days it’s hard to find software that plays midi files. Quicktime doesn’t do it anymore. And you’d need to go to the app store on iOS to find a midi file player. It’s time to phase out the midi files on The Session.

I still want to provide automatically-generated audio though. Fortunately ABCJS gives me a way to do this. But instead of using the old technology of midi files, it uses a more modern browser feature: the Web Audio API.

The end result sounds like a midi file, but the underlying technique is more like a synthesiser. There’s a separate mp3 file for each note. The JavaScript figures out how long each “sample” needs to be played for, strings them all together, and outputs them with Web Audio. So you’ve got cutting-edge browser technology recreating a much older file format. Paul Rosen—the creator of ABCJS—has a presentation explaining how it all works under the hood.

Not only is there a separate short mp3 file for each note in seven octaves, but if you want the sound of a different instrument, you need samples for all seven octaves in that instrument. They’re called soundfonts.

Paul provides soundfonts for ABCJS. It’s a repo that was forked from this repo from Benjamin Gleitzman. And here’s where it gets small worldy…

The reason why Benjamin has a repo of soundfonts is because he needed to create midi-like audio in the browser. He wanted to do this for a project on September 28th and 29th, 2013 …at Science Hack Day San Francisco!

I was there too—working on my own audio-related hack—and I remember the excellent (and winning) hack that Benjamin worked on. It was called Symphony of Satellites and it’s still online along with the promo video. Here’s Benjamin’s post-hackday write-up from seven years ago.

It’s rare that the worlds of the web and Irish music cross over. When I got to meet Paul—creator of ABCJS—at a web conference a couple of years ago it kind of blew my mind. Last weekend when I set out to dabble with a feature on The Session, I certainly didn’t expect to stumble on a connection to Science Hack Day! (Aside: the first Science Hack Day was ten years ago—yowzers!)

Anyway, I was able to get that audio playback working on The Session. Except for some weirdness on iOS that I had to fix. But that’s a hack for another day.

Unobtrusive feedback

Ten years ago I gave a talk at An Event Apart all about interaction design. It was called Paranormal Interactivity. You can watch the video, listen to the audio or read the transcript if you like.

I think it holds up pretty well. There’s one interaction pattern in particular that I think has stood the test of time. In the talk, I introduce this pattern as something you can see in action on Huffduffer:

I was thinking about how to tell the user that something’s happened without distracting them from their task, and I thought beyond the web. I thought about places that provide feedback mechanisms on screens, and I thought of video games.

So we all know Super Mario, right? And if you think about when you’re collecting coins in Super Mario, it doesn’t stop the game and pop up an alert dialogue and say, “You have just collected ten points, OK, Cancel”, right? It just does it. It does it in the background, but it does provide you with a feedback mechanism.

The feedback you get in Super Mario is about the number of points you’ve just gained. When you collect an item that gives you more points, the number of points you’ve gained appears where the item was …and then drifts upwards as it disappears. It’s unobtrusive enough that it won’t distract you from the gameplay you’re concentrating on but it gives you the reassurance that, yes, you have just gained points.

I think this a neat little feedback mechanism that we can borrow for subtle Ajax interactions on the web. These are actions that don’t change much of the content. The user needs to be able to potentially do lots of these actions on a single page without waiting for feedback every time.

On Huffduffer, for example, you might be looking at a listing of people that you can choose to follow or unfollow. The mechanism for doing that is a button per person. You might potentially be clicking lots of those buttons in quick succession. You want to know that each action has taken effect but you don’t want to be interrupted from your following/unfollowing spree.

You get some feedback in any case: the button changes. Maybe the text updates from “follow” to “unfollow” accompanied by a change in colour (this is what you’ll see on Twitter). The Super Mario style feedback is in addition to that, rather than instead of.

I’ve made a Codepen so you can see a reduced test case of the Super Mario feedback in action.

See the Pen Unobtrusive feedback by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

Here’s the code available as a gist.

It’s a function that takes two arguments: the element that the feedback originates from (pass in a DOM node reference for this), and the contents of the feedback (this can be a string of text or it can be HTML …or SVG). When you call the function with those two arguments, this is what happens:

  1. The JavaScript generates a span element and puts the feedback contents inside it.
  2. Then it positions that element right over the element that the feedback originates from.
  3. Then there’s a CSS transform. The feedback gets a translateY applied so it drifts upward. At the same time it gets its opacity reduced from 1 to 0 so it’s fading away.
  4. Finally there’s a transitionend event that fires when the animation is over. Once that event fires, the generated span is destroyed.

When I first used this pattern on Huffduffer, I’m pretty sure I was using jQuery. A few years later I rewrote it in vanilla JavaScript. That was four years ago so I wonder if the code could be improved. Have a go if you fancy it.

Still, even if the code could benefit from an update, I’m pleased that the underlying pattern still holds true. I used it recently on The Session and it’s working a treat for a new Ajax interaction there (bookmarking or unbookbarking an item).

If you end up using this unobtrusive feedback pattern anyway, please let me know—I’d love to see more examples of it in the wild.

Netlify redirects and downloads

Making the Clearleft podcast is a lot of fun. Making the website for the Clearleft podcast was also fun.

Design wise, it’s a riff on the main Clearleft site in terms of typography and general layout. On the development side, it was an opportunity to try out an exciting tech stack. The workflow goes something like this:

  • Open a text editor and type out HTML and CSS.

Comparing this to other workflows I’ve used in the past, this is definitely the most productive way of working. Some stats:

  • Time spent setting up build tools: 00:00
  • Time spent wrangling the pipeline to do exactly what you want: 00:00
  • Time spent trying to get the damn build tools to work again when you return to the project after leaving it alone for more than a few months: 00:00:00

I have some files. Some images, three font files, a few pages of HTML, one RSS feed, one style sheet, and one minimal service worker script. I don’t need a web server to do anything more than serve up those files. No need for any dynamic server-side processing.

I guess this is JAMstack. Though, given that the J stands for JavaScript, the A stands for APIs, and I’m not using either, technically it’s Mstack.

Netlify suits my hosting needs nicely. It also provides the added benefit that, should I need to update my CSS, I don’t need to add a query string or anything to the link elements in the HTML that point to the style sheet: Netlify does cache invalidation for you!

The mp3 files of the actual podcast episodes are stored on S3. I link to those mp3 files from enclosure elements in the RSS feed, which is what makes it a podcast. I also point to the mp3 files from audio elements on the individual episode pages—just above the transcript of each episode. Here’s the page for the most recent episode.

I also want people to be able to download the mp3 file directly if they want (or if they want to huffduff an episode). So I provide a link to the mp3 file with a good ol’-fashioned a element with an href attribute.

I throw in one more attribute on that link. The download attribute tells the browser that the URL in the href attribute should be downloaded instead of visited. If you give a value for the download attribute, it will over-ride the file name:

<a href="/files/ugly-file-name.xyz" download="nice-file-name.xyz">download</a>

Or you can use it as a Boolean attribute without any value if you’re happy with the file name:

<a href="/files/nice-file-name.xyz" download>download</a>

There’s one catch though. The download attribute only works for files on the same origin. That’s an issue for me. My site is podcast.clearleft.com but my audio files are hosted on clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com—the download attribute will be ignored and the mp3 files will play in the browser instead of downloading.

Trys pointed me to the solution. It turns out that Netlify can do some server-side processing. It can do redirects.

I added a file called _redirects to the root of my project. It contains one line:

/download/*  https://clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/:splat  200

That says that any URLs beginning with /download/ should redirect to clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/. Everything after the closing slash is captured with that wild card asterisk. That’s then passed along to the redirect URL as :splat. That’s a new one on me. I hadn’t come across that terminology, but as someone who can never remember the syntax of regular expressions, it works for me.

Oh, and the 200at the end is the status code: okay.

Now I can use this /download/ path in my link:

<a href="/download/season01episode06.mp3" download>Download mp3</a>

Because this URL on the same origin, the download attribute works just fine.

BetrayURL

Back in February, I wrote about an excellent proposal by Jake for how browsers could display URLs in a safer way. Crucially, this involved highlighting the important part of the URL, but didn’t involve hiding any part. It’s a really elegant solution.

Turns out it was a Trojan horse. Chrome are now running an experiment where they will do the exact opposite: they will hide parts of the URL instead of highlighting the important part.

You can change this behaviour if you’re in the less than 1% of people who ever change default settings in browsers.

I’m really disappointed to see that Jake’s proposal isn’t going to be implemented. It was a much, much better solution.

No doubt I will hear rejoinders that the “solution” that Chrome is experimenting with is pretty similar to what Jake proposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jake’s solution empowered users with knowledge without taking anything away. What Chrome will be doing is the opposite of that, infantalising users and making decisions for them “for their own good.”

Seeing a complete URL is going to become a power-user feature, like View Source or user style sheets.

I’m really sad about that because, as Jake’s proposal demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.

CSS custom properties and the cascade

When I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions I said this about the brilliant Lea Verou:

As so often happens when I’m reading something written by Lea—or seeing her give a talk—light bulbs started popping over my head (my usual response to Lea’s knowledge bombs is either “I didn’t know you could do that!” or “I never thought of doing that!”).

Well, it happened again. This time I was reading her post about hybrid positioning with CSS variables and max() . But the main topic of the post wasn’t the part that made go “Huh! I never knew that!”. Towards the end of her article she explained something about the way that browsers evaluate CSS custom properties:

The browser doesn’t know if your property value is valid until the variable is resolved, and by then it has already processed the cascade and has thrown away any potential fallbacks.

I’m used to being able to rely on the cascade. Let’s say I’m going to set a background colour on paragraphs:

p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}

First I’ve set a background colour using a good ol’ fashioned keyword, supported in browsers since day one. Then I declare the background colour using the new-fangled color() function which is supported in very few browsers. That’s okay though. I can confidently rely on the cascade to fall back to the earlier declaration. Paragraphs will still have a red background colour.

But if I store the background colour in a custom property, I can no longer rely on the cascade.

:root {
  --myvariable: color(display-p3 1 0 0);
}
p {
  background-color: red;
  background-color: var(--myvariable);
}

All I’ve done is swapped out the hard-coded color() value for a custom property but now the browser behaves differently. Instead of getting a red background colour, I get the browser default value. As Lea explains:

…it will make the property invalid at computed value time.

The spec says:

When this happens, the computed value of the property is either the property’s inherited value or its initial value depending on whether the property is inherited or not, respectively, as if the property’s value had been specified as the unset keyword.

So if a browser doesn’t understand the color() function, it’s as if I’ve said:

background-color: unset;

This took me by surprise. I’m so used to being able to rely on the cascade in CSS—it’s one of the most powerful and most useful features in this programming language. Could it be, I wondered, that the powers-that-be have violated the principle of least surprise in specifying this behaviour?

But a note in the spec explains further:

Note: The invalid at computed-value time concept exists because variables can’t “fail early” like other syntax errors can, so by the time the user agent realizes a property value is invalid, it’s already thrown away the other cascaded values.

Ah, right! So first of all browsers figure out the cascade and then they evaluate custom properties. If a custom property evaluates to gobbledygook, it’s too late to figure out what the cascade would’ve fallen back to.

Thinking about it, this makes total sense. Remember that CSS custom properties aren’t like Sass variables. They aren’t evaluated once and then set in stone. They’re more like let than const. They can be updated in real time. You can update them from JavaScript too. It’s entirely possible to update CSS custom properties rapidly in response to events like, say, the user scrolling or moving their mouse. If the browser had to recalculate the cascade every time a custom property didn’t evaluate correctly, I imagine it would be an enormous performance bottleneck.

So even though this behaviour surprised me at first, it makes sense on reflection.

I’ve probably done a terrible job explaining the behaviour here, so I’ve made a Codepen. Although that may also do an equally terrible job.

(Thanks to Amber for talking through this with me and encouraging me to blog about it. And thanks to Lea for expanding my mind. Again.)

Photograph

Do you have a favourite non-personal photograph?

By non-personal, I mean one that isn’t directly related to your life; photographs of family members, friends, travel (remember travel?).

Even discounting those photographs, there’s still a vast pool of candidates. There are all the amazing pictures taken by photojournalists like Lee Miller. There’s all the awe-inspiring wildlife photography out there. Then there are the kind of posters that end up on bedroom walls, like Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss.

One of my favourite photographs of all time has music as its subject matter. No, not Johnny Cash flipping the bird, although I believe this picture to be just as rock’n’roll.

In the foreground, Séamus Ennis sits with his pipes. In the background, Jean Ritchie is leaning intently over her recording equipment.

This is a photograph of Séamus Ennis and Jean Ritchie. It was probably taken around 1952 or 1953 by Ritchie’s husband, George Pickow, when Jean Ritchie and Alan Lomax were in Ireland to do field recordings.

I love everything about it.

Séamus Ennis looks genuinely larger than life (which, by all accounts, he was). And just look at the length of those fingers! Meanwhile Jean Ritchie is equally indominatable, just as much as part of the story as the musician she’s there to record.

Both of them have expressions that convey how intent they are on their machines—Ennis’s uilleann pipes and Ritchie’s tape recorder. It’s positively steampunk!

What a perfect snapshot of tradition and technology meeting slap bang in the middle of the twentieth century.

Maybe that’s why I love it so much. One single photograph is filled with so much that’s dear to me—traditional Irish music meets long-term archival preservation.

Future Sync 2020

I was supposed to be in Plymouth yesterday, giving the opening talk at this year’s Future Sync conference. Obviously, that train journey never happened, but the conference did.

The organisers gave us speakers the option of pre-recording our talks, which I jumped on. It meant that I wouldn’t be reliant on a good internet connection at the crucial moment. It also meant that I was available to provide additional context—mostly in the form of a deluge of hyperlinks—in the chat window that accompanied the livestream.

The whole thing went very smoothly indeed. Here’s the video of my talk. It was The Layers Of The Web, which I’ve only given once before, at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin last November (in the Before Times).

As well as answering questions in the chat room, people were also asking questions in Sli.do. But rather than answering those questions there, I was supposed to respond in a social medium of my choosing. I chose my own website, with copies syndicated to Twitter.

Here are those questions and answers…

The first few questions were about last years’s CERN project, which opens the talk:

Based on what you now know from the CERN 2019 WorldWideWeb Rebuild project—what would you have done differently if you had been part of the original 1989 Team?

I responded:

Actually, I think the original WWW project got things mostly right. If anything, I’d correct what came later: cookies and JavaScript—those two technologies (which didn’t exist on the web originally) are the source of tracking & surveillance.

The one thing I wish had been done differently is I wish that JavaScript were a same-origin technology from day one:

https://adactio.com/journal/16099

Next question:

How excited were you when you initially got the call for such an amazing project?

My predictable response:

It was an unbelievable privilege! I was so excited the whole time—I still can hardly believe it really happened!

https://adactio.com/journal/14803

https://adactio.com/journal/14821

Later in the presentation, I talked about service workers and progressive web apps. I got a technical question about that:

Is there a limit to the amount of local storage a PWA can use?

I answered:

Great question! Yes, there are limits, but we’re generally talking megabytes here. It varies from browser to browser and depends on the available space on the device.

But files stored using the Cache API are less likely to be deleted than files stored in the browser cache.

More worrying is the announcement from Apple to only store files for a week of browser use:

https://adactio.com/journal/16619

Finally, there was a question about the over-arching theme of the talk…

Great talk, Jeremy. Do you encounter push-back when using the term “Progressive Enhancement”?

My response:

Yes! …And that’s why I never once used the phrase “progressive enhancement” in my talk. 🙂

There’s a lot of misunderstanding of the term. Rather than correct it, I now avoid it:

https://adactio.com/journal/9195

Instead of using the phrase “progressive enhancement”, I now talk about the benefits and effects of the technique: resilience, universality, etc.

Future Sync Distributed 2020

A reading of The Enormous Space by J.G. Ballard

Staying at home triggered a memory for me. I remembered reading a short story many years ago. It was by J.G. Ballard, and it described a man who makes the decision not to leave the house.

Being a J.G. Ballard story, it doesn’t end there. Over the course of the story, the house grows and grows in size, forcing the protaganist into ever-smaller refuges within his own home. It really stuck with me.

I tried tracking it down with some Duck Duck Going. Searching for “j.g. ballard weird short story” doesn’t exactly narrow things down, but eventually I spotted the book that I had read the story in. It was called War Fever. I think I read it back when I was living in Germany, so that would’ve been in the ’90s. I certainly don’t have a copy of the book any more.

But I was able to look up a table of contents and find a title for the story that was stuck in my head. It’s called The Enormous Space.

Alas, I couldn’t find any downloadable versions—War Fever doesn’t seem to be available for the Kindle.

Then I remembered the recent announcement from the Internet Archive that it was opening up the National Emergency Library. The usual limits on “checking out” books online are being waived while physical libraries remain closed.

I found The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard and borrowed it just long enough to re-read The Enormous Space.

If anything, it’s creepier and weirder than I remembered. But it’s laced with more black comedy than I remembered.

I thought you might like to hear this story, so I made a recording of myself reading The Enormous Space.

Apple’s attack on service workers

Apple aren’t the best at developer relations. But, bad as their communications can be, I’m willing to cut them some slack. After all, they’re not used to talking with the developer community.

John Wilander wrote a blog post that starts with some excellent news: Full Third-Party Cookie Blocking and More. Safari is catching up to Firefox and disabling third-party cookies by default. Wonderful! I’ve had third-party cookies disabled for a few years now, and while something occassionally breaks, it’s honestly a pretty great experience all around. Denying companies the ability to track users across sites is A Good Thing.

In the same blog post, John said that client-side cookies will be capped to a seven-day lifespan, as previously announced. Just to be clear, this only applies to client-side cookies. If you’re setting a cookie on the server, using PHP or some other server-side language, it won’t be affected. So persistent logins are still doable.

Then, in an audacious example of burying the lede, towards the end of the blog post, John announces that a whole bunch of other client-side storage technologies will also be capped to seven days. Most of the technologies are APIs that, like cookies, can be used to store data: Indexed DB, Local Storage, and Session Storage (though there’s no mention of the Cache API). At the bottom of the list is this:

Service Worker registrations

Okay, let’s clear up a few things here (because they have been so poorly communicated in the blog post)…

The seven day timer refers to seven days of Safari usage, not seven calendar days (although, given how often most people use their phones, the two are probably interchangable). So if someone returns to your site within a seven day period of using Safari, the timer resets to zero, and your service worker gets a stay of execution. Lucky you.

This only applies to Safari. So if your site has been added to the home screen and your web app manifest has a value for the “display” property like “standalone” or “full screen”, the seven day timer doesn’t apply.

That piece of information was missing from the initial blog post. Since the blog post was updated to include this clarification, some people have taken this to mean that progressive web apps aren’t affected by the upcoming change. Not true. Only progressive web apps that have been added to the home screen (and that have an appropriate “display” value) will be spared. That’s a vanishingly small percentage of progressive web apps, especially on iOS. To add a site to the home screen on iOS, you need to dig and scroll through the share menu to find the right option. And you need to do this unprompted. There is no ambient badging in Safari to indicate that a site is installable. Chrome’s install banner isn’t perfect, but it’s better than nothing.

Just a reminder: a progressive web app is a website that

  • runs on HTTPS,
  • has a service worker,
  • and a web manifest.

Adding to the home screen is something you can do with a progressive web app (or any other website). It is not what defines progressive web apps.

In any case, this move to delete service workers after seven days of using Safari is very odd, and I’m struggling to find the connection to the rest of the blog post, which is about technologies that can store data.

As I understand it, with the crackdown on setting third-party cookies, trackers are moving to first-party technologies. So whereas in the past, a tracking company could tell its customers “Add this script element to your pages”, now they have to say “Add this script element and this script file to your pages.” That JavaScript file can then store a unique idenitifer on the client. This could be done with a cookie, with Local Storage, or with Indexed DB, for example. But I’m struggling to understand how a service worker script could be used in this way. I’d really like to see some examples of this actually happening.

The best explanation I can come up with for this move by Apple is that it feels like the neatest solution. That’s neat as in tidy, not as in nifty. It is definitely not a nifty solution.

If some technologies set by a specific domain are being purged after seven days, then the tidy thing to do is purge all technologies from that domain. Service workers are getting included in that dragnet.

Now, to be fair, browsers and operating systems are free to clean up storage space as they see fit. Caches, Local Storage, Indexed DB—all of those are subject to eventually getting cleaned up.

So I was curious. Wanting to give Apple the benefit of the doubt, I set about trying to find out how long service worker registrations currently last before getting deleted. Maybe this announcement of a seven day time limit would turn out to be not such a big change from current behaviour. Maybe currently service workers last for 90 days, or 60, or just 30.

Nope:

There was no time limit previously.

This is not a minor change. This is a crippling attack on service workers, a technology specifically designed to improve the user experience for return visits, whether it’s through improved performance or offline access.

I wouldn’t be so stunned had this announcement come with an accompanying feature that would allow Safari users to know when a website is a progressive web app that can be added to the home screen. But Safari continues to ignore the existence of progressive web apps. And now it will actively discourage people from using service workers.

If you’d like to give feedback on this ludicrous development, you can file a bug (down in the cellar in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying “Beware of the Leopard”).

No doubt there will still be plenty of Apple apologists telling us why it’s good that Safari has wished service workers into the cornfield. But make no mistake. This is a terrible move by Apple.

I will say this though: given The Situation we’re all living in right now, some good ol’ fashioned Hot Drama by a browser vendor behaving badly feels almost comforting.

Telling the story of performance

At Clearleft, we’ve worked with quite a few clients on site redesigns. It’s always a fascinating process, particularly in the discovery phase. There’s that excitement of figuring out what’s currently working, what’s not working, and what’s missing completely.

The bulk of this early research phase is spent diving into the current offering. But it’s also the perfect time to do some competitor analysis—especially if we want some answers to the “what’s missing?” question.

It’s not all about missing features though. Execution is equally important. Our clients want to know how their users’ experience shapes up compared to the competition. And when it comes to user experience, performance is a huge factor. As Andy says, performance is a UX problem.

There’s no shortage of great tools out there for measuring (and monitoring) performance metrics, but they’re mostly aimed at developers. Quite rightly. Developers are the ones who can solve most performance issues. But that does make the tools somewhat impenetrable if you don’t speak the language of “time to first byte” and “first contentful paint”.

When we’re trying to show our clients the performance of their site—or their competitors—we need to tell a story.

Web Page Test is a terrific tool for measuring performance. It can also be used as a story-telling tool.

You can go to webpagetest.org/easy if you don’t need to tweak settings much beyond the typical site visit (slow 3G on mobile). Pop in your client’s URL and, when the test is done, you get a valuable but impenetrable waterfall chart. It’s not exactly the kind of thing I’d want to present to a client.

Fortunately there’s an attention-grabbing output from each test: video. Download the video of your client’s site loading. Then repeat the test with the URL of a competitor. Download that video too. Repeat for as many competitor URLs as you think appropriate.

Now take those videos and play them side by side. Presentation software like Keynote is perfect for showing multiple videos like this.

This is so much more effective than showing a table of numbers! Clients get to really feel the performance difference between their site and their competitors.

Running all those tests can take time though. But there are some other tools out there that can give a quick dose of performance information.

SpeedCurve recently unveiled Page Speed Benchmarks. You can compare the performance of sites within a particualar sector like travel, retail, or finance. By default, you’ll get a filmstrip view of all the sites loading side by side. Click through on each one and you can get the video too. It might take a little while to gather all those videos, but it’s quicker than using Web Page Test directly. And it might be that the filmstrip view is impactful enough for telling your performance story.

If, during your discovery phase, you find that performance is being badly affected by third-party scripts, you’ll need some way to communicate that. Request Map Generator is fantastic for telling that story in a striking visual way. Pop the URL in there and then take a screenshot of the resulting visualisation.

The beginning of a redesign project is also the time to take stock of current performance metrics so that you can compare the numbers after your redesign launches. Crux.run is really great for tracking performance over time. You won’t get any videos but you will get some very appealing charts and graphs.

Web Page Test, Page Speed Benchmarks, and Request Map Generator are great for telling the story of what’s happening with performance right nowCrux.run balances that with the story of performance over time.

Measuring performance is important. Communicating the story of performance is equally important.

Install prompt

There’s an interesting thread on Github about the tongue-twistingly named beforeinstallpromt JavaScript event.

Let me back up…

Progressive web apps. You know what they are, right? They’re websites that have taken their vitamins. Specifically, they’re responsive websites that:

  1. are served over HTTPS,
  2. have a web app manifest, and
  3. have a service worker handling the offline scenario.

The web app manifest—a JSON file of metadata—is particularly useful for describing how your site should behave if someone adds it to their home screen. You can specify what icon should be used. You can specify whether the site should launch in a browser or as a standalone app (practically indistinguishable from a native app). You can specify which URL on the site should be used as the starting point when the site is launched from the home screen.

So progressive web apps work just fine when you visit them in a browser, but they really shine when you add them to your home screen. It seems like pretty much everyone is in agreement that adding a progressive web app to your home screen shouldn’t be an onerous task. But how does the browser let the user know that it might be a good idea to “install” the web site they’re looking at?

The Samsung Internet browser does ambient badging—a + symbol shows up to indicate that a website can be installed. This is a great approach!

I hope that Chrome on Android will also use ambient badging at some point. To start with though, Chrome notified users that a site was installable by popping up a notification at the bottom of the screen. I think these might be called “toasts”.

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome. And there’s the “add to home screen” prompt for https://html5forwebdesigners.com/ HTTPS + manifest.json + Service Worker = “Add to Home Screen” prompt. Add to home screen.

Needless to say, the toast notification wasn’t very effective. That’s because we web designers and developers have spent years teaching people to immediately dismiss those notifications without even reading them. Accept our cookies! Sign up to our newsletter! Install our native app! Just about anything that’s user-hostile gets put in a notification (either a toast or an overlay) and shoved straight in the user’s face before they’ve even had time to start reading the content they came for in the first place. Users will then either:

  1. turn around and leave, or
  2. use muscle memory reach for that X in the corner of the notification.

A tiny fraction of users might actually click on the call to action, possibly by mistake.

Chrome didn’t abandon the toast notification for progressive web apps, but it did change when they would appear. Rather than the browser deciding when to show the prompt—usually when the user has just arrived on the site—a new JavaScript event called beforeinstallprompt can be used.

It’s a bit weird though. You have to “capture” the event that fires when the prompt would have normally been shown, subdue it, hold on to that event, and then re-release it when you think it should be shown (like when the user has completed a transaction, for example, and having your site on the home screen would genuinely be useful). That’s a lot of hoops. Here’s the code I use on The Session to only show the installation prompt to users who are logged in.

The end result is that the user is still shown a toast notification, but at least this time it’s the site owner who has decided when it will be shown. The Chrome team call this notification “the mini-info bar”, and Pete acknowledges that it’s not ideal:

The mini-infobar is an interim experience for Chrome on Android as we work towards creating a consistent experience across all platforms that includes an install button into the omnibox.

I think “an install button in the omnibox” means ambient badging in the browser interface, which would be great!

Anyway, back to that thread on Github. Basically, neither Apple nor Mozilla are going to implement the beforeinstallprompt event (well, technically Mozilla have implemented it but they’re not going to ship it). That’s fair enough. It’s an interim solution that’s not ideal for all reasons I’ve already covered.

But there’s a lot of pushback. Even if the details of beforeinstallprompt are troublesome, surely there should be some way for site owners to let users know that can—or should—install a progressive web app? As a site owner, I have a lot of sympathy for that viewpoint. But I also understand the security and usability issues that can arise from bad actors abusing this mechanism.

Still, I have to hand it to Chrome: even if we put the beforeinstallprompt event to one side, the browser still has a mechanism for letting users know that a progressive web app can be installed—the mini info bar. It’s not a great mechanism, but it’s better than nothing. Nothing is precisely what Firefox and Safari currently offer (though Firefox is experimenting with something).

In the case of Safari, not only do they not provide a mechanism for letting the user know that a site can be installed, but since the last iOS update, they’ve buried the “add to home screen” option even deeper in the “sharing sheet” (the list of options that comes up when you press the incomprehensible rectangle-with-arrow-emerging-from-it icon). You now have to scroll below the fold just to find the “add to home screen” option.

So while I totally get the misgivings about beforeinstallprompt, I feel that a constructive alternative wouldn’t go amiss.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Except… there’s another interesting angle to that Github thread. There’s talk of allowing sites that are launched from the home screen to have access to more features than a site inside a web browser. Usually permissions on the web are explicitly granted or denied on a case-by-case basis: geolocation; notifications; camera access, etc. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of one action—adding to the home screen—being used as a proxy for implicitly granting more access. Very interesting. Although that idea seems to be roundly rejected here:

A key argument for using installation in this manner is that some APIs are simply so powerful that the drive-by web should not be able to ask for them. However, this document takes the position that installation alone as a restriction is undesirable.

Then again:

I understand that Chromium or Google may hold such a position but Apple’s WebKit team may not necessarily agree with such a position.

Mental models

I’ve found that the older I get, the less I care about looking stupid. This is remarkably freeing. I no longer have any hesitancy about raising my hand in a meeting to ask “What’s that acronym you just mentioned?” This sometimes has the added benefit of clarifying something for others in the room who might have been to shy to ask.

I remember a few years back being really confused about npm. Fortunately, someone who was working at npm at the time came to Brighton for FFConf, so I asked them to explain it to me.

As I understood it, npm was intended to be used for managing packages of code for Node. Wasn’t it actually called “Node Package Manager” at one point, or did I imagine that?

Anyway, the mental model I had of npm was: npm is to Node as PEAR is to PHP. A central repository of open source code projects that you could easily add to your codebase …for your server-side code.

But then I saw people talking about using npm to manage client-side JavaScript. That really confused me. That’s why I was asking for clarification.

It turns out that my confusion was somewhat warranted. The npm project had indeed started life as a repo for server-side code but had since expanded to encompass client-side code too.

I understand how it happened, but it confirmed a worrying trend I had noticed. Developers were writing front-end code as though it were back-end code.

On the one hand, that makes total sense when you consider that the code is literally in the same programming language: JavaScript.

On the other hand, it makes no sense at all! If your code’s run-time is on the server, then the size of the codebase doesn’t matter that much. Whether it’s hundreds or thousands of lines of code, the execution happens more or less independentally of the network. But that’s not how front-end development works. Every byte matters. The more code you write that needs to be executed on the user’s device, the worse the experience is for that user. You need to limit how much you’re using the network. That means leaning on what the browser gives you by default (that’s your run-time environment) and keeping your code as lean as possible.

Dave echoes my concerns in his end-of-the-year piece called The Kind of Development I Like:

I now think about npm and wonder if it’s somewhat responsible for some of the pain points of modern web development today. Fact is, npm is a server-side technology that we’ve co-opted on the client and I think we’re feeling those repercussions in the browser.

Writing back-end and writing front-end code require very different approaches, in my opinion. But those differences have been erased in “modern” JavaScript.

The Unix Philosophy encourages us to write small micro libraries that do one thing and do it well. The Node.js Ecosystem did this in spades. This works great on the server where importing a small file has a very small cost. On the client, however, this has enormous costs.

In a funny way, this situation reminds me of something I saw happening over twenty years ago. Print designers were starting to do web design. They had a wealth of experience and knowledge around colour theory, typography, hierarchy and contrast. That was all very valuable to bring to the world of the web. But the web also has fundamental differences to print design. In print, you can use as many typefaces as you want, whereas on the web, to this day, you need to be judicious in the range of fonts you use. But in print, you might have to limit your colour palette for cost reasons (depending on the printing process), whereas on the web, colours are basically free. And then there’s the biggest difference of all: working within known dimensions of a fixed page in print compared to working within the unknowable dimensions of flexible viewports on the web.

Fast forward to today and we’ve got a lot of Computer Science graduates moving into front-end development. They’re bringing with them a treasure trove of experience in writing robust scalable code. But web browsers aren’t like web servers. If your back-end code is getting so big that it’s starting to run noticably slowly, you can throw more computing power at it by scaling up your server. That’s not an option on the front-end where you don’t really have one run-time environment—your end users have their own run-time environment with its own constraints around computing power and network connectivity.

That’s a very, very challenging world to get your head around. The safer option is to stick to the mental model you’re familiar with, whether you’re a print designer or a Computer Science graduate. But that does a disservice to end users who are relying on you to deliver a good experience on the World Wide Web.

Periodic background sync

Yesterday I wrote about how much I’d like to see silent push for the web:

I’d really like silent push for the web—the ability to update a cache with fresh content as soon as it’s published; that would be nifty! At the same time, I understand the concerns. It feels more powerful than other permission-based APIs like notifications.

Today, John Holt Ripley responded on Twitter:

hi there, just read your blog post about Silent Push for acthe web, and wondering if Periodic Background Sync would cover a few of those use cases?

Periodic background sync looks very interesting indeed!

It’s not the same as silent push. As the name suggests, this is about your service worker waking up periodically and potentially fetching (and caching) fresh content from the network. So the service worker is polling rather than receiving a push. But I’ll take it! It’s definitely close enough for the kind of use-cases I’ve been thinking about.

Interestingly, periodic background sync also ties into the other part of what I was writing about: permissions. I mentioned that adding a site the home screen could be interpreted as a signal to potentially allow more permissions (or at least allow prompts for more permissions).

Well, Chromium has a document outlining metrics for attempting to gauge site engagement. There’s some good thinking in there.

Indy web

It was Indie Web Camp Brighton on the weekend. After a day of thought-provoking discussions, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the second day tinkering on my website.

For a while now, I’ve wanted to add maps to my monthly archive pages (to accompany the calendar heatmaps I added at a previous Indie Web Camp). Whenever I post anything to my site—a blog post, a note, a link—it’s timestamped and geotagged. I thought it would be fun to expose that in a glanceable way. A map seems like the right medium for that, but I wanted to avoid the obvious route of dropping a load of pins on a map. Instead I was looking for something more like the maps in Indiana Jones films—a line drawn from place to place to show the movement over time.

I talked to Aaron about this and his advice was that a client-side JavaScript embedded map would be the easiest option. But that seemed like overkill to me. This map didn’t need to be pannable or zoomable; just glanceable. So I decided to see if how far I could get with a static map. I timeboxed two hours for it.

After two hours, I admitted defeat.

I was able to find the kind of static maps I wanted from Mapbox—I’m already using them for my check-ins. I could even add a polyline, which is exactly what I wanted. But instead of passing latitude and longitude co-ordinates for the points on the polyline, the docs explain that I needed to provide …cur ominous thunder and lightning… The Encoded Polyline Algorithm Format.

Go to that link. I’ll wait.

Did you read through the eleven steps of instructions? Did you also think it was a piss take?

  1. Take the initial signed value.
  2. Multiply it by 1e5.
  3. Convert that decimal value to binary.
  4. Left-shift the binary value one bit.
  5. If the original decimal value is negative, invert this encoding.
  6. Break the binary value out into 5-bit chunks.
  7. Place the 5-bit chunks into reverse order.
  8. OR each value with 0x20 if another bit chunk follows.
  9. Convert each value to decimal.
  10. Add 63 to each value.
  11. Convert each value to its ASCII equivalent.

This was way beyond my brain’s pay grade. But surely someone else had written the code I needed? I did some Duck Duck Going and found a piece of PHP code to do the encoding. It didn’t work. I Ducked Ducked and Went some more. I found a different piece of PHP code. That didn’t work either.

At this point, my allotted time was up. If I wanted to have something to demo by the end of the day, I needed to switch gears. So I did.

I used Leaflet.js to create the maps I wanted using client-side JavaScript. Here’s the JavaScript code I wrote.

It waits until the page has finished loading, then it searches for any instances of the h-geo microformat (a way of encoding latitude and longitude coordinates in HTML). If there are three or more, it generates a script element to pull in the Leaflet library, and a corresponding style element. Then it draws the map with the polyline on it. I ended up using Stamen’s beautiful watercolour map tiles.

Had some fun at Indie Web Camp Brighton on the weekend messing around with @Stamen’s lovely watercolour map tiles. (I was trying to create Indiana Jones style travel maps for my site …a different kind of Indy web.)

That’s what I demoed at the end of the day.

But I wasn’t happy with it.

Sure, it looked good, but displaying the map required requests for a script, a style sheet, and multiple map tiles. I made sure that it didn’t hold up the loading of the rest of the page, but it still felt wasteful.

So after Indie Web Camp, I went back to investigate static maps again. This time I did finally manage to find some PHP code for encoding lat/lon coordinates into a polyline that worked. Finally I was able to construct URLs for a static map image that displays a line connecting multiple points with a line.

I’ve put this maps on any of the archive pages that also have calendar heat maps. Some examples:

If you go back much further than that, the maps start to trail off. That’s because I wasn’t geotagging everything from the start.

I’m pretty happy with the final results. It’s certainly far more responsible from a performance point of view. Oh, and I’ve also got the maps inside a picture element so that I can swap out the tiles if you switch to dark mode.

It’s a shame that I can’t use the lovely Stamen watercolour tiles for these static maps though.

The Web Share API in Safari on iOS

I implemented the Web Share API over on The Session back when it was first available in Chrome in Android. It’s a nifty and quite straightforward API that allows websites to make use of the “sharing drawer” that mobile operating systems provide from within a web browser.

I already had sharing buttons that popped open links to Twitter, Facebook, and email. You can see these sharing buttons on individual pages for tunes, recordings, sessions, and so on.

I was already intercepting clicks on those buttons. I didn’t have to add too much to also check for support for the Web Share API and trigger that instead:

if (navigator.share) {
  navigator.share(
    {
      title: document.querySelector('title').textContent,
      text: document.querySelector('meta[name="description"]').getAttribute('content'),
      url: document.querySelector('link[rel="canonical"]').getAttribute('href')
    }
  );
}

That worked a treat. As you can see, there are three fields you can pass to the share() method: title, text, and url. You don’t have to provide all three.

Earlier this year, Safari on iOS shipped support for the Web Share API. I didn’t need to do anything. ‘Cause that’s how standards work. You can make use of APIs before every browser supports them, and then your website gets better and better as more and more browsers add support.

But I recently discovered something interesting about the iOS implementation.

When the share() method is triggered, iOS provides multiple ways of sharing: Messages, Airdrop, email, and so on. But the simplest option is the one labelled “copy”, which copies to the clipboard.

Here’s the thing: if you’ve provided a text parameter to the share() method then that’s what’s going to get copied to the clipboard—not the URL.

That’s a shame. Personally, I think the url field should take precedence. But I don’t think this is a bug, per se. There’s nothing in the spec to say how operating systems should handle the data sent via the Web Share API. Still, I think it’s a bit counterintuitive. If I’m looking at a web page, and I opt to share it, then surely the URL is the most important piece of data?

I’m not even sure where to direct this feedback. I guess it’s under the purview of the Safari team, but it also touches on OS-level interactions. Either way, I hope that somebody at Apple will consider changing the current behaviour for copying Web Share data to the clipboard.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to update my code to remove the text parameter:

if (navigator.share) {
  navigator.share(
    {
      title: document.querySelector('title').textContent,
      url: document.querySelector('link[rel="canonical"]').getAttribute('href')
    }
  );
}

If the behaviour of Safari on iOS changes, I’ll reinstate the missing field.

By the way, if you’re making progressive web apps that have display: standalone in the web app manifest, please consider using the Web Share API. When you remove the browser chrome, you’re removing the ability for users to easily share URLs. The Web Share API gives you a way to reinstate that functionality.