Journal tags: cc

94

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Accessibility testing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Accent all areas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I welcome this new CSS condom.

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

:root {
  accent-color: rebeccapurple;
}

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

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

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

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

SafarIE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hosting online events

Back in 2014 Vitaly asked me if I’d be the host for Smashing Conference in Freiburg. I jumped at the chance. I thought it would be an easy gig. All of the advantages of speaking at a conference without the troublesome need to actually give a talk.

As it turned out, it was quite a bit of work:

It wasn’t just a matter of introducing each speaker—there was also a little chat with each speaker after their talk, so I had to make sure I was paying close attention to each and every talk, thinking of potential questions and conversation points. After two days of that, I was a bit knackered.

Last month, I hosted an other event, but this time it was online: UX Fest. Doing the post-talk interviews was definitely a little weirder online. It’s not quite the same as literally sitting down with someone. But the online nature of the event did provide one big advantage…

To minimise technical hitches on the day, and to ensure that the talks were properly captioned, all the speakers recorded their talks ahead of time. That meant I had an opportunity to get a sneak peek at the talks and prepare questions accordingly.

UX Fest had a day of talks every Thursday in June. There were four talks per Thursday. I started prepping on the Monday.

First of all, I just watched all the talks and let them wash me over. At this point, I’d often think “I’m not sure if I can come up with any questions for this one!” but I’d let the talks sit there in my subsconscious for a while. This was also a time to let connections between talks bubble up.

Then on the Tuesday and Wednesday, I went through the talks more methodically, pausing the video every time I thought of a possible question. After a few rounds of this, I inevitably ended up with plenty of questions, some better than others. So I then re-ordered them in descending levels of quality. That way if I didn’t get to the questions at the bottom of the list, it was no great loss.

In theory, I might not get to any of my questions. That’s because attendees could also ask questions on the day via a chat window. I prioritised those questions over my own. Because it’s not about me.

On some days there was a good mix of audience questions and my own pre-prepared questions. On other days it was mostly my own questions.

Either way, it was important that I didn’t treat the interview like a laundry list of questions to get through. It was meant to be a conversation. So the answer to one question might touch on something that I had made a note of further down the list, in which case I’d run with that. Or the conversation might go in a really interesting direction completely unrelated to the questions or indeed the talk.

Above all, these segments needed to be engaging and entertaining in a personable way, more like a chat show than a post-game press conference. So even though I had done lots of prep for interviewing each speaker, I didn’t want to show my homework. I wanted each interview to feel like a natural flow.

To quote the old saw, this kind of spontaneity takes years of practice.

There was an added complication when two speakers shared an interview slot for a joint Q&A. Not only did I have to think of questions for each speaker, I also had to think of questions that would work for both speakers. And I had to keep track of how much time each person was speaking so that the chat wasn’t dominated by one person more than the other. This was very much like moderating a panel, something that I enjoy very much.

In the end, all of the prep paid off. The conversations flowed smoothly and I was happy with some of the more thought-provoking questions that I had researched ahead of time. The speakers seemed happy too.

Y’know, there are not many things I’m really good at. I’m a mediocre developer, and an even worse designer. I’m okay at writing. But I’m really good at public speaking. And I think I’m pretty darn good at this hosting lark too.

Safari 15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the plans were on display…”

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

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

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

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

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

Still, those coloured tab bars are very nice.

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

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

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

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

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

The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Good form

I got a text this morning at 9:40am. It was from the National Health Service, NHS. It said:

You are now eligible for your free NHS coronavirus vaccination. Please book online at https://www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination or by calling 119. You will need to provide your name, date of birth and postcode. Your phone number has been obtained from your GP records.

Well, it looks like I timed turning fifty just right!

I typed that URL in on my laptop. It redirected to a somewhat longer URL. There’s a very clear call-to-action to “Book or manage your coronavirus vaccination.” On that page there’s very clear copy about who qualifies for vaccination. I clicked on the “Book my appointments” button.

From there, it’s a sequence of short forms, clearly labelled. Semantic accessible HTML, some CSS, and nothing more. If your browser doesn’t support JavaScript (or you’ve disabled it for privacy reasons), that won’t make any difference to your experience. This is the design system in action and it’s an absolute pleasure to experience.

I consider myself relatively tech-savvy so I’m probably not the best judge of the complexity of the booking system, but it certainly seemed to be as simple as possible (but no simpler). It feels like the principle of least power in action.

SMS to HTML (with a URL as the connective tissue between the two). And if those technologies aren’t available, there’s still a telephone number, and finally, a letter by post.

This experience reminded me of where the web really excels. It felt a bit like the web-driven outdoor dining I enjoyed last summer:

Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

A native app would’ve been complete overkill. That may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often the overkill option is the default.

Give me a URL—either by SMS or QR code or written down—and make sure that when I arrive at that URL, the barrier to entry is as low as possible.

Maybe I’ll never need to visit that URL again. In the case of the NHS, I hope I won’t need to visit again. I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.

In five days time, I will get my first vaccine jab. I’m very thankful. Thank you to the NHS. Thank you to everyone who helped build the booking process. It’s beautiful.

Accessibility on the Clearleft podcast

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

The latest episode is on a topic close to my heart: accessibility. But I get out of the way early on and let much smarter folks do the talking. In this case, it’s a power trio of Laura, Cassie, and Léonie. It even features a screen-reader demo by Léonie.

I edited the episode pretty tightly so it comes in at just under 15 minutes. I’m sure you can find 15 minutes of your busy day to set aside for a listen.

If you like what you hear, please spread the word about the Clearleft podcast and pop that RSS feed into your podcast player of choice.

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.

Lists

We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft. In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

aria-live

I wrote a little something recently about using ARIA attributes as selectors in CSS. For me, one of the advantages is that because ARIA attributes are generally added via JavaScript, the corresponding CSS rules won’t kick in if something goes wrong with the JavaScript:

Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML).

But there’s one instance where I actually put the ARIA attribute directly in the HTML that gets sent from the server: aria-live.

If you’re not familiar with it, aria-live is extremely useful if you’ve got any dynamic updates on your page—via Ajax, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of your site where filtered results will show up. Slap an aria-live attribute on there with a value of “polite”:

<div aria-live="polite">
...dynamic content gets inserted here
</div>

You could instead provide a value of “assertive”, but you almost certainly don’t want to do that—it can be quite rude.

Anyway, on the face it, this looks like exactly the kind of ARIA attribute that should be added with JavaScript. After all, if there’s no JavaScript, there’ll be no dynamic updates.

But I picked up a handy lesson from Ire’s excellent post on using aria-live:

Assistive technology will initially scan the document for instances of the aria-live attribute and keep track of elements that include it. This means that, if we want to notify users of a change within an element, we need to include the attribute in the original markup.

Good to know!

ARIA in CSS

Sara tweeted something recently that resonated with me:

Also, Pro Tip: Using ARIA attributes as CSS hooks ensures your component will only look (and/or function) properly if said attributes are used in the HTML, which, in turn, ensures that they will always be added (otherwise, the component will obv. be broken)

Yes! I didn’t mention it when I wrote about accessible interactions but this is my preferred way of hooking up CSS and JavaScript interactions. Here’s old Codepen where you can see it in action:

[aria-hidden='true'] {
  display: none;
}

In order for the functionality to work for everyone—screen reader users or not—I have to make sure that I’m toggling the value of aria-hidden in my JavaScript.

There’s another advantage to this technique. Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML). If something goes wrong with the JavaScript, the aria-hidden value isn’t set to “true”, which means that the CSS never kicks in. So the default state is for content to be displayed. There’s no assumption that the JavaScript has to work in order for the CSS to make sense.

It’s almost as though accessibility and progressive enhancement are connected somehow…

Accessible interactions

Accessibility on the web is easy. Accessibility on the web is also hard.

I think it’s one of those 80/20 situations. The most common accessibility problems turn out to be very low-hanging fruit. Take, for example, Holly Tuke’s list of the 5 most annoying website features she faces as a blind person every single day:

  • Unlabelled links and buttons
  • No image descriptions
  • Poor use of headings
  • Inaccessible web forms
  • Auto-playing audio and video

None of those problems are hard to fix. That’s what I mean when I say that accessibility on the web is easy. As long as you’re providing a logical page structure with sensible headings, associating form fields with labels, and providing alt text for images, you’re at least 80% of the way there (you’re also doing way better than the majority of websites, sadly).

Ah, but that last 20% or so—that’s where things get tricky. Instead of easy-to-follow rules (“Always provide alt text”, “Always label form fields”, “Use sensible heading levels”), you enter an area of uncertainty and doubt where there are no clear answers. Different combinations of screen readers, browsers, and operating systems might yield very different results.

This is the domain of interaction design. Here be dragons. ARIA can help you …but if you overuse its power, it may cause more harm than good.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by this, I find it’s helpful to take a step back. Instead of trying to imagine all the possible permutations of screen readers and browsers, I start with a more straightforward use case: keyboard users. Keyboard users are (usually) a subset of screen reader users.

The pattern that comes up the most is to do with toggling content. I suppose you could categorise this as progressive disclosure, but I’m talking about quite a wide range of patterns:

  • accordions,
  • menus (including mega menu monstrosities),
  • modal dialogs,
  • tabs.

In each case, there’s some kind of “trigger” that toggles the appearance of a “target”—some chunk of content.

The first question I ask myself is whether the trigger should be a button or a link (at the very least you can narrow it down to that shortlist—you can discount divs, spans, and most other elements immediately; use a trigger that’s focusable and interactive by default).

As is so often the case, the answer is “it depends”, but generally you can’t go wrong with a button. It’s an element designed for general-purpose interactivity. It carries the expectation that when it’s activated, something somewhere happens. That’s certainly true in all the examples I’ve listed above.

That said, I think that links can also make sense in certain situations. It’s related to the second question I ask myself: should the target automatically receive focus?

Again, the answer is “it depends”, but here’s the litmus test I give myself: how far away from each other are the trigger and the target?

If the target content is right after the trigger in the DOM, then a button is almost certainly the right element to use for the trigger. And you probably don’t need to automatically focus the target when the trigger is activated: the content already flows nicely.

<button>Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But if the target is far away from the trigger in the DOM, I often find myself using a good old-fashioned hyperlink with a fragment identifier.

<a href="#target">Trigger Text</a>
…
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

Let’s say I’ve got a “log in” link in the main navigation. But it doesn’t go to a separate page. The design shows it popping open a modal window. In this case, the markup for the log-in form might be right at the bottom of the page. This is when I think there’s a reasonable argument for using a link. If, for any reason, the JavaScript fails, the link still works. But if the JavaScript executes, then I can hijack that link and show the form in a modal window. I’ll almost certainly want to automatically focus the form when it appears.

The expectation with links (as opposed to buttons) is that you will be taken somewhere. Let’s face it, modal dialogs are like fake web pages so following through on that expectation makes sense in this context.

So I can answer my first two questions:

  • “Should the trigger be a link or button?” and
  • “Should the target be automatically focused?”

…by answering a different question:

  • “How far away from each other are the trigger and the target?”

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it helps me out when I’m unsure.

At this point I can write some JavaScript to make sure that both keyboard and mouse users can interact with the interactive component. There’ll certainly be an addEventListener(), some tabindex action, and maybe a focus() method.

Now I can start to think about making sure screen reader users aren’t getting left out. At the very least, I can toggle an aria-expanded attribute on the trigger that corresponds to whether the target is being shown or not. I can also toggle an aria-hidden attribute on the target.

When the target isn’t being shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="false",
  • the target has aria-hidden="true".

When the target is shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="true",
  • the target has aria-hidden="false".

There’s also an aria-controls attribute that allows me to explicitly associate the trigger and the target:

<button aria-controls="target">Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But don’t assume that’s going to help you. As Heydon put it, aria-controls is poop. Still, Léonie points out that you can still go ahead and use it. Personally, I find it a useful “hook” to use in my JavaScript so I know which target is controlled by which trigger.

Here’s some example code I wrote a while back. And here are some old Codepens I made that use this pattern: one with a button and one with a link. See the difference? In the example with a link, the target automatically receives focus. But in this situation, I’d choose the example with a button because the trigger and target are close to each other in the DOM.

At this point, I’ve probably reached the limits of what can be abstracted into a single trigger/target pattern. Depending on the specific component, there might be much more work to do. If it’s a modal dialog, for example, you’ve got to figure out where to put the focus, how to trap the focus, and figure out where the focus should return to when the modal dialog is closed.

I’ve mostly been talking about websites that have some interactive components. If you’re building a single page app, then pretty much every single interaction needs to be made accessible. Good luck with that. (Pro tip: consider not building a single page app—let the browser do what it has been designed to do.)

Anyway, I hope this little stroll through my thought process is useful. If nothing else, it shows how I attempt to cope with an accessibility landscape that looks daunting and ever-changing. Remember though, the fact that you’re even considering this stuff means you care more than most web developers. And you are not alone. There are smart people out there sharing what they learn. The A11y Project is a great hub for finding resources.

And when it comes to interactive patterns like the trigger/target examples I’ve been talking about, there’s one more question I ask myself: what would Heydon do?

Web browsers on iOS

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to. The app store doesn’t allow other browsers to be listed. The apps called Chrome and Firefox are little more than skinned versions of Safari.

If you’re a web developer, there are two possible reactions to hearing this. One is “Duh! Everyone knows that!”. The other is “What‽ I never knew that!”

If you fall into the first category, I’m guessing you’ve been a web developer for a while. The fact that Safari is the only browser on iOS devices is something you’ve known for years, and something you assume everyone else knows. It’s common knowledge, right?

But if you’re relatively new to web development—heck, if you’ve been doing web development for half a decade—you might fall into the second category. After all, why would anyone tell you that Safari is the only browser on iOS? It’s common knowledge, right?

So that’s the situation. Safari is the only browser that can run on iOS. The obvious follow-on question is: why?

Apple at this point will respond with something about safety and security, which are certainly important priorities. So let me rephrase the question: why on iOS?

Why can I install Chrome or Firefox or Edge on my Macbook running macOS? If there are safety or security reasons for preventing me from installing those browsers on my iOS device, why don’t those same concerns apply to my macOS device?

At one time, the mobile operating system—iOS—was quite different to the desktop operating system—OS X. Over time the gap has narrowed. At this point, the operating systems are converging. That makes sense. An iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook aren’t all that different apart from the form factor. It makes sense that computing devices from the same company would share an underlying operating system.

As this convergence continues, the browser question is going to have to be decided in one direction or the other. As it is, Apple’s laptops and desktops strongly encourage you to install software from their app store, though it is still possible to install software by other means. Perhaps they’ll decide that their laptops and desktops should only be able to install software from their app store—a decision they could justify with safety and security concerns.

Imagine that situation. You buy a computer. It comes with one web browser pre-installed. You can’t install a different web browser on your computer.

You wouldn’t stand for it! I mean, Microsoft got fined for anti-competitive behaviour when they pre-bundled their web browser with Windows back in the 90s. You could still install other browsers, but just the act of pre-bundling was seen as an abuse of power. Imagine if Windows never allowed you to install Netscape Navigator?

And yet that’s exactly the situation in 2020.

You buy a computing device from Apple. It might be a Macbook. It might be an iPad. It might be an iPhone. But you can only install your choice of web browser on one of those devices. For now.

It is contradictory. It is hypocritical. It is indefensible.

Design ops on the Clearleft podcast

The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is out. If you’re a subscriber, it will magically appear in your podcast software of choice using the power of RSS. If you’re not a subscriber, it isn’t too late to change that.

This week’s episode is all about design ops. I began contructing the episode by gathering raw material from talks at Leading Design. There’s good stuff from Kim Fellman, Jacqui Frey, Courtney Kaplan, and Meredith Black.

But as I was putting the snippets together, I felt like the episode was missing something. It needed a bit of oomph. So I harangued Andy for some of his time. I wasn’t just fishing for spicy hot takes—something that Andy is known for. Andy is also the right person to explain design ops. If you search for that term, one of the first results you’ll get is a post he wrote on the Clearleft blog a few years back called Design Ops — A New Discipline.

I remember helping Andy edit that post and I distinctly recall my feedback. The initial post didn’t have a definition of the term, and I felt that a definition was necessary (and Andy added one to the post).

My cluenessness about the meaning of terms like “design ops” or “service design” isn’t some schtick I’m putting on for the benefit of the podcast. I’m genuinely trying to understand these terms better. I don’t like the feeling of hearing a term being used a lot without a clear understanding of what that term means. All too often my understanding feels more like “I think I know it means, but I’m not sure I could describe it.” I’m not comfortable with that.

Making podcast episodes on these topics—which are outside my comfort zone—has been really helpful. I now feel like I have a much better understanding of service design, design ops and other topical terms. I hope that the podcast will be just as helpful for listeners who feel as bamboozled as I do.

Ben Holliday recently said:

The secret of design being useful in many places is not talking about design too much and just getting on with it. I sometimes think we create significant language barriers with job titles, design theory and making people learn a new language for the privilege of working with us.

I think there’s some truth to that. Andy disagrees. Strongly.

In our chat, Andy and I had what politicians would describe as “a robust discussion.” I certainly got some great material for the podcast (though some of the more contentious bits remain on the cutting room floor).

Calling on Andy for this episode was definitely the right call. I definitely got the added oomph I was looking for. In fact, this ended up being one of my favourite episodes.

There’s a lot of snappy editing, all in service of crafting a compelling narrative. First, there’s the origin story of design ops. Then there’s an explanation of what it entails. From around the 13 minute mark, there’s a pivot—via design systems—into asking whether introducing a new term is exclusionary. That’s when the sparks start to fly. Finally, I pull it back to talking about how Clearleft can help in providing design ops as a service.

The whole episode comes out at 21 minutes, which feels just right to me.

I’m really pleased with how this episode turned out, and I hope you’ll like it too. Have a listen and decide for yourself.

Accessibility

There’s a new project from Igalia called Open Prioritization:

An experiment in crowd-funding prioritization of new feature implementations for web browsers.

There is some precedent for this. There was a crowd-funding campaign for Yoav Weiss to implement responsive images in Blink a while back. The difference with the Open Prioritization initiative is that it’s also a kind of marketplace for which web standards will get the funding.

Examples include implementing the CSS lab() colour function in Firefox or implementing the :not() pseudo-class in Chrome. There are also some accessibility features like the :focus-visible pseudo-class and the inert HTML attribute.

I must admit, it makes me queasy to see accessibility features go head to head with other web standards. I don’t think a marketplace is the right arena for prioritising accessibility.

I get a similar feeling of discomfort when a presentation or article on accessibility spends a fair bit of time describing the money that can be made by ensuring your website is accessible. I mean, I get it: you’re literally leaving money on the table if you turn people away. But that’s not the reason to ensure your website is accessible. The reason to ensure that your website is accessible is that it’s the right thing to do.

I know that people are uncomfortable with moral arguments, but in this case, I believe it’s important that we keep sight of that.

I understand how it’s useful to have the stats and numbers to hand should you need to convince a sociopath in your organisation, but when numbers are used as the justification, you’re playing the numbers game from then on. You’ll probably have to field questions like “Well, how many screen reader users are visiting our site anyway?” (To which the correct answer is “I don’t know and I don’t care”—even if the number is 1, the website should still be accessible because it’s the right thing to do.)

It reminds of when I was having a discussion with a god-bothering friend of mine about the existence or not of a deity. They made the mistake of trying to argue the case for God based on logic and reason. Those arguments didn’t hold up. But had they made their case based on the real reason for their belief—which is faith—then their position would have been unassailable. I literally couldn’t argue against faith. But instead, by engaging in the rules of logic and reason, they were applying the wrong justification to their stance.

Okay, that’s a bit abstract. How about this…

In a similar vein to talks or articles about accessibility, talks or articles about diversity often begin by pointing out the monetary gain to be had. It’s true. The data shows that companies that are more diverse are also more profitable. But again, that’s not the reason for having a diverse group of people in your company. The reason for having a diverse group of people in your company is that it’s the right thing to do. If you tie the justification for diversity to data, then what happens should the data change? If a new study showed that diverse companies were less profitable, is that a reason to abandon diversity? Absolutely not! If your justification isn’t tied to numbers, then it hardly matters what the numbers say (though it does admitedly feel good to have your stance backed up).

By the way, this is also why I don’t think it’s a good idea to “sell” design systems on the basis of efficiency and cost-savings if the real reason you’re building one is to foster better collaboration and creativity. The fundamental purpose of a design system needs to be shared, not swapped out based on who’s doing the talking.

Anyway, back to accessibility…

A marketplace, to me, feels like exactly the wrong kind of place for accessibility to defend its existence. By its nature, accessibility isn’t a mainstream issue. I mean, think about it: it’s good that accessibility issues affect a minority of people. The fewer, the better. But even if the number of people affected by accessibility were to trend downwards and dwindle, the importance of accessibility should remain unchanged. Accessibility is important regardless of the numbers.

Look, if I make a website for a client, I don’t offer accessibility as a line item with a price tag attached. I build in accessibility by default because it’s the right thing to do. The only way to ensure that accessibility doesn’t get negotiated away is to make sure it’s not up for negotiation.

So that’s why I feel uncomfortable seeing accessibility features in a popularity contest.

I think that markets are great. I think competition is great. But I don’t think it works for everything (like, could you imagine applying marketplace economics to healthcare or prisons? Nightmare!). I concur with Iain M. Banks:

The market is a good example of evolution in action; the try-everything-and-see-what- -works approach. This might provide a perfectly morally satisfactory resource-management system so long as there was absolutely no question of any sentient creature ever being treated purely as one of those resources.

If Igalia or Mozilla or Google or Apple implement an accessibility feature because they believe that accessibility is important and deserves prioritisation, that’s good. If they implement the same feature just because it received a lot of votes …that doesn’t strike me as a good thing.

I guess it doesn’t matter what the reason is as long as the end result is the same, right? But I suspect that what we’ll see is that the accessibility features up for bidding on Open Prioritization won’t be the winners.

Announcing the Clearleft podcast

I’ve been working on something new for the past few months and now I’d like to share it with you…

The Clearleft Podcast.

Now I know what you’re thinking: aren’t there enough podcasts in the world already? Well, frankly, no. Unless you also concede that there are enough books and records and films in the world already too (to be fair, this is a reasonable thought to have when you’re navigating Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix).

In any case, this podcast is going to be a bit different.

In our field, the usual podcast format is in the form of a conversation: a host or hosts interviewing a guest or guests. Those are great. I’ve certainly enjoyed being the guest on many a great podcast. But I wanted to do something a bit more like an audio documentary.

If you’ve seen a lot of documentaries you’ll know that there are two key factors to getting a great story:

  1. the source material and
  2. the editing.

That’s what makes the Clearleft podcast different.

For the source material, I’ve interviewed my colleagues at Clearleft as well as our peers in other companies. I’ve also gathered great material from conference talks—we’ve got a wealth of wonderful insights from multiple editions of events like UX London, Leading Design, Ampersand, Responsive Day Out, Patterns Day, and dConstruct.

A lot of work has gone into the editing. It probably works out at about an hour of work per minute of podcast. I know that seems excessive, but I really wanted to get a snappy feel for each episode, juxtaposing multiple viewpoints.

The focus of the episode will be around a particular topic rather than a person and will feature lots of different voices woven together. The really challenging part is threading a good narrative. It’s kind of like preparing a conference talk in that respect—I’ve always found the narrative thread to be the hardest but most rewarding part of putting a talk together.

It’s simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking to put this out into the world. But I think you’re going to enjoy it.

Visit the website for the podcast and choose your preferred method of subscribing. There’s the RSS feed, but the Clearleft podcast is also available on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Deezer, TuneIn, Castro, and Overcast.

The first episode will go live later this week. In the meantime, there’s a short trailer to give you a taste of what’s to come.

The episodes will be grouped together into seasons. I reckon a season will around six episodes long. So you can expect the first season to be released over the next six weeks.

Hope you like it!

podcast.clearleft.com

Insecure

Universal access is at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s also something I value when I’m building anything on the web. Whatever I’m building, I want you to be able to visit using whatever browser or device that you choose.

Just to be clear, that doesn’t mean that you’re going to have the same experience in an old browser as you are in the latest version of Firefox or Chrome. Far from it. Not only is that not feasible, I don’t believe it’s desirable either. But if you’re using an old browser, while you might not get to enjoy the newest CSS or JavaScript, you should still be able to access a website.

Applying the principle of progressive enhancement makes this emminently doable. As long as I build in a layered way, everyone gets access to the barebones HTML, even if they can’t experience newer features. Crucially, as long as I’m doing some feature detection, those newer features don’t harm older browsers.

But there’s one area where maintaining backward compatibility might well have an adverse effect on modern browsers: security.

I don’t just mean whether or not you’re serving sites over HTTPS. Even if you’re using TLS—Transport Layer Security—not all security is created equal.

Take a look at Mozilla’s very handy SSL Configuration Generator. You get to choose from three options:

  1. Modern. Services with clients that support TLS 1.3 and don’t need backward compatibility.
  2. Intermediate. General-purpose servers with a variety of clients, recommended for almost all systems.
  3. Old. Compatible with a number of very old clients, and should be used only as a last resort.

Because I value universal access, I should really go for the “old” setting. That ensures my site is accessible all the way back to Android 2.3 and Safari 1. But if I do that, I will be supporting TLS 1.0. That’s not good. My site is potentially vulnerable.

Alright then, I’ll go for “intermediate”—that’s the recommended level anyway. Now I’m no longer providing TLS 1.0 support. But that means some older browsers can no longer access my site.

This is exactly the situation I found myself in with The Session. I had a score of A+ from SSL Labs. I was feeling downright smug. Then I got emails from actual users. One had picked up an old Samsung tablet second hand. Another was using an older version of Safari. Neither could access the site.

Sure enough, if you cut off TLS 1.0, you cut off Safari below version six.

Alright, then. Can’t they just upgrade? Well …no. Apple has tied Safari to OS X. If you can’t upgrade your operating system, you can’t upgrade your browser. So if you’re using OS X Mountain Lion, you’re stuck with an insecure version of Safari.

Fortunately, you can use a different browser. It’s possible to install, say, Firefox 37 which supports TLS 1.2.

On desktop, that is. If you’re using an older iPhone or iPad and you can’t upgrade to a recent version of iOS, you’re screwed.

This isn’t an edge case. This is exactly the kind of usage that iPads excel at: you got the device a few years back just to do some web browsing and not much else. It still seems to work fine, and you have no incentive to buy a brand new iPad. And nor should you have to.

In that situation, you’re stuck using an insecure browser.

As a site owner, I can either make security my top priority, which means you’ll no longer be able to access my site. Or I can provide you access, which makes my site less secure for everyone. (That’s what I’ve done on The Session and now my score is capped at B.)

What I can’t do is tell you to install a different browser, because you literally can’t. Sure, technically you can install something called Firefox from the App Store, or you can install something called Chrome. But neither have anything to do with their desktop counterparts. They’re differently skinned versions of Safari.

Apple refuses to allow browsers with any other rendering engine to be installed. Their reasoning?

Security.

Design systems roundup

When I started writing a post about architects, gardeners, and design systems, it was going to be a quick follow-up to my post about web standards, dictionaries, and design systems. I had spotted an interesting metaphor in one of Frank’s posts, and I thought it was worth jotting it down.

But after making that connection, I kept writing. I wanted to point out the fetishism we have for creation over curation; building over maintenance.

Then the post took a bit of a dark turn. I wrote about how the most commonly cited reasons for creating a design system—efficiency and consistency—are the same processes that have led to automation and dehumanisation in the past.

That’s where I left things. Others have picked up the baton.

Dave wrote a post called The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it. What I said resonated with him:

This kills me, but it’s true. We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it. We operate more like Taylor and his stopwatch and Gantt and his charts, maximizing effort and impact rather than focusing on the human aspects of product development.

But he also points out the many benefits of systemetising:

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Emphasis mine. I think that’s a key phrase: “a willing team.”

Ethan tackles this in his post The design systems we swim in:

A design system that optimizes for consistency relies on compliance: specifically, the people using the system have to comply with the system’s rules, in order to deliver on that promised consistency. And this is why that, as a way of doing something, a design system can be pretty dehumanizing.

But a design system need not be a constraining straitjacket—a means of enforcing consistency by keeping creators from colouring outside the lines. Used well, a design system can be a tool to give creators more freedom:

Does the system you work with allow you to control the process of your work, to make situational decisions? Or is it simply a set of rules you have to follow?

This is key. A design system is the product of an organisation’s culture. That’s something that Brad digs into his post, Design Systems, Agile, and Industrialization:

I definitely share Jeremy’s concern, but also think it’s important to stress that this isn’t an intrinsic issue with design systems, but rather the organizational culture that exists or gets built up around the design system. There’s a big difference between having smart, reusable patterns at your disposal and creating a dictatorial culture designed to enforce conformity and swat down anyone coloring outside the lines.

Brad makes a very apt comparison with Agile:

Not Agile the idea, but the actual Agile reality so many have to suffer through.

Agile can be a liberating empowering process, when done well. But all too often it’s a quagmire of requirements, burn rates, and story points. We need to make sure that design systems don’t suffer the same fate.

Jeremy’s thoughts on industrialization definitely struck a nerve. Sure, design systems have the ability to dehumanize and that’s something to actively watch out for. But I’d also say to pay close attention to the processes and organizational culture we take part in and contribute to.

Matthew Ström weighed in with a beautifully-written piece called Breaking looms. He provides historical context to the question of automation by relaying the story of the Luddite uprising. Automation may indeed be inevitable, according to his post, but he also provides advice on how to approach design systems today:

We can create ethical systems based in detailed user research. We can insist on environmental impact statements, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and human rights reports. We can write design principles, document dark patterns, and educate our colleagues about accessibility.

Finally, the ouroboros was complete when Frank wrote down his thoughts in a post called Who cares?. For him, the issue of maintenance and care is crucial:

Care applies to the built environment, and especially to digital technology, as social media becomes the weather and the tools we create determine the expectations of work to be done and the economic value of the people who use those tools. A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement. Tools are always beholden to values. This is well-trodden territory.

Well-trodden territory indeed. Back in 2015, Travis Gertz wrote about Design Machines:

Designing better systems and treating our content with respect are two wonderful ideals to strive for, but they can’t happen without institutional change. If we want to design with more expression and variation, we need to change how we work together, build design teams, and forge our tools.

Also on the topic of automation, in 2018 Cameron wrote about Design systems and technological disruption:

Design systems are certainly a new way of thinking about product development, and introduce a different set of tools to the design process, but design systems are not going to lessen the need for designers. They will instead increase the number of products that can be created, and hence increase the demand for designers.

And in 2019, Kaelig wrote:

In order to be fulfilled at work, Marx wrote that workers need “to see themselves in the objects they have created”.

When “improving productivity”, design systems tooling must be mindful of not turning their users’ craft into commodities, alienating them, like cogs in a machine.

All of this is reminding me of Kranzberg’s first law:

Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.

I worry that sometimes the messaging around design systems paints them as an inherently positive thing. But design systems won’t fix your problems:

Just stay away from folks who try to convince you that having a design system alone will solve something.

It won’t.

It’s just the beginning.

At the same time, a design system need not be the gateway drug to some kind of post-singularity future where our jobs have been automated away.

As always, it depends.

Remember what Frank said:

A well-made design system created for the right reasons is reparative. One created for the wrong reasons becomes a weapon for displacement.

The reasons for creating a design system matter. Those reasons will probably reflect the values of the company creating the system. At the level of reasons and values, we’ve gone beyond the bounds of the hyperobject of design systems. We’re dealing in the area of design ops—the whys of systemising design.

This is why I’m so wary of selling the benefits of design systems in terms of consistency and efficiency. Those are obviously tempting money-saving benefits, but followed to their conclusion, they lead down the dark path of enforced compliance and eventually, automation.

But if the reason you create a design system is to empower people to be more creative, then say that loud and proud! I know that creativity, autonomy and empowerment is a tougher package to sell than consistency and efficiency, but I think it’s a battle worth fighting.

Design systems are neither good nor bad (nor are they neutral).

Addendum: I’d just like to say how invigorating it’s been to read the responses from Dave, Ethan, Brad, Matthew, and Frank …all of them writing on their own websites. Rumours of the demise of blogging may have been greatly exaggerated.

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.