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Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Drag’n’drop revisited

I got a message from a screen-reader user of The Session recently, letting me know of a problem they were having. I love getting any kind of feedback around accessibility, so this was like gold dust to me.

They pointed out that the drag’n’drop interface for rearranging the order of tunes in a set was inaccessible.

Drag and drop

Of course! I slapped my forehead. How could I have missed this?

It had been a while since I had implemented that functionality, so before even looking at the existing code, I started to think about how I could improve the situation. Maybe I could capture keystroke events from the arrow keys and announce changes via ARIA values? That sounded a bit heavy-handed though: mess with people’s native keyboard functionality at your peril.

Then I looked at the code. That was when I realised that the fix was going to be much, much easier than I thought.

I documented my process of adding the drag’n’drop functionality back in 2016. Past me had his progressive enhancement hat on:

One of the interfaces needed for this feature was a form to re-order items in a list. So I thought to myself, “what’s the simplest technology to enable this functionality?” I came up with a series of select elements within a form.

Reordering

The problem was in my feature detection:

There’s a little bit of mustard-cutting going on: does the dragula object exist, and does the browser understand querySelector? If so, the select elements are hidden and the drag’n’drop is enabled.

The logic was fine, but the execution was flawed. I was being lazy and hiding the select elements with display: none. That hides them visually, but it also hides them from screen readers. I swapped out that style declaration for one that visually hides the elements, but keeps them accessible and focusable.

It was a very quick fix. I had the odd sensation of wanting to thank Past Me for making things easy for Present Me. But I don’t want to talk about time travel because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws.

I pushed the fix, told the screen-reader user who originally contacted me, and got a reply back saying that everything was working great now. Success!

How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier

Alright! It’s day two of An Event Apart in Seattle. The first speaker of the day is Chris Coyier. His talk is called How to Think Like a Front-End Developer. From the website:

The job title “front-end developer” is very real: job boards around the world confirm that. But what is that job, exactly? What do you need to know to do it? You might think those answers are pretty cut and dried, but they’re anything but; front-end development is going through something of an identity crisis. In this engaging talk, Chris will explore this identity through the lens of someone who has self-identified as a front-end developer for a few decades, but more interestingly, through many conversations he’s had with other successful front-end developers. You’ll see just how differently this job can be done and how differently people and companies can think of this role—not just for the sake of doing so, but because you’ll learn to be better at your own jobs by understanding how other people are good at theirs.

I’m going to see if I can keep up with Chris’s frenetic pace…

Chris has his own thoughts about what front-end dev is but he wants to share other ideas too. First of all, some grammar:

I work as a front-end developer.

I work on the front end.

Those are correct. These are not:

I work as a front end developer.

I work on the front-end.

And this is just not a word:

Frontend.

Lots of people are hiring front-end developers. So it’s definitely a job and a common job title. But what does it mean. Chris and Dave talked to eight different people on their Shop Talk Show podcast. Some highlights:

Eric feels that the term “front-end developer” is newer than the CSS Zen Garden. Everyone was a webmaster, or as we’d say now, a full-stack developer. But if someone back then used the term “front-end developer”, he’d know what it meant.

Mina says it deals with things you can see. If it’s a user-facing interface, that’s front-end development.

Trent says that he thinks of himself as a web designer and web builder. He doesn’t feel he has the deep expertise of a developer, and yet he spends all of his time in the browser.

So our job is in the browser. You deal with the browser (moreso than other roles). And by the way, there are a lot of browsers out there.

Maybe the user is what differentiates front-end work. Monica says that a back-end developer is allowed not to care about the user if their job is putting a database together. It’s totally fine not to call yourself a front-end developer, but if you do, you need to care about the user.

There are tons of different devices and browsers. It’s overwhelming. So we just gave up.

So, a front-end developer:

  • Is a job and a job title.
  • It deals with browsers, devices, and users.
  • But what skills does it involve?

It’s taken for granted that you can use a computer. There’s also the soft skills of interacting with co-workers. Then there are the language-specific core skills. Finally, there are the bonus skills—all the stuff that makes you you.

Core skills

The languages you need to strongly understand to read, write and maintain them.

HTML and CSS. Definitely. You don’t come across front-end developers who don’t do those languages. But what about JavaScript?

Eric says it’s fine if you know lots of JavaScript but it’s also fine if you don’t write everything from scratch. But you can’t be oblivious to it. You need to understand what it can do.

So let’s put JavaScript into the bucket of core skills too.

Peggy believes that as a front-end developer you need to have a basic proficiency in accessibility too. This is, after all, about user-facing interfaces.

Bonus skills

The Figma team have a somewhat over-engineered graphic of all the skillsets that people might have, between “baseline” and “supplementary”.

Perhaps we all share a common trunk of skills, and then we branch in different directions.

Right now though, it feels like front-end development is having an identity crisis. It’s all about JavaScript, which is eating the planet.

JavaScript

JavaScript is crazy popular now. It’s unignorable. Yes, it’s the language in the browser, but now it’s also the language in loads of other places too.

Steven Davis says maybe we need to fork the term front-end development. Maybe we need to have UX engineers and JavaScript engineers. Can one person be great at both? Maybe the trunk of skills forks in two very different directions.

Vernon Joyce called this an identity crisis. The concepts in JavaScript frameworks are very alien to people with a background in HTML, CSS, and basic interactive JavaScript.

You could imagine two people called front-end developers meeting, and having nothing in common to talk about. Maybe sports.

Brad says he doesn’t want to be configuring build tools. He thinks of himself as being at the front of front-end development, whereas other people are at the back of front-end development.

This divide is super frustrating to people right now.

Hiring

Michael Schnarnagl brings up the point about how it’s affecting hiring. Back-end developers are being replaced with JavaScript engineers. Lots of things that used to be back-end tasks are now happening on the client side. Component-driven design, site-level architecture, routing, getting data from the back end, mutating data, talking to APIs, and managing state—all of those things are now largely a front-end concern.

Let’s look at CodePen. There’s a little heart icon on each pen. It’s an icon component. And the combination of the heart and the overall count is also a component. And the bar of items altogether—that’s also a component. And the pen it sits under is a component. And the page it’s in is a component. And the URL for that page is a component. Now the whole site is a front-end developer’s concern.

In the past, a front-end developer would ask a back-end developer for an API endpoint. Now with GraphQL, the front-end developer can craft a query to get exactly what they need. Sure, the GraphQL stuff had to be set up in the first place, but that’s one-time task. Once it’s set up, the front-end developer has everything they need.

All the old work hasn’t gone away either. Semantics, accessibility, styling—that’s still the work of a front-end developer as well as all of the new stuff listed above.

Hiring is a big part of this. Lara Schenk talks about going for an interview where she met 90% of the skills listed. Then in an interview, she was asked to do a fizzbuzz test. That’s not the way that Lara thinks. She would’ve been great for that job, but this single task derailed her. She wrote about it, and got snarky comments from people who thought she should’ve been able to do the task. But Lara’s main point was the mismatch between what was advertised and what was actually being hired for.

You see a job posting for front-end developer. Who is that for? Is it for someone into React, webpack, and GraphQL? Or is it for someone into SVG, interaction design, and accessibility? They’re both front-end developers. And remember, they can learn one another’s skills, but when it comes to hiring, it has to be about the skills people have right now.

Peggy talks about how specialised your work can be. You can specialise in SVG. You can specialise in APIs and data.

We’re probably not going to solve this right now. The hiring part is definitely the worst part right now. One solution is to use plain language in job posts. Make it clear what you’re looking for right now and explain what background you’re coming from. Use words instead of a laundry list of requirements.

Heydon Pickering talks about full-stack developers. Their core skills are hardcore computer science skills.

Brad Frost concurs. It tends not to be the other way around. The output tends to be the badly-sketched front of the horse.

Even if there is a divide, that doesn’t absolve any of us from doing a good job. That’s true whether it’s computer science tasks or markup and CSS.

Despite the divide, performance, accessibility, and user experience are all our jobs.

Maybe this term “front-end developer” needs rethinking.

The brain game

Let’s peak into the minds of very different front-end developers. Chris and Dave went to Dribbble, pulled up a bunch of designs and put them in front of their guests on the Shop Talk Show.

Here’s a design of a page.

  • Brad looks at the design and sees a lot of components of different sizes and complexity.
  • Mina sees a bunch of media objects.
  • Eric sees HTML structures. That’s a heading. That’s a list. Over there is an unordered list.
  • Sam sees a lot of typography. She sees a type system.
  • Trent immediately starts thinking about how the design is supposed to work in different screen sizes.

Here’s a different, more image-heavy design.

  • Mina would love to tackle the animations.
  • Trent sees interesting textures and noise. He wonders how he could achieve those effects without exporting giant image files.
  • Brad, unsurprisingly, sees components, even in a seemingly bespoke layout.
  • Eric immediately sees a lot of SVG.
  • Sam needs to know what the HTML is.

Here’s a more geometric design.

  • Sam is drawn to the typography.
  • Mina sees an opportunity to use writing modes.
  • Trent sees a design that would reflow and reshape itself well.
  • Eric sees something with writing mode, grid, and custom fonts.

Here’s a financial mobile UI.

  • Trent wants to run it through a colour-contrast analyser, and he wants to know if the font size is too small.

Here’s a crazy festival website.

  • Mina wonders if it needs a background video, but worries about the performance.

Here’s an on-trend mobile design.

  • Monica sees something that looks like every other website.
  • Ben wonders whether it will work in other parts of the world. How will the interactions work? Separate pages or transitions? How will it feel?

Here’s an image-heavy design.

  • Monica wonders about the priority of which images to load first.

Here’s an extreme navigation with big images.

  • Ben worries about the performance on slow connections.
  • Monica gets stressed out about how much happens when you just click on a link.
  • Peggy sees something static and imagines using Gatsby for it.

Here’s a design that’s map-based.

  • Ben worries about the size of the touch targets.
  • Monica sees an opportunity to use SVGs.

Here’s a card UI.

  • Ben wonders what the browser support is. Can we use CSS grid or do we have to use something older?
  • Monica worries that this needs drag’n’drop. Now you’ve got a nightmare scenario.

Chris has been thinking about and writing about this topic of what makes someone a front-end developer, and what makes someone a good front-end developer. The debate will continue…

Accessibility on The Session

I spent some time this weekend working on an accessibility issue over on The Session. Someone using VoiceOver on iOS was having a hard time with some multi-step forms.

These forms have been enhanced with some Ajax to add some motion design: instead of refreshing the whole page, the next form is grabbed from the server while the previous one swooshes off the screen.

You can see similar functionality—without the animation—wherever there’s pagination on the site.

The pagination is using Ajax to enhance regular prev/next links—here’s the code.

The multi-step forms are using Ajax to enhance regular form submissions—here’s the code for that.

Both of those are using a wrapper I wrote for XMLHttpRequest.

That wrapper also adds some ARIA attributes. The region of the page that will be updated gets an aria-live value of polite. Then, whenever new content is being injected, the same region gets an aria-busy value of true. Once the update is done, the aria-busy value gets changed back to false.

That all seems to work fine, but I was also giving the same region of the page an aria-atomic value of true. My thinking was that, because the whole region was going to be updated with new content from the server, it was safe to treat it as one self-contained unit. But it looks like this is what was causing the problem, especially when I was also adding and removing class values on the region in order to trigger animations. VoiceOver seemed to be getting a bit confused and overly verbose.

I’ve removed the aria-atomic attribute now. True to its name, I’m guessing it’s better suited to small areas of a document rather than big chunks. (If anyone has a good primer on when to use and when to avoid aria-atomic, I’m all ears).

I was glad I was able to find a fix—hopefully one that doesn’t negatively impact the experience in other screen readers. As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.

It also led to a nice discussion with some of the screen-reader users on The Session.

For me, all of this really highlights the beauty of the web, when everyone is able to contribute to a community like The Session, regardless of what kind of software they may be using. In the tunes section, that’s really helped by the use of ABC notation, as I wrote five years ago:

One of those screen-reader users got in touch with me shortly after joining to ask me to explain what ABC was all about. I pointed them at some explanatory links. Once the format “clicked” with them, they got quite enthused. They pointed out that if the sheet music were only available as an image, it would mean very little to them. But by providing the ABC notation alongside the sheet music, they could read the music note-for-note.

That’s when it struck me that ABC notation is effectively alt text for sheet music!

Then, for those of use who can read sheet music, the text of the ABC notation is automatically turned into an SVG image using the brilliant abcjs. It’s like an enhancement that’s applied, I dunno, what’s the word …progressively.

Writing for hiring

Cassie joined Clearleft as a junior front-end developer last year. It’s really wonderful having her around. It’s a win-win situation: she’s enthusiastic and eager to learn; I’m keen to help her skill up in any way I can. And it’s working out great for the company—she has already demonstrated that she can produce quality HTML and CSS.

I’m very happy about Cassie’s success, not just on a personal level, but also from a business perspective. Hiring people into junior roles—when you’ve got the time and ability to train them—is an excellent policy. Hiring Charlotte back in 2014 was Clearleft’s first foray into hiring for a junior front-end dev position and it was a huge success. Cassie is demonstrating that it wasn’t just a fluke.

Alas, we can’t only hire junior developers. We’ve got a lot of work in the pipeline right now and we’re going to need a full-time seasoned developer who can hit the ground running. That’s why Clearleft is recruiting for a senior front-end developer.

As lead developer, Danielle will make the hiring decision, but because she’s so busy on project work right now—hence the need to hire more people—I’m trying to help her out any way I can. I offered to write the job description.

Seeing as I couldn’t just write “A clone of Danielle, please”, I had to think about what makes for a great front-end developer who uses their experience wisely. But I didn’t want to create a list of requirements, and I certainly didn’t want to create a list of specific technologies.

My first instinct was to look at other job ads and take my cue from them. But, let’s face it, most job ads are badly written, and prone to turning into laundry lists. So I decided to just write like I normally would. You know, like a human.

Here’s what I wrote. I hope it’s okay. I don’t really have much to compare it to, other than what I don’t want it to be.

Have a read of it and see what you think. And if you’re an experienced front-end developer who’d like to work by the seaside, you should apply for the role.

Prototypes and production

When we do front-end development at Clearleft, we’re usually delivering production code, often in the form of a component library. That means our priorities are performance, accessibility, robustness, and other markers of quality when it comes to web development.

But every so often, we use the materials of front-end development—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—to produce something that isn’t intended for production. I’m talking about prototyping.

There are plenty of non-code prototyping tools out there, and our designers often reach for them to communicate subtleties like motion design. But when it comes to testing a prototype with real users, it’s hard to beat the flexibility of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Load it up in a browser and away you go.

We do a lot of design sprints, where time is of the essence. The prototype we produce on the penultimate day of the sprint definitely won’t be production quality, but it will be good enough to test.

What’s interesting is that—when it comes to prototyping—our usual front-end priorities can and should go out the window. The priority now is speed. If that means sacrificing semantics or performance, then so be it. If I’m building a prototype and I find myself thinking “now, what’s the right class name for this component?”, then I know I’m in the wrong mindset. That question might be valid for production code, but it’s a waste of time for prototypes.

So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.

Whereas I would think long and hard about the performance impacts of third-party libraries and frameworks on a public project, I won’t give it a second thought when it comes to a prototype. Throw all the JavaScript frameworks and CSS libraries you want at it (although I would argue that in-browser technologies like CSS Grid have made CSS libraries like Bootstrap less necessary, even for prototyping).

Alternating between production projects and prototyping projects can be quite fun, if a little disorienting. It’s almost like I have to flip a switch in my brain to change tracks.

When a prototype is successful, works great, and tests well, there’s a real temptation to use the prototype code as the basis for the final product. Don’t do this! I’ve made that mistake in the past and it always ends badly. I ended up spending far more time trying to wrangle prototype code to a production level than if I had just started from a clean slate.

Build prototypes to test ideas, designs, interactions, and interfaces …and then throw the code away. The value of a prototype is in answering questions and testing hypotheses. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy when it’s time to switch over into production mode.

Of course it should go without saying that you should never, ever release prototype code into production.

And yet…

More and more live sites seem to be built with a prototyping mindset. Weighty JavaScript frameworks are used regardless of appropriateness. Accessibility, if it’s even considered at all, is relegated to an afterthought. Fragile architectures are employed that rely on first loading and then executing JavaScript in order to render basic content. Developer experience is prioritised over user experience.

Heydon recently highlighted an article that offered this tip for aspiring web developers:

As for HTML, there’s not much to learn right away and you can kind of learn as you go, but before making your first templates, know the difference between in-line elements like span and how they differ from block ones like div.

That’s perfectly reasonable advice …if you’re building a prototype. But if you’re building something for public consumption, you have a duty of care to the end users.

Service workers and videos in Safari

Alright, so I’ve already talked about some gotchas when debugging service worker issues. But what if you don’t even realise the problem has anything to do with your service worker?

This is not a hypothetical situation. I encountered this very thing myself. Gather ‘round the campfire, children…

One of the latest case studies on the Clearleft site is a nice write-up by Luke of designing a mobile app for Virgin Holidays. The case study includes a lovely video that demonstrates the log-in flow. I implemented that using a video element (with a poster image). Nice and straightforward. Super easy. All good.

But I hadn’t done my due diligence in browser testing (I guess I didn’t even think of it in this case). Hana informed me that the video wasn’t working at all in Safari. The poster image appeared just fine, but when you clicked on it, the video didn’t load.

I ducked, ducked, and went, uncovering what appeared to be the root of the problem. It seems that Safari is fussy about having servers support something called “byte-range requests”.

I had put the video in question on an Amazon S3 server. I came to the conclusion that S3 mustn’t support these kinds of headers correctly, or something.

Now I had a diagnosis. The next step was figuring out a solution. I thought I might have to move the video off of S3 and onto a server that I could configure a bit more.

Luckily, I never got ‘round to even starting that process. That’s good. Because it turns out that my diagnosis was completely wrong.

I came across a recent post by Phil Nash called Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. The title immediately grabbed my attention. Safari: yes! Video: yes! But service workers …wait a minute!

There’s a section in Phil’s post entitled “Diagnosing the problem”, in which he says:

I first thought it could have something to do with the CDN I’m using. There were some false positives regarding streaming video through a CDN that resulted in some extra research that was ultimately fruitless.

That described my situation exactly. Except Phil went further and nailed down the real cause of the problem:

Nginx was serving correct responses to Range requests. So was the CDN. The only other problem? The service worker. And this broke the video in Safari.

Doh! I hadn’t even thought about service workers!

Phil came up with a solution, and he has kindly shared his code.

I decided to go for a dumber solution:

if ( request.url.match(/\.(mp4)$/) ) {
  return;
}

That tells the service worker to just step out of the way when it comes to video requests. Now the video plays just fine in Safari. It’s a bit of a shame, because I’m kind of penalising all browsers for Safari’s bug, but the Clearleft site isn’t using much video at all, and in any case, it might be good not to fill up the cache with large video files.

But what’s more important than any particular solution is correctly identifying the problem. I’m quite sure I never would’ve been able to fix this issue if Phil hadn’t gone to the trouble of sharing his experience. I’m very, very grateful that he did.

That’s the bigger lesson here: if you solve a problem—even if you think it’s hardly worth mentioning—please, please share your solution. It could make all the difference for someone out there.

An nth-letter selector in CSS

Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.

A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.

I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.

For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a span (and then, becuase that might cause each letter to be read out individually instead of all of them as a single word, we applied some ARIA shenanigans to the containing element). There’s even a JavaScript library—Splitting.js—that will do this for you.

But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?

What if there were an ::nth-letter selector in CSS?

There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got ::first-letter (and now the initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?

It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about ::first-character, ::initial-character, ::nth-character, and so on?

Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?

<p>AB<span>CD</span>EF</p>

Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?

I imagine that implementing ::nth-letter (or ::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.

Take ::first-line, for example. That violates one of the biggest issues in adding new CSS selectors: it’s a selector that depends on layout.

Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the ::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!

(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to ::first-line, but that subset includes font-size so the paradox remains.)

I checked to see if ::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.

So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of ::first-line, an ::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:

The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.

A new selector needs to solve specific use cases. I would argue that all the letter-by-letter uses of variable fonts that we’re seeing demonstrate the use cases, and the number of these examples is only going to increase. The very fact that JavaScript libraries exist to solve this problem shows that there’s a need here (and we’ve seen the pattern of common JavaScript use-cases ending up in CSS before—rollovers, animation, etc.).

Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.

This is not a new suggestion.

Anne Van Kesteren proposed ::nth-letter way back in 2003:

While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have ::nth-line(n), ::nth-letter(n) and ::nth-word(n), any thoughts?

Trent called for ::nth-letter in January 2011:

I think this would be the ideal solution from a web designer’s perspective. No javascript would be required, and 100% of the styling would be handled right where it should be—in the CSS.

Chris repeated the call in October of 2011:

Of all of these “new” selectors, ::nth-letter is likely the most useful.

In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on ::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.

In 2013, Chris (again) included ::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.

Links, tags, and feeds

A little while back, I switched from using Chrome as my day-to-day browser to using Firefox. I could feel myself getting a bit too comfortable with one particular browser, and that’s not good. I reckon it’s good to shake things up a little every now and then. Besides, there really isn’t that much difference once you’ve transferred over bookmarks and cookies.

Unfortunately I’m being bitten by this little bug in Firefox. It causes some of my bookmarklets to fail on certain sites with strict Content Security Policies (and CSPs shouldn’t affect bookmarklets). I might have to switch back to Chrome because of this.

I use bookmarklets throughout the day. There’s the Huffduffer bookmarklet, of course, for whenever I come across a podcast episode or other piece of audio that I want to listen to later. But there’s also my own home-rolled bookmarklet for posting links to my site. It doesn’t do anything clever—it grabs the title and URL of the currently open page and pre-populates a form in a new window, leaving me to add a short description and some tags.

If you’re reading this, then you’re familiar with the “journal” section of adactio.com, but the “links” section is where I post the most. Here, for example, are all the links I posted yesterday. It varies from day to day, but there’s generally a handful.

Should you wish to keep track of everything I’m linking to, there’s a twitterbot you can follow called @adactioLinks. It uses a simple IFTTT recipe to poll my RSS feed of links and send out a tweet whenever there’s a new entry.

Or you can drink straight from the source and subscribe to the RSS feed itself, if you’re still rocking it old-school. But if RSS is your bag, then you might appreciate a way to filter those links…

All my links are tagged. Heavily. This is because all my links are “notes to future self”, and all my future self has to do is ask “what would past me have tagged that link with?” when I’m trying to find something I previously linked to. I end up using my site’s URLs as an interface:

At the front-end gatherings at Clearleft, I usually wrap up with a quick tour of whatever I’ve added that week to:

Well, each one of those tags also has a corresponding RSS feed:

…and so on.

That means you can subscribe to just the links tagged with something you’re interested in. Here’s the full list of tags if you’re interested in seeing the inside of my head.

This also works for my journal entries. If you’re only interested in my blog posts about frontend development, you might want to subscribe to:

Here are all the tags from my journal.

You can even mix them up. For everything I’ve tagged with “typography”—whether it’s links, journal entries, or articles—the URL is:

The corresponding RSS feed is:

You get the idea. Basically, if something on my site is a list of items, chances are there’s a corresponding RSS feeds. Sometimes there might even be a JSON feed. Hack some URLs to see.

Meanwhile, I’ll be linking, linking, linking…

Name That Script! by Trent Walton

Trent is about to pop his AEA cherry and give a talk at An Event Apart in Boston. I’m going to attempt to liveblog this:

How many third-party scripts are loading on our web pages these days? How can we objectively measure the value of these (advertising, a/b testing, analytics, etc.) scripts—considering their impact on web performance, user experience, and business goals? We’ve learned to scrutinize content hierarchy, browser support, and page speed as part of the design and development process. Similarly, Trent will share recent experiences and explore ways to evaluate and discuss the inclusion of 3rd-party scripts.

Trent is going to speak about third-party scripts, which is funny, because a year ago, he never would’ve thought he’d be talking about this. But he realised he needed to pay more attention to:

any request made to an external URL.

Or how about this:

A resource included with a web page that the site owner doesn’t explicitly control.

When you include a third-party script, the third party can change the contents of that script.

Here are some uses:

  • advertising,
  • A/B testing,
  • analytics,
  • social media,
  • content delivery networks,
  • customer interaction,
  • comments,
  • tag managers,
  • fonts.

You get data from things like analytics and A/B testing. You get income from ads. You get content from CDNs.

But Trent has concerns. First and foremost, the user experience effects of poor performance. Also, there are the privacy implications.

Why does Trent—a designer—care about third party scripts? Well, over the years, the areas that Trent pays attention to has expanded. He’s progressed from image comps to frontend to performance to accessibility to design systems to the command line and now to third parties. But Trent has no impact on those third-party scripts. That’s very different to all those other areas.

Trent mostly builds prototypes. Those then get handed over for integration. Sometimes that means hooking it up to a CMS. Sometimes it means adding in analytics and ads. It gets really complex when you throw in third-party comments, payment systems, and A/B testing tools. Oftentimes, those third-party scripts can outweigh all the gains made beforehand. It happens with no discussion. And yet we spent half a meeting discussing a border radius value.

Delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough: I also need to consider the impact of third-party scripts.

Trent has spent the last few months learning about third parties so he can be better equiped to discuss them.

UX, performance and privacy impact

We feel the UX impact every day we browse the web (if we turn off our content blockers). The Food Network site has an intersitial asking you to disable your ad blocker. They promise they won’t spawn any pop-up windows. Trent turned his ad blocker off—the page was now 15 megabytes in size. And to top it off …he got a pop up.

Privacy can harder to perceive. We brush aside cookie notifications. What if the wording was “accept trackers” instead of “accept cookies”?

Remarketing is that experience when you’re browsing for a spatula and then every website you visit serves you ads for spatula. That might seem harmless but allowing access to our browsing history has serious privacy implications.

Web builders are on the front lines. It’s up to us to advocate for data protection and privacy like we do for web standards. Don’t wait to be told.

Categories of third parties

Ghostery categories third-party providers: advertising, comments, customer interaction, essential, site analytics, social media. You can dive into each layer and see the specific third-party services on the page you’re viewing.

Analyse and itemise third-party scripts

We have “view source” for learning web development. For third parties, you need some tool to export the data. HAR files (HTTP ARchive) are JSON files that you can create from most browsers’ network request panel in dev tools. But what do you do with a .har file? The site har.tech has plenty of resources for you. That’s where Trent found the Mac app, Charles. It can open .har files. Best of all, you can export to CSV so you can share spreadsheets of the data.

You can visualise third-party requests with Simon Hearne’s excellent Request Map. It’s quite impactful for delivering a visceral reaction in a meeting—so much more effective than just saying “hey, we have a lot of third parties.” Request Map can also export to CSV.

Know industry averages

Trent wanted to know what was “normal.” He decided to analyse HAR files for Alexa’s top 50 US websites. The result was a massive spreadsheet of third-party providers. There were 213 third-party domains (which is not even the same as the number of requests). There was an average of 22 unique third-party domains per site. The usual suspects were everywhere—Google, Amazon, Facebook, Adobe—but there were many others. You can find an alphabetical index on better.fyi/trackers. Often the lesser-known domains turn out to be owned by the bigger domains.

News sites and shopping sites have the most third-party scripts, unsurprisingly.

Understand benefits

Trent realised he needed to listen and understand why third-party scripts are being included. He found out what tag managers do. They’re funnels that allow you to cram even more third-party scripts onto your website. Trent worried that this was a Pandora’s box. The tag manager interface is easy to access and use. But he was told that it’s more like a way of organising your third-party scripts under one dashboard. But still, if you get too focused on the dashboard, you could lose focus of the impact on load times. So don’t blame the tool: it’s all about how it’s used.

Take action

Establish a centre of excellence. Put standards in place—in a cross-discipline way—to define how third-party scripts are evaluated. For example:

  1. Determine the value to the business.
  2. Avoid redundant scripts and services.
  3. Fit within the established performance budget.
  4. Comply with the organistional privacy policy.

Document those decisions, maybe even in your design system.

Also, include third-party scripts within your prototypes to get a more accurate feel for the performance implications.

On a live site, you can regularly audit third-party scripts on a regular basis. Check to see if any are redundant or if they’re exceeding the performance budget. You can monitor performance with tools like Calibre and Speed Curve to cover the time in between audits.

Make your case

Do competitive analysis. Look at other sites in your sector. It’s a compelling way to make a case for change. WPO Stats is very handy for anecdata.

You can gather comparative data with Web Page Test: you can run a full test, and you can run a test with certain third parties blocked. Use the results to kick off a discussion about the impact of those third parties.

Talk it out

Work to maintain an ongoing discussion with the entire team. As Tim Kadlec says:

Everything should have a value, because everything has a cost.

Why Design Systems Fail by Una Kravets

I’m at An Event Apart Boston where Una is about to talk about design systems, following on from Yesenia’s excellent design systems talk. I’m going to attempt to liveblog it…

Una works at the Bustle Digital Group, which publishes a lot of different properties. She used to work at Watson, at Bluemix and at Digital Ocean. They all have something in common (other than having blue in their logos). They all had design systems that failed.

Design systems are so hot right now. They allow us think in a componentised way, and grow quickly. There are plenty of examples out there, like Polaris from Shopify, the Lightning design sytem from Salesforce, Garden from Zendesk, Gov.uk, and Code For America. Check out Anna’s excellent styleguides.io for more examples.

What exactly is a design system?

It’s a broad term. It can be a styleguide or visual pattern library. It can be design tooling (like a Sketch file). It can be a component library. It can be documentation of design or development usage. It can be voice and tone guidelines.

Styleguides

When Una was in College, she had a print rebranding job—letterheads, stationary, etc. She also had to provide design guidelines. She put this design guide on the web. It had colours, heading levels, type, logo treatments, and so on. It wasn’t for an application, but it was a design system.

Design tooling

Primer by Github is a good example of this. You can download pre-made icons, colours, etc.

Component library

This is where you get the code. Una worked on BUI at Digital Ocean, which described the interaction states of each components and how to customise interactions with JavaScript.

Code usage guidelines

AirBnB has a really good example of this. It’s a consistent code style. You can even include it in your build step with eslint-config-airbnb and stylelint-config-airbnb.

Design usage documentation

Carbon by IBM does a great job of this. It describes the criteria for deciding when to use a pattern. It’s driven by user experience considerations. They also have general guidelines on loading in components—empty states, etc. And they include animation guidelines (separately from Carbon), built on the history of IBM’s magnetic tape machines and typewriters.

Voice and tone guidelines

Of course Mailchimp is the classic example here. They break up voice and tone. Voice is not just what the company is, but what the company is not:

  • Fun but not silly,
  • Confident but not cocky,
  • Smart but not stodgy,
  • and so on.

Voiceandtone.com describes the user’s feelings at different points and how to communicate with them. There are guidelines for app users, and guidelines for readers of the company newsletter, and guidelines for readers of the blog, and so on. They even have examples of when things go wrong. The guidelines provide tips on how to help people effectively.

Why do design systems fail?

Una now asks who in the room has ever started a diet. And who has ever finished a diet? (A lot of hands go down).

Nobody uses it

At Digital Ocean, there was a design system called Buoy version 1. Una helped build a design system called Float. There was also a BUI version 2. Buoy was for product, Float was for the marketing site. Classic example of 927. Nobody was using them.

Una checked the CSS of the final output and the design system code only accounted for 28% of the codebase. Most of the CSS was over-riding the CSS in the design system.

Happy design systems scale good standards, unify component styles and code and reduce code cruft. Why were people adding on instead of using the existing sytem? Because everyone was being judged on different metrics. Some teams were judged on shipping features rather than producing clean code. So the advantages of a happy design systems don’t apply to them.

Investment

It’s like going to the gym. Small incremental changes make a big difference over the long term. If you just work out for three months and then stop, you’ll lose all your progress. It’s like that with design systems. They have to stay in sync with the live site. If you don’t keep it up to date, people just won’t use it.

It’s really important to have a solid core. Accessibility needs to be built in from the start. And the design system needs ownership and dedicated commitment. That has to come from the organisation.

You have to start somewhere.

Communication

Communication is multidimensional; it’s not one-way. The design system owner (or team) needs to act as a bridge between designers and developers. Nobody likes to be told what to do. People need to be involved, and feel like their needs are being addressed. Make people feel like they have control over the process …even if they don’t; it’s like perceived performance—this is perceived involvement.

Ask. Listen. Make your users feel heard. Incorporate feedback.

Buy-in

Good communication is important for getting buy-in from the people who will use the design system. You also need buy-in from the product owners.

Showing is more powerful than telling. Hackathans are like candy to a budding design system—a chance to demonstrate the benefits of a design system (and get feedback). After a hackathon at Digital Ocean, everyone was talking about the design system. Weeks afterwards, one of the developers replaced Bootstrap with BUI, removing 20,000 lines of code! After seeing the impact of a design system, the developers will tell their co-workers all about it.

Solid architecture

You need to build with composability and change in mind. Primer, by Github, has a core package, and then add-ons for, say, marketing or product. That separation of concerns is great. BUI used a similar module-based approach: a core codebase, separate from iconography and grid.

Semantic versioning is another important part of having a solid architecture for your design system. You want to be able to push out minor updates without worrying about breaking changes.

Major.Minor.Patch

Use the same convention in your design files, like Sketch.

What about tech stack choice? Every company has different needs, but one thing Una recommends is: don’t wait to namespace! All your components should have some kind of prefix in the class names so they don’t clash with existing CSS.

Una mentions Solid by Buzzfeed, which I personally think is dreadful (count the number of !important declarations—you can call it “immutable” all you want).

AtlasKit by Atlassian goes all in on React. They’re trying to integrate Sketch into it, but design tooling isn’t solved yet (AirBnB are working on this too). We’re still trying to figure out how to merge the worlds of design and code.

Reduce Friction

This is what it’s all about. Using the design system has to be the path of least resistance. If the new design system is harder to use than what people are already doing, they won’t use it.

Provide hooks and tools for the people who will be using the design system. That might be mixins in Sass or it might be a script on a CDN that people can just link to.

Start early, update often. Design systems can be built retrospectively but it’s easier to do it when a new product is being built.

Bugs and cruft always increase over time. You need a mechanism in place to keep on top of it. Not just technical bugs, but visual inconsistencies.

So the five pillars of ensuring a successful design system are:

  1. Investment
  2. Communication
  3. Buy-in
  4. Solid architecture
  5. Reduce friction

When you’re starting, begin with a goal:

We are building a design system because…

Then review what you’ve already got (your existing codebase). For example, if the goal of having a design system is to increase page performance, use Web Page Test to measure how the current site is performing. If the goal is to reduce accessibility problems, use webaim.org to measure the accessibility of your current site (see also: pa11y). If the goal is to reduce the amount of CSS in your codebase, use cssstats.com to test how your current site is doing. Now that you’ve got stats, use them to get buy-in. You can also start by doing an interface inventory. Print out pages and cut them up.

Once you’ve got buy-in and commitment (in writing), then you can make technical decisions.

You can start with your atomic elements. Buttons are like the “Hello world!” of design systems. You’ve colours, type, and different states.

Then you can compose elements by putting the base elements together.

Do you include layout in the system? That’s a challenge, and it depends on your team. If you do include layout, to what extent?

Regardless of layout, you still need to think about space: the space between base elements within a component.

Bake in accessibility: every hover state should have an equal (not opposite) focus state.

Think about states, like loading states.

Then you can start documenting. Then inform the users of the system. Carbon has a dashboard showing which components are new, which components are deprecated, and which components are being updated.

Keep consistent communication. Design and dev communication has to happen. Continuous iteration, support and communication are the most important factors in the success of a design system. Code is only 10% of a sytem.

Also, don’t feel like you need to copy other design systems out there. Your needs are probably very different. As Diana says, comparing your design system to the polished public ones is like comparing your life to someone’s Instagram account. To that end, Una says something potentially contraversial:

You might not need a design sytem.

If you’re the only one at your organisation that cares about the benefits of a design system, you won’t get buy-in, and if you don’t get buy-in, the design system will fail. Maybe there’s something more appropriate for your team? After all, not everyone needs to go to the gym to get fit. There are alternatives.

Find what works for you and keep at it.

Detecting image requests in service workers

In Going Offline, I dive into the many different ways you can use a service worker to handle requests. You can filter by the URL, for example; treating requests for pages under /blog or /articles differently from other requests. Or you can filter by file type. That way, you can treat requests for, say, images very differently to requests for HTML pages.

One of the ways to check what kind of request you’re dealing with is to see what’s in the accept header. Here’s how I show the test for HTML pages:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('text/html')) {
    // Handle your page requests here.
}

So, logically enough, I show the same technique for detecting image requests:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('image')) {
    // Handle your image requests here.
}

That should catch any files that have image in the request’s accept header, like image/png or image/jpeg or image/svg+xml and so on.

But there’s a problem. Both Safari and Firefox now use a much broader accept header: */*

My if statement evaluates to false in those browsers. Sebastian Eberlein wrote about his workaround for this issue, which involves looking at file extensions instead:

if (request.url.match(/\.(jpe?g|png|gif|svg)$/)) {
    // Handle your image requests here.
}

So consider this post a patch for chapter five of Going Offline (page 68 specifically). Wherever you see:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('image'))

Swap it out for:

if (request.url.match(/\.(jpe?g|png|gif|svg)$/))

And feel to add any other image file extensions (like webp) in there too.

Alternative analytics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

A minority report on artificial intelligence

Want to feel old? Steven Spielberg’s Minority Report was released fifteen years ago.

It casts a long shadow. For a decade after the film’s release, it was referenced at least once at every conference relating to human-computer interaction. Unsurprisingly, most of the focus has been on the technology in the film. The hardware and interfaces in Minority Report came out of a think tank assembled in pre-production. It provided plenty of fodder for technologists to mock and praise in subsequent years: gestural interfaces, autonomous cars, miniature drones, airpods, ubiquitous advertising and surveillance.

At the time of the film’s release, a lot of the discussion centred on picking apart the plot. The discussions had the same tone of time-travel paradoxes, the kind thrown up by films like Looper and Interstellar. But Minority Report isn’t a film about time travel, it’s a film about prediction.

Or rather, the plot is about prediction. The film—like so many great works of cinema—is about seeing. It’s packed with images of eyes, visions, fragments, and reflections.

The theme of prediction was rarely referenced by technologists in the subsequent years. After all, that aspect of the story—as opposed to the gadgets, gizmos, and interfaces—was one rooted in a fantastical conceit; the idea of people with precognitive abilities.

But if you replace that human element with machines, the central conceit starts to look all too plausible. It’s suggested right there in the film:

It helps not to think of them as human.

To which the response is:

No, they’re so much more than that.

Suppose that Agatha, Arthur, and Dashiell weren’t people in a floatation tank, but banks of servers packed with neural nets: the kinds of machines that are already making predictions on trading stocks and shares, traffic flows, mortgage applications …and, yes, crime.

Precogs are pattern recognition filters, that’s all.

Rewatching Minority Report now, it holds up very well indeed. Apart from the misstep of the final ten minutes, it’s a fast-paced twisty noir thriller. For all the attention to detail in its world-building and technology, the idea that may yet prove to be most prescient is the concept of Precrime, introduced in the original Philip K. Dick short story, The Minority Report.

Minority Report works today as a commentary on Artificial Intelligence …which is ironic given that Spielberg directed a film one year earlier ostensibly about A.I.. In truth, that film has little to say about technology …but much to say about humanity.

Like Minority Report, A.I. was very loosely based on an existing short story: Super-Toys Last All Summer Long by Brian Aldiss. It’s a perfectly-crafted short story that is deeply, almost unbearably, sad.

When I had the great privilege of interviewing Brian Aldiss, I tried to convey how much the story affected me.

Jeremy: …the short story is so sad, there’s such an incredible sadness to it that…

Brian: Well it’s psychological, that’s why. But I didn’t think it works as a movie; sadly, I have to say.

At the time of its release, the general consensus was that A.I. was a mess. It’s true. The film is a mess, but I think that, like Minority Report, it’s worth revisiting.

Watching now, A.I. feels like a horror film to me. The horror comes not—as we first suspect—from the artificial intelligence. The horror comes from the humans. I don’t mean the cruelty of the flesh fairs. I’m talking about the cruelty of Monica, who activates David’s unconditional love only to reject it (watching now, both scenes—the activation and the rejection—are equally horrific). Then there’s the cruelty of the people of who created an artificial person capable of deep, never-ending love, without considering the implications.

There is no robot uprising in the film. The machines want only to fulfil their purpose. But by the end of the film, the human race is gone and the descendants of the machines remain. Based on the conduct of humanity that we’re shown, it’s hard to mourn our species’ extinction. For a film that was panned for being overly sentimental, it is a thoroughly bleak assessment of what makes us human.

The question of what makes us human underpins A.I., Minority Report, and the short stories that spawned them. With distance, it gets easier to brush aside the technological trappings and see the bigger questions beneath. As Al Robertson writes, it’s about leaving the future behind:

SF’s most enduring works don’t live on because they accurately predict tomorrow. In fact, technologically speaking they’re very often wrong about it. They stay readable because they think about what change does to people and how we cope with it.

Getting griddy with it

I had the great pleasure of attending An Event Apart Seattle last week. It was, as always, excellent.

It’s always interesting to see themes emerge during an event, especially when those thematic overlaps haven’t been planned in advance. Jen noticed this one:

I remember that being a theme at An Event Apart San Francisco too, when it seemed like every speaker had words to say about ill-judged use of Bootstrap. That theme was certainly in my presentation when I talked about “the fallacy of assumed competency”:

  1. large company X uses technology Y,
  2. company X must know what they are doing because they are large,
  3. therefore technology Y must be good.

Perhaps “the fallacy of assumed suitability” would be a better term. Heydon calls it “the ‘made at Facebook’ fallacy.” But I also made sure to contrast it with the opposite extreme: “Not Invented Here syndrome”.

As well as over-arching themes, it was also interesting to see which technologies were hot topics at An Event Apart. There was one clear winner here—CSS Grid Layout.

Microsoft—a sponsor of the event—used An Event Apart as the place to announce that Grid is officially moving into development for Edge. Jen talked about Grid (of course). Rachel talked about Grid (of course). And while Eric and Una didn’t talk about it on stage, they’ve both been writing about the fun they’ve been having having with Grid. Una wrote about 3 CSS Grid Features That Make My Heart Flutter. Eric is documenting the overall of his site with Grid. So when we were all gathered together, that’s what we were nerding out about.

The CSS Squad.

There are some great resources out there for levelling up in Grid-fu:

With Jen’s help, I’ve been playing with CSS Grid on a little site that I’m planning to launch tomorrow (he said, foreshadowingly). I took me a while to get my head around it, but once it clicked I started to have a lot of fun. “Fun” seems to be the overall feeling around this technology. There’s something infectious about the excitement and enthusiasm that’s returning to the world of layout on the web. And now that the browser support is great pretty much across the board, we can start putting that fun into production.

Looking beyond launch

It’s all go, go, go at Clearleft while we’re working on a new version of our website …accompanied by a brand new identity. It’s an exciting time in the studio, tinged with the slight stress that comes with any kind of unveiling like this.

I think it’s good to remember that this is the web. I keep telling myself that we’re not unveiling something carved in stone. Even after the launch we can keep making the site better. In fact, if we wait until everything is perfect before we launch, we’ll probably never launch at all.

On the other hand, you only get one chance to make a first impression, right? So it’s got to be good …but it doesn’t have to be done. A website is never done.

I’ve got to get comfortable with that. There’s lots of things that I’d like to be done in time for launch, but realistically it’s fine if those things are completed in the subsequent days or weeks.

Adding a service worker and making a nice offline experience? I really want to do that …but it can wait.

What about other performance tweaks? Yes, we’ll to try have every asset—images, fonts—optimised …but maybe not from day one.

Making sure that each page has good metadata—Open Graph? Twitter Cards? Microformats? Maybe even AMP? Sure …but not just yet.

Having gorgeous animations? Again, I really want to have them but as Val rightly points out, animations are an enhancement—a really, really great enhancement.

If anything, putting the site live before doing all these things acts as an incentive to make sure they get done.

So when you see the new site, if you view source or run it through Web Page Test and spot areas for improvement, rest assured we’re on it.

The many formats of Resilient Web Design

If you don’t like reading in a web browser, you might like to know that Resilient Web Design is now available in more formats.

Jiminy Panoz created a lovely EPUB version. I tried it out in Apple’s iBooks app and it looks great. I tried to submit it to the iBooks store too, but that process threw up a few too many roadblocks.

Oliver Williams has created a MOBI version. That’s means you can read it on a Kindle. I plugged my old Kindle into my computer, dragged that file onto its disc image, and it worked a treat.

And there’s always the PDF versions; one in portrait and another in landscape format. Those were generated straight from the print styles.

Oh, and there’s the podcast. I’ve only released two chapters so far. The Christmas break and an untimely cold have slowed down the release schedule a little bit.

I’d love to make a physical, print-on-demand version of Resilient Web Design available—maybe through Lulu—but my InDesign skills are non-existent.

If you think the book should be available in any other formats, and you fancy having a crack at it, please feel free to use the source files.

Deep linking with fragmentions

When I was marking up Resilient Web Design I wanted to make sure that people could link to individual sections within a chapter. So I added IDs to all the headings. There’s no UI to expose that though—like the hover pattern that some sites use to show that something is linkable—so unless you know the IDs are there, there’s no way of getting at them other than “view source.”

But if you’re reading a passage in Resilient Web Design and you highlight some text, you’ll notice that the URL updates to include that text after a hash symbol. If that updated URL gets shared, then anyone following it should be sent straight to that string of text within the page. That’s fragmentions in action:

Fragmentions find the first matching word or phrase in a document and focus its closest surrounding element. The match is determined by the case-sensitive string following the # (or ## double-hash)

It’s a similar idea to Eric and Simon’s proposal to use CSS selectors as fragment identifiers, but using plain text instead. You can find out more about the genesis of fragmentions from Kevin. I’m using Jonathon Neal’s script with some handy updates from Matthew.

I’m using the fragmention support to power the index of the book. It relies on JavaScript to work though, so Matthew has come to the rescue again and created a version of the site with IDs for each item linked from the index (I must get around to merging that).

The fragmention functionality is ticking along nicely with one problem…

I’ve tweaked the typography of Resilient Web Design to within an inch of its life, including a crude but effective technique to avoid widowed words at the end of a paragraph. The last two words of every paragraph are separated by a UTF-8 no-break space character instead of a regular space.

That solves the widowed words problem, but it confuses the fragmention script. Any selected text that includes the last two words of a paragraph fails to match. I’ve tried tweaking the script, but I’m stumped. If you fancy having a go, please have at it.

Update: And fixed! Thanks to Lee.

Starting out

I had a really enjoyable time at Codebar Brighton last week, not least because Morty came along.

I particularly enjoy teaching people who have zero previous experience of making a web page. There’s something about explaining HTML and CSS from first principles that appeals to me. I especially love it when people ask lots of questions. “What does this element do?”, “Why do some elements have closing tags and others don’t?”, “Why is it textarea and not input type="textarea"?” The answer usually involves me going down a rabbit-hole of web archeology, so I’m in my happy place.

But there’s only so much time at Codebar each week, so it’s nice to be able to point people to other resources that they can peruse at their leisure. It turns out that’s it’s actually kind of tricky to find resources at that level. There are lots of great articles and tutorials out there for professional web developers—Smashing Magazine, A List Apart, CSS Tricks, etc.—but no so much for complete beginners.

Here are some of the resources I’ve found:

  • MarkSheet by Jeremy Thomas is a free HTML and CSS tutorial. It starts with an explanation of the internet, then the World Wide Web, and then web browsers, before diving into HTML syntax. Jeremy is the same guy who recently made CSS Reference.
  • Learn to Code HTML & CSS by Shay Howe is another free online book. You can buy a paper copy too. It’s filled with good, clear explanations.
  • Zero to Hero Coding by Vera Deák is an ongoing series. She’s starting out on her career as a front-end developer, so her perspective is particularly valuable.

If I find any more handy resources, I’ll link to them and tag them with “learning”.