Tags: components

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The history of design systems at Clearleft

Danielle has posted a brief update on Fractal:

We decided to ask the Fractal community for help, and the response has been overwhelming. We’ve received so many offers of support in all forms that we can safely say that development will be starting up again shortly.

It’s so gratifying to see that other people are finding Fractal to be as useful to them as it is to us. We very much appreciate all their support!

Although Fractal itself is barely two years old, it’s part of a much longer legacy at Clearleft

It all started with Natalie. She gave a presentation back in 2009 called Practical Maintainable CSS . She talks about something called a pattern porfolio—a deliverable that expresses every component and documents how the markup and CSS should be used.

When Anna was interning at Clearleft, she was paired up with Natalie so she was being exposed to these ideas. She then expanded on them, talking about Front-end Style Guides. She literally wrote the book on the topic, and starting curating the fantastic collection of examples at styleguides.io.

When Paul joined Clearleft, it was a perfect fit. He was already obsessed with style guides (like the BBC’s Global Experience Language) and started writing and talking about styleguides for the web:

At Clearleft, rather than deliver an inflexible set of static pages, we present our code as a series of modular components (a ‘pattern portfolio’) that can be assembled into different configurations and page layouts as required.

Such systematic thinking was instigated by Natalie, yet this is something we continually iterate upon.

To see the evolution of Paul’s thinking, you can read his three part series from last year on designing systems:

  1. Theory, Practice, and the Unfortunate In-between,
  2. Layers of Longevity, and
  3. Components and Composition

Later, Charlotte joined Clearleft as a junior developer, and up until that point, hadn’t been exposed to the idea of pattern libraries or design systems. But it soon became clear that she had found her calling. She wrote a brilliant article for A List Apart called From Pages to Patterns: An Exercise for Everyone and she started speaking about design systems at conferences like Beyond Tellerrand. Here, she acknowledges the changing terminology over the years:

Pattern portfolio is a term used by Natalie Downe when she started using the technique at Clearleft back in 2009.

Front-end style guides is another term I’ve heard a lot.

Personally, I don’t think it matters what you call your system as long as it’s appropriate to the project and everyone uses it. Today I’m going to use the term “pattern library”.

(Mark was always a fan of the term “component library”.)

Now Charlotte is a product manager at Ansarada in Sydney and the product she manages is …the design system!

Thinking back to my work on starting design systems, I didn’t realise straight away that I was working on a product. Yet, the questions we ask are similar to those we ask of any product when we start out. We make decisions on things like: design, architecture, tooling, user experience, code, releases, consumption, communication, and more.

It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of design systems at Clearleft, accompanied by an evolution in language: pattern portfolios; front-end style guides; pattern libraries; design systems.

There’s been a corresponding evolution in prioritisation. Where Natalie was using pattern portfolios as a deliverable for handover, Danielle is now involved in the integration of design systems within a client’s team. The focus on efficiency and consistency that Natalie began is now expressed in terms of design ops—creating living systems that everyone is involved in.

When I step back and look at the history of design systems on the web, there are some obvious names that have really driven their evolution and adoption, like Jina Anne, Brad Frost, and Alla Kholmatova. But I’m amazed at the amount of people who have been through Clearleft’s doors that have contributed so, so much to this field:

Natalie Downe, Anna Debenham, Paul Lloyd, Mark Perkins, Charlotte Jackson, and Danielle Huntrods …thank you all!

Components and concerns

We tend to like false dichotomies in the world of web design and web development. I’ve noticed one recently that keeps coming up in the realm of design systems and components.

It’s about separation of concerns. The web has a long history of separating structure, presentation, and behaviour through HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It has served us very well. If you build in that order, ensuring that something works (to some extent) before adding the next layer, the result will be robust and resilient.

But in this age of components, many people are pointing out that it makes sense to separate things according to their function. Here’s the Diana Mounter in her excellent article about design systems at Github:

Rather than separating concerns by languages (such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), we’re are working towards a model of separating concerns at the component level.

This echoes a point made previously in a slidedeck by Cristiano Rastelli.

Separating interfaces according to the purpose of each component makes total sense …but that doesn’t mean we have to stop separating structure, presentation, and behaviour! Why not do both?

There’s nothing in the “traditonal” separation of concerns on the web (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) that restricts it only to pages. In fact, I would say it works best when it’s applied on smaller scales.

In her article, Pattern Library First: An Approach For Managing CSS, Rachel advises starting every component with good markup:

Your starting point should always be well-structured markup.

This ensures that your content is accessible at a very basic level, but it also means you can take advantage of normal flow.

That’s basically an application of starting with the rule of least power.

In chapter 6 of Resilient Web Design, I outline the three-step process I use to build on the web:

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

That chapter is filled with examples of applying those steps at the level of an entire site or product, but it doesn’t need to end there:

We can apply the three‐step process at the scale of individual components within a page. “What is the core functionality of this component? How can I make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology? Now how can I enhance it?”

There’s another shared benefit to separating concerns when building pages and building components. In the case of pages, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good URL. With components, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good name …something that’s at the heart of a good design system. In her brilliant Design Systems book, Alla advocates asking “what is its purpose?” in order to get a good shared language for components.

My point is this:

  • Separating structure, presentation, and behaviour is a good idea.
  • Separating an interface into components is a good idea.

Those two good ideas are not in conflict. Presenting them as though they were binary choices is like saying “I used to eat Italian food, but now I drink Italian wine.” They work best when they’re done in combination.

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.

AMPstinction

I’ve come to believe that the goal of any good framework should be to make itself unnecessary.

Brian said it explicitly of his PhoneGap project:

The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.

That makes total sense, especially if your code is a polyfill—those solutions are temporary by design. Autoprefixer is another good example of a piece of code that becomes less and less necessary over time.

But I think it’s equally true of any successful framework or library. If the framework becomes popular enough, it will inevitably end up influencing the standards process, thereby becoming dispensible.

jQuery is the classic example of this. There’s very little reason to use jQuery these days because you can accomplish so much with browser-native JavaScript. But the reason why you can accomplish so much without jQuery is because of jQuery. I don’t think we would have querySelector without jQuery. The library proved the need for the feature. The same is true for a whole load of DOM scripting features.

The same process is almost certain to occur with React—it’s a good bet there will be a standardised equivalent to the virtual DOM at some point.

When Google first unveiled AMP, its intentions weren’t clear to me. I hoped that it existed purely to make itself redundant:

As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.

Alas, as time has passed, that hope shows no signs of being fulfilled. If anything, I’ve noticed publishers using the existence of their AMP pages as a justification for just letting their “regular” pages put on weight.

Worse yet, the messaging from Google around AMP has shifted. Instead of pitching it as a format for creating parallel versions of your web pages, they’re now also extolling the virtues of having your AMP pages be the only version you publish:

In fact, AMP’s evolution has made it a viable solution to build entire websites.

On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).

But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance …which is kind of odd, because that’s also what Google’s Polymer project is. The difference being that pages made with Polymer don’t get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. I can’t help but wonder how the Polymer team feels about AMP’s gradual pivot onto their territory.

If the AMP project existed in order to create a web where AMP was no longer needed, I think I could get behind it. But the more it’s positioned as the only viable solution to solving performance, the more uncomfortable I am with it.

Which, by the way, brings me to one of the most pernicious ideas around Google AMP—positioning anyone opposed to it as not caring about web performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s precisely because performance on the web is so important that it deserves a long-term solution, co-created by all of us: not some commandents delivered to us from on-high by one organisation, enforced by preferential treatment by that organisation’s monopoly in search.

It’s the classic logical fallacy:

  1. Performance! Something must be done!
  2. AMP is something.
  3. Now something has been done.

By marketing itself as the only viable solution to the web performance problem, I think the AMP project is doing itself a great disservice. If it positioned itself as an example to be emulated, I would welcome it.

I wish that AMP were being marketed more like a temporary polyfill. And as with any polyfill, I look forward to the day when AMP is no longer necesssary.

I want AMP to become extinct. I genuinely think that the Google AMP team should share that wish.

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Scenario-Driven Design Systems by Yesenia Perez-Cruz

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition) taking notes during the talks. Here are my notes from Yesenia’s presentation…

In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of change in web design as we have to adapt to so many viewports and platforms. We’ve gravitated towards design systems to manage this. Many people have written about the benefits of design systems, like AirBnB.

But how do you define a design system? You could say it’s a collection of reususable components.

Donella Meadows wrote Thinking in Systems. She said:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

A good design system inspires people to work with it. A bad system gets bloated and unusable. Yesenia has seen systems fail when there’s too much focus on the elements, and not enough focus on how they come together. Yesenia has learned that we should start our design systems, not with components, or modules, or legos, but with user scenarios.

Yesenia works at Vox Media. They have eight editorial networks. Two and a half years ago, they started a project to move all of their products to one codebase and one design system. Maintaining and iterating on their websites was getting too cumbersome. They wanted to shift away from maintaining discrete brands to creating a cohesive system. They also wanted to help their editorial teams tell stories faster and better.

It was hard. Each brand has its own visual identity, editorial missions, and content needs. So even though they wanted eight brands to use one design system, there needed to be enough flexibility to allow for unique needs.

There were some early assumptions that didn’t work. There was a hunch that they could take smaller modular components to address inconsistencies in design: layout, colour, and typography. They thought a theming system would work well. They started with layout modules, like three different homepage hero elements, or four different story blocks. They thought they could layer colour and typography over these modules. It didn’t work. They weren’t reflecting critical differences in content, tone, and audience. For example, Curbed and Recode are very different, but the initial design system didn’t reflect those difference.

That brings us back to Donella Meadows:

A system is an interconnected group of elements coherently organized in a way that achieves something.

They weren’t thinking about that last part.

They learned that they couldn’t start with just the individual components or patterns. That’s because they don’t exist in a vacuum. As Alla says:

Start with language, not systems.

They started again, this time thinking about people.

  • What’s the audience goal?
  • Is there a shared audience goal across all brands or are there differences?
  • What’s the editorial workflow?
  • What range of content should this support?

This led to a much better process for creating a design system.

Start with a fast, unified platform. It should load quickly and work across all devices. All patterns should solve a specific problem. But that doesn’t mean creating a one-size-fits-all solution. A design system doesn’t have to stifle creativity …as long as the variants solve a real problem. That means no hypothetical situations.

Identify scenarios. Brad uses a UI inventory for this. Alla talks about a “purpose-directed inventory”. Map core modules to user journeys to see how patterns fit together in the bigger picture. You start to see families of patterns joined together by a shared purpose. Scenarios can help at every level.

The Salesforce design system starts by saying “Know your use-case.” They have examples of different patterns and where to use them. Thinking in user-flows like this matches the way that designers are already thinking.

Shopify’s Polaris system also puts users and user-flows at the centre: the purpose of each pattern is spelled out.

The 18F Design System doesn’t just provide a type system; it provides an explanation of when and where to use which type system.

At Vox, “features” are in-depth pieces. Before having a unified system, each feature looked very custom and were hard to update. They need to unify 18 different systems into one. They started by identifying core workflows. Audience goals were consistent (consume content, find new content), but editorial goals were quite different.

They ended up with quite a few variations of patterns (like page headers, for example), but only if there was a proven content need—no hypothetical situations.

Brand expression for features is all about the details. They started with 18 very different feature templates and ended up with one robust template that works across device types but still allowed for expression.

The “reviews” pieces had a scorecard pattern. Initially there was one unified pattern that they thought would be flexible enough to cover different scenarios. But these scorecards were for very different things: games; restaurants, etc. So people’s needs were very different. In the end, instead of having one scorecard pattern, they created three. Each one highlighted different content according to the user needs.

Homepages were the most challenging to unify. Each one was very distinct. Identifying core workflows took a lot of work.

What’s the value of the homepage? Who is the audience? What are they looking for?

They talked to their users and distilled their findings down into three user goals for homepages:

  • What’s new?
  • What’s important?
  • What’s helpful?

Those needs then translated into patterns. The story feed is there to answer the question “What’s new?”

When it came to variations on the home page, they needed to make sure their design system could stretch enough to allow for distinctly different needs. There’s a newspaper layout, an evergreen layout, a morning recap layout.

Again, Alla’s advice to focus on language was really helpful.

In the process of naming an element, you work out the function as a group and reach agreement.

The last piece was to have a scalable visual design system. Brands need to feel distinct and express an identity. They did this by having foundational elements (type scale, colour system, and white space) with theming applied to them. Thinking of type and colour as systems was key: they need to cascade.

But how do you tell good variation from bad variation? Variation is good if there’s a specific problem that you need a new pattern to solve—there’s a user scenario driving the variation. A bad variation is visual variation on components that do the same thing. Again, the initial design system provided room for “visual fluff and flair” but they were hypothetical. Those variations were removed.

The combination of a scenario-driven system combined with theming allowed for the right balance of consistency and customisation. Previously, the editorial team were hacking together the layouts they wanted, or developers were creating one-off templates. Both of those approaches were very time-consuming. Now, the reporters can focus on telling better stories faster. That was always the goal.

There’s still a lot of work to do. There’s always a pendulum swing between consistency and variation. Sometimes the design system goes too far in one direction or the other and needs to be recalibrated. They want to be able to add more detailed control over typography and spacing.

To wrap up:

  1. Successful design patterns don’t exist in a vacuum.
  2. Successful design systems solve specific problems.
  3. Successful design systems start with content and with people.

See also:

Pattern Libraries, Performance, and Progressive Web Apps

Ever since its founding in 2005, Clearleft has been laser-focused on user experience design.

But we’ve always maintained a strong front-end development arm. The front-end development work at Clearleft is always in service of design. Over the years we’ve built up a wealth of expertise on using HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to make better user experiences.

Recently we’ve been doing a lot of strategic design work—the really in-depth long-term engagements that begin with research and continue through to design consultancy and collaboration. That means we’ve got availability for front-end development work. Whether it’s consultancy or production work you’re looking for, this could be a good opportunity for us to work together.

There are three particular areas of front-end expertise we’re obsessed with…

Pattern Libraries

We caught the design systems bug years ago, way back when Natalie started pioneering pattern libraries as our primary deliverable (or pattern portfolios, as we called them then). This approach has proven effective time and time again. We’ve spent years now refining our workflow and thinking around modular design. Fractal is the natural expression of this obsession. Danielle and Mark have been working flat-out on version 2. They’re very eager to share everything they’ve learned along the way …and help others put together solid pattern libraries.

Danielle Huntrods Mark Perkins

Performance

Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that we’re crazy about performance at Clearleft. Like I said, our focus on user experience, and when it comes to user experience on the web, nothing but nothing is more important than performance. The good news is that the majority of performance fixes can be done on the front end—images, scripts, fonts …it’s remarkable how much a good front-end overhaul can make to the bottom line. That’s what Graham has been obsessing over.

Graham Smith

Progressive Web Apps

Over the years I’ve found myself getting swept up in exciting new technologies on the web. When Clearleft first formed, my head was deep into DOM Scripting and Ajax. Half a decade later it was HTML5. Now it’s service workers. I honestly think it’s a technology that could be as revolutionary as Ajax or HTML5 (maybe I should write a book to that effect).

I’ve been talking about service workers at conferences this year, and I can’t hide my excitement:

There’s endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology. It’s very powerful.

Combine a service worker with a web app manifest and you’ve got yourself a Progressive Web App. It’s not just a great marketing term—it’s an opportunity for the web to truly excel at delivering the kind of user experiences previously only associated with native apps.

Jeremy Keith

I’m very very keen to work with companies and organisations that want to harness the power of service workers and Progressive Web Apps. If that’s you, get in touch.

Whether it’s pattern libraries, performance, or Progressive Web Apps, we’ve got the skills and expertise to share with you.

Patterns Day videos

Eleven days have passed since Patterns Day. I think I’m starting to go into withdrawal.

Fortunately there’s a way to re-live the glory. Video!

The first video is online now: Laura Elizabeth’s excellent opener. More videos will follow. Keep an eye on this page.

And remember, the audio is already online as a podcast.

Patterns Day

Patterns Day is over. It was all I hoped it would be and more.

I’ve got that weird post-conference feeling now, where that all-consuming thing that was ahead of you is now behind you, and you’re not quite sure what to do. Although, comparatively speaking, Patterns Day came together pretty quickly. I announced it less than three months ago. It sold out just over a month later. Now it’s over and done with, it feels like a whirlwind.

The day itself was also somewhat whirlwind-like. It was simultaneously packed to the brim with great talks, and yet over in the blink of an eye. Everyone who attended seemed to have a good time, which makes me very happy indeed. Although, as I said on the day, while it’s nice that everyone came along, I put the line-up together for purely selfish reasons—it was my dream line-up of people I wanted to see speak.

Boy, oh boy, did they deliver the goods! Every talk was great. And I must admit, I was pleased with how I had structured the event. The day started and finished with high-level, almost philosophical talks; the mid section was packed with hands-on nitty-gritty practical examples.

Thanks to sponsorship from Amazon UK, Craig was videoing all the talks. I’ll get them online as soon as I can. But in the meantime, Drew got hold of the audio and made mp3s of each talk. They are all available in handy podcast form for your listening and huffduffing pleasure:

  1. Laura Elizabeth
  2. Ellen de Vries
  3. Sareh Heidari
  4. Rachel Andrew
  5. Alice Bartlett
  6. Jina Anne
  7. Paul Lloyd
  8. Alla Kholmatova

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can play the Patterns Day drinking game while you listen to the talks:

  • Any time someone says “Lego”, take a drink,
  • Any time someone references Chrisopher Alexander, take a drink,
  • Any time someone says that naming things is hard, take a drink,
  • Any time says “atomic design”, take a drink, and
  • Any time says “Bootstrap”, puke the drink back up.

In between the talks, the music was provided courtesy of some Brighton-based artists

Hidde de Vries has written up an account of the day. Stu Robson has also published his notes from each talk. Sarah Drummond wrote down her thoughts on Ev’s blog.

I began the day by predicting that Patterns Day would leave us with more questions than answers …but that they would be the right questions. I think that’s pretty much what happened. Quite a few people compared it to the first Responsive Day Out in tone. I remember a wave of relief flowing across the audience when Sarah opened the show by saying:

I think if we were all to be a little more honest when we talk to each other than we are at the moment, the phrase “winging it” would be something that would come up a lot more often. If you actually speak to people, not very many people have a process for this at the moment. Most of us are kind of winging it.

  • This is hard.
  • No one knows exactly what they’re doing.
  • Nobody has figured this out yet.

Those sentiments were true of responsive design in 2013, and they’re certainly true of design systems in 2017. That’s why I think it’s so important that we share our experiences—good and bad—as we struggle to come to grips with these challenges. That’s why I put Patterns Day together. That’s also why, at the end of the day, I thanked everyone who has ever written about, spoken about, or otherwise shared their experience with design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components. And of course I made sure that everyone gave Anna a great big round of applause for her years of dedicated service—I wish she could’ve been there.

There were a few more “thank you”s at the end of the day, and all of them were heartfelt. Thank you to Felicity and everyone else at the Duke of York’s for the fantastic venue and making sure everything went so smoothly. Thank you to AVT for all the audio/visual wrangling. Thanks to Amazon for sponsoring the video recordings, and thanks to Deliveroo for sponsoring the tea, coffee, pastries, and popcorn (they’re hiring, by the way). Huge thanks to Alison and everyone from Clearleft who helped out on the day—Hana, James, Rowena, Chris, Benjamin, Seb, Jerlyn, and most especially Alis who worked behind the scenes to make everything go so smoothly. Thanks to Kai for providing copies of Offscreen Magazine for the taking. Thanks to Marc and Drew for taking lots of pictures. Thanks to everyone who came to Patterns Day, especially the students and organisers from Codebar Brighton—you are my heroes.

Most of all thank you, thank you, thank you, to the eight fantastic speakers who made Patterns Day so, so great—I love you all.

Laura Ellen Sareh Rachel Alice Jina Paul Alla

The schedule for Patterns Day

There are only seventeen more days until Patterns Day. Squee!

I’ve got a plan now for how the day is going to run. Here’s the plan:

registration
opening remarks
Laura Elizabeth
Ellen deVries
break
Sareh Heidari
Rachel Andrew
lunch break
Alice Bartlett
Jina Anne
break
Paul Lloyd
Alla Kholmatova
closing remarks

There was a great response to my call for sponsors. Thanks to Amazon Video, we’ll have video recordings of all the talks. Thanks to Deliveroo, we’ll have coffee and tea throughout the day …and pastries in the morning! …and popcorn in the afternoon!!

You’re on your own for lunch. I’ve listed some options on the website, but I should add some more.

I have to say, looking at the schedule for the day, I’m very excited about this line-up. To say I’m looking forward to it would be quite the understatement. I can’t wait!

Announcing Patterns Day: June 30th

Gather ‘round, my friends. I’ve got a big announcement.

You should come to Brighton on Friday, June 30th. Why? Well, apart from the fact that you can have a lovely Summer weekend by the sea, that’s when a brand new one-day event will be happening:

Patterns Day!

That’s right—a one-day event dedicated to all things patterny: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and all that good stuff. I’m putting together a world-class line-up of speakers. So far I’ve already got:

It’s going to be a brain-bendingly good day of ideas, case studies, processes, and techniques with something for everyone, whether you’re a designer, developer, product owner, content strategist, or project manager.

Best of all, it’s taking place in the splendid Duke Of York’s Picture House. If you’ve been to Remy’s FFconf then you’ll know what a great venue it is—such comfy, comfy seats! Well, Patterns Day will be like a cross between FFconf and Responsive Day Out.

Tickets are £150+VAT. Grab yours now. Heck, bring the whole team. Let’s face it, this is a topic that everyone is struggling with so we’re all going to benefit from getting together for a day with your peers to hammer out the challenges of pattern libraries and design systems.

I’m really excited about this! I would love to see you in Brighton on the 30th of June for Patterns Day. It’s going to be fun!

Fractal ways

24 Ways is back! That’s how we web nerds know that the Christmas season is here. It kicked off this year with a most excellent bit of hardware hacking from Seb: Internet of Stranger Things.

The site is looking lovely as always. There’s also a component library to to accompany it: Bits, the front-end component library for 24 ways. Nice work, courtesy of Paul. (I particularly like the comment component example).

The component library is built with Fractal, the magnificent tool that Mark has open-sourced. We’ve been using at Clearleft for a while now, but we haven’t had a chance to make any of the component libraries public so it’s really great to be able to point to the 24 Ways example. The code is all on Github too.

There’s a really good buzz around Fractal right now. Lots of people in the design systems Slack channel are talking about it. There’s also a dedicated Fractal Slack channel for people getting into the nitty-gritty of using the tool.

If you’re currently wrestling with the challenges of putting a front-end component library together, be sure to give Fractal a whirl.

Extensible web components

Adam Onishi has written up his thoughts on web components and progressive enhancements, following on from a discussion we were having on Slack. He shares a lot of the same frustrations as I do.

Two years ago, I said:

I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous.

I still feel that way. In theory, web components are very exciting. In practice, web components are very worrying. The worrying aspect comes from the treatment of backwards compatibility.

It all comes down to the way custom elements work. When you make up a custom element, it’s basically a span.

<fancy-select></fancy-select>

Then, using JavaScript with ShadowDOM, templates, and the other specs that together make up the web components ecosystem, you turn that inert span-like element into something all-singing and dancing. That’s great if the browser supports those technologies, and the JavaScript executes successfully. But if either of those conditions aren’t met, what you’re left with is basically a span.

One of the proposed ways around this was to allow custom elements to extend existing elements (not just spans). The proposed syntax for this was an is attribute.

<select is="fancy-select">...</select>

Browser makers responded to this by saying “Nah, that’s too hard.”

To be honest, I had pretty much given up on the is functionality ever seeing the light of day, but Monica has rekindled my hope:

Still, I’m not holding my breath for this kind of declarative extensibility landing in browsers any time soon. Instead, a JavaScript-based way of extending existing existing elements is currently the only way of piggybacking on all the accessible behavioural goodies you get with native elements.

class FancySelect extends HTMLSelectElement

But this imperative approach fails completely if custom elements aren’t supported, or if the JavaScript fails to execute. Now you’re back to having spans.

The presentation on web components at the Progressive Web Apps Dev Summit referred to this JavaScript-based extensibility as “progressively enhancing what’s already available”, which is a bit of a stretch, given how completely it falls apart in older browsers. It was kind of a weird talk, to be honest. After fifteen minutes of talking about creating elements entirely from scratch, there was a minute or two devoted to the is attribute and extending existing elements …before carrying as though those two minutes never happened.

But even without any means of extending existing elements, it should still be possible to define custom elements that have some kind of fallback in non-supporting browsers:

<fancy-select>
 <select>...</select>
</fancy-select>

In that situation, you at least get a regular ol’ select element in older browsers (or in modern browsers before the JavaScript kicks in and uplifts the custom element).

Adam has a great example of this in his post:

I’ve been thinking of a gallery component lately, where you’d have a custom element, say <o-gallery> for want of a better example, and simply populate it with images you want to display, with custom elements and shadow DOM you can add all the rest, controls/layout etc. Markup would be something like:

<o-gallery>
 <img src="">
 <img src="">
 <img src="">
</o-gallery>

If none of the extra stuff loads, what do we get? Well you get 3 images on the page. You still get the content, but just none of the fancy interactivity.

Yes! This, in my opinion, is how we should be approaching the design of web components. This is what gets me excited about web components.

Then I look at pretty much all the examples of web components out there and my nervousness kicks in. Hardly any of them spare a thought for backwards-compatibility. Take a look, for example, at the entire contents of the body element for the Polymer Shop demo site:

<shop-app unresolved="">SHOP</shop-app>

This seems really odd to me, because I don’t think it’s a good way to “sell” a technology.

Compare service workers to web components.

First of all, ask the question “who benefits from this technology?” In the case of service workers, it’s the end users. They get faster websites that handle network failure better. In the case of web components, there are no direct end-user benefits. Web components exist to make developers lives easier. That’s absolutely fine, but any developer convenience gained by the use of web components can’t come at the expense of the user—that price is too high.

The next question we usually ask when we’re evaluating a technology is “how well does it work?” Personally, I think it’s just as important to ask “how well does it fail?”

Service workers work well and fail well. If a browser supports service workers, the user gets all the benefits. If a browser doesn’t support service workers, the user get the same experience they would have always had.

Web components (will) work well, but fail badly. If a browser supports web components, the user gets the experience that the developer has crafted using these new technologies. If a browser doesn’t support web components, the user gets …probably nothing. It depends on how the web components have been designed.

It’s so much easier to get excited about implementing service workers. You’ve literally got nothing to lose and everything to gain. That’s not the case with web components. Or at least not with the way they are currently being sold.

See, this is why I think it’s so important to put some effort into designing web components that have some kind of fallback. Those web components will work well and fail well.

Look at the way new elements are designed for HTML. Think of complex additions like canvas, audio, video, and picture. Each one has been designed with backwards-compatibility in mind—there’s always a way to provide fallback content.

Web components give us developers the same power that, up until now, only belonged to browser makers. Web components also give us developers the same responsibilities as browser makers. We should take that responsibility seriously.

Web components are supposed to be the poster child for The Extensible Web Manifesto. I’m all for an extensible web. But the way that web components are currently being built looks more like an endorsement of The Replaceable Web Manifesto. I’m not okay with a replaceable web.

Here’s hoping that my concerns won’t be dismissed as “piffle and tosh” again by the very people who should be thinking about these issues.

Regression toward being mean

I highly recommend Remy’s State Of The Gap post—it’s ace. He summarises it like this:

I strongly believe in the concepts behind progressive web apps and even though native hacks (Flash, PhoneGap, etc) will always be ahead, the web, always gets there. Now, today, is an incredibly exciting time to be build on the web.

I agree completely. That might sound odd after I wrote about Regressive Web Apps, but it’s precisely because I’m so excited by the technologies behind progressive web apps that I think it’s vital that we do them justice. As Remy says:

Without HTTPS and without service workers, you can’t add to homescreen. This is an intentionally high bar of entry with damn good reasons.

When the user installs a PWA, it has to work. It’s our job as web developers to provide the most excellent experience for our users.

It has to work.

That’s why I don’t agree with Dion’s metrics for what makes a progressive web app:

If you deliver an experience that only works on mobile is that a PWA? Yes.

I think it’s important to keep quality control high. Being responsive is literally the first item in the list of qualities that help define what a progressive web app is. That’s why I wrote about “regressive” web apps: sites that are supposed to showcase what we can do but instead take a step backwards into the bad old days of separate sites for separate device classes: washingtonpost.com/pwa, m.flipkart.com, lite.5milesapp.com, app.babe.co.id, m.aliexpress.com.

A lot of people on Twitter misinterpreted my post as saying “the current crop of progressive web apps are missing the mark, therefore progressive web apps suck”. What I was hoping to get across was “the current crop of progressive web apps are missing the mark, so let’s make better ones!”

Now, I totally understand that many of these examples are a first stab, a way of testing the waters. I absolutely want to encourage these first attempts and push them further. But I don’t think that waiving the qualifications for progressive web apps helps achieves that. As much as I want to acknowledge the hard work that people have done to create those device-specific examples, I don’t think we should settle for anything less than high-quality progressive web apps that are as much about the web as they are about apps.

Simply put, in this instance, I don’t think good intentions are enough.

Which brings me to the second part of Regressive Web Apps, the bit about Chrome refusing to show the “add to home screen” prompt for sites that want to have their URL still visible when launched from the home screen.

Alex was upset by what I wrote:

if you think the URL is going to get killed on my watch then you aren’t paying any attention whatsoever.

so, your choices are to think that I have a secret plan to kill URLs, or conclude I’m still Team Web.

I’m galled that anyone, particularly you @adactio, would think the former…but contrarianism uber alles?

I am very, very sorry that I upset Alex like this.

But I stand by my criticism of the actions of the Chrome team. Because good intentions are not enough.

I know that Alex is huge fan of URLs, and of the web. Heck, just about everybody I know that works on Chrome in some capacity are working for the web first and foremost: Alex, Jake, various and sundry Pauls. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to stay quiet when I see the Chrome team do something I think is bad for the web. If anything, it’s precisely because I hold them to a high standard that I’m going to sound the alarm when I see what I consider to be missteps.

I think that good people can make bad decisions with the best of intentions. Usually it involves long-term thinking—something I think is very important. “The ends justify the means” is a way of thinking that can create a lot of immediate pain, even if it means a better future overall. Balancing those concerns is front and centre of the Chromium project:

As browser implementers, we find that there’s often tension between (a) moving the web forward and (b) preserving compatibility. On one hand, the web platform API surface must evolve to stay relevant. On the other hand, the web’s primary strength is its reach, which is largely a function of interoperability.

For example, when Alex talks of the Web Component era as though it were an inevitability, I get nervous. Not for myself, but for the millions of Opera Mini users out there. How do we get to a better future without leaving anyone behind? Or do we sacrifice those people for the greater good? Do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? Do the ends justify the means?

Now, I know for a fact that the end-game that Alex is pursuing with web components—and the extensible web manifesto in general—is a more declarative web: solutions that first get tackled as web components end up landing in browsers. But to get there, the solutions are first created using modern JavaScript that simply doesn’t work everywhere. Is that the price we’re going to have to pay for a better web?

I hope not. I hope we can find ways to have our accessible cake and eat it too. But it will be really, really hard.

Returning to progressive web apps, I was genuinely shocked and appalled at the way that the Chrome team altered the criteria for the “add to home screen” prompt to discourage exposing URLs. I was also surprised at how badly the change was communicated—it was buried in a bug report that five people contributed to before pushing the change. I only found out about it through a conversation with Paul Kinlan. Paul encouraged me to give feedback, and that’s what I did on my website, just like Stuart did on his.

Of course the Chrome team are working on ways of exposing URLs within progressive web apps that are launched in from the home screen. Opera are working on it too. But it’s a really tricky problem to solve. It’s not enough to say “we’ll figure it out”. It’s not enough to say “trust us.”

I do trust the people I know working on Chrome. I also trust the people I know at Mozilla, Opera and Microsoft. That doesn’t mean I’m going to let their actions go unquestioned. Good intentions are not enough.

As Alex readily acknowledges, the harder problem (figuring out how to expose URLs) should have been solved first—then the change to the “add to home screen” metrics would be uncontentious. Putting the cart before the horse, discouraging display:browser now, while saying “trust us, we’ll figure it out”, is another example of saying the ends justify the means.

But the stakes are too high here to let this pass. Good intentions are not enough. Knowing that the people working on Chrome (or Firefox, or Opera, or Edge) are good people is not reason enough to passively accept every decision they make.

Alex called me out for not getting in touch with him directly about the Chrome team’s future plans with URLs, but again, that kind of rough consensus to do something is trumped by running code. Also, I did talk to Chrome people—this all came out of a discussion with Paul Kinlan. I don’t know who’s who in the company’s political hierarchy and I don’t think I should need an org chart to give feedback to Google (or Mozilla, or Opera, or Microsoft).

You’ll notice that I didn’t include Apple there. I don’t hold them to the same high standard. As it turns out, I know some very good people at Apple working on WebKit and Safari. As individuals, they care about the web. But as a company, Apple has shown indifference towards web developers. As Remy put it:

Even getting the hint of interest from Apple is a process of dumpster-diving the mailing lists scanning for the smallest hint of interest.

With that in mind, I completely understand Alex’s frustration with my post on “regressive” web apps. Although I intended it as a push towards making better progressive web apps, I can see how it could be taken as confirmation by those who think that progressive web apps aren’t worth investing in. Apple, for example. As it is, they’ll have to be carried kicking and screaming into adding support for Service Workers, manifest files, and other building blocks. From the reaction to my post from at least one WebKit developer on Twitter, not only did I fail to get across just how important the technologies behind progressive web apps are, I may have done more harm than good, giving ammunition to sceptics.

Still, I hope that most people took my words in the right spirit, like Addy:

We should push them to do much better. I’ll file bugs. Per @adactio post, can’t forget the ‘Progressive’ part of PWAs

Seeing that reaction makes me feel good …but seeing Alex’s reaction makes me feel bad. Very bad. I’m genuinely sorry that I made Alex feel that way. It wasn’t my intention but, well …good intentions are not enough.

I’ve been looking back at what I wrote, trying to see it through Alex’s eyes, looking for the parts that could be taken as a personal attack:

Chrome developers have decided that displaying URLs is not “best practice” … To declare that all users of all websites will be confused by seeing a URL is so presumptuous and arrogant that it beggars belief. … Withholding the “add to home screen” prompt like that has a whiff of blackmail about it. … This isn’t the first time that Chrome developers have made a move against the address bar. It’s starting to grind me down.

Some pretty strong words there. I stand by them, but the tone is definitely strident.

When we criticise something—a piece of software, a book, a website, a film, a piece of music—it’s all too easy to forget that there are real people behind it. But that isn’t the case here. I know that there are real people working on Chrome, because I know quite a few of those people. I also know that their intentions are good. That’s not a reason for me to remain silent—that’s a reason for me to speak up.

If I had known that my post was going to upset Alex, would I have still written it? That’s a tough one. On the one hand, this is a topic I care passionately about. I think it’s vital that we don’t compromise on the very things that make the web great. On the other hand, who knows if what I wrote will make the slightest bit of difference? In which case, I got the catharsis of getting it off my chest but at the price of upsetting somebody I respect. That price feels too high.

I love the fact that I can publish whatever I want on my own website. It can be a place for me to be enthusiastic about things that excite me, and a place for me to rant about things that upset me. I estimate that the enthusiastic stuff outnumbers the ranty stuff by about ten to one, but negativity casts a disproportionately large shadow.

I need to get better at tempering my words. Not that I’m going to stop criticising bad decisions when I see them, but I need to make my intentions clearer …because just having good intentions is not enough. Throughout this post, I’ve mentioned repeatedly how much I respect the people I know working on the Chrome team. I should have said that in my original post.

100 words 069

I made mention already of an exercise that myself and Charlotte came up with to help developers to think in terms of granular components: using a humble pair of scissors to cut up screenshots or mockups into their constituent parts.

Recently we repeated and added to this exercise. Once the groups of components are gathered together—buttons, form elements, icons, whatever—we go through each group. Everyone writes on a post-it what name they would give this component—button, formField, icon, etc. Then everyone slaps down their post-it notes at the same time. See any overlap? That’s your class name.

100 words 039

Charlotte and I came up with a fun exercise today to help a client’s dev team to think of patterns at the granular level—something that had been proving difficult to get across.

We print out page designs, hand them some scissors, and get them to cut up the pages into their smallest components. Mix them all up so you can’t even tell which components came from which pages.

Then—after grouping duplicate patterns together—everyone takes a component and codes it up in HTML and CSS. As soon as you’re finished with one pattern, grab another.

Rinse and repeat.

Extending

Contrary to popular belief, web standards aren’t created by a shadowy cabal and then handed down to browser makers to implement. Quite the opposite. Browser makers come together in standards bodies and try to come to an agreement about how to collectively create and implement standards. That keeps them very busy. They don’t tend to get out very often, but when they do, the browser/standards makers have one message for developers: “We want to make your life better, so tell us what you want and that’s what we’ll work on!”

In practice, this turns out not to be the case.

Case in point: responsive images. For years, this was the number one feature that developers were crying out for. And yet, the standards bodies—and, therefore, browser makers—dragged their heels. First they denied that it was even a problem worth solving. Then they said it was simply too hard. Eventually, thanks to the herculean efforts of the Responsive Images Community Group, the browser makers finally began to work on what developers had been begging for.

Now that same community group is representing the majority of developers once again. Element queries—or container queries—have been top of the wish list of working devs for quite a while now. The response from browser makers is the same as it was for responsive images. They say it’s simply too hard.

Here’s a third example: web components. There are many moving parts to web components, but one of the most exciting to developers who care about accessibility and backwards-compatibility is the idea of extending existing elements:

It’s my opinion that, for as long as there is a dependence on JS for custom elements, we should extend existing elements when writing custom elements. It makes sense for developers, because new elements have access to properties and methods that have been defined and tested for many years; and it makes sense for users, as they have fallback in case of JS failure, and baked-in accessibility fundamentals.

So instead of having to create a whole new element from scratch like this:

<taco-button>Click me!</taco-button>

…you could piggy-back on an existing element like this:

<button is="taco-button">Click me!</button>

That way, you get the best of both worlds: the native semantics of button topped with all the enhancements you want to add with your taco-button custom element. Brilliant! Github is using this to extend the time element, for example.

I’m not wedded to the is syntax, but I do think it’s vital that there is some declarative mechanism to extend existing elements instead of creating every custom element from scratch each time.

Now it looks like that’s the bit of web components that isn’t going to make the cut. Why? Because browser makers say it’s simply too hard.

As Bruce points out, this is in direct conflict with the design principles that are supposed to be driving the creation and implementation of web standards.

It probably wouldn’t bother me so much except that browser makers still trot out the party line, “We want to hear what developers want!” Their actions demonstrate that this claim is somewhat hollow.

I don’t hold out much hope that we’ll get the ability to extend existing elements for web components. I think we can still find ways to piggy-back on existing semantics, but it’s going to take more work:

<taco-button><button>Click me!</button></taco-button>

That isn’t very elegant and I can foresee a lot of trickiness trying to sift the fallback content (the button tags) from the actual content (the “Click me!” text).

But I guess that’s what we’ll be stuck with. The alternative is simply too hard.

Extensibility

I’ve said it before, but I’m going to reiterate my conflicted feelings about Web Components:

I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous.

There are broadly two ways that they could potentially be used:

  1. Web Components are used by developers to incrementally add more powerful elements to their websites. This evolutionary approach feels very much in line with the thinking behind the extensible web manifesto. Or:
  2. Web Components are used by developers as a monolithic platform, much like Angular or Ember is used today. The end user either gets everything or they get nothing.

The second scenario is a much more revolutionary approach—sweep aside the web that has come before, and usher in a new golden age of Web Components. Personally, I’m not comfortable with that kind of year-zero thinking. I prefer evolution over revolution:

Revolutions sometimes change the world to the better. Most often, however, it is better to evolve an existing design rather than throwing it away. This way, authors don’t have to learn new models and content will live longer. Specifically, this means that one should prefer to design features so that old content can take advantage of new features without having to make unrelated changes. And implementations should be able to add new features to existing code, rather than having to develop whole separate modes.

The evolutionary model is exemplified by the design of HTML 5.

The revolutionary model is exemplified by the design of XHTML 2.

I really hope that the Web Components model goes down the first route.

Up until recently, my inner Web Components pendulum was swinging towards the hopeful end of my spectrum of anticipation. That was mainly driven by the ability of custom elements to extend existing HTML elements.

So, for example, instead of creating a new element like this:

<taco-button>...</taco-button>

…you can piggyback off the existing semantics of the button element like this:

<button is="taco-button">...</button>

For a real-world example, see Github’s use of <time is="time-ago">.

I wrote about creating responsible Web Components:

That means we can use web components as a form of progressive enhancement, turbo-charging pre-existing elements instead of creating brand new elements from scratch. That way, we can easily provide fallback content for non-supporting browsers.

I’d like to propose that a fundamental principle of good web component design should be: “Where possible, extend an existing HTML element instead of creating a new element from scratch.”

Peter Gasston also has a great post on best practice for creating custom elements:

It’s my opinion that, for as long as there is a dependence on JS for custom elements, we should extend existing elements when writing custom elements. It makes sense for developers, because new elements have access to properties and methods that have been defined and tested for many years; and it makes sense for users, as they have fallback in case of JS failure, and baked-in accessibility fundamentals.

But now it looks like this superpower of custom elements is being nipped in the bud:

It also does not address subclassing normal elements. Again, while that seems desirable the current ideas are not attractive long term solutions. Punting on it in order to ship a v1 available everywhere seems preferable.

Now, I’m not particularly wedded to the syntax of using the is="" attribute to extend existing elements …but I do think that the ability to extend existing elements declaratively is vital. I’m not alone, although I may very well be in the minority.

Bruce has outlined some use cases and Steve Faulkner has enumerated the benefits of declarative extensibility:

I think being able to extend existing elements has potential value to developers far beyond accessibility (it just so happens that accessibility is helped a lot by re-use of existing HTML features.)

Bruce concurs:

Like Steve, I’ve no particularly affection (or enmity) towards the <input type="radio" is="luscious-radio"> syntax. But I’d like to know, if it’s dropped, how progressive enhancement can be achieved so we don’t lock out users of browsers that don’t have web components capabilities, JavaScript disabled or proxy browsers. If there is a concrete plan, please point me to it. If there isn’t, it’s irresponsible to drop a method that we can see working in the example above with nothing else to replace it.

He adds:

I also have a niggling worry that this may affect the uptake of web components.

I think he’s absolutely right. I think there are many developers out there in a similar position to me, uncertain exactly what to make of this new technology. I was looking forward to getting really stuck into Web Components and figuring out ways of creating powerful little extensions that I could start using now. But if Web Components turn out to be an all-or-nothing technology—a “platform”, if you will—then I will not only not be using them, I’ll be actively arguing against their use.

I really hope that doesn’t happen, but I must admit I’m not hopeful—my inner pendulum has swung firmly back towards the nervous end of my anticipation spectrum. That’s because I’m getting the distinct impression that the priorities being considered for Web Components are those of JavaScript framework creators, rather than web developers looking to add incremental improvements while maintaining backward compatibility.

If that’s the case, then Web Components will be made in the image of existing monolithic MVC frameworks that require JavaScript to do anything, even rendering content. To me, that’s a dystopian vision, one I can’t get behind.

Responsible Web Components

Bruce has written a great article called On the accessibility of web components. Again. In it, he takes issue with the tone of a recent presentation on web components, wherein Dimitri Glazkov declares:

Custom elements is really neat. It basically says, “HTML it’s been a pleasure”.

Bruce paraphrases this as:

Bye-bye HTML; you weren’t useful enough. Hello, brave new world of custom elements.

Like Bruce, I’m worried about this year-zero thinking. First of all, I think it’s self-defeating. In my experience, the web technologies that succeed are the ones that build upon what already exists, rather than sweeping everything aside. Evolution, not revolution.

Secondly, web components—or more specifically, custom elements—already allow us to extend existing HTML elements. That means we can use web components as a form of progressive enhancement, turbo-charging pre-existing elements instead of creating brand new elements from scratch. That way, we can easily provide fallback content for non-supporting browsers.

But, as Bruce asks:

Snarking aside, why do so few people talk about extending existing HTML elements with web components? Why’s all the talk about brand new custom elements? I don’t know.

Patrick leaves a comment with his answer:

The issue of not extending existing HTML elements is exactly the same that we’ve seen all this time, even before web components: developers who are tip-top JavaScripters, who already plan on doing all the visual feedback/interactions (for mouse users like themselves) in script anyway themselves, so they just opt for the most neutral starting point…a div or a span. Web components now simply gives the option of then sweeping all that non-semantic junk under a nice, self-contained rug.

That’s a depressing thought. But it might very well be true.

Stuart also comments:

Why aren’t web components required to be created with is=“some-component” on an existing HTML element? This seems like an obvious approach; sure, someone who wants to make something meaningless will just do <div is=my-thing> or (worse) <body is=my-thing> but it would provide a pretty heavy hint that you’re supposed to be doing things The Right Way, and you’d get basic accessibility stuff thrown in for free.

That’s a good question. After all, writing <new-shiny></new-shiny> is basically the same as <span is=“new-shiny”></span>. It might not make much of a difference in the case of a span or div, but it could make an enormous difference in the case of, say, form elements.

Take a look at IBM’s library of web components. They’re well-written and they look good, but time and time again, they create new custom elements instead of extending existing HTML.

Although, as Bruce points out:

Of course, not every new element you’ll want to make can extend an existing HTML element.

But I still think that the majority of web components could, and should, extend existing elements. Addy Osmani has put together some design principles for web components and Steve Faulkner has created a handy punch-list for web components, but I’d like to propose that a fundamental principle of good web component design should be: “Where possible, extend an existing HTML element instead of creating a new element from scratch.”

Rather than just complain about this kind of thing, I figured I’d try my hand at putting it into practice…

Dave recently made a really nice web component for playing back podcast audio files. I could imagine using something like this on Huffduffer. It’s called podcast-player and you use it thusly:

<podcast-player src="my.mp3"></podcast-player>

One option for providing fallback content would be to include it within the custom element tags:

<podcast-player src="my.mp3">
    <a href="my.mp3">Listen</a>
</podcast-player>

That would require minimum change to Dave’s code. I’d just need to make sure that the fallback content within podcast-player elements is removed in supporting browsers.

I forked Dave’s code to try out another idea. I figured that if the starting point was a regular link to the audio file, that would also be a way of providing fallback for browsers that don’t cut the web component mustard:

<a href="my.mp3" is="podcast-player">Listen</a>

It required surprisingly few changes to the code. I needed to remove the fallback content (that “Listen” text), and I needed to prevent the default behaviour (following the href), but it was fairly straightforward.

However, I’m sure it could be improved in one of two ways:

  1. I should probably supply an ARIA role to the extended link. I’m not sure what would be the right one, though …menu or menubar perhaps?
  2. Perhaps a link isn’t the right element to extend. Really I should be extending an audio element (which itself allows for fallback content). When I tried that, I found it too hard to overcome the default browser rules for hiding anything between the opening and closing tags. But you’re smarter than me, so I bet you could create <audio is=“podcast-player”>.

Fork the code and have at it.

Web Components

The Extensible Web Summit is taking place in Berlin today because Web Components are that important. I wish I could be there, but I’ll make do with the live notes, the IRC channel, and the octothorpe tag.

I have conflicting feelings about Web Components. I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous. That’s probably a good sign.

Here’s what I wrote after the last TAG meetup in London:

This really is a radically new and different way of adding features to browsers. In theory, it shifts the balance of power much more to developers (who currently have to hack together everything using JavaScript). If it works, it will be A Good Thing and result in expanding HTML’s vocabulary with genuinely useful features. I fear there may be a rocky transition to this new way of thinking, and I worry about backwards compatibility, but I can’t help but admire the audacity of the plan.

And here’s what I wrote after the Edge conference:

If Web Components work out, and we get a kind emergent semantics of UI widgets, it’ll be a huge leap forward for the web. But if we end up with a Tower of Babel, things could get very messy indeed. We’ll probably get both at once.

To explain…

The exciting thing about Web Components is that they give developers as much power as browser makers.

The frightening thing about Web Components is that they give developers as much power as browser makers.

When browser makers—and other contributors to web standards—team up to hammer out new features in HTML, they have design principles to guide them …at least in theory. First and foremost—because this is the web, not some fly-by-night “platform”—is the issue of compatability:

Support existing content

Degrade gracefully

You can see those principles at work with newly-minted elements like canvas, audio, video where fallback content can be placed between the opening and closing tags so that older user agents aren’t left high and dry (which, in turn, encourages developers to start using these features long before they’re universally supported).

You can see those principles at work in the design of datalist.

You can see those principles at work in the design of new form features which make use of the fact that browsers treat unknown input types as type="text" (again, encouraging developers to start using the new input long before they’re supported in every browser).

When developers are creating new Web Components, they could apply that same amount of thought and care; Chris Scott has demonstrated just such a pattern. Switching to Web Components does not mean abandoning progressive enhancement. If anything they provide the opportunity to create whole new levels of experience.

Web developers could ensure that their Web Components degrade gracefully in older browsers that don’t support Web Components (and no, “just polyfill it” is not a sustainable solution) or, for that matter, situations where JavaScript—for whatever reason—is not available.

Web developers could ensure that their Web Components are accessible, using appropriate ARIA properties.

But I fear that Sturgeon’s Law is going to dominate Web Components. The comparison that’s often cited for Web Components is the creation of jQuery plug-ins. And let’s face it, 90% of jQuery plug-ins are crap.

This wouldn’t matter so much if developers were only shooting themselves in the foot, but because of the wonderful spirit of sharing on the web, we might well end up shooting others in the foot too:

  1. I make something (to solve a problem).
  2. I’m excited about it.
  3. I share it.
  4. Others copy and paste what I’ve made.

Most of the time, that’s absolutely fantastic. But if the copying and pasting happens without critical appraisal, a lot of questionable decisions can get propagated very quickly.

To give you an example…

When Apple introduced the iPhone, it provided a mechanism to specify that a web page shouldn’t be displayed in a zoomed-out view. That mechanism, which Apple pulled out of their ass without going through any kind of standardisation process, was to use the meta element with a name of “viewport”:

<meta name="viewport" value="...">

The value attribute of a meta element takes a comma-separated list of values (think of name="keywords": you provide a comma-separated list of keywords). But in an early tutorial about the viewport value, code was provided which showed values separated with semicolons (like CSS declarations). People copied and pasted that code (which actually did work in Mobile Safari) and so every browser must support that usage:

Many other mobile browsers now support this tag, although it is not part of any web standard. Apple’s documentation does a good job explaining how web developers can use this tag, but we had to do some detective work to figure out exactly how to implement it in Fennec. For example, Safari’s documentation says the content is a “comma-delimited list,” but existing browsers and web pages use any mix of commas, semicolons, and spaces as separators.

Anyway, that’s just one illustration of how code gets shared, copied and pasted. It’s especially crucial during the introduction of a new technology to try to make sure that the code getting passed around is of a high quality.

I feel kind of bad saying this because the introductory phase of any new technology should be a time to say “Hey, go crazy! Try stuff out! See what works and what doesn’t!” but because Web Components are so powerful I think that mindset could end up doing a lot of damage.

Web developers have been given powerful features in the past. Vendor prefixes in CSS were a powerful feature that allowed browsers to push the boundaries of CSS without creating a Tower of Babel of propietary properties. But because developers just copied and pasted code, browser makers are now having to support prefixes that were originally scoped to different rendering engines. That’s not the fault of the browser makers. That’s the fault of web developers.

With Web Components, we are being given a lot of rope. We can either hang ourselves with it, or we can make awesome …rope …structures …out of rope this analogy really isn’t working.

I’m not suggesting we have some kind of central authority that gets to sit in judgement on which Web Components pass muster (although Addy’s FIRST principles are a great starting point). Instead I think a web of trust will emerge.

If I see a Web Component published by somebody at Paciello Group, I can be pretty sure that it will be accessible. Likewise, if Christian publishes a Web Component, it’s a good bet that it will use progressive enhancement. And if any of the superhumans at Filament Group share a Web Component, it’s bound to be accessible, performant, and well thought-out.

Because—as is so often the case on the web—it’s not really about technologies at all. It’s about people.

And it’s precisely because it’s about people that I’m so excited about Web Components …and simultaneously so nervous about Web Components.