Tags: design

143

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Variable fonts

We have a tradition here at Clearleft of having the occasional lunchtime braindump. They’re somewhat sporadic, but it’s always a good day when there’s a “brown bag” gathering.

When Google’s AMP format came out and I had done some investigating, I led a brown bag playback on that. Recently Mark did one on Fractal so that everyone knew how work on that was progressing.

Today Richard gave us a quick brown bag talk on variable web fonts. He talked us through how these will work on the web and in operating systems. We got a good explanation of how these fonts would get designed—the type designer designs the “extreme” edges of size, weight, or whatever, and then the file format itself can extrapolate all the in-between stages. So, in theory, one single font file can hold hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of potential variations. It feels like switching from bitmap images to SVG—there’s suddenly much greater flexibility.

A variable font is a single font file that behaves like multiple fonts.

There were a couple of interesting tidbits that Rich pointed out…

While this is a new file format, there isn’t going to be a new file extension. These will be .ttf files, and so by extension, they can be .woff and .woff2 files too.

This isn’t some proposed theoretical standard: an unprecedented amount of co-operation has gone into the creation of this format. Adobe, Apple, Google, and Microsoft have all contributed. Agreement is the hardest part of any standards process. Once that’s taken care of, the technical solution follows quickly. So you can expect this to land very quickly and widely.

This technology is landing in web browsers before it lands in operating systems. It’s already available in the Safari Technology Preview. That means that for a while, the very best on-screen typography will be delivered not in eBook readers, but in web browsers. So if you want to deliver the absolute best reading experience, look to the web.

And here’s the part that I found fascinating…

We can currently use numbers for the font-weight property in CSS. Those number values increment in hundreds: 100, 200, 300, etc. Now with variable fonts, we can start using integers: 321, 417, 183, etc. How fortuitous that we have 99 free slots between our current set of values!

Well, that’s no accident. The reason why the numbers were originally specced in increments of 100 back in 1996 was precisely so that some future sci-fi technology could make use of the ranges in between. That’s some future-friendly thinking! And as Håkon wrote:

One of the reasons we chose to use three-digit numbers was to support intermediate values in the future. And the future is now :)

Needless to say, variable fonts will be covered in Richard’s forthcoming book.

Teaching in Porto, day four

Day one covered HTML (amongst other things), day two covered CSS, and day three covered JavaScript. Each one of those days involved a certain amount of hands-on coding, with the students getting their hands dirty with angle brackets, curly braces, and semi-colons.

Day four was a deliberate step away from all that. No more laptops, just paper. Whereas the previous days had focused on collaboratively working on a single document, today I wanted everyone to work on a separate site.

The sites were generated randomly. I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”

For a bit of fun, the first brainstorming exercise (run as a 6-up) was to come with potential names for this service—4 minutes for 6 ideas. Then we went around the table, shared the ideas, got feedback, and settled on the names.

Now I asked everyone to come up with a one-sentence mission statement for their newly-named service. This was a good way of teasing out the most important verbs and nouns, which led nicely into the next task: answering the question “what is the core functionality?”

If that sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the first part of the three-step process I outlined in Resilient Web Design:

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

We did some URL design, figuring out what structures would make sense for straightforward GET requests, like:

  • /things
  • /things/ID

Then, once it was clear what the primary “thing” was (a car, a book, etc.), I asked them to write down all the pieces that might appear on such a page; one post-it note per item e.g. “title”, “description”, “img”, “rating”, etc.

The next step involved prioritisation. They took those post-it notes and put them on the wall, but they had to put them in a vertical line from top to bottom in decreasing order of importance. This can be a challenge, but it’s better to solve these problems now rather than later.

Okay. I know asked them to “mark up” those vertical lists of post-it notes: writing HTML tag names by each one. By doing this before doing any visual design, it meant they were thinking about the meaning of the content first.

After that, we did a good ol’ fashioned classic 6-up sketching exercise, followed by critique (including a “designated dissenter” for each round). At this point, I was encouraging them to go crazy with ideas—they already had the core functionality figured out (with plain ol’ client/server requests and responses) so they could all the bells and whistles they wanted on top of that.

We finished up with a discussion of some of those bells and whistles, and how they could be used to improve the user experience: Ajax, geolocation, service workers, notifications, background sync …the sky’s the limit.

It was a whirlwind tour for just one day but I think it helped emphasise the importance of thinking about the fundamentals before adding enhancements.

This marked the end of the structured masterclass lessons. Tomorrow I’m around to answer any miscellaneous questions (if I can) and chat to the students individually while they work on their term projects.

Teaching in Porto, day two

The second day in this week-long masterclass was focused on CSS. But before we could get stuck into that, there were some diversions and tangents brought on by left-over questions from day one.

This was not a problem. Far from it! The questions were really good. Like, how does a web server know that someone has permission to carry out actions via a POST request? What a perfect opportunity to talk about state! Cue a little history lesson on the web’s beginning as a deliberately stateless medium, followed by the introduction of cookies …for good and ill.

We also had a digression about performance, file sizes, and loading times—something I’m always more than happy to discuss. But by mid-morning, we were back on track and ready to tackle CSS.

As with the first day, I wanted to take a “long zoom” look at design and the web. So instead of diving straight into stylesheets, we first looked at the history of visual design: cave paintings, hieroglyphs, illuminated manuscripts, the printing press, the Swiss school …all of them examples of media where the designer knows where the “edges” of the canvas lie. Not so with the web.

So to tackle visual design on the web, I suggested separating layout from all the other aspects of visual design: colour, typography, contrast, negative space, and so on.

At this point we were ready to start thinking in CSS. I started by pointing out that all CSS boils down to one pattern:

selector {
  property: value;
}

The trick, then, is to convert what you want into that pattern. So “I want the body of the page to be off-white with dark grey text” in English is translated into the CSS:

body {
  background-color: rgb(225,225,255);
  color: rgb(51,51,51);
}

…and so one for type, contrast, hierarchy, and more.

We started applying styles to the content we had collectively marked up with post-it notes on day one. Then the students split into groups of two to create an HTML document each. Tomorrow they’ll be styling that document.

There were two important links that come up over the course of day two:

  1. A Dao Of Web Design by John Allsopp, and
  2. The CSS Zen Garden.

If all goes according to plan, we’ll be tackling the third layer of the web technology stack tomorrow: JavaScript.

Audio book

I’ve recorded each chapter of Resilient Web Design as MP3 files that I’ve been releasing once a week. The final chapter is recorded and released so my audio work is done here.

If you want subscribe to the podcast, pop this RSS feed into your podcast software of choice. Or use one of these links:

Or if you can have it as one single MP3 file to listen to as an audio book. It’s two hours long.

So, for those keeping count, the book is now available as HTML, PDF, EPUB, MOBI, and MP3.

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.

Making Resilient Web Design work offline

I’ve written before about taking an online book offline, documenting the process behind the web version of HTML5 For Web Designers. A book is quite a static thing so it’s safe to take a fairly aggressive offline-first approach. In fact, a static unchanging book is one of the few situations that AppCache works for. Of course a service worker is better, but until AppCache is removed from browsers (and until service worker is supported across the board), I’m using both. I wouldn’t recommend that for most sites though—for most sites, use a service worker to enhance it, and avoid AppCache like the plague.

For Resilient Web Design, I took a similar approach to HTML5 For Web Designers but I knew that there was a good chance that some of the content would be getting tweaked at least for a while. So while the approach is still cache-first, I decided to keep the cache fairly fresh.

Here’s my service worker. It starts with the usual stuff: when the service worker is installed, there’s a list of static assets to cache. In this case, that list is literally everything; all the HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and images for the whole site. Again, this is a pattern that works well for a book, but wouldn’t be right for other kinds of websites.

The real heavy lifting happens with the fetch event. This is where the logic sits for what the service worker should do everytime there’s a request for a resource. I’ve documented the logic with comments:

// Look in the cache first, fall back to the network
  // CACHE
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
      // NETWORK
          // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
  // NETWORK
  // If the file wasn't in the cache, make a network request
      // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
  // OFFLINE
  // If the request is for an image, show an offline placeholder
  // If the request is for a page, show an offline message

So my order of preference is:

  1. Try the cache first,
  2. Try the network second,
  3. Fallback to a placeholder as a last resort.

Leaving aside that third part, regardless of whether the response is served straight from the cache or from the network, the cache gets a top-up. If the response is being served from the cache, there’s an additional network request made to get a fresh copy of the resource that was just served. This means that the user might be seeing a slightly stale version of a file, but they’ll get the fresher version next time round.

Again, I think this acceptable for a book where the tweaks and changes should be fairly minor, but I definitely wouldn’t want to do it on a more dynamic site where the freshness matters more.

Here’s what it usually likes like when a file is served up from the cache:

caches.match(request)
  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      return responseFromCache;
  }

I’ve introduced an extra step where the fresher version is fetched from the network. This is where the code can look a bit confusing: the network request is happening in the background after the cached file has already been returned, but the code appears before the return statement:

caches.match(request)
  .then( responseFromCache => {
  // Did we find the file in the cache?
  if (responseFromCache) {
      // If so, fetch a fresh copy from the network in the background
      event.waitUntil(
          // NETWORK
          fetch(request)
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              // Stash the fresh copy in the cache
              caches.open(staticCacheName)
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
              });
          })
      );
      return responseFromCache;
  }

It’s asynchronous, see? So even though all that network code appears before the return statement, it’s pretty much guaranteed to complete after the cache response has been returned. You can verify this by putting in some console.log statements:

caches.match(request)
.then( responseFromCache => {
  if (responseFromCache) {
      event.waitUntil(
          fetch(request)
          .then( responseFromFetch => {
              console.log('Got a response from the network.');
              caches.open(staticCacheName)
              .then( cache => {
                  cache.put(request, responseFromFetch);
              });
          })
      );
      console.log('Got a response from the cache.');
      return responseFromCache;
  }

Those log statements will appear in this order:

Got a response from the cache.
Got a response from the network.

That’s the opposite order in which they appear in the code. Everything inside the event.waitUntil part is asynchronous.

Here’s the catch: this kind of asynchronous waitUntil hasn’t landed in all the browsers yet. The code I’ve written will fail.

But never fear! Jake has written a polyfill. All I need to do is include that at the start of my serviceworker.js file and I’m good to go:

// Import Jake's polyfill for async waitUntil
importScripts('/js/async-waituntil.js');

I’m also using it when a file isn’t found in the cache, and is returned from the network instead. Here’s what the usual network code looks like:

fetch(request)
  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    return responseFromFetch;
  })

I want to also store that response in the cache, but I want to do it asynchronously—I don’t care how long it takes to put the file in the cache as long as the user gets the response straight away.

Technically, I’m not putting the response in the cache; I’m putting a copy of the response in the cache (it’s a stream, so I need to clone it if I want to do more than one thing with it).

fetch(request)
  .then( responseFromFetch => {
    // Stash a fresh copy in the cache in the background
    let responseCopy = responseFromFetch.clone();
    event.waitUntil(
      caches.open(staticCacheName)
      .then( cache => {
          cache.put(request, responseCopy);
      })
    );
    return responseFromFetch;
  })

That all seems to be working well in browsers that support service workers. For legacy browsers, like Mobile Safari, there’s the much blunter caveman logic of an AppCache manifest.

Here’s the JavaScript that decides whether a browser gets the service worker or the AppCache:

if ('serviceWorker' in navigator) {
  // If service workers are supported
  navigator.serviceWorker.register('/serviceworker.js');
} else if ('applicationCache' in window) {
  // Otherwise inject an iframe to use appcache
  var iframe = document.createElement('iframe');
  iframe.setAttribute('src', '/appcache.html');
  iframe.setAttribute('style', 'width: 0; height: 0; border: 0');
  document.querySelector('footer').appendChild(iframe);
}

Either way, people are making full use of the offline nature of the book and that makes me very happy indeed.

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.

Print styles

I really wanted to make sure that the print styles for Resilient Web Design were pretty good—or at least as good as they could be given the everlasting lack of support for many print properties in browsers.

Here’s the first thing I added:

@media print {
  @page {
    margin: 1in 0.5in 0.5in;
    orphans: 4;
    widows: 3;
  }
}

That sets the margins of printed pages in inches (I could’ve used centimetres but the numbers were nice and round in inches). The orphans: 4 declaration says that if there’s less than 4 lines on a page, shunt the text onto the next page. And widows: 3 declares that there shouldn’t be less than 3 lines left alone on a page (instead more lines will be carried over from the previous page).

I always get widows and orphans confused so I remind myself that orphans are left alone at the start; widows are left alone at the end.

I try to make sure that some elements don’t get their content split up over page breaks:

@media print {
  p, li, pre, figure, blockquote {
    page-break-inside: avoid;
  }
}

I don’t want headings appearing at the end of a page with no content after them:

@media print {
  h1,h2,h3,h4,h5 {
    page-break-after: avoid;
  }
}

But sections should always start with a fresh page:

@media print {
  section {
    page-break-before: always;
  }
}

There are a few other little tweaks to hide some content from printing, but that’s pretty much it. Using print preview in browsers showed some pretty decent formatting. In fact, I used the “Save as PDF” option to create the PDF versions of the book. The portrait version comes from Chrome’s preview. The landscape version comes from Firefox, which offers more options under “Layout”.

For some more print style suggestions, have a look at the article I totally forgot about print style sheets. There’s also tips and tricks for print style sheets on Smashing Magazine. That includes a clever little trick for generating QR codes that only appear when a document is printed. I’ve used that technique for some page types over on The Session.

Design principles

Andrew Travers wrote about designing design principles at Co-op Digital. I’m somewhat obsessed with design principles—hence my collection—so I’m also obsessed with figuring out what makes for “good” design principles.

One of my favourite design principles (yes, I have favourites) is from the HTML Design Principles. It’s the priority of constituencies:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

The emphasis my own. It demonstrates how the design principle can be put to use (“in case of conflict”). Andrew also describes uses for the design principles they’re putting together:

What we’re building towards is a set of principles, few enough to be memorable, short enough to be repeatable, relevant enough to be usable. When we’re running a design crit, it’s these principles that we want to lean on. When a sole designer in an agile delivery team is talking about a design approach, it’s these principles that back her up.

Those sound like good use cases to me. Those are situations when design principles can help people reach agreement on priorities, without it having to be about ego or who shouts loudest.

I think it was from Cennydd that I heard about a really good test of a design principle: is it reversible? In other words, could you imagine the exact opposite of the design principle being perfectly valid in a different organisation or on a different project? If not, then the principle may be too weak to be effective. (Cennydd points out that he heard this from Jared who has written a lot about evaluating design principles.)

“Make it easy to use” would be an example of a weak design principle. It’s hard to imagine a situation where “make it hard to use” would be a reasonable guiding principle.

Frankly, there are plenty of “bad” examples in my collection of design principles. Many of them wouldn’t pass the reversibility test. Just recently though, I spotted some that would pass the test with flying colours. They weren’t even labelled as design principles—they’re the tips that Heydon includes at the end of his excellent 24 Ways article on inclusive design:

  • Involve code early
  • Respect conventions
  • Don’t be exact
  • Enforce simplicity

I could easily imagine endeavours where the complete opposite of those tips would be valued. Personally, I think they’re really great design princples.

I should add them to the list.

The typography of a web book

I’m a sucker for classic old-style serif typefaces: Caslon, Baskerville, Bembo, Garamond …I love ‘em. That’s probably why I’ve always found the typesetting in Edward Tufte’s books so appealing—he always uses a combination of Bembo for body copy and Gill Sans for headings.

Earlier this year I stumbled on a screen version of Bembo used for Tufte’s digital releases called ET Book. Best of all, it’s open source:

ET Book is a Bembo-like font for the computer designed by Dmitry Krasny, Bonnie Scranton, and Edward Tufte. It is free and open-source.

When I was styling Resilient Web Design, I knew that the choice of typeface would be one of the most important decisions I would make. Remembering that open source ET Book font, I plugged it in to see how it looked. I liked what I saw. I found it particularly appealing when it’s full black on full white at a nice big size (with lower contrast or sizes, it starts to get a bit fuzzy).

I love, love, love the old-style numerals of ET Book. But I was disappointed to see that ligatures didn’t seem to be coming through (even when I had enabled them in CSS). I mentioned this to Rich and of course he couldn’t resist doing a bit of typographic sleuthing. It turns out that the ligature glyphs are there in the source files but the files needed a little tweaking to enable them. Because the files are open source, Rich was able to tweak away to his heart’s content. I then took the tweaked open type files and ran them through Font Squirrel to generate WOFF and WOFF2 files. I’ve put them on Github.

For this book, I decided that the measure would be the priority. I settled on a measure of around 55 to 60 characters—about 10 or 11 words per line. I used a max-width of 27em combined with Mike’s brilliant fluid type technique to maintain a consistent measure.

It looks great on small-screen devices and tablets. On large screens, the font size starts to get really, really big. Personally, I like that. Lots of other people like it too. But some people really don’t like it. I should probably add a font-resizing widget for those who find the font size too shocking on luxuriously large screens. In the meantime, their only recourse is to fork the CSS to make their own version of the book with more familiar font sizes.

The visceral reaction a few people have expressed to the font size reminds me of the flak Jeffrey received when he redesigned his personal site a few years back:

Many people who’ve visited this site since the redesign have commented on the big type. It’s hard to miss. After all, words are practically the only feature I haven’t removed. Some of the people say they love it. Others are undecided. Many are still processing. A few say they hate it and suggest I’ve lost my mind.

I wonder how the people who complained then are feeling now, a few years on, in a world with Medium in it? Jeffrey’s redesign doesn’t look so extreme any more.

Resilient Web Design will be on the web for a very, very, very long time. I’m curious to see if its type size will still look shockingly large in years to come.

Introducing Resilient Web Design

I wrote a thing. The thing is a book. But the book is not published on paper. This book is on the web. It’s a web book. Or “wook” if you prefer …please don’t prefer. Here it is:

Resilient Web Design.

It’s yours for free.

Much of the subject matter will be familiar if you’ve seen my conference talks from the past couple of years, particularly Enhance! and Resilience. But the book ended up taking some twists and turns that surprised me. It turned out to be a bit of a history book: the history of design, the history of the web.

Resilient Web Design is a short book. It’s between sixteen and seventeen megawords long. You could read the whole thing in a couple of hours. Or—because the book has seven chapters—you could take fifteen to twenty minutes out of a day to read one chapter and you’d have read the whole thing done in a week.

If you make websites in any capacity, I hope that this book will resonate with you. Even if you don’t make websites, I still hope there’s an interesting story in there for you.

You can read the whole book on the web, but if you’d rather have a single file to carry around, I’ve made some PDFs as well: one in portrait, one in landscape.

I’ve licensed the book quite liberally. It’s released under a Creative Commons attribution share-alike licence. That means you can re-use the material in any way you want (even commercial usage) as long as you provide some attribution and use the same licence. So if you’d like to release the book in some other format like ePub or anything, go for it.

I’m currently making an audio version of Resilient Web Design. I’ll be releasing it one chapter at a time as a podcast. Here’s the RSS feed if you want to subscribe to it. Or you can subscribe directly from iTunes.

I took my sweet time writing this book. I wrote the first chapter in March 2015. I wrote the last chapter in May 2016. Then I sat on it for a while, figuring out what to do with it. Eventually I decided to just put the whole thing up on the web—it seems fitting.

Whereas the writing took over a year of solid procrastination, making the website went surprisingly quickly. After one weekend of marking up and styling, I had most of it ready to go. Then I spent a while tweaking. The source files are on Github.

I’m pretty happy with the end result. I’ll write a bit more about some of the details over the next while—the typography, the offline functionality, print styles, and stuff like that. In the meantime, I hope you’ll peruse this little book at your leisure…

Resilient Web Design.

If you like it, please spread the word.

Someday

In the latest issue of Justin’s excellent Responsive Web Design weekly newsletter, he includes a segment called “The Snippet Show”:

This is what tells all our browsers on all our devices to set the viewport to be the same width of the current device, and to also set the initial scale to 1 (not scaled at all). This essentially allows us to have responsive design consistently.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

The viewport value for the meta element was invented by Apple when the iPhone was released. Back then, it was a safe bet that most websites were wider than the iPhone’s 320 pixel wide display—most of them were 960 pixels wide …because reasons. So mobile Safari would automatically shrink those sites down to fit within the display. If you wanted to over-ride that behaviour, you had to use the meta viewport gubbins that they made up.

That was nine years ago. These days, if you’re building a responsive website, you still need to include that meta element.

That seems like a shame to me. I’m not suggesting that the default behaviour should switch to assuming a fluid layout, but maybe the browser could just figure it out. After all, the CSS will already be parsed by the time the HTML is rendering. Perhaps a quick test for the presence of a crawlbar could be used to trigger the shrinking behaviour. No crawlbar, no shrinking.

Maybe someday the assumption behind the current behaviour could be flipped—assume a website is responsive unless the author explicitly requests the shrinking behaviour. I’d like to think that could happen soon, but I suspect that a depressingly large number of sites are still fixed-width (I don’t even want to know—don’t tell me).

There are other browser default behaviours that might someday change. Right now, if I type example.com into a browser, it will first attempt to contact http://example.com rather than https://example.com. That means the example.com server has to do a redirect, costing the user valuable time.

You can mitigate this by putting your site on the HSTS preload list but wouldn’t it be nice if browsers first checked for HTTPS instead of HTTP? I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but someday …someday.

The imitation game

Jason shared some thoughts on designing progressive web apps. One of the things he’s pondering is how much you should try make your web-based offering look and feel like a native app.

This was prompted by an article by Owen Campbell-Moore over on Ev’s blog called Designing Great UIs for Progressive Web Apps. He begins with this advice:

Start by forgetting everything you know about conventional web design, and instead imagine you’re actually designing a native app.

This makes me squirm. I mean, I’m all for borrowing good ideas from other media—native apps, TV, print—but I don’t think that inspiration should mean imitation. For me, that always results in an interface that sits in a kind of uncanny valley of being almost—but not quite—like the thing it’s imitating.

With that out of the way, most of the recommendations in Owen’s article are sensible ideas about animation, input, and feedback. But then there’s recommendation number eight: Provide an easy way to share content:

PWAs are often shown in a context where the current URL isn’t easily accessible, so it is important to ensure the user can easily share what they’re currently looking at. Implement a share button that allows users to copy the URL to the clipboard, or share it with popular social networks.

See, when a developer has to implement a feature that the browser should be providing, that seems like a bad code smell to me. This is a problem that Opera is solving (and Google says it is solving, while meanwhile penalising developers who expose the URL to end users).

Anyway, I think my squeamishness about all the advice to imitate native apps is because it feels like a cargo cult. There seems to be an inherent assumption that native is intrinsically “better” than the web, and that the only way that the web can “win” is to match native apps note for note. But that misses out on all the things that only the web can do—instant distribution, low-friction sharing, and the ability to link to any other resource on the web (and be linked to in turn). Turning our beautifully-networked nodes into standalone silos just because that’s the way that native apps have to work feels like the cure that kills the patient.

If anything, my advice for building a progressive web app would be the exact opposite of Owen’s: don’t forget everything you’ve learned about web design. In my opinion, the term “progressive web app” can be read in order of priority:

  1. Progressive—build in a layered way so that anyone can access your content, regardless of what device or browser they’re using, rewarding the more capable browsers with more features.
  2. Web—you’re building for the web. Don’t lose sight of that. URLs matter. Accessibility matters. Performance matters.
  3. App—sure, borrow what works from native apps if it makes sense for your situation.

Jason asks questions about how your progressive web app will behave when it’s added to the home screen. How much do you match the platform? How do you manage going chromeless? And the big one: what do users expect?

Will people expect an experience that maps to native conventions? Or will they be more accepting of deviation because they came to the app via the web and have already seen it before installing it?

These are good questions and I share Jason’s hunch:

My gut says that we can build great experiences without having to make it feel exactly like an iOS or Android app because people will have already experienced the Progressive Web App multiple times in the browser before they are asked to install it.

In all the messaging from Google about progressive web apps, there’s a real feeling that the ability to install to—and launch from—the home screen is a real game changer. I’m not so sure that we should be betting the farm on that feature (the offline possibilities opened up by service workers feel like more of a game-changer to me).

People have been gleefully passing around the statistic that the average number of native apps installed per month is zero. So how exactly will we measure the success of progressive web apps against native apps …when the average number of progressive web apps installed per month is zero?

I like Android’s add-to-home-screen algorithm (although it needs tweaking). It’s a really nice carrot to reward the best websites with. But let’s not carried away. I think that most people are not going to click that “add to home screen” prompt. Let’s face it, we’ve trained people to ignore prompts like that. When someone is trying to find some information or complete a task, a prompt that pops up saying “sign up to our newsletter” or “download our native app” or “add to home screen” is a distraction to be dismissed. The fact that only the third example is initiated by the operating system, rather than the website, is irrelevant to the person using the website.

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome.

My hunch is that the majority of people will still interact with your progressive web app via a regular web browser view. If, then, only a minority of people are going to experience your site launched from the home screen in a native-like way, I don’t think it makes sense to prioritise that use case.

The great thing about progressive web apps is that they are first and foremost websites. Literally everyone who interacts with your progressive web app is first going to do so the old-fashioned way, by following a link or typing in a URL. They may later add it to their home screen, but that’s just a bonus. I think it’s important to build progressive web apps accordingly—don’t pretend that it’s just like building a native app just because some people will be visiting via the home screen.

I’m worried that developers are going to think that progressive web apps are something that need to built from scratch; that you have to start with a blank slate and build something new in a completely new way. Now, there are some good examples of these kind of one-off progressive web apps—The Guardian’s RioRun is nicely done. But I don’t think that the majority of progressive web apps should fall into that category. There’s nothing to stop you taking an existing website and transforming it step-by-step into a progressive web app:

  1. Switch over to HTTPS if you aren’t already.
  2. Use a service worker, even if it’s just to provide a custom offline page and cache some static assets.
  3. Make a manifest file to point to an icon and specify some colours.

See? Not exactly a paradigm shift in how you approach building for the web …but those deceptively straightforward steps will really turbo-boost your site.

I’m really excited about progressive web apps …but mostly for the “progressive” and “web” parts. Maybe I’ll start calling them progressive web sites. Or progressive web thangs.

Why do pull quotes exist on the web?

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph. Or it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s spoiling a sentence that you are about to read in subsequent paragraphs.

There you are reading an article when suddenly it’s interrupted by a big piece of text that’s repeating something you just read in the previous paragraph.

To be honest, I find pull quotes pretty annoying in printed magazines too, but I can at least see the justification for them there: if you’re flipping through a magazine, they act as eye-catching inducements to stop and read (in much the same way that good photography does or illustration does). But once you’re actually reading an article, they’re incredibly frustrating.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice.

You either end up learning to blot them out completely, or you end up reading the same sentence twice. Blotting them out is easier said than done on a small-screen device. At least on a large screen, pull quotes can be shunted off to the side, but on handheld devices, pull quotes really make no sense at all.

Are pull quotes online an example of a skeuomorph? “An object or feature which imitates the design of a similar artefact made from another material.”

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions. The default assumption is that pull quotes on the web are fine, because everyone else is doing pull quotes on the web. But has anybody ever stopped to ask why? It was this same spiral of unexamined assumptions that led to the web drowning in a sea of splash pages in the early 2000s.

I think they might simply be an example of unexamined assumptions.

I’m genuinely curious to hear the design justification for pull quotes on the web (particularly on mobile), because as a reader, I can give plenty of reasons for their removal.

Animating

I’ve noticed a few nice examples of motion design on the web lately.

The Cloud Four gang recently redesigned their site, including a nice little animation on the home page.

Malcolm Gladwell has a new podcast called Revisionist History. The website for the podcast is quite lovely. Each episode is illustrated with an animated image. Lovely!

If you want to see some swishy animations triggered by navigation, the waaark websites has them a-plenty. Personally I find the scroll-triggered animations on internal pages too much to take (I have yet to find an example of scrolljacking that doesn’t infuriate me). But the homepage illustrations have some lovely subtle movement.

When it comes to subtlety in animation, my favourite example comes from Charlotte. She recently refactored the homepage of the website for the Leading Design conference. It originally featured one big background image. Switching over to SVG saved a lot of bandwidth. But what I really love is that the shapes in the background are now moving …ever so gently.

It’s like gazing at a slow-motion lava lamp of geometry.

A web for everyone

I gave the closing talk at the Render conference in Oxford a few weeks back. It was a very smoothly-run event, the spiritual successor to jQuery UK.

In amongst the mix of talks there were a few emerging themes. Animation was covered from a few different angles by Val and Sara. Bruce, Jake, Ola, and I talked about Service Workers and offline functionality. But there were also some differences of opinion.

In her great talk—I’m Offline, Cool! Now What?—Ola outlined the many and varied offline use cases that drove the creation and philosophy of Hoodie. She described all the reasons why people need the web; for communication, for access to information, for empowerment, and for love. “Hell, yes!” I thought.

But then she said:

So since when is helping people to fulfil a basic need, progressive enhancement?

And even more forcefully:

This is why I think, putting offline first in the progressive enhancement slot is pure bullshit.

Strong words indeed! And I have to say I was a little puzzled by them.

Ola had demonstrated again and again just how fragile the network could be. That is absolutely correct. All too often, we make the assumption that people using our sites have a decent network connection. That’s not a safe assumption to make.

But the suggested solution—to rely on technologies like local storage, Service Workers, or other APIs—assumes a certain level of JavaScript capabilities in the devices and browsers out there. That’s an unsafe assumption to make.

I remember discussing this with Alex from Hoodie a while back. I was confused by the cognitive dissonance I was observing. It seems to me that, laudable as Hoodie’s offline-first goals are, they are swapping out one unstable dependency—the network—for a different unstable dependency—a set of JavaScript APIs.

(I remember Alex pointed out that Hoodie was intended primarily for web apps rather than web sites, and my response—predictably enough—was to say “Define web app”.)

I think I understand why Ola reacted so strongly to the suggestion that offline functionality should be added as an enhancement. I’ve seen the same reaction when I’ve said that beautiful typography on the web is an enhancement. I think that when I say something is an enhancement, what people hear is that something is just an enhancement. It sounds belittling. That’s not my intention, but I can understand how it could come across like that. Perhaps this is one reason why some people have a real issue with the term “progressive enhancement”.

I wish we could make offline functionality a requirement. But the reality is that not everyone is using a browser that supports the necessary technology. I wish we could make beautiful typography a requirement. But, again, the reality is that there will always be some browsers or devices that won’t be capable of executing that typography. Accepting these facets of reality might seem like admissions of defeat, but I actually find it quite liberating.

In her brilliant talk at Render, Ashley G. Williams channeled Carl Sagan, quoting from his book The Demon-Haunted World:

It is far better to grasp the universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

That’s how I feel we should approach building for the web. Let’s accept that network connections are unevenly distributed. Let’s also accept that browser features are unevenly distributed. Pretending that millions of Opera Mini users don’t exist isn’t a viable strategy. They too are people who want to communicate, to access information, to be empowered, and to love.

Pointing out that you can’t always rely on client-side JavaScript shouldn’t be taken as an admonishment. It’s an opportunity.

Karolina Szczur wrote a wonderful piece on Ev’s blog called The Web Isn’t Uniform. She noticed how many sites—Facebook, AirBnB, Basecamp—failed to even render some useful information if the JavaScript fails to load. It’s a situation that many of us—with our fast connections, capable browsers, and modern devices—might never even notice.

It’s a privilege to be able to use breaking edge technologies and devices, but let’s not forget basic accessibility and progressive enhancement. Ultimately, we’re building for the users, not for our own tastes or preferences.

Karolina asks that we, as makers of the web, have a little more empathy. If the comments on her article are anything to go by, that’s a tall order. All the usual tropes are rolled out—there’s the misunderstanding that progressive enhancement means making sure everything works without JavaScript (it doesn’t; it’s about the core functionality), and the evergreen argument that as soon as you’re building a web “app”, that best practices, good engineering, and empathy can go out the window…

I strongly disagree that this has anything to do at all about empathy. Instead, it’s all about resources and priorities. Making a JS app is already hard enough, duplicating all that work so that it also works without JS is quite often just not practical.—Sacha Greif

But requiring that a site be functional when JavaScript is disabled, may not be a valid requirement anymore. HTML and CSS were originally created and designed for documents, not applications. Many websites these days should be considered apps rather then docs.—Dan Shappir

What you’re suggesting is that all these companies should write all their software twice, once in javascript and again in good ol’ html with forms, to cater to that point-whatever-percentage that has decided to break their own web browser by turning one of the three fundamental web technologies off. In what universe is this a reasonable request?—Erlend Halvorsen

JavaScript is as important as HTML. This is modern internet. If someone doesn’t have JavaScript, they should not be using the new applications that were possible because of JavaScript.—HarshaL

I am a web developer. I build web applications not web sites. What you say may be true for web sites with static pages displaying images and text.—R. Fancsiki

Ah, Medium! Where the opinions of self-entitled dudes flow like rain from the tech heavens.

While they were so busy defending the lack of basic functionality in all the examples that Karolina listed, they failed to notice the most important development:

Let’s build a web that works for everyone. That doesn’t mean everyone has to have the same experience. Let’s accept that there are all sorts of people out there accessing the web with all sorts of browsers on all sorts of devices.

What a fantastic opportunity!

Sparklining

I was in Nuremberg last weekend for Indie Web Camp. It was great.

At some point I really should stop being surprised by just how much gets done in one weekend, but once again, I was blown away by the results.

On the first day we had very productive BarCamp-like discussion sessions, and on the second day it was heads-down hacking. But it was hacking with help. Being in the same room as other people who each have their own areas of expertise is so useful. It really turbo-charges the amount that you can get accomplished.

For example, I was helping Tom turn his website into a progressive web app with the addition of a service worker and a manifest file. Meanwhile Tom was helping somebody else get a Wordpress site up and running.

Actually, that was what really blew me away: two people began the second day of Indie Web Camp Nuremberg without websites and by the end of the day, they both had their own sites up and running. For me, that’s the real spirit of the indie web—I know we tend to go on about the technologies like h-card, h-entry, webmentions, micropub, and IndieAuth, but really it’s not about the technologies; it’s about having your own place on the web so that you have control over what you put out in the world.

For my part, I was mostly making some cosmetic changes to my site. There was a really good discussion on the first page about home pages. What’s the purpose of a home page? For some, it’s about conveying information about the person. For others, it’s a stream of activity.

My site used to have a splash-like homepage; just a brief bio and a link to the latest blog post. Then I changed it into a stream a few years ago. But that means that the home page of my site doesn’t feel that different from sections of the site like the journal or the link list.

During the discussion at Indie Web Camp, we started looking at how silos design their profile pages to see what we could learn from them. Looking at my Twitter profile, my Instagram profile, my Untappd profile, or just about any other profile, it’s a mixture of bio and stream, with the addition of stats showing activity on the site—signs of life.

I decided I’d add signs of life to my home page. Once again, I reached for my favourite little data visualisation helper: sparklines

A sparkline is a small intense, simple, word-sized graphic with typographic resolution.

I’ve already got sparklines on Huffduffer and on The Session so I suppose it was only a matter of time before they showed up here.

Small Screen Sparklines Large Screen Sparklines

I’ve been tweaking them ever since I got back from Germany. Now I’ve added in a little h-card bio as well.

Bio and sparklines Bio And Sparklines (large screen)

Initially I was using the fantastic little scripted SVG that Stuart made , the same one that I’m using on Huffduffer and The Session. But Kevin pointed out that a straightforward polyline would be more succinct. And in the case of my own site, there’s only four sparklines so it wouldn’t be a huge overhead to hard-code the values straight into the SVGs.

Yesterday was the first day of Render Conference in Oxford (I’ll be speaking later today). Sara gave a blisteringly great talk on (what else?) SVGs and I got so inspired I started refactoring my code right there and then. I’m pretty happy with how the sparklines are working now, although I’m sure I’ll continue to play around with them some more.

There’s another activity visualisation that I’m eager to play around with. I really like the calendar heatmap on my Github profile. I could imagine using something like that for an archive view on my own site.

Luckily for me, I’ll have a chance to play around with my website a bit more very soon. There’s going to be another Indie Web Camp in Germany very soon.

Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf will take place on May 7th and 8th, right before Beyond Tellerrand. Last year’s event was really inspiring. If there’s any chance you can make it, you should come along. You won’t regret it.

Moderating EnhanceConf 2016

Last year I met up with Simon McManus in a Brighton pub where he told me about his plan to run a conference dedicated to progressive enhancement. “Sounds like a great idea!”, I said, and offered him any help I could.

With the experience of organising three dConstructs and three Responsive Days Out, I was able to offer some advice on the practical side of things like curation, costs and considerations. Simon also asked me to MC his event. I was only too happy to oblige. After all, I was definitely going to be at the conference—wild horses wouldn’t keep me away—and when have I ever turned down an opportunity to hog the mic?

Simon chose a name: EnhanceConf. He found a venue: The RSA in London. He settled on a date: March 4th, 2016. He also decided on a format, the same one as Responsive Day Out: four blocks of talks, each block consisting of three back-to-back 20 minute presentations followed by a group discussion and questions.

With all those pieces in place, it was time to put together a line-up. I weighed in with my advice and opinions there too, but the final result was all Simon’s …and what a great result it was.

Yesterday was the big day. I’m happy to report that it was a most splendid event: an inspiring collection of brilliant talks, expertly curated like a mixtape for the web.

Nat got the day off to a rousing start. They gave an overview of just how fragile and unpredictable the World Wide Web can be. To emphasise this, Anna followed with detailed look at the many, many console browsers people are using. Then Stefan gave us a high-level view of sensible (and not-so-sensible) architectures for building on the web—a talk packed to the brim with ideas and connections to lessons from the past that really resonated with me.

Stefan, Nat and Anna

After that high-level view, the next section was a deep dive into strategies for building with progressive enhancement: building React apps that share code for rendering on the server and the client from Forbes; using Service Workers to create a delightful offline experience from Olly; taking a modular approach to how structure our code and cut the mustard from Stu.

Stu, Olly and Forbes

The after-lunch session was devoted to design. It started with good ol’ smackdown between Phil and Stephen, which I attempted to introduce in my best wrestling announcer voice. That was followed by a wonderfully thoughtful presentation by Adam Silver on Embracing Simplicity. Then Jen blew everyone away with a packed presentation of not just what’s possible with CSS now, but strategies for using the latest and greatest CSS today.

Adam, Stephen, Phil and Jen

Finally, the day finished with a look to the future. And the future is …words. Robin was as brilliant as ever, devising an exercise to get the audience to understand just how awful audio CAPTCHAs are, but also conveying his enthusiasm and optimism for voice interfaces. That segued perfectly into the next two talks. Stephanie gave us a crash course in crafting clear, concise copy, and Aaron tied that together with Robin’s musings on future interactions with voice in a great final presentation called Learn From the Past, Enhance for the Future (echoing the cyclical patterns that Stefan was talking about at the start of the day).

Closing panel

As the day wrapped up, I finished by pointing to a new site launched by Jamie on the very same day: progressiveenhancement.org. With that, my duties were fulfilled.

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to the talks and then quizzing the speakers afterwards. I really do enjoy moderating events. Some of the skills are basic (pronouncing people’s names correctly, using their preferred pronouns) and some are a little trickier (trying to quickly spot connections, turning those connections into questions for each speaker) but it’s very rewarding indeed.

I had a blast at EnhanceConf. I felt bad though; lots of people came up to me and started thanking me for a great day. “Don’t thank me!” I said, “Thank Simon.”

Thanks, Simon.

Design sprinting

James and I went to Ipswich last week for work. But this wasn’t part of an ongoing project—this was a short intense one-week feasibility study.

Leon from Suffolk Libraries got in touch with us about a project they’re planning to carry out soon: replacing their self-service machines with something more up-to-date. But rather than dive into commissioning the project straight away, he wisely decided to start with a one-week sprint to figure out exactly what the project would need to go ahead.

So that’s what James and I did. It was somewhat similar to the design sprint popularised by GV. We ensconced ourselves in the Ipswich library and packed a whole lot of work into five days. There was lots of collaboration, lots of sketching, lots of iterative design, and some rough’n’ready code. It was challenging, but a lot of fun. Also: we stayed in a pretty sweet AirBnB.

Our home for the week. This is a nice AirBnB.

You can read all about it in our case study. You can also read all about from Leon’s point of view on his blog:

I can’t recommend this kind of research sprint enough. We got a report, detailed technical validation of an idea, mock ups and a plan for how to proceed, while getting staff and stakeholders involved in the project – all in the space of 5 days.

I think this approach makes a lot of sense. By the end of the week, James and I felt pretty confident about estimating times and costs for the full project. Normally trying to estimate that kind of thing can be a real guessing game. But with the small of investment of one week’s worth of effort, you get a whole lot more certainty and confidence.

Have a look for yourself.