Tags: design

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Choosing tools for scaling design

Tools and processes are intertwined. A company or a department or an individual has a way of doing things—that’s the process. They also have software to carry out the process—those are the tools.

Ideally, they should be loosely coupled. You should be able to change your tools without necessarily changing your process. So swapping out, say, one framework or library for another shouldn’t involve fundamentally changing the way you work. Likewise, trying a new way of working shouldn’t require you to use unfamiliar tools.

When it comes to scaling design within organisations, the challenges are almost always around switching processes (well, really it’s about trying to change culture, but that starts with changing processes—any sufficiently advanced process is indistinguishable from culture). All too often, though, I see people getting hung up on the tools.

We need to get more efficient in how we deliver designs …so let’s switch over to this particular design tool.

We should have a design system …so let’s get everyone using this particular JavaScript framework.

I understand this desire to shortcut the work of figuring out processes and jump straight to production solutions. For one thing, it allows you to create an easy list of requirements when it comes to recruiting talent: “Join our company—you must demonstrate experience and proficiency in this tool or that library.”

But when tools and processes become tightly coupled like this, there’s a real danger of stagnation. If a process can be defined as “the way we do things around here”, that’s not something you want to tie to any particular tool or technology. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re in the frustrating situation of using outdated tools, but you can’t swap them out for newer or better-suited technologies without disrupting everyone’s work.

This is technical debt (although it applies just as much to design). You’re paying a penalty in the present because of a decision that somebody made in the past. The problem isn’t so much with the decision itself, but with the longevity of its effects.

I think it’s important to remember what a tool is: it’s a piece of technology that enables you to work faster or better. You should enjoy using your tools, but you shouldn’t be utterly dependent on any particular one. Otherwise, the tail starts wagging the dog—you are now in service to the tool, instead of the other way around.

Treat your tools like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to any one technology to the detriment of missing out on others.

Mind you, if you constantly tried every single new tool or technology out there, you’d never settle on anything—I’m pretty sure that three new JavaScript frameworks have been released since you started reading this paragraph.

The tools you choose at any particular time should be suited to what you’re trying to accomplish at that time. In other words, you’ve got to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first (the vision), then figure out how you’re going to accomplish it (the process), and only then figure out which tools are the best fit. If you jump straight to choosing tools, you could end up trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.

Alas, I’ve seen plenty of consultants who conflate strategy with tooling. They’re brought in to solve process problems and, surprise, surprise, the solution always seems to involve purchasing the software that their company sells. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I see an organisation struggling to systemise their design patterns, and I think “Oh, they should use Fractal!” …but that’s jumping the gun. They might be better served with something simpler, or something more complex (I mean, Fractal is very, very flexible but it’s still just one option—there are plenty of other pattern library tools out there).

Once you separate out the tools from the process, there’s an added benefit. Making the right technology choice is no longer a life-or-death decision. You can suck it and see. Try out the technology and see if it works. If it’s working, great! Carry on using it. If it’s not working, that’s okay too. Try something different.

I realise I’m oversimplifying things, but I honestly believe that the real challenge is not choosing the right tools, but figuring out the right process for your team.

Process and culture

Cameron has a bone to pick. Why, oh, why, he wonders, are we so quick to create processes when what we really need is a good strong culture?

Strong culture = less process

To stop people breaking stuff: make a process for it. Want to make people act responsibly: make a process for it. Tired of telling people about something? Make a process for it.

For any single scenario you can name it’ll be easier to create a process for it than build a culture that handles it automatically. But each process is a tiny cut away from the freedom that you want your team to enjoy.

I take his point, but I also think that some processes are not only inevitable, but downright positive. There should be a process for handling payroll. There should be a process for handling promotions. Leaving that to culture might sound nice and nimble, but it could also lead to unintentional bias and unfairness.

But let’s leave those kind of operational processes aside and focus on process and culture when it comes to design and engineering. Cameron’s point is well taken here. Surely you want people to just know the way things are done? Surely you want people to just get on with doing the work without putting hurdles in their way?

On the face of it, yes. If you’re trying to scale design at your organisation, then every extra bit of process is going to slow down your progress.

But what if speed isn’t the most important metric of success when it comes to scaling design? You’ve got to make sure you’re scaling the right things.

Mark writes:

This is a post in defence of process. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: ‘urgh, process is a thing put in place to make up for mediocre teams’; or ‘prioritise discussion over documentation’; or ‘I get enough red tape in other parts of my life’.

The example he gives is undeniably a process that will slow things down …deliberately.

Whenever someone asks me to do something that I think seems ill-conceived in some way, I ask them to write it down. That’s it. Because writing is high effort. Making sentences is the easy bit, it’s the thinking I want them to do. By considering their request it slows them down. Maybe 30% of the time or something, they come back and say ‘oh, that thing I asked you to do, I’ve had a think and it’s fine, we don’t need to do it’.

I’ve seen this same tactic employed in standards bodies. Somebody bursts into a group and says “I’ve got a great idea—we should make this a thing!” The response, no matter what the idea is, is to say “Document use-cases.” It’s a stumbling block, and also a bit of a test—if they do come back with use-cases, the idea can be taken seriously; the initial enthusiasm needs to be backed up with hard graft.

(On a personal level, I sometimes use a little trick when it comes to email. If someone sends me a short email that would require a long response from me, I’ll quickly fire back a clarifying question: “Quick question: did you mean X or Y?” Now the ball is back in their court. If they respond swiftly with an answer to my question, then they’ve demonstrated their commitment and I honour their initial request.)

Anyway, it sounds like Cameron is saying that process is bad, and Mark is saying process can be good. Cody Cowan from Postlight thinks they’re both right:

To put it bluntly: people, not process, are the problem.

Even so, he acknowledges Cameron’s concern:

One of the biggest fears that people have about process is that something new is going to disrupt their work, only to be replaced by yet another rule or technique.

I think we can all agree that pointlessly cumbersome processes are bad. The disagreement is about whether all processes are inherently bad, or whether some processes are not only necessary, but sometimes even beneficial.

When Cameron talks about the importance of company culture, he knows whereof he speaks. He’s been part of Canva’s journey from a handful of people to hundreds of people. They’ve managed to scale their (excellent) culture along the way. That’s quite an achievement—scaling culture is really, really challenging. Scaling design is hard. Scaling culture is even harder.

But you know what’s even more challenging than scaling culture? Changing culture.

What if your company didn’t start with a great culture to begin with? What if you’re not Canva? What if you’re not AirBnB? What are your options then?

You can’t create a time travel machine to go back to the founding of the company and ensure a good culture from the outset.

You can’t shut down your existing company and create a new company from scratch, this time with a better culture.

You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your company culture, but it’s not going to be easy. Culture is pretty far down the stack of pace layers—it’s slow to change. But you can influence culture by changing something that’s less slow to change. I would argue the perfect medium for this is …process.

Once you know what values you’re trying to embed into your culture, create processes that amplify and reward those values. I totally understand the worry that these processes will reduce autonomy and freedom, but I think that only applies if the company already has a strong culture of autonomy and freedom. If you’re trying to create a culture of autonomy and freedom, then—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—you can start by putting processes in place.

Then, over time, those processes can seep into the day-to-day understanding of how things are done. Process dissolves into culture. It’s a long game to play, but as Cameron points out, that’s the nature of culture change:

Where culture pays off is in the long run. It’s hard work: defining the culture, hiring for the culture and communicating the culture again, and again, and again. But if you want to make a company where people are empowered, passionate, and champions of your organisation then it’s the only path forward.

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?

Designing Progressive Web Apps by Jason Grigsby

It’s the afternoon of the second day of An Event Apart Seattle and Jason is talking about Designing Progressive Web Apps. These are my notes…

Jason wants to talk about a situation you might find yourself in. You’re in a room and in walks the boss, who says “We need a progressive web app.” Now everyone is asking themselves “What is a progressive web app?” Or maybe “How does the CEO even know about progressive web apps?”

Well, trade publications are covering progressive web apps. Lots of stats and case studies are being published. When executives see this kind of information, they don’t want to get left out. Jason keeps track of this stuff at PWA Stats.

Answering the question “What is a progressive web app?” is harder than it should be. The phrase was coined by Frances Berriman and Alex Russell. They listed ten characteristics that defined progressive web apps. The “linkable” and “progressive” characteristics are the really interesting and new characteristics. We’ve had technologies before (like Adobe Air) that tried to make app-like experiences, but they weren’t really of the web. Progressive web apps are different.

Despite this list of ten characteristics, even people who are shipping progressive web apps find it hard to define the damn thing. The definition on Google’s developer site keeps changing. They reduced the characteristics from ten to six. Then it became “reliable, fast, and engaging.” What does that mean? Craigslist is reliable, fast, and engaging—does that mean it’s a progressive web app.

The technical definition is useful (kudos to me, says Jason):

  1. HTTPS
  2. service worker
  3. manifest file

If you don’t have those three things, it’s not a progressive web app.

We should definitely use HTTPS if we want make life harder for the NSA. Also browser makers are making APIs available only under HTTPS. By July, Chrome will mark HTTP sites as insecure. Every site should be under HTTPS.

Service workers are where the power is. They act as a proxy. They allow us to say what we want to cache, what we want to go out to the network for; things that native apps have been able to do for a while. With progressive web apps we can cache the app shell and go to the network for content. Service workers can provide a real performance boost.

A manifest file is simply a JSON file. It’s short and clear. It lists information about the app: icons, colours, etc.

Once you provide those three things, you get benefits. Chrome and Opera on Android will prompt to add the app to the home screen.

So that’s what’s required for progressive web apps, but there’s more to them than that (in the same way there’s more to responsive web design than the three requirements in the baseline definition).

The hype around progressive web apps can be a bit of a turn-off. It certainly was for Jason. When he investigated the technologies, he wondered “What’s the big deal?” But then he was on a panel at a marketing conference, and everyone was talking about progressive web apps. People’s expectations of what you could do on the web really hadn’t caught up with what we can do now, and the phrase “progressive web app” gives us a way to encapsulate that. As Frances says, the name isn’t for us; it’s for our boss or marketer.

Jason references my post about using the right language for the right audience.

Should you have a progressive web app? Well, if you have a website, then the answer is almost certainly “Yes!” If you make money from that website, the answer is definitely “Yes!”

But there’s a lot of FUD around progressive web apps. It brings up the tired native vs. web battle. Remember though that not 100% of your users or customers have your app installed. And it’s getting harder to convince people to install apps. The average number of apps installed per month is zero. But your website is often a customer’s first interaction with your company. A better web experience can only benefit you.

Often, people say “The web can’t do…” but a lot of the time that information is out of date. There are articles out there with outdated information. One article said that progressive web apps couldn’t access the camera, location, or the fingerprint sensor. Yet look at Instagram’s progressive web app: it accesses the camera. And just about every website wants access to your location these days. And Jason knows you can use your fingerprint to buy things on the web because he accidentally bought socks when he was trying to take a screenshot of the J.Crew website on his iPhone. So the author of that article was just plain wrong. The web can do much more than we think it can.

Another common objection is “iOS doesn’t support progressive web apps”. Well, as of last week that is no longer true. But even when that was still true, people who had implemented progressive web apps were seeing increased conversion even on iOS. That’s probably because, if you’ve got the mindset for building a progressive web app, you’re thinking deeply about performance. In many ways, progressive web apps are a trojan horse for performance.

These are the things that people think about when it comes to progressive web apps:

  1. Making it feel like a app
  2. Installation and discovery
  3. Offline mode
  4. Push notifications
  5. Beyond progressive web app

Making it feel like a app

What is an app anyway? Nobody can define it. Once again, Jason references my posts on this topic (how “app” is like “obscenity” or “brunch”).

A lot of people think that “app-like” means making it look native. But that’s a trap. Which operating system will you choose to emulate? Also, those design systems change over time. You should define your own design. Make it an exceptional experience regardless of OS.

It makes more sense to talk in terms of goals…

Goal: a more immersive experience.

Possible solution: removing the browser chrome and going fullscreen?

You can define this in the manifest file. But as you remove the browser chrome, you start to lose things that people rely on: the back button, the address bar. Now you have to provide that functionality. If you move to a fullscreen application you need to implement sharing, printing, and the back button (and managing browser history is not simple). Remember that not every customer will add your progressive web app to their home screen. Some will have browser chrome; some won’t.

Goal: a fast fluid experience.

Possible solution: use an app shell model.

You want smooth pages that don’t jump around as the content loads in. The app shell makes things seem faster because something is available instantly—it’s perceived performance. Basically you’re building a single page application. That’s a major transition. But thankfully, you don’t have to do it! Progressive web apps don’t have to be single page apps.

Goal: an app with personality.

Possible solution: Animated transitions and other bits of UI polish.

Really, it’s all about delight.

Installation and discovery

In your manifest file you can declare a background colour for the startup screen. You can also declare a theme colour—it’s like you’re skinning the browser chrome.

You can examine the manifest files for a site in Chrome’s dev tools.

Once you’ve got a progressive web app, some mobile browsers will start prompting users to add it to their home screen. Firefox on Android displays a little explainer the first time you visit a progressive web app. Chrome and Opera have add-to-homescreen banners which are a bit more intrusive. The question of when they show up keeps changing. They use a heuristic to decide this. The heuristic has been changed a few times already. One thing you should consider is suppressing the banner until it’s an optimal time. Flipkart do this: they only allow it on the order confirmation page—the act of buying something makes it really likely that someone will add the progressive web app to their home screen.

What about app stores? We don’t need them for progressive web apps—they’re on the web. But Microsoft is going to start adding progressive web apps to their app store. They’ve built a site called PWA Builder to help you with your progressive web app.

On the Android side, there’s Trusted Web Activity which is kind of like PhoneGap—it allows you to get a progressive web app into the Android app store.

But remember, your progressive web app is your website so all the normal web marketing still applies.

Offline mode

A lot of organisations say they have no need for offline functionality. But everyone has a need for some offline capability. At the very least, you can provide a fallback page, like Trivago’s offline maze game.

You can cache content that has been recently viewed. This is what Jason does on the Cloud Four site. They didn’t want to make any assumptions about what people might want, so they only cache pages as people browse around the site.

If you display cached information, you might want to display how stale the information is e.g. for currency exchange rates.

Another option is to let people choose what they want to keep offline. The Financial Times does this. They also pre-cache the daily edition.

If you have an interactive application, you could queue tasks and then carry them out when there’s a connection.

Or, like Slack does, don’t let people write something if they’re offline. That’s better than letting someone write something and then losing it.

Workbox is a handy library for providing offline functionality.

Push notifications

The JavaScript for push notifications is relatively easy, says Jason. It’s the back-end stuff that’s hard. That’s because successful push notifications are personalised. But to do that means doing a lot more work on the back end. How do you integrate with preferences? Which events trigger notifications?

There are third-party push notification services that take care of a lot of this for you. Jason has used OneSignal.

Remember that people are really annoyed by push notifications. Don’t ask for permission immediately. Don’t ask someone to marry you on a first date. On Cloud Four’s blog, they only prompt after the user has read an article.

Twitter’s progressive web app does this really well. It’s so important that you do this well: if a user says “no” to your push notification permission request, you will never be able to ask them again. There used to be three options on Chrome: allow, block, or close. Now there are just two: allow or block.

Beyond progressive web apps

There are a lot of APIs that aren’t technically part of progressive web apps but get bundled in with them. Like the Credentials Management API or the Payment Request API (which is converging with ApplePay).

So how should you plan your progressive web app launch? Remember it’s progressive. You can keep adding features. Each step along the way, you’re providing value to people.

Start with some planning and definition. Get everyone in a room and get a common definition of what the ideal progressive web app would look like. Remember there’s a continuum of features for all five of the things that Jason has outlined here.

Benchmark your existing site. It will help you later on.

Assess your current website. Is the site reasonably fast? Is it responsive? Fix those usability issues first.

Next, do the baseline. Switch to HTTPS. Add a manifest file. Add a service worker. Apart from the HTTPS switch, this can all be done on the front end. Don’t wait for all three: ship each one when they’re ready.

Then do front-end additions: pre-caching pages, for example.

Finally, there are the larger initiatives (with more complex APIs). This is where your initial benchmarking really pays off. You can demonstrate the value of what you’re proposing.

Every step on the path to a progressive web app makes sense on its own. Figure out where you want to go and start that journey.

See also:

Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed by Jen Simmons

Alright! It’s time for the final talk of the day at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jen is wrapping up a CSStastic afternoon with her talk Everything You Know About Web Design Just Changed. These are my notes…

Ready for another hour of layout in CSS? Well, Jen will be showing no code in this talk. She’s actually nervous about this particular talk. Is she really planning to say “Everything about web design just changed”? That sounds so clickbaity! But she really believes we’re at an inflection point. This may be the sixth such point in the history of the web. One of those points where everything changes and we swap out our techniques.

For the last few years, we’ve been saying that everything changed when mobile came along. But actually, the real fight has been going on for longer than that. It’s the battle between wanting art and dealing with how the web works.

There’s a seminal book called Creating Killer Websites by David Siegel from 1996. In it, he describes the first time he saw the same site in two different browsers. His reaction was panic. The web gave control to the user. David Siegel wanted more control. And that’s how we got spacer gifs and tables for layout.

What are the five major changes in the history of web design?

  1. Simple HTML. There was only one kind of layout: flow layout. There’s no CSS, but the browser is still thinking of everything has having a box. Text takes up as much space as it needs. Images take up as much space as their size. This is flow. There wasn’t much you could do until tables came along. They were created for tabular content but abused for layouts. The “We need art!” crowd used what was available to them at the time. Lots of slicing and dicing.
  2. Flash. It was hard to get HTML tables to work in multiple browsers. Flash seemed like an amazing chance to start over. And we could do things that were previously only possible in CD-ROMs. As a designer, you take an element and place it where you want to go on the stage (the UI tradition that goes all the way back to Xerox PARC). We made some crazy sites, explored a lot of possibilities, and got a lot of control. But the downside was the lack of accessibility. We went back to getting to grips with the web as its own medium. Jeffrey’s book, Designing With Web Standards, was a rallying cry to allow HTML to return to doing what it was meant to.
  3. Fluid Layouts. This was a return to the way the web always behaved—content takes up as much room as it needs to. But this time there’s a certain amount of control over how things are laid out. Still, we pretended that nobody has screens smaller than 640 pixels or bigger than 1024 pixels. We still live with the idea of fluid columns today.
  4. Fixed-Width Layouts. The “We need art!” crowd wanted more control than fluid layouts offered. We pretended that everyone’s screen was at least 640 pixels, or later 800 pixels, or later 1024 pixels.
  5. Responsive Web Design. Unveiled by Ethan at An Event Apart Seattle in 2011: flexible grid; flexible images; media queries. It’s a return to fluid layouts, but the addition of media queries gives us more control. The idea of fluid image was a bit radical. Up until that point, we thought of images as always being their intrinsic size. But something Ethan said that day was “It’s not just about layout.” And it’s true. For the last eight years, it’s been about more than layout. You set out to redesign your website and end up redesigning your whole business. Responsive web design is, frankly, what the web is now.

But let’s talk about layout. What’s next? Intrinsic Web Design.

Why a new name? Why bother? Well, it was helpful to debate fluid vs. fixed, or table-based layouts: having words really helps. Over the past few years, Jen has needed a term for “responsive web design +”.

Responsive web design has flexible images. Intrinsic web design has flexible images …or fixed images. Whichever you want.

Responsive web design has a fluid columns. Intrinsic web design has fluid columns and rows.

Responsive web design uses media queries. Intrinsic web design doesn’t necessarily need them.

The name comes from words that have been floating in the ether. In Rachel’s talk, the words “sizing” and “intrinsic” came up a lot. This is about the nature of the web.

Let’s look at images specifically. Before responsive web design, images overflow their container if they are bigger than the container. Fluid images (as used in responsive web design) shrink and grow depending on the size of their container. You can also make images fluid in a vertical direction. If we make the image fluid vertically and horizontally, the image looks distorted. But now if we use object-fit: cover we can specify how we want the image to react.

Fixed or fluid? With grid layout, you can mix fixed and fluid. You can make a layout fluid until it hits a minimum size, at which point it stays fixed.

There are four stages of squishiness:

  1. fixed
  2. fr units (fluid)
  3. minmax()(fluid until fixed)
  4. auto (a return to flow)

That’s a powerful set of tools that may take us years to explore.

We can do truly two-dimensional layouts: rows and columns. Every one of those four stages of squishiness works for rows as well as columns. This means we can create intentional white space. Jen made a video about this and got the response that this was always possible, but it’s different now: it’s more intentional. You can set heights and widths.

We can have nested contexts now:

  1. Flow
  2. Flexbox (formatting context)
  3. Grid (formatting context)
  4. Multicolumn (formatting context)

Floats never created a new formatting context, which is why used clearfix. Now we don’t need hacks. You can mix and match, choosing the best layout tool for the job at hand. You can have a grid layout that has flexbox items within it. The Firefox dev tools allow you to inspect each layout type separately. You can use the nightly build to get the latest tools.

Then we’ve got ways to contract and expand content. We have more options now. For a while, we’ve had the option to squish and grow (e.g. with fluid images). Another is wrapping and reflowing (like we can do with text). Another option now is to add and remove whitespace. Maybe the content size doesn’t need to change; the whitespace shrinks and grows instead. An even more radical option now is to have things slide behind one another and overlap deliberately.

Sometimes you don’t even need to use media queries (meaning we’ve effectively got container queries). But we can still use media queries, as needed, to tweak the details.

So intrinsic web design is:

  1. Fluid and fixed
  2. Stages of squishiness
  3. Truly two-dimensional layouts
  4. Nested contexts
  5. Expand and contract content
  6. Media queries, as needed

We have a whole new sandbox that we can play in. You can find examples at labs.jensimmons.com.

See also:

Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS by Eric Meyer

Time for even more CSS goodness at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Eric’s talk is called Fit For Purpose: Making Sense of the New CSS. Here are my notes…

Eric isn’t going to dive quite as deeply as Rachel, but he is going to share some patterns he has used.

Feature queries

First up: feature queries! Or @supports, if you prefer. You can ask a browser “do you support this feature?” If you haven’t used feature queries, you might be wondering why you have to say the property and the value. Well, think about it. If you asked a browser “do you support display?”, it’s not very useful. So you have to say “do you support display: grid?”

Here’s a nice pattern from Lea Verou for detecting support for custom properties:

@supports (--css: variables)

Here’s a gotcha:

@supports (clip-path: polygon())

That won’t work because polygon() is invalid. This will work:

@supports (clip-path: polygon(0 0))

So to use feature queries, you need to understand valid values for properties.

You can chain feature queries together, or just pick the least-supported thing you’re testing for and test just for that.

Here’s a pattern Eric used when he only wanted to make text sideways, but only if grid is supported:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
        ...
    }
}

That’s functionally equivalent to:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
}
@supports (display:grid) and (writing-mode: sideways-lr) {
    ...
}

Choose whichever pattern makes sense to you. More to the point, choose the pattern that makes sense to your future self when you revisit your code.

Feature queries need to work together with media queries. Sometimes there are effects that you only want to apply on larger viewports. Do you put your feature queries inside your media queries? Or do you put your media queries inside your feature queries?

  • MOSS: Media Outside Support Statements
  • MISO: Media Inside Supports Object

Use MOSS when you have more media switches than support blocks. Use MISO when you only have a few breakpoints but lots of feature queries.

That’s one idea that Eric has. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

And remember, CSS is still CSS. Sometimes you don’t need a feature query at all. You could just use hanging-punctuation without testing for it. Browsers that don’t understand it will just ignore it. CSS has implicit feature queries built in. You don’t have to put your grid layout in a feature query, but you might want to put grid-specific margins and widths inside a feature query for display: grid.

Feature queries really help us get from now to the future.

Flexbox

Let’s move on to flexbox. Flexbox is great for things in a line.

On the An Event Apart site, the profile pictures have social media icons lined up at the bottom. Sometimes there are just a few. Sometimes there are a lot more. This is using flexbox. Why? Because it’s cool. Also, because it’s flexbox, you can create rules about how the icons should behave if one of the icons is taller than the others. (It’s gotten to the point that Eric has forgotten that vertically-centring things in CSS is supposed to be hard. The jokes aren’t funny any more.) Also, what if there’s no photo? Using flexbox, you can say “if there’s no photo, change the direction of the icons to be vertical.” Once again, it’s all about writing less CSS.

Also, note that the profile picture is being floated. That’s the right tool for the job. It feels almost transgressive to use float for exactly the purpose for which it was intended.

On the An Event Apart site, the header is currently using absolute positioning to pull the navigation from the bottom of the page source to the top of the viewport. But now you get overlap at some screen sizes. Flexbox would make it much more robust. (Eric uses the flexbox inspector in Firefox Nightly to demonstrate.)

With flexbox, what works horizontally works vertically. Flexbox allows you to align things, as long as you’re aligning in one direction. Flexbox makes things springy. Everything’s related and pushing against each other in a way that makes sense for this medium. It’s intuitive, even though it takes a bit of getting used to …because we’ve picked up some bad habits. To quote Yoda, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” A lot of the barrier is getting over what we’ve internalised. Eric envies the people starting out now. They get to start fresh. It’s like when people who never had to table layouts see code from that time period: it (quite rightly) doesn’t make any sense. That’s what it’s going to be like when people starting out today see the float-based layouts from Bootstrap and the like.

Grid

That’s going to happen with grid too. We must unlearn what we have learned from twenty years of floats and positioning. What makes it worth is:

  1. Flexbox and grid are pretty easy to get used to, and
  2. It’s amazing what you can do!

Eric quotes from an article called How We adopted CSS Grid at Scale:

…we agreed to use CSS Grid at the layout level and Flexbox at the component level (arranging child items of components). Although there’s some overlap and in some cases both could be used interchangeably, abiding by this rule helped us avoid any confusion in gray areas.

Don’t be afraid to set these kind of arbitrary limits that aren’t technological, but are necessary for the team to work well together.

Eric hacked his Wordpress admin interface to use grid instead of floats for an activity component (a list of dates and titles). He initially turned each list item into a separate grid. The overall list didn’t look right. What Eric really needed was a subgrid capability, so that the mini grids (the list items) would relate to one another within the larger grid (the list). But subgrid doesn’t exist yet.

In this case, there’s a way to fake it using display: contents. Eric made the list a grid and used display: contents on the list items. It’s as though you’re saying that the contents of the li are really the contents of the ul. That works in this particular case.

The feature queries for that looked like:

@supports (display: grid) {
    ...
    @supports (display: contents) {
        ...
    }
}

Eric is also using the grid “ASCII art” (named areas) technique on his personal site. This works independent of source order. For that reason, make sure your source order makes sense.

Using media queries, Eric defines entirely different layouts simply by using different ASCII art. He’s switching templates.

For a proposed redesign of the An Event Apart site, Eric used CSS grid as a prototyping tool. He took a PDF, sliced it up, exported JPGs, and then used grid to lay out those images in a flexible grid. Rapid prototyping! The Firefox grid inspector really helps here. In less than an hour, he had a working layout. He could test whether the layout was sensible and robust. Then he swapped out the sliced images for real content. That took maybe another hour (mostly because it was faster to re-type the text than try to copy and paste from a PDF). CSS makes it that damn easy now!

So even if you’re not going to put things like grid into production, they can still be enormously useful as design tools (and you’re getting to grips with this new stuff).

See also:

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:

Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient by Jeffrey Zeldman

I’m at An Event Apart Seattle (Special Edition). Jeffrey is kicking off the show with a presentation called Beyond Engagement: the Content Performance Quotient. I’m going to jot down some notes during this talk…

First, a story. Jeffrey went to college in Bloomington, Indiana. David Frost—the British journalist—came to talk to them. Frost had a busy schedule, and when he showed up, he seemed a little tipsy. He came up to the podium and said, “Good evening, Wilmington.”

Jeffrey remembers this and knows that Seattle and Portland have a bit of a rivalry, and so Jeffrey thought, the first time he spoke in Portland, it would be funny to say “Good morning, Seattle!” …and that was the last time he spoke in Portland.

Anyway …”Good morning, Portland!”

Jeffrey wants to talk about content. He spends a lot of time in meetings with stakeholders. Those stakeholders always want things to be better, and they always talk about “engagement.” It’s the number one stakeholder request. It’s a metric that makes stakeholders feel comfortable. It’s measurable—the more seconds people give us, the better.

But is that really the right metric?

There are some kinds of sites where engagement is definitely the right metric. Instagram, for example. That’s how they make money. You want to distract yourself. Also, if you have a big content site—beautifully art-directed and photographed—then engagement is what you want. You want people to spend a lot of time there. Or if you have a kids site, or a games site, or a reading site for kids, you want them to be engaged and spend time. A List Apart, too. It’s like the opposite of Stack Overflow, where you Google something and grab the piece of code you need and then get out. But for A List Apart or Smashing Magazine, you want people to read and think and spend their time. Engagement is what you want.

But for most sites—insurance, universities—engagement is not what you want. These sites are more like a customer service desk. You want to help the customer as quickly as possible. If a customer spends 30 minutes on our site, was she engaged …or frustrated? Was it the beautiful typography and copy …or because she couldn’t find what they wanted? If someone spends a long time on an ecommerce site, is it because the products are so good …or because search isn’t working well?

What we need is a metric called speed of usefulness. Jeffrey calls this Content Performance Quotient (CPQ) …because business people love three-letter initialisms. It’s a loose measurement: How quickly can you solve the customer’s problem? It’s the shortest distance between the problem and the solution. Put another way, it’s a measurement of your value to the customer. It’s a new way to evaluate success.

From the customer’s point of view, CPQ is the time it takes the customer to get the information she came for. From the organisation’s point of view, it’s the time it takes for a specific customer to find, receive, and absorb your most important content.

We’re all guilty of neglecting the basics on our sites—just what it is it that we do? We need to remember that we’re all making stuff to make people’s live’s easier. Otherwise we end up with what Jeffrey calls “pretty garbage.” It’s aesthetically coherent and visually well-designed …but if the content is wrong and doesn’t help anyone, it’s garbage. Garbage in a delightfully responsive grid is still garbage.

Let’s think of an example of where people really learned to cut back and really pare down their message. Advertising. In the 1950s, when the Leo Burnett agency started the Marlboro campaign, TV spots were 60 seconds long. An off-camera white man in a suit with a soothing voice would tell you all about the product while the visuals showed you what he was talking about. No irony. Marlboro did a commercial where there was no copy at all until the very end. For 60 seconds they showed you cowboys doing their rugged cowboy things. Men in the 1950s wanted to feel rugged, you see. Leo Burnett aimed the Marlboro cigarettes at those men. And at the end of the 60 second montage of rugged cowboys herding steers, they said “Come to where the flavour is. Come to Marlboro Country.” For the billboard, they cut it back even more. Just “Come to Marlboro Country.” In fact, they eventually went to just “Marlboro.” Jeffrey knows that this campaign worked well, because he started smoking Marlboros as a kid.

Leaving aside the ethical implications of selling cigarettes to eight-graders, let’s think about the genius of those advertisers. Slash your architecture and shrink your content. Constantly ask yourself, “Why do we need this?”

As Jared Spool says, design is the rendering of intent. Every design is intentional. There is some intent—like engagement—driving our design. If there’s no intent behind the design, it will fail, even if what you’re doing is very good. If your design isn’t going somewhere, it’s going nowhere. You’ve got to stay ruthlessly focused on what the customer needs and “kill your darlings” as Hemingway said. Luke Wroblewski really brought this to light when he talked about Mobile First.

To paraphrase David Byrne, how did we get here?

Well, we prioritised meetings over meaning. Those meetings can be full of tension; different stakeholders arguing over what should be on the homepage. And we tried to solve this by giving everyone what they want. Having a good meeting doesn’t necessarily mean having a good meeting. We think of good meetings as conflict-free where everyone emerges happy. But maybe there should be a conflict that gets resolved. Maybe there should be winners and losers.

Behold our mighty CMS! Anyone can add content to the website. Anyone can create the information architecture …because we want to make people happy in meetings. It’s easy to give everyone what they want. It’s harder to do the right thing. Harder for us, but better for the customer and the bottom line.

As Gerry McGovern says:

Great UX professionals are like whistleblowers. They are the voice of the user.

We need to stop designing 2001 sites for a 2018 web.

One example of cutting down content was highlighted in A List Apart where web design was compared to chess: The King vs. Pawn Game of UI Design. Don’t start by going through all the rules. Teach them in context. Teach chess by starting with a checkmate move, reduced down to just three pieces on the board. From there, begin building out. Start with the most important information, and build out from there.

When you strip down the game to its core, everything you learn is a universal principle.

Another example is atomic design: focus relentlessly on the individual interaction. We do it for shopping carts. We can do it for content.

Another example on A List Apart is No More FAQs: Create Purposeful Information for a More Effective User Experience. FAQ problems include:

  • duplicate and contradictory information,
  • lack of discernible content order,
  • repetitive grammatical structure,
  • increased cognitive load, and
  • more content than they need.

Users come to any type of content with a particular purpose in mind, ranging from highly specific (task completion) to general learning (increased knowledge).

The important word there is purpose. We need to eliminate distraction. How do we do that?

One way is the waterfall method. Do a massive content inventory. It’s not recommended (unless maybe you’re doing a massive redesign).

Agile and scrum is another way. Constantly iterate on content. Little by little over time, we make the product better. It’s the best bet if you work in-house.

If you work in an agency, a redesign is an opportunity to start fresh. Take everything off the table and start from scratch. Jeffrey’s friend Fred Gates got an assignment to redesign an online gaming platform for kids to teach them reading and management skills. The organisation didn’t have much money so they said, let’s just do the homepage. Fred challenged himself to put the whole thing on the homepage. The homepage tells the whole story. Jeffrey is using this same method on a site for an insurance company, even though the client has a bigger budget and can afford more than just the homepage. The point is, what Fred did was effective.

So this is what Jeffrey is going to be testing and working on: speed of usefulness.

And for those of you who do need to use engagement as the right metric, Jeffrey covered the two kinds of metrics in an article called We need design that is faster and design that is slower.

For example, “scannability” is good for transactions (CPQ), but bad for thoughtful content (engagement). Our news designs need to slow down the user. Bigger type, typographic hierarchy, and more whitespace. Art direction. Shout out to Derek Powazek who designed Fray.com—each piece was designed based on the content. These days, look at what David Sleight and his crew are doing over at Pro Publica.

Who’s doing it right?

The Washington Post, The New York Times, Pro Publica, Slate, Smashing Magazine, and Vox are all doing this well in different ways. They’re bringing content to the fore.

Readability, Medium, and A List Apart are all using big type to encourage thoughtful reading and engagement.

But for other sites …apply the Content Performance Quotient.

See also:

A workshop on building for resilience

In February, I tried out a new workshop two times—once at Webstock in New Zealand, and once in Hong Kong.

The workshop is called The Progressive Web: Building for Resilience. Here’s an excerpt form the blurb:

This workshop will show you to to think in a progressive way that works with the grain of the web. Together we’ll peel back the layers of the web and build upwards, creating experiences that work for everyone while making the best of cutting-edge browser technologies. From URL design to Progressive Web Apps, this journey will cover each stage of technological advancement.

Basically, it’s the workshop version of Resilient Web Design. If that book is the theory, this workshop is the practice.

Tim recently posted his tips for running workshops and there’s a lot in there that resonates with me. Like Tim, I’ve become less and less reliant on slides. In fact, this workshop—like my workshop on evaluating technology—has no slides. Instead it’s all about the exercises and going with the flow.

After starting with a warm-up, I canvas the room to see if there any specific topics, tools or technologies that people are particularly interested in covering. I’ll note those (on post-its slapped on the wall) for reference throughout the day, to try to make sure that those particular things are touched on at some point. Then I start with a thought experiment…

First of all, I get everyone to call out websites, services and apps that they use almost every day: Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Slack, Google Docs, and so on. Those all get documented on the wall. Then it’s time to ask of each product, “What is the core functionality?” The idea here is to get beneath the surface-level verbs like swiping, tapping and dragging to get to the real purpose of a service: buying, selling, sharing, reading, writing, collaborating, and so on.

At this point I inform the attendees that the year is 1995. And now we’re going to build these services using the technology of this time. This is a playful way of getting answers to the question “What’s the simplest technology to enable the core functionality?” It’s mostly forms, links, and lots of heavy lifting on the server.

Then the real fun begins. “Enhance!” Moving forward in time, we get to add styles, we add interactivity with JavaScript, then Ajax, and then we get to really have fun with technologies like web sockets, geolocation, local storage, right the way up to service workers, notifications, and background sync. And the beauty of it all is that, if any of those technologies aren’t supported in a particular browser or device, the core functionality is still available.

Next, we apply this layered mindset to a new service. I split the attendees into groups, and each of them gets a procedurally-generated startup idea …generated by shuffling some cards. This is an exercise I first tried when I was teaching in Porto:

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.”

The first few exercises are good creative fun: come up with a name, then a logo, then a business model. Then it’s time to build. It starts with URL design. Then it’s content prioritisation (for a representative URL). Then it’s layout (sketching!). The enhancements have begun. “How might this URL benefit from Ajax?” “How might this URL benefit from geolocation?” “How might this URL benefit from offline storage?” “How might this URL benefit from a service worker?”

Workshop team 4 Workshop team 3 Workshop team 2 Workshop team 1

At this point, we’ve applied the layered, progressive approach at the scale of an entire service, and at the scale of an individual URL. Finally, we apply the same approach at the level of a component. It might be a navigation, or a carousel, or an interactive widget. In each case, the same process applies: “What’s the core functionality? What’s the simplest technology to enable that functionality? Enhance!”

Along the way, there are plenty of rabbit holes we can go down. Whether it’s accessibility, or progressive web apps, or pattern libraries, I go along with whatever people are curious about. But all of it ties back to the progressive, layered mindset I’m hoping to foster.

By the end of the day, I’m hoping that an attendee has one of two reactions:

  1. “What a waste of time! Everything in that workshop was blindingly obvious!” (in which case, excellent!—they’re already thinking in a progressive way), or
  2. “That workshop has completely changed the way I think about building on the web!” (I’m being hyperbolic here, but at the very least I’m hoping to impart a new perspective).

Having given the workshop a few times, I’m really pleased with how it went (and more important, I’m pleased that people enjoyed it). If this sounds like something that your company or team would enjoy, get in touch and we can take it from there.

Design ops for design systems

Leading Design was one of the best events I attended last year. To be honest, that surprised me—I wasn’t sure how relevant it would be to me, but it turned out to be the most on-the-nose conference I could’ve wished for.

Seeing as the event was all about design leadership, there was inevitably some talk of design ops. But I noticed that the term was being used in two different ways.

Sometimes a speaker would talk about design ops and mean “operations, specifically for designers.” That means all the usual office practicalities—equipment, furniture, software—that designers might need to do their jobs. For example, one of the speakers recommended having a dedicated design ops person rather than trying to juggle that yourself. That’s good advice, as long as you understand what’s meant by design ops in that context.

There’s another context of use for the phrase “design ops”, and it’s one that we use far more often at Clearleft. It’s related to design systems.

Now, “design system” is itself a term that can be ambiguous. See also “pattern library” and “style guide”. Quite a few people have had a stab at disambiguating those terms, and I think there’s general agreement—a design system is the overall big-picture “thing” that can contain a pattern library, and/or a style guide, and/or much more besides:

None of those great posts attempt to define design ops, and that’s totally fair, because they’re all attempting to define things—style guides, pattern libraries, and design systems—whereas design ops isn’t a thing, it’s a practice. But I do think that design ops follows on nicely from design systems. I think that design ops is the practice of adopting and using a design system.

There are plenty of posts out there about the challenges of getting people to use a design system, and while very few of them use the term design ops, I think that’s what all of them are about:

Clearly design systems and design ops are very closely related: you really can’t have one without the other. What I find interesting is that a lot of the challenges relating to design systems (and pattern libraries, and style guides) might be technical, whereas the challenges of design ops are almost entirely cultural.

I realise that tying design ops directly to design systems is somewhat limiting, and the truth is that design ops can encompass much more. I like Andy’s description:

Design Ops is essentially the practice of reducing operational inefficiencies in the design workflow through process and technological advancements.

Now, in theory, that can encompass any operational stuff—equipment, furniture, software—but in practice, when we’re dealing with design ops, 90% of the time it’s related to a design system. I guess I could use a whole new term (design systems ops?) but I think the term design ops works well …as long as everyone involved is clear on the kind of design ops we’re all talking about.

Needs must

I got a follow-up comment to my follow-up post about the follow-up comment I got on my original post about Google Analytics. Keep up.

I made the point that, from a front-end performance perspective, server logs have no impact whereas a JavaScript-based analytics solution must have some impact on the end user. Paul Anthony says:

Google won the analytics war because dropping one line of JS in the footer and handing a tried and tested interface to customers is an obvious no brainer in comparison to setting up an open source option that needs a cron job to parse the files, a database to store the results and doesn’t provide mobile interface.

Good point. Dropping one snippet of JavaScript into your front-end codebase is certainly an easier solution …easier for you, that is. The cost is passed on to your users. This is a classic example of where user needs and developer needs are in opposition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Given the choice between making something my problem, and making something the user’s problem, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

It’s true that this often means doing more work. That’s why it’s called work. This is literally what our jobs are supposed to entail: we put in the work to make life easier for users. We’re supposed to be saving them time, not passing it along.

The example of Google Analytics is pretty extreme, I’ll grant you. The cost to the user of adding that snippet of JavaScript—if you’ve configured things reasonably well—is pretty small (again, just from a performance perspective; there’s still the cost of allowing Google to track them across domains), and the cost to you of setting up a comparable analytics system based on server logs can indeed be disproportionately high. But this tension between user needs and developer needs is something I see play out again and again.

I’ve often thought the HTML design principle called the priority of constituencies could be adopted by web developers:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors.

In Resilient Web Design, I documented the three-step approach I take when I’m building anything on the web:

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

Now I’m wondering if I should’ve clarified that second step further. When I talk about choosing “the simplest possible technology”, what I mean is “the simplest possible technology for the user”, not “the simplest possible technology for the developer.”

For example, suppose I were going to build a news website. The core functionality is fairly easy to identify: providing the news. Next comes the step where I choose the simplest possible technology. Now, if I were a developer who had plenty of experience building JavaScript-driven single page apps, I might conclude that the simplest route for me would be to render the news via JavaScript. But that would be a fragile starting point if I’m trying to reach as many people as possible (I might well end up building a swishy JavaScript-driven single page app in step three, but step two should almost certainly be good ol’ HTML).

Time and time again, I see decisions that favour developer convenience over user needs. Don’t get me wrong—as a developer, I absolutely want developer convenience …but not at the expense of user needs.

I know that “empathy” is an over-used word in the world of user experience and design, but with good reason. I think we should try to remind ourselves of why we make our architectural decisions by invoking who those decisions benefit. For example, “This tech stack is best option for our team”, or “This solution is the best for the widest range of users.” Then, given the choice, favour user needs in the decision-making process.

There will always be situations where, given time and budget constraints, we end up choosing solutions that are easier for us, but not the best for our users. And that’s okay, as long as we acknowledge that compromise and strive to do better next time.

But when the best solutions for us as developers become enshrined as the best possible solutions, then we are failing the people we serve.

That doesn’t mean we must become hairshirt-wearing martyrs; developer convenience is important …but not as important as user needs. Start with user needs.

Ubiquity and consistency

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like, say…

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

Or…

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

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

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

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

Ubiquity, then consistency.

Hooked and booked

At Booking.com, they do a lot of A/B testing.

At Booking.com, they’ve got a lot of dark patterns.

I think there might be a connection.

A/B testing is a great way of finding out what happens when you introduce a change. But it can’t tell you why.

The problem is that, in a data-driven environment, decisions ultimately come down to whether something works or not. But just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

If I were trying to convince you to buy a product, or use a service, one way I could accomplish that would be to literally put a gun to your head. It would work. Except it’s not exactly a good solution, is it? But if we were to judge by the numbers (100% of people threatened with a gun did what we wanted), it would appear to be the right solution.

When speaking about A/B testing at Booking.com, Stuart Frisby emphasised why it’s so central to their way of working:

One of the core principles of our organisation is that we want to be very customer-focused. And A/B testing is really a way for us to institutionalise that customer focus.

I’m not so sure. I think A/B testing is a way to institutionalise a focus on business goals—increasing sales, growth, conversion, and all of that. Now, ideally, those goals would align completely with the customer’s goals; happy customers should mean more sales …but more sales doesn’t necessarily mean happy customers. Using business metrics (sales, growth, conversion) as a proxy for customer satisfaction might not always work …and is clearly not the case with many of these kinds of sites. Whatever the company values might say, a company’s true focus is on whatever they’re measuring as success criteria. If that’s customer satisfaction, then the company is indeed customer-focused. But if the measurements are entirely about what works for sales and conversions, then that’s the real focus of the company.

I’m not saying A/B testing is bad—far from it! (although it can sometimes be taken to the extreme). I feel it’s best wielded in combination with usability testing with real users—seeing their faces, feeling their frustration, sharing their joy.

In short, I think that A/B testing needs to be counterbalanced. There should be some kind of mechanism for getting the answer to “why?” whenever A/B testing provides to the answer to “what?” In-person testing could be one way of providing that balance. Or it could be somebody’s job to always ask “why?” and determine if a solution is qualitatively—and not just quantitatively—good. (And if you look around at your company and don’t see anyone doing that, maybe that’s a role for you.)

If there really is a connection between having a data-driven culture of A/B testing, and a product that’s filled with dark patterns, then the disturbing conclusion is that dark patterns work …at least in the short term.

Installing Progressive Web Apps

When I was testing the dConstruct Audio Archive—which is now a Progressive Web App—I noticed some interesting changes in how Chrome on Android offers the “add to home screen” prompt.

It used to literally say “add to home screen.”

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

Now it simply says “add.”

The dConstruct Audio Archive is now a Progressive Web App

I vaguely remember there being some talk of changing the labelling, but I could’ve sworn it was going to change to “install”. I’ve got to be honest, just having the word “add” doesn’t seem to provide much context. Based on the quick’n’dirty usability testing I did with some co-workers, it just made things confusing. “Add what?” “What am I adding?”

Additionally, the prompt appeared immediately on the first visit to the site. I thought there was supposed to be an added “engagement” metric in order for the prompt to appear; that the user needs to visit the site more than once.

You’d think I’d be happy that users will be presented with the home-screen prompt immediately, but based on the behaviour I saw, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Here’s what I observed:

  1. The user types the URL archive.dconstruct.org into the address bar.
  2. The site loads.
  3. The home-screen prompt slides up from the bottom of the screen.
  4. The user immediately moves to dismiss the prompt (cue me interjecting “Don’t close that!”).

This behaviour is entirely unsurprising for three reasons:

  1. We web designers and web developers have trained users to dismiss overlays and pop-ups if they actually want to get to the content. Nobody’s going to bother to actually read the prompt if there’s a 99% chance it’s going to say “Sign up to our newsletter!” or “Take our survey!”.
  2. The prompt appears below the “line of death” so there’s no way to tell it’s a browser or OS-level dialogue rather than a JavaScript-driven pop-up from the site.
  3. Because the prompt now appears on the first visit, no trust has been established between the user and the site. If the prompt only appeared on later visits (or later navigations during the first visit) perhaps it would stand a greater chance of survival.

It’s still possible to add a Progressive Web App to the home screen, but the option to do that is hidden behind the mysterious three-dots-vertically-stacked icon (I propose we call this the shish kebab icon to distinguish it from the equally impenetrable hamburger icon).

I was chatting with Andreas from Mozilla at the View Source conference last week, and he was filling me in on how Firefox on Android does the add-to-homescreen flow. Instead of a one-time prompt, they’ve added a persistent icon above the “line of death” (the icon is a combination of a house and a plus symbol).

When a Firefox 58 user arrives on a website that is served over HTTPS and has a valid manifest, a subtle badge will appear in the address bar: when tapped, an “Add to Home screen” confirmation dialog will slide in, through which the web app can be added to the Android home screen.

This kind of badging also has issues (without the explicit text “add to home screen”, the user doesn’t know what the icon does), but I think a more persistently visible option like this works better than the a one-time prompt.

Firefox is following the lead of the badging approach pioneered by the Samsung Internet browser. It provides a plus symbol that, when pressed, reveals the options to add to home screen or simply bookmark.

What does it mean to be an App?

I don’t think Chrome for Android has any plans for this kind of badging, but they are working on letting the site authors provide their own prompts. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, given our history of abusing pop-ups and overlays.

Sadly, I feel that any solution that relies on an unrequested overlay is doomed. That’s on us. The way we’ve turned browsing the web—especially on mobile—into a frustrating chore of dismissing unwanted overlays is a classic tragedy of the commons. We blew it. Users don’t trust unrequested overlays, and I can’t blame them.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that ambient badging is a better user experience than one-time prompts. That opinion is informed by a meagre amount of testing though. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been doing more detailed usability testing of both approaches. I assume that Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are doing this kind of testing, and it would be really great to see the data from that (hint, hint).

But it might well be that ambient badging is just too subtle to even be noticed by the user.

On one end of the scale you’ve got the intrusiveness of an add-to-home-screen prompt, but on the other end of the scale you’ve got the discoverability problem of a subtle badge icon. I wonder if there might be a compromise solution—maybe a badge icon that pulses or glows on the first or second visit?

Of course that would also need to be thoroughly tested.

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.

Seamfulness

I was listening to some items in my Huffduffer feed when I noticed a little bit of synchronicity.

First of all, I was listening to Tom talking about Thington, and he mentioned seamful design—the idea that “seamlessness” is not necessarily a desirable quality. I think that’s certainly true in the world of connected devices.

Then I listened to Jeff interviewing Matt about hardware startups. They didn’t mention seamful design specifically (it was more all cricket and cables), but again, I think it’s a topic that’s lurking behind any discussion of the internet of things.

I’ve written about seams before. I really feel there’s value—and empowerment—in exposing the points of connection in a system. When designers attempt to airbrush those seams away, I worry that they are moving from “Don’t make me think” to “Don’t allow me to think”.

In many ways, aiming for seamlessness in design feels like the easy way out. It’s a surface-level approach that literally glosses over any deeper problems. I think it might be driven my an underlying assumption that seams are, by definition, ugly. Certainly there are plenty of daily experiences where the seams are noticeable and frustrating. But I don’t think it needs to be this way. The real design challenge is to make those seams beautiful.

The magical and the mundane

The iPhone—and by extension, the smartphone—is a decade old. Ian Bogost has written an interesting piece in The Atlantic charting our changing relationship with the technology.

First, it was like a toy dog:

A device that could be cared for, and conspicuously so.

Then, it was like a cigarette:

A nervous tic, facilitated by a handheld apparatus that releases relief when operated.

Later, it was like a rosary:

Its toy-dog quirks having been tamed, its compulsive nature having been accepted, the iPhone became the magic wand by which all worldly actions could be performed, all possible information acquired.

Finally, it simply becomes …a rectangle.

Abstract, as a shape. Flat, as a surface. But suggestive of so much. A table for community. A door for entry, or for exit. A window for looking out of, or a picture for looking into. A movie screen for distraction, or a cradle for comfort, or a bed for seduction.

Design dissolves in behaviour. This is something that Ben wrote about recently in his excellent Slapdashery series: “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.”

Technology tweaks our desire for novelty; but as soon as we get it we’re usually bored. There are no technologies that I can think of that haven’t become mundane.

This is something I touched on in my talk last year at An Event Apart. There’s a thread throughout the talk about Arthur C. Clarke, and of course I quote his third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I propose an addendum to that:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic at first.

The magical quickly becomes the mundane. That’s exactly the point that Louis CK is making in the piece that Ben references.

Seven years ago Frank wrote his wonderful essay There Is A Horse In The Apple Store:

I have a term called a “tiny pony.” It is a thing that is exceptional that no one, for whatever reason, notices. Or, conversely, it is an exceptional thing that everyone notices, but quickly grows acclimated to despite the brilliance of it all.

We are surrounded by magical tiny ponies. I mean, just think: right now you are reading some words at a URL on the World Wide Web. Even more magically, I just published some words at my own URL on the World Wide Web. That still blows my mind! I hope I never lose that feeling.

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!