Tags: discussion

4

sparkline

One day in London

I don’t get up to London all that often—maybe once every few weeks; just long enough for the city’s skyline to have changed again. Yesterday was one of those days out in the big smoke.

I started with a visit to the Royal College of Art to see the work in progress exhibition that’s running until Sunday. Specifically, I wanted to see the project by Monika, who was one third of the immensely talented internship collaboration at Clearleft that produced notice.city. Her current project is called Watching the Watchers, all about undersea cables, surveillance, and audio—right up my alley. I think Ingrid, James, Dan, and Georgina would like it.

Checking out Monika’s work in progress at the RCA. Watching the watchers

After that, I entered a metal tube to be whisked across the city to the Hospital Club, where a room had been booked for a most enjoyable Clearleft event. Anna had organised a second of her roundtable gatherings. This time the theme was “going responsive.”

The idea is to gather people together for one afternoon to share experiences and challenges. Anna invited people from all sorts of organisations, from newspapers to e-commerce and everything in between. Some of them were people we already knew, but most of them had no connection to Clearleft at all.

Everything happened the Chatham House Rule so I can’t tell you the details of who said what, but I can tell you that it was very productive afternoon. Some of the companies represented were in the process of switching to responsive, some had already done it, and some were planning it, so it was a perfect mix.

We began with a variation on the lean coffee technique. Splitting into groups, everyone jotted down some topics that they wanted to discuss. We shared those, grouped them, and voted on which order we would discuss them. Each topic got 5 to 10 minutes of discussion. In my group, we discussed strategy, workflow, tools, and more. We could’ve easily talked for longer. Some outcomes (very badly summarised):

  • The vision and strategy for a responsive redesign needs to be communicated (and sold) up the chain to stakeholders as well as to the designers and developers in the trenches.
  • “Mobile-first” For The Win! Solve the harder problems first.
  • Multi-disciplinary teams For The Win! Works well with Agile too.
  • A pattern libraries is probably the best tool you can have. So pattern libraries For The Win too!

After a break, we switched over in to a sort of open space exercise. Anyone who has a burning question they want answered writes that question down on an oversize post-it and slaps it on the wall. Now we’ve got a room with questions written on different parts of the wall. If you want to take a stab at answering any of those questions, you write it down on a post it note and slap it next to the question. Everyone does this for a while, going from question to question and having lots of good discussion. Then, at the end, we go from question to question, with the person who originally posted the question taking ownership of summarising the answers.

Some of the questions were:

  • How to help people to stop thinking “desktop first”?
  • Should designers code? Should developers design? Or Both?
  • How do you start to deploy a responsive version of an existing site?
  • How do you do responsive ads?
  • What is the best tool to use to create responsive designs?
  • Would every project benefit from a design system? Is it always worth the investment?

You get the idea. The format worked really well; it was the first time any of us had tried it. We slightly over-ran the time we had allotted for the afternoon, but that’s mostly because there was so much meaty stuff to discuss.

Playback

With that productive afternoon done, I made my way to the Bricklayer’s Arms, where by lucky coincidence, a Pub Standards meet-up was happening. I went along for a pint and a chat while I waited for rush hour to ease off: I wanted to avoid the crush before I started making my way back to Brighton. See you next time, Londinium.

Mind set

Whenever I have a difference of opinion with someone, I try to see things from their perspective. But sometimes I’m not very good at it. I need to get better.

Here’s an example: I think that users of small-screen touch-enabled devices should be able to pinch-to-zoom content on the web. That idea was challenged twice in recent times:

  1. The initial meta viewport element in AMP HTML demanded that pinch-to-zoom be disabled (it has since been relaxed).
  2. WebKit is removing the 350ms delay on tap …but only if the page disables pinch-to-zoom (a bug has been filed).

In both cases, I strongly disagreed with the decision to disable what I believe is a vital accessibility feature. But the strength of my conviction is irrelevant. If anything, it is harmful. The case for maintaining accessibility was so obvious to me, I acted as though it were self-evident to everyone. But other people have different priorities, and that’s okay.

I should have stopped and tried to see things from the perspective of the people implementing these changes. Nobody would deliberately choose to remove an important accessibility feature without good reason, so what would those reasons be? Does removing pinch-to-zoom enhance performance? If so, that’s an understandable reason to mandate the strict meta viewport element. I still disagree with the decision, but now when I argue against it, I can approach it from that angle. Instead of dramatically blustering about how awful it is to remove pinch-to-zoom, my time would have been better spent calmly saying “I understand why this decision has been made, but here’s why I think the accessibility implications are too severe…”

It’s all too easy—especially online—to polarise just about any topic into a binary black and white issue. But of course the more polarised differences of opinion become, the less chance there is of changing those opinions.

If I really want to change someone’s mind, then I need to make the effort to first understand their mind. That’s going to be far more productive than declaring that my own mind is made up. After all, if I show no willingness to consider alternative viewpoints, why should they?

There’s an old saying that before criticising someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. I’m going to try to put that into practice, and not for the two obvious reasons:

  1. If we still disagree, now we’re a mile away from each other, and
  2. I’ve got their shoes.

Edge words

I really enjoyed last year’s Edge conference so I made sure not to miss this year’s event, which took place last weekend.

The format was a little different this time ‘round. Last year the whole day was taken up with panels. Now, panels are often rambling, cringeworthy affairs, but Edge Conf is one of the few events that does panels well: they’re run on a tight schedule and put together with lots of work in advance. At this year’s Edge, the morning was taken up with these tightly-run panels as usual, but the afternoon consisted of more Barcamp-like breakout sessions.

I’ve got to be honest: I don’t think the new format worked that well. The breakout sessions didn’t have the true flexibility that you get with an unconference schedule, so there was no opportunity to merge similarly-themed sessions. There was, for example, a session on components at the same time as a session on accessibility in web components.

That highlights the other issue: FOMO. I’m really not a fan of multi-track events; there were so many sessions that sounded really interesting, but I couldn’t clone myself and go to all of them at once.

But, like I said, the first half of the day was taken up with four sequential (rather than parallel) panels and they were all excellent. All of the moderators did a fantastic job, and I was fortunate enough to sit in on the progressive enhancement panel expertly moderated by Lyza.

The event is called Edge for a reason. There is a rarefied atmosphere—and not just because of the broken-down air conditioning. This is a room full of developers on the cutting edge of web development technologies. Being at Edge Conf means being in a bubble. And being in a bubble is absolutely fine as long as you’re aware you’re in a bubble. It would be problematic if anyone were to mistake the audience and the discussions at Edge as being in any way representative of typical working web devs.

One of the most insightful comments of the day came from Christian who said, “Yes, but this is Edge Conf.” You’re going to need some context for that quote, so here it is…

On the web components panel that Christian was moderating, Alex was making a point about the ubiquity of tools—”Tooling was save you”, he said—and he asked for a show of hands from the audience on who was not using some particular tooling technology; transpilers, package managers, build tools, I can’t remember the specific question. Nobody put their hand up. “See?” asked Alex. “Yes”, said Christian, “but this is Edge Conf.”

Now, while I wasn’t keen on the format of the afternoon with its multiple simultaneous breakout sessions, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ones I plumped for. Quite the opposite. The last breakout session of the day, again expertly moderated by Lyza, was particularly great.

The discussion was all about progressive enhancement. There seemed to be a general consensus that we’re all 100% committed to the results of progressive enhancement—greater availability, wider reach, and better performance—but that the term itself is widely misunderstood as “making all of your functionality work even with JavaScript switched off”. This misunderstanding couldn’t be further from the truth:

  1. It’s not about making all of your functionality available; it’s making your core functionality available: everything else can be considered an enhancement and it’s perfectly fine if not everyone gets that enhancement.
  2. This isn’t about switching JavaScript off; it’s about any particular technology not being available for reasons we can’t foresee (network issues, browser issues, whatever it may be).

And yet the misunderstanding persists. For that reason, most of the people in the discussion at Edge Conf were in favour of simply dropping the term progressive enhancement and instead focusing on terms like availability and access. Tim writes:

I’m not sure what we call it now. Maybe we do need another term to get people to move away from the “progressive enhancement = working without JS” baggage that distracts from the real goal.

And Stuart writes:

So I’m not going to be talking about progressive enhancement any more. I’m going to be talking about availability. About reach. About my web apps being for everyone even when the universe tries to get in the way.

But Jason writes:

I completely disagree that we should change nomenclature because there exists some small segment of Web designers unwilling to expand their development toolbox. I think progressive enhancement—the term—remains useful, descriptive, and appropriate.

I’m torn. On the one hand, I agree with Jason. The term “progressive enhancement” is a great descriptor. But on the other hand, I don’t want to end up like that guy who’s made it his life’s work to change every instance of the phrase “comprises of” to “comprises” (or “consists of”) on Wikipedia. Technically, he’s correct. But it doesn’t sound like a fun way to spend your days.

I guess my worry is, if I write an article or give a presentation, and I title it something to do with progressive enhancement, am I going to alienate and put off the very audience I’m trying to reach? But if I title it something else, am I tricking people?

Words are hard.

Reflection

Sometimes I write something here in my journal and open up the post for comments. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe one in ten posts. That’s because I still firmly believe in my corollary of Sturgeon’s Law for blogs:

Comments should be disabled 90% of the time.

No doubt there are still those who believe that what I am doing is somehow anti-community. The fallacy there is in equating comments with community. Choose a random video on YouTube or a random story on Digg, read each and every comment and then tell me that the comments contribute to any kind of community discussion. They are shining examples of antisocial networking.

As for the oft-quoted justification that comments on blogs enable conversation, I’m going to quote my past self again:

The best online conversations I’ve seen have been blog to blog: somebody posts something on their blog; somebody else feels compelled to respond on their own blog. The quality of such a response is nearly always better than a comment on the originating blog for the simple reason that people care more about what appears on their own site than on someone else’s.

I’m guilty of this myself. I chimed in with some comments on Jeff Croft’s latest post. There was some subsequent miscommunication between Jeff and myself that I think was partly due to the medium: a textarea at the end of a blog post has a low barrier to entry but it’s that same ease of access that discourages deeper reflection. If I had crafted a response here on my own site, I probably wouldn’t have hit the curt tone that I unintentionally wrote in and I’m sure our mutual misunderstandings could have been avoided. Jeff has now deleted the back and forth we had in the comments as is his prerogative and that’s probably for the best.

I often wonder why so many writers are so keen to have comments on their blogs considering the burden it places on them. Managing a centralised community (the kind fostered by blog comments) is hard work. I know this from all the effort I put in over at The Session. It takes a lot of time and it can be extremely frustrating (though, admittedly, it can also be very rewarding).

Between my ill-advised contributions to Jeff’s blog post and a particularly heavy week of cat-herding at The Session, I was feeling less than optimistic about the nature of online communication. Then I made the mistake of reading the responses to Molly’s open letter to organisations beginning with W. I became very despondent indeed.

I find it very depressing to see people I consider to be good friends bickering. The really discouraging aspect is that these disagreements are based on such minor differences. I’m reminded of Gulliver’s Travels in which a debate about the correct way to crack an egg eventually leads to war.

For crying out loud, we’re all on the same side here, people! We have so, so much in common and yet here we are, focusing on the few differences that separate us. Step back. Look at the big picture. We are comrades, not enemies.

Leaving aside the trolling and petulance in the comments—which should hardly surprise me, given my opinion of most blog comments—the contents of Molly’s post is equally dispiriting but for different reasons.

Molly is calling for more action from the W3C and the WaSP. She’s right, of course. Things have been far too quiet at the Web Standards Project. I’ve been feeling guilty about my own lack of activity and Molly’s rallying cry has increased that feeling.

But here’s the thing… I don’t think I can muster the requisite energy. I’m not saying that the work of the DOM Scripting Task Force is done but the perception of JavaScript has come along way since we wrote our manifesto. Two years ago, I really felt that something had to be done. I couldn’t just sit still. My colleagues and I were motivated to get out there and encourage best practices. A lot of that came from frustration: anger is an energy. Today, that flame burns lower. I’m not saying that best practices are widespread but they’re more widespread than they were and I got the feeling that there are a lot of good developers out there who could do a better of job of spreading the word than me.

This has happened before. I caught the CSS bug back in 2001. I started evangelising at any opportunity; mailing lists, blogs and so on. A few years later, I was kind of burned out but in a good way. I couldn’t muster the necessary enthusiasm for activism but that was okay: plenty of other people came along with abundant time and energy. I was free to get on with actually building websites, using standards instead of just talking about them.

Well, apparently it’s not enough to just use best practices. Molly—and others I’m sure—want to see much more direct action. But I can’t force myself into action. I certainly can’t get behind the conspiracy theory that Molly is seeing in Mozilla and Adobe collaborating on JavaScript… it’s bad when companies don’t sit down and talk to each other but it’s worse when they do? I just don’t get it.

I’m also getting tired of the no-win situation: you can either get passionate about a cause and be labeled a zealot or you can keep your head down and be labeled complacent. To quote Molly: Fuck. That.

I honestly don’t think I can muster the requisite enthusiasm to contribute to mailing lists, blog posts and other fora for advancing best practices. I am, however, very willing to lead by example; to publish online using standards and validate what I put out there. Maybe that isn’t enough. But I’m drawing a line.

I can appreciate how much effort someone like Molly has put into fighting the good fight over the years. But I can also see the toll it has taken and I don’t think I’m willing to pay that price. I’m not feeling quite as nihilistic as Brothercake but I can certainly relate to his conclusion:

So screw the endless arguments. I’m just going to quietly get on with doing what I think is the right thing to do, in the way I think it should be done.

There are still topics that get me excited. Microformats have rekindled my love of markup and I don’t see that excitement fading anytime soon.

In amongst all the doom and gloom that’s being weighing on everyone’s shoulders lately, I’m immensely buoyed by Aral’s outlook. I share his optimism regarding the collaboration between the worlds of Web standards and Flash. Crucially, I think that what Aral and I feel is bolstered by interaction and communication in the real world.

I love the Web. I really do. But sometimes I think that one good natter over a beer is worth a thousand mailing lists or a million blog comments. For that reason, I intend to maintain as much meatspace standards activity as I can: conferences, workshops, local meetups… but don’t expect too much in the way of emails, articles or other online evangelism from me. I’m going to be too busy building a better Web to spend much time talking about building a better Web.

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