Journal tags: evaluating

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Priorities

I recently wrote about a web-specific example of a general principle for choosing the right tool for the job:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

I was—yet again—talking about appropriateness. Use the right technology for the task at hand. Here’s the example I gave:

It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering.

Surprisingly, I got some pushback on this. Šime Vidas wrote:

Based on my experience, this is not necessarily the case.

Going from server-side rendering and progressive enhancement via JS to a single-page app powered by a JS framework was a enormous reduction in complexity for me (so the opposite of over-engineering).

(Emphasis mine.) He goes on to say:

My main concerns are ease of use & maintainability. If you get those things right, you’re good and it’s not over-engineering.

There’s no doubt that maintainability is a desirable goal. And ease of use for the developer is also important …but I think they pale in comparison to ease of use for the end user.

To be fair, the specific use-case I mentioned was making a blog. And a blog is a personal thing. You can do whatever the heck you like on your own website and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So I probably chose a poor example to illustrate my point. I was thinking more about when you’re making websites for a living. You’re being paid money to make something available on the web. In that situation, I strongly believe that user needs should win out over developer convenience.

I wrote about this recently:

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time.

That’s why I responded to Šime, saying:

Your main concern should be user needs—not your own.

When I talk about over-engineering, I’m speaking from the perspective of end users, not developers.

Before considering your ease of use, and maintainability, consider users first.

In fairness to Šime, he’s being very open and honest about his priorities. I admire that. I’ve seen too many developers try to provide user experience justifications for decisions made for developer convenience. Once again I recommend Alex’s excellent article, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch:

The swap is executed by implying that by making things better for developers, users will eventually benefit equivalently. The unstated agreement is that developers share all of the same goals with the same intensity as end users and even managers. This is not true.

Now I worry I wasn’t specific enough when I talked about choosing appropriate technology:

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand.

I should have made it clear that I was talking about what is appropriate or inapropriate for users. I think I made the mistake of assuming that this was obvious, and didn’t need saying. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.

There’s a whole group of tools where this point isn’t even relevant—build tools, task runners, version control …anything that never directly touches the end user; use whatever works for you. But if you’re making decisions around HTML, ARIA, CSS, or JavaScript, then appropriateness for the end user should take precedence.

If you’re in that situation—you are being paid money to make websites, and you are making technology decisions—I urge you to remember Charlie’s words: it isn’t about you.

Principle

I like good design principles. I collect design principles—of varying quality—at principles.adactio.com. Ben Brignell also has a (much larger) collection at principles.design.

You can spot the less useful design principles after a while. They tend to be wishy-washy; more like empty aspirational exhortations than genuinely useful guidelines for alignment. I’ve written about what makes for good design principles before. Matthew Ström also asked—and answered—What makes a good design principle?

  • Good design principles are memorable.
  • Good design principles help you say no.
  • Good design principles aren’t truisms.
  • Good design principles are applicable.

I like those. They’re like design principles for design principles.

One set of design principles that I’ve included in my collection is from gov.uk: government design principles . I think they’re very well thought-through (although I’m always suspicious when I see a nice even number like 10 for the amount of items in the list). There’s a great line in design principle number two—Do less:

Government should only do what only government can do.

This wasn’t a theoretical issue. The multiple departmental websites that preceded gov.uk were notorious for having too much irrelevant content—content that was readily available elsewhere. It was downright wasteful to duplicate that content on a government site. It wasn’t appropriate.

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand. Whether it’s task runners or JavaScript frameworks, appropriateness feels like it should be the deciding factor.

I think that the design principle from GDS could be abstracted into a general technology principle:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do.

Take JavaScript, for example. It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering. It violates this principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

Need to manage state or immediately update the interface in response to user action? Only JavaScript can do that. But if you need to present the user with some static content, JavaScript can do that …but it’s not the only technology that can do that. HTML would be more appropriate.

I realise that this is basically a reformulation of one of my favourite design principles, the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Or, as Derek put it:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

ARIA should only do what only ARIA can do.

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

CSS should only do what only CSS can do.

HTML should only do what only HTML can do.

Frameworking

There are many reasons to use a JavaScript framework like Vue, Angular, or React. Last year, Nicole asked for some of those reasons. Her question received many, many answers from people pointing out the benefits of using a framework. Interesingly, though, not a single one of those benefits was for end users.

(Mind you, if the framework is being used on the server to pre-render pages, then it’s a moot point—in that situation, it makes no difference to the end user whether you use a framework or not.)

Hidde recently tried using a client-side JavaScript framework for the first time and documented the process:

In the last few months I built my very first framework-based front-end, in Vue.js. I complemented it with a router, a store and a GraphQL library, in order to have, respectively, multiple (virtual) pages, globally shared data and a smart way to load new data in my templates.

It’s a very even-handed write-up. I highly recommend reading it. He describes the pros and cons of using a framework and using vanilla JavaScript:

I am glad I tried a framework and found its features were extremely helpful in creating a consistent interface for my users. My hope is though, that I won’t forget about vanilla. It’s perfectly valid to build a website with no or few dependencies.

Speaking of vanilla JavaScript… the blogging machine that is Chris Ferdinandi also wrote a comparison post recently, asking Why do people choose frameworks over vanilla JS? Again, it’s very even-handed and well worth a read. He readily concedes that if you’re working at scale, a framework is almost certainly a good idea:

If you’re building a large scale application (literally Facebook, Twitter, QuickBooks scale), the performance wins of a framework make the overhead worth it.

Alas, I’ve seen many, many framework-driven sites that are most definitely not that operating at that scale. Trys speaks the honest truth here:

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.

Just the other day, I saw a new site launch that was mostly a marketing site—the home page weighed over five megabytes, two megabytes of which were taken up with JavaScript, and the whole thing required JavaScript to render text to the screen (I’m not going to link to it because I don’t want to engage in any kind of public shaming and finger-wagging).

I worry that all the perfectly valid (developer experience) reasons for using a framwork are outweighing the more important (user experience) reasons for avoiding shipping your dependencies to end users. Like Alex says:

If your conception of “DX” doesn’t include it, or isn’t subservient to the user experience, rethink.

And yes, I am going to take this opportunity to link once again to Alex’s article The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch. Please read it if you haven’t already. Please re-read it if you have.

Anyway, my main reason for writing this is to point you to thoughtful posts like Hidde’s and Chris’s. I think it’s great to see people thoughtfully weighing up the pros and cons of choosing any particular technology—I’m a bit obsessed with the topic of evaluating technology.

If you’re weighing up the pros and cons of using, say, a particular JavaScript library or framework, that’s wonderful. My worry is that there are people working in front-end development who aren’t putting that level of thought into their technology choices, but are instead using a particular framework because it’s what they’re used to.

To quote Grace Hopper:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’

Dev perception

Chris put together a terrific round-up of posts recently called Simple & Boring. It links off to a number of great articles on the topic of complexity (and simplicity) in web development.

I had linked to quite a few of the articles myself already, but one I hadn’t seen was from David DeSandro who wrote New tech gets chatter:

You don’t hear about TextMate because TextMate is old. What would I tweet? Still using TextMate. Still good.

I think that’s a very good point.

It’s relatively easy to write and speak about new technologies. You’re excited about them, and there’s probably an eager audience who can learn from what you have to say.

It’s trickier to write something insightful about a tried and trusted (perhaps even boring) technology that’s been around for a while. You could maybe write little tips and tricks, but I bet your inner critic would tell you that nobody’s interested in hearing about that old tech. It’s boring.

The result is that what’s being written about is not a reflection of what’s being widely used. And that’s okay …as long as you know that’s the case. But I worry that theres’s a perception problem. Because of the outsize weighting of new and exciting technologies, a typical developer could feel that their skills are out of date and the technologies they’re using are passé …even if those technologies are actually in wide use.

I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like I’m behind the curve because I’m not currently using TypeScript or GraphQL or React. Those are all interesting technologies, to be sure, but the time to pick any of them up is when they solve a specific problem I’m having. Learning a new technology just to mitigate a fear of missing out isn’t a scalable strategy. It’s reasonable to investigate a technology because you genuinely think it’s exciting; it’s quite another matter to feel like you must investigate a technology in order to survive. That way lies burn-out.

I find it very grounding to talk to Drew and Rachel about the people using their Perch CMS product. These are working developers, but they are far removed from the world of tools and frameworks forged in the startup world.

In a recent (excellent) article comparing the performance of Formula One websites, Jake made this observation at the end:

However, none of the teams used any of the big modern frameworks. They’re mostly Wordpress & Drupal, with a lot of jQuery. It makes me feel like I’ve been in a bubble in terms of the technologies that make up the bulk of the web.

I think this is very astute. I also think it’s completely understandable to form ideas about what matters to developers by looking at what’s being discussed on Twitter, what’s being starred on Github, what’s being spoken about at conferences, and what’s being written about on Ev’s blog. But it worries me when I see browser devrel teams focusing their efforts on what appears to be the needs of typical developers based on the amount of ink spilled and breath expelled.

I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.

Trys wrote a great blog post called City life, where he compares his experience of doing CMS-driven agency work with his experience working at a startup in Shoreditch:

I was chatting to one of the team about my previous role. “I built two websites a month in WordPress”.

They laughed… “WordPress! Who uses that anymore?!”

Nearly a third of the web as it turns out - but maybe not on the Silicon Roundabout.

I’m not necessarily suggesting that there should be more articles and talks about older, more established technologies. Conferences in particular are supposed to give audiences a taste of what’s coming—they can be a great way of quickly finding out what’s exciting in the world of development. But we shouldn’t feel bad if those topics don’t match our day-to-day reality.

Ultimately what matters is building something—a website, a web app, whatever—that best serves end users. If that requires a new and exciting technology, that’s great. But if it requires an old and boring technology, that’s also great. What matters here is appropriateness.

When we’re evaluating technologies for appropriateness, I hope that we will do so through the lens of what’s best for users, not what we feel compelled to use based on a gnawing sense of irrelevancy driven by the perceived popularity of newer technologies.

Robustness and least power

There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:

Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.

In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:

It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.

In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.

I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?

Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.

Take the front-end stack, for example: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. HTML and CSS are declarative, so you don’t get as much precise control as you get with an imperative language like JavaScript. But JavaScript comes with a steeper learning curve and a stricter error-handling model than HTML or CSS.

As a general rule, it’s always worth asking if you can accomplish something with a less powerful technology:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

  • Instead of using JavaScript to do animation, see if you can do it in CSS instead.
  • Instead of using JavaScript to do simple client-side form validation, try to use HTML input types and attributes like required.
  • Instead of using ARIA to give a certain role value to a div or span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.

It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.

There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:

So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…

A workshop on evaluating technology

After hacking away at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I stuck around for Beyond Tellerrand. I ended up giving a talk, stepping in for Ellen. I was a poor substitute, but I hope I entertained the lovely audience for 45 minutes.

After Beyond Tellerrand, I got on a train to Nuremberg …along with a dozen of my peers who were also at the event.

All aboard the Indie Web Train from Düsseldorf to Nürnberg. Indie Web Train.

I arrived right in the middle of Web Week Nürnberg. Among the many events going on was a workshop that Joschi arranged for me to run called Evaluating Technology. The workshop version of my Beyond Tellerrand talk, basically.

This was an evolution of a workshop I ran a while back. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this. I had no tangible material prepared; no slides, no handouts, nothing. Instead the workshop is a collaborative affair. In order for it to work, the attendees needed to jump in and co-create it with me. Luckily for me, I had a fantastic and enthusiastic group of people at my workshop.

Evaluating Technology

We began with a complete braindump. “Name some tools and technologies,” I said. “Just shout ‘em out.” Shout ‘em out, they did. I struggled to keep up just writing down everything they said. This was great!

Evaluating Technology

The next step was supposed to be dot-voting on which technologies to cover, but there were so many of them, we introduced an intermediate step: grouping the technologies together.

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Once the technologies were grouped into categories like build tools, browser APIs, methodologies etc., we voted on which categories to cover, only then diving deeper into specific technologies.

I proposed a number of questions to ask of each technology we covered. First of all, who benefits from the technology? Is it a tool for designers and developers, or is it a tool for the end user? Build tools, task runners, version control systems, text editors, transpilers, and pattern libraries all fall into the first category—they make life easier for the people making websites. Browser features generally fall into the second category—they improve the experience for the end user.

Looking at user-facing technologies, we asked: how well do they fail? In other words, can you add this technology as an extra layer of enhancement on top of what you’re building or do you have to make it a foundational layer that’s potentially a single point of failure?

For both classes of technologies, we asked the question: what are the assumptions? What fundamental philosophy has been baked into the technology?

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Now, the point of this workshop is not for me to answer those questions. I have a limited range of experience with the huge amount of web technologies out there. But collectively all of us attending the workshop will have a good range of experience and knowledge.

Interesting then that the technologies people voted for were:

  • service workers,
  • progressive web apps,
  • AMP,
  • web components,
  • pattern libraries and design systems.

Those are topics I actually do have some experience with. Lots of the attendees had heard of these things, they were really interested in finding out more about them, but they hadn’t necessarily used them yet.

And so I ended up doing a lot of the talking …which wasn’t the plan at all! That was just the way things worked out. I was more than happy to share my opinions on those topics, but it was of a shame that I ended up monopolising the discussion. I felt for everyone having to listen to me ramble on.

Still, by the end of the day we had covered quite a few topics. Better yet, we had a good framework for categorising and evaluating web technologies. The specific technologies we covered were interesting enough, but the general approach provided the lasting value.

All in all, a great day with a great group of people.

Evaluating Technology

I’m already looking forward to running this workshop again. If you think it would be valuable for your company, get in touch.

Research on evaluating technology

I’ve spent the past few months preparing a new talk for An Event Apart San Francisco (and hopefully some more AEAs after that). As always happens, I spent the whole time vacillating between thinking “this is good!” and thinking “this is awful!” I’m still bouncing between those poles. I won’t really know whether the talk is up to snuff until I actually give it to a live audience.

Over the past few years, my presentations have built upon one another. Two years ago, my talk was called Enhance! and it set the groundwork for using a layered approach to web design and development. My 2016 talk, Resilience, follows on with a process and examples for that approach (I also set myself the challenge of delivering a talk about progressive enhancement without ever using the phrase “progressive enhancement”).

My new talk goes a bit meta, but in my mind, it’s very much building on the previous talks. The talk is all about evaluating technology. I haven’t settled on a final title, but I was thinking about something obtuse, like …Evaluating Technology.

Here’s my hastily scribbled description:

We work with technology every day. And every day it seems like there’s more and more technology to understand: graphic design tools, build tools, frameworks and libraries, not to mention new HTML, CSS and JavaScript features landing in browsers. How should we best choose which technologies to invest our time in? When we decide to weigh up the technology choices that confront us, what are the best criteria for doing that? This talk will help you evaluate tools and technologies in a way that best benefits the people who use the websites that we are designing and developing. Let’s take a look at some of the hottest new web technologies like service workers and web components. Together we will dig beneath the hype to find out whether they will really change life on the web for the better.

As ever, I’ll begin and end with a long-zoom pretentious arc of history, but I’ll dive into practical stuff in the middle. That’s become a bit of a cliché for my presentations, but the formula works as a sort of microcosm of a good conference—a mixture of the inspirational and the practical, trying to keep a good balance of both.

For this new talk, the practical focus will be on some web technologies that are riding high on the hype cycle right now: service workers, web components, progressive web apps. I’ll use them as a lens for applying broader questions about how we make decisions about the technologies we embrace, and the technologies we reject.

Technology. Now there’s a big subject. It’s literally the entirety of human history. I had to be careful not to go down too many rabbit holes. I’m still not sure if I’ve succeeded, but I’ve already had to ruthlessly cull some darlings.

One of the nice things that the An Event Apart crew started doing was to provide link lists for each talk to attendees. That gives me an opportunity to touch briefly on a topic in the talk itself, but allow any interested attendees to dive deeper at their leisure.

For this talk on evaluating technology, I’ve put together this list of hyperlinks for further reading, watching, listening, and researching…

People

Papers

Presentations

Books