Tags: exclusion

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Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

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. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew

The CSStastic afternoon of day one of An Event Apart in Seattle continues with Rachel Andrew. Her talk is Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS. The description reads:

For years we’ve explained that the web is not like print; that a particular idea is not how things work on the web; that certain things are simply not possible. Over the last few years, rapid browser implementation of advances in CSS have given us the ability to do many of these previously impossible things. We can use our new powers to build the same designs faster, or we can start to ask ourselves what we might do if we were solving these problems afresh.

In this talk, Rachel will look at the things coming into browsers right now which change the way we see web design. CSS subgrids allowing nested grids to use the track definition of their parent; logical properties and values moving the web away from the physical dimensions of a computer screen; screen experiences which behave more like an app, or even paged media, due to scroll snapping and multidimensional control. By understanding the new medium of web design we can start to imagine the future, and even help to shape it.

I’m not sure if it even makes sense to try to live-blog a code talk, but I’ll give it my best shot…

Rachel has been talking about CSS at An Event Apart for over three years now. Our understanding of the possibilities of CSS has changed a lot in that time. Our use of floats for layout is being consigned to history. It’s no less monumental than the change from tables to CSS. Tableless web design often meant simplifying our designs. We were used to designing in a graphic design tool and then slicing it up into table cells. CSS couldn’t give us the same fine-grained control so we simplified our designs. It got us to start thinking of the web as its own medium. That idea really progressed with responsive web design.

But perhaps us CSS advocates downplayed some of the issues. We weren’t trying to create new CSS, we were just trying to get people to use CSS.

What we term “good web design” is based in the technical limitations of CSS. We say “the web is not print” when we see a design that’s quite print-like. People expect to have to hack at CSS to get it to do what we want. But times have changed. We have solved many of those problems (but that doesn’t mean we got all of them!).

Rachel spends a lot of time telling designers: you never know how tall anything is on the web. It used to be a real challenge to get the top and bottom of boxes to line up. We’d have to fix the height of the boxes. And if too much content goes in, the content overflows. Then we end up limiting the amount of content at the CMS side. We hacked around the problem. A technical limitation influenced our design, and even our content management. Then we got flexbox. Not only did the problem disappear, but the default behaviour is exactly what we struggled with for years: equal height columns.

How big is this box? You’ve seen the “CSS is awesome mug”, right?

Our previous layout systems relied on percentage lengths for widths. Those values had to add up to 100%, and no more. People tried to do the same thing with flexbox. People made “grid systems” with flexbox that gave widths to everything. “Flexbox is weird!”, people said. But the real problem is that flexbox is not the layout method you think it is. It’s for taking a bunch of oddly-sized things and returning the most reasonable layout for those things. It assigns space in a smart way. That solves the problem of needing to give everthing a width. It figures it out for you. If you decide to put widths on everything, you’re kind of working against flexbox.

We’re so used to having to hack everything in CSS, we had to take a step back with flexbox and realise that hacks aren’t necessary.

CSS tries to avoid data loss. That’s why the “CSS is awesome” text overflows the box. You don’t want the text to vanish. Visible overflow is messy, but it’s better than making some content disappear.

In the box alignment specification, there’s the concept of safe and unsafe alignment. Safe:

.container {
    display: flex;
    flex-direction: column;
    align-items: safe center;
}

You give the browser permission to align items to the start if necessary. But you can override that with unsafe:

.container {
    display: flex;
    flex-direction: column;
    align-items: unsafe center;
}

Overflow is going to happen. Now it’s up to you what happens when it does.

The “content honking out of the box” problem described in the “CSS is awesome” meme is now controlled with min-content:

width: min-content;

The box expands to encompass the widest content.

You have many choices. But what if the text isn’t running left to right? It might not be a problem we run into for English text. For years, CSS had that English-centric assumption baked in. Now CSS has been updated to not make that assumption. The web is not left to right. Flexbox and grid take an agnostic approach to the writing mode of the document. There’s no “top”, “bottom”, “left” or “right”. There’s “start”, “end”, “inline” and “block”. Now we have a new spec for logical properties and values. It maps old physical values (top, bottom, etc.) to the newer agnostic values.

So even if you use writing-mode to flip direction, width is still a width. Use inline-size instead of width and everything keeps working: the width maps to height when you apply a different writing-mode value. Eventually we’ll use those flow-relative values more than the old values. Solutions need to include different writing modes.

There is no fold. We’ve said that for years, right? But we know where the fold is. We’ve got viewport units that represent the width and height of the browser viewport. We can start to make designs that make use of the viewport. You can size a screen full of images exactly to fit the visible space. Combine it with scroll-snap to get the page views to snap as the user scrolls. You get paged layout. That’s interesting for Rachel because she’s used to designing for paged layout in print versus continuous layout on the web.

What’s next for CSS grid? Grid layout has been the biggest problem-solver of recent years. But that doesn’t mean it has solved all the layout problems. New problems appear as we start to work with CSS grid. We often end up nesting grids. But the nested grids don’t have any knowledge of one another. We’re back to: you never know how tall things are on the web. We need a way to have a relationship. Some kind of, I don’t know, subgrid.

You could use display: contents. It removes a box from the visual display allowing grandchildren to act like children. The browser support is good, but there’s a stonking accessibility bug so don’t use it in production. Also you can’t apply visual styles to anything that’s got display: contents on it. But grid-template-rows: subgrid will solve this problem. The spec is in a good shape. We’re waiting for the first browser implementations.

You will hit problems. Find new technical limitations. It’s just that we can’t do that stuff yet. We get the new stuff when we create it. Write up the problems you come across.

We’re finding the edges. Rachel is going to share her problems.

Rachel wants to put some text into her image grid. No problem. But then if there’s too much text, it might not fit in a height-restricted row. We can adjust the row to not be height-restricted, but then we lose the nice viewport-fitting layout.

In continuous media—which is what the web is—content inside multicol gets longer and longer. You can fix the height of the container but then the columns get created horizontally. What if you could say, I want my multicol container to be, say 100vh high, but if the content overlows, create a new 100vh high container below. Overflow in the block dimension. Maybe that’ll be in the next version of the multicol spec.

Multicol doesn’t solve Rachel’s image grid situation. What she needs is a way for the text to fill up a box and then flow into another box. The content needs to be semantically marked up—not broken into separate chunks for layout—and we want the browser to figure out where to break that content and fill up available space.

It comes as a surprise to people that a lot of paged media—books, magazines—are laid out with CSS. It’s in the paged media module. Prince is a good example of a user agent that supports paged media. There’s the concept of a page box: a physical page into which content can go. You get to define the boxes with physical dimensions like inches or centimeters. You create a bunch of margin boxes with generated content. Enough pages are created to hold all the content. You create your page model and flow the content through it.

Maybe apps and websites with defined screens are not that different from paged contexts. There have been attempts to create CSS specs that would allow this kind of content-flowing behaviour. CSS regions was one attempt. There was -ms-flow-into and -ms-flow-from in the IE and Edge implementations. You had to apply -ms-flow-into to an iframe element.

Regions needs ready-prepared boxes for the content to flow into. But how can you know how many boxes to prepare in advance? You don’t know how big things will be on the web. Rachel has been told that there’s nothing wrong with the CSS regions spec because you can define a final bucket for all leftover content. That doesn’t seem like a viable solution.

CSS regions predated CSS grid and didn’t take off. Now that we’ve got grid, something like regions makes a lot of sense.

Web design has been involved in a constant battle with overflow. Whether it’s overflowing boxes, or there (not) being a fold, or multicol layout. Rachel thinks we can figure out a way to get regions to work. Perhaps regions paved the way for something better. Maybe it was just ahead of its time. There are a lot of things hidden away in CSS specs that never made it out: things that didn’t make sense until more advanced CSS came along.

Regions—like multicol—relies on fragmentation. Ever tried to stop a heading behind the last thing on a page in a print stylesheet? We need good support for break-inside, break-before, and break-after.

We create new things to solve problems. Maybe you don’t see the value of something like regions, but I bet there’s been something where you thought “I wish CSS could do this!”.

Rob wrote up a problem that he had with trying to have a floated element maintain its floatiness inside a grid. He saw it as a grid problem. Rachel saw it as an exclusions problem. Rob’s write-up was really valuable to demonstrate the need for exclusions. Writing things up is hugely valuable for pushing things forward. Write up your ideas—they’ll show us the use case.

Ask “why can’t I do that?” Let’s not fall into the temptation of making things grid-like just because we have CSS grid now. Keep pushing at the boundaries.

Many of things Rachel has shown—grid, exclusions, regions—were implemented by Microsoft. With Edge moving to a Chromium rendering engine, we must make sure that we maintain diversity of thought in the standards process. Voices other than those of rendering engines need to contribute to the discussion.

At a W3C meeting or standards discussion, the room should not be 60-70% Googlers.

More than ever, the web needs diversity of thought. Rachel isn’t having a dig at Google. This isn’t a fight between good and evil. It’s a fight against any monoculture. So please contribute. Get involved. Together we can work for the future of the web platform.