Journal tags: flow

10

sparkline

Accessibility testing

I was doing some accessibility work with a client a little while back. It was mostly giving their site the once-over, highlighting any issues that we could then discuss. It was an audit of sorts.

While I was doing this I started to realise that not all accessibility issues are created equal. I don’t just mean in their severity. I mean that some issues can—and should—be caught early on, while other issues can only be found later.

Take colour contrast. This is something that should be checked before a line of code is written. When designs are being sketched out and then refined in a graphical editor like Figma, that’s the time to check the ratio between background and foreground colours to make sure there’s enough contrast between them. You can catch this kind of thing later on, but by then it’s likely to come with a higher cost—you might have to literally go back to the drawing board. It’s better to find the issue when you’re at the drawing board the first time.

Then there’s the HTML. Most accessibility issues here can be caught before the site goes live. Usually they’re issues of ommission: form fields that don’t have an explicitly associated label element (using the for and id attributes); images that don’t have alt text; pages that don’t have sensible heading levels or landmark regions like main and nav. None of these are particularly onerous to fix and they come with the biggest bang for your buck. If you’ve got sensible forms, sensible headings, alt text on images, and a solid document structure, you’ve already covered the vast majority of accessibility issues with very little overhead. Some of these checks can also be automated: alt text for images; labels for inputs.

Then there’s interactive stuff. If you only use native HTML elements you’re probably in the clear, but chances are you’ve got some bespoke interactivity on your site: a carousel; a mega dropdown for navigation; a tabbed interface. HTML doesn’t give you any of those out of the box so you’d need to make your own using a combination of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and ARIA. There’s plenty of testing you can do before launching—I always ask myself “What would Heydon do?”—but these components really benefit from being tested by real screen reader users.

So if you commission an accessibility audit, you should hope to get feedback that’s mostly in that third category—interactive widgets.

If you get feedback on document structure and other semantic issues with the HTML, you should fix those issues, sure, but you should also see what you can do to stop those issues going live again in the future. Perhaps you can add some steps in the build process. Or maybe it’s more about making sure the devs are aware of these low-hanging fruit. Or perhaps there’s a framework or content management system that’s stopping you from improving your HTML. Then you need to execute a plan for ditching that software.

If you get feedback about colour contrast issues, just fixing the immediate problem isn’t going to address the underlying issue. There’s a process problem, or perhaps a communication issue. In that case, don’t look for a technical solution. A design system, for example, will not magically fix a workflow issue or route around the problem of designers and developers not talking to each other.

When you commission an accessibility audit, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it. Don’t squander it on issues that you can catch and fix yourself. Make sure that the bulk of the audit is being spent on the specific issues that are unique to your site.

In the zone

I went to art college in my younger days. It didn’t take. I wasn’t very good and I didn’t work hard. So I dropped out before they could kick me out.

But I remember one instance where I actually ended up putting in more work than my fellow students—an exceptional situation.

In the first year of art college, we did a foundation course. That’s when you try a bit of everything to help you figure out what you want to concentrate on: painting, sculpture, ceramics, printing, photography, and so on. It was a bit of a whirlwind, which was generally a good thing. If you realised you really didn’t like a subject, you didn’t have to stick it out for long.

One of those subjects was animation—a relatively recent addition to the roster. On the first day, the tutor gave everyone a pack of typing paper: 500 sheets of A4. We were told to use them to make a piece of animation. Put something on the first piece of paper. Take a picture. Now put something slightly different on the second piece of paper. Take a picture of that. Repeat another 498 times. At 24 frames a second, the result would be just over 20 seconds of animation. No computers, no mobile phones. Everything by hand. It was so tedious.

And I loved it. I ended up asking for more paper.

(Actually, this was another reason why I ended up dropping out. I really, really enjoyed animation but I wasn’t able to major in it—I could only take it as a minor.)

I remember getting totally absorbed in the production. It was the perfect mix of tedium and creativity. My mind was simultaneously occupied and wandering free.

Recently I’ve been re-experiencing that same feeling. This time, it’s not in the world of visuals, but of audio. I’m working on season two of the Clearleft podcast.

For both seasons and episodes, this is what the process looks like:

  1. Decide on topics. This will come from a mix of talking to Alex, discussing work with my colleagues, and gut feelings about what might be interesting.
  2. Gather material. This involves arranging interviews with people; sometimes co-workers, sometimes peers in the wider industry. I also trawl through the archives of talks from Clearleft conferences for relevent presentations.
  3. Assemble the material. This is where I’m chipping away at the marble of audio interviews to get at the nuggets within. I play around with the flow of themes, trying different juxtapositions and narrative structures.
  4. Tie everything together. I add my own voice to introduce the topic and segue from point to point.
  5. Release. I upload the audio, update the RSS feed, and publish the transcript.

Lots of podcasts (that I really enjoy) stop at step two: record a conversation and then release it verbatim. Job done.

Being a glutton for punishment, I wanted to do more of an amalgamation for each episode, weaving multiple conversations together.

Right now I’m in step three. That’s where I’ve found the same sweet spot that I had back in my art college days. It’s somewhat mindless work, snipping audio waveforms and adjusting volume levels. At the same time, there’s the creativity of putting those audio snippets into a logical order. I find myself getting into the zone, losing track of time. It’s the same kind of flow state you get from just the right level of coding or design work. Normally this kind of work lends itself to having some background music, but that’s not an option with podcast editing. I’ve got my headphones on, but my ears are busy.

I imagine that is what life is like for an audio engineer or producer.

When I first started the Clearleft podcast, I thought I would need to use GarageBand for this work, arranging multiple tracks on a timeline. Then I discovered Descript. It’s been an enormous time-saver. It’s like having GarageBand and a text editor merged into one. I can see the narrative flow as a text document, as well as looking at the accompanying waveforms.

Descript isn’t perfect. The transcription accuracy is good enough to allow me to search through my corpus of material, but it’s not accurate enough to publish as is. Still, it gives me some nice shortcuts. I can elimate ums and ahs in one stroke, or shorten any gaps that are too long.

But even with all those conveniences, this is still time-consuming work. If I spend three or four hours with my head down sculpting some audio and I get anything close to five minutes worth of usable content, I consider it time well spent.

Sometimes when I’m knee-deep in a piece of audio, trimming and arranging it just so to make a sentence flow just right, there’s a voice in the back of my head that says, “You know that no one is ever going to notice any of this, don’t you?” I try to ignore that voice. I mean, I know the voice is right, but I still think it’s worth doing all this fine tuning. Even if nobody else knows, I’ll have the satisfaction of transforming the raw audio into something a bit more polished.

If you aren’t already subscribed to the RSS feed of the Clearleft podcast, I recommend adding it now. New episodes will start showing up …sometime soon.

Yes, I’m being a little vague on the exact dates. That’s because I’m still in the process of putting the episodes together.

So if you’ll excuse me, I need to put my headphones on and enter the zone.

Netlify redirects and downloads

Making the Clearleft podcast is a lot of fun. Making the website for the Clearleft podcast was also fun.

Design wise, it’s a riff on the main Clearleft site in terms of typography and general layout. On the development side, it was an opportunity to try out an exciting tech stack. The workflow goes something like this:

  • Open a text editor and type out HTML and CSS.

Comparing this to other workflows I’ve used in the past, this is definitely the most productive way of working. Some stats:

  • Time spent setting up build tools: 00:00
  • Time spent wrangling the pipeline to do exactly what you want: 00:00
  • Time spent trying to get the damn build tools to work again when you return to the project after leaving it alone for more than a few months: 00:00:00

I have some files. Some images, three font files, a few pages of HTML, one RSS feed, one style sheet, and one minimal service worker script. I don’t need a web server to do anything more than serve up those files. No need for any dynamic server-side processing.

I guess this is JAMstack. Though, given that the J stands for JavaScript, the A stands for APIs, and I’m not using either, technically it’s Mstack.

Netlify suits my hosting needs nicely. It also provides the added benefit that, should I need to update my CSS, I don’t need to add a query string or anything to the link elements in the HTML that point to the style sheet: Netlify does cache invalidation for you!

The mp3 files of the actual podcast episodes are stored on S3. I link to those mp3 files from enclosure elements in the RSS feed, which is what makes it a podcast. I also point to the mp3 files from audio elements on the individual episode pages—just above the transcript of each episode. Here’s the page for the most recent episode.

I also want people to be able to download the mp3 file directly if they want (or if they want to huffduff an episode). So I provide a link to the mp3 file with a good ol’-fashioned a element with an href attribute.

I throw in one more attribute on that link. The download attribute tells the browser that the URL in the href attribute should be downloaded instead of visited. If you give a value for the download attribute, it will over-ride the file name:

<a href="/files/ugly-file-name.xyz" download="nice-file-name.xyz">download</a>

Or you can use it as a Boolean attribute without any value if you’re happy with the file name:

<a href="/files/nice-file-name.xyz" download>download</a>

There’s one catch though. The download attribute only works for files on the same origin. That’s an issue for me. My site is podcast.clearleft.com but my audio files are hosted on clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com—the download attribute will be ignored and the mp3 files will play in the browser instead of downloading.

Trys pointed me to the solution. It turns out that Netlify can do some server-side processing. It can do redirects.

I added a file called _redirects to the root of my project. It contains one line:

/download/*  https://clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/:splat  200

That says that any URLs beginning with /download/ should redirect to clearleft-audio.s3.amazonaws.com/podcast/. Everything after the closing slash is captured with that wild card asterisk. That’s then passed along to the redirect URL as :splat. That’s a new one on me. I hadn’t come across that terminology, but as someone who can never remember the syntax of regular expressions, it works for me.

Oh, and the 200at the end is the status code: okay.

Now I can use this /download/ path in my link:

<a href="/download/season01episode06.mp3" download>Download mp3</a>

Because this URL on the same origin, the download attribute works just fine.

The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.

I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…

“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mina said:

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.

When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.

Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.

Sell

He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:

  • Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
  • Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
  • Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
  • Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
  • Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
  • Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
  • Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.

Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.

Kick off

Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.

How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.

Plan

Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.

How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.

Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.

Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?

You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.

Design and build

Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:

Embrace the snowflakes.

The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.

When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.

The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.

—Jina

Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.

It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.

The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.

Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.

You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.

Launch

What does it mean to “launch” a design system?

A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. Most integrated: consumable compents.

Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.

Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.

Maintain

Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.

A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.

—Nathan Curtis

What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.

That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.

Summary

This is hard.

  • Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
  • Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
  • Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
  • Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
  • Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
  • Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
  • Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.

You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.

CSS grid in Internet Explorer 11

When I was in Boston, speaking on a lunchtime panel with Rachel at An Event Apart, we took some questions from the audience about CSS grid. Inevitably, a question about browser support came up—specifically about support in Internet Explorer 11.

(Technically, you can use CSS grid in IE11—in fact it was the first browser to ship a version of grid—but the prefixed syntax is different to the standard and certain features are missing.)

Rachel gave a great balanced response, saying that you need to look at your site’s stats to determine whether it’s worth the investment of your time trying to make a grid work in IE11.

My response was blunter. I said I just don’t consider IE11 as a browser that supports grid.

Now, that might sound harsh, but what I meant was: you’re already dividing your visitors into browsers that support grid, and browsers that don’t …and you’re giving something to those browsers that don’t support grid. So I’m suggesting that IE11 falls into that category and should receive the layout you’re giving to browsers that don’t support grid …because really, IE11 doesn’t support grid: that’s the whole reason why the syntax is namespaced by -ms.

You could jump through hoops to try to get your grid layout working in IE11, as detailed in a three-part series on CSS Tricks, but at that point, the amount of effort you’re putting in negates the time-saving benefits of using CSS grid in the first place.

Frankly, the whole point of prefixed CSS is that is not used after a reasonable amount of time (originally, the idea was that it would not be used in production, but that didn’t last long). As we’ve moved away from prefixes to flags in browsers, I’m seeing the amount of prefixed properties dropping, and that’s very, very good. I’ve stopped using autoprefixer on new projects, and I’ve been able to remove it from some existing ones—please consider doing the same.

And when it comes to IE11, I’ll continue to categorise it as a browser that doesn’t support CSS grid. That doesn’t mean I’m abandoning users of IE11—far from it. It means I’m giving them the layout that’s appropriate for the browser they’re using.

Remember, websites do not need to look exactly the same in every browser.

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.

Code (p)reviews

I’m not a big fan of job titles. I’ve always had trouble defining what I do as a noun—I much prefer verbs (“I make websites” sounds fine, but “website maker” sounds kind of weird).

Mind you, the real issue is not finding the right words to describe what I do, but rather figuring out just what the heck it is that I actually do in the first place.

According to the Clearleft website, I’m a technical director. That doesn’t really say anything about what I do. To be honest, I tend to describe my work these days in terms of what I don’t do: I don’t tend to write a lot of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on client projects (although I keep my hand in with internal projects, and of course, personal projects).

Instead, I try to make sure that the people doing the actual coding—Mark, Graham, and Danielle—are happy and have everything they need to get on with their work. From outside, it might look like my role is managerial, but I see it as the complete opposite. They’re not in service to me; I’m in service to them. If they’re not happy, I’m not doing my job.

There’s another aspect to this role of technical director, and it’s similar to the role of a creative director. Just as a creative director is responsible for the overall direction and quality of designs being produced, I have an oversight over the quality of front-end output. I don’t want to be a bottleneck in the process though, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t do much checking on the details of what’s being produced because I completely trust Mark, Graham, and Danielle to produce top quality code.

But I feel I should be doing more. Again, it’s not that I want to be a bottleneck where everything needs my approval before it gets delivered, but I hope that I could help improve everyone’s output.

Now the obvious way to do this is with code reviews. I do it a bit, but not nearly as much as I should. And even when I do, I always feel it’s a bit late to be spotting any issues. After all, the code has already been written. Also, who am I to try to review the code produced by people who are demonstrably better at coding than I am?

Instead I think it will be more useful for me to stick my oar in before a line of code has been written; to sit down with someone and talk through how they’re going to approach solving a particular problem, creating a particular pattern, or implementing a particular user story.

I suppose it’s really not that different to rubber ducking. Having someone to talk out loud with about potential solutions can be really valuable in my experience.

So I’m going to start doing more code previews. I think it will also incentivise me to do more code reviews—being involved in the initial discussion of a solution means I’m going to want to see the final result.

But I don’t think this should just apply to front-end code. I’d also like to exercise this role as technical director with the designers on a project.

All too often, decisions are made in the design phase that prove problematic in development. It usually works out okay, but it often means revisiting the designs in light of some technical considerations. I’d like to catch those issues sooner. That means sticking my nose in much earlier in the process, talking through what the designers are planning to do, and keeping an eye out for any potential issues.

So, as technical director, I won’t be giving feedback like “the colour’s not working for me” or “not sure about those type choices” (I’ll leave that to the creative director), but instead I can ask questions like “how will this work without hover?” or “what happens when the user does this?” as well as pointing out solutions that might be tricky or time-consuming to implement from a technical perspective.

What I want to avoid is the swoop’n’poop, when someone seagulls in after something has been designed or built and points out all the problems. The earlier in the process any potential issues can be spotted, the better.

And I think that’s my job.

Polyfills and products

I was chatting about polyfills recently with Bruce and Remy—who coined the term:

A polyfill, or polyfiller, is a piece of code (or plugin) that provides the technology that you, the developer, expect the browser to provide natively. Flattening the API landscape if you will.

I mentioned that I think that one of the earliest examples of what we would today call a polyfill was the IE7 script by Dean Edwards.

Dean wrote this (amazing) piece of JavaScript back when Internet Explorer 6 was king of the hill and Microsoft had stopped development of their browser entirely. It was a pretty shitty time in browserland back then. While other browsers were steaming ahead with browser support, Dean’s script pulled IE6 up by its bootstraps and made it understand CSS2.1 features. Crucially, you didn’t have to write your CSS any differently for the IE7 script to work—the classic hallmark of a polyfill.

Scott has a great post over on the Filament Group blog asking To Picturefill, or not to Picturefill?. Therein, he raises the larger issue of when to use polyfills of any kind. After all, every polyfill you use is a little bit of a tax that the end user must pay with a download.

Polyfills typically come at a cost to users as well, since they require users to download and execute JavaScript in order to work. Sometimes, frequently even, that cost outweighs the benefits that the polyfill would bring. For that reason, the question of whether or not to use any polyfill should be taken seriously.

Scott takes a very thoughtful approach to using any polyfill, and I try to do the same. I feel that it’s important to have an exit strategy for every polyfill you decide to use. After all, the whole point of a polyfill is that it’s a stop-gap measure until a particular feature is more widely supported.

And that’s where I run into one of the issues of working at an agency. At Clearleft, our time working with a client usually lasts a few months. At the end of that time, we’ll have delivered whatever the client needs: sometimes that’s design work; sometimes its design and a front-end pattern library.

Every now and then we get to revisit a project—like with Code for America—but that’s the exception rather than the rule. We’ve had to get very, very good at handover precisely because we won’t be the ones maintaining the code that we deliver (though we always try to budget in time to revisit the developers who are working with the code to answer any questions they might have).

That makes it very tricky to include a polyfill in our deliverables. We’d need to figure out a way of also including a timeline for revisiting that polyfill and evaluating when it’s time to drop it. That’s not an impossible task, but it’s much, much easier if you’re a developer working on a product (as opposed to a developer working at an agency). If you’re going to be the same person working on the code in the future—as well as working on it right now—it gets a lot easier to plan for evaluating polyfill usage further down the line. Set a recurring item in your calendar and you should be all set.

It’s a similar situation with vendor prefixes. Vendor prefixes were never intended to be a long-lasting part of any style sheet. Like polyfills, they’re supposed to be used with an exit strategy in mind: when the time is right, remove the prefixed styles, leaving only the unprefixed standardised CSS. Again, that’s a lot easier to do if you’re working on a product and you know that you’ll be the one revisiting the CSS later on. That’s harder to do at an agency where you’re handing over CSS to someone else.

I’m quite reluctant to use any vendor prefixes at all—which is at should be; vendor prefixes should not be used lightly. Sometimes they’re unavoidable, but that shouldn’t stop us thinking about how to remove them at a later date.

I’m mostly just thinking out loud here. I guess my point is that certain front-end development techniques and technologies feel like they’re better suited to product work rather than agency work. Although I’m sure there are plenty of counter-examples out there too of tools that really fit the agency model and are less useful for working on the same product over a long period.

But even though the agency world and the product world are very different in lots of ways, both of them require us to think about the future. How will long will the code you’re writing today last? And do you have a plan for when it needs updating or replacing?

Climbing Mount Responsive

I’m back from Munich, where I spent three solid days workshopping with AutoScout24. I’m happy to report that it went really, really well. It’s restored my confidence after the negative feedback I got in Tel Aviv.

Three days is quite a long time to spend workshopping, so I was mostly winging it. But that extended period also allowed us to dive deep into specific issues and questions (all the usual suspects: how to handle navigation, images, complex interactions, etc.).

The real issues, however, were much more “bigger picture”—how to handle the transition to responsive of a big desktop-centric site that’s been growing for over a decade. By the end of the three days, we had divided the options into three groups:

  1. Start making any new pages and sections of the site responsive. After a while of doing that, the team would develop a pretty good feeling of what it would take to then go back and retrofit what’s already online. The downside of this approach is that would provide an asynchronous user experience: users would be moving from responsive to non-responsive parts of the site, which could be confusing.
  2. Leave the current fixed-width grid as it is, but focus on making all the components of the page flexible. Once all the components are fluid, then it should be a matter of switching over to a fluid grid in one fell swoop. On the plus side, this means that the whole site would then be responsive. On the negative side, until all the components have been made flexible—which could take some time—the site remains rigidly fixed-width and desktop-centric.
  3. Rebuild the mobile site, using it as a seed from which to grow a new responsive site. On the face of it, having a separate mobile subdomain might seem like a millstone around your neck if your trying to push for a responsive design. In practice though, it can be enormously useful. Mostly it’s a political issue: whereas ripping out the desktop site and starting from scratch is a huge task that would require everyone’s buy-in, nobody gives a shit about the mobile subdomain. Both the BBC news team and The Guardian are having great success with this approach, building mobile-first responsive sites bit-by-bit on the m. subdomain, with the plan to one day flip the switch and make the subdomain the main site. The downside is that until the switch is flipped, you’ve still got to deal with redirecting mobile traffic—probably using some nasty user-agent sniffing—and all the issues that come with having your content appearing at more than one URL.

There’s no doubt about it: trying to apply responsive design to large-scale existing desktop-centric sites is really, really hard. The message I keep repeating in my workshops is that you can’t expect to just sprinkle on some magic media-query fairydust—it just doesn’t work that way. Instead, you’ve got to figure out a way to reframe all your challenges into a mobile-first way of thinking.

Instead of asking “How can I make these patterns (mega-menus, lightboxes, complex data tables) work when the screen size shrinks?”, you need to ask “What’s the problem they’re supposed to be solving, and how would I design a solution for the small screen to start with?” Once you’ve done that, then it becomes a matter of scaling up to the large screen …which is actually a much simpler problem space.

As is so often the case with web design, it requires the application of progressive enhancement. In the case of responsive design, that means starting with small-screen styles, small-screen images, and small-screen content priority. Then you can progressively enhance with layout styles, larger images, and conditional loading of nice-to-have extra content. Oh, and you absolutely have to accept and embrace the fact that websites do not need to look the same in every browser.

Making that change in thinking can be hugely challenging.

Remember when we were all making websites with tables for layout? Then the web standards movement came along, pushing for the separation of structure and presenation, urging us to use CSS for layout. It took the brain-rewiring power of the CSS Zen Garden to really give people that “A-ha!” moment.

Mobile-first responsive design requires a similar rewiring of the brain. And if you’re used to doing things a certain way, then it’s natural to resist such drastic change—although as Elliot pointed out at the Responsive Day Out, when you first make the switch it might be very tricky, but it gets easier and easier with each project.

Still, it can be a difficult message to hear. I suspect that’s why my workshop in Tel Aviv wasn’t so warmly received—I didn’t provide any easy answers.

The designers and developers at AutoScout24 also didn’t find it easy to accept how much they’d have to rethink their approach, but by the end of the three days they had a much clearer idea of how they could go about making that change. I’m really curious to see where they’ll go from here. Personally, I’m very optimistic about their prospects for successfully pulling off a large-scale responsive relaunch.

There are two main reasons for my optimism:

  1. They’ve already put together a front-end styleguide; a UI library of components. The fact that they’re already thinking about breaking things down into their component parts is a terrific approach (and they also said they’re planning to make their UI library public, which makes me very happy indeed).
  2. Developers, designers, and information architects work side by side. The web department works in teams, but those teams aren’t organised by job role. Instead each small team of 4 or 5 people has a product manager, a UX designer, visual designer, and a developer or two.

I can’t emphasise enough how important that kind of collaborative environment is.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; the biggest challenges of responsive design are not technology problems.:

No, the biggest challenges, in my experience, are to do with people. Specifically, the way that people work together.

I’ve spoken to some companies who were eager to make the switch to responsive design, but who have designers and developers sitting in different rooms, or on different floors, or buildings, or even countries. That’s when my heart sinks. Trying to work in the iterative way that a good responsive project demands is going to be massively difficult—if not downright impossible—in that environment.

So I’m pretty confident that if the designers and developers at AutoScout24 put their minds to it, they can rise to the enormous challenge that lies ahead of them. They’ve got the right working environment, they’ve got a UI library, and they’ve got the option of using their exising mobile subdomain. Most of all, they’ve demonstrated a willingness to accept all the challenges that come with changing from a desktop-centric to a content-first mindset.

All in all, it was a very productive three days in Munich. It was hard work, but then again, I had the option of rewarding myself with some excellent Bavarian food and beer each evening.

Abendessen

Off-canvas horizontal lists

There was a repeated rallying cry at the Responsive Day Out. It was the call for more sharing—more sharing of data, more sharing of case studies, more sharing of success stories, but also more sharing of failures.

In that spirit, I thought I’d share a pattern I’ve been working on. It didn’t work, but I’m not going to let that stop me putting it out there.

Here’s what I wanted to do…

Let’s say you’ve got a list of items; modular chunks of markup like an image and a caption, for example. By default these will display linearly on a small screen: a vertical list. I quite like the way that the Flickr iPhone app takes those lists and makes them horizontal—they go off-canvas (to the right), with a little bit of the next item peaking out to give some affordance. It’s like an off-canvas carousel.

I’d quite like to use that interaction in responsive designs. But I don’t want to do it by throwing a lot of JavaScript at the problem. So I thought I’d attempt to achieve it with a little bit of CSS.

So, let’s say I’ve got a list of six items like this:

<div class="items">
    <ul class="item-list">
        <li class="item"></li>
        <li class="item"></li>
        <li class="item"></li>
        <li class="item"></li>
        <li class="item"></li>
        <li class="item"></li>
    </ul><!-- /.item-list -->
</div><!-- /.items -->

Please pay no mind to the qualities of the class names: this is just a quick proof of concept.

Here’s how that looks. At larger screen sizes, I display the list items in groups of two or three, side by side. At smaller sizes, the items simply linearise vertically.

Okay, now within a small-screen media query I’m going to constrain the width of the container:

.items {
    width: 100%;
}

I’m going to make the list within that element stretch off-canvas for six screens wide (this depends on me knowing that there will be exactly six items in the list):

.items .item-list {
    width: 600%;
}

Now I’ll make each item one sixth of that size, which should be one screen’s worth. Actually, I’m going to make it a bit less than exactly one sixth (which would be 16.6666%) so that a bit of the next item peaks out:

.item-list .item {
    width: 15%;
}

My hope was that to make this crawlable/swipable, all I had to do was apply overflow: scroll to the containing element:

.items {
    width: 100%;
    overflow: scroll;
}

All of that is wrapped up in a small-viewport media query:

@media all and (max-width: 30em) {
    .items {
        width: 100%;
        overflow: scroll;
    }
    .items .item-list {
        width: 600%;
    }
    .items .item {
        width: 15%;
    }
}

It actually works …in some browsers. Alas, support for overflow: scroll doesn’t extend back as far as Android 2, still a very popular flavour of that operating system. That’s quite a showstopper.

There is a polyfill called Overthrow from those mad geniuses at Filament Group. But, as I said, I’d rather not throw more code at the problem. While I can imagine shovelling a polyfill at a desktop browser, I have a lot of qualms about trying to “support” an older mobile browser by giving it a chunk of JavaScript to chew on.

What I really need is a way to detect support for overflow: scroll. Alas, looking at the code for Overthrow, that isn’t so easy. Modernizr cannot help me here. We are in the realm of the undetectables.

My pattern is, alas, a failure.

Or, at least, it’s a failure for now. The @supports rule in CSS is tailor-made for this kind of situation. Basically, I don’t want any those small-screen rules to apply unless the browser supports overflow: scroll. Here’s how I will be able to do that:

@media all and (max-width: 30em) {
  @supports (overflow: scroll) {
    .items {
        width: 100%;
        overflow: scroll;
    }
    .items .item-list {
        width: 600%;
    }
    .items .item {
        width: 15%;
    }
  }
}

This is really, really useful. It means that I can start implementing this pattern now even though very few browsers currently understand @supports. That’s okay. Browsers that don’t understand it will simply ignore the whole block of CSS, leaving the list items to display vertically. But as @support gets more …um, support …then the pattern will kick in for those more capable browsers.

I can see myself adding this pre-emptive pattern for a few different use cases:

Feel free to poke at the example code. Perhaps you can find a way to succeed where I have failed.