Journal tags: frontend

260

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Negativity bias

When I wrote about my hopes and fears for the View Transitions API, a few people latched on to this sentiment:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

But I also wrote:

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

I think it’s worth focusing on that.

Part of the problem is that I gave my hopes and fears an equal airing. But they’re not equally likely.

Take the possibility that the View Transitions API only ships for single page apps, but never ships for regular page transitions. The consequences of that would be big—the API would act as an incentive to build single page apps. But the likelihood of that happening is small. In fact, according to Jake, there’s already an implemention for page transitions in the works at Chrome.

Now what if the View Transitions API ships for pages? The consequences would be equally big—the API would act as an incentive to ditch single page apps and build in a more performant, resilient way. Best of all, the chances of that happening are very large indeed (pretty much a certainty now, given Jake’s update).

So I made a comparison between both of the consequences, which are equally large, but I didn’t make a corresponding comparison of the likelihoods, which are not equally large. Mea culpa!

I should’ve made it clearer that, although the consequences would be really bad if the View Transitions API only supports single page apps, the actual likelihood of that is pretty slim.

That’s probably my negativity bias showing through. (The reason I have a negativity bias is because I am a human. Like, have you ever noticed that if you get feedback on something and 98% of it is positive, you inevitably fixate on the 2%?)

Anyway, the real takeaway here is that if the View Transitions API ships for pages, then the consequences will be really, really good! It would be another nail in the coffin for monolithic JavaScript frameworks slowing down the web. And best of all, the likelihood of this happening is very high!

So let me amend my closing sentences from my previous post:

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps—which is very unlikely—it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations—which is very, very likely—it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

The glass is half full and it’s only going to get fuller. Time to start planning for a turbo-charged web now.

If you’ve got a website with full page navigations, start thinking about how you’ll be able to apply the View Transitions API as a progressive enhancement to improve the user experience.

If you’ve got a single page app, start thinking about how to ditch a whole bunch of uneccessary dependencies to make a more lightweight foundation of HTML instead of JavaScript, and still get all those slick transitions you get in a single page app!

Time for transitions

I am simultaneously very excited and very nervous about the View Transitions API.

You may know it by its former name—Shared Element Transitions. The name change is very recent.

I’ve been saying for years that some kind of API like this would be brilliant:

I honestly think if browsers implemented this, 80% of client-rendered Single Page Apps could be done as regular good ol’-fashioned websites.

Miriam Suzanne describes the theory of View Transitions succinctly:

Shared-element transitions are designed to work with standard web navigation across multiple page loads, as well as page transitions in ‘single-page’ apps (often called SPAs).

This all sounds brilliant. But the devil is in the implementation details. Right now, the API only works for single page apps. This is totally understandable. For purely pragmatic reasons, single page apps are a simple use case to solve for. It’s going to take a lot more work to get this API to work for multi-page apps (or as we used to call them, websites).

If we get a View Transitions API that works across page navigations, it could potentially turbo-charge the web. It will act as a disencentive to building single page apps—you’d be able to provide swish transitions without sacrificing performance or resilience at the alter of a heavy-handed JavaScript-only architecture.

But if the API only ever works for single page apps (which is the current situation), then it will act as an incentive to make any kind of website into a single page app, regardless of whether it’s actually the appropriate architecture.

That prospect has me very worried indeed.

I’m making my feelings on this known just in case any of the implementators out there are thinking, “Hey, maybe it’s fine that this API only works for single page apps—I’m sure most people would be happy with that.”

If the View Transitions API works across page navigations, it could be the single best thing to happen to the web in years.

If the View Transitions API only works for single page apps, it could be the single worst thing to happen to the web in years.

Update: Jake says:

We’re currently landing code in Chrome for the MPA version.

Very happy to hear that! It’s already in the spec, but it’s good to hear that the implementation isn’t going to lag too much.

Also, read this follow-up.

Overloading buttons

It’s been almost two years since I added audio playback on The Session. The interface is quite straightforward. For any tune setting, there’s a button that says “play audio”. When you press that button, audio plays and the button’s text changes to “pause audio.”

By updating the button’s text like this, I’m updating the button’s accessible name. In other situations, where the button text doesn’t change, you can indicate whether a button is active or not by toggling the aria-pressed attribute. I’ve been doing that on the “share” buttons that act as the interface for a progressive disclosure. The label on the button—“share”—doesn’t change when the button is pressed. For that kind of progressive disclosure pattern, the button also has an aria-controls and aria-expanded attribute.

From all the advice I’ve read about button states, you should either update the accessible name or change the aria-pressed attribute, but not both. That would lead to the confusing situation of having a button labelled “pause audio” as having a state of “pressed” when in fact the audio is playing.

That was all fine until I recently added some more functionality to The Session. As well as being able to play back audio, you can now adjust the tempo of the playback speed. The interface element for this is a slider, input type="range".

But this means that the “play audio” button now does two things. It plays the audio, but it also acts as a progressive disclosure control, revealing the tempo slider. The button is simultaneously a push button for playing and pausing music, and a toggle button for showing and hiding another interface element.

So should I be toggling the aria-pressed attribute now, even though the accessible name is changing? Or is it enough to have the relationship defined by aria-controls and the state defined by aria-expanded?

Based on past experience, my gut feeling is that I’m probably using too much ARIA. Maybe it’s an anti-pattern to use both aria-expanded and aria-pressed on a progressive disclosure control.

I’m kind of rubber-ducking here, and now that I’ve written down what I’m thinking, I’m pretty sure I’m going to remove the toggling of aria-pressed in any situation where I’m already toggling aria-expanded.

What I really need to do is enlist the help of actual screen reader users. There are a number of members of The Session who use screen readers. I should get in touch and see if the new functionality makes sense to them.

JavaScript

A recurring theme in my writing and talks is “lay off the JavaScript, people!” But I have to make a conscious effort to specify that I mean client-side JavaScript.

I thought it would be obvious from the context that I was talking about the copious amounts of JavaScript being shipped to end users to download, parse, and execute. But nothing’s ever really obvious. If I don’t explicitly say JavaScript in the browser, then someone inevitably thinks I’m having a go at JavaScript, the language.

I have absolutely nothing against JavaScript the language. Just like I have nothing against Python or Ruby or any other language that you might write with on your machine or your web server. But as soon as you deliver bytes over the wire, I start having opinions. It just so happens that JavaScript is the universal language for client-side coding so that’s why I call for restraint with JavaScript specifically.

There was a time when JavaScript only existed in web browsers. That changed with Node. Now it’s possible to write code for your web server and code for web browsers using the same language. Very handy!

But just because it’s the same language doesn’t mean you should treat it the same in both circumstance. As Remy puts it:

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

I was reading something recently that referred to Eleventy as a JavaScript library. It really brought me up short. I mean, on the one hand, yes, it’s a library of code and it’s written in JavaScript. It is absolutely technically correct to call it a JavaScript library.

But in my mind, a JavaScript library is something you ship to web browsers—jQuery, React, Vue, and so on. Whereas Eleventy executes its code in order to generate HTML and that’s what gets sent to end users. Conceptually, it’s like the opposite of a JavaScript library. Eleventy does its work before any user requests a URL—JavaScript libraries do their work after a user requests a URL.

To me it seems obvious that there should an entirely different mindset for writing code intended for a web browser. But nothing’s ever really obvious.

I remember when Node was getting really popular and npm came along as a way to manage all the bundles of code that people were assembling in their Node programmes. Makes total sense. But then I thought I heard about people using npm to do the same thing for client-side code. “That can’t be right!” I thought. I must’ve misunderstood. So I talked to someone from npm and explained how I must be misunderstanding something.

But it turned out that people really were treating client-side JavaScript no different than server-side JavaScript. People really were pulling in megabytes of other people’s code to ship to end users so that they could, I dunno, left pad numbers or something.

Listen, I don’t care what you get up to in the privacy of your own codebase. But don’t poison the well of the web with profligate client-side JavaScript.

Supporting logical properties

I wrote recently about making the switch to logical properties over on The Session.

Initially I tried ripping the band-aid off and swapping out all the directional properties for logical properties. After all, support for logical properties is green across the board.

But then I got some reports of people seeing formating issues. These people were using Safari on devices that could no longer update their operating system. Because versions of Safari are tied to versions of the operating system, there was nothing they could do other than switch to using a different browser.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but as long as this situation continues, Safari is not an evergreen browser. (I also understand that problem lies with the OS architecture—it must be incredibly frustrating for the folks working on WebKit and/or Safari.)

So I needed to add fallbacks for older browsers that don’t support logical properties. Or, to put it another way, I needed to add logical properties as a progressive enhancement.

“No problem!” I thought. “The way that CSS works, I can just put the logical version right after the directional version.”

element {
  margin-left: 1em;
  margin-inline-start: 1em;
}

But that’s not true in this case. I’m not over-riding a value, I’m setting two different properties.

In a left-to-right language like English it’s true that margin-inline-start will over-ride margin-left. But in a right-to-left language, I’ve just set margin-left and margin-inline-start (which happens to be on the right).

This is a job for @supports!

element {
  margin-left: 1em;
}
@supports (margin-inline-start: 1em) {
  element {
    margin-left: unset;
    margin-inline-start: 1em;
  }
}

I’m doing two things inside the @supports block. I’m applying the logical property I’ve just tested for. I’m also undoing the previously declared directional property.

A value of unset is perfect for this:

The unset CSS keyword resets a property to its inherited value if the property naturally inherits from its parent, and to its initial value if not. In other words, it behaves like the inherit keyword in the first case, when the property is an inherited property, and like the initial keyword in the second case, when the property is a non-inherited property.

Now I’ve got three CSS features working very nicely together:

  1. @supports (also known as feature queries),
  2. logical properties, and
  3. the unset keyword.

For anyone using an up-to-date browser, none of this will make any difference. But for anyone who can’t update their Safari browser because they can’t update their operating system, because they don’t want to throw out their perfectly functional Apple device, they’ll continue to get the older directional properties:

I discovered that my Mom’s iPad was a 1st generation iPad Air. Apple stopped supporting that device in iOS 12, which means it was stuck with whatever version of Safari last shipped with iOS 12.

Let’s get logical

I was refactoring some CSS on The Session over the weekend. I thought it would be good to switch over to using logical properties exclusively. I did this partly to make the site more easily translatable into languages with different writing modes, but mostly as an exercise to help train me in thinking with logical properties by default.

All in all, it went pretty smoothly. You can kick the tyres by opening up dev tools on The Session and adding a writing-mode declaration to the body or html element.

For the most part, the switchover was smooth. It mostly involved swapping out property names with left, right, top, and bottom for inline-start, inline-end, block-start, and block-end.

The border-radius properties tripped me up a little. You have to use shorthand like border-start-end-radius, not border-block-start-inline-end-radius (that doesn’t exist). So you have to keep the order of the properties in mind:

border-{{block direction}}-{{inline-direction}}-radius

Speaking of shorthand, I also had to kiss some shorthand declarations goodbye. Let’s say I use this shorthand for something like margin or padding:

margin: 1em 1.5em 2em 0.5em;

Those values get applied to margin-top, margin-right, margin-bottom, and margin-left, not the logical equivalents (block-start, inline-end, block-end, and inline-start). So separate declarations are needed instead:

margin-block-start: 1em;
margin-inline-end: 1.5em;
margin-block-end: 2em;
margin-inline-start: 0.5em;

Same goes for shorthand like this:

margin: 1em 2em;

That needs to be written as two declarations:

margin-block: 1em;
margin-inline: 2em;

Now I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it feels really weird that you can’t use logical properties in media queries. Although as I said:

Now you could rightly argue that in this instance we’re talking about the physical dimensions of the viewport. So maybe width and height make more sense than inline and block.

But along comes the new kid on the block (or inline), container queries, ready to roll with container-type values like inline-size. I hope it’s just a matter of time until we can use logical properties in all our conditional queries.

The other place where there’s still a cognitive mismatch is in transforms and animations. We’ve got a translateX() function but no translate-inline(). We’ve got translateY() but no translate-block().

On The Session I’m using some JavaScript to figure out the details of some animation effects. I’m using methods like getBoundingClientRect(). It doesn’t return logical properties. So if I ever want to adjust my animations based on writing direction, I’ll need to fork my JavaScript code.

Oh, and one other thing: the aspect-ratio property takes values in the form of width/height, not inline/block. That makes sense if you’re dealing with images, videos, or other embedded content but it makes it really tricky to use aspect-ratio on elements that contain text. I mean, it works fine as long as the text is in a language using a top-to-bottom writing mode, but not for any other languages.

No code

When I wrote about democratising dev, I made brief mention of the growing “no code” movement:

Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

But I didn’t describe what no-code is, as I understand it.

I’m taking the term at face value to mean a mechanism for creating a website—preferably on a domain you control—without having to write anything in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or any back-end programming language.

By that definition, something like WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress itself) is a no-code tool:

Create any kind of website. No code, no manuals, no limits.

I’d also put Squarespace in the same category:

Start with a flexible template, then customize to fit your style and professional needs with our website builder.

And its competitor, Wix:

Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.

Webflow provides the same kind of service, but with a heavy emphasis on marketing websites:

Your website should be a marketing asset, not an engineering challenge.

Bubble is trying to cover a broader base:

Bubble lets you create interactive, multi-user apps for desktop and mobile web browsers, including all the features you need to build a site like Facebook or Airbnb.

Wheras Carrd opts for a minimalist one-page approach:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

All of those tools emphasise that don’t need to need to know how to code in order to have a professional-looking website. But there’s a parallel universe of more niche no-code tools where the emphasis is on creativity and self-expression instead of slickness and professionalism.

neocities.org:

Create your own free website. Unlimited creativity, zero ads.

mmm.page:

Make a website in 5 minutes. Messy encouraged.

hotglue.me:

unique tool for web publishing & internet samizdat

I’m kind of fascinated by these two different approaches: professional vs. expressionist.

I’ve seen people grapple with this question when they decide to have their own website. Should it be a showcase of your achievements, almost like a portfolio? Or should it be a glorious mess of imagery and poetry to reflect your creativity? Could it be both? (Is that even doable? Or desirable?)

Robin Sloan recently published his ideas—and specs—for a new internet protocol called Spring ’83:

Spring ‘83 is a protocol for the transmission and display of something I am calling a “board”, which is an HTML fragment, limited to 2217 bytes, unable to execute JavaScript or load external resources, but otherwise unrestricted. Boards invite publishers to use all the richness of modern HTML and CSS. Plain text and blue links are also enthusiastically supported.

It’s not a no-code tool (you need to publish in HTML), although someone could easily provide a no-code tool to sit on top of the protocol. Conceptually though, it feels like it’s an a similar space to the chaotic good of neocities.org, mmm.page, and hotglue.me with maybe a bit of tilde.town thrown in.

It feels like something might be in the air. With Spring ’83, the Block protocol, and other experiments, people are creating some interesting small pieces that could potentially be loosely joined. No code required.

Alternative stylesheets

My website has different themes you can choose from. I don’t just mean a dark mode. These themes all look very different from one another.

I assume that 99.99% of people just see the default theme, but I keep the others around anyway. Offering different themes was originally intended as a way of showcasing the power of CSS, and specifically the separation of concerns between structure and presentation. I started doing this before the CSS Zen Garden was created. Dave really took it to the next level by showing how the same HTML document could be styled in an infinite number of ways.

Each theme has its own stylesheet. I’ve got a very simple little style switcher on every page of my site. Selecting a different theme triggers a page refresh with the new styles applied and sets a cookie to remember your preference.

I also list out the available stylesheets in the head of every page using link elements that have rel values of alternate and stylesheet together. Each link element also has a title attribute with the name of the theme. That’s the standard way to specify alternative stylesheets.

In Firefox you can switch between the specified stylesheets from the View menu by selecting Page Style (notice that there’s also a No style option—very handy for checking your document structure).

Other browsers like Chrome and Safari don’t do anything with the alternative stylesheets. But they don’t ignore them.

Every browser makes a network request for each alternative stylesheet. The request is non-blocking and seems to be low priority, which is good, but I’m somewhat perplexed by the network request being made at all.

I get why Firefox is requesting those stylesheets. It’s similar to requesting a print stylesheet. Even if the network were to drop, you still want those styles available to the user.

But I can’t think of any reason why Chrome or Safari would download the alternative stylesheets.

Democratising dev

I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.

My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”

Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?

I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.

Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.

But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)

I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.

Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.

(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)

In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?

He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.

You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:

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.

And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.

This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).

Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.

That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)

The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.

At first I thought that would be a classic /927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.

That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:

UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.

That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.

Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.

I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.

Control

In two of my recent talks—In And Out Of Style and Design Principles For The Web—I finish by looking at three different components:

  1. a button,
  2. a dropdown, and
  3. a datepicker.

In each case you could use native HTML elements:

  1. button,
  2. select, and
  3. input type="date".

Or you could use divs with a whole bunch of JavaScript and ARIA.

In the case of a datepicker, I totally understand why you’d go for writing your own JavaScript and ARIA. The native HTML element is quite restricted, especially when it comes to styling.

In the case of a dropdown, it’s less clear-cut. Personally, I’d use a select element. While it’s currently impossible to style the open state of a select element, you can style the closed state with relative ease. That’s good enough for me.

Still, I can understand why that wouldn’t be good enough for some cases. If pixel-perfect consistency across platforms is a priority, then you’re going to have to break out the JavaScript and ARIA.

Personally, I think chasing pixel-perfect consistency across platforms isn’t even desirable, but I get it. I too would like to have more control over styling select elements. That’s one of the reasons why the work being done by the Open UI group is so important.

But there’s one more component: a button.

Again, you could use the native button element, or you could use a div or a span and add your own JavaScript and ARIA.

Now, in this case, I must admit that I just don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you just use the native button element? It has no styling issues and the browser gives you all the interactivity and accessibility out of the box.

I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of a developer who wouldn’t use a native button element. The easy answer would be that they’re just bad people, and dismiss them. But that would probably be lazy and inaccurate. Nobody sets out to make a website with poor performance or poor accessibility. And yet, by choosing not to use the native HTML element, that’s what’s likely to happen.

I think I might have finally figured out what might be going on in the mind of such a developer. I think the issue is one of control.

When I hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, I think “Great! That’s less work for me. I can just let the browser deal with it.” In other words, I relinquish control to the browser (though not entirely—I still want the styling to be under my control as much as possible).

But I now understand that someone else might hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, and think “Uh-oh! What if there unexpected side-effects of these built-in behaviours that might bite me on the ass?” In other words, they don’t trust the browsers enough to relinquish control.

I get it. I don’t agree. But I get it.

If your background is in computer science, then the ability to precisely predict how a programme will behave is a virtue. Any potential side-effects that aren’t within your control are undesirable. The only way to ensure that an interface will behave exactly as you want is to write it entirely from scratch, even if that means using more JavaScript and ARIA than is necessary.

But I don’t think it’s a great mindset for the web. The web is filled with uncertainties—browsers, devices, networks. You can’t possibly account for all of the possible variations. On the web, you have to relinquish some control.

Still, I’m glad that I now have a bit more insight into why someone would choose to attempt to retain control by using div, JavaScript and ARIA. It’s not what I would do, but I think I understand the motivation a bit better now.

Talking about style

I’ve published a transcription of the talk I gave at CSS Day:

In And Out Of Style.

The title is intended to have double meaning. The obvious reference is that CSS is about styling web pages. But the talk also covers some long-term trends looking at ideas that have appear, disappear, and reappear over time. Hence, style as in trends and fashion.

There are some hyperlinks in the transcript but I also published a list of links if you’re interested in diving deeper into some of the topics mentioned in the talk.

I also published the slides but, as usual, they don’t make much sense out of context. They’re on Noti.st too.

I made an audio recording for your huffduffing pleasure.

There are two videos of this talk. On Vimeo, there’s the version I pre-recorded for An Event Apart online. On YouTube, there’s the recording from CSS Day.

It’s kind of interesting to compare the two (well, interesting to me, anyway). The pre-recorded version feels like a documentary. The live version has more a different vibe and it obviously has more audience interaction. I think my style of delivery suits a live audience best.

I invite you to read, watch, or listen to In And Out Of Style, whichever you prefer.

CSS Day 2022

I was in Amsterdam two weeks ago for CSS Day. It was glorious!

I mean, even without the conference it was just so nice to travel somewhere—by direct train, no less!—and spend some time in a beautiful European city enjoying the good weather.

And of course the conference was great too. I’ve been to CSS Day many times. I love it although technically it should be CSS days now—the conference runs for two days.

It’s an event that really treats CSS for what it is—a powerful language worthy of respect. Also, it has bitterballen.

This time I wasn’t just there as an attendee. I also had the pleasure of opening up the show. I gave a talk called In And Out Of Style, a look at the history—and alternative histories—of CSS.

The video is already online! I’ll get the talk transcribed and publish the text here soon. Meanwhile here’s a list of links to relevant material.

I really, really enjoyed giving this talk. It was so nice to be speaking to a room—or in this case, a church—with real people. I’m done giving talks to my screen. It’s just not the same. Giving this talk made me realise how much I need that feedback from the crowd—the laughs, the nods, maybe even the occasional lightbulb appearing over someone’s head.

As usual, my talk was broad and philosophical in nature. Big-picture pretentious talks are kind of my thing. In this case, I knew that I could safely brush over the details of all the exciting new CSS stuff I mentioned because other talks would be diving deep. And boy, did they ever dive deep!

It’s a cliché to use the adjective “inspiring” to describe a conference, but given all that’s happening in the world of CSS right now, it was almost inevitable that CSS Day would be very inspiring indeed this year. Cascade layers, scoped styles, container queries, custom properties, colour spaces, animation and much much more.

If anything, it was almost too much. If I had one minor quibble with the event it would be that seven talks in a day felt like one talk too many to my poor brain (I think that Marc gets the format just right with Beyond Tellerrand—two days of six talks each). But what a great complaint to have—that there was a glut of great talks!

They’ve already announced the dates for next year’s CSS Day(s): June 8th and 9th, 2023. I strongly suspect that I’ll be there.

Thank you very much to ppk, Krijn, Martijn, and everyone involved in making this year’s CSS Day so good!

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Image previews with the FileReader API

I added a “notes” section to this website eight years ago. I set it up so that notes could be syndicated to Twitter. Ever since then, that’s the only way I post to Twitter.

A few months later I added photos to my notes. Again, this would get syndicated to Twitter.

Something’s bothered me for a long time though. I initially thought that if I posted a photo, then the accompanying text would serve as a decription of the image. It could effectively act as the alt text for the image, I thought. But in practice it didn’t work out that way. The text was often a commentary on the image, which isn’t the same as a description of the contents.

I needed a way to store alt text for images. To make it more complicated, it was possible for one note to have multiple images. So even though a note was one line in my database, I somehow needed a separate string of text with the description of each image in a single note.

I eventually settled on using the file system instead of the database. The images themselves are stored in separate folders, so I figured I could have an accompanying alt.txt file in each folder.

Take this note from yesterday as an example. Different sizes of the image are stored in the folder /images/uploaded/19077. Here’s a small version of the image and here’s the original. In that same folder is the alt text.

This means I’m reading a file every time I need the alt text instead of reading from a database, which probably isn’t the most performant way of doing it, but it seems to be working okay.

Here’s another example:

In order to add the alt text to the image, I needed to update my posting interface. By default it’s a little textarea, followed by a file upload input, followed by a toggle (a checkbox under the hood) to choose whether or not to syndicate the note to Twitter.

The interface now updates automatically as soon as I use that input type="file" to choose any images for the note. Using the FileReader API, I show a preview of the selected images right after the file input.

Here’s the code if you ever need to do something similar. I’ve abstracted it somewhat in that gist—you should be able to drop it into any page that includes input type="file" accept="image/*" and it will automatically generate the previews.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this was. The FileReader API worked just as expected without any gotchas. I think I always assumed that this would be quite complex to do because once upon a time, it was quite complex (or impossible) to do. But now it’s wonderfully straightforward. Story of the web.

My own version of the script does a little bit more; it also generates another little textarea right after each image preview, which is where I write the accompanying alt text.

I’ve also updated my server-side script that handles the syndication to Twitter. I’m using the /media/metadata/create method to provide the alt text. But for some reason it’s not working. I can’t figure out why. I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking at an image I’ve posted on Twitter and you’re judging me for its lack of alt text, my apologies. But each tweet of mine includes a link back to the original note on this site and you will most definitely find the alt text for the image there.

Bugblogging

A while back I wrote a blog post called Web Audio API weirdness on iOS. I described a bug in Mobile Safari along with a hacky fix. I finished by saying:

If you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Recently Jonathan Aldrich posted a thread about the same bug. He included a link to my blog post. He also said:

Thanks so much for your post, this was a truly pernicious problem!

That warms the cockles of my heart. It’s very gratifying to know that documenting the bug (and the fix) helped someone out. Or, as I put it:

Yay for bugblogging!

Forgive the Germanic compound word, but in this case I think it fits.

Bugblogging doesn’t need to involve a solution. Just documenting a bug is a good thing to do. Recently I documented a bug with progressive web apps on iOS. Before that I documented a bug in Facebook Container for Firefox. When I documented some weird behaviour with the Web Share API in Safari on iOS, I wasn’t even sure it was a bug but Tess was pretty sure it was and filed a proper bug report.

I’ve benefited from other people bugblogging. Phil Nash wrote Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. That was exactly what I needed to solve a problem I’d been having. And then that post about Phil solving my problem helped Peter Rukavina solve a similar issue so he wrote Phil Nash and Jeremy Keith Save the Safari Video Playback Day.

Again, this warmed the cockles of my heart. Bugblogging is worth doing just for the reward of that feeling.

There’s a similar kind of blog post where, instead of writing about a bug, you write about a particular technique. In one way, this is the opposite of bugblogging because you’re writing about things working exactly as they should. But these posts have a similar feeling to bugblogging because they also result in a warm glow when someone finds them useful.

Here are some recent examples of these kinds of posts—tipblogging?—that I’ve found useful:

All three are very handy tips. Thanks, Eric! Thanks, Rich! Thanks, Stephanie!

Suspicion

I’ve already had some thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post about trust. I wrapped up my thoughts with a request:

I would love it if someone could explain why they avoid native browser features but use third-party code.

Chris obliged:

I can’t speak for the industry, but I have a guess. Third-party code (like the referenced Bootstrap and React) have a history of smoothing over significant cross-browser issues and providing better-than-browser ergonomic APIs. jQuery was created to smooth over cross-browser JavaScript problems. That’s trust.

Very true! jQuery is the canonical example of a library smoothing over the bumpy landscape of browser compatibilities. But jQuery is also the canonical example of a library we no longer need because the browsers have caught up …and those browsers support standards directly influenced by jQuery. That’s a library success story!

Charles Harries takes on my question in his post Libraries over browser features:

I think this perspective of trust has been hammered into developers over the past maybe like 5 years of JavaScript development based almost exclusively on inequality of browser feature support. Things are looking good in 2022; but as recently as 2019, 4 of the 5 top web developer needs had to do with browser compatibility.

Browser compatibility is one of the underlying promises that libraries—especially the big ones that Jeremy references, like React and Bootstrap—make to developers.

So again, it’s browser incompatibilities that made libraries attractive.

Jim Nielsen responds with the same message in his post Trusting Browsers:

We distrust the browser because we’ve been trained to. Years of fighting browser deficiencies where libraries filled the gaps. Browser enemy; library friend.

For example: jQuery did wonders to normalize working across browsers. Write code once, run it in any browser — confidently.

Three for three. My question has been answered: people gravitated towards libraries because browsers had inconsistent implementations.

I’m deliberately using the past tense there. I think Jim is onto something when he says that we’ve been trained not to trust browsers to have parity when it comes to supporting standards. But that has changed.

Charles again:

This approach isn’t a sustainable practice, and I’m trying to do as little of it as I can. Jeremy is right to be suspicious of third-party code. Cross-browser compatibility has gotten a lot better, and campaigns like Interop 2022 are doing a lot to reduce the burden. It’s getting better, but the exasperated I-just-want-it-to-work mindset is tough to uninstall.

I agree. Inertia is a powerful force. No matter how good cross-browser compatibility gets, it’s going to take a long time for developers to shed their suspicion.

Jim is glass-half-full kind of guy:

I’m optimistic that trust in browser-native features and APIs is being restored.

He also points to a very sensible mindset when it comes to third-party libraries and frameworks:

In this sense, third-party code and abstractions can be wonderful polyfills for the web platform. The idea being that the default posture should be: leverage as much of the web platform as possible, then where there are gaps to creating great user experiences, fill them in with exploratory library or framework features (features which, conceivably, could one day become native in browsers).

Yes! A kind of progressive enhancement approach to using third-party code makes a lot of sense. I’ve always maintained that you should treat libraries and frameworks like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached. If the library is solving a genuine need, it will be replaced by stable web standards in browsers (again, see jQuery).

I think that third-party libraries and frameworks work best as polyfills. But the whole point of polyfills is that you only use them when the browsers don’t supply features natively (and you also go back and remove the polyfill later when browsers do support the feature). But that’s not how people are using libraries and frameworks today. Developers are reaching for them by default instead of treating them as a last resort.

I like Jim’s proposed design princple:

Where available, default to browser-native features over third party code, abstractions, or idioms.

(P.S. It’s kind of lovely to see this kind of thoughtful blog-to-blog conversation happening. Right at a time when Twitter is about to go down the tubes, this is a demonstration of an actual public square with more nuanced discussion. Make your own website and join the conversation!)

Trust

I’ve noticed a strange mindset amongst front-end/full-stack developers. At least it seems strange to me. But maybe I’m the one with the strange mindset and everyone else knows something I don’t.

It’s to do with trust and suspicion.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m suspicious of third-party code and dependencies in general. Every dependency you add to a project is one more potential single point of failure. You have to trust that the strangers who wrote that code knew what they were doing. I’m still somewhat flabbergasted that developers regularly add dependencies—via npm or yarn or whatever—that then pull in even more dependencies, all while assuming good faith and competence on the part of every person involved.

It’s a touching expression of faith in your fellow humans, but I’m not keen on the idea of faith-based development.

I’m much more trusting of native browser features—HTML elements, CSS features, and JavaScript APIs. They’re not always perfect, but a lot of thought goes into their development. By the time they land in browsers, a whole lot of smart people have kicked the tyres and considered many different angles. As a bonus, I don’t need to install them. Even better, end users don’t need to install them.

And yet, the mindset I’ve noticed is that many developers are suspicious of browser features but trusting of third-party libraries.

When I write and talk about using service workers, I often come across scepticism from developers about writing the service worker code. “Is there a library I can use?” they ask. “Well, yes” I reply, “but then you’ve got to understand the library, and the time it takes you to do that could be spent understanding the native code.” So even though a library might not offer any new functionality—just a different idion—many developers are more likely to trust the third-party library than they are to trust the underlying code that the third-party library is abstracting!

Developers are more likely to trust, say, Bootstrap than they are to trust CSS grid or custom properties. Developers are more likely to trust React than they are to trust web components.

On the one hand, I get it. Bootstrap and React are very popular. That popularity speaks volumes. If lots of people use a technology, it must be a safe bet, right?

But if we’re talking about popularity, every single browser today ships with support for features like grid, custom properties, service workers and web components. No third-party framework can even come close to that install base.

And the fact that these technologies have shipped in stable browsers means they’re vetted. They’ve been through a rigourous testing phase. They’ve effectively got a seal of approval from each individual browser maker. To me, that seems like a much bigger signal of trustworthiness than the popularity of a third-party library or framework.

So I’m kind of confused by this prevalent mindset of trusting third-party code more than built-in browser features.

Is it because of the job market? When recruiters are looking for developers, their laundry list is usually third-party technologies: React, Vue, Bootstrap, etc. It’s rare to find a job ad that lists native browser technologies: flexbox, grid, service workers, web components.

I would love it if someone could explain why they avoid native browser features but use third-party code.

Until then, I shall remain perplexed.

Declarative design

I feel like in the past few years there’s been a number of web design approaches that share a similar mindset. Intrinsic web design by Jen; Every Layout by Andy and Heydon; Utopia by Trys and James.

To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.

As Andy puts it:

Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:

We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?

In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.

Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.

So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?

I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.

I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.

If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:

CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.

But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:

CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.

If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.

Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.

I wonder whether your path into web design and development might also factor into which end of the spectrum you’d identify with. Like, if your background is in declarative languages like HTML and CSS, maybe intrisic web design really resonates. But if your background is in imperative languages like JavaScript, perhaps Tailwind makes more sense to you.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.

Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.