Journal tags: html

110

sparkline

Cascading Style Sheets

There are three ways—that I know of—to associate styles with markup.

External CSS

This is probably the most common. Using a link element with a rel value of “stylesheet”, you point to a URL using the href attribute. That URL is a style sheet that is applied to the current document (“the relationship of the linked resource it is that is a ‘stylesheet’ for the current document”).

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/path/to/styles.css">

In theory you could associate a style sheet with a document using an HTTP header, but I don’t think many browsers support this in practice.

You can also pull in external style sheets using the @import declaration in CSS itself, as long as the @import rule is declared at the start, before any other styles.

@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');

When you use link rel="stylesheet" to apply styles, it’s a blocking request: the browser will fetch the style sheet before rendering the HTML. It needs to know how the HTML elements will be painted to the screen so there’s no point rendering the HTML until the CSS is parsed.

Embedded CSS

You can also place CSS rules inside a style element directly in the document. This is usually in the head of the document.

<style>
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

When you embed CSS in the head of a document like this, there is no network request like there would be with external style sheets so there’s no render-blocking behaviour.

You can put any CSS inside the style element, which means that you could use embedded CSS to load external CSS using an @import statement (as long as that @import statement appears right at the start).

<style>
@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

But then you’re back to having a network request.

Inline CSS

Using the style attribute you can apply CSS rules directly to an element. This is a universal attribute. It can be used on any HTML element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the styles will work, but your markup is never invalidated by the presence of the style attribute.

<element style="property: value">
</element>

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity. Any styles applied this way are almost certain to over-ride any external or embedded styles.

You can also apply styles using JavaScript and the Document Object Model.

element.style.property = 'value';

Using the DOM style object this way is equivalent to inline styles. The radioactive specificity applies here too.

Style declarations specified in external style sheets or embedded CSS follow the rules of the cascade. Values can be over-ridden depending on the order they appear in. Combined with the separate-but-related rules for specificity, this can be very powerful. But if you don’t understand how the cascade and specificity work then the results can be unexpected, leading to frustration. In that situation, inline styles look very appealing—there’s no cascade and everything has equal specificity. But using inline styles means foregoing a lot of power—you’d be ditching the C in CSS.

A common technique for web performance is to favour embedded CSS over external CSS in order to avoid the extra network request (at least for the first visit—there are clever techniques for caching an external style sheet once the HTML has already loaded). This is commonly referred to as inlining your CSS. But really it should be called embedding your CSS.

This language mix-up is not a hill I’m going to die on (that hill would be referring to blog posts as blogs) but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Lists

We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft. In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

aria-live

I wrote a little something recently about using ARIA attributes as selectors in CSS. For me, one of the advantages is that because ARIA attributes are generally added via JavaScript, the corresponding CSS rules won’t kick in if something goes wrong with the JavaScript:

Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML).

But there’s one instance where I actually put the ARIA attribute directly in the HTML that gets sent from the server: aria-live.

If you’re not familiar with it, aria-live is extremely useful if you’ve got any dynamic updates on your page—via Ajax, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of your site where filtered results will show up. Slap an aria-live attribute on there with a value of “polite”:

<div aria-live="polite">
...dynamic content gets inserted here
</div>

You could instead provide a value of “assertive”, but you almost certainly don’t want to do that—it can be quite rude.

Anyway, on the face it, this looks like exactly the kind of ARIA attribute that should be added with JavaScript. After all, if there’s no JavaScript, there’ll be no dynamic updates.

But I picked up a handy lesson from Ire’s excellent post on using aria-live:

Assistive technology will initially scan the document for instances of the aria-live attribute and keep track of elements that include it. This means that, if we want to notify users of a change within an element, we need to include the attribute in the original markup.

Good to know!

Accessible interactions

Accessibility on the web is easy. Accessibility on the web is also hard.

I think it’s one of those 80/20 situations. The most common accessibility problems turn out to be very low-hanging fruit. Take, for example, Holly Tuke’s list of the 5 most annoying website features she faces as a blind person every single day:

  • Unlabelled links and buttons
  • No image descriptions
  • Poor use of headings
  • Inaccessible web forms
  • Auto-playing audio and video

None of those problems are hard to fix. That’s what I mean when I say that accessibility on the web is easy. As long as you’re providing a logical page structure with sensible headings, associating form fields with labels, and providing alt text for images, you’re at least 80% of the way there (you’re also doing way better than the majority of websites, sadly).

Ah, but that last 20% or so—that’s where things get tricky. Instead of easy-to-follow rules (“Always provide alt text”, “Always label form fields”, “Use sensible heading levels”), you enter an area of uncertainty and doubt where there are no clear answers. Different combinations of screen readers, browsers, and operating systems might yield very different results.

This is the domain of interaction design. Here be dragons. ARIA can help you …but if you overuse its power, it may cause more harm than good.

When I start to feel overwhelmed by this, I find it’s helpful to take a step back. Instead of trying to imagine all the possible permutations of screen readers and browsers, I start with a more straightforward use case: keyboard users. Keyboard users are (usually) a subset of screen reader users.

The pattern that comes up the most is to do with toggling content. I suppose you could categorise this as progressive disclosure, but I’m talking about quite a wide range of patterns:

  • accordions,
  • menus (including mega menu monstrosities),
  • modal dialogs,
  • tabs.

In each case, there’s some kind of “trigger” that toggles the appearance of a “target”—some chunk of content.

The first question I ask myself is whether the trigger should be a button or a link (at the very least you can narrow it down to that shortlist—you can discount divs, spans, and most other elements immediately; use a trigger that’s focusable and interactive by default).

As is so often the case, the answer is “it depends”, but generally you can’t go wrong with a button. It’s an element designed for general-purpose interactivity. It carries the expectation that when it’s activated, something somewhere happens. That’s certainly true in all the examples I’ve listed above.

That said, I think that links can also make sense in certain situations. It’s related to the second question I ask myself: should the target automatically receive focus?

Again, the answer is “it depends”, but here’s the litmus test I give myself: how far away from each other are the trigger and the target?

If the target content is right after the trigger in the DOM, then a button is almost certainly the right element to use for the trigger. And you probably don’t need to automatically focus the target when the trigger is activated: the content already flows nicely.

<button>Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But if the target is far away from the trigger in the DOM, I often find myself using a good old-fashioned hyperlink with a fragment identifier.

<a href="#target">Trigger Text</a>
…
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

Let’s say I’ve got a “log in” link in the main navigation. But it doesn’t go to a separate page. The design shows it popping open a modal window. In this case, the markup for the log-in form might be right at the bottom of the page. This is when I think there’s a reasonable argument for using a link. If, for any reason, the JavaScript fails, the link still works. But if the JavaScript executes, then I can hijack that link and show the form in a modal window. I’ll almost certainly want to automatically focus the form when it appears.

The expectation with links (as opposed to buttons) is that you will be taken somewhere. Let’s face it, modal dialogs are like fake web pages so following through on that expectation makes sense in this context.

So I can answer my first two questions:

  • “Should the trigger be a link or button?” and
  • “Should the target be automatically focused?”

…by answering a different question:

  • “How far away from each other are the trigger and the target?”

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but it helps me out when I’m unsure.

At this point I can write some JavaScript to make sure that both keyboard and mouse users can interact with the interactive component. There’ll certainly be an addEventListener(), some tabindex action, and maybe a focus() method.

Now I can start to think about making sure screen reader users aren’t getting left out. At the very least, I can toggle an aria-expanded attribute on the trigger that corresponds to whether the target is being shown or not. I can also toggle an aria-hidden attribute on the target.

When the target isn’t being shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="false",
  • the target has aria-hidden="true".

When the target is shown:

  • the trigger has aria-expanded="true",
  • the target has aria-hidden="false".

There’s also an aria-controls attribute that allows me to explicitly associate the trigger and the target:

<button aria-controls="target">Trigger Text</button>
<div id="target">
<p>Target content.</p>
</div>

But don’t assume that’s going to help you. As Heydon put it, aria-controls is poop. Still, Léonie points out that you can still go ahead and use it. Personally, I find it a useful “hook” to use in my JavaScript so I know which target is controlled by which trigger.

Here’s some example code I wrote a while back. And here are some old Codepens I made that use this pattern: one with a button and one with a link. See the difference? In the example with a link, the target automatically receives focus. But in this situation, I’d choose the example with a button because the trigger and target are close to each other in the DOM.

At this point, I’ve probably reached the limits of what can be abstracted into a single trigger/target pattern. Depending on the specific component, there might be much more work to do. If it’s a modal dialog, for example, you’ve got to figure out where to put the focus, how to trap the focus, and figure out where the focus should return to when the modal dialog is closed.

I’ve mostly been talking about websites that have some interactive components. If you’re building a single page app, then pretty much every single interaction needs to be made accessible. Good luck with that. (Pro tip: consider not building a single page app—let the browser do what it has been designed to do.)

Anyway, I hope this little stroll through my thought process is useful. If nothing else, it shows how I attempt to cope with an accessibility landscape that looks daunting and ever-changing. Remember though, the fact that you’re even considering this stuff means you care more than most web developers. And you are not alone. There are smart people out there sharing what they learn. The A11y Project is a great hub for finding resources.

And when it comes to interactive patterns like the trigger/target examples I’ve been talking about, there’s one more question I ask myself: what would Heydon do?

Standards processing

I’ve been like a dog with a bone the way I’ve been pushing for a declarative option for the Web Share API in the shape of button type=“share”. It’s been an interesting window into the world of web standards.

The story so far…

That’s the situation currently. The general consensus seems to be that it’s probably too soon to be talking about implementation at this stage—the Web Share API itself is still pretty new—but gathering data to inform future work is good.

In planning for the next TPAC meeting (the big web standards gathering), Marcos summarised the situation like this:

Not blocking: but a proposal was made by @adactio to come up with a declarative solution, but at least two implementers have said that now is not the appropriate time to add such a thing to the spec (we need more implementation experience + and also to see how devs use the API) - but it would be great to see a proposal incubated at the WICG.

Now this where things can get a little confusing because it used to be that if you wanted to incubate a proposal, you’d have to do on Discourse, which is a steaming pile of crap that requires JavaScript in order to put text on a screen. But Šime pointed out that proposals can now be submitted on Github.

So that’s where I’ve submitted my proposal, linking through to the explainer document.

Like I said, I’m not expecting anything to happen anytime soon, but it would be really good to gather as much data as possible around existing usage of the Web Share API. If you’re using it, or you know anyone who’s using it, please, please, please take a moment to provide a quick description. And if you could help spread the word to get that issue in front of as many devs as possible, I’d be very grateful.

(Many thanks to everyone who’s already contributed to that issue—much appreciated!)

The reason for a share button type

If you’re at all interested in what I wrote about a declarative Web Share API—and its sequel, a polyfill for button type=”share”—then you might be interested in an explainer document I’ve put together.

It’s a useful exercise for me to enumerate the reasoning for button type=“share” in one place. If you have any feedback, feel free to fork it or create an issue.

The document is based on my initial blog posts and the discussion that followed in this issue on the repo for the Web Share API. In that thread I got some pushback from Marcos. There are three points he makes. I think that two of them lack merit, but the third one is actually spot on.

Here’s the first bit of pushback:

Apart from placing a button in the content, I’m not sure what the proposal offers over what (at least one) browser already provides? For instance, Safari UI already provides a share button by default on every page

But that is addressed in the explainer document for the Web Share API itself:

The browser UI may not always be available, e.g., when a web app has been installed as a standalone/fullscreen app.

That’s exactly what I wanted to address. Browser UI is not always available and as progressive web apps become more popular, authors will need to provide a way for users to share the current URL—something that previously was handled by browsers.

That use-case of sharing the current page leads nicely into the second bit of pushback:

The API is specialized… using it to share the same page is kinda pointless.

But again, the explainer document for the Web Share API directly contradicts this:

Sharing the page’s own URL (a very common case)…

Rather than being a difference of opinion, this is something that could be resolved with data. I’d really like to find out how people are currently using the Web Share API. How much of the current usage falls into the category of “share the current page”? I don’t know the best way to gather this data though. If you have any ideas, let me know. I’ve started an issue where you can share how you’re using the Web Share API. Or if you’re not using the Web Share API, but you know someone who is, please let them know.

Okay, so those first two bits of pushback directly contradict what’s in the explainer document for the Web Share API. The third bit of pushback is more philosophical and, I think, more interesting.

The Web Share API explainer document does a good job of explaining why a declarative solution is desirable:

The link can be placed declaratively on the page, with no need for a JavaScript click event handler.

That’s also my justification for having a declarative alternative: it would be easier for more people to use. I said:

At a fundamental level, declarative technologies have a lower barrier to entry than imperative technologies.

But Marcos wrote:

That’s demonstrably false and a common misconception: See OWL, XForms, SVG, or any XML+namespace spec. Even HTML is poorly understood, but it just happens to have extremely robust error recovery (giving the illusion of it being easy). However, that’s not a function of it being “declarative”.

He’s absolutely right.

It’s not so much that I want a declarative option—I want an option that has robust error recovery. After all, XML is a declarative language but its error handling is as strict as an imperative language like JavaScript: make one syntactical error and nothing works. XML has a brittle error-handling model by design. HTML and CSS have extremely robust error recovery by design. It’s that error-handling model that gives HTML and CSS their robustness.

I’ve been using the word “declarative” when I actually meant “robust in handling errors”.

I guess that when I’ve been talking about “a declarative solution”, I’ve been thinking in terms of the three languages parsed by browsers: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Two of those languages are declarative, and those two also happen to have much more forgiving error-handling than the third language. That’s the important part—the error handling—not the fact that they’re declarative.

I’ve been using “declarative” as a shorthand for “either HTML or CSS”, but really I should try to be more precise in my language. The word “declarative” covers a wide range of possible languages, and not all of them lower the barrier to entry. A declarative language with a brittle error-handling model is as daunting as an imperative language.

I should try to use a more descriptive word than “declarative” when I’m describing HTML or CSS. Resilient? Robust?

With that in mind, button type=“share” is worth pursuing. Yes, it’s a declarative option for using the Web Share API, but more important, it’s a robust option for using the Web Share API.

I invite you to read the explainer document for a share button type and I welcome your feedback …especially if you’re currently using the Web Share API!

A polyfill for button type=”share”

After writing about a declarative Web Share API here yesterday I thought I’d better share the idea (see what I did there?).

I opened an issue on the Github repo for the spec.

(I hope that’s the right place for this proposal. I know that in the past ideas were kicked around on the Discourse site for Web platform Incubator Community Group but I can’t stand Discourse. It literally requires JavaScript to render anything to the screen even though the entire content is text. If it turns out that that is the place I should’ve posted, I guess I’ll hold my nose and do it using the most over-engineered reinvention of the browser I’ve ever seen. But I believe that the plan is for WICG to migrate proposals to Github anyway.)

I also realised that, as the JavaScript Web Share API already exists, I can use it to polyfill my suggestion for:

<button type="share">

The polyfill also demonstrates how feature detection could work. Here’s the code.

This polyfill takes an Inception approach to feature detection. There are three nested levels:

  1. This browser supports button type="share". Great! Don’t do anything. Otherwise proceed to level two.
  2. This browser supports the JavaScript Web Share API. Use that API to share the current page URL and title. Otherwise proceed to level three.
  3. Use a mailto: link to prefill an email with the page title as the subject and the URL in the body. Ya basic!

The idea is that, as long as you include the 20 lines of polyfill code, you could start using button type="share" in your pages today.

I’ve made a test page on Codepen. I’m just using plain text in the button but you could use a nice image or SVG or combination. You can use the Codepen test page to observe two of the three possible behaviours browsers could exhibit:

  1. A browser supports button type="share". Currently that’s none because I literally made this shit up yesterday.
  2. A browser supports the JavaScript Web Share API. This is Safari on Mac, Edge on Windows, Safari on iOS, and Chrome, Samsung Internet, and Firefox on Android.
  3. A browser supports neither button type="share" nor the existing JavaScript Web Share API. This is Firefox and Chrome on desktop (and Edge if you’re on a Mac).

See the Pen Polyfill for button type=”share" by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

The polyfill doesn’t support Internet Explorer 11 or lower because it uses the DOM closest() method. Feel free to fork and rewrite if you need to support old IE.

A declarative Web Share API

I’ve written about the Web Share API before. It’s a handy little bit of JavaScript that—if supported—brings up a system-level way of sharing a page. Seeing as it probably won’t be long before we won’t be able to see full URLs in browsers anymore, it’s going to fall on us as site owners to provide this kind of fundamental access.

Right now the Web Share API exists entirely in JavaScript. There are quite a few browser APIs like that, and it always feels like a bit of a shame to me. Ideally there should be a JavaScript API and a declarative option, even if the declarative option isn’t as powerful.

Take form validation. To cover the most common use cases, you probably only need to use declarative markup like input type="email" or the required attribute. But if your use case gets a bit more complicated, you can reach for the Constraint Validation API in JavaScript.

I like that pattern. I wish it were an option for JavaScript-only APIs. Take the Geolocation API, for example. Right now it’s only available through JavaScript. But what if there were an input type="geolocation" ? It wouldn’t cover all use cases, but it wouldn’t have to. For the simple case of getting someone’s location (like getting someone’s email or telephone number), it would do. For anything more complex than that, that’s what the JavaScript API is for.

I was reminded of this recently when Ada Rose Cannon tweeted:

It really feels like there should be a semantic version of the share API, like a mailto: link

I think she’s absolutely right. The Web Share API has one primary use case: let the user share the current page. If that use case could be met in a declarative way, then it would have a lower barrier to entry. And for anyone who needs to do something more complicated, that’s what the JavaScript API is for.

But Pete LePage asked:

How would you feature detect for it?

Good question. With the JavaScript API you can do feature detection—if the API isn’t supported you can either bail or provide your own implementation.

There a few different ways of extending HTML that allow you to provide a fallback for non-supporting browsers.

You could mint a new element with a content model that says “Browsers, if you do support this element, ignore everything inside the opening and closing tags.” That’s the way that the canvas element works. It’s the same for audio and video—they ignore everything inside them that isn’t a source element. So developers can provide a fallback within the opening and closing tags.

But forging a new element would be overkill for something like the Web Share API (or Geolocation). There are more subtle ways of extending HTML that I’ve already alluded to.

Making a new element is a lot of work. Making a new attribute could also be a lot of work. But making a new attribute value might hit the sweet spot. That’s why I suggested something like input type="geolocation" for the declarative version of the Geolocation API. There’s prior art here; this is how we got input types for email, url, tel, color, date, etc. The key piece of behaviour is that non-supporting browsers will treat any value they don’t understand as “text”.

I don’t think there should be input type="share". The action of sharing isn’t an input. But I do think we could find an existing HTML element with an attribute that currently accepts a list of possible values. Adding one more value to that list feels like an inexpensive move.

Here’s what I suggested:

<button type=”share” value=”title,text”>

For non-supporting browsers, it’s a regular button and needs polyfilling, no different to the situation with the JavaScript API. But if supported, no JS needed?

The type attribute of the button element currently accepts three possible values: “submit”, “reset”, or “button”. If you give it any other value, it will behave as though you gave it a type of “submit” or “button” (depending on whether it’s in a form or not) …just like an unknown type value on an input element will behave like “text”.

If a browser supports button type="share”, then when the user clicks on it, the browser can go “Right, I’m handing over to the operating system now.”

There’s still the question of how to pass data to the operating system on what gets shared. Currently the JavaScript API allows you to share any combination of URL, text, and description.

Initially I was thinking that the value attribute could be used to store this data in some kind of key/value pairing, but the more I think about it, the more I think that this aspect should remain the exclusive domain of the JavaScript API. The declarative version could grab the current URL and the value of the page’s title element and pass those along to the operating system. If you need anything more complex than that, use the JavaScript API.

So what I’m proposing is:

<button type="share">

That’s it.

But how would you test for browser support? The same way as you can currently test for supported input types. Make use of the fact that an element’s attribute value and an element’s property value (which 99% of the time are the same), will be different if the attribute value isn’t supported:

var testButton = document.createElement("button");
testButton.setAttribute("type","share");
if (testButton.type != "share") {
// polyfill
}

So that’s my modest proposal. Extend the list of possible values for the type attribute on the button element to include “share” (or something like that). In supporting browsers, it triggers a very bare-bones handover to the OS (the current URL and the current page title). In non-supporting browsers, it behaves like a button currently behaves.

Submitting a form with datalist

I’m a big fan of HTML5’s datalist element and its elegant design. It’s a way to progressively enhance any input element into a combobox.

You use the list attribute on the input element to point to the ID of the associated datalist element.

<label for="homeworld">Your home planet</label>
<input type="text" name="homeworld" id="homeworld" list="planets">
<datalist id="planets">
 <option value="Mercury">
 <option value="Venus">
 <option value="Earth">
 <option value="Mars">
 <option value="Jupiter">
 <option value="Saturn">
 <option value="Uranus">
 <option value="Neptune">
</datalist>

It even works on input type="color", which is pretty cool!

The most common use case is as an autocomplete widget. That’s how I’m using it over on The Session, where the datalist is updated via Ajax every time the input is updated.

But let’s stick with a simple example, like the list of planets above. Suppose the user types “jup” …the datalist will show “Jupiter” as an option. The user can click on that option to automatically complete their input.

It would be handy if you could automatically submit the form when the user chooses a datalist option like this.

Well, tough luck.

The datalist element emits no events. There’s no way of telling if it has been clicked. This is something I’ve been trying to find a workaround for.

I got my hopes up when I read Amber’s excellent article about document.activeElement. But no, the focus stays on the input when the user clicks on an option in a datalist.

So if I can’t detect whether a datalist has been used, this best I can do is try to infer it. I know it’s not exactly the same thing, and it won’t be as reliable as true detection, but here’s my logic:

  • Keep track of the character count in the input element.
  • Every time the input is updated in any way, check the current character count against the last character count.
  • If the difference is greater than one, something interesting happened! Maybe the user pasted a value in …or maybe they used the datalist.
  • Loop through each of the options in the datalist.
  • If there’s an exact match with the current value of the input element, chances are the user chose that option from the datalist.
  • So submit the form!

Here’s how that translates into DOM scripting code:

document.querySelectorAll('input[list]').forEach( function (formfield) {
  var datalist = document.getElementById(formfield.getAttribute('list'));
  var lastlength = formfield.value.length;
  var checkInputValue = function (inputValue) {
    if (inputValue.length - lastlength > 1) {
      datalist.querySelectorAll('option').forEach( function (item) {
        if (item.value === inputValue) {
          formfield.form.submit();
        }
      });
    }
    lastlength = inputValue.length;
  };
  formfield.addEventListener('input', function () {
    checkInputValue(this.value);
  }, false);
});

I’ve made a gist with some added feature detection and mustard-cutting at the start. You should be able to drop it into just about any page that’s using datalist. It works even if the options in the datalist are dynamically updated, like the example on The Session.

It’s not foolproof. The inference relies on the difference between what was previously typed and what’s autocompleted to be more than one character. So in the planets example, if someone has type “Jupite” and then they choose “Jupiter” from the datalist, the form won’t automatically submit.

But still, I reckon it covers most common use cases. And like the datalist element itself, you can consider this functionality a progressive enhancement.

Hey now

Progressive enhancement is at the heart of everything I do on the web. It’s the bedrock of my speaking and writing too. Whether I’m writing about JavaScript, Ajax, HTML, or service workers, it’s always through the lens of progressive enhancement. Sometimes I explicitly bang the drum, like with Resilient Web Design. Other times I don’t mention it by name at all, and instead talk only about its benefits.

I sometimes get asked to name some examples of sites that still offer their core functionality even when JavaScript fails. I usually mention Amazon.com, although that has other issues. But quite often I find that a lot of the examples I might mention are dismissed as not being “web apps” (whatever that means).

The pushback I get usually takes the form of “Well, that approach is fine for websites, but it wouldn’t work something like Gmail.”

It’s always Gmail. Which is odd. Because if you really wanted to flummox me with a product or service that defies progressive enhancement, I’d have a hard time with something like, say, a game (although it would be pretty cool to build a text adventure that’s progressively enhanced into a first-person shooter). But an email client? That would work.

Identify core functionality.

Read emails. Write emails.

Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.

HTML for showing a list of emails, HTML for displaying the contents of the HTML, HTML for the form you write the response in.

Enhance!

Now add all the enhancements that improve the experience—keyboard shortcuts; Ajax instead of full-page refreshes; local storage, all that stuff.

Can you build something that works just like Gmail without using any JavaScript? No. But that’s not what progressive enhancement is about. It’s about providing the core functionality (reading and writing emails) with the simplest possible technology (HTML) and then enhancing using more powerful technologies (like JavaScript).

Progressive enhancement isn’t about making a choice between using simpler more robust technologies or using more advanced features; it’s about using simpler more robust technologies and then using more advanced features. Have your cake and eat it.

Fortunately I no longer need to run this thought experiment to imagine what it would be like if something like Gmail were built with a progressive enhancement approach. That’s what HEY is.

Sam Stephenson describes the approach they took:

HEY’s UI is 100% HTML over the wire. We render plain-old HTML pages on the server and send them to your browser encoded as text/html. No JSON APIs, no GraphQL, no React—just form submissions and links.

If you think that sounds like the web of 25 years ago, you’re right! Except the HEY front-end stack progressively enhances the “classic web” to work like the “2020 web,” with all the fidelity you’d expect from a well-built SPA.

See? It’s not either resilient or modern—it’s resilient and modern. Have your cake and eat it.

And yet this supremely sensible approach is not considered “modern” web development:

The architecture astronauts who, for the past decade, have been selling us on the necessity of React, Redux, and megabytes of JS, cannot comprehend the possibility of building an email app in 2020 with server-rendered HTML.

HEY isn’t perfect by any means—they’ve got a lot of work to do on their accessibility. But it’s good to have a nice short answer to the question “But what about something like Gmail?”

It reminds me of responsive web design:

When Ethan Marcotte demonstrated the power of responsive design, it was met with resistance. “Sure, a responsive design might work for a simple personal site but there’s no way it could scale to a large complex project.”

Then the Boston Globe launched its responsive site. Microsoft made their homepage responsive. The floodgates opened again.

It’s a similar story today. “Sure, progressive enhancement might work for a simple personal site, but there’s no way it could scale to a large complex project.”

The floodgates are ready to open. We just need you to create the poster child for resilient web design.

It looks like HEY might be that poster child.

I have to wonder if its coincidence or connected that this is a service that’s also tackling ethical issues like tracking? Their focus is very much on people above technology. They’ve taken a human-centric approach to their product and a human-centric approach to web development …because ultimately, that’s what progressive enhancement is.

A decade apart

Today marks ten years since the publication of HTML5 For Web Designers, the very first book from A Book Apart.

I’m so proud of that book, and so honoured that I was the first author published by the web’s finest purveyors of brief books. I mean, just look at the calibre of their output since my stumbling start!

Here’s what I wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jason wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Mandy wrote ten years ago.

Here’s what Jeffrey wrote ten years ago.

They started something magnificent. Ten years on, with Katel at the helm, it’s going from strength to strength.

Happy birthday, little book! And happy birthday, A Book Apart! Here’s to another decade!

A Book Apart authors, 1-6

Oh, embed!

I wrote yesterday about how messing about on your own website can be a welcome distraction. I did some tinkering with adactio.com on the weekend that you might be interested in.

Let me set the scene…

I’ve started recording and publishing a tune a day. I grab my mandolin, open up Quicktime and make a movie of me playing a jig, a reel, or some other type of Irish tune. I include a link to that tune on The Session and a screenshot of the sheet music for anyone who wants to play along. And I embed the short movie clip that I’ve uploaded to YouTube.

Now it’s not the first time I’ve embedded YouTube videos into my site. But with the increased frequency of posting a tune a day, the front page of adactio.com ended up with multiple embeds. That is not good for performance—my Lighthouse score took quite a hit. Worst of all, if a visitor doesn’t end up playing an embedded video, all of the markup, CSS, and JavaScript in the embedded iframe has been delivered for nothing.

Meanwhile over on The Session, I’ve got a strategy for embedding YouTube videos that’s better for performance. Whenever somebody posts a link to a video on YouTube, the thumbnail of the video is embedded. Only when you click the thumbnail does that image get swapped out for the iframe with the video.

That’s what I needed to do here on adactio.com.

First off, I should explain how I’m embedding things generally ‘round here. Whenever I post a link or a note that has a URL in it, I run that URL through a little PHP script called getEmbedCode.php.

That code checks to see if the URL is from a service that provides an oEmbed endpoint. A what-Embed? oEmbed!

oEmbed is like a minimum viable read-only API. It was specced out by Leah and friends years back. You ping a URL like this:

http://example.com/oembed?url=https://example.com/thing

In this case http://example.com/oembed is the endpoint and url is the value of a URL from that provider. Here’s a real life example from YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/oembed?url=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs

So https://www.youtube.com/oembed is the endpoint and url is the address of any video on YouTube.

You get back some JSON with a pre-defined list of values like title and html. That html payload is the markup for your embed code.

By default, YouTube sends back markup like this:

<iframe
width="480"
height="270"
src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs?feature=oembed"
frameborder="0
allow="accelerometer; autoplay; encrypted-media; gyroscope; picture-in-picture"
allowfullscreen>
</iframe>

But now I want to use an img instead of an iframe. One of the other values returned is thumbnail_url. That’s the URL of a thumbnail image that looks something like this:

https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/hqdefault.jpg

In fact, once you know the ID of a YouTube video (the ?v= bit in a YouTube URL), you can figure out the path to multiple images of different sizes:

(Although that last one—maxresdefault.jpg—might not work for older videos.)

Okay, so I need to extract the ID from the YouTube URL. Here’s the PHP I use to do that:

parse_str(parse_url($url, PHP_URL_QUERY), $arguments);
$id = $arguments['v'];

Then I can put together some HTML like this:

<div>
<a class="videoimglink" href="'.$url.'">
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/default.jpg"
alt="'.$response['title'].'"
srcset="
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/mqdefault.jpg 320w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/hqdefault.jpg 480w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/'.$id.'/maxresdefault.jpg 1280w
">
</a>
</div>

Now I’ve got a clickable responsive image that links through to the video on YouTube. Time to enhance. I’m going to add a smidgen of JavaScript to listen for a click on that link.

Over on The Session, I’m using addEventListener but here on adactio.com I’m going to be dirty and listen for the event directly in the markup using the onclick attribute.

When the link is clicked, I nuke the link and the image using innerHTML. This injects an iframe where the link used to be (by updating the innerHTML value of the link’s parentNode).

onclick="event.preventDefault();
this.parentNode.innerHTML='<iframe src=https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/'.$id.'?autoplay=1></iframe>'"

But notice that I’m not using the default YouTube URL for the iframe. That would be:

https://www.youtube.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs

Instead I’m swapping out the domain youtube.com for youtube-nocookie.com:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs

I can’t remember where I first came across this undocumented parallel version of YouTube that has, yes, you guessed it, no cookies. It turns out that, not only is the default YouTube embed code bad for performance, it is—unsurprisingly—bad for privacy too. So the youtube-nocookie.com domain can protect your site’s visitors from intrusive tracking. Pass it on.

Anyway, I’ve got the markup I want now:

<div>
<a class="videoimglink" href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs"
onclick="event.preventDefault();
this.parentNode.innerHTML='<iframe src=https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-eiqhVmSPcs?autoplay=1></iframe>'">
<img width="100%" loading="lazy"
src="https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/default.jpg"
alt="The Banks Of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin"
srcset="
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/mqdefault.jpg 320w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/hqdefault.jpg 480w,
https://i.ytimg.com/vi/-eiqhVmSPcs/maxresdefault.jpg 1280w
">
</a>
</div>

The functionality is all there. But I want to style the embedded images to look more like playable videos. Time to break out some CSS (this is why I added the videoimglink class to the YouTube link).

.videoimglink {
    display: block;
    position: relative;
}

I’m going to use generated content to create a play button icon. Because I can’t use generated content on an img element, I’m applying these styles to the containing .videoimglink a element.

.videoimglink::before {
    content: '▶';
}

I was going to make an SVG but then I realised I could just be lazy and use the unicode character instead.

Right. Time to draw the rest of the fucking owl:

.videoimglink::before {
    content: '▶';
    display: inline-block;
    position: absolute;
    background-color: var(--background-color);
    color: var(--link-color);
    border-radius: 50%;
    width: 10vmax;
    height: 10vmax;
    top: calc(50% - 5vmax);
    left: calc(50% - 5vmax);
    font-size: 6vmax;
    text-align: center;
    text-indent: 1vmax;
    opacity: 0.5;
}

That’s a bunch of instructions for sizing and positioning. I’d explain it, but that would require me to understand it and frankly, I’m not entirely sure I do. But it works. I think.

With a translucent play icon positioned over the thumbnail, all that’s left is to add a :hover style to adjust the opacity:

.videoimglink:hover::before,
.videoimglink:focus::before {
    opacity: 0.75;
}

Wheresoever thou useth :hover, thou shalt also useth :focus.

Okay. It’s good enough. Ship it!

The Banks Of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin

If you embed YouTube videos on your site, and you’d like to make them more performant, check out this custom element that Paul made: Lite YouTube Embed. And here’s a clever technique that uses the srcdoc attribute to get a similar result (but don’t forget to use the youtube-nocookie.com domain).

Hydration

As you may have noticed, I’m a fan of progressive enhancement.

It’s not cool. It’s often at odds with “modern” web development, so I end up looking like an old man yelling at a cloud to get off my lawn. Or something.

At its heart though, progressive enhancement seems fairly uncontroversial and inoffensive to me. It’s an approach. A mindset. Here’s how I describe it in Resilient Web Design:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Progressive enhancement makes use of the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

That’s step two of the three-step process. But the third step is vital.

I think a lot of the hostility towards progressive enhancement comes from a misunderstanding of that three-step process, perhaps thinking that it stops at step two. I’m sure that some have intrepreted progressive enhancement as preventing developers from using the latest and greatest technology. Nothing could be further from the truth!

Taking a layered approach to building on the web gives you permission to try cutting‐edge JavaScript APIs, regardless of how many or how few browsers currently implement them.

The most common misunderstanding of progressive enhancement is that it’s inherently about JavaScript. That’s not true. You can apply progressive enhancement at every step of front-end development: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

But because of JavaScript’s strict error-handling model (at least compared to HTML and CSS), it’s in the JavaScript layer that the lack of a progressive enhancement mindset is most often felt.

That’s why I was saddened by the rise of frameworks and mindsets that assume the availability of JavaScript. Single page apps generally follow this assumption. Everything is delivered via JavaScript: content, markup, styles, and behaviour.

This leads to a terrible situation for performance. The user is left staring at a blank screen, waiting for something—anything!—to appear. Browsers are optimised to stream HTML as soon as they can. Delivering your content via JavaScript rather than HTML means you’re not taking advantage of that optimisation. Your users suffer.

But I was very heartened when I saw the pendulum start to swing back the other way a bit…

Let’s say you’re using a JavaScript framework like React. But the reason you’re using it isn’t because you’re doing anything particularly complex in the browser involving state management. You might be using React because you really like the way it encourages modularity and componentisation.

A few years ago, making a single page app was pretty much the only way you could use React. For you as a developer to experience the benefits of modularity and componentisation, users had to pay the price in the payload (and fragility) of client-side JavaScript.

That’s no longer the case. Now that we can run JavaScript on the server, it’s possible to build in a modular, componentised way and still use progressive enhancement.

When I first heard about Gatsby and Next.js, I thought that was the selling point. Run React on the server; send pre-generated HTML down the wire to the user; then enhance with client-side JavaScript.

But that’s not exactly how it works. The pre-generated HTML isn’t functional. It still needs a bucketload of JavaScript before it can do anything. The actual process is: Run React on the server; send pre-generated HTML down the wire to the user; then send everything again but this time in JavaScript, bundled with the entire React library.

This leads to a situation for users that’s almost worse than before. Instead of staring at a blank screen, now they get HTML lickety-split—excellent! But if they try to interact with what’s on screen, they’ll find that nothing is working yet. Even worse, once the JavaScript is delivered, and is being parsed, they probably can’t even scroll—their device is too busy interpreting all that JavaScript. Your users suffer.

All your content is sent twice. First HTML is sent from the server. These days this is called “server-side rendering”, even though for decades the technical term was “serving a web page” (I’m pretty sure the rendering part happens in a browser). Then a JavaScript library—plus all your bespoke JavaScript—is loaded. Then all your content is loaded again as JSON.

So you’ve got a facade of an interface that you can’t actually interact with until a deluge of JavaScript has been loaded, parsed and executed. The term used for this stage of the process is “hydration”, which makes it sound more like a relaxing treatment from Gwyneth Paltrow than the horrible user experience it is.

The idea is that subsequent navigations—which will happen with Ajax—should be snappy. But the price has already been paid by then. The initial loading experience is jagged and frustrating.

Don’t get me wrong: server-side rendering is great …if what you’re sending from the server is functional. It’s the combination of hollow HTML sent from the server, followed by a huge browser-freezing dump of JavaScript that is an anti-pattern.

This use of server-side rendering followed by hydration feels like progressive enhancement, because it separates out the delivery of markup and scripts. But it’s missing the mindset.

The layered approach of progressive enhancement echoes the separation of concerns in the front-end stack: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—each layer expressing more power. But while these concepts are related, they’re not interchangable. Separating out the layers of your tech stack isn’t necessarily progressive enhancement. If you have some HTML that relies on JavaScript to be useful, then there’s no benefit in separating that HTML into a separate payload. The HTML that you initially send down the wire needs to be functional (at least at a basic level) before the JavaScript arrives.

I was a little disappointed to see Kyle Simpson—who I admire greatly—conflate separation of concerns with progressive enhancement in his talk from JSCamp 2019:

This content is here. I can see it, and it’s even styled. But I can’t click on the damn button because nothing has loaded in the JavaScript layer yet.

Anybody experienced that where you’ve been on a web page and it’s not really fully functional yet? I can see something but I can’t actually make any usage of it yet.

These are all things that cropped out of our thought process that said: “Let’s build the web in layers. Let’s deliver it progressively in layers. Because that’s morally right. We call this progressive enhancement. And let’s not worry too much about all these potential user experience flaws that may happen.”

That’s a spot-on description of server-side rendering and hydration, but it’s a gross mischaracterisation of progressive enhancement.

That button that requires JavaScript to work? That should’ve been generated with JavaScript. (For example, if you’re building a complex web app, consider sending a read-only view down the wire in HTML—then add any interactive interface elements with JavaScript in the browser.)

If people are equating progressive enhancement with thoughtless server-side rendering and hydration, then I can see why they’d be hostile towards it.

Users would be better served with unprogressive non-enhancement:

You take some structured content, which follows the vertical flow of the document in a way that everyone understands.

Which people traverse easily by either dragging their scroll bar with their mouse, or operating the keyboard using the up and down keys, or using the spacebar.

Or if they’re using a touch device, simply flicking backwards and forwards in that easy way that we’ve all become used to. What you do is you take that, and you fucking well leave it alone.

Alas, that’s not what tools like Gatsby offer. The latest post on their blog is called Why Gatsby is better with JavaScript:

But what about sites or pages where there is no client-side interactivity? Even for those pages, Gatsby offers performance benefits by including JavaScript.

I beg to differ.

(By the way, that same blog post also initially tried to equate the performance hit of client-side JavaScript with the performance hit of images. Andy explains why that’s disingenuous.)

Hope is on the horizon for React in the form of partial hydration. I sincerely hope that it will become the default way of balancing server-side rendering with just-in-time client-side interaction.

The situation we have now is the worst of both worlds: server-side rendering followed by a tsunami of hydration. It has a whiff of progressive enhancement to it (because there’s a cosmetic separation of concerns) but it has none of the user benefits.

Web talk

At the start of this month I was in Amsterdam for a series of back-to-back events: Indie Web Camp Amsterdam, View Source, and Fronteers. That last one was where Remy and I debuted talk we’d been working on.

The Fronteers folk have been quick off the mark so the video is already available. I’ve also published the text of the talk here:

How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days

This was a fun talk to put together. The first challenge was figuring out the right format for a two-person talk. It quickly became clear that Remy’s focus would be on the events of the five days we spent at CERN, whereas my focus would be on the history of computing, hypertext, and networks leading up to the creation of the web.

Now, we could’ve just done everything chronologically, but that would mean I’d do the first half of the talk and Remy would do the second half. That didn’t appeal. And it sounded kind of boring. So then we come up with the idea of interweaving the two timelines.

That worked remarkably well. The talk starts with me describing the creation of CERN in the 1950s. Then Remy talks about the first day of the hack week. I then talk about events in the 1960s. Remy talks about the second day at CERN. This continues until we join up about half way through the talk: I’ve arrived at the moment that Tim Berners-Lee first published the proposal for the World Wide Web, and Remy has arrived at the point of having running code.

At this point, the presentation switches gears and turns into a demo. I do not have the fortitude to do a live demo, so this was all down to Remy. He did it flawlessly. I have so much respect for people brave enough to do live demos, and do them well.

But the talk doesn’t finish there. There’s a coda about our return to CERN a month after the initial hack week. This was an opportunity for both of us to close out the talk with our hopes and dreams for the World Wide Web.

I know I’m biased, but I thought the structure of the presentation worked really well: two interweaving timelines culminating in a demo and finishing with the big picture.

There was a forcing function on preparing this presentation: Remy was moving house, and I was already going to be away speaking at some other events. That limited the amount of time we could be in the same place to practice the talk. In the end, I think that might have helped us make the most of that time.

We were both feeling the pressure to tell this story well—it means so much to us. Personally, I found that presenting with Remy made me up my game. Like I said:

It’s been a real treat working with Remy on this. Don’t tell him I said this, but he’s kind of a web hero of mine, so this was a real honour and a privilege for me.

This talk could have easily turned into a boring slideshow of “what we did on our holidays”, but I think we managed to successfully avoid that trap. We’re both proud of this talk and we’d love to give it again some time. If you’d like it at your event, get in touch.

In the meantime, you can read the text, watch the video, or look at the slides (but the slides really don’t make much sense in isolation).

Getting started

I got an email recently from a young person looking to get into web development. They wanted to know what languages they should start with, whether they should a Mac or a Windows PC, and what some places to learn from.

I wrote back, saying this about languages:

For web development, start with HTML, then CSS, then JavaScript (and don’t move on to JavaScript too quickly—really get to grips with HTML and CSS first).

And this is what I said about hardware and software:

It doesn’t matter whether you use a Mac or a Windows PC, as long as you’ve got an internet connection, some web browsers (Chrome, Firefox, for example) and a text editor. There are some very good free text editors available for Mac and PC:

For resources, I had a trawl through links I’ve tagged with “learning” and “html” and sent along some links to free online tutorials:

After sending that email, I figured that this list might be useful to anyone else looking to start out in web development. If you know of anyone in that situation, I hope this list might help.

Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl

Scott Jehl is speaking at An Event Apart in Seattle—yay! His talk is called Move Fast and Don’t Break Things:

Performance is a high priority for any site of scale today, but it can be easier to make a site fast than to keep it that way. As a site’s features and design evolves, its performance is often threatened for a number of reasons, making it hard to ensure fast, resilient access to services. In this session, Scott will draw from real-world examples where business goals and other priorities have conflicted with page performance, and share some strategies and practices that have helped major sites overcome those challenges to defend their speed without compromises.

The title is a riff on the “move fast and break things” motto, which comes from a more naive time on the web. But Scott finds part of it relatable. Things break. We want to move fast without breaking things.

This is a performance talk, which is another kind of moving fast. Scott starts with a brief history of not breaking websites. He’s been chipping away at websites for 20 years now. Remember Positioning Is Everything? How about Quirksmode? That one's still around.

In the early days, building a website that was "not broken" was difficult, but it was difficult for different reasons. We were focused on consistency. We had deal with differences between browsers. There were two ways of dealing with browsers: browser detection and feature detection.

The feature-based approach was more sustainable but harder. It fits nicely with the practice of progressive enhancement. It's a good mindset for dealing with the explosion of devices that kicked off later. Touch screens made us rethink our mouse and hover-centric matters. That made us realise how much keyboard-driven access mattered all along.

Browsers exploded too. And our data networks changed. With this explosion of considerations, it was clear that our early ideas of “not broken” didn’t work. Our notion of what constituted “not broken” was itself broken. Consistency just doesn’t cut it.

But there was a comforting part to this too. It turned out that progressive enhancement was there to help …even though we didn’t know what new devices were going to appear. This is a recurring theme throughout Scott’s career. So given all these benefits of progressive enhancement, it shouldn’t be surprising that it turns out to be really good for performance too. If you practice progressive enhancement, you’re kind of a performance expert already.

People started talking about new performance metrics that we should care about. We’ve got new tools, like Page Speed Insights. It gives tangible advice on how to test things. Web Page Test is another great tool. Once you prove you’re a human, Web Page Test will give you loads of details on how a page loaded. And you get this great visual timeline.

This is where we can start to discuss the metrics we want to focus on. Traditionally, we focused on file size, which still matters. But for goal-setting, we want to focus on user-perceived metrics.

First Meaningful Content. It’s about how soon appears to be useful to a user. Progressive enhancement is a perfect match for this! When you first make request to a website, it’s usually for a web page. But to render that page, it might need to request more files like CSS or JavaScript. All of this adds up. From a user perspective, if the HTML is downloaded, but the browser can’t render it, that’s broken.

The average time for this on the web right now is around six seconds. That’s broken. The render blockers are the problem here.

Consider assets like scripts. Can you get the browser to load them without holding up the rendering of the page? If you can add async or defer to a script element in the head, you should do that. Sometimes that’s not an option though.

For CSS, it’s tricky. We’ve delivered the HTML that we need but we’ve got to wait for the CSS before rendering it. So what can you bundle into that initial payload?

You can user server push. This is a new technology that comes with HTTP2. H2, as it’s called, is very performance-focused. Just turning on H2 will probably make your site faster. Server push allows the server to send files to the browser before the browser has even asked for them. You can do this with directives in Apache, for example. You could push CSS whenever an HTML file is requested. But we need to be careful not to go too far. You don’t want to send too much.

Server push is great in moderation. But it is new, and it may not even be supported by your server.

Another option is to inline CSS (well, actually Scott, this is technically embedding CSS). It’s great for first render, but isn’t it wasteful for caching? Scott has a clever pattern that uses the Cache API to grab the contents of the inlined CSS and put a copy of its contents into the cache. Then it’s ready to be served up by a service worker.

By the way, this isn’t just for CSS. You could grab the contents of inlined SVGs and create cached versions for later use.

So inlining CSS is good, but again, in moderation. You don’t want to embed anything bigger than 15 or 20 kilobytes. You might want separate out the critical CSS and only embed that on first render. You don’t need to go through your CSS by hand to figure out what’s critical—there are tools that to do this that integrate with your build process. Embed that critical CSS into the head of your document, and also start preloading the full CSS. Here’s a clever technique that turns a preload link into a stylesheet link:

<link rel="preload" href="site.css" as="style" onload="this.rel='stylesheet'">

Also include this:

<noscript><link rel="stylesheet" href="site.css"></noscript>

You can also optimise for return visits. It’s all about the cache.

In the past, we might’ve used a cookie to distinguish a returning visitor from a first-time visitor. But cookies kind of suck. Here’s something that Scott has been thinking about: service workers can intercept outgoing requests. A service worker could send a header that matches the current build of CSS. On the server, we can check for this header. If it’s not the latest CSS, we can server push the latest version, or inline it.

The neat thing about service workers is that they have to install before they take over. Scott makes use of this install event to put your important assets into a cache. Only once that is done to we start adding that extra header to requests.

Watch out for an article on the Filament Group blog on this technique!

With performance, more weight doesn’t have to mean more wait. You can have a heavy page that still appears to load quickly by altering the prioritisation of what loads first.

Web pages are very heavy now. There’s a real cost to every byte. Tim’s WhatDoesMySiteCost.com shows that the CNN home page costs almost fifty cents to load for someone in America!

Time to interactive. This is is the time before a user can use what’s on the screen. The issue is almost always with JavaScript. The page looks usable, but you can’t use it yet.

Addy Osmani suggests we should get to interactive in under five seconds on a 3G network on a median mobile device. Your iPhone is not a median mobile device. A typical phone takes six seconds to process a megabyte of JavaScript after it has downloaded. So even if the network is fast, the time to interactive can still be very long.

This all comes down to our industry’s increasing reliance on JavaScript just to render content. There seems to be pendulum shifts between client-side and server-side rendering. It’s been great to see libraries like Vue and Ember embrace server-side rendering.

But even with server-side rendering, there’s still usually a rehydration step where all the JavaScript gets parsed and that really affects time to interaction.

Code splitting can help. Webpack can do this. That helps with first-party JavaScript, but what about third-party JavaScript?

Scott believes easier to make a fast website than to keep a fast website. And that’s down to all the third-party scripts that people throw in: analytics, ads, tracking. They can wreak havoc on all your hard work.

These scripts apparently contribute to the business model, so it can be hard for us to make the case for removing them. Tools like SpeedCurve can help people stay informed on the impact of these scripts. It allows you to set up performance budgets and it shows you when pages go over budget. When that happens, we have leverage to step in and push back.

Assuming you lose that battle, what else can we do?

These days, lots of A/B testing and personalisation happens on the client side. The tooling is easy to use. But they are costly!

A typical problematic pattern is this: the server sends one version of the page, and once the page is loaded, the whole page gets replaced with a different layout targeted at the user. This leads to a terrifying new metric that Scott calls Second Meaningful Content.

Assuming we can’t remove the madness, what can we do? We could at least not do this for first-time visits. We could load the scripts asyncronously. We can preload the scripts at the top of the page. But ideally we want to move these things to the server. Server-side A/B testing and personalisation have existed for a while now.

Scott has been experimenting with a middleware solution. There’s this idea of server workers that Cloudflare is offering. You can manipulate the page that gets sent from the server to the browser—all the things you would do for an A/B test. Scott is doing this by using comments in the HTML to demarcate which portions of the page should be filtered for testing. The server worker then deletes a block for some users, and deletes a different block for other users. Scott has written about this approach.

The point here isn’t about using Cloudflare. The broader point is that it’s much faster to do these things on the server. We need to defend our user’s time.

Another issue, other than third-party scripts, is the page weight on home pages and landing pages. Marketing teams love to fill these things with enticing rich imagery and carousels. They’re really difficult to keep performant because they change all the time. Sometimes we’re not even in control of the source code of these pages.

We can advocate for new best practices like responsive images. The srcset attribute on the img element; the picture element for when you need more control. These are great tools. What’s not so great is writing the markup. It’s confusing! Ideally we’d have a CMS drive this, but a lot of the time, landing pages fall outside of the purview of the CMS.

Scott has been using Vue.js to make a responsive image builder—a form that people can paste their URLs into, which spits out the markup to use. Anything we can do by creating tools like these really helps to defend the performance of a site.

Another thing we can do is lazy loading. Focus on the assets. The BBC homepage uses some lazy loading for images—they blink into view as your scroll down the page. They use LazySizes, which you can find on Github. You use data- attributes to list your image sources. Scott realises that LazySizes is not progressive enhancement. He wouldn’t recommend using it on all images, just some images further down the page.

But thankfully, we won’t need these workarounds soon. Soon we’ll have lazy loading in browsers. There’s a lazyload attribute that we’ll be able to set on img and iframe elements:

<img src=".." alt="..." lazyload="on">

It’s not implemented yet, but it’s coming in Chrome. It might be that this behaviour even becomes the default way of loading images in browsers.

If you dig under the hood of the implementation coming in Chrome, it actually loads all the images, but the ones being lazyloaded are only sent partially with a 206 response header. That gives enough information for the browser to lay out the page without loading the whole image initially.

To wrap up, Scott takes comfort from the fact that there are resilient patterns out there to help us. And remember, it is our job to defend the user’s experience.

How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier

Alright! It’s day two of An Event Apart in Seattle. The first speaker of the day is Chris Coyier. His talk is called How to Think Like a Front-End Developer. From the website:

The job title “front-end developer” is very real: job boards around the world confirm that. But what is that job, exactly? What do you need to know to do it? You might think those answers are pretty cut and dried, but they’re anything but; front-end development is going through something of an identity crisis. In this engaging talk, Chris will explore this identity through the lens of someone who has self-identified as a front-end developer for a few decades, but more interestingly, through many conversations he’s had with other successful front-end developers. You’ll see just how differently this job can be done and how differently people and companies can think of this role—not just for the sake of doing so, but because you’ll learn to be better at your own jobs by understanding how other people are good at theirs.

I’m going to see if I can keep up with Chris’s frenetic pace…

Chris has his own thoughts about what front-end dev is but he wants to share other ideas too. First of all, some grammar:

I work as a front-end developer.

I work on the front end.

Those are correct. These are not:

I work as a front end developer.

I work on the front-end.

And this is just not a word:

Frontend.

Lots of people are hiring front-end developers. So it’s definitely a job and a common job title. But what does it mean. Chris and Dave talked to eight different people on their Shop Talk Show podcast. Some highlights:

Eric feels that the term “front-end developer” is newer than the CSS Zen Garden. Everyone was a webmaster, or as we’d say now, a full-stack developer. But if someone back then used the term “front-end developer”, he’d know what it meant.

Mina says it deals with things you can see. If it’s a user-facing interface, that’s front-end development.

Trent says that he thinks of himself as a web designer and web builder. He doesn’t feel he has the deep expertise of a developer, and yet he spends all of his time in the browser.

So our job is in the browser. You deal with the browser (moreso than other roles). And by the way, there are a lot of browsers out there.

Maybe the user is what differentiates front-end work. Monica says that a back-end developer is allowed not to care about the user if their job is putting a database together. It’s totally fine not to call yourself a front-end developer, but if you do, you need to care about the user.

There are tons of different devices and browsers. It’s overwhelming. So we just gave up.

So, a front-end developer:

  • Is a job and a job title.
  • It deals with browsers, devices, and users.
  • But what skills does it involve?

It’s taken for granted that you can use a computer. There’s also the soft skills of interacting with co-workers. Then there are the language-specific core skills. Finally, there are the bonus skills—all the stuff that makes you you.

Core skills

The languages you need to strongly understand to read, write and maintain them.

HTML and CSS. Definitely. You don’t come across front-end developers who don’t do those languages. But what about JavaScript?

Eric says it’s fine if you know lots of JavaScript but it’s also fine if you don’t write everything from scratch. But you can’t be oblivious to it. You need to understand what it can do.

So let’s put JavaScript into the bucket of core skills too.

Peggy believes that as a front-end developer you need to have a basic proficiency in accessibility too. This is, after all, about user-facing interfaces.

Bonus skills

The Figma team have a somewhat over-engineered graphic of all the skillsets that people might have, between “baseline” and “supplementary”.

Perhaps we all share a common trunk of skills, and then we branch in different directions.

Right now though, it feels like front-end development is having an identity crisis. It’s all about JavaScript, which is eating the planet.

JavaScript

JavaScript is crazy popular now. It’s unignorable. Yes, it’s the language in the browser, but now it’s also the language in loads of other places too.

Steven Davis says maybe we need to fork the term front-end development. Maybe we need to have UX engineers and JavaScript engineers. Can one person be great at both? Maybe the trunk of skills forks in two very different directions.

Vernon Joyce called this an identity crisis. The concepts in JavaScript frameworks are very alien to people with a background in HTML, CSS, and basic interactive JavaScript.

You could imagine two people called front-end developers meeting, and having nothing in common to talk about. Maybe sports.

Brad says he doesn’t want to be configuring build tools. He thinks of himself as being at the front of front-end development, whereas other people are at the back of front-end development.

This divide is super frustrating to people right now.

Hiring

Michael Schnarnagl brings up the point about how it’s affecting hiring. Back-end developers are being replaced with JavaScript engineers. Lots of things that used to be back-end tasks are now happening on the client side. Component-driven design, site-level architecture, routing, getting data from the back end, mutating data, talking to APIs, and managing state—all of those things are now largely a front-end concern.

Let’s look at CodePen. There’s a little heart icon on each pen. It’s an icon component. And the combination of the heart and the overall count is also a component. And the bar of items altogether—that’s also a component. And the pen it sits under is a component. And the page it’s in is a component. And the URL for that page is a component. Now the whole site is a front-end developer’s concern.

In the past, a front-end developer would ask a back-end developer for an API endpoint. Now with GraphQL, the front-end developer can craft a query to get exactly what they need. Sure, the GraphQL stuff had to be set up in the first place, but that’s one-time task. Once it’s set up, the front-end developer has everything they need.

All the old work hasn’t gone away either. Semantics, accessibility, styling—that’s still the work of a front-end developer as well as all of the new stuff listed above.

Hiring is a big part of this. Lara Schenk talks about going for an interview where she met 90% of the skills listed. Then in an interview, she was asked to do a fizzbuzz test. That’s not the way that Lara thinks. She would’ve been great for that job, but this single task derailed her. She wrote about it, and got snarky comments from people who thought she should’ve been able to do the task. But Lara’s main point was the mismatch between what was advertised and what was actually being hired for.

You see a job posting for front-end developer. Who is that for? Is it for someone into React, webpack, and GraphQL? Or is it for someone into SVG, interaction design, and accessibility? They’re both front-end developers. And remember, they can learn one another’s skills, but when it comes to hiring, it has to be about the skills people have right now.

Peggy talks about how specialised your work can be. You can specialise in SVG. You can specialise in APIs and data.

We’re probably not going to solve this right now. The hiring part is definitely the worst part right now. One solution is to use plain language in job posts. Make it clear what you’re looking for right now and explain what background you’re coming from. Use words instead of a laundry list of requirements.

Heydon Pickering talks about full-stack developers. Their core skills are hardcore computer science skills.

Brad Frost concurs. It tends not to be the other way around. The output tends to be the badly-sketched front of the horse.

Even if there is a divide, that doesn’t absolve any of us from doing a good job. That’s true whether it’s computer science tasks or markup and CSS.

Despite the divide, performance, accessibility, and user experience are all our jobs.

Maybe this term “front-end developer” needs rethinking.

The brain game

Let’s peak into the minds of very different front-end developers. Chris and Dave went to Dribbble, pulled up a bunch of designs and put them in front of their guests on the Shop Talk Show.

Here’s a design of a page.

  • Brad looks at the design and sees a lot of components of different sizes and complexity.
  • Mina sees a bunch of media objects.
  • Eric sees HTML structures. That’s a heading. That’s a list. Over there is an unordered list.
  • Sam sees a lot of typography. She sees a type system.
  • Trent immediately starts thinking about how the design is supposed to work in different screen sizes.

Here’s a different, more image-heavy design.

  • Mina would love to tackle the animations.
  • Trent sees interesting textures and noise. He wonders how he could achieve those effects without exporting giant image files.
  • Brad, unsurprisingly, sees components, even in a seemingly bespoke layout.
  • Eric immediately sees a lot of SVG.
  • Sam needs to know what the HTML is.

Here’s a more geometric design.

  • Sam is drawn to the typography.
  • Mina sees an opportunity to use writing modes.
  • Trent sees a design that would reflow and reshape itself well.
  • Eric sees something with writing mode, grid, and custom fonts.

Here’s a financial mobile UI.

  • Trent wants to run it through a colour-contrast analyser, and he wants to know if the font size is too small.

Here’s a crazy festival website.

  • Mina wonders if it needs a background video, but worries about the performance.

Here’s an on-trend mobile design.

  • Monica sees something that looks like every other website.
  • Ben wonders whether it will work in other parts of the world. How will the interactions work? Separate pages or transitions? How will it feel?

Here’s an image-heavy design.

  • Monica wonders about the priority of which images to load first.

Here’s an extreme navigation with big images.

  • Ben worries about the performance on slow connections.
  • Monica gets stressed out about how much happens when you just click on a link.
  • Peggy sees something static and imagines using Gatsby for it.

Here’s a design that’s map-based.

  • Ben worries about the size of the touch targets.
  • Monica sees an opportunity to use SVGs.

Here’s a card UI.

  • Ben wonders what the browser support is. Can we use CSS grid or do we have to use something older?
  • Monica worries that this needs drag’n’drop. Now you’ve got a nightmare scenario.

Chris has been thinking about and writing about this topic of what makes someone a front-end developer, and what makes someone a good front-end developer. The debate will continue…

Timelines of the web

Recreating the original WorldWideWeb browser was an exercise in digital archeology. With a working NeXT machine in the room, Kimberly was able to examine the source code for the first every browser and discover a treasure trove within. Like this gem in HTUtils.h:

#define TCP_PORT 80 /* Allocated to http by Jon Postel/ISI 24-Jan-92 */

Sure enough, by June of 1992 port 80 was documented as being officially assigned to the World Wide Web (Gopher got port 70). Jean-François Groff—who worked on the World Wide Web project with Tim Berners-Lee—told us that this was a moment they were very pleased about. It felt like this project of theirs was going places.

Jean-François also told us that the WorldWideWeb browser/editor was kind of like an advanced prototype. The idea was to get something up and running as quickly as possible. Well, the NeXT operating system had a very robust Text Object, so the path of least resistance for Tim Berners-Lee was to take the existing word-processing software and build a hypertext component on top of it. Likewise, instead of creating a brand new format, he used the existing SGML format and added one new piece: linking with A tags.

So the WorldWideWeb application was kind of like a word processor and document viewer mashed up with hypertext. Ted Nelson complains to this day that the original sin of the web was that it borrowed this page-based metaphor. But Nelson’s Project Xanadu, originally proposed in 1974 wouldn’t become a working reality until 2014—a gap of forty years. Whereas Tim Berners-Lee proposed his system in March 1989 and had working code within a year. There’s something to be said for being pragmatic and working with what you’ve got.

The web was also a mashup of ideas. Hypertext existed long before the web—Ted Nelson coined the term in 1963. There were conferences and academic discussions devoted to hypertext and hypermedia. But almost all the existing hypertext systems—including Tim Berners-Lee’s own ENQUIRE system from the early 80s—were confined to a local machine. Meanwhile networked computers were changing everything. First there was the ARPANET, then the internet. Tim Berners-Lee’s ambitious plan was to mash up hypertext with networks.

Going into our recreation of WorldWideWeb at CERN, I knew I wanted to convey this historical context somehow.

The World Wide Web officially celebrates its 30th birthday in March of this year. It’s kind of an arbitrary date: it’s the anniversary of the publication of Information Management: A Proposal. Perhaps a more accurate date would be the day the first website—and first web server—went online. But still. Let’s roll with this date of March 12, 1989. I thought it would be interesting not only to look at what’s happened between 1989 and 2019, but also to look at what happened between 1959 and 1989.

So now I’ve got two time cones that converge in the middle: 1959 – 1989 and 1989 – 2019. For the first time period, I made categories of influences: formats, hypertext, networks, and computing. For the second time period, I catalogued notable results: browsers, servers, and the evolution of HTML.

I did a little bit of sketching and quickly realised that these converging timelines could be represented somewhat like particle collisions. Once I had that idea in my head, I knew how I would be spending my time during the hack week.

Rather than jumping straight into the collider visualisation, I took some time to make a solid foundation to build on. I wanted to be sure that the timeline itself would be understable even if it were, say, viewed in the first ever web browser.

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I marked up each timeline as an ordered list of h-events:

<li class="h-event y1968">
  <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NLS_%28computer_system%29" class="u-url">
    <time class="dt-start" datetime="1968-12-09">1968</time>
    <abbr class="p-name" title="oN-Line System">NLS</abbr>
  </a>
</li>

With the markup in place, I could concentrate on making it look halfway decent. For small screens, the layout is very basic—just a series of lists. When the screen gets wide enough, I lay those lists out horzontally one on top of the other. In this view, you can more easily see when events coincide. For example, ENQUIRE, Usenet, and Smalltalk all happen in 1980. But the real beauty comes when the screen is wide enough to display everthing at once. You can see how an explosion of activity in the early 90s. In 1994 alone, we get the release of Netscape Navigator, the creation of HTTPS, and the launch of Amazon.com.

The whole thing is powered by CSS transforms and positioning. Each year on a timeline has its own class that gets moved to the correct chronological point using calc(). I wanted to use translateX() but I couldn’t get the maths to work for that, so I had use plain ol’ left and right:

.y1968 {
  left: calc((1968 - 1959) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

For events before 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 1959. For events after 1989, it’s the distance of the event from 2019:

.y2014 {
  right: calc((2019 - 2014) * (100%/30) - 5em);
}

(Each h-event has a width of 5em so that’s where the extra bit at the end comes from.)

I had to do some tweaking for legibility: bunches of events happening around the same time period needed to be separated out so that they didn’t overlap too much.

As a finishing touch, I added a few little transitions when the page loaded so that the timeline fans out from its centre point.

Et voilà!

Progressive enhancement. Marking up (and styling) an interactive timeline that looks good in a modern browser and still works in the first ever web browser.

I fiddled with the content a bit after peppering Robert Cailliau with questions over lunch. And I got some very valuable feedback from Jean-François. Some examples he provided:

1971: Unix man pages, one of the first instances of writing documents with a markup language that is interpreted live by a parser before being presented to the user.

1980: Usenet News, because it was THE everyday discussion medium by the time we created the web technology, and the Web first embraced news as a built-in information resource, then various platforms built on the web rendered it obsolete.

1982: Literary Machines, Ted Nelson’s book which was on our desk at all times

I really, really enjoyed building this “collider” timeline. It was a chance for me to smash together my excitement for web history with my enjoyment of using the raw materials of the web; HTML and CSS in this case.

The timeline pales in comparison to the achievement of the rest of the team in recreating the WorldWideWeb application but I was just glad to be able to contribute a little something to the project.

Hello WorldWideWeb.

An nth-letter selector in CSS

Variable fonts are a very exciting and powerful new addition to the toolbox of web design. They was very much at the centre of discussion at this year’s Ampersand conference.

A lot of the demonstrations of the power of variable fonts are showing how it can be used to make letter-by-letter adjustments. The Ampersand website itself does this with the logo. See also: the brilliant demos by Mandy. It’s getting to the point where logotypes can be sculpted and adjusted just-so using CSS and raw text—no images required.

I find this to be thrilling, but there’s a fly in the ointment. In order to style something in CSS, you need a selector to target it. If you’re going to style individual letters, you need to wrap each one in an HTML element so that you can then select it in CSS.

For the Ampersand logo, we had to wrap each letter in a span (and then, becuase that might cause each letter to be read out individually instead of all of them as a single word, we applied some ARIA shenanigans to the containing element). There’s even a JavaScript library—Splitting.js—that will do this for you.

But if the whole point of using HTML is that the content is accessible, copyable, and pastable, isn’t a bit of a shame that we then compromise the markup—and the accessibility—by wrapping individual letters in presentational tags?

What if there were an ::nth-letter selector in CSS?

There’s some prior art here. We’ve already got ::first-letter (and now the initial-letter property or whatever it ends up being called). If we can target the first letter in a piece of text, why not the second, or third, or nth?

It raises some questions. What constitutes a letter? Would it be better if we talked about ::first-character, ::initial-character, ::nth-character, and so on?

Even then, there are some tricksy things to figure out. What’s the third character in this piece of markup?

<p>AB<span>CD</span>EF</p>

Is it “C”, becuase that’s the third character regardless of nesting? Or is it “E”, becuase techically that’s the third character token that’s a direct child of the parent element?

I imagine that implementing ::nth-letter (or ::nth-character) would be quite complex so there would probably be very little appetite for it from browser makers. But it doesn’t seem as problematic as some selectors we’ve already got.

Take ::first-line, for example. That violates one of the biggest issues in adding new CSS selectors: it’s a selector that depends on layout.

Think about it. The browser has to first calculate how many characters are in the first line of an element (like, say, a paragraph). Having figured that out, the browser can then apply the styles declared in the ::first-line selector. But those styles may involve font sizing updates that changes the number of characters in the first line. Paradox!

(Technically, only a subset of CSS of properties can be applied to ::first-line, but that subset includes font-size so the paradox remains.)

I checked to see if ::first-line was included in one of my favourite documents: Incomplete List of Mistakes in the Design of CSS. It isn’t.

So compared to the logic-bending paradoxes of ::first-line, an ::nth-letter selector would be relatively straightforward. But that in itself isn’t a good enough reason for it to exist. As the CSS Working Group FAQs say:

The fact that we’ve made one mistake isn’t an argument for repeating the mistake.

A new selector needs to solve specific use cases. I would argue that all the letter-by-letter uses of variable fonts that we’re seeing demonstrate the use cases, and the number of these examples is only going to increase. The very fact that JavaScript libraries exist to solve this problem shows that there’s a need here (and we’ve seen the pattern of common JavaScript use-cases ending up in CSS before—rollovers, animation, etc.).

Now, I know that browser makers would like us to figure out how proposed CSS features should work by polyfilling a solution with Houdini. But would that work for a selector? I don’t know much about Houdini so I asked Una. She pointed me to a proposal by Greg and Tab for a full-on parser in Houdini. But that’s a loooong way off. Until then, we must petition our case to the browser gods.

This is not a new suggestion.

Anne Van Kesteren proposed ::nth-letter way back in 2003:

While I’m talking about CSS, I would also like to have ::nth-line(n), ::nth-letter(n) and ::nth-word(n), any thoughts?

Trent called for ::nth-letter in January 2011:

I think this would be the ideal solution from a web designer’s perspective. No javascript would be required, and 100% of the styling would be handled right where it should be—in the CSS.

Chris repeated the call in October of 2011:

Of all of these “new” selectors, ::nth-letter is likely the most useful.

In 2012, Bram linked to a blog post (now unavailable) from Adobe indicating that they were working on ::nth-letter for Webkit. That was the last anyone’s seen of this elusive pseudo-element.

In 2013, Chris (again) included ::nth-letter in his wishlist for CSS. So say we all.

Declaration

I like the robustness that comes with declarative languages. I also like the power that comes with imperative languages. Best of all, I like having the choice.

Take the video and audio elements, for example. If you want, you can embed a video or audio file into a web page using a straightforward declaration in HTML.

<audio src="..." controls><!-- fallback goes here --></audio>

Straightaway, that covers 80%-90% of use cases. But if you need to do more—like, provide your own custom controls—there’s a corresponding API that’s exposed in JavaScript. Using that API, you can do everything that you can do with the HTML element, and a whole lot more besides.

It’s a similar story with animation. CSS provides plenty of animation power, but it’s limited in the events that can trigger the animations. That’s okay. There’s a corresponding JavaScript API that gives you more power. Again, the CSS declarations cover 80%-90% of use cases, but for anyone in that 10%-20%, the web animation API is there to help.

Client-side form validation is another good example. For most us, the HTML attributes—required, type, etc.—are probably enough most of the time.

<input type="email" required />

When we need more fine-grained control, there’s a validation API available in JavaScript (yes, yes, I know that the API itself is problematic, but you get the point).

I really like this design pattern. Cover 80% of the use cases with a declarative solution in HTML, but also provide an imperative alternative in JavaScript that gives more power. HTML5 has plenty of examples of this pattern. But I feel like the history of web standards has a few missed opportunities too.

Geolocation is a good example of an unbalanced feature. If you want to use it, you must use JavaScript. There is no declarative alternative. This doesn’t exist:

<input type="geolocation" />

That’s a shame. Anyone writing a form that asks for the user’s location—in order to submit that information to a server for processing—must write some JavaScript. That’s okay, I guess, but it’s always going to be that bit more fragile and error-prone compared to markup.

(And just in case you’re thinking of the fallback—which would be for the input element to be rendered as though its type value were text—and you think it’s ludicrous to expect users with non-supporting browsers to enter latitude and longitude coordinates by hand, I direct your attention to input type="color": in non-supporting browsers, it’s rendered as input type="text" and users are expected to enter colour values by hand.)

Geolocation is an interesting use case because it only works on HTTPS. There are quite a few JavaScript APIs that quite rightly require a secure context—like service workers—but I can’t think of a single HTML element or attribute that requires HTTPS (although that will soon change if we don’t act to stop plans to create a two-tier web). But that can’t have been the thinking behind geolocation being JavaScript only; when geolocation first shipped, it was available over HTTP connections too.

Anyway, that’s just one example. Like I said, it’s not that I’m in favour of declarative solutions instead of imperative ones; I strongly favour the choice offered by providing declarative solutions as well as imperative ones.

In recent years there’s been a push to expose low-level browser features to developers. They’re inevitably exposed as JavaScript APIs. In most cases, that makes total sense. I can’t really imagine a declarative way of accessing the fetch or cache APIs, for example. But I think we should be careful that it doesn’t become the only way of exposing new browser features. I think that, wherever possible, the design pattern of exposing new features declaratively and imperatively offers the best of the both worlds—ease of use for the simple use cases, and power for the more complex use cases.

Previously, it was up to browser makers to think about these things. But now, with the advent of web components, we developers are gaining that same level of power and responsibility. So if you’re making a web component that you’re hoping other people will also use, maybe it’s worth keeping this design pattern in mind: allow authors to configure the functionality of the component using HTML attributes and JavaScript methods.