Tags: life



eLife goes live

The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.

I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).

At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.

We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).

A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.

Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.

Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:

  • Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
  • Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.

That led to some design principles:

  • Focus on content not site furniture.
  • Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
  • Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.

Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:

  1. Access
  2. Maintainability
  3. Performance
  4. Taking advantage of browser capabilities
  5. Visual appeal

It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:

Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.

The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:

  • Progressive enhancement.
  • Small-screen first responsive images.
  • Only add libraries as needed.

Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.

None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.

The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.

What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.

Someone will read this

After Responsive Field Day I had the chance to spend some extra time in Portland. I was staying with one Andy, with occasional welcome opportunities to hang out with the other Andy.

Over an artisanal, hand-crafted, free-range lunch one day, I took a moment to thank Andy B. I thanked him for a link. Links are very much his stock-in-trade, but there was one in particular that he had shared which stuck in my soul.

It started when he offered a bribe for a good link:

Paul Thompson won the bounty:

The link was to a page on Tilde Town, one of the many old-school web rings set up in the spirit of Paul Ford’s Tilde Club. The owner of this page had taken it upon himself to perform a really interesting—and surprisingly moving—experiment:

  1. Find blog posts where people have written “no one will ever read this”, and
  2. Read them aloud.

I’ve written before about how powerful the sound of a human voice can be. There was something about hearing these posts—which were written with a resigned acceptance of indifference—being given the time and respect to be read aloud. I listened to every single one, sometimes bemused, sometimes horrified, always fascinated.

You should listen to all of them too. They deserve it.

One in particular haunted me. It was written in 2008. After listening to it, I had to know more. I felt creepy and voyeuristic, but I transcribed a sentence from the audio file and pasted it in to Google.

I found her blog on the old my-diary.org domain. She only wrote nine entries in total. Her last one was in November 2009.

That was six years ago. I wonder how things turned out for her. I wonder if life got better for her when she left her teenage years behind. I wonder if she ever found peace.

I hope she’s okay.

Going Postel

I wrote a little while back about my feelings on hash-bang URLs:

I feel so disappointed and sad when I see previously-robust URLs swapped out for the fragile #! fragment identifiers. I find it hard to articulate my sadness…

Fortunately, Mike Davies is more articulate than I. He’s written a detailed account of breaking the web with hash-bangs.

It would appear that hash-bang usage is on the rise, despite the fact that it was never intended as a long-term solution. Instead, the pattern (or anti-pattern) was intended as a last resort for crawling Ajax-obfuscated content:

So the #! URL syntax was especially geared for sites that got the fundamental web development best practices horribly wrong, and gave them a lifeline to getting their content seen by Googlebot.

Mike goes into detail on the Gawker outage that was a direct result of its “sites” being little more than single pages that require JavaScript to access anything.

I’m always surprised when I come across as site that deliberately chooses to make its content harder to access.

Though it may not seem like it at times, we’re actually in a pretty great position when it comes to front-end development on the web. As long as we use progressive enhancement, the front-end stack of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is remarkably resilient. Remove JavaScript and some behavioural enhancements will no longer function, but everything will still be addressable and accessible. Remove CSS and your lovely visual design will evaporate, but your content will still be addressable and accessible. There aren’t many other platforms that can offer such a robust level of .

This is no accident. The web stack is rooted in . If you serve an HTML document to a browser, and that document contains some tags or attributes that the browser doesn’t understand, the browser will simply ignore them and render the document as best it can. If you supply a style sheet that contains a selector or rule that the browser doesn’t recognise, it will simply pass it over and continue rendering.

In fact, the most brittle part of the stack is JavaScript. While it’s far looser and more forgiving than many other programming languages, it’s still a programming language and that means that a simple typo could potentially cause an entire script to fail in a browser.

That’s why I’m so surprised that any front-end engineer would knowingly choose to swap out a solid declarative foundation like HTML for a more brittle scripting language. Or, as Simon put it:

Gizmodo launches redesign, is no longer a website (try visiting with JS disabled): http://gizmodo.com/

Read Mike’s article, re-read this article on URL design and listen to what John Resig has to say in this interview .


I tend to compulsively sign up to just about every new web-based tool or social networking site that comes along. Most of my accounts then languish unused because the service turns out to suck in a fairly fundamental manner.

I signed up for Tumblr a while back. On the face of it, it doesn’t really have anything new to offer; it’s basically just a blogging tool but one designed for micro-content rather than long posts. But there’s something about it that’s—forgive the nineties term—sticky.

Tumblr allows you to pull in feeds from other places. At first, this is what I did but I realised that there wasn’t much point in that because I already have a lifestream. The lifestream aspect of Tumblr just made it harder to filter the Tumblr-specific content. Jaiku does a better job of that, allowing not just the author, but also the reader, to filter content by source.

I don’t use Tumblr for posting links—I’ve got del.icio.us for that. And I don’t use it for photos—that’s what Flickr is for. So I focus on the things that Tumblr is particularly good at handling: videos and quotes.

The Tumblr bookmarklet is pretty clever. If I click it when I’m on YouTube, it guesses that I probably want to post that video. If I highlight some text on a page and then click the bookmarklet, the selected text will be added as a quote. Most importantly of all, the process of posting is very fast and unobtrusive; one or two clicks and I’m done. That means there’s no tagging, which might make refindability difficult, but the speed and ease of posting makes me more likely to click that bookmarklet.

Tumblr has a kind of casual throwaway feel to it and that’s how I’ve been using it: videos and quotes that don’t quite warrant a blog post or a del.icio.us link. Tumblr isn’t the most fully-featured service out there but that’s also its strength. If you’re interested, you can look at my Tumblr account.

Watching the stream

Ever since I hacked up my little life stream experiment and wrote about it, it’s been very gratifying to see how people have taken the idea and run with it. Emily Chang has written about the resources she came across when she was putting her life stream together. Sam Sethi has been talking about life streams as a rich vein of attention data (which reminded me of John Allsopp’s thoughts on why blogging as we know it is over).

Of course this idea of mashing up time-stamped (micro)content—usually through RSS—isn’t anything new. Tom Armitage touched on this during his presentation at Reboot in Copenhagen last year:

Whenever I publish anything with a date attached, there’s a framework for ongoing narrative. The item published is our narrative, but the date gives it ongoingness. It takes time for the pattern to emerge; initially, throwing data at that black box, it seems random. For instance: I upload photos to Flickr at arbitrary intervals. I go silent on my blog without explanation. It may seem, in the short-term, like a blip, but in the long-term, it’s an important part of my story. My blog is full of delicious bookmarks right now because I’ve been busy at work, and writing this talk. That’ll be reflected in the longer game, when I write my post-Reboot blog entry, and suddenly the pattern becomes clear.

If you haven’t yet done so, I strongly urge you to read the rest of Telling Stories — What Homer, Dickens, and Comic Books can teach your (social) software. It’s quite brilliant and discusses many issues that are even more relevant today with the rise of OpenID and the clamour for portable social networks.

Jeff Croft has been pioneering the life stream idea for quite a while now, originally calling it a tumblelog. His implementation uses APIs rather than plain ol’ RSS. He’s right in thinking that APIs are a more robust solution for long-term archiving but I think of my life stream as being a fleeting snapshot of current activity.

As Jeff points out:

The result is that most people’s lifestream looks great for the first several days back, but then get all sparse at the bottom, where only one or two sources are still providing information.

CSS to the rescue. I’ve updated my life stream to give vibrant colours to newer entries and faded, eventually illegible colours to older, less relevant content. It’s kind of like Shaun’s recent experiments with age and colour.

I love APIs but when something as simple as RSS does the job, I’ll go for the simple solution every time (hence my love of microformats). In fact, I see RSS as being a kind of low-level short-term API or, as Rob Purdie put it, the vaseline of Web 2.0.

The ubiquity of RSS is what makes Yahoo Pipes possible. Now anybody can make a life stream by plugging in some RSS feeds into a pipe. Here’s one I made earlier. When I tried to do this a few days ago, I couldn’t get it to sort by date properly: it was sorting the pubDate field alphabetically—that seems to be fixed now.

Using Yahoo Pipes isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be. It still feels kind of techy and intimidating for non-geeks. This is the same problem that Ning used to have. Its services were ostensibly being provided so that non-techy people could start mashing stuff up but the presentation was impenetrably techy. That’s all changed now.

Ning has completely rebranded as a social network builder. Personally, I think this is a brilliant move. After just a few seconds on the front page, it’s absolutely clear what you can do. By providing example sites, they make the point even clearer. You can still make all the same stuff that you always could on Ning—videos, photos, blogs—but now it’s all wrapped up as part of a clearer goal: creating your own social network site.

When Yahoo Pipes launched, it looked like it might be competing directly with Ning. Now that’s not the case. The two services have diverged and are concentrating on different tasks for different audiences.

I’ll be keeping an eye on Ning to see how it deals with the issue of portable social networks. I’ll be watching Yahoo Pipes as a tool for creating life streams.