Journal tags: medium

676

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In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

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

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

One morning in the future

I had a video call this morning with someone who was in India. The call went great, except for a few moments when the video stalled.

“Sorry about that”, said the person I was talking to. “It’s the monkeys. They like messing with the cable.”

There’s something charming about an intercontinental internet-enabled meeting being slightly disrupted by some fellow primates being unruly.

It also made me stop and think about how amazing it was that we were having the call in the first place. I remembered Arthur C. Clarke’s predictions from 1964:

I’m thinking of the incredible breakthrough which has been possible by developments in communications, particularly the transistor and, above all, the communications satellite.

These things will make possible a world in which we can be in instant contact with each other wherever we may be, where we can contact our friends anywhere on Earth even if we don’t know their actual physical location.

It will be possible in that age—perhaps only 50 years from now—for a man to conduct his business from Tahiti or Bali just as well as he could from London.

The casual sexism of assuming that it would be a “man” conducting business hasn’t aged well. And it’s not the communications satellite that enabled my video call, but old-fashioned undersea cables, many in the same locations as their telegraphic antecedents. But still; not bad, Arthur.

After my call, I caught up on some email. There was a new newsletter from Ariel who’s currently in Antarctica.

Just thinking about the fact that I know someone who’s in Antarctica—who sent me a postcard from Antarctica—gave me another rush of feeling like I was living in the future. As I started to read the contents of the latest newsletter, that feeling became even more specific. Doesn’t this sound exactly like something straight out of a late ’80s/early ’90s cyberpunk novel?

Four of my teammates head off hiking towards the mountains to dig holes in the soil in hopes of finding microscopic animals contained within them. I hang back near the survival bags with the remaining teammate and begin unfolding my drone to get a closer look at the glaciers. After filming the textures of the land and ice from multiple angles for 90 minutes, my batteries are spent, my hands are cold and my stomach is growling. I land the drone, fold it up into my bright yellow Pelican case, and pull out an expired granola bar to keep my hunger pangs at bay.

Culture and style

Ever get the urge to style a good document?

No? Just me, then.

Well, the urge came over me recently so I started styling this single-page site:

A Few Notes On The Culture by Iain M Banks

I’ve followed this document across multiple locations over the years. It started life as a newsgroup post on rec.arts.sf.written in 1994. Ken McLeod published it there on Iain M Banks’s behalf.

The post complements the epic series of space opera books that Iain M Banks set in the anarcho-utopian society of The Culture. It’s a fascinating piece of world building, as well as an insight into the author’s mind.

I first became aware of it many few years later, after a copy had been posted to the web. That URL died, but Adrian Hon kept a copy on his site. Lots of copies keep stuff safe, so after contemplating linkrot, I made a copy on this site too.

But I recently thought that maybe it deserved a bit of art direction, so I rolled up my sleeves and started messing around, designing in the browser and following happy little accidents.

The finished result is still fairly sparse. It’s still entirely text, except for a background image that shows up if your screen is wide enough. That image of a planet originally started as an infra-red snapshot of Jupiter by the James Webb Space Telescope that I worked over until it was unrecognisable.

The text itself is the main focus of the design though. I knew I wanted to play around with a variable font. Mona Sans from Github was one of the first ones I tried and I found it instantly suitable. I had a lot of fun playing with different weights and widths.

After a bit of messing around, I realised that the heading styles were reminding me of some later reissues of The Culture novels, so I leant into that, deliberately styling the byline to resemble the treatment of the author’s name on those book covers.

There isn’t all that much CSS. I’ve embedded it in the head of the HTML rather than linking to a separate style sheet, so feel free to view source and poke around in there. You’ll see that I’m making liberal use of custom properties, the clamp function, and logical properties.

Originally I had a light mode and dark mode but I found that the dark mode was much more effective so I ditched the lighter option.

I did make sure to include some judicious styles for print, so if you fancy reading on paper, it should print out nicely.

Oh, and of course it’s a progressive web app that works offline.

I didn’t want to mess with the original document other than making some typographic tweaks to punctuation, but I wanted to break up the single wall of text. I wasn’t about to start using pull quotes on the web so in the end I decided to introduce some headings that weren’t in the original document:

  1. Government
  2. Economics
  3. Technology
  4. Philosophy
  5. Lifestyle
  6. Travel
  7. Habitat
  8. Legal System
  9. Politics
  10. Identity
  11. Nomenclature
  12. Cosmology

If your browser viewport is tall enough, the heading for the current section you’re reading will remain sticky as you scroll. No JavaScript required.

I’m pretty pleased with how this little project turned out. It was certainly fun to experiment with fluid type and a nice variable font.

I can add this to my little collection of single-page websites I’ve whittled over the years:

Three attributes for better web forms

Forms on the web are an opportunity to make big improvements to the user experience with very little effort. The effort can be as little as sprinkling in a smattering of humble HTML attributes. But the result can be a turbo-charged experience for the user, allowing them to sail through their task.

This is particularly true on mobile devices where people have to fill in forms using a virtual keyboard. Any improvement you can make to their flow is worth investigating. But don’t worry: you don’t need to add a complex JavaScript library or write convoluted code. Well-written HTML will get you very far.

If you’re using the right input type value, you’re most of the way there. Browsers on mobile devices can use this value to infer which version of the virtual keyboard is best. So think beyond the plain text value, and use search, email, url, tel, or number when they’re appropriate.

But you can offer more hints to those browsers. Here are three attributes you can add to input elements. All three are enumerated values, which means they have a constrained vocabulary. You don’t need to have these vocabularies memorised. You can look them when you need to.

inputmode

The inputmode attribute is the most direct hint you can give about the virtual keyboard you want. Some of the values are redundant if you’re already using an input type of search, email, tel, or url.

But there might be occasions where you want a keyboard optimised for numbers but the input should also accept other characters. In that case you can use an input type of text with an inputmode value of numeric. This also means you don’t get the spinner controls on desktop browsers that you’d normally get with an input type of number. It can be quite useful to supress the spinner controls for numbers that aren’t meant to be incremented.

If you combine inputmode="numeric" with pattern="[0-9]", you’ll get a numeric keypad with no other characters.

The list of possible values for inputmode is text, numeric, decimal, search, email, tel, and url.

enterkeyhint

Whereas the inputmode attribute provides a hint about which virtual keyboard to show, the enterkeyhint attribute provides an additional hint about one specific key on that virtual keyboard: the enter key.

For search forms, you’ve got an enterkeyhint option of search, and for contact forms, you’ve got send.

The enterkeyhint only changes the labelling of the enter key. On some browsers that label is text. On others it’s an icon. But the attribute by itself doesn’t change the functionality. Even though there are enterkeyhint values of previous and next, by default the enter key will still submit the form. So those two values are less useful on long forms where the user is going from field to field, and more suitable for a series of short forms.

The list of possible values is enter, done, next, previous, go, search, and send.

autocomplete

The autocomplete attribute doesn’t have anything to do with the virtual keyboard. Instead it provides a hint to the browser about values that could pre-filled from the user’s browser profile.

Most browsers try to guess when they can they do this, but they don’t always get it right, which can be annoying. If you explicitly provide an autocomplete hint, browsers can confidently prefill the appropriate value.

Just think about how much time this can save your users!

There’s a name value you can use to get full names pre-filled. But if you have form fields for different parts of names—which I wouldn’t recommend—you’ve also got:

  • given-name,
  • additional-name,
  • family-name,
  • nickname,
  • honorific-prefix, and
  • honorific-suffix.

You might be tempted to use the nickname field for usernames, but no need; there’s a separate username value.

As with names, there’s a single tel value for telephone numbers, but also an array of sub-values if you’ve split telephone numbers up into separate fields:

  • tel-country-code,
  • tel-national,
  • tel-area-code,
  • tel-local, and
  • tel-extension.

There’s a whole host of address-related values too:

  • street-address,
  • address-line1,
  • address-line2, and
  • address-line3, but also
  • address-level1,
  • address-level2,
  • address-level3, and
  • address-level4.

If you have an international audience, addresses can get very messy if you’re trying to split them into separate parts like this.

There’s also postal-code (that’s a ZIP code for Americans), but again, if you have an international audience, please don’t make this a required field. Not every country has postal codes.

Speaking of countries, you’ve got a country-name value, but also a country value for the country’s ISO code.

Remember, the autocomplete value is specifically for the details of the current user. If someone is filling in their own address, use autocomplete. But if someone has specified that, say, a billing address and a shipping address are different, that shipping address might not be the address associated with that person.

On the subject of billing, if your form accepts credit card details, definitely use autocomplete. The values you’ll probably need are:

  • cc-name for the cardholder,
  • cc-number for the credit card number itself,
  • cc-exp for the expiry date, and
  • cc-csc for the security again.

Again, some of these values can be broken down further if you need them: cc-exp-month and cc-exp-year for the month and year of the expiry date, for example.

The autocomplete attribute is really handy for log-in forms. Definitely use the values of email or username as appropriate.

If you’re using two-factor authentication, be sure to add an autocomplete value of one-time-code to your form field. That way, the browser can offer to prefill a value from a text message. That saves the user a lot of fiddly copying and pasting. Phil Nash has more details on the Twilio blog.

Not every mobile browser offers this functionality, but that’s okay. This is classic progressive enhancement. Adding an autocomplete value won’t do any harm to a browser that doesn’t yet understand the value.

Use an autocomplete value of current-password for password fields in log-in forms. This is especially useful for password managers.

But if a user has logged in and is editing their profile to change their password, use a value of new-password. This will prevent the browser from pre-filling that field with the existing password.

That goes for sign-up forms too: use new-password. With this hint, password managers can offer to automatically generate a secure password.

There you have it. Three little HTML attributes that can help users interact with your forms. All you have to do was type a few more characters in your input elements, and users automatically get a better experience.

This is a classic example of letting the browser do the hard work for you. As Andy puts it, be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager:

Give the browser some solid rules and hints, then let it make the right decisions for the people that visit it, based on their device, connection quality and capabilities.

Chain of tools

I shared this link in Slack with my co-workers today:

Cultivating depth and stillness in research by Andy Matuschak.

I wasn’t sure whether it belonged in the #research or the #design channel. While it’s ostensibly about research, I think it applies to design more broadly. Heck, it probably applies to most fields. I should have put it in the Slack channel I created called #iiiiinteresting.

The article is all about that feeling of frustration when things aren’t progressing quickly, even when you know intellectually that not everything should always progress quickly.

The article is filled with advice for battling this feeling, including this observation on curiosity:

Curiosity can also totally change my relationship to setbacks. Say I’ve run an experiment, collected the data, done the analysis, and now I’m writing an essay about what I’ve found. Except, halfway through, I notice that one column of the data really doesn’t support the conclusion I’d drawn. Oops. It’s tempting to treat this development as a frustrating impediment—something to be overcome expediently. Of course, that’s exactly the wrong approach, both emotionally and epistemically. Everything becomes much better when I react from curiosity instead: “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me? How might this change what I try next?”

But what really resonated with me was this footnote attached to that paragraph:

I notice that I really struggle to generate curiosity about problems in programming. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long, but I think it’s because my problems are usually with ephemeral ideas, incidental to what I actually care about. When I’m fighting some godforsaken Javascript build system, I don’t feel even slightly curious to “really” understand those parochial machinations. I know they’re just going to be replaced by some new tool next year.

I feel seen.

I know I’m not alone. I know people who were driven out of front-end development because they felt the unspoken ultimatum was to either become a “full stack” developer or see yourself out.

Remember Chris’s excellent post, The Great Divide? Zach referenced it recently. He wrote:

The question I keep asking though: is the divide borne from a healthy specialization of skills or a symptom of unnecessary tooling complexity?

Mostly I feel sad about the talented people we’ve lost because they felt their front-of-the-front-end work wasn’t valued.

But wait! Can I turn my frown upside down? Can I take Andy Matuschak’s advice and say, “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me?”

Here’s one way of squinting at the situation…

There’s an opportunity here. If many people—myself included—feel disheartened and ground down by the amount of time they need to spend dealing with toolchains and build systems, what kind of system would allow us to get on with making websites without having to deal with that stuff?

I’m not proposing that we get rid of these complex toolchains, but I am wondering if there’s a way to make it someone else’s job.

I guess this job is DevOps. In theory it’s a specialised field. In practice everyone adding anything to a codebase partakes in continual partial DevOps because they must understand the toolchains and build processes in order to change one line of HTML.

I’m not saying “Don’t Make Me Think” when it comes to the tooling. I totally get that some working knowledge is probably required. But the ratio has gotten out of whack. You need a lot of working knowledge of the toolchains and build processes.

In fact, that’s mostly what companies hire for these days. If you’re well versed in HTML, CSS, and vanilla JavaScript, but you’re not up to speed on pipelines and frameworks, you’re going to have a hard time.

That doesn’t seem right. We should change it.

Mars distracts

A few years ago, I wrote about how much I enjoyed the book Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Not everyone liked that book. A lot of people were put off by its structure, in which the dream of interstellar colonisation meets the harsh truth of reality and the book follows where that leads. It pours cold water over the very idea of humanity becoming interplanetary.

But our own solar system is doable, right? I mean, Kim Stanley Robinson is the guy who wrote the Mars trilogy and 2312, both of which depict solar system colonisation in just a few centuries.

I wonder if the author might regret the way that some have taken his Mars trilogy as a sort of manual, Torment Nexus style. Kim Stanley Robinson is very much concerned with this planet in this time period, but others use his work to do the opposite.

But the backlash to Mars has begun.

Maciej wrote Why Not Mars:

The goal of this essay is to persuade you that we shouldn’t send human beings to Mars, at least not anytime soon. Landing on Mars with existing technology would be a destructive, wasteful stunt whose only legacy would be to ruin the greatest natural history experiment in the Solar System. It would no more open a new era of spaceflight than a Phoenician sailor crossing the Atlantic in 500 B.C. would have opened up the New World. And it wouldn’t even be that much fun.

Manu Saadia is writing a book about humanity in space, and he has a corresponding newsletter called Against Mars: Space Colonization and its Discontents:

What if space colonization was merely science-fiction, a narrative, or rather a meta-narrative, a myth, an ideology like any other? And therefore, how and why did it catch on? What is so special and so urgent about space colonization that countless scientists, engineers, government officials, billionaire oligarchs and indeed, entire nations, have committed work, ingenuity and treasure to make it a reality.

What if, and hear me out, space colonization was all bullshit?

I mean that quite literally. No hyperbole. Once you peer under the hood, or the nose, of the rocket ship, you encounter a seemingly inexhaustible supply of ghoulish garbage.

Two years ago, Shannon Stirone went into the details of why Mars Is a Hellhole

The central thing about Mars is that it is not Earth, not even close. In fact, the only things our planet and Mars really have in common is that both are rocky planets with some water ice and both have robots (and Mars doesn’t even have that many).

Perhaps the most damning indictment of the case for Mars colonisation is that its most ardent advocate turns out to be an idiotic small-minded eugenicist who can’t even run a social media company, much less a crewed expedition to another planet.

But let’s be clear: we’re talking here about the proposition of sending humans to Mars—ugly bags of mostly water that probably wouldn’t survive. Robots and other uncrewed missions in our solar system …more of that, please!

Five websites

Some lovely people have recently made some lovely websites.

Dan has launched his type foundry, Simple Type Co. and it’s gorgeous!

For as long as I’ve been making websites, Dan’s designs have been an inspiration: Corkd, Dribbble, his own website; whenever he unveils something it always sits just right with me.

Oh, and I love the tagline for Simple Type Co.:

Never perfect. Always a-okay.

Someone who is a perfectionist is Marcin. He’s been working on his book about keyboards for years now (the Kickstarter project will launch in February) and he’s made a stunning website for the book called Shift Happens. Click around and find out.

Mandy has a lovely new professional website, courtesy of Ethan. It’s called everything changes. I love the subtletly of the different colour schemes for dark and light modes. It’s almost as if Ethan knows a thing or two about responsive design.

Look! Jason has new professional website too. The text is just scrumptious. It’s almost as if Jason knows a thing or two about typography.

And look! Lynn has done it again—a new site design for a new year. Beautiful stuff, as always—have a look through the archive if you want to the creativity she puts into this every single year.

All of these people are my web design heroes.

Blood

I gave blood yesterday. It was my sixteenth donation.

Yes, that’s a humblebrag. I feel like the gamification of blood donation is entirely reasonable. Levelling up in blood donation feels like the opposite of frequent flyer points. Instead of a growing sense of shame at how your accumulated activity is destroying the planet, you get increasing affirmation that you’re helping others.

Besides, I don’t have Strava, or Peleton, or rings to close, or whatever. I don’t even do Wordle. So this is the only “streak” I can legitimately boast about.

The more I give blood, the more I enjoy it.

I know that sounds weird. Surely having a needle shoved in your arm isn’t meant to be enjoyable?

It’s true that the first or second time you do it, it can feel intimidating, maybe even a little scary. I’m lucky that I don’t have much of an aversion to needles—much respect to those who do, but donate anyway.

But once you’ve done it a few times, it becomes routine. Actually, it’s more than routine. It’s like a ritual.

Not to get all spiritual here when we’re talking about an entirely biological process, but there is something special going on…

You join together with other members of your community. Strangers. People from all walks of life, all of them gathered in one place to do the same thing: sacrifice a small portion of themselves for the greater good.

It’s like a more egalitarian version of most religious narratives. Instead of a single saviour making a grand sacrifice, you get many individuals partaking in their own mini crucifixations. A little discomfort and that’s it. Multiply that by the number of people gathered together and you’ve got a magnificent network effect. Less dramatic than the hero’s journey, but far more effective.

Usually in our society, if you want to do good, it’s tied to money. You inherit wealth or accumulate it through work and luck, and then you can choose to do good by redistributing some of that moolah. The more you’ve got, the more you can choose to give away. So the amount of potential good that can be done comes down to the whims of the people who have the most money.

Giving blood doesn’t work like that. We’ve all got the same amount of blood.

The memento mori that are scattered through the history of human culture are there to remind us that death is the great leveller. Prince or pauper, we all meet the same end. That also applies to our blood. Prince or pauper, we’re all equal when it comes to blood donation.

That’s one of the reasons I like returning to give blood every few months. It restores my faith in humanity. I look around the room and see all these people that I don’t know, but we’re all there to complete our individual rituals. We all contribute the same amount. It’s a very personal choice, but there’s a communal feeling that comes from being with all these strangers who have made the same choice.

Besides, it’s just a nice opportunity to step away from the day-to-day. Bring a good book to read during the waiting periods before and after donation. During the donation itself, you’ve got this time to think and reflect. It’s quite meditative, opening and closing your hand to help the flow. Almost trance-like.

And then you get free biscuits.

That isn’t quite the end though. A few days later you get a text message telling you where your blood will be used. I love that part. It feels like closing the loop.

It’s funny that we often use the language of blood to describe supply chains: arterial networks carrying goods in and out of hubs; the pumping systems that keep society alive. When that text message arrives, it’s like a little bit of you is part of an infrastructure for helping others.

You can find a donation opportunity near you on the blood.co.uk website.

2022

This time last year when I was looking back on 2021, I wrote:

2020 was the year of the virus. 2021 was the year of the vaccine …and the virus, obviously, but still it felt like the year we fought back. With science!

Science continued to win the battle in 2022. But it was messy. The Situation isn’t over yet, and everyone has different ideas about the correct levels of risk-taking.

It’s like when you’re driving and you think that everyone going faster than you is a maniac, and everyone going slower than you is an idiot.

The world opened up more in 2022. I was able to speak at more in-person events. I really missed that. I think I’m done with doing online talks.

There was a moment when I was speaking at Web Dev Conf in Bristol this year (a really nice little gathering), and during my presentation I was getting that response from the audience that you just don’t get with online talks, and I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, I’ve really missed this!”

But like I said, The Situation isn’t over, and that makes things tricky for conferences. Most of the ones I spoke at or attended were doing their best to make things safe. CSS Day, Clarity, State Of The Browser: they all took measures to try to look out for everyone’s health.

For my part, I asked everyone attending dConstruct to take a COVID test the day before. Like I said at the time, I may have just been fooling myself with what might have been hygiene theatre, but like those other events, we all wanted to gather safely.

That can’t be said for the gigantic event in Berlin that I spoke at in Summer. There were tens of thousands of people in the venue. Inevitably, I—and others—caught COVID.

My bout of the ’rona wasn’t too bad, and I’m very glad that I didn’t pass it on to any family members (that’s been my biggest worry throughout The Situation). But it did mean that I wasn’t able to host UX London 2022.

That was a real downer. I spent much of 2022 focused on event curation: first UX London, and then dConstruct. I was really, really proud of the line-up I assembled for UX London so I was gutted not to be able to introduce those fabulous speakers in person.

Still, I got to host dConstruct, Leading Design, and Clarity, so 2022 was very much a bumper year for MCing—something I really, really enjoy.

Already I’ve got more of the same lined up for the first half of 2023: hosting Leading Design San Francisco in February and curating and hosting UX London in June.

I hope to do more speaking too. Alas, An Event Apart is no more, which is a real shame. But I hope there are other conferences out there that might be interested in what I have to say. If you’re organising one, get in touch.

Needless to say, 2022 was not a good year for world events. The callous and cruel invasion of Ukraine rightly dominated the news (sporting events and dead monarchs are not the defining events of the year). But even in the face of this evil, there’s cause for hope, seeing the galvanised response of the international community in standing up to Putin the bully.

In terms of more personal bad news, Jamie’s death is hard to bear.

I got to play lots of music in 2022. That’s something I definitely want to continue. In fact, 2023 kicked off with a great kitchen session yesterday evening—the perfect start to the year!

And I’ve got my health. That’s something I don’t take for granted.

One year ago, I wrote:

Maybe 2022 will turn out to be similar—shitty for a lot of people, and mostly unenventful for me. Or perhaps 2022 will be a year filled with joyful in-person activities, like conferences and musical gatherings. Either way, I’m ready.

For the most part, that played out. 2022 was thankfully fairly uneventful personally. And it was indeed a good year for in-person connections. I very much hope that continues in 2023.

2022 in numbers

I posted 1057 times on adactio in 2022. sparkline

That’s a bit more than in 2021.

November was the busiest month with 137 posts. sparkline

February was the quietest with 65 posts. sparkline

That included about 237 notes with photos sparkline and 214 replies. sparkline

I published one article, the transcript of my talk, In And Out Of Style.

I watched an awful lot of television but managed to read 25 books. sparkline

Elsewhere, I huffduffed 130 audio files and added 55 tune settings on The Session in 2022.

I spoke at ten events.

I travelled within Europe and the USA to a total of 18 destinations. sparkline

Words I wrote in 2022

Here’s a highlight reel of some of my blog posts from 2022:

I also published the transcript of my conference talk, In And Out Of Style, a journey through the history of CSS.

Music in 2022

Usually an end-of-year music round-up is a list of favourite recordings released in the year. But in 2022 I wasn’t paying very much attention to new releases. I bought a few albums on Bandcamp. They were mostly of—surprise, surprise—traditional Irish music.

Still, I had a very music-filled 2022. Mostly I was playing mandolin in sessions, both here in Brighton and wherever else my travels took me.

These moments were undoubtedly highlights of the year for me.

Checked in at Jolly Brewer. Wednesday night session ☘️🎶🎻 — with Jessica Playing tunes. Checked in at The Lord Nelson Inn. Thursday night session ☘️🎶 Playing tunes on the street. Seamus Sands, James Kelly, and Antóin Mac Gabhann—amazing fiddlers, and it turns out they all use thesession.org! Playing in Friels. Checked in at Jolly Brewer. Wednesday evening session 🎻🎻🎻 — with Jessica Playing some lovely tunes. 🎻🎶 Checked in at The Bugle Inn. Playing some tunes with Rowan Playing in a session in Charlie’s, my old watering hole in Cork from my Art College days three decades ago. Lovely tunes at The Star tonight. Checked in at Dover Castle. A full house of fiddles! 🎶🎻🎻🎻🎻🎶 — with Jessica Checked in at The Bugle Inn. Sunday afternoon session 🎶🎻🎻🎻🎶 Playing tunes at a house session in San Diego. Checked in at Jolly Brewer. Wednesday night session 🎻🎶🎻 — with Jessica Checked in at The Corner House. Playing in a session led by Matt Cranitch! 🎶🎻 — with Jessica

Books I read in 2022

I read 25 books in 2022. I wish I had read more, but I’m not going to beat myself up about it. I think no matter how many books I read in any given year, I’ll always wish I had read more.

18 of the 25 books were written by women. I think that’s a pretty good ratio. But only 6 of the 25 books were written by Black authors. That’s not a great ratio.

Still, I’m glad that I’m tracking my reading so at least I can be aware of the disparity.

For the first half of the year, I stuck with my usual rule of alternating between fiction and non-fiction, never reading two non-fiction books or two fiction books back-to-back. Then I fell off the wagon. In the end, only 7 of the 25 books I read were non-fiction. We’ll see whether the balance gets redressed in 2023.

As is now traditional, I’m doing my end-of-year recap, complete with ridiculous star ratings.

I’m very stingy with my stars:

  • One star means a book is meh.
  • Two stars means a book is perfectly fine.
  • Three stars means a book is a good—consider it recommended.
  • Four stars means a book is exceptional.
  • Five stars is pretty much unheard of.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar And Grille by Steven Brust

★★☆☆☆

Even the author doesn’t think this is a particularly good book, and he’s not wrong. But I have a soft spot for it. This was a re-read. I had already read this book years before, and all I rememberd was “sci-fi with Irish music.” That’s good enough for me. But truth be told, the book is tonally awkward, never quite finding its groove. Still a fun romp if you like the idea of a teleporting bar with a house band playing Irish folk.

A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa

★★★★☆

Stunning. I still don’t know whether it’s fiction, autobiography, translation, or some weird mix of all of the above. All that matters is that the writing is incredible. It’s so evocative that the book practically oozes.

Parable Of The Talents by Octavia E. Butler

★★★★☆

A terrific follow-up to The Parable Of The Sower. It seems remarkably relevant and prescient. So much so that I’m actually glad I didn’t read this while Trump was in power—I think it would’ve been too much. It’s a harrowing read, but always with an unwavering current of hope throughout.

About Time: A History of Civilization in Twelve Clocks by David Rooney

★★★☆☆

A great examination of history and colonialism through the lens of timekeeping. Even for a time-obsessed nerd like me, there are lots of new stories in here.

The Lathe Of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

★★★★☆

While I was reading this, I distinctly remember thinking “Oh, so this is what Philip K. Dick was trying to do!” And I say that as a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. But his exuction didn’t always match up to his ideas. Here, Le Guin shows how it’s done. Turns out she was a fan of Philip K. Dick and this book is something on an homage. I found its central premise genuinely disconcerting. I loved it.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

★★★★☆

When someone asked me what I was reading, I was honestly able to respond, “It’s a book about George Orwell and about roses.” I know that doesn’t sound like a great basis for a book, but I thought it worked really well. As a huge fan of Orwell’s work, I was biased towards enjoying this, but I didn’t expect the horticultural aspect to work so well as a lens for examining politics and power.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

★★★☆☆

A solid sequel to the classic The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not more of the same: we get a different setting, and a very different set of viewpoints. It didn’t have quite the same impact as the first book, but then very little could. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood stuck with her rule of only including shocking situations if they have actually occurred in the real world.

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder

★★☆☆☆

I wrote about this book in more detail:

For a book that’s about defending liberty and progress, On Tyranny is puzzingly conservative at times.

No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood

★★★★☆

Astonishing. I know that a person’s reaction to a book is a personal thing, but for me, this book had a truly emotional impact. I wrote about it at the time:

When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.

East West Street by Philippe Sands

★★★☆☆

An absorbing examination of the origins of international war crimes: genocide and crimes against humanity. The book looks at the interweaving lives of the two people behind the crime’s definitions …and takes in the author’s own family history on the way. A relative of mine ran in the same legal circles in wartime Lviv, and I can’t help but wonder if their paths crossed.

A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

★★★☆☆

Just as good as A Memory Called Empire, maybe even more enjoyable. Here we get a first contact story, but there’s still plenty of ongoing political intrigue powering the plot. I can’t wait for the next book in this series!

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win by Maria Konnikova

★★★☆☆

A thoroughly enjoyable piece of long-form journalism. It’s ostensibly about the world of high-stakes poker, but there are inevitable life lessons along the way. The tone of this book is just right, with the author being very open and honest about her journey. Her cards are on the table, if you will.

The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett

★★★☆☆

I wonder how much of an influence this book had on Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz? They’re both post-apocalyptic books of the Long Now. While this is no masterpiece, Brackett writes evocatively of her post-nuclear America.

Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth

★★★☆☆

A compelling and accessible examination of a big subject. It doesn’t shy away from inherently complex topics, but manages to always be understable and downright enjoyable. I liked this book so much, I asked Anil to speak at dConstruct.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

★★★☆☆

A good fast-paced sci-fi story that acts as a vehicle for issues of identity and socialisation. It’s brief and peppy. I’ll definitely be reading the subsequent books in the Murderbot Diaries series.

The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel

★★★☆☆

Not in the same league as Station Eleven, but a solid work, looking at the events before and after the collapse of a Ponzi scheme. It’s not a ghost story, but it’s also not not a ghost story. And it’s not about crypto …but it’s not not about crypto.

The Alchemy Of Us by Ainissa Ramirez

★★☆☆☆

I was really looking forward to reading this, but I ended up disappointed. All the stories about historical inventions were terrifically told, but then each chapter would close with an attempt to draw parallels with modern technology. Those bits were eye-rollingly simplistic. Such a shame. I wonder if they were added under pressure from the publisher to try to make the book “more relevant”? In the end, they only detracted from what would’ve otherwise been an excellent and accessible book on the history of materials science.

Looking back, I notice that The Alchemy Of Us was the last non-fiction book I read this year.

Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

After reading this, I decided to read the rest of the Patternist series in one go. This scene-setter is almost biblical in scope. The protagonist is like an embodiment of matriarchy, and the antogonist is a frightening archetype of toxic masculinity.

Mind Of My Mind by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

All of Butler’s works are about change in some way (as exemplified in the mantra of Earthseed: “God is change”). Change—often violent—is at the heart of Mind Of My Mind. As always, the world-building is entirely believable.

Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

This works as a standalone novel. Its connection to the rest of the Patternist series is non-existient for most of the book’s narrative. That sense of self-containment is also central to the tone of the novel. You find yourself rooting for stasis, even though you know that change is inevitable.

Pattern Master by Octavia E. Butler

★★★☆☆

By the final book in the Patternist series, the world has changed utterly. But as always, change is what drives the narrative. “The only lasting truth is Change.”

The Unreal And The Real: Selected Stories Volume 2: Outer Space, Inner Lands by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

I’ve read quite of few of Le Guin’s novels, but I don’t think I had read any of her short stories before. That was a mistake on my part. These stories are terrific! There’s the classic The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas to kick things off, and the quality is maintained with plenty of stories from the Hainish universe. I was struck by how many of the stories were anthropological in nature, like the centrepiece story, The Matter of Seggri.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within by Becky Chambers

The fourth and final book in the Wayfarers series was a satisfying conclusion. I still preferred Record Of A Spaceborn Few, but that’s probably just because I preferred the setting. As always, it’s a story of tolerance and understanding. Aliens are people too, y’know.

★★★☆☆

The Táin translated by Ciaran Carson

As a story, this is ludicrous and over the top, but that’s true of any near-mythological national saga. Even though this is an English translation, a working knowledge of Irish pronunciation is handy for all the people and places enumerated throughout. In retrospect, I think I would’ve liked having the source text to hand (even if I couldn’t understand it).

★★★☆☆

The Star Of The Sea by Joseph O’Connor

I’m less than half way through this, but I’m enjoying being immersed in its language and cast of characters. You’ll have to wait until the end of 2023 for an allocation of stars for this nautical tale of the Great Hunger.


There we have it. I think the lesson this year is: you can’t go wrong with Octavia E. Butler or Ursula K. Le Guin.

And now it’s time for me to pick one favourite fiction and one favourite non-fiction book that I read in 2022.

The pool is a bit smaller for the non-fiction books, and there were some great reads in there, but I think I have to go for Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses.

Now I have to pick a favourite work of fiction from the 18 that I read. This is hard. I loved The Lathe Of Heaven and Ghost In The Throat, but I think I’m going to have choose No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood.

If you want to read any of the books I’ve mentioned, you can find them all in this list on Bookshop.org—support independent bookshops! I bought Octavia Butler’s Patternist books at Brighton’s excellent Afori Books, located in Clearleft’s old building at 28 Kensington Street. Do swing by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Or try your local library. Libraries are like a sci-fi concept made real.

If you’re interested in previous installments of my annual reading updates, you can peruse:

An Event Apart

My trip to California went well. It was bookended with a few days in San Diego on either end. I relished the opportunity to hang with family and soak up the sunshine.

In the middle was my outing to San Francisco for An Event Apart. There were some great talks: Krystal talking about onboarding, Miriam blowing my mind with cascade layers, Eric diving deep into the :has() selector, and David closing out the show with a superb call to arms.

I gave my talk on declarative design at the very start of the event, just the way I like it. I was able to relax and enjoy all the other talks without having mine on my mind.

The talk went down well. I thought maybe I might have the chance to repeat it at another An Event Apart sometime in 2023.

But that won’t happen. An Event Apart has closed its doors:

Seventeen years ago, in December 2005, we held our first conference in Philadelphia. The event we just held in San Francisco was our last.

Whenever I was invited to speak at An Event Apart, I always responded in the affirmative and always said it was an honour to be asked. I meant it every time.

It wasn’t just me. Ask anyone who’s spoken at An Event Apart. They’ll all tell you the same thing. It was an honour. It was also a bit intimidating. There was a definite feeling that you had to bring your A game. And so, everyone did. Of course that just contributed to the event’s reputation which only reinforced the pressure to deliver a top-notch presentation.

I’m really going to miss An Event Apart. I mean, I get why all good things must come to an end (see also: dConstruct), but it feels like the end of an era.

My first time speaking at An Event Apart was in 2007. My last time was in San Francisco this month.

Thank you, Eric, Jeffrey, Toby, Marci, and the entire An Event Apart crew. It has been my privilege to play a small part in your story.

2007
Chicago
Be Pure. Be Vigilant. Behave
2008
San Francisco
Pattern In The Process
2009
Boston
Future Shock Treatment
2010
Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, Washington DC, San Diego
Paranormal Interactivity
2011
Seattle, Boston, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Washington DC, San Francisco
Design Principles
2012
Austin
The Spirit Of The Web
2013
Atlanta, Washington DC, Chicago, Austin, San Francisco
The Long Web
2014
Seattle, San Diego, Chicago, Orlando, San Francisco
Enhance!
2015
Seattle, Austin, San Francisco
Resilience
2016
Seattle, Boston, Orlando, San Francisco
Resilience, Evaluating Technology
2017
Seattle, Denver
Evaluating Technology
2018
Seattle, Boston
The Way Of The Web
2019
Seattle, Chicago, San Francisco
Going Offline
2020
Online
Design Principles For The Web
2021
Online
The State Of The Web
2022
Online, San Francisco
In And Out Of Style
Declarative Design

Leading Design San Francisco 2023

My upcoming appearance at An Event Apart next week to talk about declarative design isn’t the only upcoming trip to San Francisco in my calendar.

Two months from today I’ll be back in San Francisco for Leading Design. It’s on February 7th and 8th.

This event is long overdue. We’ve never had Leading Design in San Francisco before, but we were all set to go ahead with the inaugural SF gathering …in March 2020. We all know what happened next.

So this event will be three years in the making.

Rebacca is doing amazing work, as usual, putting together a fantastic line-up of speakers:

They’ll be sharing their insights, their stories and their ideas — as well as some of their pain from past challenges. It’s all designed to help you navigate your own leadership journey.

I’ll be there to MC the event, which is a great honour for me. And I reckon I’ll be up to the challenge, having just done the double whammy of hosting Leading Design London and Clarity back-to-back.

I would love to see you in San Francisco! If you’ve attended a Leading Design event before, then you know how transformational it can be. If you haven’t, then now is your chance.

Early bird tickets are still available until mid December, so if you’re thinking about coming, I suggest making that decision now.

If you know anyone in the bay area who’s in a design leadership position, be sure to tell them about Leading Design San Francisco—they don’t want to miss this!

Jamie

Jamie Freeman passed away yesterday.

I first met Jamie as a fellow web-nerd way back in the early 2000s when I was freelancing here in Brighton. I did a lot of work with him and his design studio, Message. Andy was working there too. It’s kind of where the seeds of Clearleft were planted.

I remember one day telling them about a development with Salter Cane. Our drummer, Catherine, was moving to Australia so we were going to have to start searching for someone new.

“I play drums”, said Jamie.

I remember thinking, “No, you don’t; you play guitar.” But I thought “What the heck”, and invited him along to a band practice.

Well, it turns that not only could he play drums, he was really good! Jamie was in the band.

It’s funny, I kept referring to Jamie as “our new drummer”, but he actually ended up being the drummer that was with Salter Cane the longest.

Band practices. Concerts. Studio recordings. We were a team for years. You can hear Jamie’s excellent drumming on our album Sorrow. You can also his drumming (and brilliant backing vocals) on an album of covers we recorded. He was such a solid drummer—he made the whole band sound tighter.

But as brilliant as Jamie was behind a drumkit, his heart was at the front of the stage. He left Salter Cane to front The Jamie Freeman Agreement full-time. I loved going to see that band and watching them get better and better. Jonathan has written lovingly about his time with the band.

After that, Jamie continued to follow his dreams as a solo performer, travelling to Nashville, and collaborating with loads of other talented people. Everyone loved Jamie.

This year started with the shocking news that he had inoperable cancer—a brain tumor. Everyone sent him all their love (we recorded a little video from the Salter Cane practice room—as his condition worsened, video worked better than writing). But somehow I didn’t quite believe that this day would come when Jamie was no longer with us. I mean, the thought was ridiculous: Jamie, the vegetarian tea-totaller …with cancer? Nah.

I think I’m still in denial.

The last time I had the joy of playing music with Jamie was also the last time that Salter Cane played a gig. Jamie came back for a one-off gig at the start of 2020 (before the world shut down). It was joyous. It felt so good to rock out with him.

Jamie was always so full of enthusiasm for other people, whether that was his fellow musicians or his family members. He had great stories from his time on tour with his brother Tim’s band, Frazier Chorus. And he was so, so proud of everything his brother Martin has done. It was so horrible when their sister died. I can’t imagine what they must be going through now, losing another sibling.

Like I said, I still can’t quite believe that Jamie has gone. I know that I’m really going to miss him.

I’m sending all my love and my deepest sympathies to Jamie’s family.

Fuck cancer.

Tweaking navigation labelling

I’ve always liked the idea that your website can be your API. Like, you’ve already got URLs to identify resources, so why not make that URL structure predictable and those resources parsable?

That’s why the (read-only) API for The Session doesn’t live at a separate subdomain. It uses the same URL structure as the regular site, but you can request the resources in an alternative format: JSON, XML, RSS.

This works out pretty well, mostly because I put a lot of thought into the URL structure of the site. I’m something of a URL fetishist, but I think that taking a URL-first approach to information architecture can be a good exercise.

Most of the resources on The Session involve nouns like tunes, events, discussions, and so on. There’s a consistent and predictable structure to the URLs for those sections:

  • /things
  • /things/new
  • /things/search

And then an idividual item can be found at:

  • things/ID

That’s all nice and predictable and the naming of the URLs matches what you’d expect to find:

Tunes, events, discussions, sessions. Those are all fine. But there’s one section of the site that has this root URL:

/recordings

When I was coming up with the URL structure twenty years ago, it was clear what you’d find there: track listings for albums of music. No one would’ve expected to find actual recordings of music available to listen to on-demand. The bandwidth constraints and technical limitations of the time made that clear.

Two decades on, the situation has changed. Now someone new to the site might well expect to hit a link called “recordings” and expect to hear actual recordings of music.

So I should probably change the label on the link. I don’t think “albums” is quite right—what even is an album any more? The word “discography” is probably the most appropriate label.

Here’s my dilemma: if I update the label, should I also update the URL structure?

Right now, the section of the site with /tunes URLs is labelled “tunes”. The section of the site with /events URLs is labelled “events”. Currently the section of the site with /recordings URLs is labelled “recordings”, but may soon be labelled “discography”.

If you click on “tunes”, you end up at /tunes. But if you click on “discography”, you end up at /recordings.

Is that okay? Am I the only one that would be bothered by that?

I could update the URLs to match the labelling (with redirects for the old URLs, of course), but I’m not so keen on this URL structure:

  • /discography
  • /discography/new
  • /discography/search
  • /discography/ID

It doesn’t seem as tidy as:

  • /recordings
  • /recordings/new
  • /recordings/search
  • /recordings/ID

But if I don’t update the URLs to match the label, then I’m just going to have to live with the mismatch.

I’m just thinking out loud here. I think I should definitely update the label. I just won’t make any decision on changing URLs for a while yet.

Links for Declarative Design

At the end of next week, I will sally forth to California. I’m going to wend my way to San Francisco where I will be speaking at An Event Apart.

I am very much looking forward to speaking at my first in-person AEAs in exactly three years. That was also in San Francisco, right before The Situation.

I hope to see you there. There are still tickets available.

I’ve put together a brand new talk that I’m very excited about. I’ve already written about the prep for this talk:

So while I’ve been feeling somewhat under the gun as I’ve been preparing this new talk for An Event Apart, I’ve also been feeling that the talk is just the culmination; a way of tying together some stuff I’ve been writing about it here for the past year or two.

The talk is called Declarative Design. Here’s the blurb:

Different browsers, different devices, different network speeds…designing for the web can feel like a never-ending battle for control. But what if the solution is to relinquish control? Instead of battling the unknowns, we can lean into them. In the world of programming, there’s the idea of declarative languages: describing what you want to achieve without specifying the exact steps to get there. In this talk, we’ll take this concept of declarative programming and apply it to designing for the web. Instead of focusing on controlling the outputs of the design process, we’ll look at creating the right inputs instead. Leave the final calculations for the outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at. We’ll look at CSS features, design systems, design principles, and more. Then you’ll be ready to embrace the fluid, ever-changing, glorious messiness of the World Wide Web!

If you’d a glimpse into the inside of my head while I’ve been preparing this talk, here’s a linkdump of various resources that are either mentioned in the talk or influenced it…

Declarative Design

HTML

CSS

Design Tools

Design systems

History

People

UX London 2023

I am very excited to announce that UX London will be back in 2023!

We’re returning to Tobacco Dock. Save the dates: June 22nd and 23rd.

Wait …that’s only two days. Previously UX London was a three-day event and you could either go for all three days or get a ticket for just one day.

Well, that’s changing. UX London 2023 will be condensed into a two-day event. You get a ticket for both days and everyone shares the experience.

I’m very excited about this! I’m planning to make some other tweaks to the format, but the basic structure of each day remains roughly the same: inspirational talks in the morning followed by hands-on workshops in the afternoon.

As for the who’ll be giving those talks and running those workshops …well, that’s what I’m currently putting together. For the second year in row, I’m curating the line-up. It’s exciting—like a planning a heist, assembling a team of supersmart people with specialised skillsets.

I can’t wait to reveal more. For now though, you can trust me when I say that the line-up is going to be stellar.

If you do trust me, you can get your super early-bird ticket, you’ve got until this Friday, December 2nd.

The super early-bird tickets are an absolute steal at £695 plus VAT. After Friday, you’ll be able to get early-bird tickets for the more reasonable price of £995 plus VAT.

Keep an eye on the UX London website for speaker announcements. I’ll also be revealing those updates here too because, as you can probably tell, I’m positively gleeful about UX London 2023.

See you there!

Tweaking navigation sizing

Gerry talks about “top tasks” a lot. He literally wrote the book on it:

Top tasks are what matter most to your customers.

Seems pretty obvious, right? But it’s actually pretty rare to see top tasks presented any differently than other options.

Look at the global navigation on most websites. Typically all the options are given equal prominence. Even the semantics under the hood often reflect this egalitarian ideal, with each list in an unordered list. All the navigation options are equal, but I bet that the reality for most websites is that some navigation options are more equal than others.

I’ve been guilty of this on The Session. The site-wide navigation shows a number of options: tunes, events, discussions, etc. Each one is given equal prominence, but I can tell you without even looking at my server logs that 90% of the traffic goes to the tunes section—that’s the beating heart of The Session. That’s why the home page has a search form that defaults to searching for tunes.

I wanted the navigation to reflect the reality of what people are coming to the site for. I decided to make the link to the tunes section more prominent by bumping up the font size a bit.

I was worried about how weird this might look; we’re so used to seeing all navigation items presented equally. But I think it worked out okay (though it might take a bit of getting used to if you’re accustomed to the previous styling). It helps that “tunes” is a nice short word, so bumping up the font size on that word doesn’t jostle everything else around.

I think this adjustment is working well for this situation where there’s one very clear tippy-top task. I wouldn’t want to apply it across the board, making every item in the navigation proportionally bigger or smaller depending on how often it’s used. That would end up looking like a ransom note.

But giving one single item prominence like this tweaks the visual hierarchy just enough to favour the option that’s most likely to be what a visitor wants.

That last bit is crucial. The visual adjustment reflects what visitors want, not what I want. You could adjust the size of a navigation option that you want to drive traffic to, but in the long run, all you’re going to do is train people to trust your design less.

You don’t get to decide what your top task is. The visitors to your website do. Trying to foist an arbitrary option on them would be the tail wagging the dog.

Anway, I’m feeling a lot better about the site-wide navigation on The Session now that it reflects reality a little bit more. Heck, I may even bump that font size up a little more.