Journal tags: meta

4

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Architects, gardeners, and design systems

I compared design systems to dictionaries. My point was that design systems—like language—can be approached in a prescriptivist or descriptivist manner. And I favour descriptivism.

A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Meanwhile, over on Frank’s website, he’s been documenting the process of its (re)design. He made an interesting comparison in his post Redesign: Gardening vs. Architecture. He talks about two styles of writing:

In interviews, Martin has compared himself to a gardener—forgoing detailed outlines and overly planned plot points to favor ideas and opportunities that spring up in the writing process. You see what grows as you write, then tend to it, nurture it. Each tendrilly digression may turn into the next big branch of your story. This feels right: good things grow, and an important quality of growth is that the significant moments are often unanticipated.

On the other side of writing is who I’ll call “the architect”—one who writes detailed outlines for plots and believes in the necessity of overt structure. It puts stock in planning and foresight. Architectural writing favors divisions and subdivisions, then subdivisions of the subdivisions. It depends on people’s ability to move forward by breaking big things down into smaller things with increasing detail.

It’s not just me, right? It all sounds very design systemsy, doesn’t it?

This is a false dichotomy, of course, but everyone favors one mode of working over the other. It’s a matter of personality, from what I can tell.

Replace “personality” with “company culture” and I think you’ve got an interesting analysis of the two different approaches to design systems. Descriptivist gardening and prescriptivist architecture.

Frank also says something that I think resonates with the evergreen debate about whether design systems stifle creativity:

It can be hard to stay interested if it feels like you’re painting by numbers, even if they are your own numbers.

I think Frank’s comparison—gardeners and architects—also speaks to something bigger than design systems…

I gave a talk last year called Building. You can watch it, listen to it, or read the transcript if you like. The talk is about language (sort of). There’s nothing about prescriptivism or descriptivism in there, but there’s lots about metaphors. I dive into the metaphors we use to describe our work and ourselves: builders, engineers, and architects.

It’s rare to find job titles like software gardener, or information librarian (even though they would be just as valid as other terms we’ve made up like software engineer or information architect). Outside of the context of open source projects, we don’t talk much about maintenance. We’re much more likely to talk about making.

Back in 2015, Debbie Chachra wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly called Why I Am Not a Maker:

When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.

Anyone who’s spent any time working on design systems can tell you there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for architecture and making—“let’s build a library of components!”

There’s less enthusiasm for gardening, care, communication and maintenance. But that’s where the really important work happens.

In her article, Debbie cites Ethan’s touchstone:

In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish.

(Emphasis mine.)

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Humans aren’t always great at efficiency and consistency, but machines are. Automation increases efficiency and consistency, sacrificing messy humanity along the way:

Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children.

Historically, we’ve seen automation in terms of physical labour—dock workers, factory workers, truck drivers. As far as I know, none of those workers participated in the creation of their mechanical successors. But when it comes to our work on the web, we’re positively eager to create the systems to make us redundant.

The usual response to this is the one given to other examples of automation: you’ll be free to spend your time in a more meaningful way. With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.

You’ve heard the joke about the factory of the future, right? The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.

Good joke.

Everybody laugh.

Roll on snare drum.

Curtains.

Browser defaults

I’ve been thinking about some of the default behaviours that are built into web browsers.

First off, there’s the decision that a browser makes if you enter a web address without a protocol. Let’s say you type in example.com without specifying whether you’re looking for http://example.com or https://example.com.

Browsers default to HTTP rather than HTTPS. Given that HTTP is older than HTTPS that makes sense. But given that there’s been such a push for TLS on the web, and the huge increase in sites served over HTTPS, I wonder if it’s time to reconsider that default?

Most websites that are served over HTTPS have an automatic redirect from HTTP to HTTPS (enforced with HSTS). There’s an ever so slight performance hit from that, at least for the very first visit. If, when no protocol is specified, browsers were to attempt to reach the HTTPS port first, we’d get a little bit of a speed improvement.

But would that break any existing behaviour? I don’t know. I guess there would be a bit of a performance hit in the other direction. That is, the browser would try HTTPS first, and when that doesn’t exist, go for HTTP. Sites served only over HTTP would suffer that little bit of lag.

Whatever the default behaviour, some sites are going to pay that performance penalty. Right now it’s being paid by sites that are served over HTTPS.

Here’s another browser default that Rob mentioned recently: the viewport meta tag:

I thought I might be able to get away with omitting meta name="viewport". Apparently not! Maybe someday.

This all goes back to the default behaviour of Mobile Safari when the iPhone was first released. Most sites wouldn’t display correctly if one pixel were treated as one pixel. That’s because most sites were built with the assumption that they would be viewed on monitors rather than phones. Only weirdos like me were building sites without that assumption.

So the default behaviour in Mobile Safari is assume a page width of 1024 pixels, and then shrink that down to fit on the screen …unless the developer over-rides that behaviour with a viewport meta tag. That default behaviour was adopted by other mobile browsers. I think it’s a universal default.

But the web has changed since the iPhone was released in 2007. Responsive design has swept the web. What would happen if mobile browsers were to assume width=device-width?

The viewport meta element always felt like a (proprietary) band-aid rather than a long-term solution—for one thing, it’s the kind of presentational information that belongs in CSS rather than HTML. It would be nice if we could bid it farewell.

Someday

In the latest issue of Justin’s excellent Responsive Web Design weekly newsletter, he includes a segment called “The Snippet Show”:

This is what tells all our browsers on all our devices to set the viewport to be the same width of the current device, and to also set the initial scale to 1 (not scaled at all). This essentially allows us to have responsive design consistently.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

The viewport value for the meta element was invented by Apple when the iPhone was released. Back then, it was a safe bet that most websites were wider than the iPhone’s 320 pixel wide display—most of them were 960 pixels wide …because reasons. So mobile Safari would automatically shrink those sites down to fit within the display. If you wanted to over-ride that behaviour, you had to use the meta viewport gubbins that they made up.

That was nine years ago. These days, if you’re building a responsive website, you still need to include that meta element.

That seems like a shame to me. I’m not suggesting that the default behaviour should switch to assuming a fluid layout, but maybe the browser could just figure it out. After all, the CSS will already be parsed by the time the HTML is rendering. Perhaps a quick test for the presence of a crawlbar could be used to trigger the shrinking behaviour. No crawlbar, no shrinking.

Maybe someday the assumption behind the current behaviour could be flipped—assume a website is responsive unless the author explicitly requests the shrinking behaviour. I’d like to think that could happen soon, but I suspect that a depressingly large number of sites are still fixed-width (I don’t even want to know—don’t tell me).

There are other browser default behaviours that might someday change. Right now, if I type example.com into a browser, it will first attempt to contact http://example.com rather than https://example.com. That means the example.com server has to do a redirect, costing the user valuable time.

You can mitigate this by putting your site on the HSTS preload list but wouldn’t it be nice if browsers first checked for HTTPS instead of HTTP? I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but someday …someday.

Metadata markup

When something on your website is shared on Twitter or Facebook, you probably want a nice preview to appear with it, right?

For Twitter, you can use Twitter cards—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

For Facebook, you can use the grandiosely-titled Open Graph protocol—a collection of meta elements you place in the head of your document.

What’s that you say? They sound awfully similar? Why, no! I mean, just look at the difference. Here’s how you’d mark up a blog post for Twitter:

<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

Whereas here’s how you’d mark up the same blog post for Facebook:

<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

See? Completely different.

Okay, I’ll attempt to dial down my sarcasm, but I find this wastage annoying. It adds unnecessary complexity, which in turn, I suspect, puts a lot of people off even trying to implement this stuff. In short: 927.

We’ve seen this kind of waste before. I remember when Netscape and Microsoft were battling it out in the browser wars: Internet Explorer added a proprietary acronym element, while Netscape added the abbr element. They both basically did the same thing. For years, Internet Explorer refused to implement the abbr element out of sheer spite.

A more recent example of the negative effects of competing standards was on display at this year’s Edge conference in London. In a session on front-end data, Nolan Lawson decried the fact that developers weren’t making more use of the client-side storage options available in browsers today. After all, there are so many to choose from: LocalStorage, WebSQL, IndexedDB…

(Hint: if developers aren’t showing much enthusiasm for the latest and greatest API which is sooooo much better than the previous APIs they were also encouraged to use at the time, perhaps their reticence is understandable.)

Anyway, back to metacrap.

Matt has written a guide to what you need to do in order to get a preview of your posts to appear in Slack. Fortunately the answer is not yet another collection of meta elements to place in the head of your document. Instead, Slack piggybacks on the existing combatants: oEmbed, Twitter Cards, and Open Graph.

So to placate both Twitter and Facebook (with Slack thrown in for good measure), your metadata markup is supposed to look something like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">
<meta property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There are two things on display here: redundancy, and also, redundancy.

Now the eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a crucial difference between the Twitter metacrap and the Facebook metacrap. The Twitter metacrap uses the name attribute on the meta element, whereas the Facebook metacrap uses the property attribute. Technically, there is no property attribute in HTML—it’s an RDFa thing. But the fact that they’re using two different attributes means that we can squish the meta elements together like this:

<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary">
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@adactio">
<meta name="twitter:url" property="og:url" content="https://adactio.com/journal/9881">
<meta name="twitter:title" property="og:title" content="Metadata markup">
<meta name="twitter:description" property="og:description" content="So many standards to choose from.">
<meta name="twitter:image" property="og:image" content="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

There. I saved you at least a little bit of typing.

The metacrap situation is even more ridiculous for “add to homescreen”/”pin to start”/whatever else browser makers can’t agree on…

Microsoft:

<meta name="msapplication-starturl" content="https://adactio.com" />
<meta name="msapplication-window" content="width=800;height=600">
<meta name="msapplication-tooltip" content="Kill me now...">

Apple:

<link rel="apple-touch-icon" href="https://adactio.com/icon.png">

(Repeat four or five times with different variations of icon sizes, and be sure to create icons with new sizes after every. single. Apple. keynote.)

Fortunately Google, Opera, and Mozilla appear to be converging on using an external manifest file:

<link rel="manifest" href="https://adactio.com/manifest.json">

Perhaps our long national nightmare of balkanised metacrap is finally coming to an end, and clearer heads will prevail.