Tags: planning

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Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

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

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.

Notice

We’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching at Clearleft recently; examining our values; trying to make implicit unspoken assumptions explicit and spoken. That process has unearthed some activities that have been at the heart of our company from the very start—sharing, teaching, and nurturing. After all, Clearleft would never have been formed if it weren’t for the generosity of people out there on the web sharing with myself, Andy, and Richard.

One of the values/mottos/watchwords that’s emerging is “Share what you learn.” I like that a lot. It echoes the original slogan of the World Wide Web project, “Share what you know.” It’s been a driving force behind our writing, speaking, and events.

In the same spirit, we’ve been running internship programmes for many years now. John is the latest of a long line of alumni that includes Anna, Emil, and James.

By the way—and this should go without saying, but apparently it still needs to be said—the internships are always, always paid. I know that there are other industries where unpaid internships are the norm. I’ve even heard otherwise-intelligent people defend those unpaid internships for the experience they offer. But what kind of message does it send to someone about the worth of their work when you withhold payment for it? Our industry is young. Let’s not fall foul of the pernicious traps set by older industries that have habitualised exploitation.

In the past couple of years, Andy concocted a new internship scheme:

So this year we decided to try a different approach by scouring the end of year degree shows for hot new talent. We found them not in the interaction courses as we’d expected, but from the worlds of Product Design, Digital Design and Robotics. We assembled a team of three interns , with a range of complementary skills, gave them a space on the mezzanine floor of our new building, and set them a high level brief.

The first such programme resulted in Chüne. The latest Clearleft internship project has just come to an end. The result is Notice.

This time ‘round, the three young graduates were Chloe, Chris and Monika. They each have differing but complementary skill sets: Chloe is a user interface designer; Chris is a product designer; Monika is an artist who knows her way around hardware hacking and coding.

I’ll miss having this lot in the Clearleft office.

Once again, they were set a fairly loose brief. They should come up with something “to enrich the lives of local residents” and it should have a physical and digital component to it.

They got stuck in to researching and brainstorming ideas. At the end of each week, we’d all gather together to get a playback of what they were coming up with. It was at these playbacks that the interns were introduced to a concept that they will no doubt encounter again in their professional lives: seagulling AKA the swoop and poop. For once, it was the Clearlefties who were in the position of being swoop-and-poopers, rather than swoop-and-poopies.

Playback at Clearleft

As the midway point of the internship approached, there were some interesting ideas, but no clear “winner” to pursue. Something else was happening around this time too: dConstruct 2015.

Chloe, Monika and Chris at dConstruct

The interns pitched in with helping out at the event, and in return, we kidnapped some of the speakers—namely John Willshire and Chris Noessel—to offer them some guidance.

There was also plenty of inspiration to be had from the dConstruct talks themselves. One talk in particular struck a chord: Dan Hill’s The City Of Things …especially the bit where he railed against the terrible state of planning application notices:

Most of the time, it ends up down the bottom of the lamppost—soiled and soggy and forgotten. This should be an amazing thing!

Hmm… sounds like something that could enrich the lives of local residents.

Not long after that, Matt Webb came to visit. He encouraged the interns to focus in on just the two ideas that really excited them rather then the 5 or 6 that they were considering. So at the next playback, they presented two potential projects—one about biking and the other about city planning. They put it to a vote and the second project won by a landslide.

That was the genesis of Notice. After that, they pulled out all the stops.

Exciting things are afoot with the @Clearleftintern project.

Not content with designing one device, they came up with a range of three devices to match the differing scope of planning applications. They set about making a working prototype of the device intended for the most common applications.

Monika and Chris, hacking

Last week marked the end of the project and the grand unveiling.

Playing with the @notice_city prototype. Chris breaks it down. Playback time. Unveiling.

They’ve done a great job. All the details are on the website, including this little note I wrote about the project:

This internship programme was an experiment for Clearleft. We wanted to see what would happen if you put through talented young people in a room together for three months to work on a fairly loose brief. Crucially, we wanted to see work that wasn’t directly related to our day-­to-­day dealings with web design.

We offered feedback and advice, but we received so much more in return. Monika, Chloe, and Chris brought an energy and enthusiasm to the Clearleft office that was invigorating. And the quality of the work they produced together exceeded our wildest expectations.

We hereby declare this experiment a success!

Personally, I think the work they’ve produced is very strong indeed. It would be a shame for it to end now. Perhaps there’s a way that it could be funded for further development. Here’s hoping.

Out on the streets of Brighton Prototype

As impressed as I am with the work, I’m even more impressed with the people. They’re not just talented and hard work—they’re a jolly nice bunch to have around.

I’m going to miss them.

The terrific trio!