Journal tags: prioritisation

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Principles and priorities

I think about design principles a lot. I’m such a nerd for design principles, I even have a collection. I’m not saying all of the design principles in the collection are good—far from it! I collect them without judgement.

As for what makes a good design principle, I’ve written about that before. One aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that a design principle shouldn’t be an obvious truism. Take this as an example:

Make it usable.

Who’s going to disagree with that? It’s so agreeable that it’s practically worthless as a design principle. But now take this statement:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh, now we’re talking! That’s controversial. That’s bound to surface some disagreement, which is a good thing. It’s now passing the reversability test—it’s not hard to imagine an endeavour driven by the opposite:

Profitability is more important than usability.

In either formulation, what makes these statements better than the bland toothless agreeable statements—“Usability is good!”, “Profitability is good!”—is that they introduce the element of prioritisation.

I like design principles that can be formulated as:

X, even over Y.

It’s not saying that Y is unimportant, just that X is more important:

Usability, even over profitability.

Or:

Profitability, even over usability.

Design principles formulated this way help to crystalise priorities. Chris has written about the importance of establishing—and revisiting—priorities on any project:

Prioritisation isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off exercise. The changing needs of your customers, the business environment and new opportunities from technology mean prioritisation is best done as a regular activity.

I’ve said it many times, but one on my favourite design principles comes from the HTML design principles. The priority of consitituencies (it’s got “priorities” right there in the name!):

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

Or put another way:

  • Users, even over authors.
  • Authors, even over implementors.
  • Implementors, even over specifiers.
  • Specifiers, even over theoretical purity.

When it comes to evaluating technology for the web, I think there are a number of factors at play.

First and foremost, there’s the end user. If a technology choice harms the end user, avoid it. I’m thinking here of the kind of performance tax that a user has to pay when developers choose to use megabytes of JavaScript.

Mind you, some technologies have no direct effect on the end user. When it comes to build tools, version control, toolchains …all the stuff that sits on your computer and never directly interacts with users. In that situation, the wants and needs of developers can absolutely take priority.

But as a general principle, I think this works:

User experience, even over developer experience.

Sadly, I think the current state of “modern” web development reverses that principle. Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience.

I feel like personal websites are an exception here. What you do on your own website is completely up to you. But once you’re taking a paycheck to make websites that will be used by other people, it’s incumbent on you to realise that it’s not about you.

I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.

I’d like to think that developers would follow a similar progression, and I’m sure that some do. But I’ve seen many senior developers who have grown more enamoured with technologies instead of honing in on the most appropriate technology for end users. Maybe that’s because in many organisations, developers are positioned further away from the end users (whereas designers are ideally being confronted with their creations being used by actual people). If a lead developer is focused on the productivity, efficiency, and happiness of the dev team, it’s no wonder that their priorities end up overtaking the user experience.

I realise I’m talking in very binary terms here: developer experience versus user experience. I know it’s not always that simple. Other priorities also come into play, like business needs. Sometimes business needs are in direct conflict with user needs. If an online business makes its money through invasive tracking and surveillance, then there’s no point in having a design principle that claims to prioritise user needs above all else. That would be a hollow claim, and the design principle would become worthless.

Because that’s the point with design principles. They’re there to be used. They’re not a nice fluffy exercise in feeling good about your work. The priority of constituencies begins, “in case of conflict” and that’s exactly when a design principle matters—when it’s tested.

Suppose someone with a lot of clout in your organisation makes a decision, but that decision conflicts with your organisations’s design principles. Instead of having an opinion-based argument about who’s right or wrong, the previously agreed-upon design principles allow you to take ego out of the equation.

Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.

Lightweight

It’s been fascinating to see how television programmes have adapted to The Situation. It’s like there’s been a weird inversion with the YouTube asthetic. Instead of YouTubers doing their utmost to emulate the look of professional television, now everyone on professional television looks like a YouTuber.

No more lighting or audio technicians. No more studio audiences. Heck, no more studios.

There are some kinds of TV programmes that are showing the strain. A lot of comedy formats just fall flat without the usual production values. But a lot of programmes work just fine. In fact, some of them might be better. Watching Mary Beard present Front Row Late from her house is an absolute delight. It feels more direct and honest without the artiface of a television studio. It kind of makes you wonder whether expensive production costs are really necessary when what you really care about is the content.

All of this is one big belaboured metaphor for websites.

In times of crisis, informational websites sometimes offer a “lite” version. Max has even made an emergency website kit:

The site contains only the bare minimum - no webfonts, no tracking, no unnecessary images. The entire thing should fit in a single HTTP request. It’s basically just a small, ultra-lean blog focused on maximum resilience and accessibility. The Service Worker takes it a step further from there so if you’ve visited the site once, the information is still accessible even if you lose network coverage.

Eric emphasises the importance of performance in his post Get Static:

I’m thinking here of sites for places like health departments (and pretty much all government services), hospitals and clinics, utility services, food delivery and ordering, and I’m sure there are more that haven’t occurred to me.  As much as you possibly can, get it down to static HTML and CSS and maybe a tiny bit of enhancing JS, and pare away every byte you can.

Tom Loosemore offers this advice to teams building new coronavirus services:

  1. Get a 4 year-old Android phone, and use it as your test/demo device.
  2. https://design-system.service.gov.uk is your friend.
  3. Full React isn’t your friend if it makes your service slow & inaccessible

Remember: This is for everyone.

Indeed, Gov.uk are usually a paragon of best practices in just about any situation. But they dropped the ball recently, as Matthew attests:

coronavirus.data.gov.uk is a static site, fetching and displaying remote data. It is also a 100% client-side JavaScript React site.

http://dracos.co.uk/made/coronavirus.data.gov.uk/ is 238K vs 770K (basics) on load. I’ve removed about 550K of JavaScript. It seems to work the same.

As Tom says:

One sign that your website isn’t meeting the needs of all your users is when Matthew Somerville gets sufficiently grumpy about it to do a proper version himself.

It’s true enough that Matthew excels at creating lightweight, accessible versions of services that are too bloated or buggy to use. His accessible Odeon project from back in the day is legendary. And I use his slimline version of the National Rail website all the time: traintimes.org.uk—it’s a terrificly performant progressive web app.

It’s thankless work though. It flies in the face of everything considered “modern” web development. (If you want to know the cost of “modern” framework-driven JavaScript-first web development, Tim has the numbers.) But Matthew is kind of a hero to me. I wish more developers would follow his example.

Maybe now, with this rush to make lightweight versions of valuable services, we might stop and reflect on whether we ever really needed all those added extras in the first place.

Hope springs eternal.

Update: Matthew has written about his process in Looking at coronavirus.data.gov.uk.

Good griddance

I’m not great at estimation, but I still try to do it on any project I’m working, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I break down different bits of the work, and ask myself two questions:

  1. How important is this?
  2. How long will it take?

If I were smart, I’d plot the answers on a graph. I start doing the important stuff, beginning with whatever won’t take too long. Then I’ve got a choice: either do the stuff that’s not all that important, but won’t take long—or do the stuff that will take quite a while, but is quite important. Finally, there’s stuff that’s not important and will take quite a while to do. I leave that to the end. If it never ends up getting done, it’s not the end of the world.

I guess it’s not really about estimation; it’s more about prioritisation.

Anyway, I’m working on a fun little project right now—the website for one of Clearleft’s many excellent events. There was one particular part of the design that I had estimated would take quite a while to do, so I didn’t get around to it until today. It was a layout that I figured would take maybe half a day of wrangling CSS.

I used CSS grid and I was done in five minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. It was literally five minutes.

I thought to myself, “Well, I want these elements to be arranged in two rows of three columns, but I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.”

Normally my next step would be to figure out how to translate those wishes into floats and clears, or maybe flexbox. But this time, there was almost no translation. I could more or less write the CSS like I would write English.

I want these elements to be arranged in rows of three columns.

display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr fr

I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.

grid-row: 1;
grid-column: 3;

That was it. I was done.

I think I may need to recalibrate the estimation part of my brain to account for just how powerful CSS grid is.