Journal tags: resilience

10

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Continuous partial browser support

Vendor prefixes didn’t work. The theory was sound. It was a way of marking CSS and JavaScript features as being experimental. Developers could use the prefixed properties as long as they understood that those features weren’t to be relied upon.

That’s not what happened though. Developers used vendor-prefixed properties as though they were stable. Tutorials were published that basically said “Go ahead and use these vendor-prefixed properties and ship it!” There were even tools that would add the prefixes for you so you didn’t have to type them out for yourself.

Browsers weren’t completely blameless either. Long after features were standardised, they would only be supported in their prefixed form. Apple was and is the worst for this. To this day, if you want to use the clip-path property in your CSS, you’ll need to duplicate your declaration with -webkit-clip-path if you want to support Safari. It’s been like that for seven years and counting.

Like capitalism, vendor prefixes were one of those ideas that sounded great in theory but ended up being unworkable in practice.

Still, developers need some way to get their hands on experiment features. But we don’t want browsers to ship experimental features without some kind of safety mechanism.

The current thinking involves something called origin trials. Here’s the explainer from Microsoft Edge and here’s Google Chrome’s explainer:

  • Developers are able to register for an experimental feature to be enabled on their origin for a fixed period of time measured in months. In exchange, they provide us their email address and agree to give feedback once the experiment ends.
  • Usage of these experiments is constrained to remain below Chrome’s deprecation threshold (< 0.5% of all Chrome page loads) by a system which automatically disables the experiment on all origins if this threshold is exceeded.

I think it works pretty well. If you’re really interested in kicking the tyres on an experimental feature, you can opt in to the origin trial. But it’s very clear that you wouldn’t want to ship it to production.

That said…

You could ship something that’s behind an origin trial, but you’d have to make sure you’re putting safeguards in place. At the very least, you’d need to do feature detection. You certainly couldn’t use an experimental feature for anything mission critical …but you could use it as an enhancement.

And that is a pretty great way to think about all web features, experimental or otherwise. Don’t assume the feature will be supported. Use feature detection (or @supports in the case of CSS). Try to use the feature as an enhancement rather than a dependency.

If you treat all browser features as though they’re behind an origin trial, then suddenly the landscape of browser support becomes more navigable. Instead of looking at the support table for something on caniuse.com and thinking, “I wish more browsers supported this feature so that I could use it!”, you can instead think “I’m going to use this feature today, but treat it as an experimental feature.”

You can also do it for well-established features like querySelector, addEventListener, and geolocation. Instead of assuming that browser support is universal, it doesn’t hurt to take a more defensive approach. Assume nothing. Acknowledge and embrace unpredictability.

The debacle with vendor prefixes shows what happens if we treat experimental features as though they’re stable. So let’s flip that around. Let’s treat stable features as though they’re experimental. If you cultivate that mindset, your websites will be more robust and resilient.

Saving forms

I added a long-overdue enhancement to The Session recently. Here’s the scenario…

You’re on a web page with a comment form. You type your well-considered thoughts into a textarea field. But then something happens. Maybe you accidentally navigate away from the page or maybe your network connection goes down right when you try to submit the form.

This is a textbook case for storing data locally on the user’s device …at least until it has safely been transmitted to the server. So that’s what I set about doing.

My first decision was choosing how to store the data locally. There are multiple APIs available: sessionStorage, IndexedDB, localStorage. It was clear that sessionStorage wasn’t right for this particular use case: I needed the data to be saved across browser sessions. So it was down to IndexedDB or localStorage. IndexedDB is the more versatile and powerful—because it’s asynchronous—but localStorage is nice and straightforward so I decided on that. I’m not sure if that was the right decision though.

Alright, so I’m going to store the contents of a form in localStorage. It accepts key/value pairs. I’ll make the key the current URL. The value will be the contents of that textarea. I can store other form fields too. Even though localStorage technically only stores one value, that value can be a JSON object so in reality you can store multiple values with one key (just remember to parse the JSON when you retrieve it).

Now I know what I’m going to store (the textarea contents) and how I’m going to store it (localStorage). The next question is when should I do it?

I could play it safe and store the comment whenever the user presses a key within the textarea. But that seems like overkill. It would be more efficient to only save when the user leaves the current page for any reason.

Alright then, I’ll use the unload event. No! Bad Jeremy! If I use that then the browser can’t reliably add the current page to the cache it uses for faster back-forwards navigations. The page life cycle is complicated.

So beforeunload then? Well, maybe. But modern browsers also support a pagehide event that looks like a better option.

In either case, just adding a listener for the event could screw up the caching of the page for back-forwards navigations. I should only listen for the event if I know that I need to store the contents of the textarea. And in order to know if the user has interacted with the textarea, I’m back to listening for key presses again.

But wait a minute! I don’t have to listen for every key press. If the user has typed anything, that’s enough for me. I only need to listen for the first key press in the textarea.

Handily, addEventListener accepts an object of options. One of those options is called “once”. If I set that to true, then the event listener is only fired once.

So I set up a cascade of event listeners. If the user types anything into the textarea, that fires an event listener (just once) that then adds the event listener for when the page is unloaded—and that’s when the textarea contents are put into localStorage.

I’ve abstracted my code into a gist. Here’s what it does:

  1. Cut the mustard. If this browser doesn’t support localStorage, bail out.
  2. Set the localStorage key to be the current URL.
  3. If there’s already an entry for the current URL, update the textarea with the value in localStorage.
  4. Write a function to store the contents of the textarea in localStorage but don’t call the function yet.
  5. The first time that a key is pressed inside the textarea, start listening for the page being unloaded.
  6. When the page is being unloaded, invoke that function that stores the contents of the textarea in localStorage.
  7. When the form is submitted, remove the entry in localStorage for the current URL.

That last step isn’t something I’m doing on The Session. Instead I’m relying on getting something back from the server to indicate that the form was successfully submitted. If you can do something like that, I’d recommend that instead of listening to the form submission event. After all, something could still go wrong between the form being submitted and the data being received by the server.

Still, this bit of code is better than nothing. Remember, it’s intended as an enhancement. You should be able to drop it into any project and improve the user experience a little bit. Ideally, no one will ever notice it’s there—it’s the kind of enhancement that only kicks in when something goes wrong. A little smidgen of resilient web design. A defensive enhancement.

The reason for a share button type

If you’re at all interested in what I wrote about a declarative Web Share API—and its sequel, a polyfill for button type=”share”—then you might be interested in an explainer document I’ve put together.

It’s a useful exercise for me to enumerate the reasoning for button type=“share” in one place. If you have any feedback, feel free to fork it or create an issue.

The document is based on my initial blog posts and the discussion that followed in this issue on the repo for the Web Share API. In that thread I got some pushback from Marcos. There are three points he makes. I think that two of them lack merit, but the third one is actually spot on.

Here’s the first bit of pushback:

Apart from placing a button in the content, I’m not sure what the proposal offers over what (at least one) browser already provides? For instance, Safari UI already provides a share button by default on every page

But that is addressed in the explainer document for the Web Share API itself:

The browser UI may not always be available, e.g., when a web app has been installed as a standalone/fullscreen app.

That’s exactly what I wanted to address. Browser UI is not always available and as progressive web apps become more popular, authors will need to provide a way for users to share the current URL—something that previously was handled by browsers.

That use-case of sharing the current page leads nicely into the second bit of pushback:

The API is specialized… using it to share the same page is kinda pointless.

But again, the explainer document for the Web Share API directly contradicts this:

Sharing the page’s own URL (a very common case)…

Rather than being a difference of opinion, this is something that could be resolved with data. I’d really like to find out how people are currently using the Web Share API. How much of the current usage falls into the category of “share the current page”? I don’t know the best way to gather this data though. If you have any ideas, let me know. I’ve started an issue where you can share how you’re using the Web Share API. Or if you’re not using the Web Share API, but you know someone who is, please let them know.

Okay, so those first two bits of pushback directly contradict what’s in the explainer document for the Web Share API. The third bit of pushback is more philosophical and, I think, more interesting.

The Web Share API explainer document does a good job of explaining why a declarative solution is desirable:

The link can be placed declaratively on the page, with no need for a JavaScript click event handler.

That’s also my justification for having a declarative alternative: it would be easier for more people to use. I said:

At a fundamental level, declarative technologies have a lower barrier to entry than imperative technologies.

But Marcos wrote:

That’s demonstrably false and a common misconception: See OWL, XForms, SVG, or any XML+namespace spec. Even HTML is poorly understood, but it just happens to have extremely robust error recovery (giving the illusion of it being easy). However, that’s not a function of it being “declarative”.

He’s absolutely right.

It’s not so much that I want a declarative option—I want an option that has robust error recovery. After all, XML is a declarative language but its error handling is as strict as an imperative language like JavaScript: make one syntactical error and nothing works. XML has a brittle error-handling model by design. HTML and CSS have extremely robust error recovery by design. It’s that error-handling model that gives HTML and CSS their robustness.

I’ve been using the word “declarative” when I actually meant “robust in handling errors”.

I guess that when I’ve been talking about “a declarative solution”, I’ve been thinking in terms of the three languages parsed by browsers: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Two of those languages are declarative, and those two also happen to have much more forgiving error-handling than the third language. That’s the important part—the error handling—not the fact that they’re declarative.

I’ve been using “declarative” as a shorthand for “either HTML or CSS”, but really I should try to be more precise in my language. The word “declarative” covers a wide range of possible languages, and not all of them lower the barrier to entry. A declarative language with a brittle error-handling model is as daunting as an imperative language.

I should try to use a more descriptive word than “declarative” when I’m describing HTML or CSS. Resilient? Robust?

With that in mind, button type=“share” is worth pursuing. Yes, it’s a declarative option for using the Web Share API, but more important, it’s a robust option for using the Web Share API.

I invite you to read the explainer document for a share button type and I welcome your feedback …especially if you’re currently using the Web Share API!

Hey now

Progressive enhancement is at the heart of everything I do on the web. It’s the bedrock of my speaking and writing too. Whether I’m writing about JavaScript, Ajax, HTML, or service workers, it’s always through the lens of progressive enhancement. Sometimes I explicitly bang the drum, like with Resilient Web Design. Other times I don’t mention it by name at all, and instead talk only about its benefits.

I sometimes get asked to name some examples of sites that still offer their core functionality even when JavaScript fails. I usually mention Amazon.com, although that has other issues. But quite often I find that a lot of the examples I might mention are dismissed as not being “web apps” (whatever that means).

The pushback I get usually takes the form of “Well, that approach is fine for websites, but it wouldn’t work something like Gmail.”

It’s always Gmail. Which is odd. Because if you really wanted to flummox me with a product or service that defies progressive enhancement, I’d have a hard time with something like, say, a game (although it would be pretty cool to build a text adventure that’s progressively enhanced into a first-person shooter). But an email client? That would work.

Identify core functionality.

Read emails. Write emails.

Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.

HTML for showing a list of emails, HTML for displaying the contents of the HTML, HTML for the form you write the response in.

Enhance!

Now add all the enhancements that improve the experience—keyboard shortcuts; Ajax instead of full-page refreshes; local storage, all that stuff.

Can you build something that works just like Gmail without using any JavaScript? No. But that’s not what progressive enhancement is about. It’s about providing the core functionality (reading and writing emails) with the simplest possible technology (HTML) and then enhancing using more powerful technologies (like JavaScript).

Progressive enhancement isn’t about making a choice between using simpler more robust technologies or using more advanced features; it’s about using simpler more robust technologies and then using more advanced features. Have your cake and eat it.

Fortunately I no longer need to run this thought experiment to imagine what it would be like if something like Gmail were built with a progressive enhancement approach. That’s what HEY is.

Sam Stephenson describes the approach they took:

HEY’s UI is 100% HTML over the wire. We render plain-old HTML pages on the server and send them to your browser encoded as text/html. No JSON APIs, no GraphQL, no React—just form submissions and links.

If you think that sounds like the web of 25 years ago, you’re right! Except the HEY front-end stack progressively enhances the “classic web” to work like the “2020 web,” with all the fidelity you’d expect from a well-built SPA.

See? It’s not either resilient or modern—it’s resilient and modern. Have your cake and eat it.

And yet this supremely sensible approach is not considered “modern” web development:

The architecture astronauts who, for the past decade, have been selling us on the necessity of React, Redux, and megabytes of JS, cannot comprehend the possibility of building an email app in 2020 with server-rendered HTML.

HEY isn’t perfect by any means—they’ve got a lot of work to do on their accessibility. But it’s good to have a nice short answer to the question “But what about something like Gmail?”

It reminds me of responsive web design:

When Ethan Marcotte demonstrated the power of responsive design, it was met with resistance. “Sure, a responsive design might work for a simple personal site but there’s no way it could scale to a large complex project.”

Then the Boston Globe launched its responsive site. Microsoft made their homepage responsive. The floodgates opened again.

It’s a similar story today. “Sure, progressive enhancement might work for a simple personal site, but there’s no way it could scale to a large complex project.”

The floodgates are ready to open. We just need you to create the poster child for resilient web design.

It looks like HEY might be that poster child.

I have to wonder if its coincidence or connected that this is a service that’s also tackling ethical issues like tracking? Their focus is very much on people above technology. They’ve taken a human-centric approach to their product and a human-centric approach to web development …because ultimately, that’s what progressive enhancement is.

Hard to break

I keep thinking about some feedback that Cassie received recently.

She had delivered the front-end code for a project at Clearleft, and—this being Cassie we’re talking about—the code was rock solid. The client’s Quality Assurance team came back with the verdict that it was “hard to break.”

Hard to break. I love that. That might be the best summation I’ve heard for describing resilience on the web.

If there’s a corollary to resilient web design, it would be brittle web design. In a piece completely unrelated to web development, Jamais Cascio describes brittle systems:

When something is brittle, it’s susceptible to sudden and catastrophic failure.

That sounds like an inarguably bad thing. So why would anyone end up building something in a brittle way? Jamais Cascio continues:

Things that are brittle look strong, may even be strong, until they hit a breaking point, then everything falls apart.

Ah, there’s the rub! It’s not that brittle sites don’t work. They work just fine …until they don’t.

Brittle systems are solid until they’re not. Brittleness is illusory strength. Things that are brittle are non-resilient, sometimes even anti-resilient — they can make resilience more difficult.

Kilian Valkhof makes the same point when it comes to front-end development. For many, accessibility is an unknown unknown:

When you start out it’s you, notepad and a browser against the world. You open up that notepad, and you type

<div onclick="alert('hello world');">Click me!</div>

You fire up your browser, you click your div and …it works! It just works! Awesome. You open up the devtools. No errors. Well done! Clearly you did a good job. On to the next thing.

At the surface level, there’s no discernable difference between a resilient solution and a brittle one:

For all sorts of reasons, both legitimate and, as always, weird browser legacy reasons, a clickable div will mostly work. Well enough to fool someone starting out anyway.

If everything works, how would they know it kinda doesn’t?

Killian goes on to suggest ways to try to make this kind of hidden brittleness more visible.

Furthermore we could envision a browser that is much stricter when developing.

This something I touched on when I was talking about web performance with Gerry on his podcast:

There’s a disconnect in the process we go through when we’re making something, and then how that thing is experienced when it’s actually on the web, which is dependent on network speeds and processing speeds and stuff.

I spend a lot of time wondering why so many websites are badly built. Sure, there’s a lot can be explained by misaligned priorities. And it could just be an expression of Sturgeon’s Law—90% of websites are crap because 90% of everything is crap. But I’ve also come to realise that even though resilience is the antithesis to brittleness, they both share something in common: they’re invisible.

We have a natural bias towards what’s visible. Being committed to making sure something is beautiful to behold is, in some ways, the easy path to travel. But being committed to making sure something is also hard to break? That takes real dedication.

Components and concerns

We tend to like false dichotomies in the world of web design and web development. I’ve noticed one recently that keeps coming up in the realm of design systems and components.

It’s about separation of concerns. The web has a long history of separating structure, presentation, and behaviour through HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. It has served us very well. If you build in that order, ensuring that something works (to some extent) before adding the next layer, the result will be robust and resilient.

But in this age of components, many people are pointing out that it makes sense to separate things according to their function. Here’s the Diana Mounter in her excellent article about design systems at Github:

Rather than separating concerns by languages (such as HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), we’re are working towards a model of separating concerns at the component level.

This echoes a point made previously in a slidedeck by Cristiano Rastelli.

Separating interfaces according to the purpose of each component makes total sense …but that doesn’t mean we have to stop separating structure, presentation, and behaviour! Why not do both?

There’s nothing in the “traditonal” separation of concerns on the web (HTML/CSS/JavaScript) that restricts it only to pages. In fact, I would say it works best when it’s applied on smaller scales.

In her article, Pattern Library First: An Approach For Managing CSS, Rachel advises starting every component with good markup:

Your starting point should always be well-structured markup.

This ensures that your content is accessible at a very basic level, but it also means you can take advantage of normal flow.

That’s basically an application of starting with the rule of least power.

In chapter 6 of Resilient Web Design, I outline the three-step process I use to build on the web:

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

That chapter is filled with examples of applying those steps at the level of an entire site or product, but it doesn’t need to end there:

We can apply the three‐step process at the scale of individual components within a page. “What is the core functionality of this component? How can I make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology? Now how can I enhance it?”

There’s another shared benefit to separating concerns when building pages and building components. In the case of pages, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good URL. With components, asking “what is the core functionality?” will help you come up with a good name …something that’s at the heart of a good design system. In her brilliant Design Systems book, Alla advocates asking “what is its purpose?” in order to get a good shared language for components.

My point is this:

  • Separating structure, presentation, and behaviour is a good idea.
  • Separating an interface into components is a good idea.

Those two good ideas are not in conflict. Presenting them as though they were binary choices is like saying “I used to eat Italian food, but now I drink Italian wine.” They work best when they’re done in combination.

A workshop on building for resilience

In February, I tried out a new workshop two times—once at Webstock in New Zealand, and once in Hong Kong.

The workshop is called The Progressive Web: Building for Resilience. Here’s an excerpt form the blurb:

This workshop will show you to to think in a progressive way that works with the grain of the web. Together we’ll peel back the layers of the web and build upwards, creating experiences that work for everyone while making the best of cutting-edge browser technologies. From URL design to Progressive Web Apps, this journey will cover each stage of technological advancement.

Basically, it’s the workshop version of Resilient Web Design. If that book is the theory, this workshop is the practice.

Tim recently posted his tips for running workshops and there’s a lot in there that resonates with me. Like Tim, I’ve become less and less reliant on slides. In fact, this workshop—like my workshop on evaluating technology—has no slides. Instead it’s all about the exercises and going with the flow.

After starting with a warm-up, I canvas the room to see if there any specific topics, tools or technologies that people are particularly interested in covering. I’ll note those (on post-its slapped on the wall) for reference throughout the day, to try to make sure that those particular things are touched on at some point. Then I start with a thought experiment…

First of all, I get everyone to call out websites, services and apps that they use almost every day: Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, Slack, Google Docs, and so on. Those all get documented on the wall. Then it’s time to ask of each product, “What is the core functionality?” The idea here is to get beneath the surface-level verbs like swiping, tapping and dragging to get to the real purpose of a service: buying, selling, sharing, reading, writing, collaborating, and so on.

At this point I inform the attendees that the year is 1995. And now we’re going to build these services using the technology of this time. This is a playful way of getting answers to the question “What’s the simplest technology to enable the core functionality?” It’s mostly forms, links, and lots of heavy lifting on the server.

Then the real fun begins. “Enhance!” Moving forward in time, we get to add styles, we add interactivity with JavaScript, then Ajax, and then we get to really have fun with technologies like web sockets, geolocation, local storage, right the way up to service workers, notifications, and background sync. And the beauty of it all is that, if any of those technologies aren’t supported in a particular browser or device, the core functionality is still available.

Next, we apply this layered mindset to a new service. I split the attendees into groups, and each of them gets a procedurally-generated startup idea …generated by shuffling some cards. This is an exercise I first tried when I was teaching in Porto:

I made five cards with types of sites on them: news, social network, shopping, travel, and learning. Another five cards had subjects: books, music, food, pets, and cars. And another five cards had audiences: students, parents, the elderly, commuters, and teachers. Everyone was dealt a random card from each deck, resulting in briefs like “a travel site about food for the elderly” or “a social network about music for commuters.”

The first few exercises are good creative fun: come up with a name, then a logo, then a business model. Then it’s time to build. It starts with URL design. Then it’s content prioritisation (for a representative URL). Then it’s layout (sketching!). The enhancements have begun. “How might this URL benefit from Ajax?” “How might this URL benefit from geolocation?” “How might this URL benefit from offline storage?” “How might this URL benefit from a service worker?”

Workshop team 4 Workshop team 3 Workshop team 2 Workshop team 1

At this point, we’ve applied the layered, progressive approach at the scale of an entire service, and at the scale of an individual URL. Finally, we apply the same approach at the level of a component. It might be a navigation, or a carousel, or an interactive widget. In each case, the same process applies: “What’s the core functionality? What’s the simplest technology to enable that functionality? Enhance!”

Along the way, there are plenty of rabbit holes we can go down. Whether it’s accessibility, or progressive web apps, or pattern libraries, I go along with whatever people are curious about. But all of it ties back to the progressive, layered mindset I’m hoping to foster.

By the end of the day, I’m hoping that an attendee has one of two reactions:

  1. “What a waste of time! Everything in that workshop was blindingly obvious!” (in which case, excellent!—they’re already thinking in a progressive way), or
  2. “That workshop has completely changed the way I think about building on the web!” (I’m being hyperbolic here, but at the very least I’m hoping to impart a new perspective).

Having given the workshop a few times, I’m really pleased with how it went (and more important, I’m pleased that people enjoyed it). If this sounds like something that your company or team would enjoy, get in touch and we can take it from there.

Needs must

I got a follow-up comment to my follow-up post about the follow-up comment I got on my original post about Google Analytics. Keep up.

I made the point that, from a front-end performance perspective, server logs have no impact whereas a JavaScript-based analytics solution must have some impact on the end user. Paul Anthony says:

Google won the analytics war because dropping one line of JS in the footer and handing a tried and tested interface to customers is an obvious no brainer in comparison to setting up an open source option that needs a cron job to parse the files, a database to store the results and doesn’t provide mobile interface.

Good point. Dropping one snippet of JavaScript into your front-end codebase is certainly an easier solution …easier for you, that is. The cost is passed on to your users. This is a classic example of where user needs and developer needs are in opposition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Given the choice between making something my problem, and making something the user’s problem, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

It’s true that this often means doing more work. That’s why it’s called work. This is literally what our jobs are supposed to entail: we put in the work to make life easier for users. We’re supposed to be saving them time, not passing it along.

The example of Google Analytics is pretty extreme, I’ll grant you. The cost to the user of adding that snippet of JavaScript—if you’ve configured things reasonably well—is pretty small (again, just from a performance perspective; there’s still the cost of allowing Google to track them across domains), and the cost to you of setting up a comparable analytics system based on server logs can indeed be disproportionately high. But this tension between user needs and developer needs is something I see play out again and again.

I’ve often thought the HTML design principle called the priority of constituencies could be adopted by web developers:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors.

In Resilient Web Design, I documented the three-step approach I take when I’m building anything on the web:

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

Now I’m wondering if I should’ve clarified that second step further. When I talk about choosing “the simplest possible technology”, what I mean is “the simplest possible technology for the user”, not “the simplest possible technology for the developer.”

For example, suppose I were going to build a news website. The core functionality is fairly easy to identify: providing the news. Next comes the step where I choose the simplest possible technology. Now, if I were a developer who had plenty of experience building JavaScript-driven single page apps, I might conclude that the simplest route for me would be to render the news via JavaScript. But that would be a fragile starting point if I’m trying to reach as many people as possible (I might well end up building a swishy JavaScript-driven single page app in step three, but step two should almost certainly be good ol’ HTML).

Time and time again, I see decisions that favour developer convenience over user needs. Don’t get me wrong—as a developer, I absolutely want developer convenience …but not at the expense of user needs.

I know that “empathy” is an over-used word in the world of user experience and design, but with good reason. I think we should try to remind ourselves of why we make our architectural decisions by invoking who those decisions benefit. For example, “This tech stack is best option for our team”, or “This solution is the best for the widest range of users.” Then, given the choice, favour user needs in the decision-making process.

There will always be situations where, given time and budget constraints, we end up choosing solutions that are easier for us, but not the best for our users. And that’s okay, as long as we acknowledge that compromise and strive to do better next time.

But when the best solutions for us as developers become enshrined as the best possible solutions, then we are failing the people we serve.

That doesn’t mean we must become hairshirt-wearing martyrs; developer convenience is important …but not as important as user needs. Start with user needs.

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.

Resilience retires

I spoke at the GOTO conference in Berlin this week. It was the final outing of a talk I’ve been giving for about a year now called Resilience.

Looking back over my speaking engagements, I reckon I must have given this talk—in one form or another—about sixteen times. If by some statistical fluke or through skilled avoidance strategies you managed not to see the talk, you can still have it rammed down your throat by reading a transcript of the presentation.

That particular outing is from Beyond Tellerrand earlier this year in Düsseldorf. That’s one of the events that recorded a video of the talk. Here are all the videos of it I could find:

Or, if you prefer, here’s an audio file. And here are the slides but they won’t make much sense by themselves.

Resilience is a mixture of history lesson and design strategy. The history lesson is about the origins of the internet and the World Wide Web. The design strategy is a three-pronged approach:

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

And if you like that tweet-sized strategy, you can get it on a poster. Oh, and check this out: Belgian student Sébastian Seghers published a school project on the talk.

Now, you might be thinking that the three-headed strategy sounds an awful lot like progressive enhancement, and you’d be right. I think every talk I’ve ever given has been about progressive enhancement to some degree. But with this presentation I set myself a challenge: to talk about progressive enhancement without ever using the phrase “progressive enhancement”. This is something I wrote about last year—if the term “progressive enhancement” is commonly misunderstood by the very people who would benefit from hearing this message, maybe it’s best to not mention that term and talk about the benefits of progressive enhancement instead: robustness, resilience, and technical credit. I think that little semantic experiment was pretty successful.

While the time has definitely come to retire the presentation, I’m pretty pleased with it, and I feel like it got better with time as I adjusted the material. The most common format for the talk was 40 to 45 minutes long, but there was an extended hour-long “director’s cut” that only appeared at An Event Apart. That included an entire subplot about Arthur C. Clarke and the invention of the telegraph (I’m still pretty pleased with the segue I found to weave those particular threads together).

Anyway, with the Resilience talk behind me, my mind is now occupied with the sequel: Evaluating Technology. I recently shared my research material for this one and, as you may have gathered, it takes me a loooong time to put a presentation like this together (which, by the same token, is one of the reasons why I end up giving the same talk multiple times within a year).

This new talk had its debut at An Event Apart in San Francisco two weeks ago. Jeffrey wrote about it and I’m happy to say he liked it. This bodes well—I’m already booked in for An Event Apart Seattle in April. I’ll also be giving an abridged version of this new talk at next year’s Render conference.

But that’s it for my speaking schedule for now. 2016 is all done and dusted, and 2017 is looking wide open. I hope I’ll get some more opportunities to refine and adjust the Evaluating Technology talk at some more events. If you’re a conference organiser and it sounds like something you’d be interested in, get in touch.

In the meantime, it’s time for me to pack away the Resilience talk, and wheel down into the archives, just like the closing scene of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. The music swells. The credits roll. The image fades to black.