Journal tags: sms

6

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The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Good form

I got a text this morning at 9:40am. It was from the National Health Service, NHS. It said:

You are now eligible for your free NHS coronavirus vaccination. Please book online at https://www.nhs.uk/covid-vaccination or by calling 119. You will need to provide your name, date of birth and postcode. Your phone number has been obtained from your GP records.

Well, it looks like I timed turning fifty just right!

I typed that URL in on my laptop. It redirected to a somewhat longer URL. There’s a very clear call-to-action to “Book or manage your coronavirus vaccination.” On that page there’s very clear copy about who qualifies for vaccination. I clicked on the “Book my appointments” button.

From there, it’s a sequence of short forms, clearly labelled. Semantic accessible HTML, some CSS, and nothing more. If your browser doesn’t support JavaScript (or you’ve disabled it for privacy reasons), that won’t make any difference to your experience. This is the design system in action and it’s an absolute pleasure to experience.

I consider myself relatively tech-savvy so I’m probably not the best judge of the complexity of the booking system, but it certainly seemed to be as simple as possible (but no simpler). It feels like the principle of least power in action.

SMS to HTML (with a URL as the connective tissue between the two). And if those technologies aren’t available, there’s still a telephone number, and finally, a letter by post.

This experience reminded me of where the web really excels. It felt a bit like the web-driven outdoor dining I enjoyed last summer:

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.

A native app would’ve been complete overkill. That may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often the overkill option is the default.

Give me a URL—either by SMS or QR code or written down—and make sure that when I arrive at that URL, the barrier to entry is as low as possible.

Maybe I’ll never need to visit that URL again. In the case of the NHS, I hope I won’t need to visit again. I just need to get in, accomplish my task, and get out again. This is where the World Wide Web shines.

In five days time, I will get my first vaccine jab. I’m very thankful. Thank you to the NHS. Thank you to everyone who helped build the booking process. It’s beautiful.

Authentication

Two-factor authentication is generally considered A Good Thing™️ when you’re logging in to some online service.

The word “factor” here basically means “kind” so you’re doing two kinds of authentication. Typical factors are:

  • Something you know (like a password),
  • Something you have (like a phone or a USB key),
  • Something you are (biometric Black Mirror shit).

Asking for a password and an email address isn’t two-factor authentication. They’re two pieces of identification, but they’re the same kind (something you know). Same goes for supplying your fingerprint and your face: two pieces of information, but of the same kind (something you are).

None of these kinds of authentication are foolproof. All of them can change. All of them can be spoofed. But when you combine factors, it gets a lot harder for an attacker to breach both kinds of authentication.

The most common kind of authentication on the web is password-based (something you know). When a second factor is added, it’s often connected to your phone (something you have).

Every security bod I’ve talked to recommends using an authenticator app for this if that option is available. Otherwise there’s SMS—short message service, or text message to most folks—but SMS has a weakness. Because it’s tied to a phone number, technically you’re only proving that you have access to a SIM (subscriber identity module), not a specific phone. In the US in particular, it’s all too easy for an attacker to use social engineering to get a number transferred to a different SIM card.

Still, authenticating with SMS is an option as a second factor of authentication. When you first sign up to a service, as well as providing the first-factor details (a password and a username or email address), you also verify your phone number. Then when you subsequently attempt to log in, you input your password and on the next screen you’re told to input a string that’s been sent by text message to your phone number (I say “string” but it’s usually a string of numbers).

There’s an inevitable friction for the user here. But then, there’s a fundamental tension between security and user experience.

In the world of security, vigilance is the watchword. Users need to be aware of their surroundings. Is this web page being served from the right domain? Is this email coming from the right address? Friction is an ally.

But in the world of user experience, the opposite is true. “Don’t make me think” is the rallying cry. Friction is an enemy.

With SMS authentication, the user has to manually copy the numbers from the text message (received in a messaging app) into a form on a website (in a different app—a web browser). But if the messaging app and the browser are on the same device, it’s possible to improve the user experience without sacrificing security.

If you’re building a form that accepts a passcode sent via SMS, you can use the autocomplete attribute with a value of “one-time-code”. For a six-digit passcode, your input element might look something like this:

<input type="text" maxlength="6" inputmode="numeric" autocomplete="one-time-code">

With one small addition to one HTML element, you’ve saved users some tedious drudgery.

There’s one more thing you can do to improve security, but it’s not something you add to the HTML. It’s something you add to the text message itself.

Let’s say your website is example.com and the text message you send reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456.

Add this to the end of the text message:

@example.com #123456

So the full message reads:

Your one-time passcode is 123456.

@example.com #123456

The first line is for humans. The second line is for machines. Using the @ symbol, you’re telling the device to only pre-fill the passcode for URLs on the domain example.com. Using the # symbol, you’re telling the device the value of the passcode. Combine this with autocomplete="one-time-code" in your form and the user shouldn’t have to lift a finger.

I’m fascinated by these kind of emergent conventions in text messages. Remember that the @ symbol and # symbol in Twitter messages weren’t ideas from Twitter—they were conventions that users started and the service then adopted.

It’s a bit different with the one-time code convention as there is a specification brewing from representatives of both Google and Apple.

Tess is leading from the Apple side and she’s got another iron in the fire to make security and user experience play nicely together using the convention of the /.well-known directory on web servers.

You can add a URL for /.well-known/change-password which redirects to the form a user would use to update their password. Browsers and password managers can then use this information if they need to prompt a user to update their password after a breach. I’ve added this to The Session.

Oh, and on that page where users can update their password, the autocomplete attribute is your friend again:

<input type="password" autocomplete="new-password">

If you want them to enter their current password first, use this:

<input type="password" autocomplete="current-password">

All of the things I’ve mentioned—the autocomplete attribute, origin-bound one-time codes in text messages, and a well-known URL for changing passwords—have good browser support. But even if they were only supported in one browser, they’d still be worth adding. These additions do absolutely no harm to browsers that don’t yet support them. That’s progressive enhancement.

Letters of exclusion

I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.

The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.

But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.

Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.

I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.

But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.

Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.

Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.

Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.

Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.

I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.

But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.

But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.

But this isn’t about me.

Indie Web Camp Brighton 2015

Indie Web Camp Brighton 2015 is a wrap, and what a fun weekend it turned out to be.

I was really pleased with the turnout; not just the number of people who came along—many of them from very far afield—but also the range of skill levels and backgrounds represented. What a lovely bunch!

Indie Web Camp Brighton group photo

We kicked off the first day with a show’n’tell: people demoed their sites, showed their posting interfaces, and talked about what they’d like to improve. That sparked plenty of ideas for the afternoon discussions. But in between we had a nice long lunch break—it was a lovely sunny day in Brighton so we took full advantage of the sun, the street food, and the ice cream.

We wrapped up the first day around 5pm and I immediately dashed off to start loading in and sound checking for a Salter Cane gig that evening. That turned out to be a lot of fun—the audience were great—but I was completely knackered by the end of the day.

The weather on Sunday was far gloomier, but that was okay—we spent the whole day indoors anyway, coding and hacking away at stuff. Quite a few people were adding h-entry and h-card to their sites so I helped them out whenever I could. Meanwhile I was working on trying to get an SMS interface to my site working using the Twilio API.

The actual coding part went pretty quickly, but then I hit a wall. Whenever Twilio tried to reach a URL on my site, it would time out with a 504 error. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. On a hunch, I tried sending it to a subdomain that wasn’t being served over HTTPS. That worked fine. Now, I can’t imagine that Twilio is actually unable to work with secure endpoints, so it must be something to do with the way that I’ve enabled HTTPS on my domain. Anyway, the HTTP subdomain solution worked, and eleven minutes before demo time I finally had something to show.

We finished the day and the event with the quickfire demos. As always, there was some really impressive stuff—it’s quite amazing how much can get done in such a short space of time. Then we tidied up and headed across the street to the pub for a well-deserved pint.

All in all, a great weekend.

Conceptual and photographic art in Brighton

Spring is in the air here in Brighton. The sun is showing its face, people are rediscovering their skimpier clothes and a young man’s fancy turns to… art.

Clearleft’s landlords, Lighthouse, have organised an interesting exhibit in the foyer. It’s the latest project from the Blast Theory collective. They call it Day of the Figurines:

Day Of The Figurines is part board game, part secret society. The game is set in a fictional town that is littered, dark and underpinned with steady decay.

The foyer is currently dominated by a table covered in miniature building facades and populated by tiny -like homonculi. Visitors to the exhibit can register their mobile phone numbers, claim figurines as their own and give them names and back-stories. For 24 days, they can partake in a kind of SMS-based adventure game. The figures will obey commands sent from their owner’s phones, have adventures and interact with other figurines (this part isn’t handled by any high-tech robotics: there are two people stationed in the foyer who update the figurine positions every hour).

I’ve registered a figurine of my own. His adventure begins tomorrow.

In a slightly more traditional vein, there’s a nice photography exhibition currently running a stone’s throw away from the Clearleft offices in Brighton’s trendy North Laine. Miss Aniela—she of Flickr fame—is displaying a selection of her online work.

It’s interesting to see the pictures outside of the confines of the browser. The descriptions for each picture come straight from Flickr so technically there shouldn’t be anything new to be had from the exhibition but it’s still quite gratifying to behold the pictures in a non-pixel format. Call it the Moo effect.

Day of the Figurines runs from April 4th to 27th at Lighthouse, 28 Kensington Street, Brighton.

Miss Aniela is showing from April 6th to 30th at the North Laine Photography Gallery, 7-8 Kensington Gardens, Brighton.