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The State of the Web — the links

An Event Apart Spring Summit is happening right now. I opened the show yesterday with a talk called The State Of The Web:

The World Wide Web has come a long way in its three decades of existence. There’s so much we can do now with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: animation, layout, powerful APIs… we can even make websites that work offline! And yet the web isn’t exactly looking rosy right now. The problems we face aren’t technical in nature. We’re facing a crisis of expectations: we’ve convinced people that the web is slow, buggy, and inaccessible. But it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no fate but what we make. In this perspective-setting talk, we’ll go on a journey to the past, present, and future of web design and development. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, and by the end, you’ll be ready to make the web better.

I wrote about preparing this talk and you can see the outline on Kinopio. I thought it turned out well, but I never actually know until people see it. So I’m very gratified and relieved that it went down very well indeed. Phew!

Eric and the gang at An Event Apart asked for a round-up of links related to this talk and I was more than happy to oblige. I’ve separated them into some of the same categories that the talk covers.

I know that these look like a completely disconnected grab-bag of concepts—you’d have to see the talk to get the connections. But even without context, these are some rabbit holes you can dive down…

Apollo 8

Hypertext

The World Wide Web

NASA

This (somewhat epic) slidedeck is done.

Done

Remember how I said I was preparing an online conference talk? Well, I’m happy to say that not only is the talk prepared, but I’ve managed to successfully record it too.

If you want to see the finished results, come along to An Event Apart Spring Summit on April 19th. To sweeten the deal, I’ve got a discount code you can use when you buy any multi-day pass: AEAJEREMY.

Recording the talk took longer than I thought it would. I think it was because I said this:

It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary.

Once I got that idea in my head, I think I became a lot fussier about the quality of the recording. “Would David Attenborough allow his documentaries to have the sound of a keyboard audibly being pressed? No! Start again!”

I’m pleased with the final results. And I’m really looking forward to the post-presentation discussion with questions from the audience. The talk gets provocative—and maye a bit ranty—towards the end so it’ll be interesting to see how people react to that.

It feels good to have the presentation finished, but it also feels …weird. It’s like the feeling that conference organisers get once the conference is over. You spend all this time working towards something and then, one day, it’s in the past instead of looming in the future. It can make you feel kind of empty and listless. Maybe it’s the same for big product launches.

The two big projects I’ve been working on for the past few months were this talk and season two of the Clearleft podcast. The talk is in the can and so is the final episode of the podcast season, which drops tomorrow.

On the one hand, it’s nice to have my decks cleared. Nothing work-related to keep me up at night. But I also recognise the growing feeling of doubt and moodiness, just like the post-conference blues.

The obvious solution is to start another big project, something on the scale of making a brand new talk, or organising a conference, or recording another podcast season, or even writing a book.

The other option is to take a break for a while. Seeing as the UK government has extended its furlough scheme, maybe I should take full advantage of it. I went on furlough for a while last year and found it to be a nice change of pace.

Preparing an online conference talk

I’m terrible at taking my own advice.

Hana wrote a terrific article called You’re on mute: the art of presenting in a Zoom era. In it, she has very kind things to say about my process for preparing conference talks.

As it happens, I’m preparing a conference talk right now for delivery online. Am I taking my advice about how to put a talk together? I am on me arse.

Perhaps the most important part of the process I shared with Hana is that you don’t get too polished too soon. Instead you get everything out of your head as quickly as possible (probably onto disposable bits of paper) and only start refining once you’re happy with the rough structure you’ve figured out by shuffling those bits around.

But the way I’ve been preparing this talk has been more like watching a progress bar. I started at the start and even went straight into slides as the medium for putting the talk together.

It was all going relatively well until I hit a wall somewhere between the 50% and 75% mark. I was blocked and I didn’t have any rough sketches to fall back on. Everything was a jumbled mess in my brain.

It all came to a head at the start of last week when that jumbled mess in my brain resulted in a very restless night spent tossing and turning while I imagined how I might complete the talk.

This is a terrible way of working and I don’t recommend it to anyone.

The problem was I couldn’t even return to the proverbial drawing board because I hadn’t given myself a drawing board to return to (other than this crazy wall of connections on Kinopio).

My sleepless night was a wake-up call (huh?). The next day I forced myself to knuckle down and pump out anything even if it was shit—I could refine it later. Well, it turns out that just pumping out any old shit was exactly what I needed to do. The act of moving those fingers up and down on the keyboard resulted in something that wasn’t completely terrible. In fact, it turned out pretty darn good.

Past me said:

The idea here is to get everything out of my head.

I should’ve listened to that guy.

At this point, I think I’ve got the talk done. The progress bar has reached 100%. I even think that it’s pretty good. A giveaway for whether a talk is any good is when I find myself thinking “Yes, this has good points well made!” and then five minutes later I’m thinking “Wait, is this complete rubbish that’s totally obvious and doesn’t make much sense?” (see, for example, every talk I’ve ever prepared ever).

Now I just to have to record it. The way that An Event Apart are running their online editions is that the talks are pre-recorded but followed with live Q&A. That’s how the Clearleft events team have been running the conference part of the Leading Design Festival too. Last week there were three days of this format and it worked out really, really well. This week there’ll be masterclasses which are delivered in a more synchronous way.

It feels a bit different to prepare a talk for pre-recording rather than live delivery on stage. In fact, it feels less like preparing a conference talk and more like making a documentary. I guess this is what life is like for YouTubers.

I think the last time I was in a cinema before The Situation was at the wonderful Duke of York’s cinema here in Brighton for an afternoon showing of The Proposition followed by a nice informal chat with the screenwriter, one Nick Cave, local to this parish. It was really enjoyable, and that’s kind of what Leading Design Festival felt like last week.

I wonder if maybe we’ve been thinking about online events with the wrong metaphor. Perhaps they’re not like conferences that have moved online. Maybe they’re more like film festivals where everyone has the shared experience of watching a new film for the first time together, followed by questions to the makers about what they’ve just seen.

Prediction

Arthur C. Clarke once said:

Trying to predict the future is a discouraging and hazardous occupation becaue the profit invariably falls into two stools. If his predictions sounded at all reasonable, you can be quite sure that in 20 or most 50 years, the progress of science and technology has made him seem ridiculously conservative. On the other hand, if by some miracle a prophet could describe the future exactly as it was going to take place, his predictions would sound so absurd, so far-fetched, that everybody would laugh him to scorn.

But I couldn’t resist responding to a recent request for augery. Eric asked An Event Apart speakers for their predictions for the coming year. The responses have been gathered together and published, although it’s in the form of a PDF for some reason.

Here’s what I wrote:

This is probably more of a hope than a prediction, but 2021 could be the year that the ponzi scheme of online tracking and surveillance begins to crumble. People are beginning to realize that it’s far too intrusive, that it just doesn’t work most of the time, and that good ol’-fashioned contextual advertising would be better. Right now, it feels similar to the moment before the sub-prime mortgage bubble collapsed (a comparison made in Tim Hwang’s recent book, Subprime Attention Crisis). Back then people thought “Well, these big banks must know what they’re doing,” just as people have thought, “Well, Facebook and Google must know what they’re doing”…but that confidence is crumbling, exposing the shaky stack of cards that props up behavioral advertising. This doesn’t mean that online advertising is coming to an end—far from it. I think we might see a golden age of relevant, content-driven advertising. Laws like Europe’s GDPR will play a part. Apple’s recent changes to highlight privacy-violating apps will play a part. Most of all, I think that people will play a part. They will be increasingly aware that there’s nothing inevitable about tracking and surveillance and that the web works better when it respects people’s right to privacy. The sea change might not happen in 2021 but it feels like the water is beginning to swell.

Still, predicting the future is a mug’s game with as much scientific rigour as astrology, reading tea leaves, or haruspicy.

Much like behavioural advertising.

Speaking online

I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.

Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.

But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).

Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.

Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.

I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.

Time to prepare a conference talk.

T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Design Principles For The Web—the links

I’m speaking today at an online edition of An Event Apart called Front-End Focus. I’ll be opening up the show with a talk called Design Principles For The Web, which ironically doesn’t have much of a front-end focus:

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

That explains why I’ve been writing so much about design principles …well, that and the fact that I’m mildly obsessed with them.

To avoid technical difficulties, I’ve pre-recorded the talk. So while that’s playing, I’ll be spamming the accompanying chat window with related links. Then I’ll do a live Q&A.

Should you be interested in the links that I’ll be bombarding the attendees with, I’ve gathered them here in one place (and they’re also on the website of An Event Apart). The narrative structure of the talk might not be clear from scanning down a list of links, but there’s some good stuff here that you can dive into if you want to know what the inside of my head is like.

References

adactio.com

Wikipedia

Putting design principles into action

I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.

At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.

I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.

You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:

In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).

My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.

When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.

I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:

There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.

What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:

Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.

There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.

Or Clarke’s third law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.

It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:

Because of observation A, apply action B.

For example:

Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.

Or in its full form:

Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:

The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.

For example, even though devices, browsers, and networks are much, much better now than they were, say, ten years ago, that doesn’t mean that websites have become better or faster. Instead, it’s precisely because there’s more power available that people think nothing of throwing megabytes of JavaScript at users. See Scott’s theory that 5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe:

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:

Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.

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.

Liveblogging An Event Apart 2019

I was at An Event Apart in San Francisco last week. It was the last one of the year, and also my last conference of the year.

I managed to do a bit of liveblogging during the event. Combined with the liveblogging I did during the other two Events Apart that I attended this year—Seattle and Chicago—that makes a grand total of seventeen liveblogged presentations!

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
  12. Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell
  13. Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
  14. Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby
  15. The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
  16. The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
  17. The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

For my part, I gave my talk on Going Offline. Time to retire that talk now.

Here’s what I wrote when I first gave the talk back in March at An Event Apart Seattle:

I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.

I’m happy with how it turned out. I had quite a few people come up to me to say how much they appreciated how I was explaining the code. That was very nice to hear—I really wanted this talk to be approachable for everyone, even though it included plenty of JavaScript.

The dates for next year’s Events Apart have been announced, and I’ll be speaking at three of them:

The question is, do I attempt to deliver another practical code-based talk or do I go back to giving a high-level talk about ideas and principles? Or, if I really want to challenge myself, can I combine the two into one talk without making a Frankenstein’s monster?

Come and see me at An Event Apart in 2020 to find out.

The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.

I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…

“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mina said:

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.

When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.

Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.

Sell

He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:

  • Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
  • Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
  • Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
  • Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
  • Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
  • Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
  • Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.

Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.

Kick off

Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.

How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.

Plan

Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.

How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.

Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.

Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?

You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.

Design and build

Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:

Embrace the snowflakes.

The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.

When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.

The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.

—Jina

Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.

It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.

The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.

Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.

You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.

Launch

What does it mean to “launch” a design system?

A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. Most integrated: consumable compents.

Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.

Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.

Maintain

Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.

A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.

—Nathan Curtis

What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.

That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.

Summary

This is hard.

  • Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
  • Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
  • Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
  • Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
  • Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
  • Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
  • Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.

You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.

The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham

It’s day two of An Event Apart San Francisco. The brilliant Mina Markham is here to talk to us about design systems (so hot right now!). I’m going to attempt to liveblog it:

Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.

Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.

Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!

There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.

Myth 1: Designers “own” the design system

Mina was once talking to a product designer about design systems and was getting excited. The product designer said, nonplussed, “Aren’t you an engineer? Why do you care?” Mina explained that she loved design systems. The product designer said “Y’know, design systems should really be run by designers” and walked away.

Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.

Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.

The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.

What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.

Myth 2: design systems kill creativity

Mina hears this one a lot. It’s intertwined with some other myths: that design systems don’t work for editorial content, and that design systems are just a collection of components.

Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.

But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.

Design systems encompass more than components:

  • High level principles.
  • Brand guidelines.
  • Coding standards.
  • Accessibility compliance.
  • Governance.

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

—Mina

Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.

For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.

It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:

There’s a time and place for both—illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.

Yesenia says:

Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.

If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.

There are strict and loose systems.

Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.

A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:

Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.

Yesenia again:

A good design sytem helps you improvise.

Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.

Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.

A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.

Myth 3: a design system is a side project

Brad guffaws at this one.

Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.

“Later” is a mythical creature—a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.

Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.

Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.

The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…

Myth 4: a design system should be on the product roadmap

At a previous company, Mina once put a design system on the product roadmap because she saw it wasn’t getting the attention it needed. The answer came back: nah. Mina was annoyed. She had tried to “just do it” and now when she tried to do it through the right channels, she’s told she can’t.

But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.

A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.

Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”

A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.

—Nathan Curtis

The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).

Myth 5: our system should do what XYZ’s system did

It’s great that there are so many public design systems out there to look to and get inspired by. We can learn from them. “Let’s do that!”

But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.

Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.

Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:

  • Establish common language.
  • Reduce technical debt.
  • Allow for modularity.

But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.

Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.

Myth 6: everything is awesome!

When you think about design systems, everything is nice and neat and orderly. So you make one. Then you look at someone else’s design system. Your expectations don’t match the reality. Looking at these fully-fledged design systems is like comparing Instagram to real life.

The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.

The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.

For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.

Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.

Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.

Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.

Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.

The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland

It’s Patty Toland’s first time at An Event Apart! She’s from the fantabulous Filament Group. They’re dedicated to making the web work for everyone.

A few years ago, a good friend of Patty’s had a medical diagnosis that required everyone to pull together. Another friend shared an article about how not to say the wrong thing. This is ring theory. In a moment of crisis, the person involved is in the centre. You need to understand where you are in this ring structure, and only ever help and comfort inwards and dump concerns and problems outwards.

At the same time, Patty spent time with her family at the beach. Everyone reads the same books together. There was a book about a platoon leader in Vietnam. 80% of the story was literally a litany of stuff—what everyone was carrying. This was peppered with the psychic and emotional loads that they were carrying.

A month later there was a lot of coverage of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe. People were outraged to see refugees carrying smartphones as though that somehow showed they weren’t in a desperate situation. But smartphones are absolutely a necessity in that situation, and most of the phones were less expensive, lower-end devices. Refugeeinfo.eu was a useful site for people in crisis, but the navigation was designed to require JavaScript.

When people thing about mobile, they think about freedom and mobility. But with that JavaScript decision, the developers piled baggage on to the users.

There was a common assertion that slow networks were a third-world challenge. Remember Facebook’s network challenges? They always talked about new markets in India and Africa. The implication is that this isn’t our problem in, say, Omaha or New York.

Pew Research provided a lot of data back then that showed that this thinking was wrong. Use of cell phones, especially smartphones and tablets, escalated dramatically in the United States. There was a trend towards mobile-only usage. This was in low-income households—about one third of the population. Among 5,400 panelists, 15% did not have a JavaScript-enabled device.

Pew Research provided updated data this year. The research shows an increase in those trends. Half of the population access the web primarily on mobile. The cost of a broadband subscription is too expensive for many people. Sometimes broadband access simply isn’t available.

There’s a term called “the homework gap.” Two thirds of teachers assign broadband-dependent homework, while one third of students have no access to broadband.

At most 37% of people have unlimited data. Most people run out of data on a frequent basis.

Speed also varies wildly. 4G doesn’t really mean anything. The data is all over the place.

This shows that network issues are definitely not just a third world challenge.

On the 25th anniversary of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said the web’s potential was only just beginning to be glimpsed. Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the web serves all of humanity. In his contract for the web, Tim outlined what governments, companies, and users need to do. This reminded Patty of ring theory. The user is at the centre. Designers and developers are in the next circle out. Then there’s the circle of companies. Then there are platforms, browsers, and frameworks. Finally there’s the outer circle of governments.

Are we helping in or dumping in? If you look at the data for the average web page size (2 megabytes), we are definitely dumping in. The size of third-party JavaScript has octupled.

There’s no way for a user to know before clicking a link how big and bloated the page is going to be. Even if they abandon the page load, they’ve still used (and wasted) a lot of data.

Third party scripts—like ads—are really bad at dumping in (to use the ring theory model). The best practices for ads suggest that up to 100 additional HTTP requests is totally acceptable. Unbelievable! It doesn’t matter how performant you’ve made a site when this crap gets piled on top of it.

In 2018, the internet’s data centres alone may already have had the same carbon footprint as all global air travel. This will probably triple in the next seven years. The amount of carbon it takes to train a single AI algorithm is more than the entire life cycle of a car. Then there’s fucking Bitcoin. A single Bitcoin transaction could power 21 US households. It is designed to use—specifically, waste—more and more energy over time.

What should we be doing?

Accessibility should be at the heart of what we build. Plan, test, educate, and advocate. If advocacy doesn’t work, fear can be a motivator. There’s an increase in accessibility lawsuits.

Our websites should be as light as possible. Ask, measure, monitor, and optimise. RequestMap is a great tool for visualising requests. You can see the size and scale of third-party requests. You can also see when images are far, far bigger than they need to be.

Take a critical guide to everything and pare everything down. Set perforance budgets—file size budgets, for example. Optimise images, subset custom fonts, lazyload images and videos, get third-party tools out of the critical path (or out completely), and seek out lighter frameworks.

Test on real devices that real people are using. See Alex Russell’s data on the differences between the kind of devices we use and typical low-end devices. We literally need to stop people in JavaScript.

Push the boundaries. See the amazing work that Adrian Holovaty did with Soundslice. He had to make on-the-fly sheet music generation work on old iPads that musicians like to use. He recommends keeping old devices around to see how poorly your product is working on it.

If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.

—Toni Morrison

Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby

Jason is on stage at An Event Apart Chicago in a tuxedo. He wants to talk about how we can make web forms magical. Oh, I see. That explains the get-up.

We’re always being told to make web forms shorter. Luke Wroblewski has highlighted the work of companies that have reduced form fields and increased conversion.

But what if we could get rid of forms altogether? Wouldn’t that be magical!

Jason will reveal the secrets to this magic. But first—a volunteer from the audience, please! Please welcome Joe to the stage.

Joe will now log in on a phone. He types in the username. Then the password. The password is hodge-podge of special characters, numbers and upper and lowercase letters. Joe starts typing. Jason takes the phone and logs in without typing anything!

The secret: Jason was holding an NFC security key in his hand. That works with a new web standard called WebAuthn.

Passwords are terrible. People share them across sites, but who can blame them? It’s hard to remember lots of passwords. The only people who love usernames and passwords are hackers. So sites are developing other methods to try to keep people secure. Two factor authentication helps, although it doesn’t help us with phishing attacks. The hacker gets the password from the phished user …and then gets the one-time code from the phished user too.

But a physical device like a security key solves this problem. So why aren’t we all using security keys (apart from the fear of losing the key)? Well, until WebAuthn, there wasn’t a way for websites to use the keys.

A web server generates a challenge—a long string—that gets sent to a website and passed along to the user. The user’s device generates a credential ID and public and private keys for that domain. The web site stores the public key and credential ID. From then on, the credential ID is used by the website in challenges to users logging in.

There were three common ways that we historically proved who we claimed to be.

  1. Something you know (e.g. a password).
  2. Something you have (e.g. a security key).
  3. Something you are (e.g. biometric information).

These are factors of identification. So two-factor identification is the combination of any of those two. If you use a security key combined with a fingerprint scanner, there’s no need for passwords.

The browser support for the web authentication API (WebAuthn) is a bit patchy right now but you can start playing around with it.

There are a few other options for making logging in faster. There’s the Credential Management API. It allows someone to access passwords stored in their browser’s password manager. But even though it’s newer, there’s actually better browser support for WebAuthn than Credential Management.

Then there’s federated login, or social login. Jason has concerns about handing over log-in to a company like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, but then again, it means fewer passwords. As a site owner, there’s actually a lot of value in not storing log-in information—you won’t be accountable for data breaches. The problem is that you’ve got to decide which providers you’re going to support.

Also keep third-party password managers in mind. These tools—like 1Password—are great. In iOS they’re now nicely integrated at the operating system level, meaning Safari can use them. Finally it’s possible to log in to websites easily on a phone …until you encounter a website that prevents you logging in this way. Some websites get far too clever about detecting autofilled passwords.

Time for another volunteer from the audience. This is Tyler. Tyler will help Jason with a simple checkout form. Shipping information, credit card information, and so on. Jason will fill out this form blindfolded. Tyler will first verify that the dark goggles that Jason will be wearing don’t allow him to see the phone screen. Jason will put the goggles on and Tyler will hand him the phone with the checkout screen open.

Jason dons the goggles. Tyler hands him the phone. Jason does something. The form is filled in and submitted!

What was the secret? The goggles prevented Jason from seeing the phone …but they didn’t prevent the screen from seeing Jason. The goggles block everything but infrared. The iPhone uses infrared for Face ID. So the iPhone, it just looked like Jason was wearing funky sunglasses. Face ID then triggered the Payment Request API.

The Payment Request API allows us to use various payment methods that are built in to the operating system, but without having to make separate implementations for each payment method. The site calls the Payment Request API if it’s supported (use feature detection and progressive enhancement), then trigger the payment UI in the browser. The browser—not the website!—then makes a call to the payment processing provider e.g. Stripe.

E-commerce sites using the Payment Request API have seen a big drop in abandonment and a big increase in completed payments. The browser support is pretty good, especially on mobile. And remember, you can use it as a progressive enhancement. It’s kind of weird that we don’t encounter it more often—it’s been around for a few years now.

Jason read the fine print for Apple Pay, Google Pay, Microsoft Pay, and Samsung Pay. It doesn’t like there’s anything onerous in there that would stop you using them.

On some phones, you can now scan credit cards using the camera. This is built in to the operating system so as a site owner, you’ve just got to make sure not to break it. It’s really an extension of autofill. You should know what values the autocomplete attribute can take. There are 48 different values; it’s not just for checkouts. When users use autofill, they fill out forms 30% faster. So make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of autofill in your forms.

Jason proceeds to relate a long and involved story about buying burritos online from Chipotle. The upshot is: use the autocomplete, type, maxlength, and pattern attributes correctly on input elements. Test autofill with your forms. Make it part of your QA process.

So, to summarise, here’s how you make your forms disappear:

  1. Start by reducing the number of form fields.
  2. Use the correct HTML to support autofill. Support password managers and password-pasting. At least don’t break that behaviour.
  3. Provide alternate ways of logging in. Federated login or the Credentials API.
  4. Test autofill and other form features.
  5. Look for opportunities to replace forms entirely with biometrics.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

—Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law

Don’t our users deserve magical experiences?

Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz

Cheryl Platz is speaking at An Event Apart Chicago. Her inaugural An Event Apart presentation is all about voice interfaces, and I’m going to attempt to liveblog it…

Why make a voice interface?

Successful voice interfaces aren’t necessarily solving new problems. They’re used to solve problems that other devices have already solved. Think about kitchen timers. There are lots of ways to set a timer. Your oven might have one. Your phone has one. Why use a $200 device to solve this mundane problem? Same goes for listening to music, news, and weather.

People are using voice interfaces for solving ordinary problems. Why? Context matters. If you’re carrying a toddler, then setting a kitchen timer can be tricky so a voice-activated timer is quite appealing. But why is voice is happening now?

Humans have been developing the art of conversation for thousands of years. It’s one of the first skills we learn. It’s deeply instinctual. Most humans use speach instinctively every day. You can’t necessarily say that about using a keyboard or a mouse.

Voice-based user interfaces are not new. Not just the idea—which we’ve seen in Star Trek—but the actual implementation. Bell Labs had Audrey back in 1952. It recognised ten words—the digits zero through nine. Why did it take so long to get to Alexa?

In the late 70s, DARPA issued a challenge to create a voice-activated system. Carnagie Mellon came up with Harpy (with a thousand word grammar). But none of the solutions could respond in real time. In conversation, we expect a break of no more than 200 or 300 milliseconds.

In the 1980s, computing power couldn’t keep up with voice technology, so progress kind of stopped. Time passed. Things finally started to catch up in the 90s with things like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that was still about vocabulary, not grammar. By the 2000s, small grammars were starting to show up—starting an X-Box or pausing Netflix. In 2008, Google Voice Search arrived on the iPhone and natural language interaction began to arrive.

What makes natural language interactions so special? It requires minimal training because it uses the conversational muscles we’ve been working for a lifetime. It unlocks the ability to have more forgiving, less robotic conversations with devices. There might be ten different ways to set a timer.

Natural language interactions can also free us from “screen magnetism”—that tendency to stay on a device even when our original task is complete. Voice also enables fast and forgiving searches of huge catalogues without time spent typing or browsing. You can pick a needle straight out of a haystack.

Natural language interactions are excellent for older customers. These interfaces don’t intimidate people without dexterity, vision, or digital experience. Voice input often leads to more inclusive experiences. Many customers with visual or physical disabilities can’t use traditional graphical interfaces. Voice experiences throw open the door of opportunity for some people. However, voice experience can exclude people with speech difficulties.

Making the case for voice interfaces

There’s a misconception that you need to work at Amazon, Google, or Apple to work on a voice interface, or at least that you need to have a big product team. But Cheryl was able to make her first Alexa “skill” in a week. If you’re a web developer, you’re good to go. Your voice “interaction model” is just JSON.

How do you get your product team on board? Find the customers (and situations) you might have excluded with traditional input. Tell the stories of people whose hands are full, or who are vision impaired. You can also point to the adoption rate numbers for smart speakers.

You’ll need to show your scenario in context. Otherwise people will ask, “why can’t we just build an app for this?” Conduct research to demonstrate the appeal of a voice interface. Storyboarding is very useful for visualising the context of use and highlighting existing pain points.

Getting started with voice interfaces

You’ve got to understand how the technology works in order to adapt to how it fails. Here are a few basic concepts.

Utterance. A word, phrase, or sentence spoken by a customer. This is the true form of what the customer provides.

Intent. This is the meaning behind a customer’s request. This is an important distinction because one intent could have thousands of different utterances.

Prompt. The text of a system response that will be provided to a customer. The audio version of a prompt, if needed, is generated separately using text to speech.

Grammar. A finite set of expected utterances. It’s a list. Usually, each entry in a grammar is paired with an intent. Many interfaces start out as being simple grammars before moving on to a machine-learning model later once the concept has been proven.

Here’s the general idea with “artificial intelligence”…

There’s a human with a core intent to do something in the real world, like knowing when the cookies in the oven are done. This is translated into an intent like, “set a 15 minute timer.” That’s the utterance that’s translated into a string. But it hasn’t yet been parsed as language. That string is passed into a natural language understanding system. What comes is a data structure that represents the customers goal e.g. intent=timer; duration=15 minutes. That’s sent to the business logic where a timer is actually step. For a good voice interface, you also want to send back a response e.g. “setting timer for 15 minutes starting now.”

That seems simple enough, right? What’s so hard about designing for voice?

Natural language interfaces are a form of artifical intelligence so it’s not deterministic. There’s a lot of ruling out false positives. Unlike graphical interfaces, voice interfaces are driven by probability.

How do you turn a sound wave into an understandable instruction? It’s a lot like teaching a child. You feed a lot of data into a statistical model. That’s how machine learning works. It’s a probability game. That’s where it gets interesting for design—given a bunch of possible options, we need to use context to zero in on the most correct choice. This is where confidence ratings come in: the system will return the probability that a response is correct. Effectively, the system is telling you how sure or not it is about possible results. If the customer makes a request in an unusual or unexpected way, our system is likely to guess incorrectly. That’s because the system is being given something new.

Designing a conversation is relatively straightforward. But 80% of your voice design time will be spent designing for what happens when things go wrong. In voice recognition, edge cases are front and centre.

Here’s another challenge. Interaction with most voice interfaces is part conversation, part performance. Most interactions are not private.

Humans don’t distinguish digital speech fom human speech. That means these devices are intrinsically social. Our brains our wired to try to extract social information, even form digital speech. See, for example, why it’s such a big question as to what gender a voice interface has.

Delivering a voice interface

Storyboards help depict the context of use. Sample dialogues are your new wireframes. These are little scripts that not only cover the happy path, but also your edge case. Then you reverse engineer from there.

Flow diagrams communicate customer states, but don’t use the actual text in them.

Prompt lists are your final deliverable.

Functional prototypes are really important for voice interfaces. You’ll learn the real way that customers will ask for things.

If you build a working prototype, you’ll be building two things: a natural language interaction model (often a JSON file) and custom business logic (in a programming language).

Eventually voice design will become a core competency, much like mobile, which was once separate.

Ask yourself what tasks your customers complete on your site that feel clunkly. Remember that voice desing is almost never about new scenarious. Start your journey into voice interfaces by tackling old problems in new, more inclusive ways.

May the voice be with you!

Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell

The brilliant Cyd Harrell is opening up day two of An Event Apart in Chicago. I’m going to attempt to liveblog her talk on making research count…

Research gets done …and then sits in a report, gathering dust.

Research matters. But how do we make it count? We need allies. Maybe we need more money. Perhaps we need more participation from people not on the product team.

If you’re doing real research on a schedule, sharing it on a regular basis, making people’s eyes light up …then you’ve won!

Research counts when it answers questions that people care about. But you probably don’t want to directly ask “Hey, what questions do you want answered?”

Research can explain oddities in analytics weird feedback from customers, unexpected uses of products, and strange hunches (not just your own).

Curious people with power are the most useful ones to influence. Not just hierarchical power. Engineers often have a lot of power. So ask, “Who is the most curious engineer, and how can I drag them out on a research session with me?”

At 18F, Cyd found that a lot of the nodes of power were in the mid level of the organisation who had been there a while—they know a lot of people up and down the chain. If you can get one of those people excited about research, they can spread it.

Open up your practice. Demystify it. Put as much effort into communicating as into practicing. Create opportunities for people to ask questions and learn.

You can think about communities of practice in the obvious way: people who do similar things to us, and other people who make design decisions. But really, everyone in the organisation is affected by design decisions.

Cyd likes to do office hours. People can come by and ask questions. You could open a Slack channel. You can run brown bag lunches to train people in basic user research techniques. In more conventional organisations, a newsletter is a surprisingly effective tool for sharing the latest findings from research. And use your walls to show work in progress.

Research counts when people can see it for themselves—not just when it’s reported from afar. Ask yourself: who in your organisation is disconnected from their user? It’s difficult for people to maintain their motivation in that position.

When someone has been in the field with you, the data doesn’t have to be explained.

Whoever’s curious. Whoever’s disconnected. Invite them along. Show them what you’re doing.

Think about the qualities of a good invitation (for a party, say). Make the rules clear. Make sure they want to come back. Design the experience of observing research. Make sure everyone has tools. Give everyone a responsibility. Be like Willy Wonka—he gave clear rules to the invitied guests. And sure, things didn’t go great when people broke the rules, but at the end, everyone still went home with the truckload of chocolate they were promised.

People who get to ask a question buy in to the results. Those people feel a sense of ownership for the research.

Research counts when methods fit the question. Think about what the right question is and how you might go about answering it.

You can mix your methods. Interviews. Diary studies. Card sorting. Shadowing. You can ground the user research in competitor analysis.

Back in 2008, Cyd was contacted by a company who wanted to know: how do people really use phones in their cars? Cyd’s team would ride along with people, interviewing them, observing them, taking pictures and video.

Later at the federal government, Cyd was asked: what are the best practices for government digital transformation? How to answer that? It’s so broad! Interviews? Who knows what?

They refined the question: what makes modern digital practices stick within a government entity? They looked at what worked when companies were going online, so see if there was anything that government could learn from. Then they created a set of really focused interview questions. What does digital transformation mean? How do you know when you’re done? What are the biggest obstacles to this work? How do you make changes last?

They used atechnique called cluster recruiting to figure out who else to talk to (by asking participants who else they should be talking to).

There is no one research method that will always work for you. Cutting the right corners at the right time lets you be fast and cheap. Cyd’s bare-bones research kit costs about $20: a notebook, a pen, a consent form, and the price of a cup of coffee. She also created a quick score sheet for when she’s not in a position to have research transcribed.

Always label your assumptions before beginning your research. Maybe you’re assuming that something is a frustrating experience that needs fixing, but it might emerge that it doesn’t need fixing—great! You’ve just saved a whole lotta money.

Research counts when researchers tell the story well. Synthesis works best as a conversational practice. It’s hard to do by yourself. You start telling stories when you come back from the field (sometimes it starts when you’re still out in the field, talking about the most interesting observations).

Miller’s Law is a great conceptual framework:

To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.

You’re probably familiar with the “five whys”. What about the “five ways”? If people talk about something five different ways, it’s virtually certain that one of them will be an apt metaphor. So ask “Can you say that in a different way?” five time.

Spend as much time on communicating outcomes as you did on executing the work.

After research, play back how many people you spoke to, the most valuable insight you gained, the themes that are emerging. Describe the question you wanted to answer, what answers you got, and what you’re going to do next. If you’re in an organisation that values memos, write a memo. Or you could make a video. Or you could write directly into backlog tickets. And don’t forget the wall work! GDS have wonderfully full walls in their research department.

In the end, the best tool for research is an illuminating story.

Cyd was doing research at the Bakersfield courthouse. The hypothesis was that a lot of people weren’t engaging with technology in the court system. She approached a man named Manuel who was positively quaking. He was going through a custody battle. He said, “I don’t know technology but it doesn’t scare me. I’m shaking because this paperwork just gets to me—it’s terrifying.” He said who would gladly pay for someone to help him with the paperwork. Cyd wrote a report on this story. Months later, they heard people in the organisation asking questions like “How would this help Manuel?”

Sometimes you do have to fight (nicely).

People will push back on the time spent on research—they’ll say it doesn’t fit the sprint plan. You can have a three day research plan. Day 1: write scripts. Day 2: go to the users and talk to them. Day 3: play it back. People on a project spend more time than that in Slack.

People will say you can’t talk to the customers. In that situation, you could talk to people who are in the same sector as your company’s customers.

People will question the return on investment for research. Do it cheaply and show the very low costs. Then people stop talking about the money and start talking about the results.

People will claim that qualitative user research is not statistically significant. That’s true. But research is something else. It answers different question.

People will question whether a senior person needs to be involved. It is not fair to ask the intern to do all the work involved in research.

People will say you can’t always do research. But Cyd firmly believes that there’s always room for some research.

  • Make allies in customer research.
  • Find the most curious engineer on the team, go to lunch with them, and feed them the most interesting research insights.
  • Record a pain point and a send a video to executives.
  • If there’s really no budget, maybe you can get away with not paying incentives, but perhaps you can provide some other swag instead.

One of the best things you can do is be there, non-judgementally, making friends. It takes time, but it works. Research is like a dandelion in flight. Once it’s out and about, taking root, the more that research counts.

Handing back control

An Event Apart Seattle was most excellent. This year, the AEA team are trying something different and making each event three days long. That’s a lot of mindblowing content!

What always fascinates me at events like these is the way that some themes seem to emerge, without any prior collusion between the speakers. This time, I felt that there was a strong thread of giving control directly to users:

Sarah and Margot both touched on this when talking about authenticity in brand messaging.

Margot described this in terms of vulnerability for the brand, but the kind of vulnerability that leads to trust.

Sarah talked about it in terms of respect—respecting the privacy of users, and respecting the way that they want to use your services. Call it compassion, call it empathy, or call it just good business sense, but providing these kind of controls in an interface is an excellent long-term strategy.

In Val’s animation talk, she did a deep dive into prefers-reduced-motion, a media query that deliberately hands control back to the user.

Even in a CSS-heavy talk like Jen’s, she took the time to explain why starting with meaningful markup is so important—it’s because you can’t control how the user will access your content. They may use tools like reader modes, or Pocket, or have web pages read aloud to them. The user has the final say, and rightly so.

In his CSS talk, Eric reminded us that a style sheet is a list of strong suggestions, not instructions.

Beth’s talk was probably the most explicit on the theme of returning control to users. She drew on examples from beyond the world of the web—from architecture, urban planning, and more—to show that the most successful systems are not imposed from the top down, but involve everyone, especially those most marginalised.

And even in my own talk on service workers, I raved about the design pattern of allowing users to save pages offline to read later. Instead of trying to guess what the user wants, give them the means to take control.

I was really encouraged to see this theme emerge. Mind you, when I look at the reality of most web products, it’s easy to get discouraged. Far from providing their users with controls over their own content, Instagram won’t even let their customers have a chronological feed. And Matt recently wrote about how both Twitter and Quora are heading further and further away from giving control to their users in his piece called Optimizing for outrage.

Still, I came away from An Event Apart Seattle with a renewed determination to do my part in giving people more control over the products and services we design and develop.

I spent the first two days of the conference trying to liveblog as much as I could. I find it really focuses my attention, although it’s also quite knackering. I didn’t do too badly; I managed to write cover eleven of the talks (out of the conference’s total of seventeen):

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean

Going Offline—the talk of the book

I gave a new talk at An Event Apart in Seattle yesterday morning. The talk was called Going Offline, which the eagle-eyed amongst you will recognise as the title of my most recent book, all about service workers.

I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.

I knew from pretty early on that I was going to show—and explain—some code examples. Those were the parts I sweated over the most. I knew I’d be presenting to a mixed audience of designers, developers, and other web professionals. I couldn’t assume too much existing knowledge. At the same time, I didn’t want to teach anyone to such eggs.

In the end, there was an overarching meta-theme to talk, which was this: logic is more important than code. In other words, figuring out what you’re trying to accomplish (and describing it clearly) is more important than typing curly braces and semi-colons. Programming is an act of translation. Before you can translate something, you need to be able to articulate it clearly in your own language first. By emphasising that point, I hoped to make the code less overwhelming to people unfamilar with it.

I had tested the talk with some of my Clearleft colleagues, and they gave me great feedback. But I never know until I’ve actually given a talk in front of a real conference audience whether the talk is any good or not. Now that I’ve given the talk, and received more feedback, I think I can confidentally say that it’s pretty damn good.

My goal was to explain some fairly gnarly concepts—let’s face it: service workers are downright weird, and not the easiest thing to get your head around—and to leave the audience with two feelings:

  1. This is exciting, and
  2. This is something I can do today.

I deliberately left time for questions, bribing people with free copies of my book. I got some great questions, and I may incorporate some of them into future versions of this talk (conference organisers, if this sounds like the kind of talk you’d like at your event, please get in touch). Some of the points brought up in the questions were:

  • Is there some kind of wizard for creating a typical service worker script for any site? I didn’t have a direct answer to this, but I have attempted to make a minimal viable service worker that could be used for just about any site. Mostly I encouraged the questioner to roll their sleeves up and try writing a bespoke script. I also mentioned the Workbox library, but I gave my opinion that if you’re going to spend the time to learn the library, you may as well spend the time to learn the underlying language.
  • What are some state-of-the-art progressive web apps for offline user experiences? Ooh, this one kind of stumped me. I mean, the obvious poster children for progressive webs apps are things like Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest. They’re all great but the offline experience is somewhat limited. To be honest, I think there’s more potential for great offline experiences by publishers. I especially love the pattern on personal sites like Una’s and Sara’s where people can choose to save articles offline to read later—like a bespoke Instapaper or Pocket. I’d love so see that pattern adopted by some big publications. I particularly like that gives so much more control directly to the end user. Instead of trying to guess what kind of offline experience they want, we give them the tools to craft their own.
  • Do caches get cleaned up automatically? Great question! And the answer is mostly no—although browsers do have their own heuristics about how much space you get to play with. There’s a whole chapter in my book about being a good citizen and cleaning up your caches, but I didn’t include that in the talk because it isn’t exactly exciting: “Hey everyone! Now we’re going to do some housekeeping—yay!”
  • Isn’t there potential for abuse here? This is related to the previous question, and it’s another great question to ask of any technology. In short, yes. Bad actors could use service workers to fill up caches uneccesarily. I’ve written about back door service workers too, although the real problem there is with iframes rather than service workers—iframes and cookies are technologies that are already being abused by bad actors, and we’re going to see more and more interventions by ethical browser makers (like Mozilla) to clamp down on those technologies …just as browsers had to clamp down on the abuse of pop-up windows in the early days of JavaScript. The cache API could become a tragedy of the commons. I liken the situation to regulation: we should self-regulate, but if we prove ourselves incapable of that, then outside regulation (by browsers) will be imposed upon us.
  • What kind of things are in the future for service workers? Excellent question! If you think about it, a service worker is kind of a conduit that gives you access to different APIs: the Cache API and the Fetch API being the main ones now. A service worker is like an airport and the APIs are like the airlines. There are other APIs that you can access through service workers. Notifications are available now on desktop and on Android, and they’ll be coming to iOS soon. Background Sync is another powerful API accessed through service workers that will get more and more browser support over time. The great thing is that you can start using these APIs today even if they aren’t universally supported. Then, over time, more and more of your users will benefit from those enhancements.

If you attended the talk and want to learn more about about service workers, there’s my book (obvs), but I’ve also written lots of blog posts about service workers and I’ve linked to lots of resources too.

Finally, here’s a list of links to all the books, sites, and articles I referenced in my talk…

Books

Sites

Progressive Web Apps

Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean

An Event Apart in Seattle continues. It’s the afternoon of day two and Beth Dean is here to give a talk called Unsolved Problems:

Technology products are being adapted faster than ever. We’ve spent a lot of time adopting new technology, but not as much time considering the social impact of doing so. This talk looks at large scale system design in the offline world, and takes lessons from them to our online work. You’ll learn how to expand your design approach from self-contained products, to considering the broader systems in which they exist.

Fun fact: An Event Apart was the first conference that Beth attended over ten years ago.

Who recognises this guy on screen? It’s Robert Stack, the creepy host of Unsolved Mysteries. It was kind of like the X-Files. The X-Files taught Beth to be a sceptic. Imagine Beth’s surprise when her job at Facebook led her to actual conspiracies. It’s been a hard year, what with Cambridge Analytica and all.

Beth’s team is focused on how people experience ads, while the whole rest of the company is focused on ads from the opposite end. She’s the Fox Mulder of the company.

Technology today has incredible reach. In recent years, we’ve seen 1:1 harm. That’s when a product negatively effects someone directly. In their book, Eric and Sara point out that Facebook is often the first company to solve these problems.

1:many harm is another use of technology. Designing in isolation isn’t new to tech. We’ve seen 1:many harm in urban planning. Brasilia is a beautiful city that nobody wants to live in. You need messy, mixed-use spaces, not a space designed for cars. Niemeier planned for efficiency, not reality.

Eichler buildings were supposed to be egalitarian. But everything that makes these single-story homes great places to live also makes them great targets for criminals. Isolation by intentional design leads to a less safe place to live.

One of Frank Gehry’s buildings turned into a deathtrap when it was covered with snow. And in summer, the reflective material makes it impossible to sit on side of it. His Facebook office building has some “interesting” restroom allocation, which was planned last.

Ohio had a deer overpopulation problem. So the solution they settled on was to introduce coyotes. Now there’s a coyote problem. When coyotes breed with stray dogs, they start to get aggressive and they hunt in packs. This is the cobra effect: when the solution to your problem makes the problem worse. The British government offered a bounty for cobras in India. So people bred snakes for the bounty. So they got rid of the bounty …and then all those snakes were released into the wild.

So-called “ride sharing” apps are about getting one person from point A to point B. They’re not about making getting around easier in general.

Google traffic directions don’t factor in the effect of Google giving everyone the same traffic directions.

AirBnB drives up rent …even though it started out as a way to help people who couldn’t make rent. Sounds like cobra farming.

Automating Inequality by Virgina Eubanks is an excellent book about being dropped by health insurance. An algorithm did it. By taking broken systems and automating them, we accelerate disenfranchisement.

Then there’s Facebook. Psychological warfare is not new. Radio and television have influenced elections long before the internet. Politicians changed their language to fit the medium of radio.

The internet has removed all friction that helps us behave cooperatively. Removing friction was once our goal, but it turns out that friction is sometimes useful. The internet has turned into an outrage machine.

Solving problems in the isolation of our own products ignores the broader context of society.

The Waze map reflects cities as they are, not the way someone wishes them to be.

—Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze

From bulletin boards to today’s web, the internet has always been toxic because human nature is toxic. Maybe that’s the bigger problem to solve.

We can look to other industries…

Ideo redesigned the hospital experience. People were introduced to their entire care staff on their first visit. Sloan Kettering took a similar approach. Artwork serves as wayfinding. Every room has its own bathroom. A Chicago hostpital included gardens because it improves recovery.

These hospital examples all:

  • Designed for an intended outcome.
  • Met people where they were.
  • Strengthened existing support networks.

We’ve seen some bad examples from urban planning, but there are success stories too.

A person on a $30 bicycle is as important as someone in a $30,000 car, said Enrique Peñalosa.

Copenhagen once faced awful traffic congestion. Now people cycle everywhere. It’s the fastest way to get around. The city is designed for bicycles first. People rode more when it felt safer. It’s no coincidence that Copenhagen ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world.

Scandinavian prisons use a concept called restorative justice. The staff plays badminton with the inmates. They cook together. Treat people like dirt and they will act like dirt. Treat people like people and they will act like people. Recividism rates in Norway are now way low.

  • Design for dignity and cooperation.
  • Solve for everyone in a system.
  • Policy should reflect intended outcomes.

The deHavilland Comet was made of metal. After a few blew apart at the seams, they switched from rivetted material. Airlines today develop a culture of crew resource management that encourages people to speak up.

  • Plan for every point of failure.
  • Empower everyone on a team to solve problems.
  • Adapt.

What can we do?

  • Policies affect design. We need to work more closely with policy makers.
  • Question access. Are all opinions equal? Where are computers making decisions that should involve people.
  • Forget neutrality. Technology is not neutral. Neutrality allows us to abdicate responsibility.
  • Stay a litte bit paranoid. Think about what the worst case scenario might be.

Make people better curators. How might we allow people to assess the veracity of information for themselves? What if we gave people better tools to affect their overall experience, not just small customisations?

We can use what we know about people to bring out their best behaviours. We can empower people to take action instead of just outrage.

What if we designed for the good of the community instead of the success of individuals. Like the Vauban in Freiburg! It was squatted, and the city gave control to the squatters to create an eco neighbourhood with affordable housing.

We need to think about what kind of worlds we want to create. What if we made the web less like a mall and more like a public park?

These are hard problems. But we solve hard technology problems every day. We could be the first generation of builders to solve technology’s hard problems.

Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski

It’s the afternoon of day two of An Event Apart in Seattle. The mighty green one, Luke Wroblewski, is here to deliver a talk called Mobile Planet:

With 3.5 billion active smartphones on Earth, we’re now faced with the challenges and opportunities of designing planet-scale software. Through a data-informed, big-picture walk-through of our mobile planet, Luke will dig into how people use computing devices today and how the design of our products needs to adapt to this reality. He’ll cover key issues like app on-boarding and performance in enough detail to give you clear ways to improve first time and subsequent use of your mobile apps and sites.

Luke has been working on figuring out hardware and software for years. He looks at a lot of data. The more we understand how people use technology in their daily lives, the better we can design for them.

Earth is the third planet from the sun, and the only place that we know of that harbours life. Our population is at about 7.7 billion people. There are about 5.6 billion people in our addressable market (people over 14 years old). There are already 5 billion mobile subscribers in there. That’s interesting, but which of those devices are modern smartphones? There are about 3.6 billion active smartphones. Compare that to about 1.3 billion active personal computers—the vast majority of them Windows devices (about 1.2 billion). Over the next four or five years, we’ll have about 5 billion smartphone users and a global population of 8 billion.

The point is that we can reach a significant proportion of the human species. The diversity of our species makes it challenging to design for everyone.

Let’s take a closer look at these 3.6 billion active smartphones. About 25% of them are iOS devices. 75% of them are Android. Bear in mind that these are active devices—what’s actually being used. That’s different to shipping devices. Apple ships 15% of smartphone, and Android ships 85%, but the iOS devices tend to have longer lifespans (around 2 years for Android; around 4 years for iOS).

The UK has 82% smartphone penetration. Compare that to India, where it’s 27%. There’s room to grow.

Everywhere you look, the growth of these devices has led to a shift of digital things overtaking analogue. Shopping, advertising, music, you name it. We’ve seen enough of these transitions happen, that we should be prepared for it.

So there are lots of smartphones, with basically two major operating systems. But how are people using these devices?

In the US, adults spend about 2.3 - 3.5 hours per day on their mobile devices. Let’s call it an even 3 hours. That’s a lot of time. Where does that time come from? Interestingly, as time spent on mobile devices has surged, time spent on other media has only slowly declined. So mobile is additive. It’s contributing to more time spent on the internet rather than taking it away from existing screen time.

Next question: what the hell are people doing during those 3 hours per day on smartphones? Native apps get about 169 minutes of time compared to only 11 minutes on the web. There are about 2 million native apps on Apple, and about 2 million native apps on Android. But although people have a lot of apps, people only use about half them. Remember folks, downloads does not equal usage. Most apps don’t make it past the first opening. Only a third make it past being opened ten times.

Because people spend so much time and energy on these apps, and given the abysmal abandonment, people start freaking out about “engagement.” So what do they reach for? Push notifications. Either that or onboarding.

Push notifications. The worst. I mean, they do succeed in getting your attention: push notifications do increase the amount of time spent in your app …but there’s a human cost.

Let’s look at app onboarding. Take Flickr, for example. It walks through some of the features and benefits of the service. But it doesn’t actually help you much. It’s a list of marketing slogans. So why do people reach for onboarding?

If you just drop people into an interface and talk to them about it, they’ll say things like “I don’t know what to do. I’m lost.” The Intuit team heard this from people using their app. They reached for onboarding to solve the problem. They created guided tutorials and intro tours. Turns out that nobody would read these screens and everyone would try to skip them. What the hell, people!?

So they try in-context help, with a cute cartoon robot to explain the features. Or they scribble Einstein’s equations over the interface. Test this. People respond with “Please make it stop.”

They decided to try something simpler: one tip that calls out a good first step. That worked.

Vevo used to have an intro tour. Most people were swiping through without reading. They experimented with not running the tour. They got a 10% increase in log-ins and a 6% increase in sign-ups.

Vevo got rid of their tour, but left the sign-in/registration step. You can’t remove that, right?

Well, Hotel Tonight experimented with not doing registration. Signing up was confusing people—it’s Hotels Tonight, not Accounts Today. When they got rid of accounts, they saw a 15% increase in conversions.

Ruthlessly edit.

Google Photos used to have an in-depth on-boarding experience. First they got rid of the animation. Then the start-up screen. Then the animated tutorial. Each time they removed something, conversion went up. All that was left from the original onboarding was a half screen with one option to turn on auto-backup.

Get to your product value as fast as possible. Of course that requires you to know what your core value is. And that’s not easy to figure out.

Google Maps went through a similar reduction, removing intro screens and explanations. Now they just drop you into the map.

It’s not “get rid of everything”. It’s “get rid of everything that gets in the way of the core user action.”

Going back to the Intuit example, that’s exactly what they did in the end. That one initial tip was for the core action.

But it’s worth discussing how to present this kind of thing. If you have to overlay a tooltip for an important UI feature, maybe that UI feature should have a clearer affordance. People treat overlays as annoyances. People ignore or dismiss overlays when they’re focused on a task. It’s like an instinct to get rid of them. So if you put something useful or valuable there, it’s gone.

The core part of your application should feel like the core part of your application. It’s tough because stakeholders want to make things “pop.” We throw contrast, colour, and animation at things. But when something sticks out from the UI, people ignore it. Integrate the core action into the product UI. When elements feel foreign to a product UI, they are at best ignored, or at worst dismissed.

These is why cohesive design matters. It’s not about consistency. It’s about feeling integrated. In many cases, consistency can be counter-productive.

Some principles for successful onboarding:

  1. Get to to the product value as fast as possible. Grubhub needs your address. Pinterest needs your interests.
  2. Get rid of everything that doesn’t lead to that product value. Ruthlessly edit. Remove all friction that distracts the user from experiencing product value.
  3. Don’t be afraid to educate contextually. But do so with integrated UI.

Luke talked a lot about what’s happening in mobile apps, and mentioned that the mobile web only gets 11 minutes to the native’s 169. But let’s dive into this, because people sometimes think that a “mobile strategy” comes down to picking between these two. 50% of those 169 minutes are spent in your most used app (Facebook). 78% of the time is spent in the top 5 apps. Now the mobile web doesn’t look so bad. It turns out you can get people to a mobile web experience much, much faster than to a native one. The audience size is much, much, much higher on the web (although people will do more in a dedicated native app). So strategically both are useful—the web can attract people to native.

Back to our planet, and those 3 hours of usage on smartphones every day. People unlock their phones around 80 times a day. The average time people sleep is about 8 hours. So for every 12 waking minutes, you’re unlocking your phone. Given this frequency, it’s unsurprising that most sessions are very short—most under 30 seconds.

Given that, if things are slow, you’re going to really, really, really hate it. Waiting for slow pages to load is what really pisses people off.

The cognitive load and stress of waiting for slow pages is worse than waiting in line in a store, or watching a horror movie. That’s an industry that’s all about stressing people out by design! But experiencing mobile delays is more stressful! Probably because people aren’t watching horror movies every 12 minutes.

Because mobile delays are such a big deal, many mobile apps reach for loading spinners. But Luke saw that adding a spinner to his product increased complaints of slow loading times. Of course! The spinner is explicitly telling people, “Hey, we’re slow.”

So the switched to skeleton screens. This should feel like something is always happening. Focus on the progress, not the progress indicator. Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time.

A lot of people have implemented skeleton screen, but without the progressive loading. Swapping out a skeleton screen to a completely different UI all at once doesn’t help. The skeleton screens should represent the real content.

This is a lot of work; figuring how to prioritise what to load first. Luke isn’t talking about the techical side here, but the user’s experience. Investing in getting this right makes a lot of sense.

Let’s look a little closer at this number: people interacting with their phones 80 times a day. The average user touches the device 2,617 times a day. A power user touches the device over 5,000 times a day. Most touches are within one app.

90% of the touches are dealing with one thumb. Young people tend to operate with one hand. For older people, it’s more like 60%.

This is why your interface targets need to work for the thumb.

On phones, 90% of the time you’re dealing with portrait mode. Things at the top of the screen on larger devices are hard to reach. Core actions gravitate to the bottom of the screen.

Opera Touch is a new browser designed specifically for one-handed use. The Palm Pre’s WebOS was also about one-hand usage. Now that’s how iOS and Android work: swiping up from the bottom.

So mobile usage is:

  • One-handed/thumb.
  • In portrait mode on large screens.
  • Design accordingly.

What’s next? What do we need to be aware of so we don’t get caught with our pants down?

We can use the product lifecycle chart to figure this out. There’s an emergent phase, then a growth phase, then consolidation in a mature market, and then that gets disrupted and becomes a declining market.

  • Mobile devices—hand computers—are in a mature consolidated market.
  • Desktop and laptop computers are in a declining market.
  • Wrist computers and voice computers are in a growth market.

Small screens get used more frequently, but for shorter periods of time than large screens. Wrist and voice computers are figuring out what their core offerings are.

In the emergent category, it’s all about exploration. We have no idea how things will turn out. We just don’t know. But we do know that we are now designing for lots and lots of different devices.

For today, though, focusing on mobile is still a pretty good idea.

To summarise:

  • It’s a mobile planet.
  • Understanding real world usage helps you design.
  • Prep for what’s next