Tags: web

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Push without notifications

On the first day of Indie Web Camp Berlin, I led a session on going offline with service workers. This covered all the usual use-cases: pre-caching; custom offline pages; saving pages for offline reading.

But on the second day, Sebastiaan spent a fair bit of time investigating a more complex use of service workers with the Push API.

The Push API is what makes push notifications possible on the web. There are a lot of moving parts—browser, server, service worker—and, frankly, it’s way over my head. But I’m familiar with the general gist of how it works. Here’s a typical flow:

  1. A website prompts the user for permission to send push notifications.
  2. The user grants permission.
  3. A whole lot of complicated stuff happens behinds the scenes.
  4. Next time the website publishes something relevant, it fires a push message containing the details of the new URL.
  5. The user’s service worker receives the push message (even if the site isn’t open).
  6. The service worker creates a notification linking to the URL, interrupting the user, and generally adding to the weight of information overload.

Here’s what Sebastiaan wanted to investigate: what if that last step weren’t so intrusive? Here’s the alternate flow he wanted to test:

  1. A website prompts the user for permission to send push notifications.
  2. The user grants permission.
  3. A whole lot of complicated stuff happens behinds the scenes.
  4. Next time the website publishes something relevant, it fires a push message containing the details of the new URL.
  5. The user’s service worker receives the push message (even if the site isn’t open).
  6. The service worker fetches the contents of the URL provided in the push message and caches the page. Silently.

It worked.

I think this could be a real game-changer. I don’t know about you, but I’m very, very wary of granting websites the ability to send me push notifications. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever given a website permission to interrupt me with push notifications.

You’ve seen the annoying permission dialogues, right?

In Firefox, it looks like this:

Will you allow name-of-website to send notifications?

[Not Now] [Allow Notifications]

In Chrome, it’s:

name-of-website wants to

Show notifications

[Block] [Allow]

But in actual fact, these dialogues are asking for permission to do two things:

  1. Receive messages pushed from the server.
  2. Display notifications based on those messages.

There’s no way to ask for permission just to do the first part. That’s a shame. While I’m very unwilling to grant permission to be interrupted by intrusive notifications, I’d be more than willing to grant permission to allow a website to silently cache timely content in the background. It would be a more calm technology.

Think of the use cases:

  • I grant push permission to a magazine. When the magazine publishes a new article, it’s cached on my device.
  • I grant push permission to a podcast. Whenever a new episode is published, it’s cached on my device.
  • I grant push permission to a blog. When there’s a new blog post, it’s cached on my device.

Then when I’m on a plane, or in the subway, or in any other situation without a network connection, I could still visit these websites and get content that’s fresh to me. It’s kind of like background sync in reverse.

There’s plenty of opportunity for abuse—the cache could get filled with content. But websites can already do that, and they don’t need to be granted any permissions to do so; just by visiting a website, it can add multiple files to a cache.

So it seems that the reason for the permissions dialogue is all about displaying notifications …not so much about receiving push messages from the server.

I wish there were a way to implement this background-caching pattern without requiring the user to grant permission to a dialogue that contains the word “notification.”

I wonder if the act of adding a site to the home screen could implicitly grant permission to allow use of the Push API without notifications?

In the meantime, the proposal for periodic synchronisation (using background sync) could achieve similar results, but in a less elegant way; periodically polling for new content instead of receiving a push message when new content is published. Also, it requires permission. But at least in this case, the permission dialogue should be more specific, and wouldn’t include the word “notification” anywhere.

Webmentions at Indie Web Camp Berlin

I was in Berlin for most of last week, and every day was packed with activity:

By the time I got back to Brighton, my brain was full …just in time for FF Conf.

All of the events were very different, but equally enjoyable. It was also quite nice to just attend events without speaking at them.

Indie Web Camp Berlin was terrific. There was an excellent turnout, and once again, I found that the format was just right: a day of discussions (BarCamp style) followed by a day of doing (coding, designing, hacking). I got very inspired on the first day, so I was raring to go on the second.

What I like to do on the second day is try to complete two tasks; one that’s fairly straightforward, and one that’s a bit tougher. That way, when it comes time to demo at the end of the day, even if I haven’t managed to complete the tougher one, I’ll still be able to demo the simpler one.

In this case, the tougher one was also tricky to demo. It involved a lot of invisible behind-the-scenes plumbing. I was tweaking my webmention endpoint (stop sniggering—tweaking your endpoint is no laughing matter).

Up until now, I could handle straightforward webmentions, and I could handle updates (if I receive more than one webmention from the same link, I check it each time). But I needed to also handle deletions.

The spec is quite clear on this. A 404 isn’t enough to trigger a deletion—that might be a temporary state. But a status of 410 Gone indicates that a resource was once here but has since been deliberately removed. In that situation, any stored webmentions for that link should also be removed.

Anyway, I think I got it working, but it’s tricky to test and even trickier to demo. “Not to worry”, I thought, “I’ve always got my simpler task.”

For that, I chose to add a little map to my homepage showing the last location I published something from. I’ve been geotagging all my content for years (journal entries, notes, links, articles), but not really doing anything with that data. This is a first step to doing something interesting with many years of location data.

I’ve got it working now, but the demo gods really weren’t with me at Indie Web Camp. Both of my demos failed. The webmention demo failed quite embarrassingly.

As well as handling deletions, I also wanted to handle updates where a URL that once linked to a post of mine no longer does. Just to be clear, the URL still exists—it’s not 404 or 410—but it has been updated to remove the original link back to one of my posts. I know this sounds like another very theoretical situation, but I’ve actually got an example of it on my very first webmention test post from five years ago. Believe it or not, there’s an escort agency in Nottingham that’s using webmention as a vector for spam. They post something that does link to my test post, send a webmention, and then remove the link to my test post. I almost admire their dedication.

Still, I wanted to foil this particular situation so I thought I had updated my code to handle it. Alas, when it came time to demo this, I was using someone else’s computer, and in my attempt to right-click and copy the URL of the spam link …I accidentally triggered it. In front of a room full of people. It was midly NSFW, but more worryingly, a potential Code Of Conduct violation. I’m very sorry about that.

Apart from the humiliating demo, I thoroughly enjoyed Indie Web Camp, and I’m going to keep adjusting my webmention endpoint. There was a terrific discussion around the ethical implications of storing webmentions, led by Sebastian, based on his epic post from earlier this year.

We established early in the discussion that we weren’t going to try to solve legal questions—like GDPR “compliance”, which varies depending on which lawyer you talk to—but rather try to figure out what the right thing to do is.

Earlier that day, during the introductions, I quite happily showed webmentions in action on my site. I pointed out that my last blog post had received a response from another site, and because that response was marked up as an h-entry, I displayed it in full on my site. I thought this was all hunky-dory, but now this discussion around privacy made me question some inferences I was making:

  1. By receiving a webention in the first place, I was inferring a willingness for the link to be made public. That’s not necessarily true, as someone pointed out: a CMS could be automatically sending webmentions, which the author might be unaware of.
  2. If the linking post is marked up in h-entry, I was inferring a willingness for the content to be republished. Again, not necessarily true.

That second inferrence of mine—that publishing in a particular format somehow grants permissions—actually has an interesting precedent: Google AMP. Simply by including the Google AMP script on a web page, you are implicitly giving Google permission to store a complete copy of that page and serve it from their servers instead of sending people to your site. No terms and conditions. No checkbox ticked. No “I agree” button pressed.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, when it comes to my own processing of webmentions, I’m going to take some of the suggestions from the discussion on board. There are certain signals I could be looking for in the linking post:

  • Does it include a link to a licence?
  • Is there a restrictive robots.txt file?
  • Are there meta declarations that say noindex?

Each one of these could help to infer whether or not I should be publishing a webmention or not. I quickly realised that what we’re talking about here is an algorithm.

Despite its current usage to mean “magic”, an algorithm is a recipe. It’s a series of steps that contribute to a decision point. The problem is that, in the case of silos like Facebook or Instagram, the algorithms are secret (which probably contributes to their aura of magical thinking). If I’m going to write an algorithm that handles other people’s information, I don’t want to make that mistake. Whatever steps I end up codifying in my webmention endpoint, I’ll be sure to document them publicly.

Several people are writing

Anne Gibson writes:

It sounds easy to make writing a habit, but like every other habit that doesn’t involve addictive substances like nicotine or dopamine it’s hard to start and easy to quit.

Alice Bartlett writes:

Anyway, here we are, on my blog, or in your RSS reader. I think I’ll do weaknotes. Some collections of notes. Sometimes. Not very well written probably. Generally written with the urgency of someone who is waiting for a baby wake up.

Patrick Rhone writes:

Bottom line; please place any idea worth more than 280 characters and the value Twitter places on them (which is zero) on a blog that you own and/or can easily take your important/valuable/life-changing ideas with you and make them easy for others to read and share.

Sara Soueidan writes:

What you write might help someone understand a concept that you may think has been covered enough before. We each have our own unique perspectives and writing styles. One writing style might be more approachable to some, and can therefore help and benefit a large (or even small) number of people in ways you might not expect.

Just write.

Even if only one person learns something from your article, you’ll feel great, and that you’ve contributed — even if just a little bit — to this amazing community that we’re all constantly learning from. And if no one reads your article, then that’s also okay. That voice telling you that people are just sitting somewhere watching our every step and judging us based on the popularity of our writing is a big fat pathetic attention-needing liar.

Laura Kalbag writes:

The web can be used to find common connections with folks you find interesting, and who don’t make you feel like so much of a weirdo. It’d be nice to be able to do this in a safe space that is not being surveilled.

Owning your own content, and publishing to a space you own can break through some of these barriers. Sharing your own weird scraps on your own site makes you easier to find by like-minded folks.

Brendan Dawes writes:

At times I think “will anyone reads this, does anyone care?”, but I always publish it anyway — and that’s for two reasons. First it’s a place for me to find stuff I may have forgotten how to do. Secondly, whilst some of this stuff is seemingly super-niche, if one person finds it helpful out there on the web, then that’s good enough for me. After all I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read similar posts that have helped me out.

Robin Rendle writes:

My advice after learning from so many helpful people this weekend is this: if you’re thinking of writing something that explains a weird thing you struggled with on the Internet, do it! Don’t worry about the views and likes and Internet hugs. If you’ve struggled with figuring out this thing then be sure to jot it down, even if it’s unedited and it uses too many commas and you don’t like the tone of it.

Khoi Vinh writes:

Maybe you feel more comfortable writing in short, concise bullets than at protracted, grandiose length. Or maybe you feel more at ease with sarcasm and dry wit than with sober, exhaustive argumentation. Or perhaps you prefer to knock out a solitary first draft and never look back rather than polishing and tweaking endlessly. Whatever the approach, if you can do the work to find a genuine passion for writing, what a powerful tool you’ll have.

Amber Wilson writes:

I want to finally begin writing about psychology. A friend of mine shared his opinion that writing about this is probably best left to experts. I tried to tell him I think that people should write about whatever they want. He argued that whatever he could write about psychology has probably already been written about a thousand times. I told him that I’m going to be writer number 1001, and I’m going to write something great that nobody has written before.

Austin Kleon writes:

Maybe I’m weird, but it just feels good. It feels good to reclaim my turf. It feels good to have a spot to think out loud in public where people aren’t spitting and shitting all over the place.

Tim Kadlec writes:

I write to understand and remember. Sometimes that will be interesting to others, often it won’t be.

But it’s going to happen. Here, on my own site.

You write…

The top four web performance challenges

Danielle and I have been doing some front-end consultancy for a local client recently.

We’ve both been enjoying it a lot—it’s exhausting but rewarding work. So if you’d like us to come in and spend a few days with your company’s dev team, please get in touch.

I’ve certainly enjoyed the opportunity to watch Danielle in action, leading a workshop on refactoring React components in a pattern library. She’s incredibly knowledgable in that area.

I’m clueless when it comes to React, but I really enjoy getting down to the nitty-gritty of browser features—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript APIs. Our skillsets complement one another nicely.

This recent work was what prompted my thoughts around the principles of robustness and least power. We spent a day evaluating a continuum of related front-end concerns: semantics, accessibility, performance, and SEO.

When it came to performance, a lot of the work was around figuring out the most suitable metric to prioritise:

  • time to first byte,
  • time to first render,
  • time to first meaningful paint, or
  • time to first meaningful interaction.

And that doesn’t even cover the more easily-measurable numbers like:

  • overall file size,
  • number of requests, or
  • pagespeed insights score.

One outcome was to realise that there’s a tendency (in performance, accessibility, or SEO) to focus on what’s easily measureable, not because it’s necessarily what matters, but precisely because it is easy to measure.

Then we got down to some nuts’n’bolts technology decisions. I took a step back and looked at the state of performance across the web. I thought it would be fun to rank the most troublesome technologies in order of tricksiness. I came up with a top four list.

Here we go, counting down from four to the number one spot…

4. Web fonts

Coming in at number four, it’s web fonts. Sometimes it’s the combined weight of multiple font files that’s the problem, but more often that not, it’s the perceived performance that suffers (mostly because of when the web fonts appear).

Fortunately there’s a straightforward question to ask in this situation: WWZD—What Would Zach Do?

3. Images

At the number three spot, it’s images. There are more of them and they just seem to be getting bigger all the time. And yet, we have more tools at our disposal than ever—better file formats, and excellent browser support for responsive images. Heck, we’re even getting the ability to lazy load images in HTML now.

So, as with web fonts, it feels like the impact of images on performance can be handled, as long as you give them some time and attention.

2. Our JavaScript

Just missing out on making the top spot is the JavaScript that we send down the pipe to our long-suffering users. There’s nothing wrong with the code itself—I’m sure it’s very good. There’s just too damn much of it. And that’s a real performance bottleneck, especially on mobile.

So stop sending so much JavaScript—a solution as simple as Monty Python’s instructions for playing the flute.

1. Other people’s JavaScript

At number one with a bullet, it’s all the crap that someone else tells us to put on our websites. Analytics. Ads. Trackers. Beacons. “It’s just one little script”, they say. And then that one little script calls in another, and another, and another.

It’s so disheartening when you’ve devoted your time and energy into your web font loading strategy, and optimising your images, and unbundling your JavaScript …only to have someone else’s JavaScript just shit all over your nice performance budget.

Here’s the really annoying thing: when I go to performance conferences, or participate in performance discussions, you know who’s nowhere to be found? The people making those third-party scripts.

The narrative around front-end performance is that it’s up to us developers to take responsibility for how our websites perform. But by far the biggest performance impact comes from third-party scripts.

There is a solution to this, but it’s not a technical one. We could refuse to add overweight (and in many cases, unethical) third-party scripts to the sites we build.

I have many, many issues with Google’s AMP project, but I completely acknowledge that it solves a political problem:

No external JavaScript is allowed in an AMP HTML document. This covers third-party libraries, advertising and tracking scripts. This is A-okay with me.

The reasons given for this ban are related to performance and I agree with them completely. Big bloated JavaScript libraries are one of the biggest performance killers on the web.

But how can we take that lesson from AMP and apply it to all our web pages? If we simply refuse to be the one to add those third-party scripts, we get fired, and somebody else comes in who is willing to poison web pages with third-party scripts. There’s nothing to stop companies doing that.

Unless…

Suppose we were to all make a pact that we would stand in solidarity with any of our fellow developers in that sort of situation. A sort of joining-together. A union, if you will.

There is power in a factory, power in the land, power in the hands of the worker, but it all amounts to nothing if together we don’t stand.

There is power in a union.

Flexibility

Over on A List Apart, you can read the first chapter from Tim’s new book, Flexible Typesetting.

I was lucky enough to get an advance preview copy and this book is ticking all my boxes. I mean, I knew I would love all the type nerdery in the book, but there’s a bigger picture too. In chapter two, Tim makes this provacative statement:

Typography is now optional. That means it’s okay for people to opt out.

That’s an uncomfortable truth for designers and developers, but it gets to the heart of what makes the web so great:

Of course typography is valuable. Typography may now be optional, but that doesn’t mean it’s worthless. Typographic choices contribute to a text’s meaning. But on the web, text itself (including its structural markup) matters most, and presentational instructions like typography take a back seat. Text loads first; typography comes later. Readers are free to ignore typographic suggestions, and often prefer to. Services like Instapaper, Pocket, and Safari’s Reader View are popular partly because readers like their text the way they like it.

What Tim describes there isn’t a cause for frustration or despair—it’s a cause for celebration. When we try to treat the web as a fixed medium where we can dictate the terms that people must abide by, we’re doing them (and the web) a disservice. Instead of treating web design as a pre-made contract drawn up by the designer and presented to the user as a fait accompli, it is more materially honest to treat web design as a conversation between designer and user. Both parties should have a say.

Or as Tim so perfectly puts it in Flexible Typesetting:

Readers are typographers, too.

Greater expectations

I got an intriguing email recently from someone who’s a member of The Session, the community website about Irish traditional music that I run. They said:

When I recently joined, I used my tablet to join. Somewhere I was able to download The Session app onto my tablet.

But there is no native app for The Session. Although, as it’s a site that I built, it is, a of course, progressive web app.

They went on to say:

I wanted to put the app on my phone but I can’t find the app to download it. Can I have the app on more than one device? If so, where is it available?

I replied saying that yes, you can absolutely have it on more than one device:

But you don’t find The Session app in the app store. Instead you go to the website https://thesession.org and then add it to your home screen from your browser.

My guess is that this person had added The Session to the home screen of their Android tablet, probably following the “add to home screen” prompt. I recently added some code to use the window.beforeinstallprompt event so that the “add to home screen” prompt would only be shown to visitors who sign up or log in to The Session—a good indicator of engagement, I reckon, and it should reduce the chance of the prompt being dismissed out of hand.

So this person added The Session to their home screen—probably as a result of being prompted—and then used it just like any other app. At some point, they didn’t even remember how the app got installed:

Success! I did it. Thanks. My problem was I was looking for an app to download.

On the one hand, this is kind of great: here’s an example where, in the user’s mind, there’s literally no difference between the experience of using a progressive web app and using a native app. Win!

But on the other hand, the expectation is still that apps are to be found in an app store, not on the web. This expectation is something I wrote about recently (and Justin wrote a response to that post). I finished by saying:

Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

When this member of The Session said “My problem was I was looking for an app to download”, I responded by saying:

Well, I take that as a compliment—the fact that once the site is added to your home screen, it feels just like a native app. :-)

And they said:

Yes, it does!

Altering expectations

Luke has written up the selection process he went through when Clearleft was designing the Virgin Holidays app. When it comes to deploying on mobile, there were three options:

  1. Native apps
  2. A progressive web app
  3. A hybrid app

The Virgin Holidays team went with that third option.

Now, it will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan of the second option: building a progressive web app (or turning an existing site into a progressive web app). I think a progressive web app is a great solution for travel apps, and the use-case that Luke describes sounds perfect:

Easy access to resort staff and holiday details that could be viewed offline to help as many customers as possible travel without stress and enjoy a fantastic holiday

Luke explains why they choice not to go with a progressive web app.

The current level of support and leap in understanding meant we’d risk alienating many of our customers.

The issue of support is one that is largely fixed at this point. When Clearleft was working on the Virgin Holidays app, service workers hadn’t landed in iOS. Hence, the risk of alienating a lot of customers. But now that Mobile Safari has offline capabilities, that’s no longer a problem.

But it’s the second reason that’s trickier:

Simply put, customers already expected to find us in the App Store and are familiar with what apps can historically offer over websites.

I think this is the biggest challenge facing progressive web apps: battling expectations.

For over a decade, people have formed ideas about what to expect from the web and what to expect from native. From a technical perspective, native and web have become closer and closer in capabilities. But people’s expectations move slower than technological changes.

First of all, there’s the whole issue of discovery: will people understand that they can “install” a website and expect it to behave exactly like a native app? This is where install prompts and ambient badging come in. I think ambient badging is the way to go, but it’s still a tricky concept to explain to people.

But there’s another way of looking at the current situation. Instead of seeing people’s expectations as a negative factor, maybe it’s an opportunity. There’s an opportunity right now for companies to be as groundbreaking and trendsetting as Wired.com when it switched to CSS for layout, or The Boston Globe when it launched its responsive site.

It makes for a great story. Just look at the Pinterest progressive web app for an example (skip to the end to get to the numbers):

Weekly active users on mobile web have increased 103 percent year-over-year overall, with a 156 percent increase in Brazil and 312 percent increase in India. On the engagement side, session length increased by 296 percent, the number of Pins seen increased by 401 percent and people were 295 percent more likely to save a Pin to a board. Those are amazing in and of themselves, but the growth front is where things really shined. Logins increased by 370 percent and new signups increased by 843 percent year-over-year. Since we shipped the new experience, mobile web has become the top platform for new signups. And for fun, in less than 6 months since fully shipping, we already have 800 thousand weekly users using our PWA like a native app (from their homescreen).

Now admittedly their previous mobile web experience was a dreadful doorslam, but still, those are some amazing statistics!

Maybe we’re underestimating the malleability of people’s expectations when it comes to the web on mobile. Perhaps the inertia we think we’re battling against isn’t such a problem as long as we give people a fast, reliable, engaging experience.

If you build that, they will come.

Links, tags, and feeds

A little while back, I switched from using Chrome as my day-to-day browser to using Firefox. I could feel myself getting a bit too comfortable with one particular browser, and that’s not good. I reckon it’s good to shake things up a little every now and then. Besides, there really isn’t that much difference once you’ve transferred over bookmarks and cookies.

Unfortunately I’m being bitten by this little bug in Firefox. It causes some of my bookmarklets to fail on certain sites with strict Content Security Policies (and CSPs shouldn’t affect bookmarklets). I might have to switch back to Chrome because of this.

I use bookmarklets throughout the day. There’s the Huffduffer bookmarklet, of course, for whenever I come across a podcast episode or other piece of audio that I want to listen to later. But there’s also my own home-rolled bookmarklet for posting links to my site. It doesn’t do anything clever—it grabs the title and URL of the currently open page and pre-populates a form in a new window, leaving me to add a short description and some tags.

If you’re reading this, then you’re familiar with the “journal” section of adactio.com, but the “links” section is where I post the most. Here, for example, are all the links I posted yesterday. It varies from day to day, but there’s generally a handful.

Should you wish to keep track of everything I’m linking to, there’s a twitterbot you can follow called @adactioLinks. It uses a simple IFTTT recipe to poll my RSS feed of links and send out a tweet whenever there’s a new entry.

Or you can drink straight from the source and subscribe to the RSS feed itself, if you’re still rocking it old-school. But if RSS is your bag, then you might appreciate a way to filter those links…

All my links are tagged. Heavily. This is because all my links are “notes to future self”, and all my future self has to do is ask “what would past me have tagged that link with?” when I’m trying to find something I previously linked to. I end up using my site’s URLs as an interface:

At the front-end gatherings at Clearleft, I usually wrap up with a quick tour of whatever I’ve added that week to:

Well, each one of those tags also has a corresponding RSS feed:

…and so on.

That means you can subscribe to just the links tagged with something you’re interested in. Here’s the full list of tags if you’re interested in seeing the inside of my head.

This also works for my journal entries. If you’re only interested in my blog posts about frontend development, you might want to subscribe to:

Here are all the tags from my journal.

You can even mix them up. For everything I’ve tagged with “typography”—whether it’s links, journal entries, or articles—the URL is:

The corresponding RSS feed is:

You get the idea. Basically, if something on my site is a list of items, chances are there’s a corresponding RSS feeds. Sometimes there might even be a JSON feed. Hack some URLs to see.

Meanwhile, I’ll be linking, linking, linking…

Twitter and Instagram progressive web apps

Since support for service workers landed in Mobile Safari on iOS, I’ve been trying a little experiment. Can I replace some of the native apps I use with progressive web apps?

The two major candidates are Twitter and Instagram. I added them to my home screen, and banished the native apps off to a separate screen. I’ve been using both progressive web apps for a few months now, and I have to say, they’re pretty darn great.

There are a few limitations compared to the native apps. On Twitter, if you follow a link from a tweet, it pops open in Safari, which is fine, but when you return to Twitter, it loads anew. This isn’t any fault of Twitter—this is the way that web apps have worked on iOS ever since they introduced their weird web-app-capable meta element. I hope this behaviour will be fixed in a future update.

Also, until we get web notifications on iOS, I need to keep the Twitter native app around if I want to be notified of a direct message (the only notification I allow).

Apart from those two little issues though, Twitter Lite is on par with the native app.

Instagram is also pretty great. It too suffers from some navigation issues. If I click through to someone’s profile, and then return to the main feed, it also loads it anew, losing my place. It would be great if this could be fixed.

For some reason, the Instagram web app doesn’t allow uploading multiple photos …which is weird, because I can upload multiple photos on my own site by adding the multiple attribute to the input type="file" in my posting interface.

Apart from that, though, it works great. And as I never wanted notifications from Instagram anyway, the lack of web notifications doesn’t bother me at all. In fact, because the progressive web app doesn’t keep nagging me about enabling notifications, it’s a more pleasant experience overall.

Something else that was really annoying with the native app was the preponderance of advertisements. It was really getting out of hand.

Well …(looks around to make sure no one is listening)… don’t tell anyone, but the Instagram progressive web app—i.e. the website—doesn’t have any ads at all!

Here’s hoping it stays that way.

Speaking my brains in Boston

I was in Boston last week to give a talk. I ended up giving four.

I was there for An Event Apart which was, as always, excellent. I opened up day two with my talk, The Way Of The Web.

This was my second time giving this talk at An Event Apart—the first time was in Seattle a few months back. It was also my last time giving this talk at An Event Apart—I shan’t be speaking at any of the other AEAs this year, alas. The talk wasn’t recorded either so I’m afraid you kind of had to be there (unless you know of another conference that might like to have me give that talk, in which case, hit me up).

After giving my talk in the morning, I wasn’t quite done. I was on a panel discussion with Rachel about CSS grid. It turned out to be a pretty good format: have one person who’s a complete authority on a topic (Rachel), and another person who’s barely starting out and knows just enough to be dangerous (me). I really enjoyed it, and the questions from the audience prompted some ideas to form in my head that I should really note down in a blog post before they evaporate.

The next day, I went over to MIT to speak at Design 4 Drupal. So, y’know, technically I’ve lectured at MIT now.

I wasn’t going to do the same talk as I gave at An Event Apart, obviously. Instead, I reprised the talk I gave earlier this at Webstock: Taking Back The Web. I thought it was fitting given how much Drupal’s glorious leader, Dries, has been thinking about, writing about, and building with the indie web.

I really enjoyed giving this talk. The audience were great, and they had lots of good questions afterwards. There’s a video, which is basically my voice dubbed over the slides, followed by a good half of questions afterwards.

When I was done there, after a brief excursion to the MIT bookstore, I went back across the river from Cambridge to Boston just in time for that evening’s Boston CSS meetup.

Lea had been in touch to ask if I would speak at this meet-up, and I was only too happy to oblige. I tried doing something I’ve never done before: a book reading!

No, not reading from Going Offline, my current book which I should encouraging people to buy. Instead I read from Resilient Web Design, the free online book that people literally couldn’t buy if they wanted to. But I figured reading the philosophical ramblings in Resilient Web Design would go over better than trying to do an oral version of the service worker code in Going Offline.

I read from chapters two (Materials), three (Visions), and five (Layers) and I really, really liked doing it! People seemed to enjoy it too—we had questions throughout.

And with that, my time in Boston was at an end. I was up at the crack of dawn the next morning to get the plane back to England where Ampersand awaited. I wasn’t speaking there though. I thoroughly enjoyed being an attendee and absorbing the knowledge bombs from the brilliant speakers that Rich assembled.

The next place I’m speaking will much closer to home than Boston: I’ll be giving a short talk at Oxford Geek Nights on Wednesday. Come on by if you’re in the neighbourhood.

Clearleft.com is a progressive web app

What’s that old saying? The cobbler’s children have no shoes that work offline. Or something.

It’s been over a year since the Clearleft site relaunched and I listed some of the next steps I had planned:

Service worker. It’s a no-brainer. Now that the Clearleft site is (finally!) running on HTTPS, having a simple service worker to cache static assets like CSS, JavaScript and some images seems like the obvious next step.

You know how it is. Those no-brainer tasks are exactly the kind of thing that end up on a to-do list without ever quite getting to-done. Meanwhile I’ve been writing and speaking about how any website can be a progressive web app. I think Alanis Morissette used to sing about this sort of situation.

Enough is enough! Clearleft.com is now a progressive web app. It has a manifest file and a service worker script.

The service worker logic is fairly straightforward, and taken almost verbatim from Going Offline. As you navigate around the site, the service worker applies different logic depending on the kind of file you’re requesting:

  • Pages are served fresh from the network, falling back to the cache when there’s a problem.
  • Everything else is served from the cache where possible, resorting to the network only if there’s no match in the cache—quite the performance boost!

In both cases, if a page or a file is retrieved from the network, it’s gets put into a cache. I’ve got one cache for pages, and another for everything else. And even if a file is retrieved from that cache, I still fire off a fetch request to grab a fresh copy for the cache. So while there’s a chance that a stale file might be served up, it will only ever be slightly stale, and the next time it’s requested, it’ll be fresh.

In the worst-case scenario, when a page can’t be retrieved from the network or the cache, you end up seeing a custom offline page. There you can see a list of any pages that are cached (meaning you can revisit them even without an internet connection).

A custom offline page showing a list of URLs.

It’s not ideal—page titles would be friendlier than URLs—but it’s a start. I’m sure I’ll revisit it soon. Honest.

Oh, and after a year of procrastinating about doing this, guess how long it took? About half a day. Admittedly, this isn’t my first progressive web app, and the more you build ‘em, the easier it gets. Still, it’s a classic example of a small investment of time leading to a big improvement in performance and user experience.

If you think your company’s website could benefit from being a progressive web app (and believe me, it definitely could), you have a couple of options:

  1. Arm yourself with a copy of Going Offline and give it a go yourself. Or
  2. Get in touch with Clearleft. We can help you. (See, I can say that with a straight face now that we’re practicing what we preach.)

Either way, don’t dilly dally …like I did.

Document

A little while back, I showed Paul what I was working on with The Gęsiówka Story. I value his opinion and I really like the Bradshaw’s Guide project that he’s been working on. We’re both in complete agreement with Russell Davies’ call for an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms. Call them side projects if you like, but for me, these are the things that the World Wide Web excels at.

These unomentisable enthusiasms/side projects are what got me hooked on the web in the first place. Fray.com—back when it was a website for personal stories—was what really made the web click for me. I had seen brochure sites, I had seen e-commerce sites, but it was seeing something built purely for the love of it that caused that lightbulb moment for me.

I told Paul about another site I remembered from that time (we’re talking about the mid-to-late nineties here). It was called Private Art. It was the work of one family, the children of Private Art Pranger who served in World War Two and wrote letters from the front. Without any expectations, I did a quick search, and amazingly, the site is still up!

Yes, it’s got tiled background images, and the framesetted content is in a pop-up window, but it works. The site hasn’t been updated for fifteen years but it works perfectly in a web browser today. That’s kind of amazing. We really shouldn’t take the longevity of our materials for granted. Could you imagine trying to open a word processing document from the late nineties on your computer today? You’d have a bad time.

Working on The Gęsiówka Story helped to remind me of some of the things that made me fall in love with the web in the first place. What I wrote about it is equally true of Private Art:

When we talk about documents on the web, we usually use the word “document” as a noun. But working on The Gęsiówka Story, I came to think of the word “document” as a verb.

The World Wide Web is a medium that’s works for quick, short-term lightweight bits of fun and also for long-term, deeper, slower, thoughtful archives of our collective culture.

The web is a many-splendoured thing.

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.

HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest = progressive web app

I gave a quick talk at the Delta V conference in London last week called Any Site can be a Progressive Web App. I had ten minutes, but frankly I only needed enough time to say the title of the talk because, well, that was also the message.

There’s a common misconception that making a Progressive Web App means creating a Single Page App with an app-shell architecture. But the truth is that literally any website can benefit from the performance boost that results from the combination of HTTPS + Service Worker + Web App Manifest.

See how I define a progressive web app as being HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest? I’ve been doing that for a while. Here’s a post from last year called Progressing the web:

Literally any website can be a progressive web app:

That last step can be tricky if you’re new to service workers, but it’s not unsurmountable. It’s certainly a lot easier than completely rearchitecting your existing website to be a JavaScript-driven single page app.

Later I wrote a post called What is a Progressive Web App? where I compared the definition to responsive web design.

Regardless of the specifics of the name, what I like about Progressive Web Apps is that they have a clear definition. It reminds me of Responsive Web Design. Whatever you think of that name, it comes with a clear list of requirements:

  1. A fluid layout,
  2. Fluid images, and
  3. Media queries.

Likewise, Progressive Web Apps consist of:

  1. HTTPS,
  2. A service worker, and
  3. A Web App Manifest.

There’s more you can do in addition to that (just as there’s plenty more you can do on a responsive site), but the core definition is nice and clear.

But here’s the thing. Outside of the confines of my own website, it’s hard to find that definition anywhere.

On Google’s developer site, their definition uses adjectives like “reliable”, “fast”, and “engaging”. Those are all great adjectives, but more useful to a salesperson than a developer.

Over on the Mozilla Developer Network, their section on progressive web apps states:

Progressive web apps use modern web APIs along with traditional progressive enhancement strategy to create cross-platform web applications. These apps work everywhere and provide several features that give them the same user experience advantages as native apps. 

Hmm …I’m not so sure about that comparison to native apps (and I’m a little disturbed that the URL structure is /Apps/Progressive). So let’s click through to the introduction:

PWAs are web apps developed using a number of specific technologies and standard patterns to allow them to take advantage of both web and native app features.

Okay. Specific technologies. That’s good to hear. But instead of then listing those specific technologies, we’re given another list of adjectives (discoverable, installable, linkable, etc.). Again, like Google’s chosen adjectives, they’re very nice and desirable, but not exactly useful to someone who wants to get started making a progressive web app. That’s why I like to cut to the chase and say:

  • You need to be running on HTTPS,
  • Then you can add a service worker,
  • And don’t forget to add a web app manifest file.

If you do that, you’ve got a progressive web app. Now, to be fair, there’a lot that I’m leaving out. Your site should be fast. Your site should be responsive (it is, after all, on the web). There’s not much point mucking about with service workers if you haven’t sorted out the basics first. But those three things—HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest—are specifically what distinguishes a progressive web app. You can—and should—have a reliable, fast, engaging website before turning it into a progressive web app.

Jason has been thinking about progressive web apps a lot lately (he should write a book or something), and he said to me:

I agree with you on the three things that comprise a PWA, but as far as I can tell, you’re the first to declare it as such.

I was quite surprised by that. I always assumed that I was repeating the three ingredients of a progressive web app, not defining them. But looking through all the docs out there, Jason might be right. It’s surprising because I assumed it was obvious why those three things comprise a progressive web app—it’s because they’re testable.

Lighthouse, PWA Builder, Sonarwhal and other tools that evaluate your site will measure its progressive web app score based on the three defining factors (HTTPS, service worker, web app manifest). Then there’s Android’s Add to Home Screen prompt. Here finally we get a concrete description of what your site needs to do to pass muster:

  • Includes a web app manifest…
  • Served over HTTPS (required for service workers)
  • Has registered a service worker with a fetch event handler

(Although, as of this month, Chrome will no longer show the prompt automatically—you also have to write some JavaScript to handle the beforeinstallprompt  event).

Anyway, if you’re looking to turn your website into a progressive web app, here’s what you need to do (assuming it’s already performant and responsive):

  1. Switch over to HTTPS. Certbot can help you here.
  2. Add a web app manifest.
  3. Add a service worker to your site so that it responds even when there’s no network connection.

That last step might sound like an intimidating prospect, but help is at hand: I wrote Going Offline for exactly this situation.

Designing Progressive Web Apps by Jason Grigsby

It’s the afternoon of the second day of An Event Apart Seattle and Jason is talking about Designing Progressive Web Apps. These are my notes…

Jason wants to talk about a situation you might find yourself in. You’re in a room and in walks the boss, who says “We need a progressive web app.” Now everyone is asking themselves “What is a progressive web app?” Or maybe “How does the CEO even know about progressive web apps?”

Well, trade publications are covering progressive web apps. Lots of stats and case studies are being published. When executives see this kind of information, they don’t want to get left out. Jason keeps track of this stuff at PWA Stats.

Answering the question “What is a progressive web app?” is harder than it should be. The phrase was coined by Frances Berriman and Alex Russell. They listed ten characteristics that defined progressive web apps. The “linkable” and “progressive” characteristics are the really interesting and new characteristics. We’ve had technologies before (like Adobe Air) that tried to make app-like experiences, but they weren’t really of the web. Progressive web apps are different.

Despite this list of ten characteristics, even people who are shipping progressive web apps find it hard to define the damn thing. The definition on Google’s developer site keeps changing. They reduced the characteristics from ten to six. Then it became “reliable, fast, and engaging.” What does that mean? Craigslist is reliable, fast, and engaging—does that mean it’s a progressive web app.

The technical definition is useful (kudos to me, says Jason):

  1. HTTPS
  2. service worker
  3. manifest file

If you don’t have those three things, it’s not a progressive web app.

We should definitely use HTTPS if we want make life harder for the NSA. Also browser makers are making APIs available only under HTTPS. By July, Chrome will mark HTTP sites as insecure. Every site should be under HTTPS.

Service workers are where the power is. They act as a proxy. They allow us to say what we want to cache, what we want to go out to the network for; things that native apps have been able to do for a while. With progressive web apps we can cache the app shell and go to the network for content. Service workers can provide a real performance boost.

A manifest file is simply a JSON file. It’s short and clear. It lists information about the app: icons, colours, etc.

Once you provide those three things, you get benefits. Chrome and Opera on Android will prompt to add the app to the home screen.

So that’s what’s required for progressive web apps, but there’s more to them than that (in the same way there’s more to responsive web design than the three requirements in the baseline definition).

The hype around progressive web apps can be a bit of a turn-off. It certainly was for Jason. When he investigated the technologies, he wondered “What’s the big deal?” But then he was on a panel at a marketing conference, and everyone was talking about progressive web apps. People’s expectations of what you could do on the web really hadn’t caught up with what we can do now, and the phrase “progressive web app” gives us a way to encapsulate that. As Frances says, the name isn’t for us; it’s for our boss or marketer.

Jason references my post about using the right language for the right audience.

Should you have a progressive web app? Well, if you have a website, then the answer is almost certainly “Yes!” If you make money from that website, the answer is definitely “Yes!”

But there’s a lot of FUD around progressive web apps. It brings up the tired native vs. web battle. Remember though that not 100% of your users or customers have your app installed. And it’s getting harder to convince people to install apps. The average number of apps installed per month is zero. But your website is often a customer’s first interaction with your company. A better web experience can only benefit you.

Often, people say “The web can’t do…” but a lot of the time that information is out of date. There are articles out there with outdated information. One article said that progressive web apps couldn’t access the camera, location, or the fingerprint sensor. Yet look at Instagram’s progressive web app: it accesses the camera. And just about every website wants access to your location these days. And Jason knows you can use your fingerprint to buy things on the web because he accidentally bought socks when he was trying to take a screenshot of the J.Crew website on his iPhone. So the author of that article was just plain wrong. The web can do much more than we think it can.

Another common objection is “iOS doesn’t support progressive web apps”. Well, as of last week that is no longer true. But even when that was still true, people who had implemented progressive web apps were seeing increased conversion even on iOS. That’s probably because, if you’ve got the mindset for building a progressive web app, you’re thinking deeply about performance. In many ways, progressive web apps are a trojan horse for performance.

These are the things that people think about when it comes to progressive web apps:

  1. Making it feel like a app
  2. Installation and discovery
  3. Offline mode
  4. Push notifications
  5. Beyond progressive web app

Making it feel like a app

What is an app anyway? Nobody can define it. Once again, Jason references my posts on this topic (how “app” is like “obscenity” or “brunch”).

A lot of people think that “app-like” means making it look native. But that’s a trap. Which operating system will you choose to emulate? Also, those design systems change over time. You should define your own design. Make it an exceptional experience regardless of OS.

It makes more sense to talk in terms of goals…

Goal: a more immersive experience.

Possible solution: removing the browser chrome and going fullscreen?

You can define this in the manifest file. But as you remove the browser chrome, you start to lose things that people rely on: the back button, the address bar. Now you have to provide that functionality. If you move to a fullscreen application you need to implement sharing, printing, and the back button (and managing browser history is not simple). Remember that not every customer will add your progressive web app to their home screen. Some will have browser chrome; some won’t.

Goal: a fast fluid experience.

Possible solution: use an app shell model.

You want smooth pages that don’t jump around as the content loads in. The app shell makes things seem faster because something is available instantly—it’s perceived performance. Basically you’re building a single page application. That’s a major transition. But thankfully, you don’t have to do it! Progressive web apps don’t have to be single page apps.

Goal: an app with personality.

Possible solution: Animated transitions and other bits of UI polish.

Really, it’s all about delight.

Installation and discovery

In your manifest file you can declare a background colour for the startup screen. You can also declare a theme colour—it’s like you’re skinning the browser chrome.

You can examine the manifest files for a site in Chrome’s dev tools.

Once you’ve got a progressive web app, some mobile browsers will start prompting users to add it to their home screen. Firefox on Android displays a little explainer the first time you visit a progressive web app. Chrome and Opera have add-to-homescreen banners which are a bit more intrusive. The question of when they show up keeps changing. They use a heuristic to decide this. The heuristic has been changed a few times already. One thing you should consider is suppressing the banner until it’s an optimal time. Flipkart do this: they only allow it on the order confirmation page—the act of buying something makes it really likely that someone will add the progressive web app to their home screen.

What about app stores? We don’t need them for progressive web apps—they’re on the web. But Microsoft is going to start adding progressive web apps to their app store. They’ve built a site called PWA Builder to help you with your progressive web app.

On the Android side, there’s Trusted Web Activity which is kind of like PhoneGap—it allows you to get a progressive web app into the Android app store.

But remember, your progressive web app is your website so all the normal web marketing still applies.

Offline mode

A lot of organisations say they have no need for offline functionality. But everyone has a need for some offline capability. At the very least, you can provide a fallback page, like Trivago’s offline maze game.

You can cache content that has been recently viewed. This is what Jason does on the Cloud Four site. They didn’t want to make any assumptions about what people might want, so they only cache pages as people browse around the site.

If you display cached information, you might want to display how stale the information is e.g. for currency exchange rates.

Another option is to let people choose what they want to keep offline. The Financial Times does this. They also pre-cache the daily edition.

If you have an interactive application, you could queue tasks and then carry them out when there’s a connection.

Or, like Slack does, don’t let people write something if they’re offline. That’s better than letting someone write something and then losing it.

Workbox is a handy library for providing offline functionality.

Push notifications

The JavaScript for push notifications is relatively easy, says Jason. It’s the back-end stuff that’s hard. That’s because successful push notifications are personalised. But to do that means doing a lot more work on the back end. How do you integrate with preferences? Which events trigger notifications?

There are third-party push notification services that take care of a lot of this for you. Jason has used OneSignal.

Remember that people are really annoyed by push notifications. Don’t ask for permission immediately. Don’t ask someone to marry you on a first date. On Cloud Four’s blog, they only prompt after the user has read an article.

Twitter’s progressive web app does this really well. It’s so important that you do this well: if a user says “no” to your push notification permission request, you will never be able to ask them again. There used to be three options on Chrome: allow, block, or close. Now there are just two: allow or block.

Beyond progressive web apps

There are a lot of APIs that aren’t technically part of progressive web apps but get bundled in with them. Like the Credentials Management API or the Payment Request API (which is converging with ApplePay).

So how should you plan your progressive web app launch? Remember it’s progressive. You can keep adding features. Each step along the way, you’re providing value to people.

Start with some planning and definition. Get everyone in a room and get a common definition of what the ideal progressive web app would look like. Remember there’s a continuum of features for all five of the things that Jason has outlined here.

Benchmark your existing site. It will help you later on.

Assess your current website. Is the site reasonably fast? Is it responsive? Fix those usability issues first.

Next, do the baseline. Switch to HTTPS. Add a manifest file. Add a service worker. Apart from the HTTPS switch, this can all be done on the front end. Don’t wait for all three: ship each one when they’re ready.

Then do front-end additions: pre-caching pages, for example.

Finally, there are the larger initiatives (with more complex APIs). This is where your initial benchmarking really pays off. You can demonstrate the value of what you’re proposing.

Every step on the path to a progressive web app makes sense on its own. Figure out where you want to go and start that journey.

See also:

Faraway February

For the shortest month of the year, February managed to pack a lot in. I was away for most of the month. I had the great honour of being asked back to speak at Webstock in New Zealand this year—they even asked me to open the show!

I had no intention of going straight to New Zealand and then turning around to get on the first flight back, so I made sure to stretch the trip out (which also helps to mitigate the inevitable jet lag). Jessica and I went to Hong Kong first, stayed there for a few nights, then went on Sydney for a while (and caught up with Charlotte while we were out there), before finally making our way to Wellington. Then, after Webstock was all wrapped up, we retraced the same route in reverse. Many flat whites, dumplings, and rays of sunshine later, we arrived back in the UK.

As well as giving the opening keynote at Webstock, I did a full-day workshop, and I also ran a workshop in Hong Kong on the way back. So technically it was a work trip, but I am extremely fortunate that I get to go on adventures like this and still get to call it work.

Words I wrote in 2017

I wrote 78 blog posts in 2017. That works out at an average of six and a half blog posts per month. I’ll take it.

Here are some pieces of writing from 2017 that I’m relatively happy with:

Going Rogue. A look at the ethical questions raised by Rogue One

In AMP we trust. My unease with Google’s AMP format was growing by the day.

A minority report on artificial intelligence. Revisiting two of Spielberg’s films after a decade and a half.

Progressing the web. I really don’t want progressive web apps to just try to imitate native apps. They can be so much more.

CSS. Simple, yes, but not easy.

Intolerable. A screed. I still get very, very angry when I think about how that manifestbro duped people.

Акула. Recounting a story told by a taxi driver.

Hooked and booked. Does A/B testing lead to dark patterns?

Ubiquity and consistency. Different approaches to building on the web.

I hope there’s something in there that you like. It always a nice bonus when other people like something I’ve written, but I write for myself first and foremost. Writing is how I figure out what I think. I will, of course, continue to write and publish on my website in 2018. I’d really like it if you did the same.

Origin story

In an excellent piece called The First Web Apps: 5 Apps That Shaped the Internet as We Know It, Matthew Guay wrote:

The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.

In his somewhat confused talk at FFConf this year, James Kyle said:

The web was designed to share documents.

Douglas Crockford said

The web was not designed to do any of things it is doing. It was intended to be a simple—even primitive—document retrieval system.

Some rando on Hacker News declared:

Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.

It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.

I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)

The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.

As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.

To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.

The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.

It’s true that the web of today is very, very different to its initial incarnation. We got CSS; we got JavaScript; HTML has evolved; HTTP has evolved; URLs have …well, cool URIs don’t change, but you get the idea. The web is like the ship of Theseus—so much of it has been changed and added to over time. That doesn’t mean its initial design was flawed—just the opposite. It means that its initial design wasn’t unnecessarily rigid. The simplicity of the early web wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.

What is a Progressive Web App?

It seems like any new field goes through an inevitable growth spurt that involves “defining the damn thing.” For the first few years of the IA Summit, every second presentation seemed to be about defining what Information Architecture actually is. See also: UX. See also: Content Strategy.

Now it seems to be happening with Progressive Web Apps …which is odd, considering the damn thing is defined damn well.

I’ve written before about the naming of Progressive Web Apps. On the whole, I think it’s a pretty good term, especially if you’re trying to convince the marketing team.

Regardless of the specifics of the name, what I like about Progressive Web Apps is that they have a clear definition. It reminds me of Responsive Web Design. Whatever you think of that name, it comes with a clear list of requirements:

  1. A fluid layout,
  2. Fluid images, and
  3. Media queries.

Likewise, Progressive Web Apps consist of:

  1. HTTPS,
  2. A service worker, and
  3. A Web App Manifest.

There’s more you can do in addition to that (just as there’s plenty more you can do on a responsive site), but the core definition is nice and clear.

Except, for some reason, that clarity is being lost.

Here’s a post by Ben Halpern called What the heck is a “Progressive Web App”? Seriously.

I have a really hard time describing what a progressive web app actually is.

He points to Google’s intro to Progressive Web Apps:

Progressive Web Apps are user experiences that have the reach of the web, and are:

  • Reliable - Load instantly and never show the downasaur, even in uncertain network conditions.
  • Fast - Respond quickly to user interactions with silky smooth animations and no janky scrolling.
  • Engaging - Feel like a natural app on the device, with an immersive user experience.

Those are great descriptions of the benefits of Progressive Web Apps. Perfect material for convincing your clients or your boss. But that appears on developers.google.com …surely it would be more beneficial for that audience to know the technologies that comprise Progressive Web Apps?

Ben Halpern again:

Google’s continued use of the term “quality” in describing things leaves me with a ton of confusion. It really seems like they want PWA to be a general term that doesn’t imply any particular implementation, and have it be focused around the user experience, but all I see over the web is confusion as to what they mean by these things. My website is already “engaging” and “immersive”, does that mean it’s a PWA?

I think it’s important to use the right language for the right audience.

If you’re talking to the business people, tell them about the return on investment you get from Progressive Web Apps.

If you’re talking to the marketing people, tell them about the experiential benefits of Progressive Web Apps.

But if you’re talking to developers, tell them that a Progressive Web App is a website served over HTTPS with a service worker and manifest file.

Installing Progressive Web Apps

When I was testing the dConstruct Audio Archive—which is now a Progressive Web App—I noticed some interesting changes in how Chrome on Android offers the “add to home screen” prompt.

It used to literally say “add to home screen.”

Getting the “add to home screen” prompt for https://huffduffer.com/ on Android Chrome. And there’s the “add to home screen” prompt for https://html5forwebdesigners.com/ HTTPS + manifest.json + Service Worker = “Add to Home Screen” prompt. Add to home screen.

Now it simply says “add.”

The dConstruct Audio Archive is now a Progressive Web App

I vaguely remember there being some talk of changing the labelling, but I could’ve sworn it was going to change to “install”. I’ve got to be honest, just having the word “add” doesn’t seem to provide much context. Based on the quick’n’dirty usability testing I did with some co-workers, it just made things confusing. “Add what?” “What am I adding?”

Additionally, the prompt appeared immediately on the first visit to the site. I thought there was supposed to be an added “engagement” metric in order for the prompt to appear; that the user needs to visit the site more than once.

You’d think I’d be happy that users will be presented with the home-screen prompt immediately, but based on the behaviour I saw, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Here’s what I observed:

  1. The user types the URL archive.dconstruct.org into the address bar.
  2. The site loads.
  3. The home-screen prompt slides up from the bottom of the screen.
  4. The user immediately moves to dismiss the prompt (cue me interjecting “Don’t close that!”).

This behaviour is entirely unsurprising for three reasons:

  1. We web designers and web developers have trained users to dismiss overlays and pop-ups if they actually want to get to the content. Nobody’s going to bother to actually read the prompt if there’s a 99% chance it’s going to say “Sign up to our newsletter!” or “Take our survey!”.
  2. The prompt appears below the “line of death” so there’s no way to tell it’s a browser or OS-level dialogue rather than a JavaScript-driven pop-up from the site.
  3. Because the prompt now appears on the first visit, no trust has been established between the user and the site. If the prompt only appeared on later visits (or later navigations during the first visit) perhaps it would stand a greater chance of survival.

It’s still possible to add a Progressive Web App to the home screen, but the option to do that is hidden behind the mysterious three-dots-vertically-stacked icon (I propose we call this the shish kebab icon to distinguish it from the equally impenetrable hamburger icon).

I was chatting with Andreas from Mozilla at the View Source conference last week, and he was filling me in on how Firefox on Android does the add-to-homescreen flow. Instead of a one-time prompt, they’ve added a persistent icon above the “line of death” (the icon is a combination of a house and a plus symbol).

When a Firefox 58 user arrives on a website that is served over HTTPS and has a valid manifest, a subtle badge will appear in the address bar: when tapped, an “Add to Home screen” confirmation dialog will slide in, through which the web app can be added to the Android home screen.

This kind of badging also has issues (without the explicit text “add to home screen”, the user doesn’t know what the icon does), but I think a more persistently visible option like this works better than the a one-time prompt.

Firefox is following the lead of the badging approach pioneered by the Samsung Internet browser. It provides a plus symbol that, when pressed, reveals the options to add to home screen or simply bookmark.

What does it mean to be an App?

I don’t think Chrome for Android has any plans for this kind of badging, but they are working on letting the site authors provide their own prompts. I’m not sure this is such a good idea, given our history of abusing pop-ups and overlays.

Sadly, I feel that any solution that relies on an unrequested overlay is doomed. That’s on us. The way we’ve turned browsing the web—especially on mobile—into a frustrating chore of dismissing unwanted overlays is a classic tragedy of the commons. We blew it. Users don’t trust unrequested overlays, and I can’t blame them.

For what it’s worth, my opinion is that ambient badging is a better user experience than one-time prompts. That opinion is informed by a meagre amount of testing though. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been doing more detailed usability testing of both approaches. I assume that Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are doing this kind of testing, and it would be really great to see the data from that (hint, hint).

But it might well be that ambient badging is just too subtle to even be noticed by the user.

On one end of the scale you’ve got the intrusiveness of an add-to-home-screen prompt, but on the other end of the scale you’ve got the discoverability problem of a subtle badge icon. I wonder if there might be a compromise solution—maybe a badge icon that pulses or glows on the first or second visit?

Of course that would also need to be thoroughly tested.