I made an offhand remark at the Clearleft Christmas party and Trys ran with it…
Thursday, January 2nd, 2020
Wednesday, January 1st, 2020
Friday, December 13th, 2019
At the risk of being a broken record; HTML really needs
<tooltip>elements. Not more “low-level primitives” but good ol’ fashioned, difficult-to-get-consensus-on elements.
I wish browsers would prioritize accessibility improvements over things like main thread scheduling optimization to unblock tracking pixels and the Sisyphean task of competing with native.
If we really want to win, let’s make it easy for everyone to access the Web.
Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
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.
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Monday, December 9th, 2019
Wednesday, November 27th, 2019
Accessibility on The Session revisited
Earlier this year, I wrote about an accessibility issue I was having on The Session. Specifically, it was an issue with Ajax and pagination. But I managed to sort it out, and the lesson was very clear:
As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.
Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate
rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:
- Those links control the area of the page with the search results.
- That area of the page has an ID of “results”.
- I should add
aria-controls="results"to those links.
That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for
aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.
Just as the solution last time was to remove the
aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the
aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
Let us not overlook the fact that a semantic HTML web site is inherently accessible by default. When we bend the web to our will, we break that. So we have a responsibility to correct it. Sure the new technologies are neat, but the end result is usually garbage. This all requires some next-level narcissism that our goals and priorities as developers are far more important than that of the audience we’re theoretically building software to serve.
I think these are great habit-forming ideas for any web designer or developer: a day without using your mouse; a day with your display set to grayscale; a day spent using a different web browser; a day with your internet connection throttled. I’m going to try these!
Monday, November 11th, 2019
I have such fondness for this film. It’s one of those films that I love to watch on a Sunday afternoon (though that’s true of so many Spielberg films—Jaws, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, E.T.). I remember seeing it in the cinema—this would’ve been the special edition re-release—and feeling the seat under me quake with the rumbling of the musical exchange during the film’s climax.
Ariel invited Rose Eveleth and Laura Welcher on to discuss the film. They spent a lot of time discussing the depiction of first contact communication—Arrival being the other landmark film on this topic.
If we send a message into space, will extraterrestrial beings receive it? Will they understand?
You can a read an article by the author on The Guardian, where he mentions some of the wilder ideas about transmitting signals to aliens:
Minsky, widely regarded as the father of AI, suggested it would be best to send a cat as our extraterrestrial delegate.
Don’t worry. Marvin Minsky wasn’t talking about sending a real live cat. Rather, we transmit instructions for building a computer and then we can transmit information as software. Software about, say, cats.
It’s not that far removed from what happened with the Voyager golden record, although that relied on analogue technology—the phonograph—and sent the message pre-compiled on hardware; a much slower transmission rate than radio.
But it’s interesting to me that Minsky specifically mentioned cats. There’s another long-term communication puzzle that has a cat connection.
The Yukka Mountain nuclear waste repository is supposed to store nuclear waste for 10,000 years. How do we warn our descendants to stay away? We can’t use language. We probably can’t even use symbols; they’re too culturally specific. A think tank called the Human Interference Task Force was convened to agree on the message to be conveyed:
This place is a message… and part of a system of messages… pay attention to it! Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.
What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
A series of thorn-like threatening earthworks was deemed the most feasible solution. But there was another proposal that took a two pronged approach with genetics and folklore:
- Breed cats that change colour in the presence of radioactive material.
- Teach children nursery rhymes about staying away from cats that change colour.
This is the raycat solution.
Sunday, November 10th, 2019
Worlds of scarcity are made out of things. Worlds of abundance are made out of dependencies. That’s the software playbook: find a system made of costly, redundant objects; and rearrange it into a fast, frictionless system made of logical dependencies. The delta in performance is irresistible, and dependencies are a compelling building block: they seem like just a piece of logic, with no cost and no friction. But they absolutely have a cost: the cost is complexity, outsourced agency, and brittleness. The cost of ownership is up front and visible; the cost of access is back-dated and hidden.
Thursday, November 7th, 2019
I really like the work that IF are doing to document patterns around handling data:
- Signing in to a service
- Giving and removing consent
- Giving access to data
- Getting access to data
- Understanding automated decisions
- Doing security checks
Each pattern has a description, advantages, limitations, and examples.
Nolan writes up what he learned making accessibiity improvements to a single page app. The two big takeways involve letting the browser do the work for you:
Here’s the best piece of accessibility advice for newbies: if something is a button, make it a
<button>. If something is an input, make it an
<input>. Don’t try to reinvent everything from scratch using
And then there are all the issues that crop up when you take over the task of handling navigations:
- You need to manage focus yourself.
- You need to manage scroll position yourself.
For classic server-rendered pages, most browser engines give you this functionality for free. You don’t have to code anything. But in an SPA, since you’re overriding the normal navigation behavior, you have to handle the focus yourself.
Friday, October 25th, 2019
I reckon a lot of websites have bad accessibility not because folks don’t care, but because they don’t know there’s an issue in the first place.
The headline is begging the question (I don’t think accessible websites are so hard to build), but I agree with Robin’s idea:
What if our text editors caught accessibility issues and showed them to us during development?
This is something that Hidde has been talking about recently too, looking at content management systems.
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
Beyond automatic accessibility testing: 6 things I check on every website I build - Manuel Matuzović
Six steps that everyone can do to catch accessibility gotchas:
- Check image descriptions
- Disable all styles
- Validate HTML
- Check the document outline
- Grayscale mode
- Use the keyboard
Friday, October 4th, 2019
A deep dive info focus styles with this conclusion:
The default focus ring works. There are problems with it, but it can be good enough, especially if you can’t dedicate time and energy to create a custom focus ring.
Saturday, August 31st, 2019
This is why we need an
nth-letter selector in CSS .
Tuesday, August 27th, 2019
The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Wednesday, August 21st, 2019
Performance and accessibility aren’t features that can linger at the bottom of a Jira board to be considered later when it’s convenient.
Instead we must start to see inaccessible and slow websites for what they are: a form of cruelty. And if we want to build a web that is truly a World Wide Web, a place for all and everyone, a web that is accessible and fast for as many people as possible, and one that will outlive us all, then first we must make our websites something else altogether; we must make them kind.
Saturday, August 10th, 2019
There’s no sugar-coating it—AMP components are dreadfully inaccessible:
We’ve reached a point where AMP may “solve” the web’s performance issues by supercharging the web’s accessibility problem, excluding even more people from accessing the content they deserve.
Friday, August 9th, 2019
Hidde gives an in-depth explanation of the Accessibility Object Model, coming soon to browsers near you:
In a way, that’s a bit like what Service Workers do for the network and Houdini for style: give developers control over something that was previously done only by the browser.