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Thursday, February 28th, 2019

Getting help from your worst enemy

Onboarding. Reaching out. In terms of. Synergy. Bandwidth. Headcount. Forward planning. Multichannel. Going forward. We are constantly bombarded and polluted with nonsense speak. These words and phrases snag and attach themselves to our vocabulary like sticky weeds.

Words become walls.

I love this post from Ben on the value of plain language!

We’re not dumbing things down by using simple terms. We’re being smarter.

Read on for the story of the one exception that Ben makes—it’s a good one.

Monday, February 11th, 2019

A Simpler Web: I Concur

Tales of over-engineering, as experienced by Bridget. This resonates with me, and I think she’s right when she says that these things go in cycles. The pendulum always ends up swinging the other way eventually.

Thursday, January 31st, 2019

Openness and Longevity

A really terrific piece from Garrett on the nature of the web:

Markup written almost 30 years ago runs exactly the same today as it did then without a single modification. At the same time, the platform has expanded to accommodate countless enhancements. And you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand or use the vast majority of it. Moreover, a well-constructed web page today would still be accessible on any browser ever made. Much of the newer functionality wouldn’t be supported, but the content would be accessible.

I share his concerns about the maintainability overhead introduced by new tools and frameworks:

I’d argue that for every hour these new technologies have saved me, they’ve cost me another in troubleshooting or upgrading the tool due to a web of invisible dependencies.

On Simplicity | Max Böck - Frontend Web Developer

We assume that complex problems always require complex solutions. We try to solve complexity by inventing tools and technologies to address a problem; but in the process we create another layer of complexity that, in turn, causes its own set of issues.

The Principle of Least Power looms large over this:

Some of the most important things in the world are intentionally designed “stupid”. In any system, the potential for error directly increases with its complexity - that’s why most elections still work by putting pieces of paper in a box.

The First Women Trained To Conquer Space - Supercluster

The cosmonaut counterparts of the Mercury women astronauts: Zhanna Yorkina, Irina Solovyova, Tatyana Kuznetsova, Valentina Ponomareva, and Valentina Tereshkova.

Ponomareva recalled there being no envy between the women in the squad. According to her, it was a healthy spirit of competition. Everyone did their best to be number one, but also supported each other’s efforts.

One of those cosmonauts went to space: none of the women training for the Mercury missions did. There would be a shockingly gap of twenty years between the launch of Valentina Tereshkova and the launch of Sally Ride.

Friday, January 18th, 2019

Building a Progressively-Enhanced Site | Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is an excellent case study!

The technical details are there if you want them, but far more important is consideration that went into every interaction. Every technical decision has a well thought out justification.

Sunday, January 13th, 2019

Teaching a Correct CSS Mental Model

One facet of this whole CSS debate involves one side saying, “Just learn CSS” and the other side responding, “That’s what I’ve been trying to do!”

I think it’s high time we the teachers of CSS start discussing how exactly we can teach a correct mental model. How do we, in specific and practical ways, help developers get past this point of frustration. Because we have not figured out how to properly teach a mental model of CSS.

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Great Leap Years - Official site of Stephen Fry

I just binge-listened to the six episodes of the first season of this podcast from Stephen Fry—it’s excellent!

It covers the history of communication from the emergence of language to the modern day. At first I was worried that it was going to rehash some of the more questionable ideas in the risible Sapiens, but it turned out to be far more like James Gleick’s The Information or Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet (two of my favourite books on the history of technology).

There’s no annoying sponsorship interruptions and the whole series feels more like an audiobook than a podcast—an audiobook researched, written and read by Stephen Fry!

Friday, September 28th, 2018

DasSur.ma – The 9am rush hour

Why JavaScript is a real performance bottleneck:

Rush hour. The worst time of day to travel. For many it’s not possible to travel at any other time of day because they need to get to work by 9am.

This is exactly what a lot of web code looks like today: everything runs on a single thread, the main thread, and the traffic is bad. In fact, it’s even more extreme than that: there’s one lane all from the city center to the outskirts, and quite literally everyone is on the road, even if they don’t need to be at the office by 9am.

Monday, September 10th, 2018

Robustness and least power

There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:

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

Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:

Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.

In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:

It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.

In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.

I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?

Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.

Take the front-end stack, for example: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. HTML and CSS are declarative, so you don’t get as much precise control as you get with an imperative language like JavaScript. But JavaScript comes with a steeper learning curve and a stricter error-handling model than HTML or CSS.

As a general rule, it’s always worth asking if you can accomplish something with a less powerful technology:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

  • Instead of using JavaScript to do animation, see if you can do it in CSS instead.
  • Instead of using JavaScript to do simple client-side form validation, try to use HTML input types and attributes like required.
  • Instead of using ARIA to give a certain role value to a div or span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.

It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.

There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:

So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.

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

After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…

Friday, July 13th, 2018

You don’t have to live in public

I tried very hard in that book, when it came to social media, to be platform agnostic, to emphasize that social media sites come and go, and to always invest first and foremost in your own media (website, blog, etc.) and mailing list.

I still stand by that advice, but if I re-wrote the book now, I would encourage artists to use much more caution when it comes to using social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Tuesday, June 12th, 2018

Resilient, Declarative, Contextual

This is really good breakdown of what’s different about CSS (compared to other languages).

These differences may feel foreign, but it’s these differences that make CSS so powerful. And it’s my suspicion that developers who embrace these things, and have fully internalized them, tend to be far more proficient in CSS.

Thursday, May 31st, 2018

The Cult of the Complex · An A List Apart Article

I know that Jeffrey and I sound like old men yelling at kids to get off the lawn when we bemoan the fetishisation of complex tools and build processes, but Jeffrey gets to the heart of it here: it’s about appropriateness.

As a designer who used to love creating web experiences in code, I am baffled and numbed by the growing preference for complexity over simplicity. Complexity is good for convincing people they could not possibly do your job. Simplicity is good for everything else.

And not to sound like a broken record, but once again I’m reminded of the rule of least power.

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

Make me think! – Prototypr

Maybe being able to speak a foreign language is more fun than using a translation software.

Whenever we are about to substitute a laborious activity such as learning a language, cooking a meal, or tending to plants with a — deceptively — simple solution, we might always ask ourselves: Should the technology grow — or the person using it?

See, this is what I’m talking about—seamlessness is not, in my opinion, a desirable goal for its own sake. Every augmentation is also an amputation.

Some questions for us to ask ourselves as we design and build:

  • Empowerment: Who’s having the fun?
  • Resilience: Does it make us more vulnerable?
  • Empathy: What is the impact of simplification on others?

Friday, February 9th, 2018

Everything Easy is Hard Again – Frank Chimero

I wonder if I have twenty years of experience making websites, or if it is really five years of experience, repeated four times.

I saw Frank give this talk at Mirror Conf last year and it resonated with me so so much. I’ve been looking forward to him publishing the transcript ever since. If you’re anything like me, this will read as though it’s coming from directly inside your head.

In one way, it is easier to be inexperienced: you don’t have to learn what is no longer relevant. Experience, on the other hand, creates two distinct struggles: the first is to identify and unlearn what is no longer necessary (that’s work, too). The second is to remain open-minded, patient, and willing to engage with what’s new, even if it resembles a new take on something you decided against a long time ago.

I could just keep quoting the whole thing, because it’s all brilliant, but I’ll stop with one more bit about the increasing complexity of build processes and the decreasing availability of a simple view source:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Over-engineering is under-engineering – Baldur Bjarnason

Following on from that link about the battle between control vs. using what the browser already gives you, Baldur sums up the situation:

To pick a specific example: the problem with an over-engineered form is that the amount of code required to replace no engineering (i.e. native form controls with basic styling) is enormous and almost always only partially successful (i.e. under-engineered).

They are under-engineered because they are over-engineered—tried to replace native controls.

And so we get two schools of engineering thought:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Control everything, even though that means reimplementing everything in JavaScript.

If, as it’s starting to look like from my perspective, these two communities are incapable of learning from each other, then maybe we should start consider some sort of community divorce?

We get HTML, CSS, and SVG. We love that shit and you just keep stuffing it into the JavaScript sack whenever you are left alone with it.

You get to keep WebGL, Shadow DOM, WASM, React, and Angular.

(I know which group I’d rather be in.)

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Declining Complexity in CSS

I think Eric is absolutely right. The barrier to entry for accomplishing what you want with CSS is much lower now. It only seems more complicated if you’re used to doing things the old way.

I envy “the kids”, the ones just starting to learn front end now. They’re likely never going to know the pain of float drop, or wrestling with inline blocks, or not being able to center along one axis. They’re going to roll their eyes when we old-timers start grumbling about the old days and say, “Floats?!? Who ever thought floats would be a good way to lay out a page? That’s totally not what they’re for, anyone can see that! Were you all high as a kite, or just utterly stupid?” You know, the way “the kids” talked ten years ago, except then it was about using tables for layout.

Saturday, September 23rd, 2017

[selectors] Functional pseudo-class like :matches() with 0 specificity · Issue #1170 · w3c/csswg-drafts

A really interesting proposal from Lea that would allow CSS authors to make full use of selectors but without increasing specificity. Great thoughts in the comments too.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

The Law of Least Power and Defunct StackOverflow Answers - Web Directions

I love John’s long-zoom look at web development. Step back far enough and you can start to see the cycles repeating.

Underneath all of these patterns and practices and frameworks and libraries are core technologies. And underlying principles.

These are foundations – technological, and of practice – that we ignore, overlook, or flaunt at our peril.

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Berlin Typography – Text and the City // Buchstaben und die Stadt

A blog dedicated to documenting the letterforms on display in Berlin.