The removal of all friction should’t be a goal. Making things easy and making things hard should be a design tool, employed to aid the end user towards their loftiest goals.
Friday, August 28th, 2020
Thursday, January 23rd, 2020
Web standards, dictionaries, and design systems
Broadly speaking, the W3C followed a specification-first approach. Figure out what should be implemented first and foremost. From this perspective, specs can be seen as blueprints for browsers to work from.
The WHATWG, by contrast, were implementation led. The way they saw it, there was no point specifying something if browsers weren’t going to implement it. Instead, specs are there to document existing behaviour in browsers.
I’m over-generalising somewhat in my descriptions there, but the point is that there was an ideological difference of opinion around what standards bodies should do.
This always reminded me of a similar ideological conflict when it comes to language usage.
Language prescriptivists attempt to define rules about what’s right or right or wrong in a language. Rules like “never end a sentence with a preposition.” Prescriptivists are generally fighting a losing battle and spend most of their time bemoaning the decline of their language because people aren’t following the rules.
Language descriptivists work the exact opposite way. They see their job as documenting existing language usage instead of defining it. Lexicographers—like Merriam-Webster or the Oxford English Dictionary—receive complaints from angry prescriptivists when dictionaries document usage like “literally” meaning “figuratively”.
Dictionaries are descriptive, not prescriptive.
I’ve seen the prescriptive/descriptive divide somewhere else too. I’ve seen it in the world of design systems.
Jordan Moore talks about intentional and emergent design systems:
There appears to be two competing approaches in designing design systems.
An intentional design system. The flavour and framework may vary, but the approach generally consists of: design system first → design/build solutions.
An emergent design system. This approach is much closer to the user needs end of the scale by beginning with creative solutions before deriving patterns and systems (i.e the system emerges from real, coded scenarios).
An intentional design system is prescriptive. An emergent design system is descriptive.
I think we can learn from the worlds of web standards and dictionaries here. A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.
I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.
As Matthew Ström says, you should start with the design system you already have:
Instead of drawing a whole new set of components, start with the components you already have in production. Document them meticulously. Create a single source of truth for design, warts and all.
Wednesday, June 26th, 2019
Over the last fifty years, we have come to recognize that the fuel of our civilizational expansion has become the main driver of our extinction, and that of many of the species we share the planet with. We are now coming to realize that is as true of our cognitive infrastructure. Something is out of sync, felt everywhere: something amiss in the temporal order, and it is as related to political and technological shifts, shifts in our own cognition and attention, as it is to climatic ones. To think clearly in such times requires an intersectional understanding of time itself, a way of thinking that escapes the cognitive traps, ancient and modern, into which we too easily fall. Because our technologies, the infrastructures we have built to escape our past, have turned instead to cancelling our future.
James writes beautifully about rates of change.
The greatest trick our utility-directed technologies have performed is to constantly pull us out of time: to distract us from the here and now, to treat time as a kind of fossil fuel which can be endlessly extracted in the service of a utopian future which never quite arrives. If information is the new oil, we are already, in the hyper-accelerated way of present things, well into the fracking age, with tremors shuddering through the landscape and the tap water on fire. But this is not enough; it will never be enough. We must be displaced utterly in time, caught up in endless imaginings of the future while endlessly neglecting the lessons and potential actions of the present moment.
Sunday, February 17th, 2019
When in doubt, label your icons.
When not in doubt, you probably should be.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
Optimise without a face
I’ve been playing around with the newly-released Squoosh, the spiritual successor to Jake’s SVGOMG. You can drag images into the browser window, and eyeball the changes that any optimisations might make.
On a project that Cassie is working on, it worked really well for optimising some JPEGs. But there were a few images that would require a bit more fine-grained control of the optimisations. Specifically, pictures with human faces in them.
I’ve written about this before. If there’s a human face in image, I open that image in a graphics editing tool like Photoshop, select everything but the face, and add a bit of blur. Because humans are hard-wired to focus on faces, we’ll notice any jaggy artifacts on a face, but we’re far less likely to notice jagginess in background imagery: walls, materials, clothing, etc.
On the face of it (hah!), a browser-based tool like Squoosh wouldn’t be able to optimise for faces, but then Cassie pointed out something really interesting…
- Drag or upload an image into the browser window,
- A facial recognition algorithm finds any faces in the image,
- Those portions of the image remain crisp,
- The rest of the image gets a slight blur,
- Download the optimised image.
Maybe the selecting/blurring part would need canvas? I don’t know.
Anyway, I thought this was a brilliant bit of synthesis from Cassie, and now I’ve got two questions:
- Does this exist yet? And, if not,
- Does anyone want to try building it?
Monday, December 18th, 2017
Spot-on take by Ted Chiang:
I used to find it odd that these hypothetical AIs were supposed to be smart enough to solve problems that no human could, yet they were incapable of doing something most every adult has done: taking a step back and asking whether their current course of action is really a good idea. Then I realized that we are already surrounded by machines that demonstrate a complete lack of insight, we just call them corporations.
Related: if you want to see the paperclip maximiser in action, just look at the humans destroying the planet by mining bitcoin.
Thursday, December 7th, 2017
From Scott McCloud to responsive design, Dave is pondering our assumptions about screen real estate:
As the amount of information increases, removing details reduces information density and thereby increasing comprehension.
It reminds me of Edward Tufte’s data-ink ratio.
Sunday, March 19th, 2017
After Clearleft’s recent rebranding, I’m really interested in Happy Cog’s redesign process:
In the near future we’ll be rolling out a new website, followed by a rebrand of Cognition, our blog. As the identity is tested against applications, much of what’s here may change. Nothing is set in stone.
Thursday, January 19th, 2017
Some interesting insights from usability and accessibility testing at the Co-op.
We used ‘nesting’ to reduce the amount of information on the page when the user first reaches it. When the user chooses an option, we ask for any other details at that point rather than having all the questions on the page at once.
Wednesday, July 20th, 2016
Shamefully, I haven’t been doing one-to-ones with my front-end dev colleagues at Clearleft, but I’m planning to change that. This short list of starter questions from Lara will prove very useful indeed.
Thursday, November 1st, 2012
Ryan describes the research and process behind putting together a device lab for Happy Cog in Austin. Good stuff, with handy links gathered together at the end.
Monday, May 16th, 2011
Hexadecimal colours and their corresponding dictionary definitions. Cute.
Tuesday, July 27th, 2010
An excellent rebuttal by Steven Pinker to Nicholas Carr's usual trolling.
Tuesday, November 24th, 2009
Matt gets an opportunity to use the Chernoff effect for visualising school data.
Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
"Nikon, the racist camera" (sing it to the tune of Flight of the Concords' "Albi, the racist dragon").
Follow along as Happy Cog document the process of redesigning the Mozilla website.
Friday, February 20th, 2009
This year's SXSW is shaping up to be a lot of fun. Here's "a karaoke competition and party for people who lover the web... and karaoke."
Wednesday, February 11th, 2009
Like Shazam, but for fonts. Snap a picture of some text on your iPhone and this app will phone home to the WhatTheFont mothership in order to identify it for you.
Tuesday, November 25th, 2008
An interesting look at the way our brains responds to changes in our environment ...with video.
Sunday, August 10th, 2008
A detailed look at the troubled history of George Lakoff, the father of conceptual metaphor.