Sunday, March 28th, 2021
Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021
We need engineers, we need designers, and we absolutely need design engineers to make that connection across the great divide between the front-of-the-front-end and the back-of-the-front-end. It’s only then that we can make truly great things together.
Friday, February 19th, 2021
It’s been just over two years since Chris wrote his magnum opus about The Great Divide. It really resonated with me, and a lot of other people.
The crux of it is that the phrase “front-end development” has become so broad and applies to so many things, that it has effectively lost its usefulness:
Two front-end developers are sitting at a bar. They have nothing to talk about.
Brad nailed the differences in responsibilities when he described them as front-of-the-front-end and back-of-the-front-end web development:
In my experience, the term “full stack developer” is often self-applied by back-of-the-front-end developers who perhaps underestimate the complexity of front-of-the-front development.
Me, I’m very much a front-of-the-front developer. And the dev work we do at Clearleft very much falls into that realm.
This division of roles and responsibilities reminds me of a decision we made in the founding days of Clearleft. Would we attempt to be a full-service agency, delivering everything from design to launch? Or would we specialise? We decided to specialise, doubling down on UX design, which was at the time an under-served area. But we still decided to do front-end development. We felt that working with the materials of the web would allow us to deliver better UX.
We made a conscious decision not to do back-end development. Partly it was a question of scale. If you were a back-end shop, you probably had to double down on one stack: PHP or Ruby or Python. We didn’t want to have to turn away any clients based on their tech stack. Of course this meant that we had to partner with other agencies that specialised in those stacks, and that’s what we did—we had trusted partners for Drupal development, Rails development, Wordpress development, and so on.
Overall, our decision to avoid back-end development stood us in good stead. There were plenty of challenges though. We had to learn how to avoid “throwing stuff over the wall” at whoever would be doing the final back-end implementation. I think that’s why we latched on to design systems so early. It was clearly a better deliverable for the people building the final site—much better than mock-ups or pages.
Avoiding back-end development meant we also avoided long-term lock-in with maintainence, security, hosting, and so on. It might sound strange for an agency to actively avoid long-term revenue streams, but at Clearleft it’s always been our philosophy to make ourselves redundant. We want to give our clients everything they need—both in terms of deliverables and knowledge—so that they aren’t dependent on us.
That all worked great as long as there was a clear distinction between front-end development and back-end development. Front-end development was anything that happened in a browser. Back-end development was anything that happened on the server.
That’s why Brad’s framing resonated with me. Clearleft does front-of-front-end development, but we liaise with our clients’ back-of-the-front-end developers. In fact, that bridging work—between design and implementation—is where devs at Clearleft shine.
As much as I can relate to the term front-of-front-end, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I don’t expect it to be anyone’s job title anytime soon.
That’s why I was so excited by the term “design engineer,” which I think I first heard from Natalya Shelburne. There’s even a book about it and the job description sounds very much like the front-of-the-front-end work but with a heavy emphasis on the collaboration and translation between design and implementation. As Trys puts it:
What I love about the name “Design Engineer”, is that it’s entirely focused on the handshake between those two other roles.
There’s no mention of UI, CSS, front-end, design systems, documentation, prototyping, tooling or any ‘hard’ skills that could be used in the role itself.
Trys has been doing some soul-searching and has come to the conclusion “I think I might be a design engineer…”. He has also written on the Clearleft blog about how well the term describes design and development at Clearleft.
Personally, I’m not a fan of using the term “engineer” to refer to anyone who isn’t actually a qualified engineer—I explain why in my talk Building—but I accept that that particular ship has sailed. And the term “design developer” just sounds odd. So I’m all in using the term “design engineer”.
I can imagine this phrase being used in a job ad. It could also be attached to levels: a junior design engineer, a mid-level design engineer, a senior design engineer; each level having different mixes of code and collaboration (maybe a head of design enginering never writes any code).
Trys has written a whole series of posts on the nitty-gritty work involved in design engineering. I highly recommend reading all of them:
Sunday, October 18th, 2020
I’d maybe simplify this people problem a bit: the codebase is easy to change, but the incentives within a company are not. And yet it’s the incentives that drive what kind of code gets written — what is acceptable, what needs to get fixed, how people work together. In short, we cannot be expected to fix the code without fixing the organization, too.
Saturday, October 3rd, 2020
A great talk by Ethan called The Design Systems Between Us.
Thursday, October 1st, 2020
This is a superb twenty minute presentation by Trys! It’s got everything: a great narrative, technical know-how, and a slick presentation style.
Conference organisers: you should get Trys to speak at your event!
Wednesday, July 1st, 2020
Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.
Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
You see, diversity of rendering engines isn’t actually in itself the point. What’s really important is diversity of influence: who has the ability to make decisions which shape the web in particular ways, and do they make those decisions for good reasons or not so good?
Tuesday, May 19th, 2020
Five moments in the lifecycle of a design system. They grow up so fast!
- Formation of the Design System Team
- First Page Shipped
- Consumable Outside the Main Product
- First Non-System Team Consumer
- First Breaking Change
Dave makes the observation that design systems are less like open source software and more like enterprise software—software you didn’t choose to use:
Often, in my experience, for an internal Design System to have widespread adoption it requires a literal executive mandate from the top floor of the building.
Also: apparently design systems have achieved personhood now and we’re capitalising them as proper names. First name Design, last name System.
“Please, call me Design. Mr. System was my father.”
Wednesday, May 13th, 2020
Some good writing advice in here:
- Spell out your acronyms.
- Use active voice, not passive voice.
- Fewer commas. More periods.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Some good thought morsels from Robin on product design:
Bad product design is when folks talk more about the UI than what the UI is built on top of.
There’s a lot of talk about how great design is invisible—mostly boring conversations with little substance—but! I think that’s true when it comes to product design.
Bad product design is when your interface looks like your org chart.
Friday, May 8th, 2020
Look, employers are always free to – and should! – evaluate the work product produced by employees. But they don’t have to surveil someone’s every move or screenshot their computer every five minutes to do so. That’s monitoring the inputs. Monitor the outputs instead, and you’ll have a much healthier, saner relationship.
If you hire smart, capable people and trust them to do good work – surprise-surprise – people will return the sentiment deliver just that! The irony of setting up these invasive surveillance regimes is that they end up causing the motivation to goof off to beat the very systems that were setup to catch such behavior.
Monday, April 20th, 2020
I think a lot about Danielle’s talk at Patterns Day last year.
Gaps are where hidden complexity live. If we don’t have a category to cover it, in effect it becomes invisible. But that doesn’t mean it’s not there. Unidentified gaps cause inconsistency and confusion.
Overlaps occur when two separate categories encompass some of the same areas of responsibility. They cause conflict, duplication of effort, and unnecessary friction.
This is the bit I keep thinking about. It’s such an insightful lens to view things through. On just about any project, tensions are almost due to either gaps (“I thought someone else was doing that”) or overlaps (“Oh, you’re doing that? I thought we were doing that”).
When I was talking to Gerry on his new podcast recently, we were trying to figure out why web performance is in such a woeful state. I mused that there may be a gap. Perhaps designers think it’s a technical problem and developers think it’s a design problem. I guess you could try to bridge this gap by having someone whose job is to focus entirely on performance. But I suspect the better—but harder—solution is to create a shared culture of performance, of the kind Lara wrote about in her book:
Performance is truly everyone’s responsibility. Anyone who affects the user experience of a site has a relationship to how it performs. While it’s possible for you to single-handedly build and maintain an incredibly fast experience, you’d be constantly fighting an uphill battle when other contributors touch the site and make changes, or as the Web continues to evolve.
I suspect there’s a similar ownership gap at play when it comes to the ubiquitous obtrusive overlays that are plastered on so many websites these days.
Kirill Grouchnikov recently published a gallery of screenshots showcasing the beauty of modern mobile websites:
There are two things common between the websites in these screenshots that I took yesterday.
- They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
- I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.
The web can be beautiful. Except it’s not right now.
How is this dissonance possible? How can designers and developers who clearly care about the user experience be responsible for unleashing such user-hostile interfaces?
I get that. But surely the solution can’t be to shrug our shoulders, pass the buck, and say “not my job.” Somebody designed each one of those obtrusive overlays. Somebody coded up each one and pushed them into production.
It’s clear that this is a problem of communication and understanding, rather than a technical problem. As always. We like to talk about how hard and complex our technical work is, but frankly, it’s a lot easier to get a computer to do what you want than to convince a human. Not least because you also need to understand what that other human wants. As Danielle says:
Recognising the gaps and overlaps is only half the battle. If we apply tools to a people problem, we will only end up moving the problem somewhere else.
Some issues can be solved with better tools or better processes. In most of our workplaces, we tend to reach for tools and processes by default, because they feel easier to implement. But as often as not, it’s not a technology problem. It’s a people problem. And the solution actually involves communication skills, or effective dialogue.
So let’s say it is someone in the marketing department who is pushing to have an obtrusive newsletter sign-up form get shoved in the user’s face. Talk to them. Figure out what their goals are—what outcome are they hoping to get to. If they don’t seem to understand the user-experience implications, talk to them about that. But it needs to be a two-way conversation. You need to understand what they need before you start telling them what you want.
I realise that makes it sound patronisingly simple, and I know that in actuality it’s a sisyphean task. It may be that genuine understanding between people is the wickedest of design problems. But even if this problem seems insurmoutable, at least you’d be tackling the right problem.
Because the web can’t survive like this.
Monday, April 6th, 2020
I wrote something recently about telling the story of performance. Sue Loh emphasis the importance of understanding what makes people tick:
Performance engineers need to be an interesting mix of data-lovers and people-whisperers.
The cloud gives us collaboration, but old-fashioned apps give us ownership. Can’t we have the best of both worlds?
We would like both the convenient cross-device access and real-time collaboration provided by cloud apps, and also the personal ownership of your own data embodied by “old-fashioned” software.
This is a very in-depth look at the mindset and the challenges involved in building truly local-first software—something that Tantek has also been thinking about.
Tuesday, February 11th, 2020
This is the project that Trys and James have been working on at Clearleft. It’s a way of approaching modular scales in web typography that uses CSS locks and custom properties to fantastic effect.
Utopia is not a product, a plugin, or a framework. It’s a memorable/pretentious word we use to refer to a way of thinking about fluid responsive design.
Thursday, February 6th, 2020
Design systems can often ‘read’ as very top down, but need to be bottom up to reflect the needs of different users of different services in different contexts.
I’ve yet to be involved in a design system that hasn’t struggled to some extent for participation and contribution from the whole of its design community.
Wednesday, February 5th, 2020
This is something we’ve learned at Clearleft—you can’t create a design system for an organisation, hand it over to them, and expect it to be maintained.
You can’t just hire an agency to create a design system and expect that the system alone will solve something. It won’t do much before the people in the organization align on this idea as well, believe in it, invest in it, and create a culture of collaboration around it.
The people who will be living with the design system must be (co-)creators of it. That’s very much the area we work in now.
Monday, January 27th, 2020
Dan responds to an extremely worrying sentiment from Alex:
The sentiment about “engine diversity” points to a growing mindset among (primarily) Google employees that are involved with the Chromium project that puts an emphasis on getting new features into Chromium as a much higher priority than working with other implementations.
Needless to say, I agree with this:
Proponents of a “move fast and break things” approach to the web tend to defend their approach as defending the web from the dominance of native applications. I absolutely think that situation would be worse right now if it weren’t for the pressure for wide review that multiple implementations has put on the web.
The web’s key differentiator is that it is a part of the commons and that it is multi-stakeholder in nature.