A potted history of communication networks from the pony express and the telegraph to ethernet and wi-fi.
Monday, January 17th, 2022
Tuesday, September 14th, 2021
I was doing some accessibility work with a client a little while back. It was mostly giving their site the once-over, highlighting any issues that we could then discuss. It was an audit of sorts.
While I was doing this I started to realise that not all accessibility issues are created equal. I don’t just mean in their severity. I mean that some issues can—and should—be caught early on, while other issues can only be found later.
Take colour contrast. This is something that should be checked before a line of code is written. When designs are being sketched out and then refined in a graphical editor like Figma, that’s the time to check the ratio between background and foreground colours to make sure there’s enough contrast between them. You can catch this kind of thing later on, but by then it’s likely to come with a higher cost—you might have to literally go back to the drawing board. It’s better to find the issue when you’re at the drawing board the first time.
Then there’s the HTML. Most accessibility issues here can be caught before the site goes live. Usually they’re issues of ommission: form fields that don’t have an explicitly associated
label element (using the
id attributes); images that don’t have
alt text; pages that don’t have sensible heading levels or landmark regions like
nav. None of these are particularly onerous to fix and they come with the biggest bang for your buck. If you’ve got sensible forms, sensible headings,
alt text on images, and a solid document structure, you’ve already covered the vast majority of accessibility issues with very little overhead. Some of these checks can also be automated:
alt text for images;
labels for inputs.
So if you commission an accessibility audit, you should hope to get feedback that’s mostly in that third category—interactive widgets.
If you get feedback on document structure and other semantic issues with the HTML, you should fix those issues, sure, but you should also see what you can do to stop those issues going live again in the future. Perhaps you can add some steps in the build process. Or maybe it’s more about making sure the devs are aware of these low-hanging fruit. Or perhaps there’s a framework or content management system that’s stopping you from improving your HTML. Then you need to execute a plan for ditching that software.
If you get feedback about colour contrast issues, just fixing the immediate problem isn’t going to address the underlying issue. There’s a process problem, or perhaps a communication issue. In that case, don’t look for a technical solution. A design system, for example, will not magically fix a workflow issue or route around the problem of designers and developers not talking to each other.
When you commission an accessibility audit, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it. Don’t squander it on issues that you can catch and fix yourself. Make sure that the bulk of the audit is being spent on the specific issues that are unique to your site.
Friday, August 20th, 2021
…you would be forgiven if you saw an API where a feature went from green (supported) to red (unsupported) and you thought: is the browser being deprecated?
the onus is not on web developers to keep track of older features in danger of being deprecated. That’s on the browser makers. I sincerely hope we’re not expected to consult a site called canistilluse.com.
It’s weirdly gratifying to see a hastily-written sarcastic quip tuned into something real.
Monday, August 16th, 2021
After I jotted down some quick thoughts last week on the disastrous way that Google Chrome rolled out a breaking change, others have posted more measured and incisive takes:
- Chris Ferdinandi wrote Google vs. the web,
- Rich Harris wrote Stay alert,
- Jim Nielsen wrote I Want To Confirm a Prompt That We Stay Alert
In fairness to Google, the Chrome team is receiving the brunt of the criticism because they were the first movers. Mozilla and Apple are on baord with making the same breaking change, but Google is taking the lead on this.
As I said in my piece, my issue was less to do with whether
alert() should be deprecated but more to do with how it was done, and the woeful lack of communication.
Thinking about it some more, I realised that what bothered me was the lack of an upgrade path. Considering that
dialog is nowhere near ready for use, it seems awfully cart-before-horse-putting to first remove a feature and then figure out a replacement.
I was chatting to Amber recently and realised that there was a very different example of a feature being deprecated in web browsers…
We were talking about the
KeyboardEvent.keycode property. Did you get the memo that it’s deprecated?
But fear not! You can use the
KeyboardEvent.code property instead. It’s much nicer to use too. You don’t need to look up a table of numbers to figure out how to refer to a specific key on the keyboard—you use its actual value instead.
So the way that change was communicated was:
Hey, you really shouldn’t use the
keycodeproperty. Here’s a better alternative.
But with the more recently change, the communication was more like:
Hey, you really shouldn’t use
alert(). So go fuck yourself.
Tuesday, August 10th, 2021
It’s not just a story about unloved APIs, it’s a story about power, standards design, and who owns the platform — and it makes me afraid for the future of the web.
A thoughtful, considered post by Rich Harris on the whole ballyhoo with
alert and its ilk:
For all its flaws, the web is generally agreed to be a stable platform, where investments made today will stand the test of time. A world in which websites are treated as inherently transient objects, where APIs we commonly rely on today could be cast aside as unwanted baggage by tomorrow’s spec wranglers, is a world in which the web has already lost.
Monday, August 9th, 2021
Believe it or not, I generally am a fan of Google and think they do a good job of pushing the web forward. I also think it’s appropriate to waggle fingers when I see problems and request they do better. “Better” here means way more developer and user outreach to spell out the situation, way more conversation about the potential implications and transition ideas, and way more openness to bending the course ahead.
With any changes to the platform, but especially breaking ones, communication and feedback on how this will impact people who actually build things with the web is super important, and that was not done here.
Chris has written a thoughtful reflection on last week’s brouhaha around
alert being deprecated in Chrome. The way that the “developer relations” folks at Google handled feedback was less than ideal.
I reached out to one of the Google Chrome developer advocates I know to see if I could learn more. It did not go well.
Friday, August 6th, 2021
There was quite a kerfuffle recently about a feature being removed from Google Chrome. To be honest, the details don’t really matter for the point I want to make, but for the record, this was about removing
confirm dialogs from cross-origin iframes (and eventually everywhere else too).
It’s always tricky to remove a long-established feature from web browsers, but in this case there were significant security and performance reasons. The problem was how the change was communicated. It kind of wasn’t. So the first that people found out about it about was when things suddenly stopped working (like CodePen embeds).
The Chrome team responded quickly and the change has now been pushed back to next year. Hopefully there will be significant communication before that to let site owners know about the upcoming breakage.
So all’s well that ends well and we’ve all learned a valuable lesson about the importance of communication.
Or have we?
While this was going on, Emily Stark tweeted a more general point about breakage on the web:
Breaking changes happen often on the web, and as a developer it’s good practice to test against early release channels of major browsers to learn about any compatibility issues upfront.
Yikes! To me, this appears wrong on almost every level.
First of all, breaking changes don’t happen often on the web. They are—and should be—rare. If that were to change, the web would suffer massively in terms of predictability.
Secondly, the onus is not on web developers to keep track of older features in danger of being deprecated. That’s on the browser makers. I sincerely hope we’re not expected to consult a site called
No, no, no, no! One of the best things about developing for the web is that, as a rule, browsers don’t break old code. Expecting every website and application to have an active team of developers maintaining it at all times is not how the web should work!
Most organizations and individuals do not have the resources to properly test and debug their website against Chrome canary every six weeks. Anybody who published a spec-compliant website should be able to trust that it will keep working.
This statement seriously undermines my trust in Google as steward for the web platform. When did we go from “never break the web” to “yes we will break the web often and you should be prepared for it”?!
It’s worth pointing out that the original tweet was not an official Google announcement. As Emily says right there on her Twitter account:
Opinions are my own.
Still, I was shaken to see such a cavalier attitude towards breaking changes on the World Wide Web. I know that removing dangerous old features is inevitable, but it should also be exceptional. It should not be taken lightly, and it should certainly not be expected to be an everyday part of web development.
It’s almost miraculous that I can visit the first web page ever published in a modern web browser and it still works. Let’s not become desensitised to how magical that is. I know it’s hard work to push the web forward, constantly add new features, while also maintaining backward compatibility, but it sure is worth it! We have collectively banked three decades worth of trust in the web as a stable place to build a home. Let’s not blow it.
If you published a website ten or twenty years ago, and you didn’t use any proprietary technology but only stuck to web standards, you should rightly expect that site to still work today …and still work ten and twenty years from now.
There was something else that bothered me about that tweet and it’s not something that I saw mentioned in the responses. There was an unspoken assumption that the web is built by professional web developers. That gave me a cold chill.
But the common narrative in the web development community—and amongst browser makers too apparently—is that web development has become more complex; so complex, in fact, that only an elite priesthood are capable of making websites today.
You can choose to make it really complicated. Convince yourself that “the modern web” is inherently complex and convoluted. But then look at what makes it complex and convoluted: toolchains, build tools, pipelines, frameworks, libraries, and abstractions. Please try to remember that none of those things are required to make a website.
This is for everyone. Not just for everyone to consume, but for everyone to make.
Wednesday, June 23rd, 2021
As part of my content buddying process, I am henceforth going to typeset all drafts in this font. I just tested it with this sentence:
We can leverage the synergy of a rich immersive user paradigm shift.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
This old article from Chris is evergreen. There’s been some recent discussion of calling these words “downplayers”, which I kind of like. Whatever they are, try not to use them in documentation.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
I don’t think I agree with Don Knuth’s argument here from a 2014 lecture, but I do like how he sets out his table:
Why do I, as a scientist, get so much out of reading the history of science? Let me count the ways:
- To understand the process of discovery—not so much what was discovered, but how it was discovered.
- To understand the process of failure.
- To celebrate the contributions of many cultures.
- Telling historical stories is the best way to teach.
- To learn how to cope with life.
- To become more familiar with the world, and to know how science fits into the overall history of mankind.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Thursday, January 28th, 2021
Good advice for writing:
- Think about what your readers might already know
- Write shorter sentences, with simpler words
- Constantly think about audiences
- Communicate with purpose
- Clear communication helps teams solve problems
Thursday, January 21st, 2021
Letters of exclusion
I think my co-workers are getting annoyed with me. Any time they use an acronym or initialism—either in a video call or Slack—I ask them what it stands for. I’m sure they think I’m being contrarian.
The truth is that most of the time I genuinely don’t know what the letters stand for. And I’ve got to that age where I don’t feel any inhibition about asking “stupid” questions.
But it’s also true that I really, really dislike acronyms, initialisms, and other kinds of jargon. They’re manifestations of gatekeeping. They demarcate in-groups from outsiders.
Of course if you’re in a conversation with an in-group that has the same background and context as you, then sure, you can use acronyms and initialisms with the confidence that there’s a shared understanding. But how often can you be that sure? The more likely situation—and this scales exponentially with group size—is that people have differing levels of inside knowledge and experience.
I feel sorry for anyone trying to get into the field of web performance. Not only are there complex browser behaviours to understand, there’s also a veritable alphabet soup of initialisms to memorise. Here’s a really good post on web performance by Harry, but notice how the initialisms multiply like tribbles as the post progresses until we’re talking about using CWV metrics like LCP, FID, and CLS—alongside TTFB and SI—to look at PLPs, PDPs, and SRPs. And fair play to Harry; he expands each initialism the first time he introduces it.
But are we really saving any time by saying FID instead of first input delay? I suspect that the only reason why the word “cumulative” precedes “layout shift” is just to make it into the three-letter initialism CLS.
Still, I get why initialisms run rampant in technical discussions. You can be sure that most discussions of particle physics would be incomprehensible to outsiders, not necessarily because of the concepts, but because of the terminology.
Again, if you’re certain that you’re speaking to peers, that’s fine. But if you’re trying to communicate even a little more widely, then initialisms and abbreviations are obstacles to overcome. And once you’re in the habit of using the short forms, it gets harder and harder to apply context-shifting in your language. So the safest habit to form is to generally avoid using acronyms and initialisms.
Unnecessary initialisms are exclusionary.
Think about on-boarding someone new to your organisation. They’ve already got a lot to wrap their heads around without making them figure out what a TAM is. That’s a real example from Clearleft. We have a regular Thursday afternoon meeting. I call it the Thursday afternoon meeting. Other people …don’t.
I’m trying—as gently as possible—to ensure we’re not being exclusionary in our language. My co-workers indulge me, even it’s just to shut me up.
But here’s the thing. I remember many years back when a job ad went out on the Clearleft website that included the phrase “culture fit”. I winced and explained why I thought that was a really bad phrase to use—one that is used as code for “more people like us”. At the time my concerns were met with eye-rolls and chuckles. Now, as knowledge about diversity and inclusion has become more widespread, everyone understands that using a phrase like “culture fit” can be exclusionary.
But when I ask people to expand their acronyms and initialisms today, I get the same kind of chuckles. My aversion to abbreviations is an eccentric foible to be tolerated.
But this isn’t about me.
Saturday, December 26th, 2020
Shannon is not exactly a household name. He never won a Nobel Prize, and he wasn’t a celebrity like Albert Einstein or Richard Feynman, either before or after his death in 2001. But more than 70 years ago, in a single groundbreaking paper, he laid the foundation for the entire communication infrastructure underlying the modern information age.
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.
Thursday, September 24th, 2020
Performance and people
I was helping a client with a bit of a performance audit this week. I really, really enjoy this work. It’s such a nice opportunity to get my hands in the soil of a website, so to speak, and suggest changes that will have a measurable effect on the user’s experience.
Not only is web performance a user experience issue, it may well be the user experience issue. Page speed has a proven demonstrable direct effect on user experience (and revenue and customer satisfaction and whatever other metrics you’re using).
It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).
I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.
This week, for example, I uncovered three performance issues. One was definitely technical. One was definitely human. One was halfway between.
The technical issue was with web fonts. It’s a lot of fun to dive into this aspect of web performance because quite often there’s some low-hanging fruit: a relatively simple technical fix that will boost the performance (or perceived performance) of a website. That might be through resource hints (using
link rel=“preload” in the HTML) or adjusting the font loading (using
font-display in the CSS) or even nerdier stuff like subsetting.
In this case, the issue was with the file format of the font itself. By switching to woff2, there were significant file size savings. And the great thing is that
@font-face rules allow you to specify multiple file formats so you can still support older browsers that can’t handle woff2. A win all ‘round!
The performance issue that was right in the middle of the technical/human continuum was with images. At first glance it looked like a similar issue to the fonts. Some images were being served in the wrong formats. When I say “wrong”, I guess I mean inappropriate. A photographic image, for example, is probably going to best served as a JPG rather than a PNG.
But unlike the fonts, the images weren’t in the direct control of the developers. These images were coming from a Content Management System. And while there’s a certain amount of processing you can do on the server, a human still makes the decision about what file format they’re uploading.
I’ve seen this happen at Clearleft. We launched an event site with lean performant code, but then someone uploaded an image that’s megabytes in size. The solution in that case wasn’t technical. We realised there was a knowledge gap around image file formats—which, let’s face it, is kind of a techy topic that most normal people shouldn’t be expected to know.
But it was extremely gratifying to see that people were genuinely interested in knowing a bit more about choosing the right format for the right image. I was able to provide a few rules of thumb and point to free software for converting images. It empowered those people to feel more confident using the Content Management System.
It was a similar situation with the client site I was looking at this week. Nobody is uploading oversized images in order to deliberately make the site slower. They probably don’t realise the difference that image formats can make. By having a discussion and giving them some pointers, they’ll have more knowledge and the site will be faster. Another win all ‘round!
At the other end of continuum was an issue that wasn’t technical. From a technical point of view, there was just one teeny weeny little script. But that little script is Google Tag Manager which then calls many, many other scripts that are not so teeny weeny. Third party scripts …the bane of web performance!
Now one technical solution would be to remove the Google Tag Manager script. But that’s probably not very practical—you’ll probably just piss off some other department. That said, if you can’t find out which department was responsible for adding the Google Tag Manager script in the first place, it might we well be an option to remove it and then wait and see who complains. If no one notices it’s gone, job done!
More realistically, there’s someone who’s added that Google Tag Manager script for their own valid reasons. You’ll need to talk to them and understand their needs.
Again, as with images uploaded in a Content Management System, they may not be aware of the performance problems caused by third-party scripts. You could try throwing numbers at them, but I think you get better results by telling the story of performance.
Use tools like Request Map Generator to help them visualise the impact that third-party scripts are having. Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Find out why those scripts are being requested. What are the outcomes they’re working towards? Can you offer an alternative way of providing the data they need?
I think many of us developers are intimidated or apprehensive about approaching people to have those conversations. But it’s necessary. And in its own way, it can be as rewarding as tinkering with code. If the end result is a faster website, then the work is definitely worth doing—whether it’s technical work or people work.
Personally, I just really enjoy working on anything that will end up improving a website’s performance, and by extension, the user experience. If you fancy working with me on your site, you should get in touch with Clearleft.
Monday, September 14th, 2020
A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.
From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.
We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.
We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.
Monday, June 1st, 2020
A great explanation of the curse of knowledge …with science!
(This, by the way, is the first of 100 blog posts that Matthias is writing in 100 days.)
Wednesday, May 13th, 2020
Some good writing advice in here:
- Spell out your acronyms.
- Use active voice, not passive voice.
- Fewer commas. More periods.