What makes a startup ecosystem thrive?
What do people plan to do once they’re over 35?
Is an income of $160K enough to survive?
What kind of car does Mark Zuckerberg drive?
Tuesday, April 30th, 2019
Tuesday, April 16th, 2019
Sunday, April 14th, 2019
Saturday, April 13th, 2019
Charlie muses on ol’ fashioned web rings …and the cultural needs they fulfilled.
We suffer from homogenous dirge in most of our contemporary web presences. Having a personal website has become a rarer and rarer thing in this time of social media profile pages.
However, recent months have seen a surge in personal websites and blogging amongst some members of the web tech community. This is something that we urgently need to encourage!
Thursday, April 11th, 2019
On an individual and small collective basis, the IndieWeb already works. But does an IndieWeb approach scale to the general public? If it doesn’t scale yet, can we, who envision and design and build, create a new generation of tools that will help give birth to a flourishing, independent web? One that is as accessible to ordinary internet users as Twitter and Facebook and Instagram?
Last week I wrote a post called Dev perception:
I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.
The sentiment I expressed resonated with a lot of people. Like, a lot of people.
I was talking specifically about web development and technology choices, but I think the broader point applies to other disciplines too.
Last month I had the great pleasure of moderating two panels on design leadership at an event in London (I love moderating panels, and I think I’m pretty darn good at it too). I noticed that the panels comprised representatives from two different kinds of companies.
There were the digital-first companies like Spotify, Deliveroo, and Bulb—companies forged in the fires of start-up culture. Then there were the older companies that had to make the move to digital (transform, if you will). I decided to get a show of hands from the audience to see which kind of company most people were from. The overwhelming majority of attendees were from more old-school companies.
Just as most of the ink spilled in the web development world goes towards the newest frameworks and toolchains, I feel like the majority of coverage in the design world is spent on the latest outputs from digital-first companies like AirBnB, Uber, Slack, etc.
The end result is the same. A typical developer or designer is left feeling that they—and their company—are behind the curve. It’s like they’re only seeing the Instagram version of their industry, all airbrushed and filtered, and they’re comparing that to their day-to-day work. That can’t be healthy.
Personally, I’d love to hear stories from the trenches of more representative, traditional companies. I also think that would help get an important message to people working in similar companies:
You are not alone!
Friday, April 5th, 2019
After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives.
This article by Ian Bogost from a few years back touches on one of the themes in the talk I gave at New Adventures:
“Engineer” conjures the image of the hard-hat-topped designer-builder, carefully crafting tomorrow. But such an aspiration is rarely realized by computing. The respectability of engineering, a feature built over many decades of closely controlled, education- and apprenticeship-oriented certification, becomes reinterpreted as a fast-and-loose commitment to craftwork as business.
Wednesday, March 13th, 2019
Eric is down about the current dismal state of accessibility on the web. Understandably so. It’s particularly worrying that the problem might be embedded into hiring practices:
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Eric also points to initiatives that could really help.
Still, this is a tough question to ask out loud:
What if we’re losing?
Thursday, March 7th, 2019
I have no doubt that showing just the top outrageous tweets leads to more engagement. If you’re constantly hitting people with outlandish news stories they’ll open the app more often and interact and post about what they think so the cycle continues.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2019
Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
An Event Apart in Seattle continues. It’s the afternoon of day two and Beth Dean is here to give a talk called Unsolved Problems:
Technology products are being adapted faster than ever. We’ve spent a lot of time adopting new technology, but not as much time considering the social impact of doing so. This talk looks at large scale system design in the offline world, and takes lessons from them to our online work. You’ll learn how to expand your design approach from self-contained products, to considering the broader systems in which they exist.
Fun fact: An Event Apart was the first conference that Beth attended over ten years ago.
Who recognises this guy on screen? It’s Robert Stack, the creepy host of Unsolved Mysteries. It was kind of like the X-Files. The X-Files taught Beth to be a sceptic. Imagine Beth’s surprise when her job at Facebook led her to actual conspiracies. It’s been a hard year, what with Cambridge Analytica and all.
Beth’s team is focused on how people experience ads, while the whole rest of the company is focused on ads from the opposite end. She’s the Fox Mulder of the company.
Technology today has incredible reach. In recent years, we’ve seen 1:1 harm. That’s when a product negatively effects someone directly. In their book, Eric and Sara point out that Facebook is often the first company to solve these problems.
1:many harm is another use of technology. Designing in isolation isn’t new to tech. We’ve seen 1:many harm in urban planning. Brasilia is a beautiful city that nobody wants to live in. You need messy, mixed-use spaces, not a space designed for cars. Niemeier planned for efficiency, not reality.
Eichler buildings were supposed to be egalitarian. But everything that makes these single-story homes great places to live also makes them great targets for criminals. Isolation by intentional design leads to a less safe place to live.
One of Frank Gehry’s buildings turned into a deathtrap when it was covered with snow. And in summer, the reflective material makes it impossible to sit on side of it. His Facebook office building has some “interesting” restroom allocation, which was planned last.
Ohio had a deer overpopulation problem. So the solution they settled on was to introduce coyotes. Now there’s a coyote problem. When coyotes breed with stray dogs, they start to get aggressive and they hunt in packs. This is the cobra effect: when the solution to your problem makes the problem worse. The British government offered a bounty for cobras in India. So people bred snakes for the bounty. So they got rid of the bounty …and then all those snakes were released into the wild.
So-called “ride sharing” apps are about getting one person from point A to point B. They’re not about making getting around easier in general.
Google traffic directions don’t factor in the effect of Google giving everyone the same traffic directions.
AirBnB drives up rent …even though it started out as a way to help people who couldn’t make rent. Sounds like cobra farming.
Automating Inequality by Virgina Eubanks is an excellent book about being dropped by health insurance. An algorithm did it. By taking broken systems and automating them, we accelerate disenfranchisement.
Then there’s Facebook. Psychological warfare is not new. Radio and television have influenced elections long before the internet. Politicians changed their language to fit the medium of radio.
The internet has removed all friction that helps us behave cooperatively. Removing friction was once our goal, but it turns out that friction is sometimes useful. The internet has turned into an outrage machine.
Solving problems in the isolation of our own products ignores the broader context of society.
The Waze map reflects cities as they are, not the way someone wishes them to be.
—Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze
From bulletin boards to today’s web, the internet has always been toxic because human nature is toxic. Maybe that’s the bigger problem to solve.
We can look to other industries…
Ideo redesigned the hospital experience. People were introduced to their entire care staff on their first visit. Sloan Kettering took a similar approach. Artwork serves as wayfinding. Every room has its own bathroom. A Chicago hostpital included gardens because it improves recovery.
These hospital examples all:
- Designed for an intended outcome.
- Met people where they were.
- Strengthened existing support networks.
We’ve seen some bad examples from urban planning, but there are success stories too.
A person on a $30 bicycle is as important as someone in a $30,000 car, said Enrique Peñalosa.
Copenhagen once faced awful traffic congestion. Now people cycle everywhere. It’s the fastest way to get around. The city is designed for bicycles first. People rode more when it felt safer. It’s no coincidence that Copenhagen ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Scandinavian prisons use a concept called restorative justice. The staff plays badminton with the inmates. They cook together. Treat people like dirt and they will act like dirt. Treat people like people and they will act like people. Recividism rates in Norway are now way low.
- Design for dignity and cooperation.
- Solve for everyone in a system.
- Policy should reflect intended outcomes.
The deHavilland Comet was made of metal. After a few blew apart at the seams, they switched from rivetted material. Airlines today develop a culture of crew resource management that encourages people to speak up.
- Plan for every point of failure.
- Empower everyone on a team to solve problems.
What can we do?
- Policies affect design. We need to work more closely with policy makers.
- Question access. Are all opinions equal? Where are computers making decisions that should involve people.
- Forget neutrality. Technology is not neutral. Neutrality allows us to abdicate responsibility.
- Stay a litte bit paranoid. Think about what the worst case scenario might be.
Make people better curators. How might we allow people to assess the veracity of information for themselves? What if we gave people better tools to affect their overall experience, not just small customisations?
We can use what we know about people to bring out their best behaviours. We can empower people to take action instead of just outrage.
What if we designed for the good of the community instead of the success of individuals. Like the Vauban in Freiburg! It was squatted, and the city gave control to the squatters to create an eco neighbourhood with affordable housing.
We need to think about what kind of worlds we want to create. What if we made the web less like a mall and more like a public park?
These are hard problems. But we solve hard technology problems every day. We could be the first generation of builders to solve technology’s hard problems.
Tuesday, February 26th, 2019
Some useful lessons here for strengthening a culture of sustained work on a design system.
Creating and maintaining a design system is like planting a tree—it has to be nurtured and cared for to reap the benefits. The seed of our design system has been planted, and now our teams are working together to maintain and grow it. Our new way of working supports gives people recognition, facilitates trust, and creates strong partnerships.
Sunday, January 27th, 2019
A list of alternatives to Google’s products.
Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019
A history of buttons …and the moral panic and outrage that accompanies them.
By looking at the subtexts behind complaints about buttons, whether historically or in the present moment, it becomes clear that manufacturers, designers and users alike must pay attention to why buttons persistently engender critiques. Such negativity tends to involve one of three primary themes: fears over deskilling; frustration about lack of user agency/control; or anger due to perceptions of unequal power relations.
Tuesday, January 1st, 2019
A profile of Brighton, featuring Clearleft’s own Chris How.
Thursday, December 27th, 2018
Audio I listened to in 2018
I wrapped up last year with a list of some of the best audio I listened to in 2017. This year I huffduffed about 260 pieces of audio, so I could do a similar end-of-year list for 2018. But I thought I’d do something a little different this time.
It seems like podcasting is going from strength to strength with each passing year. Some friends of mine started new podcasts in 2018. Matt started Hobby Horse, where he talks to people about their tangential obsessions. Meanwhile Khoi started Wireframe, a jolly good podcast about design.
Apart from the trend of everyone having their own podcast these days, there’s also been a trend for quite short and manageable “seasons” of podcasts. See, for example, Horizon Line by Atlas Obscura, which is just four episodes long. Given the cherry-picking nature of my usual audio consumption (the very reason I made Huffduffer in the first place), this trend suits me quite well. There have been a few podcast runs in 2018 that I can recommend in their entirety.
The Secret History Of The Future is a collaboration between Seth Stevenson and Tom Standage, one of my favourite non-fiction authors. They look at modern technology stories through the lens of the past, much like Standage has done in books like The Victorian Internet. There are annoying sponsor blurbs to skip past, but apart from that, it’s a top-notch podcast.
I discovered Settling The Score this year. It’s a podcast all about film scores. The two hosts have spent the year counting down the top 25 scores in the American Film Institute’s list of (supposedly) greatest scores in American cinema history. It’s a pleasure to listen to them take a deep dive into each film and its score, analysing what works and what doesn’t. It will also make you want to rewatch the movie in question.
By far my favourite podcast listening experience this year was with Stephen Fry’s Great Leap Years. It’s just six episodes long, but it manages to tell the sweep of human history and technology in an entertaining and fascinating way. I’ll admit I’m biased because it dwells on many of my hobby horses: the printing press, the telegraph, Claude Shannon and information theory. There are no annoying sponsorship interruptions, and best of all, you’ve got the wonderful voice of Stephen Fry in your earholes the whole time. Highly recommended!
So there you have it: three podcasts from 2018 that are worth subscribing to in their entirety:
Sunday, December 16th, 2018
Microsoft’s Edge browser is going to switch its rendering engine over to Chromium.
I am deflated and disappointed.
There’s just no sugar-coating this. I’m sure the decision makes sound business sense for Microsoft, but it’s not good for the health of the web.
Very soon, the vast majority of browsers will have an engine that’s either Blink or its cousin, WebKit. That may seem like good news for developers when it comes to testing, but trust me, it’s a sucky situation of innovation and agreement. Instead of a diverse browser ecosystem, we’re going to end up with incest and inbreeding.
There’s one shining exception though. Firefox. That browser was originally created to combat the seemingly unstoppable monopolistic power of Internet Explorer. Now that Microsoft are no longer in the rendering engine game, Firefox is once again the only thing standing in the way of a complete monopoly.
I’ve been using Firefox as my main browser for a while now, and I can heartily recommend it. You should try it (and maybe talk to your relatives about it at Christmas). At this point, which browser you use no longer feels like it’s just about personal choice—it feels part of something bigger; it’s about the shape of the web we want.
Jeffrey wrote that browser diversity starts with us:
The health of Firefox is critical now that Chromium will be the web’s de facto rendering engine.
Even if you love Chrome, adore Gmail, and live in Google Docs or Analytics, no single company, let alone a user-tracking advertising giant, should control the internet.
Andy Bell also writes about browser diversity:
I’ll say it bluntly: we must support Firefox. We can’t, as a community allow this browser engine monopoly. We must use Firefox as our main dev browsers; we must encourage our friends and families to use it, too.
Yes, it’s not perfect, nor are Mozilla, but we can help them to develop and grow by using Firefox and reporting issues that we find. If we just use and build for Chromium, which is looking likely (cough Internet Explorer monopoly cough), then Firefox will fall away and we will then have just one major engine left. I don’t ever want to see that.
If the idea of a Google-driven Web is of concern to you, then I’d encourage you to use Firefox. And don’t be a passive consumer; blog, tweet, and speak about its killer features. I’ll start: Firefox’s CSS Grid, Flexbox, and Variable Font tools are the best in the business.
Mozilla themselves came out all guns blazing when they said Goodbye, EdgeHTML:
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.
Tim describes the situation as risking a homogeneous web:
I don’t think Microsoft using Chromium is the end of the world, but it is another step down a slippery slope. It’s one more way of bolstering the influence Google currently has on the web.
We need Google to keep pushing the web forward. But it’s critical that we have other voices, with different viewpoints, to maintain some sense of balance. Monocultures don’t benefit anyone.
Andre Alves Garzia writes that while we Blink, we lose the web:
Losing engines is like losing languages. People may wish that everyone spoke the same language, they may claim it leads to easier understanding, but what people fail to consider is that this leads to losing all the culture and way of thought that that language produced. If you are a Web developer smiling and happy that Microsoft might be adopting Chrome, and this will make your work easier because it will be one less browser to test, don’t be! You’re trading convenience for diversity.
I like that analogy with language death. If you prefer biological analogies, it’s worth revisiting this fantastic post by Rachel back in August—before any of us knew about Microsoft’s decision—all about the ecological impact of browser diversity:
Let me be clear: an Internet that runs only on Chrome’s engine, Blink, and its offspring, is not the paradise we like to imagine it to be.
That post is a great history lesson, documenting how things can change, and how decisions can have far-reaching unintended consequences.
So these are the three browser engines we have: WebKit/Blink, Gecko, and EdgeHTML. We are unlikely to get any brand new bloodlines in the foreseeable future. This is it.
If we lose one of those browser engines, we lose its lineage, every permutation of that engine that would follow, and the unique takes on the Web it could allow for.
And it’s not likely to be replaced.
Friday, December 7th, 2018
Mozilla comes out with all guns blazing:
Microsoft is officially giving up on an independent shared platform for the internet. By adopting Chromium, Microsoft hands over control of even more of online life to Google.