Tags: event

583

sparkline

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Even more UX London speaker updates

I’ve added five more faces to the UX London line-up.

Irina Rusakova will be giving a talk on day one, the day that focuses on research. Her talk on designing with the autistic community is one I’m really looking forward to.

Also on day one, my friend and former Clearleftie Cennydd Bowles will be giving a workshop called “What could go wrong?” He literally wrote the book on ethical design.

Day two is all about creation. My co-worker Chris How will be speaking. “Nepotism!” you cry! But no, Chris is speaking because I had the chance to his talk—called “Unexpectedly obvious”—and I thought “that’s perfect for UX London!”:

Let him take you on a journey through time and across the globe sharing stories of designs that solve problems in elegant if unusual ways.

Also on day two, you’ve got two additional workshops. Lou Downe will be running a workshop on designing good services, and Giles Turnbull will be running a workshop called “Writing for people who hate writing.”

I love that title! Usually when I contact speakers I don’t necessarily have a specific talk or workshop in mind, but I knew that I wanted that particular workshop from Giles.

When I wrote to Giles to ask come and speak, I began by telling how much I enjoy his blog—I’m a long-time suscriber to his RSS feed. He responded and said that he also reads my blog—we’re blog buddies! (That’s a terrible term but there should be a word for people who “know” each other only through reading each other’s websites.)

Anyway, that’s another little treasure trove of speakers added to the UX London roster:

That’s nineteen speakers already and we’re not done yet—expect further speaker announcements soon. But don’t wait on those announcements before getting your ticket. Get yours now!

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Speaking at CSS Day 2022

I’m very excited about speaking at CSS Day this year. My talk is called In And Out Of Style:

It’s an exciting time for CSS! It feels like new features are being added every day. And yet, through it all, CSS has managed to remain an accessible language for anyone making websites. Is this an inevitable part of the design of CSS? Or has CSS been formed by chance? Let’s take a look at the history—and some alternative histories—of the World Wide Web to better understand where we are today. And then, let’s cast our gaze to the future!

Technically, CSS Day won’t be the first outing for this talk but it will be the in-person debut. I had the chance to give the talk online last week at An Event Apart. Giving a talk online isn’t quite the same as speaking on stage, but I got enough feedback from the attendees that I’m feeling confident about giving the talk in Amsterdam. It went down well with the audience at An Event Apart.

If the description has you intrigued, come along to CSS Day to hear the talk in person. And if you like the subject matter, I’ve put together these links to go with the talk…

Blog posts

Presentations

Proposals (email)

Papers (PDF)

People (Wikipedia)

Monday, April 25th, 2022

TEDxBrighton 2022

I went to TEDxBrighton on Friday. I didn’t actually realise it was happening until just a couple of days beforehand, but I once I knew, I figured I should take advantage of it being right here in my own town.

All in all, it was a terrific day. The MCing by Adam Pearson was great—just the right mix of enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek humour. The curation of the line-up worked well too. The day was broken up into four loosely-themed sections. As I’m currently in the process of curating an event myself, I can appreciate how challenging it is.

Each section opened with a musical act. Again, having been involved behind the scenes with many events myself, I was impressed by the audaciousness, just from a logistical perspective. It all went relatively smoothly.

The talks at a TED or TEDx event can be a mixed bag. You can have a scientist on stage distilling years of research into a succint message followed by someone talking nonsense about some pseudo-psychological self-help scheme. But at TEDxBrighton, we lucked out.

A highlight for me was Dr James Mannion talking about implementation science—something that felt directly applicable to design work. Victoria Jenkins was also terrific, and again, her points about inclusive design felt very relevant. And of course I really enjoyed the space-based talks by Melissa Thorpe and Bianca Cefalo. Now that I think about it, just about everyone was great: Katie Vincent, Lewis Wedlock, Dina Nayeri—they all wowed me.

With one exception. There was a talk that was supposed to be about the future of democracy. In reality it quickly veered into DAOs before descending into a pitch for crypto and NFTs. The call to action was literally for everyone in the audience to go out and get a crypto wallet and buy an NFT …using ethereum no less! We were exhorted to use an unbelievably wasteful and energy-intensive proof-of-work technology to get our hands on a receipt for a JPG …from the same stage that would later highlight the work of climate activists like Tommie Eaton. It was really quite disgusting. The fear-based message of the talk was literally about getting in on the scheme before it’s too late. At one point we were told to “do the research.” I’m surprised we weren’t all told that we’re “not going to make it.”

A disgraceful shill for a ponzi scheme would’ve ruined any other event. Fortunately the line-up at TEDxBrighton was so strong that one scam artist couldn’t torpedo the day. Just like crypto itself—and associated bollocks like NFTs and web3—it was infuriating to have to sit through it in the short term, but then it just faded away into insignificance. One desperate peddler of snake oil couldn’t make a dent in an otherwise great day.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

More UX London speaker updates

It wasn’t that long ago that I told you about some of the speakers that have been added to the line-up for UX London in June: Steph Troeth, Heldiney Pereira, Lauren Pope, Laura Yarrow, and Inayaili León. Well, now I’ve got another five speakers to tell you about!

Aleks Melnikova will be giving a workshop on day one, June 28th—that’s the day with a focus on research.

Stephanie Marsh—who literally wrote the book on user research—will also be giving a workshop that day.

Before those workshops though, you’ll get to hear a talk from the one and only Kat Zhou, the creator of Design Ethically. By the way, you can hear Kat talking about deceptive design in a BBC radio documentary.

Day two has a focus on content design so who better to deliver a workshop than Sarah Winters, author of the Content Design book.

Finally, on day three—with its focus on design systems—I’m thrilled to announce that Adekunle Oduye will be giving a talk. He too is an author. He co-wrote the Design Engineering Handbook. I also had the pleasure of talking to Adekunle for an episode of the Clearleft podcast on design engineering.

So that’s another five excellent speakers added to the line-up:

That’s a total of fifteen speakers so far with more on the way. And I’ll be updating the site with more in-depth descriptions of the talks and workshops soon.

If you haven’t yet got your ticket for UX London, grab one now. You can buy tickets for individual days, or to get the full experience and the most value, get a ticket for all three days.

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

Upcoming events

I see that Russell is planning to bring back Interesting this year. This makes me happy. Just seeing the return of in-person gatherings—run safely—is giving me life.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. I think that lots of people are yearning for some in-person contact after two years of online events. The good news is that there are some excellent in-person web conferences on the horizon.

Beyond Tellerrand is back in Düsseldorf on May 2nd and 3rd. Marc ran some of the best online events during lockdown with his Stay Curious cafés, but there’s nothing beats the atmosphere of Beyond Tellerrand on its home turf.

If you can’t make it Düsseldorf—I probably can’t because I’m getting my passport renewed right now—there’s All Day Hey in Leeds on May 5th. Harry has put a terrific line-up together for this one-day, very affordable event.

June is shaping up to be a good month for events too. First of all, there’s CSS Day in Amsterdam on June 9th and 10th. I really, really like this event. I’m not just saying that because I’m speaking at this year’s CSS Day. I just love the way that the conference treats CSS with respect. If you self-identigy as a CSS person, then this is the opportunity to be with your people.

But again, if you can’t make it Amsterdam, never fear. The Pixel Pioneers conference returns to Bristol on June 10th. Another one-day event in the UK with a great line-up.

Finally, there’s the big one at the end of June. UX London runs from June 28th to June 30th:

Bringing the UX community back together

Yes, I’m biased because I’m curating the line-up but this is shaping up to be unmissable! It’s going to be so good to gather with our peers and get our brains filled by the finest of design minds.

Wednesday, April 13th, 2022

Speaking at the Leading Design Conference, New York ‘22

The presentations themselves afforded a level of candor in personal narrative unlike any event I’ve been a part of thus far. We laughed, we cried (both quite literally), we were inspired — all, together. I can’t say enough about the vulnerability and courage of my fellow speakers, sharing their stories to move all of us — forward.

This is a lovely write-up of Leading Design New York from Justin.

The level of thought given to every nuance of this conference—from inclusiveness and safety, to privacy of discussed material and questions asked, to thoughtfulness of conference gear, to quality of the coffee via the on-premises baristas, to the well-conceived accompanying online program—were simply top-notch. Macro and micro. The event organizers and team: equally thoughtful and tremendous to work with.

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

Starting and finishing

Someone was asking recently about advice for public speaking. This was specifically for in-person events now that we’re returning to actual live conferences.

Everyone’s speaking style is different so there’s no universal advice. That said, just about everyone recommends practicing. Practice your talk. Then practice it again and again.

That’s good advice but it’s also quite time-consuming. Something I’ve recommended in the past is to really concentrate on the start and the end of the talk.

You should be able to deliver the first five minutes of your talk in your sleep. If something is going to throw you, it’s likely to happen at the beginning of your talk. Whether it’s a technical hitch or just the weirdness and nerves of standing on stage, you want to be able to cruise through that part of the talk on auto-pilot. After five minutes or so, your nerves will have calmed and any audio or visual oddities should be sorted.

Likewise you want to really nail the last few minutes of your talk. Have a good strong ending that you can deliver convincingly.

Make it very clear when you’re done—usually through a decisive “thank you!”—to let the audience know that they may now burst into rapturous applause. Beware the false ending. “Thank you …and this is my Twitter handle. I always like hearing from people. So. Yeah.” Remember, the audience is on your side and they want to show their appreciation for your talk but you have to let them know without any doubt when the talk is done.

At band practice we sometimes joke “Hey, as long as we all start together and finish together, that’s what matters.” It’s funny because there’s a kernel of truth to it. If you start a song with a great intro and you finish the song with a tight rock’n’roll ending, nobody’s going to remember if somebody flubbed a note halfway through.

So, yes, practice your talk. But really practice the start and the end of your talk.

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

UX London speaker updates

If you’ve signed up to the UX London newsletter then this won’t be news to you, but more speakers have been added to the line-up.

Steph Troeth will be giving a workshop on day one. That’s the day with a strong focus on research, and when it comes to design research, Steph is unbeatable. You can hear some of her words of wisdom in an episode of the Clearleft podcast all about design research.

Heldiney Pereira will be speaking on day two. That’s the day with a focus on content design. Heldiney previously spoke at our Content By Design event and it was terrific—his perspective on content design as a product designer is invaluable.

Lauren Pope will also be on day two. She’ll be giving a workshop. She recently launched a really useful content audit toolkit and she’ll be bringing that expertise to her UX London workshop.

Day three is going to have a focus on design systems (and associated disciplines like design engineering and design ops). Both Laura Yarrow and Inayaili León will be giving talks on that day. You can expect some exciting war stories from the design system trenches of HM Land Registry and GitHub.

I’ve got some more speakers confirmed but I’m going to be a tease and make you wait a little longer for those names. But check out the line-up so far! This going to be such an excellent event (I know I’m biased, but really, look at that line-up!).

June 28th to 30th. Tobacco Dock, London. Get your ticket if you haven’t already.

Wednesday, March 30th, 2022

Eventing

In person events are like buses. You go two years without one and then three come along at once.

My buffer is overflowing from experiencing three back-to-back events. Best of all, my participation was different each time.

First of all, there was Leading Design New York, where I was the host. The event was superb, although it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t have any time to properly experience Manhattan. I wasn’t able to do any touristy things or meet up with my friends who live in the city. Still the trip was well worth it.

Right after I got back from New York, I took the train to Edinburgh for the Design It Build It conference where I was a speaker. It was a good event. I particularly enjoyed Rafaela Ferro talk on accessibility. The last time I spoke at DIBI was 2011(!) so it was great to make a return visit. I liked that the audience was seated cabaret style. That felt safer than classroom-style seating, allowing more space between people. At the same time, it felt more social, encouraging more interaction between attendees. I met some really interesting people.

I got from Edinburgh just in time for UX Camp Brighton on the weekend, where I was an attendee. I felt like a bit of a moocher not giving a presentation, but I really, really enjoyed every session I attended. It’s been a long time since I’ve been at a Barcamp-style event—probably the last Indie Web Camp I attended, whenever that was. I’d forgotten how well the format works.

But even with all these in-person events, online events aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Yesterday I started hosting the online portion of Leading Design New York and I’ll be doing it again today. The post-talk discussions with Julia and Lisa are lots of fun!

So in the space of just of a couple of weeks I’ve been a host, a speaker, and an attendee. Now it’s time for me to get my head back into one other event role: conference curator. No more buses/events are on the way for the next while, so I’m going to be fully devoted to organising the line-up for UX London 2022. Exciting!

Sunday, March 27th, 2022

Hosting Leading Design New York

I went to New York to host the Leading Design conference. It was weird and wonderful.

Weird, because it felt strange and surreal to be back in a physical space with other people all sharing the same experience.

Wonderful, for exactly the same reasons.

Leading Design

This was a good way to ease back into live events. It wasn’t a huge conference. Just over a hundred people. So it felt intimate, while still allowing people to quite literally have space to themselves.

I can’t tell you much about the post-talk interviews I conducted with the speakers. That’s because what happens at Leading Design stays at Leading Design, at least when it comes to the discussions after the talks. We made it clear that Leading Design was a safe place for everyone to share their stories, even if—especially if—those were stories you wouldn’t want to share publicly or at work.

I was bowled over by how generous and open and honest all the speakers were. Sure, there were valuable lessons about management and leadership, but there were also lots of very personal stories and insights. Time and time again I found myself genuinely moved by the vulnerability that the speakers displayed.

Leadership can be lonely. Sometimes very lonely. I got the impression that everyone—speakers and attendees alike—really, really appreciated having a non-digital space where they could come together and bond over shared travails. I know it’s a cliché to talk about “connecting” with others, but at this event it felt true.

The talks themselves were really good too. I loved seeing how themes emerged and wove themselves throughout the two days. Rebecca did a fantastic job of curating the line-up. I’ve been to a lot of events over the years and I’ve seen conference curation of varying degrees of thoughtfulness. Leading Design New York 2022 is right up there with the best of them. It was an honour to play the part of the host (though I felt very guilty when people congratulated me on such a great event—“Don’t thank me”, I said, “Thank Rebecca—I’m just the public face of the event; she did all the work!”)

My hosting duties aren’t over. This week we’ve got the virtual portion of Leading Design New York. There’ll be two days of revisiting some of the conference talks, and one day of workshops.

For the two days of talks, I’m going to be joined by two brilliant panelists for post-talk discussions—Julia Whitney and Lisa Welchman. This should be fun!

Best of all, for this portion of the event I don’t need to get into an airplane and cross the Atlantic.

That said, the journey was totally worth it for Leading Design New York. Also, by pure coincidence, the event coincided with St. Patrick’s Day. For the first time in two years, New York hosted its legendary parade and it was just a block or two away from the conference venue.

I nipped out during the lunch break to cheer on the marching bands. Every county was represented. When the representatives from county Cork went by, there’d be shouts of “Up Cork!” When the county Donegal delegation went by, it was “Up Donegal!”

It’s just a shame I couldn’t stick around for the representatives from county Down.

Saturday, March 12th, 2022

Going to New York

I’m flying to New York on Monday. That still sounds a little surreal to me, but it’s happening.

I’ll be hosting Leading Design New York. Even a month ago it wasn’t clear if the in-person event would even be going ahead. But there was a go/no-go decision and it was “go!” Now, as New York relaxes its mandates, it’s looking more and more like the right decision. It’s still probably going to feel a bit weird to be gathering together with other people …but it’s also going to feel long overdue.

Rebecca has put together a fantastic line-up of super-smart design leaders. My job will be to introduce them before they speak and then interview them afterwards, also handling questions from the audience.

I’m a little nervous just because I want to do a really good job. But I’ve been doing my homework. And given how well the hosting went for UX Fest, I’m probably being uneccesarily worried. I need to keep reminding myself to enjoy it. It’s a real privilege that I get to spend two days in the company of such erudite generous people. I should make the most of it.

If you’re going to be at Leading Design New York, I very much look forward to seeing you there.

If you’re not coming to Leading Design but you’re in the neighbourhood, let me know if you’ve got any plans for St. Patrick’s Day. I’ve already got my green paisley shirt picked out for my on-stage duties that day.

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Curating UX London 2022

The first speakers are live on the UX London 2022 site! There are only five people announced for now—just enough to give you a flavour of what to expect. There will be many, many more.

Putting together the line-up of a three-day event is quite challenging, but kind of fun too. On the one hand, each day should be able to stand alone. After all, there are one-day tickets available. On the other hand, it should feel like one cohesive conference, not three separate events.

I’ve decided to structure the three days to somewhat mimic the design process…

The first day is all about planning and preparation. This is like the first diamond in the double-diamond process: building the right thing. That means plenty of emphasis on research.

The second day is about creation and execution. It’s like that second diamond: building the thing right. This could cover potentially everything but this year the focus will be on content design.

The third day is like the third diamond in the double dia— no, wait. The third day is about growing, scaling, and maintaining design. That means there’ll be quite an emphasis on topics like design systems and design engineering, maybe design ops.

But none of the days will be exclusively about a single topic. There are evergreen topics that apply throughout the process: product design, design ethics, inclusive design.

It’s a lot to juggle! But I’m managing to overcome choice paralysis and assemble a very exciting line-up indeed. Trust me—you won’t want to miss this!

Early bird tickets are available until February 28th. That’s just a few days away. I recommend getting your tickets now—you won’t regret it!

Quite a few people are bringing their entire teams, which is perfect. UX London can be both an educational experience and a team-bonding exercise. Let’s face it, it’s been too long since any of us have had a good off-site.

If you’re one of those lucky people who’s coming along (or if you’re planning to), I’m curious: given the themes mentioned above, are there specific topics that you’d hope to see covered? Drop me a line and let me know.

Also, if you read the description of the event and think “Oh, I know the perfect speaker!” then I’d love to hear from you. Maybe that speaker is you. (Although, cards on the table; if you look like me—another middle-age white man—I may take some convincing.)

Right. Time to get back to my crazy wall of conference curation.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2022

Announcing UX London 2022

For the past two years, all of Clearleft’s events have been online. Like everyone else running conferences, we had to pivot in the face of The Situation.

In hindsight, it’s remarkable how well those online events went. This was new territory for everyone—speakers, attendees, and organisers.

UX Fest was a real highlight. I had the pleasure of hosting the event, giving it my Woganesque best. It was hard work, but it paid off.

Still, it’s not quite the same as gathering together with your peers in one place for a shared collective experience. I’ve really been missing in-person events (and from what I’ve seen in people’s end-of-year blog posts, I’m not alone).

That’s why I’m absolutely thrilled that UX London is back in 2022! Save the dates; June 28th to 30th. We’ve got a new venue too: the supremely cool Tobacco Dock.

This is going to be a summertime festival of design. It’ll be thought-provoking, practical, fun, and above all, safe.

It feels kind of weird to be planning an in-person event now, when we’re just emerging from The Omicron Variant, but putting on UX London 2022 isn’t just an act of optimism. It’s a calculated move. While nothing is certain, late June 2022 should be the perfect time to safely gather the UX community again.

It’s a particularly exciting event for me. Not only will I be hosting it, this time I’m also curating the line-up.

I’ve curated conference line-ups before: dConstruct, Responsive Day Out, and Patterns Day. But those were all one-day events. UX London is three times as big!

It’s a lot of pressure, but I’m already extremely excited about the line-up. If my plan comes together, this is going to be an unmissable collection of mindbombs. I’ve already got some speakers confirmed so keep an eye on the website, Twitter or sign up for the newsletter to get the announcements as when they happen.

The format of UX London has been honed over the years. I think it’s got just the right balance.

Each day has a morning of inspiring talks—a mixture of big-picture keynotes and punchy shorter case studies. The talks are all on a single track; everyone shares that experience. Then, after lunch, there’s an afternoon of half-day workshops. Those happen in parallel, so you choose which workshop you want to attend.

I think this mixture of the inspirational and the practical is the perfect blend. Your boss can send you to UX London knowing that you’re going to learn valuable new skills, but you’ll also leave with your mind expanded by new ideas.

Like I said, I’m excited!

Naturally, I’m nervous too. Putting on an event is a risky endeavour at the best times. Putting an event after a two-year pandemic is even more uncertain. What if no one comes? Maybe people aren’t ready to return to in-person events. But I can equally imagine the opposite situation. Maybe people are craving a community gathering after two years of sitting in front of screens. That’s definitely how I’m feeling.

If you’re feeling the same, then join me in London in June. Tickets are on sale now. You can get three-day early-bird pass, or you can buy a ticket for an individual day. But I hope you’ll join me for the whole event—I can’t wait to see you there!

Sunday, January 23rd, 2022

Wiki History Game

This is fun (and addictive)! With every new entry pulled from Wikipedia, you’ve got to arrange it onto a timeline correctly.

Monday, January 3rd, 2022

2021

2020 was the year of the virus. 2021 was the year of the vaccine …and the virus, obviously, but still it felt like the year we fought back. With science!

Whenever someone writes and shares one of these year-end retrospectives the result is, by its very nature, personal. These last two years are different though. We all still have our own personal perspectives, but we also all share a collective experience of The Ongoing Situation.

Like, I can point to three pivotal events in 2021 and I bet you could point to the same three for you:

  1. getting my first vaccine shot in March,
  2. getting my second vaccine shot in June, and
  3. getting my booster shot in December.

So while on the one hand we’re entering 2022 in a depressingly similar way to how we entered 2021 with COVID-19 running rampant, on the other hand, the odds have changed. We can calculate risk. We’ve got more information. And most of all, we’ve got these fantastic vaccines.

I summed up last year in terms of all the things I didn’t do. I could do the same for 2021, but there’s only one important thing that didn’t happen—I didn’t catch a novel coronavirus.

It’s not like I didn’t take some risks. While I was mostly a homebody, I did make excursions to Zürich and Lisbon. One long weekend in London was particurly risky.

At the end of the year, right as The Omicron Variant was ramping up, Jessica and I travelled to Ireland to see my mother, and then travelled to the States to see her family. We managed to dodge the Covid bullets both times, for which I am extremely grateful. My greatest fear throughout The Situation hasn’t been so much about catching Covid myself, but passing it on to others. If I were to give it to a family member or someone more vulnerable than me, I don’t think I could forgive myself.

Now that we’ve seen our families (after a two-year break!), I’m feeling more sanguine about this next stage. I’ll be hunkering down for the next while to ride out this wave, but if I still end up getting infected, at least I won’t have any travel plans to cancel.

But this is meant to be a look back at the year that’s just finished, not a battle plan for 2022.

There were some milestones in 2021:

  1. I turned 50,
  2. TheSession.org turned 20, and
  3. Adactio.com also turned 20.

This means that my websites are 2/5ths of my own age. In ten years time, my websites will be 1/2 of my own age.

Most of my work activities were necessarily online, though I did manage the aforementioned trips to Switzerland and Portugal to speak at honest-to-goodness real live in-person events. The major projects were:

  1. Publishing season two of the Clearleft podcast in February,
  2. Speaking at An Event Apart Online in April,
  3. Hosting UX Fest in June,
  4. Publishing season three of the Clearleft podcast in September, and
  5. Writing a course on responsive design in November.

Outside of work, my highlights of 2021 mostly involved getting to play music with other people—something that didn’t happen much in 2020. Band practice with Salter Cane resumed in late 2021, as did some Irish music sessions. Both are now under an Omicron hiatus but this too shall pass.

Another 2021 highlight was a visit by Tantek in the summer. He was willing to undergo quarantine to get to Brighton, which I really appreciate. It was lovely hanging out with him, even if all our social activities were by necessity outdoors.

But, like I said, the main achievement in 2021 was not catching COVID-19, and more importantly, not passing it on to anyone else. Time will tell whether or not that winning streak will be sustainable in 2022. But at least I feel somewhat prepared for it now, thanks to those magnificent vaccines.

2021 was a shitty year for a lot of people. I feel fortunate that for me, it was merely uneventful. If my only complaint is that I didn’t get to travel and speak as much I’d like, well boo-fucking-hoo, I’ll take it. I’ve got my health. My family members have their health. I don’t take that for granted.

Maybe 2022 will turn out to be similar—shitty for a lot of people, and mostly unenventful for me. Or perhaps 2022 will be a year filled with joyful in-person activities, like conferences and musical gatherings. Either way, I’m ready.

Tuesday, November 30th, 2021

Speakers | State of the Browser 2021

All the talks from this year’s State Of The Browser event are online, and they’re all worth watching.

I laughed out loud at multiple points during Heydon’s talk.

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

Publishing The State Of The Web

Back in April I gave a talk at An Event Apart Spring Summit. The talk was called The State Of The Web, and I’ve published the transcript. I’ve also published the video.

I put a lot of work into this talk and I think it paid off. I wrote about preparing the talk. I also wrote about recording it. I also published links related to the talk. It was an intense process, but a rewarding one.

I almost called the talk The Overview Effect. My main goal with the talk was to instil a sense of perspective. Hence the references to the famous Earthrise photograph.

On the one hand, I wanted the audience to grasp just how far the web has come. So the first half of the talk is a bit of a trip down memory lane, with a constant return to just how much we can accomplish in browsers today. It’s all very positive and upbeat.

Then I twist the knife. Having shown just how far we’ve progressed technically, I switch gears the moment I say:

The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.

Then I dive into those challenges, as I see them. It turns out that technical challenges would be preferable to the seemingly intractable problems of today’s web.

I almost wish I could’ve flipped the order: talk about the negative stuff first but then finish with the positive. I worry that the talk could be a bit of a downer. Still, I tried to finish on an optimistic note.

I won’t spoil it any more for you. Watch the video or have a read of The State Of The Web.

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

The State Of The Web

The opening presentation from An Event Apart Spring Summit held online in April 2021.

Hello, my friends. I’d like us to try to collectively achieve something today. What I’d like us to achieve is a sense of perspective.

To do this we need to take a step back and cast an eye on the past.

For example, I can look back and say “Wow, what a terrible year!”

A year of death. A year of polarisation. Of inequality. A corrupt government. Protests in the street as people struggled to fight against systemic racism.

Yes, I am of course talking about the year 1968.

The past

By the end of 1968, the United States of America was a nation in turmoil. Civil rights. The war in Vietnam. It felt like the polarising issues of the day were splitting the country in two.

But in the final week of the year, something happened that offered a sense of perspective.

In an audacious move, NASA decided to bring forward the schedule of its Apollo programme. Apollo 7 was a success but that mission was confined to Earth orbit. For Apollo 8, human beings would leave Earth’s orbit for the first time in history. The bold plan was to fly to and around the moon before returning safely to Earth.

From today’s perspective, you might just see it as a dry run for Apollo 11 when human beings would step foot on the moon. But at the time, it was an unbelievably bold move. A literal moonshot.

On the winter solstice, December 21st 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders were launched on their six day mission to the moon and back.

The mission was a success. Everything went according to plan. But the reason why we remember the Apollo 8 mission today is for something that wasn’t planned.

First of all, after the translunar injection when the crew had left Earth orbit and were on their way to the moon (already the furthest distance ever travelled by our species), someone—probably Bill Anders—pointed a camera back at Earth.

This was the first picture ever taken by a human being of the whole earth. It’s quite a perspective-setting sight, seeing the whole Earth. To us today, it’s almost commonplace. But remember that were was a time when no one had ever seen this view.

In fact, throughout the 1960s activist Stewart Brand had a campaign, handing out buttons with the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”

I like the “yet” at the end of that. It gives it a conspiracy-tinged edge.

Stewart Brand suspected that if people could see their home planet in one image, it could reset their perspectives. They would truly grok the idea of Spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller would say. The idea came to Brand when he was on a rooftop, tripping on acid, experiencing the horizon curve away from him and giving him quite a sense of perspective.

Later, he would start the Whole Earth Catalog. It was like a print version of Wikipedia, with everything you needed to know to run a commune.

Later still, he went on to found the Long Now Foundation, an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a proud member.

Their most famous project is the clock of the long now, which will keep time for 10,000 years. This is just a scale model in the Science Museum in London. The full-size clock is being built inside a mountain on geologically stable ground. Just thinking about the engineering challenges involved is bound to give you a certain sense of perspective.

But let’s snap back from 10,000 in the future to that Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968.

This picture of the whole earth wasn’t the most important picture taken by Bill Anders on that flight. By Christmas Eve, the crew had reached the moon and successfully entered lunar orbit.

Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.

Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.

You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…

Oh man, that’s…

Quick! Quick!

This is what Bill Anders captured.

Earthrise.

I could try to describe it. But they should’ve sent a poet.

Fifty years later, this poet puts it beautifully. This is Amanda Gorman’s poem Earthrise.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut Bill Anders

Snapped a photo of the earth

As Apollo 8 orbited the moon.

Those three guys

Were surprised

To see from their eyes

Our planet looked like an earthrise

A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon,

with deep oceans and silver skies.
It was our world’s first glance at itself

Our first chance to see a shared reality,

A declared stance and a commonality;
A glimpse into our planet’s mirror,

And as threats drew nearer,

Our own urgency became clearer,

As we realize that we hold nothing dearer

than this floating body we all call home.

Astronauts have been known to experience something called the overview effect. It’s a profound change in perspective that comes from seeing the totality of our home planet in all its beauty and fragility.

The Earthrise photograph gave the world a taste of the overview effect, right at a time when it was most needed.

The World Wide Web

I wonder if it’s possible to get an overview effect for the World Wide Web?

There is no photograph of the whole web. We can’t see the web. We can’t travel into space and look back at our online home.

But we can travel back in time. Let’s travel back to 1945.

That was the year that an article was published in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush. He was a pop scientist of his day, like Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye.

The article was called As We May Think. In the article, Bush describes a hypothetical device called a memex.

Imagine a desk filled with reams and reams of microfilm. The operator of this device can find information and also make connections between bits of information, linking them together in whatever way makes sense to them.

This sounds a lot like hypertext. That word would be coined decades later by Ted Nelson to describe “text which is not constrained to be linear.”

Vannevar Bush’s idea of the memex and Ted Nelson’s ideas about hypertext would be a big influence on Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.

But his big breakthrough wasn’t just making hypertext into a reality. Other people had already done that.

Douglas Engelbart, who wanted to make the computer equivalent of the memex, had already demonstrated a working hypertext system in 1968 in an astonishing demonstration that came to be known as The Mother Of All Demos.

The idea of hypertext was kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Individual pieces of text in a book are connected with unique identifiers and you can jump from one piece of text to another within the same book.

But what if you could jump between books? That’s the other piece of the puzzle.

The idea of connecting computers together came from the concept of “time sharing” allowing you to remotely access another computer.

With funding from the US Department of Defence’s Advance Research Projects Agency, time sharing was taken to the next level with the creation of a computer network called the ARPANET.

It grew. And it grew. Until it was no longer just a network of computers. It was a network of networks. Or internetwork. Internet, for short.

Tim Berners-Lee took the infrastructure of the internet and mashed it up with the idea of hypertext. Instead of imagining hypertext as a book with interconnected concepts, he imaged a library of books where you could jump from one idea in one book to another idea in a completely different book in a completely different part of the library.

This was the World Wide Web. And Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web even when it only existed on his computer. You have to admire the chutspah of that!

But the really incredible thing is that it worked! In March of 1989 he proposed a global hypertext system, where anybody could create new pages without asking anyone for permission, and anyone could access those pages no matter what kind of device or operating system they were using.

And that’s what we have today. While the World Wide Web might seem inevitable in hindsight, it was anything but. It is a remarkable achievement.

The World Wide Web was somewhat lacking in colour originally. When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was limited.

Colour

When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was somewhat limited.

We had a palette of 216 web safe colours. You knew if a colour was “web safe” if the hexadecimal notation was three sets of duplicated values. If you altered one of those values even slightly, there was no guarantee that the colour would display consistently on the monitors of the time.

I have a confession to make: I kind of liked this constraint in a weird way. To this day, if I have a colour value that’s almost web-safe, I can’t resist nudging it slightly.

Fortunately, monitors improved. They got flatter for one thing. They were also capable of displaying plenty of colours.

And we also got more and more ways of specifying colours. As well as hexadecimal, we got RGB: Red, Green, Blue. Better yet, we got RGBa …with alpha transparency. That’s opacity to you and me.

Then we got HSL: hue, saturation, lightness. Or should I say HSLa: hue, saturation, lightness, and alpha transparency.

And there are more colour spaces on the way. HWB (hue, whiteness, blackness), LAB, LCH. And there’s work on a color() function so you can specify even more colour spaces.

Typography

In the beginning, typography on the World Wide Web was non-existent. Your browser used whatever was available on your operating system.

That situation continued for quite a while. You’d have to guess which fonts were likely to be available on Windows or Mac.

If you wanted to use a sans-serif typeface, there was Arial on Windows and Helvetica on the Mac. Verdana was a pretty safe bet too.

For a while your only safe option for a serif typeface was Times New Roman. When Mathew Carter’s Georgia was released, it was a godsend. Here was a typeface specifically designed for the screen.

Later Microsoft released another four fonts designed for the screen. Four new fonts! It felt like we were being spoiled.

But what if you wanted to use a typeface that didn’t come installed with an operating system? Well, you went into Photoshop and made an image of the text. Now the user had to download additional images. The text wasn’t selectable and it was a fixed width.

We came up with all sorts of clever techniques to do what was called “image replacement” for text. Some of the techniques involved CSS and background images. One of the techniques involved Flash. It was called sIFR: Scalable Inman Flash Replacement. A later technique called Cufón converted the letter shapes into paths in Canvas.

All of these techniques were hacks. Very clever hacks, but hacks nonetheless. They were clever and they worked but they always reminded me of Samuel Johnson’s description of a dog walking on its hind legs:

It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.

What if you wanted to use an actual font file in a web page?

There was only one browser that supported font embedding: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The catch was that you had to use a proprietary font format called Embedded Open Type.

Both type foundries and browser makers were nervous about allowing regular font files to be embedded in web pages. They were worried about licensing. Wouldn’t this lead to even more people downloading fonts illegally? How would the licensing be enforced?

The impasse was broken with a two-pronged approach. First of all, we got a new font format called Web Open Font Format or WOFF. It could be used to take a regular font file and wrap it in a light veneer of metadata about licensing. There’s a sequel that’s even better than the original, WOFF2.

The other breakthrough was the creation of intermediary services like Typekit and Fontdeck. They would take care of serving the actual font files, making sure they couldn’t be easily downloaded. They could also keep track of numbers to ensure that type foundries were being compensated fairly.

Over time it became clear to type foundries that most web designers wanted to do the right thing when it came to licensing fonts. And so these days, you can probably license a font straight from a type foundry for use on the web and host it yourself.

You might need to buy a few different weights. Regular. Bold. Maybe italic. What about extra bold? Or a light weight? It all starts to add up, especially for the end user who has to download all those files.

I remember being at the web typography conference Ampersand years ago and hearing a talk from Nick Sherman. He asked us to imagine one single font file that could go from light to regular to bold and everything in between. What he described sounded like science fiction.

It is now science fact, indistinguishable from magic. Variable fonts are here. You can typeset text on the web to be light, or regular, or bold, or anything in between.

When you use CSS to declare the font-weight property, you can use keywords like “normal” or “bold” but you can also use corresponding numbers like 400 or 700. There’s a scale with nine options from 100 to 900. But why isn’t the scale simply one to nine?

Well, even though the idea of variable fonts would have been pure fantasy when this part of CSS was being specced, the authors had some foresight:

One of the reasons we chose to use three-digit numbers was to support intermediate values in the future.

With the creation of variable fonts, Håkon Wium Lee added:

And the future is now.

On today’s web you could have 999 font-weight options.

Images

In the beginning, the World Wide Web was a medium for text only. There were no images and certainly no videos.

In an early mailing list discussion, there was talk of creating a new HTML element for images. Perhaps it should be called “icon”. Or maybe it should be more generic and be called “embed”. Tim Berners-Lee said he imagined using the rel attribute on the A element for embedding images.

While this discussion was happening, Marc Andreessen popped in to say that he had just shipped a new HTML element in the Mosaic browser. It’s called IMG and it takes an attribute called SRC that points to the source of the image.

This was a self-closing tag so there was no way to put fallback content in between the opening and closing tags if the image couldn’t be displayed. So the ALT attribute was introduced instead to provide an alternative description of the image.

For the images themselves, there were really only two choices. JPG for photographic images. GIF for icons or anything that needed basic transparency. GIFs could also do animation and today, that’s pretty much all they’re used for. That’s because there was a concerted campaign to ditch the GIF format on the web. Unisys, who owned the rights to a compression algorithm used by the GIF format, had started to make noises about potentially demanding license fees for its use.

The Portable Network Graphics format—or PNG—was created in response. It was more performant and it allowed you to have proper alpha transparency.

These were all bitmap formats. What if you wanted a vector format for images that would retain crispness at any size or resolution? There was only one option: Flash. You’d have to embed a Flash movie in your web page just to get the benefit of vector graphics.

By the 21st century there were some eggheads working on a text-based vector file format that could be embedded in webpages, but it sounded like a pipe dream. It was called SVG for Scalable Vector Graphics. The format was dreamed up in 2001 but for years, not a single browser supported it. It was like some theoretical graphical Shangri-La.

But by 2011, every major browser supported it. Styleable, scriptable, animatable, vector graphics have gone from fantasy to reality.

There’s more choice in the world of bitmap images too. WebP is well supported. AVIF is is gaining support.

The IMG element itself has grown too. You can use the srcset attribute to give the browser a range of images to choose from to best suit the user’s device and network connection. You can use the loading attribute to get lazy loading of images for free—no JavaScript required.

We now have audio in HTML. No JavaScript required. We now have video in HTML. No JavaScript required.

These elements have been designed with more thought than the IMG element. They are not self-closing elements, by design. You can put fallback content between the opening and closing tags.

The audio and video elements arrived long after the IMG element. For a long time, there was no easy way to do video or audio on the web.

That was very frustrating for me. The first websites I ever built were for bands. The only way to stream music was with a proprietary plug-in like Real Audio.

Or Flash.

While the web standards were still being worked on, Flash delivered the goods with streaming audio and video. This happened over and over. Flash gave us vector graphics, animation, video, and more. But the price was lock-in. Flash was a proprietary format.

Still, Flash showed the web standards bodies the direction of travel. Flash was the hare. Web standards were the tortoise.

We know how that race ended.

In a way, Flash was like the Research and Development incubator for the World Wide Web. We got CSS animations, SVG, and streaming video because Flash showed that there was an appetite for them.

Until web standards provide a way to do something, designers and developers will reach for whatever tool gets the job done. Take layout, for example.

Layout

In the early days of the web, you could have any layout you wanted …as long as it was a single column.

Before long, HTML expanded to provide some rudimentary formatting for that single column of text. Presentational elements and attributes were invented. And even when elements and attributes weren’t meant to be used for formatting, people got creative.

Tables for layout. A single pixel GIF that could be given width and height. These were clever solutions. But they were hacks. And they were in danger of turning HTML into a presentational language instead of a language for structuring content.

CSS came to the rescue. A language specifically for presentation.

But we still didn’t get proper layout tools. There was a lot of debate in the early days about whether CSS should even attempt to provide layout tools or whether that was a job for a separate technology.

We could lay things out using the float property, but really that was just another hack.

Floats were an improvement over tables for layout, but we only swapped one tool for another. Our collective thinking still wasn’t very web-like.

For example, designers and developers insisted on building websites with a fixed width. This started in the era of table layouts and carried over into CSS.

To start with, the fixed width was 640 pixels. Then it was 800 pixels. Then people settled on the magical number of 960 pixels. Designers and developers didn’t seem at all concerned that people had different sized screens.

That was until the iPhone came out. It caused a panic. What fixed width were we supposed to design for now?

The answer was there all along. Even before the web appeared in mobile devices, it was possible to build fluid layouts that would adapt to screen size. It’s just that the majority of designers and developers chose not to build in this way.

I was pleased that mobile came along and shook things up. It exposed the assumptions that people were making. And it forced designers and developers to think in a more fluid, webby way.

Even better, CSS had expanded to include media queries so it was possible to alter layouts at different breakpoints.

Ethan came along and put a nice bow on it with his definition of responsive design: fluid media, fluid layouts, and media queries.

I fell in love with responsive web design instantly becuase it matched how I was already thinking about the web. I was one of the handful of weirdos who insisted on building fluid websites when everyone else was using fixed-width layouts.

But I thought that responsive web design would struggle to take hold.

I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Responsive web design has become the default!

If I could go back to my past self in the mid 2000s, I’d love to tell them that in the future, everyone would be building with fluid layouts (and also that time travel had been invented apparently).

Not only that, but we finally have proper layout tools for the web. Flexbox. Grid. No more hacks. We’re even getting container queries soon (thanks, Miriam!).

Web browsers now are positively overflowing with fantastic design tools that would have been unimaginable to my past self. Support for these technologies is pretty much universal.

When browsers differ today, it’s only terms of which standards they don’t yet support. There was a time when browsers differed massively in how they handled basic web technologies.

There was a time when being a web developer meant understanding all the different quirks between browsers.

And browser makers spent a ludicrous amount of time reverse-engineering the quirky behaviour of whichever browser was the market leader.

That changed with HTML5. We remember HTML5 for introducing new APIs, new form fields, and new structural elements. But the biggest innovation was completely invisible. For the first time, error-handling was standardised. Browsers had a set of rules they could work from. Once browsers adopted this consistent approach to error-handling, cross-browser differences dried up.

That was good news for web developers. We were sick of dealing with different browsers taking different approaches. We had been burned with JavaScript.

JavaScript

In the beginning, there was no scripting on the web, just like there was no styling. Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t opposed to the idea of executing arbitrary code on the web. But he pointed out that you’d need everyone to agree on which programming language browsers would use.

You need something really powerful, but at the same time ubiquitous. Remember a facet of the web is universal readership. There is no universal interpreted programming language.

This problem of which language to choose was solved in the usual way. Brendan Eich, who was working at Netscape, created a completely new programming language in just ten days. It would be called… LiveScript. Then the marketing department got involved and because Java was the new hotness at the time, this scripting language was renamed to… JavaScript. Even though it has nothing to do with Java. Java is to JavaScript as ham is to hamster.

The important thing is that multiple browsers implemented it. Then the hype started. We were told about this great new technology called DHTML. The D stood for dynamic! This would allow us to programmatically manipulate elements in a web page.

But… the two major browsers at the time, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, used two completely incompatible syntaxes. For Netscape Navigator you’d use document.layers. For Internet Explorer it was document.all.

This was when developers said enough was enough. We wanted standards. The Web Standards Project was formed and we lobbied browser makers to implement web standards, like CSS and also the Document Object Model. This was a standardised way of manipulating elements in a web page. You could use methods like getElementById and getElementsByTagName.

That worked fine, but it was yet another vocabulary to learn. If you already knew CSS, then you already understood how to get an element by ID and get elements by tag name, but with a different syntax.

John Resig created jQuery so that you could use the CSS syntax to do DOM scripting. There were lots of other JavaScript libraries released around the same time, but jQuery was by far the most popular. Clearly, this syntax was something that developers wanted.

Now we no longer need jQuery. We’ve got querySelector and querySelectorAll. But the reason we no longer need jQuery is because of jQuery. Just like Flash, jQuery showed what developers wanted. And just as with Flash, the web standards took more time. But now jQuery is obsolete …precisely because it was so successful.

It’s a similar story with Sass and CSS. There was a time when Sass was the only way to have a feature like variables. But now with custom properties available in CSS, Sass is becoming increasingly obsolete …precisely because it was so successful and showed the direction of travel.

In a way, jQuery and Sass (and maybe even Flash) were kind of like polyfills. That’s a term that my friend Remy Sharp coined for JavaScript libraries that fill in the gaps until browsers have implemented web standards.

By way of explanation to anyone in the States, Polyfilla is a brand name in the UK for what you call spackling paste. So JavaScript libraries like jQuery spackled over the gaps in browsers.

But some capabilities can’t be polyfilled. If a browser doesn’t provide API access to a particular sensor, for example, there’s no way to spackle that gap.

For quite a while, if you wanted access to device APIs, you’d have to build a native app. But over time, that has changed. Now browsers are capable of providing app-like experiences. You can get location data. You can access the camera. You can provide notifications. You can even make websites work offline using service workers.

Native apps had all these capabilities before web browsers. Just as with Flash and jQuery, native apps pointed the way. The gap always looks insurmountable to begin with. But over time, the web always manages to catch up.

At the beginning of 2021, Ire said:

By the end of the year, I would predict that any major native mobile application could be instead built using native web capabilities.

The present

The web has come along way. It has grown and evolved. Browsers have become more and more powerful while maintaining backward compatibility.

In the past we had to hack our way around the technological limitations of the web and we had a long wish list of features we wanted.

I’m not saying we’re done. I’m sure that more features will keep coming. But our wish list has shrunk.

The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.

Today it is possible to create beautiful websites that make full use of colour, typography, layout, animation, and more. But this isn’t what users experience.

This is what users experience. A tedious frustrating game of whack-a-mole with websites that claim to value our privacy while asking us to relinquish it.

This is not a technical problem. It is a design decision. The decision might not be made by anyone with designer in their job title, but make no mistake, business decisions have a direct effect on user experience.

On the face of it, the problem seems to be with the business model of advertising. But that’s not quite right. To be more precise, the problem is with the business model of behavioural advertising. That relies on intermediaries to amass huge amounts of personal data so that they can supposedly serve up relevant advertising.

But contextual advertising, which serves up ads based on the content you’re looking at doesn’t require the invasive collection of personal data. And it works. Behavioural advertising, despite being a huge industry that depends on people giving up their privacy, doesn’t even work very well. And on the few occasions when it does work, it just feels creepy.

The problem is not advertising. The problem is tracking. The greatest trick the middlemen ever pulled was convincing us that you can’t have effective advertising without tracking. That is false. But they’ve managed to skew our sense of perspective so that invasive advertising seems inevitable.

Advertising was always possible on the web. You could publish anything and an ad is just one more thing you could choose to publish. But tracking was impossible. That’s because the early web was stateless. A browser requests a resource from a server and once that transaction is done, they both promptly forget about it. That made it very hard to do things like online shopping or logging into an account.

Two technologies were created later that enabled state on the web. Cookies and JavaScript. If these technologies had been limited to a same origin policy, they would have nicely solved the problems of online shopping and authentication.

But these technologies work across domains. Third party cookies and third-party JavaScript enables users to be tracked as they move from site to site. The web gone from having no state to having too much.

There is hope. Browsers like Firefox and Safari are blocking third-party cookies by default. Personally, I’d love it if third-party JavaScript got the same treatment. You can also install add-ons to make your browser more secure, although these add-ons are often labelled ad-blockers, which is a shame. Because the problem is not advertising. The problem is tracking.

Perhaps none of this applies to you anyway. You may be thinking that this is a problem for websites. But you build web apps.

Personally I’m not keen on the idea of dividing the entirety of the World Wide Web into two vaguely-defined categories. I have yet to hear a good definition of “web app” other than “a website that requires JavaScript to work.”

But the phrase “single page app” has a more definite meaning. It refers to an architectural decision. That decision is to reinvent the web browser inside a web browser.

In a sense, it’s a testament to the power of JavaScript that you can choose to do this. Browsers render content and perform navigations, but if you’d rather recreate that functionality from scratch in JavaScript, you can.

But should you? Browsers have increased in complexity so that we can build without complexity. We can use the built-in power of modern HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to make web browsers do the work. If we work with the grain of the web, we can accomplish more and more with less and less code.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead developers have recreated form controls like dropdowns and datepickers from scratch using divs and lashings and lashings of JavaScript.

Perhaps this points to some missing features on the web. It’s still too hard to style native dropdowns and datepickers (but that’s being worked on—there’s standards work underway to give us more styling control over form elements). But that doesn’t explain why developers would choose to recreate something like a button using divs and JavaScript when the button element already exists and can be styled any way you like.

I think there’s a certain mindset being applied to web development here. And that mindset comes from the world of software. Again, it’s a testament to how far the web has come that it can be treated as a software platform on par with operating systems like iOS, Android, or Windows. There’s a lot to be learned from the world of software development, like testing, for example. But the web is different. When a user navigates to a URL, it shouldn’t feel like they’re installing a piece of software.

We should be aiming to keep our payloads as small as possible. And given how powerful browsers have become, we need fewer and fewer dependencies—fewer and fewer polyfills.

But performance has gotten worse. Payloads have gotten bigger. Dependencies like JavaScript frameworks have become more and more widespread even as they became less and less necessary.

When asked to justify the enormous payloads, web developers have responded by saying that user’s expectations have changed. That is correct, but not in the way that I think they mean.

When I talk to people about using the web—especially on mobile—their expectations are that they will have a terrible experience. That websites will be slow to load. And I guarantee you that none of them are saying, “Well I’d be annoyed if this were a website but seeing as this is a web app, I’m absolutely fine with this terrible experience.”

I said that the biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges. I think the biggest challenge facing the web today is people’s expectations.

There is no technical reason for websites or web apps to be so frustrating. But we have collectively led people to expect a bad experience on the web.

Our intentions may be have good. We thought users wanted nice page transitions and form elements that were on-brand. But if you talk to people, you find out that what they want is to accomplish their task without megabytes of JavaScript getting in the way.

There’s a great German word, “Verschlimmbessern”: the act of making something worse in the attempt to make it better. Perhaps we verschlimmbessert the web.

Let’s step back. Get some perspective. Instead of assuming that a single page app architecture is needed, ask what users need to accomplish. Instead of assuming you need a CSS framework or a JavaScript library, see what you can do in browsers today with native CSS and vanilla JavaScript. Don’t include a bunch of dependencies by default just in case you might need them. Instead, as Rachel puts it:

Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.

Lean into what web browsers can accomplish today. If you find something missing, that’s the time to reach for a library …but treat it like a polyfill. Whereas web standards stick around, every library and framework comes with a limited lifespan. Treat them as cattle, not pets.

I understand that tools and frameworks can make your life easier. And if we’re talking about server-side frameworks, then I say “Go for it.” Or if you’re using build tools that sit on your computer to do version control, linting, pre-processing, or transpiling, then I say “Go for it.”

But once you make users download tools or frameworks, you’re making them pay a tax for your developer convenience.

We need to value user needs above developer convenience. If I have the choice of making something the user’s problem or making it my problem, I’ll make it my problem every time. That’s my job.

We need to change people’s expectations of the World Wide Web, especially on mobile. Otherwise, the web will be lost.

The future

Two years ago, I had the great honour of being invited to CERN to mark the 30th anniversary of the original proposal for the World Wide Web. One of the other people there was the journalist Zeynep Tüfekçi. She was on a panel along with Tim Berners-Lee and other luminaries of the early web. At the end of the panel discussion, she was asked:

What would you tell the next generation about how to use this wonderful tool?

She replied:

If you have something wonderful, if you do not defend it, you will lose it. If you do not defend the magic and the things that make it wonderful, it’s just not going to stay magical by itself.

I believe that we can save the web. I believe that we can change people’s expectations. We’ll do that by showing them what the web is capable of.

It sounds like a moonshot. But, y’know, moonshots aren’t made possible by astronauts. They’re made possible by people like Poppy Northcutt in mission control. Katherine Johnson running the numbers. And Margaret Hamilton inventing the field of software engineering to create the software for the lunar lander. Individual people working together on something bigger than any one person.

There’s a story told about the first time President Kennedy visited NASA. While he was a getting a tour of the place, he introduced himself to a janitor. And the president asked the janitor what he did. The janitor answered:

I’m helping put a man on the moon.

It’s the kind of story that’s trotted out by company bosses to make you feel good about having your labour exploited for the team. But that janitor’s loyalty wasn’t to NASA, an organisation. He was working for something bigger.

I encourage you to have that sense of perspective. Whatever company or organisation you happen to be working for right now, remember that you are building something bigger.

The future of the World Wide Web is in good hands. It’s in your hands.

HmntyCntrd | Critical UX Event

This looks like an excellent (and very reasonably-priced) online event happening on November 12th with three panels:

  1. beyond accessibility,
  2. failure of diversity, and
  3. design as resistance!

Sunday, October 31st, 2021

Four days

I had an extra long weekend recently. It was four days of being a culture vulture. It was also four days of ever-increasing risk assessment.

It began on Thursday morning with the first Salter Cane band practice in eighteen months. That was pretty safe—three of us in a room, reminding ourselves of how the songs go. I honestly thought it could’ve been a disaster and that I wouldn’t remember anything, but thanks to a little bit of last-minute revision the evening before, it actually went really well. And boy, did it feel good to plug in and play those songs again.

Later that day, Jessica went up to London. We spent that evening in the Royal Opera House, watching a ballet, The Dante Project. We wore masks. Not everyone else did.

Checked in at Royal Opera House. Ballet time! — with Jessica

The next day, the indoor gatherings continued. We went to the IMAX to see Dune. The opportunity was too good to pass up. It was wonderful! But again, while we wore masks for the duration, not everyone else did.

Checked in at ODEON BFI IMAX for Dune: The IMAX 2D Experience. D U N E — with Jessica

Still, I reckon the ventilation was reasonably good in both the Royal Opera House and the BFI’s IMAX cinema. But that evening we checked into the Clayton Crown Hotel in Cricklewood, venue for the Return To London Town festival of Irish traditional music.

Checked in at Clayton Crown Hotel. Return To London Town 🎶🎻 — with Jessica Checked in at Clayton Crown Hotel. Matt Molloy and Sean Keane 🎶 — with Jessica Checked in at Clayton Crown Hotel. Afternoon session 🎶☘️

That’s where we spent two days going to concerts, sessions, and workshops, all of them indoors. The music was great, and we had a lovely time, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of nervousness throughout.

When we got back to Brighton, we both took lateral flow tests—thank goodness that these are freely available! We were both negative. We had dodged a viral bullet.

That was the last trip out of town we’ll be making for a while. But even for Brighton-based activities, this is the routine now: weigh up the risks, decide whether an activity is worth it, and if so, testing afterwards.

For example, the week after our trip to London, the Wednesday evening Irish music session at The Jolly Brewer pub started up again here in Brighton. It was one of the things I missed most during The Situation.

I wrote about this at the very start of the first lockdown:

I’m quite certain that one positive outcome of The Situation will be a new-found appreciation for activities we don’t have to do. I’m looking forward to sitting in a pub with a friend or two, or going to see a band, or a play or a film, and just thinking “this is nice.”

I certainly did find myself thinking “this is nice” during the session, which was as wonderful as I had remembered. But I was also thinking about ventilation, and distancing, and airflow. Like I said:

Risks. Benefits. Running the numbers. Making decisions. Trying to do the right thing. Trying to stay safe but also trying to live life.