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Saturday, February 24th, 2018

Transparency and the AMP Project · Issue #13597 · ampproject/amphtml

Luke Stevens is trying to get untangle the very mixed signals being sent from different parts of Google around AMP’s goals. The response he got—before getting shut down—is very telling in its hubris and arrogance.

I believe the people working on the AMP format are well-intentioned, but I also believe they have conflated the best interests of Google with the best interests of the web.

Monday, February 19th, 2018

We need to an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms | WIRED UK

Russell Davies:

That’s the web I want; a place with spare corners where un-monetisable enthusiasms can be preserved, even if they’ve not been updated for seven years.

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

AMP: the missing controversy – Ferdy Christant

AMP pages aren’t fast because of the AMP format. AMP pages are fast when you visit one via Google search …because of Google’s monopoly on preloading:

Technically, a clever trick. It’s hard to argue with that. Yet I consider it cheating and anti competitive behavior.

Preloading is exclusive to AMP. Google does not preload non-AMP pages. If Google would have a genuine interest in speeding up the whole web on mobile, it could simply preload resources of non-AMP pages as well. Not doing this is a strong hint that another agenda is at work, to say the least.

AMPlified. — Ethan Marcotte

As of this moment, the power dynamics are skewed pretty severely in favor of Google’s proprietary AMP standard, and against those of us who’d ask this question:

What can I do about AMP?

The Two Faces of AMP - TimKadlec.com

So, to recap, the web community has stated over and over again that we’re not comfortable with Google incentivizing the use of AMP with search engine carrots. In response, Google has provided yet another search engine carrot for AMP.

This wouldn’t bother me if AMP was open about what it is: a tool for folks to optimize their search engine placement. But of course, that’s not the claim. The claim is that AMP is “for the open web.”

Spot on, Tim. Spot on.

If AMP is truly for the open web, de-couple it from Google search entirely. It has no business there.

Look, AMP, you’re either a tool for the open web, or you’re a tool for Google search. I don’t mind if you’re the latter, but please stop pretending you’re something else.

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

XML is 20

XML 1.0 was released on February 10th, 1998. I remember the hype around XML at the time—it was our saviour, the chosen one, prophesied to bring balance to data exchange. Things didn’t quite work out that way, but still…

Twenty years later, it seems obvious that the most important thing about XML is that it was the first. The first data format that anyone could pack anything up into, send across the network to anywhere, and unpack on the other end, without asking anyone’s permission or paying for software, or for the receiver to have to pay attention to what the producer thought they’d produced it for or what it meant.

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Seva Zaikov - Single Page Application Is Not a Silver Bullet

Harsh (but fair) assessment of the performance costs of doing everything on the client side.

Welcoming Progressive Web Apps to Microsoft Edge and Windows 10 - Microsoft Edge Dev BlogMicrosoft Edge Dev Blog

It’s really great to hear about how Microsoft will be promoting progressive web apps as first-class citizens …but it’s really unhelpful that they’re using this fudgy definition:

Progressive Web Apps are just great web sites that can behave like native apps—or, perhaps, Progressive Web Apps are just great apps, powered by Web technologies and delivered with Web infrastructure.

Although they also give a more technical definition:

Technologically speaking, PWAs are web apps, progressively enhanced with modern web technologies (Service Worker, Fetch networking, Cache API, Push notifications, Web App Manifest) to provide a more app-like experience.

Nice try, slipping notifications in there like that, but no. No, no, no. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that one of the most annoying “features” of native apps is even desirable on the web.

If you want to use notifications, fine. But they are absolutely not a requirement for a progressive web app.

(A responsive design, on the other hand, totally is.)

Friday, February 9th, 2018

Workers at Your Service | WebKit

Here’s an interesting insight on how WebKit is going to handle the cleanup of unused service workers and caches:

Service worker and Cache API stored information will grow as a user is browsing content. To keep only the stored information that is useful to the user, WebKit will remove unused service worker registrations after a period of a few weeks. Caches that do not get opened after a few weeks will also be removed.

Href Tools - Free online web tools

Handy web-based tools—compress HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, and convert files from one format to another.

Monday, January 22nd, 2018

Bad Month for the Main Thread - daverupert.com

JavaScript is CPU intensive and the CPU is the bottleneck for performance.

I’m on Team Dave.

But darn it all, I just want to build modular websites using HTML and a little bit of JavaScript.

Saturday, January 20th, 2018

Needs must

I got a follow-up comment to my follow-up post about the follow-up comment I got on my original post about Google Analytics. Keep up.

I made the point that, from a front-end performance perspective, server logs have no impact whereas a JavaScript-based analytics solution must have some impact on the end user. Paul Anthony says:

Google won the analytics war because dropping one line of JS in the footer and handing a tried and tested interface to customers is an obvious no brainer in comparison to setting up an open source option that needs a cron job to parse the files, a database to store the results and doesn’t provide mobile interface.

Good point. Dropping one snippet of JavaScript into your front-end codebase is certainly an easier solution …easier for you, that is. The cost is passed on to your users. This is a classic example of where user needs and developer needs are in opposition. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:

Given the choice between making something my problem, and making something the user’s problem, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

It’s true that this often means doing more work. That’s why it’s called work. This is literally what our jobs are supposed to entail: we put in the work to make life easier for users. We’re supposed to be saving them time, not passing it along.

The example of Google Analytics is pretty extreme, I’ll grant you. The cost to the user of adding that snippet of JavaScript—if you’ve configured things reasonably well—is pretty small (again, just from a performance perspective; there’s still the cost of allowing Google to track them across domains), and the cost to you of setting up a comparable analytics system based on server logs can indeed be disproportionately high. But this tension between user needs and developer needs is something I see play out again and again.

I’ve often thought the HTML design principle called the priority of constituencies could be adopted by web developers:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors.

In Resilient Web Design, I documented the three-step approach I take when I’m building anything on the web:

  1. Identify core functionality.
  2. Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
  3. Enhance!

Now I’m wondering if I should’ve clarified that second step further. When I talk about choosing “the simplest possible technology”, what I mean is “the simplest possible technology for the user”, not “the simplest possible technology for the developer.”

For example, suppose I were going to build a news website. The core functionality is fairly easy to identify: providing the news. Next comes the step where I choose the simplest possible technology. Now, if I were a developer who had plenty of experience building JavaScript-driven single page apps, I might conclude that the simplest route for me would be to render the news via JavaScript. But that would be a fragile starting point if I’m trying to reach as many people as possible (I might well end up building a swishy JavaScript-driven single page app in step three, but step two should almost certainly be good ol’ HTML).

Time and time again, I see decisions that favour developer convenience over user needs. Don’t get me wrong—as a developer, I absolutely want developer convenience …but not at the expense of user needs.

I know that “empathy” is an over-used word in the world of user experience and design, but with good reason. I think we should try to remind ourselves of why we make our architectural decisions by invoking who those decisions benefit. For example, “This tech stack is best option for our team”, or “This solution is the best for the widest range of users.” Then, given the choice, favour user needs in the decision-making process.

There will always be situations where, given time and budget constraints, we end up choosing solutions that are easier for us, but not the best for our users. And that’s okay, as long as we acknowledge that compromise and strive to do better next time.

But when the best solutions for us as developers become enshrined as the best possible solutions, then we are failing the people we serve.

That doesn’t mean we must become hairshirt-wearing martyrs; developer convenience is important …but not as important as user needs. Start with user needs.

Friday, January 19th, 2018

Heisenberg

I wrote about Google Analytics yesterday. As usual, I syndicated the post to Ev’s blog, and I got an interesting response over there. Kelly Burgett set me straight on some of the finer details of how goals work, and finished with this thought:

You mention “delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough” as if it should be, and I have to disagree. It’s not enough for a business to simply have a great website if you are unable to understand performance of channel marketing, track user demographics and behavior on-site, and optimize your site/brand based on that data. I’ve seen a lot of ugly sites who have done exceptionally well in terms of ROI, simply because they are getting the data they need from the site in order make better business decisions. If your site cannot do that (ie. through data collection, often third party scripts), then your beautifully-designed site can only take you so far.

That makes an excellent case for having analytics. But that’s not necessarily the same as having Google analytics, or even JavaScript-driven analytics at all.

By far the most useful information you get from analytics is around where people have come from, where did they go next, and what kind of device are they using. None of that information requires JavaScript. It’s all available from your server logs.

I don’t want to come across all old-man-yell-at-cloud here, but I’m trying to remember at what point self-hosted software for analysing your log traffic became not good enough.

Here’s the thing: logging on the server has no effect on the user experience. It’s basically free, in terms of performance. Logging via JavaScript, by its very nature, has some cost. Even if its negligible, that’s one more request, and that’s one more bit of processing for the CPU.

All of the data that you can only get via JavaScript (in-page actions, heat maps, etc.) are, in my experience, better handled by dedicated software. To me, that kind of more precise data feels different to analytics in the sense of funnels, conversions, goals and all that stuff.

So in order to get more fine-grained data to analyse, our analytics software has now doubled down on a technology—JavaScript—that has an impact on the end user, where previously the act of observation could be done at a distance.

There are also blind spots that come with JavaScript-based tracking. According to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers don’t have JavaScript. That’s not necessarily true, but there’s literally no way for Google Analytics—which relies on JavaScript—to even do its job in the absence of JavaScript. That can lead to a dangerous situation where you might be led to think that 100% of your potential customers are getting by, when actually a proportion might be struggling, but you’ll never find out about it.

Related: according to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers are using ad-blockers that block requests to Google’s servers. Again, that’s not necessarily a true fact.

So I completely agree than analytics are a good thing to have for your business. But it does not follow that Google Analytics is a good thing for your business. Other options are available.

I feel like the assumption that “analytics = Google Analytics” is like the slippery slope in reverse. If we’re all agreed that analytics are important, then aren’t we also all agreed that JavaScript-based tracking is important?

In a word, no.

This reminds me of the arguments made in favour of intrusive, bloated advertising scripts. All of the arguments focus on the need for advertising—to stay in business, to pay the writers—which are all great reasons for advertising, but have nothing to do with JavaScript, which is at the root of the problem. Everyone I know who uses an ad-blocker—including me—doesn’t use it to stop seeing adverts, but to stop the performance of the page being degraded (and to avoid being tracked across domains).

So let’s not confuse the means with the ends. If you need to have advertising, that doesn’t mean you need to have horribly bloated JavaScript-based advertising. If you need analytics, that doesn’t mean you need an analytics script on your front end.

Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Finding Dead CSS – CSS Wizardry

Here’s a clever idea from Harry if you’re willing to play the long game in tracking down redundant CSS—add a transparent background image to the rule block and then sit back and watch your server logs for any sign of that sleeper agent ever getting activated.

If you do find entries for that particular image, you know that, somehow, the legacy feature is potentially still accessible—the number of entries should give you a clue as to how severe the problem might be.

Analysing analytics

Hell is other people’s JavaScript.

There’s nothing quite so crushing as building a beautifully performant website only to have it infested with a plague of third-party scripts that add to the weight of each page and reduce the responsiveness, making a mockery of your well-considered performance budget.

Trent has been writing about this:

My latest realization is that delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough: I also need to consider the impact of third-party scripts.

He’s started the process by itemising third-party scripts. Frustratingly though, there’s rarely one single culprit that you can point to—it’s the cumulative effect of “just one more beacon” and “just one more analytics script” and “just one more A/B testing tool” that adds up to a crappy experience that warms your user’s hands by ensuring your site is constantly draining their battery.

Actually, having just said that there’s rarely one single culprit, Adobe Tag Manager is often at the root of third-party problems. That and adverts. It’s like opening the door of your beautifully curated dream home, and inviting a pack of diarrhetic elephants in: “Please, crap wherever you like.”

But even the more well-behaved third-party scripts can get out of hand. Google Analytics is so ubiquitous that it’s hardly even considered in the list of potentially harmful third-party scripts. On the whole, it’s a fairly well-behaved citizen of your site’s population of third-party scripts (y’know, leaving aside the whole surveillance capitalism business model that allows you to use such a useful tool for free in exchange for Google tracking your site’s visitors across the web and selling the insights from that data to advertisers).

The initial analytics script that you—asynchronously—load into your page isn’t very big. But depending on how you’ve configured your Google Analytics account, that might just be the start of a longer chain of downloads and event handlers.

Ed recently gave a lunchtime presentation at Clearleft on using Google Analytics—he professes modesty but he really knows his stuff. He was making sure that everyone knew how to set up goals’n’stuff.

As I understand it, there are two main categories of goals: events and destinations (there are also durations and pages, but they feel similar to destinations). You use events to answer questions like “Did the user click on this button?” or “Did the user click on that search field?”. You use destinations to answer questions like “Did the user arrive at this page?” or “Did the user come from that page?”

You can add as many goals to your site’s analytics as you want. That’s an intoxicating offer. The problem is that there is potentially a cost for each goal you create. It’s an invisible cost. It’s paid by the user in the currency of JavaScript sent down the wire (I wish that the Google Analytics admin interface were more like the old interface for Google Fonts, where each extra file you added literally pushed a needle higher on a dial).

It strikes me that the event-based goals would necessarily require more JavaScript in order to listen out for those clicks and fire off that information. The destination-based goals should be able to get all the information needed from regular page navigations.

So I have a hypothesis. I think that destination-based goals are less harmful to performance than event-based goals. I might well be wrong about that, and if I am, please let me know.

With that hypothesis in mind, and until I learn otherwise, I’ve got two rules of thumb to offer when it comes to using Google Analytics:

  1. Try to keep the number of goals to a minimum.
  2. If you must create a goal, favour destinations over events.

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Third-Party Scripts | CSS-Tricks

Hell is other people’s JavaScript.

Third-party scripts are probably the #1 cause of poor performance and bad UX on the web.

Tuesday, January 9th, 2018

AMP letter

I signed this open letter.

We are a community of individuals who have a significant interest in the development and health of the World Wide Web (“the Web”), and we are deeply concerned about Accelerated Mobile Pages (“AMP”), a Google project that purportedly seeks to improve the user experience of the Web.

Improving URLs for AMP pages – Accelerated Mobile Pages Project

Good news! Google will graciously allow non-Google-hosted AMP pages to get the AMP blessing in search results.

Bad news! It requires publishers to package up their AMP pages in a new packaging format that browsers don’t support yet.

Saturday, January 6th, 2018

A Sliding Nightmare: Understanding the Range Input | CSS-Tricks

Ana goes into exhaustive detail on all the differences in the shadow DOM and styling of input type="range" across browsers.

I’m totally fine with browsers providing different styling for complex UI elements like this, but I wish they’d at least provide a consistent internal structure and therefore a consistent way of over-riding the default styles. Maybe then people wouldn’t be so quick to abandon native elements like this in favour building their own UI components from scratch—the kind of over-engineering that inevitably ends up being under-engineered.

Wednesday, January 3rd, 2018

A Browser You’ve Never Heard of Is Dethroning Google in Asia - WSJ

I’m always happy to see a thriving market of competition amongst browsers—we had a browser monopoly once before and it was a bad situation.

(That said, UC Browser has its own issues.)