2019 in numbers
I posted to adactio.com 1,600 times in 2019:
In amongst those notes were:
If you like, you can watch all that activity plotted on a map.
Away from this website in 2019:
I posted to adactio.com 1,600 times in 2019:
In amongst those notes were:
If you like, you can watch all that activity plotted on a map.
Away from this website in 2019:
Here are eight posts from during the year that I think are a good representative sample. I like how these turned out.
I hope that I’ll write as many blog posts in 2020.
I’m pretty sure that I will also continue to refer to them as blog posts, not blogs. I may be the last holdout of this nomenclature in 2020. I never planned to die on this hill, but here we are.
Actually, seeing as this is technically my journal rather than my blog, I’ll just call them journal entries.
Here’s to another year of journal entries.
I managed to do a bit of liveblogging during the event. Combined with the liveblogging I did during the other two Events Apart that I attended this year—Seattle and Chicago—that makes a grand total of seventeen liveblogged presentations!
For my part, I gave my talk on Going Offline. Time to retire that talk now.
Here’s what I wrote when I first gave the talk back in March at An Event Apart Seattle:
I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.
The dates for next year’s Events Apart have been announced, and I’ll be speaking at three of them:
The question is, do I attempt to deliver another practical code-based talk or do I go back to giving a high-level talk about ideas and principles? Or, if I really want to challenge myself, can I combine the two into one talk without making a Frankenstein’s monster?
Come and see me at An Event Apart in 2020 to find out.
You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.
I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…
“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.
When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.
Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.
He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:
Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.
Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.
How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.
Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.
How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.
Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.
Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?
You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.
Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:
Embrace the snowflakes.
The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.
When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.
The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.
Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.
So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.
It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.
The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.
Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.
You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.
What does it mean to “launch” a design system?
A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.
There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:
Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.
Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.
Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.
A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.
What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.
That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.
This is hard.
You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.
Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.
Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.
Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!
There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.
Mina was once talking to a product designer about design systems and was getting excited. The product designer said, nonplussed, “Aren’t you an engineer? Why do you care?” Mina explained that she loved design systems. The product designer said “Y’know, design systems should really be run by designers” and walked away.
Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.
Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.
The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.
What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.
Mina hears this one a lot. It’s intertwined with some other myths: that design systems don’t work for editorial content, and that design systems are just a collection of components.
Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.
But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.
Design systems encompass more than components:
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.
For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.
It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:
There’s a time and place for both—illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.
Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.
If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.
There are strict and loose systems.
Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.
A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:
Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.
A good design sytem helps you improvise.
Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.
Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.
A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.
Brad guffaws at this one.
Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.
“Later” is a mythical creature—a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.
Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.
Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.
The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…
At a previous company, Mina once put a design system on the product roadmap because she saw it wasn’t getting the attention it needed. The answer came back: nah. Mina was annoyed. She had tried to “just do it” and now when she tried to do it through the right channels, she’s told she can’t.
But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.
A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.
Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”
A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.
The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).
It’s great that there are so many public design systems out there to look to and get inspired by. We can learn from them. “Let’s do that!”
But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.
Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.
Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:
But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.
Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.
When you think about design systems, everything is nice and neat and orderly. So you make one. Then you look at someone else’s design system. Your expectations don’t match the reality. Looking at these fully-fledged design systems is like comparing Instagram to real life.
The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.
The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.
For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.
Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.
Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.
Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.
Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.
Yesterday was the discussion day. Most of the attendees were seasoned indie web campers, so quite a few of the discussions went deep on some of the building blocks. It was a good opportunity to step back and reappraise technology decisions.
Today is the day for making, tinkering, fiddling, and hacking. I had a few different ideas of what to do, mostly around showing additional context on my blog posts. I could, for instance, show related posts—other blog posts (or links) that have similar tags attached to them.
But I decided that a nice straightforward addition would be to show a kind of “on this day” context. After all, I’ve been writing blog posts here for eighteen years now; chances are that if I write a blog post on any given day, there will be something in the archives from that same day in previous years.
So that’s what I’ve done. I’ll be demoing it shortly here at Indie Web Camp, but you can see it in action now. If you look at the page for this blog post, you should see a section at the end with the heading “Previously on this day”. There you’ll see links to other posts I’ve written on December 8th in years gone by.
It’s quite a mixed bag. There’s a post about when I used to have a webcam from sixteen years ago. There’s a report from the Flash On The Beach conference from thirteen years ago (I wrote that post while I was in Berlin). And five years ago, I was writing about markup patterns for web components.
I don’t know if anyone other than me will find this feature interesting (but as it’s my website, I don’t really care). Personally, I find it fascinating to see how my writing has changed, both in terms of subject matter and tone.
Needless to say, the further back in time you go, the more chance there is that the links in my blog posts will no longer work. That’s a real shame. But then it’s a pleasant surprise when I find something that I linked to that is still online after all this time. And I can take comfort from the fact that if anyone has ever linked to anything I’ve written on my website, then those links still work.
Earlier this year, I wrote about an accessibility issue I was having on The Session. Specifically, it was an issue with Ajax and pagination. But I managed to sort it out, and the lesson was very clear:
As is so often the case, the issue was with me trying to be too clever with ARIA, and the solution was to ease up on adding so many ARIA attributes.
Wherever the pagination pattern appears, there are “previous” and “next” links, marked up with the appropriate
rel="next" attributes. Well, apparently past me thought it would be clever to add some ARIA attributes in there too. My thinking must’ve been something like this:
aria-controls="results"to those links.
That was the problem …which is kind of weird, because VoiceOver isn’t supposed to have any support for
aria-controls. Anyway, once I removed that attribute from the links, everything worked just fine.
Just as the solution last time was to remove the
aria-atomic attribute on the updated area, the solution this time was to remove the
aria-controls attribute on the links that trigger the update. Maybe this time I’ll learn my lesson: don’t mess with ARIA attributes you don’t understand.
I know the anxiety of sharing something with the world. I know there is a pressure to match the quality we see elsewhere on the web. But maybe we should stop trying to live up to somebody else’s standards and focus on just getting stuff out there instead. Maybe our “imperfect” things are already helpful to someone. Maybe this shouldn’t be so hard.
It’s nice to see that the Chrome browser will add interface enhancements to show whether you can expect a site to load fast or slowly.
Just a shame that the Google search team aren’t doing this kind of badging …unless you’ve given up on your website and decided to use Google AMP instead.
Maybe the Chrome team can figure out what the AMP team are doing to get such preferential treatment from the search team.
This looks like a nice way to get a blog up and running:
Blot turns a folder into a blog. Drag-and-drop ﬁles inside to publish. Images, text ﬁles, Word Documents, Markdown and more become blog posts automatically.
It came to my attention after writing my blog post about how we choose the web we want that the pessimism is about not being able to make a living from blogging.
Brent gives an in-depth response to this concern about not making a living from blogging. It’s well worth a read. I could try to summarise it, but I think it’s better if you read the whole thing for yourself.
You can entertain, you can have fun, you can push the boundaries of the form, if you want to. Or you can just write about cats as you develop your voice. Whatever you want!
I couldn’t agree more with this sentiment:
You choose the web you want. But you have to do the work.
A lot of people are doing the work. You could keep telling them, discouragingly, that what they’re doing is dead. Or you could join in the fun.
As a resident of Brighton—home to the most beautiful of bandstands—this bit of background to their history is fascinating.
A few years ago, a good friend of Patty’s had a medical diagnosis that required everyone to pull together. Another friend shared an article about how not to say the wrong thing. This is ring theory. In a moment of crisis, the person involved is in the centre. You need to understand where you are in this ring structure, and only ever help and comfort inwards and dump concerns and problems outwards.
At the same time, Patty spent time with her family at the beach. Everyone reads the same books together. There was a book about a platoon leader in Vietnam. 80% of the story was literally a litany of stuff—what everyone was carrying. This was peppered with the psychic and emotional loads that they were carrying.
There was a common assertion that slow networks were a third-world challenge. Remember Facebook’s network challenges? They always talked about new markets in India and Africa. The implication is that this isn’t our problem in, say, Omaha or New York.
Pew Research provided updated data this year. The research shows an increase in those trends. Half of the population access the web primarily on mobile. The cost of a broadband subscription is too expensive for many people. Sometimes broadband access simply isn’t available.
There’s a term called “the homework gap.” Two thirds of teachers assign broadband-dependent homework, while one third of students have no access to broadband.
At most 37% of people have unlimited data. Most people run out of data on a frequent basis.
Speed also varies wildly. 4G doesn’t really mean anything. The data is all over the place.
This shows that network issues are definitely not just a third world challenge.
On the 25th anniversary of the web, Tim Berners-Lee said the web’s potential was only just beginning to be glimpsed. Everyone has a role to play to ensure that the web serves all of humanity. In his contract for the web, Tim outlined what governments, companies, and users need to do. This reminded Patty of ring theory. The user is at the centre. Designers and developers are in the next circle out. Then there’s the circle of companies. Then there are platforms, browsers, and frameworks. Finally there’s the outer circle of governments.
There’s no way for a user to know before clicking a link how big and bloated the page is going to be. Even if they abandon the page load, they’ve still used (and wasted) a lot of data.
Third party scripts—like ads—are really bad at dumping in (to use the ring theory model). The best practices for ads suggest that up to 100 additional HTTP requests is totally acceptable. Unbelievable! It doesn’t matter how performant you’ve made a site when this crap gets piled on top of it.
In 2018, the internet’s data centres alone may already have had the same carbon footprint as all global air travel. This will probably triple in the next seven years. The amount of carbon it takes to train a single AI algorithm is more than the entire life cycle of a car. Then there’s fucking Bitcoin. A single Bitcoin transaction could power 21 US households. It is designed to use—specifically, waste—more and more energy over time.
What should we be doing?
Accessibility should be at the heart of what we build. Plan, test, educate, and advocate. If advocacy doesn’t work, fear can be a motivator. There’s an increase in accessibility lawsuits.
Our websites should be as light as possible. Ask, measure, monitor, and optimise. RequestMap is a great tool for visualising requests. You can see the size and scale of third-party requests. You can also see when images are far, far bigger than they need to be.
Take a critical guide to everything and pare everything down. Set perforance budgets—file size budgets, for example. Optimise images, subset custom fonts, lazyload images and videos, get third-party tools out of the critical path (or out completely), and seek out lighter frameworks.
Push the boundaries. See the amazing work that Adrian Holovaty did with Soundslice. He had to make on-the-fly sheet music generation work on old iPads that musicians like to use. He recommends keeping old devices around to see how poorly your product is working on it.
If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.
Jason is on stage at An Event Apart Chicago in a tuxedo. He wants to talk about how we can make web forms magical. Oh, I see. That explains the get-up.
We’re always being told to make web forms shorter. Luke Wroblewski has highlighted the work of companies that have reduced form fields and increased conversion.
But what if we could get rid of forms altogether? Wouldn’t that be magical!
Jason will reveal the secrets to this magic. But first—a volunteer from the audience, please! Please welcome Joe to the stage.
Joe will now log in on a phone. He types in the username. Then the password. The password is hodge-podge of special characters, numbers and upper and lowercase letters. Joe starts typing. Jason takes the phone and logs in without typing anything!
The secret: Jason was holding an NFC security key in his hand. That works with a new web standard called WebAuthn.
Passwords are terrible. People share them across sites, but who can blame them? It’s hard to remember lots of passwords. The only people who love usernames and passwords are hackers. So sites are developing other methods to try to keep people secure. Two factor authentication helps, although it doesn’t help us with phishing attacks. The hacker gets the password from the phished user …and then gets the one-time code from the phished user too.
But a physical device like a security key solves this problem. So why aren’t we all using security keys (apart from the fear of losing the key)? Well, until WebAuthn, there wasn’t a way for websites to use the keys.
A web server generates a challenge—a long string—that gets sent to a website and passed along to the user. The user’s device generates a credential ID and public and private keys for that domain. The web site stores the public key and credential ID. From then on, the credential ID is used by the website in challenges to users logging in.
There were three common ways that we historically proved who we claimed to be.
These are factors of identification. So two-factor identification is the combination of any of those two. If you use a security key combined with a fingerprint scanner, there’s no need for passwords.
The browser support for the web authentication API (WebAuthn) is a bit patchy right now but you can start playing around with it.
There are a few other options for making logging in faster. There’s the Credential Management API. It allows someone to access passwords stored in their browser’s password manager. But even though it’s newer, there’s actually better browser support for WebAuthn than Credential Management.
Then there’s federated login, or social login. Jason has concerns about handing over log-in to a company like Facebook, Twitter, or Google, but then again, it means fewer passwords. As a site owner, there’s actually a lot of value in not storing log-in information—you won’t be accountable for data breaches. The problem is that you’ve got to decide which providers you’re going to support.
Also keep third-party password managers in mind. These tools—like 1Password—are great. In iOS they’re now nicely integrated at the operating system level, meaning Safari can use them. Finally it’s possible to log in to websites easily on a phone …until you encounter a website that prevents you logging in this way. Some websites get far too clever about detecting autofilled passwords.
Time for another volunteer from the audience. This is Tyler. Tyler will help Jason with a simple checkout form. Shipping information, credit card information, and so on. Jason will fill out this form blindfolded. Tyler will first verify that the dark goggles that Jason will be wearing don’t allow him to see the phone screen. Jason will put the goggles on and Tyler will hand him the phone with the checkout screen open.
Jason dons the goggles. Tyler hands him the phone. Jason does something. The form is filled in and submitted!
What was the secret? The goggles prevented Jason from seeing the phone …but they didn’t prevent the screen from seeing Jason. The goggles block everything but infrared. The iPhone uses infrared for Face ID. So the iPhone, it just looked like Jason was wearing funky sunglasses. Face ID then triggered the Payment Request API.
The Payment Request API allows us to use various payment methods that are built in to the operating system, but without having to make separate implementations for each payment method. The site calls the Payment Request API if it’s supported (use feature detection and progressive enhancement), then trigger the payment UI in the browser. The browser—not the website!—then makes a call to the payment processing provider e.g. Stripe.
E-commerce sites using the Payment Request API have seen a big drop in abandonment and a big increase in completed payments. The browser support is pretty good, especially on mobile. And remember, you can use it as a progressive enhancement. It’s kind of weird that we don’t encounter it more often—it’s been around for a few years now.
Jason read the fine print for Apple Pay, Google Pay, Microsoft Pay, and Samsung Pay. It doesn’t like there’s anything onerous in there that would stop you using them.
On some phones, you can now scan credit cards using the camera. This is built in to the operating system so as a site owner, you’ve just got to make sure not to break it. It’s really an extension of autofill. You should know what values the
autocomplete attribute can take. There are 48 different values; it’s not just for checkouts. When users use autofill, they fill out forms 30% faster. So make sure you don’t put obstacles in the way of autofill in your forms.
Jason proceeds to relate a long and involved story about buying burritos online from Chipotle. The upshot is: use the
pattern attributes correctly on
input elements. Test autofill with your forms. Make it part of your QA process.
So, to summarise, here’s how you make your forms disappear:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
—Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law
Don’t our users deserve magical experiences?
Successful voice interfaces aren’t necessarily solving new problems. They’re used to solve problems that other devices have already solved. Think about kitchen timers. There are lots of ways to set a timer. Your oven might have one. Your phone has one. Why use a $200 device to solve this mundane problem? Same goes for listening to music, news, and weather.
People are using voice interfaces for solving ordinary problems. Why? Context matters. If you’re carrying a toddler, then setting a kitchen timer can be tricky so a voice-activated timer is quite appealing. But why is voice is happening now?
Humans have been developing the art of conversation for thousands of years. It’s one of the first skills we learn. It’s deeply instinctual. Most humans use speach instinctively every day. You can’t necessarily say that about using a keyboard or a mouse.
Voice-based user interfaces are not new. Not just the idea—which we’ve seen in Star Trek—but the actual implementation. Bell Labs had Audrey back in 1952. It recognised ten words—the digits zero through nine. Why did it take so long to get to Alexa?
In the late 70s, DARPA issued a challenge to create a voice-activated system. Carnagie Mellon came up with Harpy (with a thousand word grammar). But none of the solutions could respond in real time. In conversation, we expect a break of no more than 200 or 300 milliseconds.
In the 1980s, computing power couldn’t keep up with voice technology, so progress kind of stopped. Time passed. Things finally started to catch up in the 90s with things like Dragon Naturally Speaking. But that was still about vocabulary, not grammar. By the 2000s, small grammars were starting to show up—starting an X-Box or pausing Netflix. In 2008, Google Voice Search arrived on the iPhone and natural language interaction began to arrive.
What makes natural language interactions so special? It requires minimal training because it uses the conversational muscles we’ve been working for a lifetime. It unlocks the ability to have more forgiving, less robotic conversations with devices. There might be ten different ways to set a timer.
Natural language interactions can also free us from “screen magnetism”—that tendency to stay on a device even when our original task is complete. Voice also enables fast and forgiving searches of huge catalogues without time spent typing or browsing. You can pick a needle straight out of a haystack.
Natural language interactions are excellent for older customers. These interfaces don’t intimidate people without dexterity, vision, or digital experience. Voice input often leads to more inclusive experiences. Many customers with visual or physical disabilities can’t use traditional graphical interfaces. Voice experiences throw open the door of opportunity for some people. However, voice experience can exclude people with speech difficulties.
There’s a misconception that you need to work at Amazon, Google, or Apple to work on a voice interface, or at least that you need to have a big product team. But Cheryl was able to make her first Alexa “skill” in a week. If you’re a web developer, you’re good to go. Your voice “interaction model” is just JSON.
How do you get your product team on board? Find the customers (and situations) you might have excluded with traditional input. Tell the stories of people whose hands are full, or who are vision impaired. You can also point to the adoption rate numbers for smart speakers.
You’ll need to show your scenario in context. Otherwise people will ask, “why can’t we just build an app for this?” Conduct research to demonstrate the appeal of a voice interface. Storyboarding is very useful for visualising the context of use and highlighting existing pain points.
You’ve got to understand how the technology works in order to adapt to how it fails. Here are a few basic concepts.
Utterance. A word, phrase, or sentence spoken by a customer. This is the true form of what the customer provides.
Intent. This is the meaning behind a customer’s request. This is an important distinction because one intent could have thousands of different utterances.
Prompt. The text of a system response that will be provided to a customer. The audio version of a prompt, if needed, is generated separately using text to speech.
Grammar. A finite set of expected utterances. It’s a list. Usually, each entry in a grammar is paired with an intent. Many interfaces start out as being simple grammars before moving on to a machine-learning model later once the concept has been proven.
Here’s the general idea with “artificial intelligence”…
There’s a human with a core intent to do something in the real world, like knowing when the cookies in the oven are done. This is translated into an intent like, “set a 15 minute timer.” That’s the utterance that’s translated into a string. But it hasn’t yet been parsed as language. That string is passed into a natural language understanding system. What comes is a data structure that represents the customers goal e.g. intent=timer; duration=15 minutes. That’s sent to the business logic where a timer is actually step. For a good voice interface, you also want to send back a response e.g. “setting timer for 15 minutes starting now.”
That seems simple enough, right? What’s so hard about designing for voice?
Natural language interfaces are a form of artifical intelligence so it’s not deterministic. There’s a lot of ruling out false positives. Unlike graphical interfaces, voice interfaces are driven by probability.
How do you turn a sound wave into an understandable instruction? It’s a lot like teaching a child. You feed a lot of data into a statistical model. That’s how machine learning works. It’s a probability game. That’s where it gets interesting for design—given a bunch of possible options, we need to use context to zero in on the most correct choice. This is where confidence ratings come in: the system will return the probability that a response is correct. Effectively, the system is telling you how sure or not it is about possible results. If the customer makes a request in an unusual or unexpected way, our system is likely to guess incorrectly. That’s because the system is being given something new.
Designing a conversation is relatively straightforward. But 80% of your voice design time will be spent designing for what happens when things go wrong. In voice recognition, edge cases are front and centre.
Here’s another challenge. Interaction with most voice interfaces is part conversation, part performance. Most interactions are not private.
Humans don’t distinguish digital speech fom human speech. That means these devices are intrinsically social. Our brains our wired to try to extract social information, even form digital speech. See, for example, why it’s such a big question as to what gender a voice interface has.
Storyboards help depict the context of use. Sample dialogues are your new wireframes. These are little scripts that not only cover the happy path, but also your edge case. Then you reverse engineer from there.
Flow diagrams communicate customer states, but don’t use the actual text in them.
Prompt lists are your final deliverable.
Functional prototypes are really important for voice interfaces. You’ll learn the real way that customers will ask for things.
If you build a working prototype, you’ll be building two things: a natural language interaction model (often a JSON file) and custom business logic (in a programming language).
Eventually voice design will become a core competency, much like mobile, which was once separate.
Ask yourself what tasks your customers complete on your site that feel clunkly. Remember that voice desing is almost never about new scenarious. Start your journey into voice interfaces by tackling old problems in new, more inclusive ways.
May the voice be with you!
Research gets done …and then sits in a report, gathering dust.
Research matters. But how do we make it count? We need allies. Maybe we need more money. Perhaps we need more participation from people not on the product team.
If you’re doing real research on a schedule, sharing it on a regular basis, making people’s eyes light up …then you’ve won!
Research counts when it answers questions that people care about. But you probably don’t want to directly ask “Hey, what questions do you want answered?”
Research can explain oddities in analytics weird feedback from customers, unexpected uses of products, and strange hunches (not just your own).
Curious people with power are the most useful ones to influence. Not just hierarchical power. Engineers often have a lot of power. So ask, “Who is the most curious engineer, and how can I drag them out on a research session with me?”
At 18F, Cyd found that a lot of the nodes of power were in the mid level of the organisation who had been there a while—they know a lot of people up and down the chain. If you can get one of those people excited about research, they can spread it.
Open up your practice. Demystify it. Put as much effort into communicating as into practicing. Create opportunities for people to ask questions and learn.
You can think about communities of practice in the obvious way: people who do similar things to us, and other people who make design decisions. But really, everyone in the organisation is affected by design decisions.
Cyd likes to do office hours. People can come by and ask questions. You could open a Slack channel. You can run brown bag lunches to train people in basic user research techniques. In more conventional organisations, a newsletter is a surprisingly effective tool for sharing the latest findings from research. And use your walls to show work in progress.
Research counts when people can see it for themselves—not just when it’s reported from afar. Ask yourself: who in your organisation is disconnected from their user? It’s difficult for people to maintain their motivation in that position.
When someone has been in the field with you, the data doesn’t have to be explained.
Whoever’s curious. Whoever’s disconnected. Invite them along. Show them what you’re doing.
Think about the qualities of a good invitation (for a party, say). Make the rules clear. Make sure they want to come back. Design the experience of observing research. Make sure everyone has tools. Give everyone a responsibility. Be like Willy Wonka—he gave clear rules to the invitied guests. And sure, things didn’t go great when people broke the rules, but at the end, everyone still went home with the truckload of chocolate they were promised.
People who get to ask a question buy in to the results. Those people feel a sense of ownership for the research.
Research counts when methods fit the question. Think about what the right question is and how you might go about answering it.
You can mix your methods. Interviews. Diary studies. Card sorting. Shadowing. You can ground the user research in competitor analysis.
Back in 2008, Cyd was contacted by a company who wanted to know: how do people really use phones in their cars? Cyd’s team would ride along with people, interviewing them, observing them, taking pictures and video.
Later at the federal government, Cyd was asked: what are the best practices for government digital transformation? How to answer that? It’s so broad! Interviews? Who knows what?
They refined the question: what makes modern digital practices stick within a government entity? They looked at what worked when companies were going online, so see if there was anything that government could learn from. Then they created a set of really focused interview questions. What does digital transformation mean? How do you know when you’re done? What are the biggest obstacles to this work? How do you make changes last?
They used atechnique called cluster recruiting to figure out who else to talk to (by asking participants who else they should be talking to).
There is no one research method that will always work for you. Cutting the right corners at the right time lets you be fast and cheap. Cyd’s bare-bones research kit costs about $20: a notebook, a pen, a consent form, and the price of a cup of coffee. She also created a quick score sheet for when she’s not in a position to have research transcribed.
Always label your assumptions before beginning your research. Maybe you’re assuming that something is a frustrating experience that needs fixing, but it might emerge that it doesn’t need fixing—great! You’ve just saved a whole lotta money.
Research counts when researchers tell the story well. Synthesis works best as a conversational practice. It’s hard to do by yourself. You start telling stories when you come back from the field (sometimes it starts when you’re still out in the field, talking about the most interesting observations).
Miller’s Law is a great conceptual framework:
To understand what another person is saying, you must assume that it is true and try to imagine what it could be true of.
You’re probably familiar with the “five whys”. What about the “five ways”? If people talk about something five different ways, it’s virtually certain that one of them will be an apt metaphor. So ask “Can you say that in a different way?” five time.
Spend as much time on communicating outcomes as you did on executing the work.
After research, play back how many people you spoke to, the most valuable insight you gained, the themes that are emerging. Describe the question you wanted to answer, what answers you got, and what you’re going to do next. If you’re in an organisation that values memos, write a memo. Or you could make a video. Or you could write directly into backlog tickets. And don’t forget the wall work! GDS have wonderfully full walls in their research department.
In the end, the best tool for research is an illuminating story.
Cyd was doing research at the Bakersfield courthouse. The hypothesis was that a lot of people weren’t engaging with technology in the court system. She approached a man named Manuel who was positively quaking. He was going through a custody battle. He said, “I don’t know technology but it doesn’t scare me. I’m shaking because this paperwork just gets to me—it’s terrifying.” He said who would gladly pay for someone to help him with the paperwork. Cyd wrote a report on this story. Months later, they heard people in the organisation asking questions like “How would this help Manuel?”
Sometimes you do have to fight (nicely).
People will push back on the time spent on research—they’ll say it doesn’t fit the sprint plan. You can have a three day research plan. Day 1: write scripts. Day 2: go to the users and talk to them. Day 3: play it back. People on a project spend more time than that in Slack.
People will say you can’t talk to the customers. In that situation, you could talk to people who are in the same sector as your company’s customers.
People will question the return on investment for research. Do it cheaply and show the very low costs. Then people stop talking about the money and start talking about the results.
People will claim that qualitative user research is not statistically significant. That’s true. But research is something else. It answers different question.
People will question whether a senior person needs to be involved. It is not fair to ask the intern to do all the work involved in research.
People will say you can’t always do research. But Cyd firmly believes that there’s always room for some research.
One of the best things you can do is be there, non-judgementally, making friends. It takes time, but it works. Research is like a dandelion in flight. Once it’s out and about, taking root, the more that research counts.
Bayesian analysis vs. statistical significance, clearly explained.
This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.
So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.
I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:
Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?
You can’t criticize Twitter on Twitter. It just doesn’t work. The medium is the message.
Nolan’s plea for sanity.
Write blog posts. Use RSS. Use micro.blog. Use Mastodon. Use Pleroma. Use whatever you want, as long as it isn’t manipulating you with algorithms or selling access to your data to advertisers.