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Monday, June 20th, 2022

The Message Behind the Medium of a Personal Blog - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

  • Each voice is individual and matters
  • Slow is ok
  • Diversified and independent is good
  • Not fitting a pattern is ok
  • Not being easily commodified is ok

Just Put Stuff Out There · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

I’m honoured to mentioned in the same paragraph as Seth Godin and Chris Coyier (and I too have really been enjoying Chris’s writing).

AddyOsmani.com - Software Engineering - The Soft Parts

Write about what you learn. It pushes you to understand topics better. Sometimes the gaps in your knowledge only become clear when you try explaining things to others. It’s OK if no one reads what you write. You get a lot out of just doing it for you.

Lots of good advice from Addy:

Saying no is better than overcommitting.

Sunday, June 12th, 2022

The collapse of complex software | Read the Tea Leaves

Even when each new layer of complexity starts to bring zero or even negative returns on investment, people continue trying to do what worked in the past. At some point, the morass they’ve built becomes so dysfunctional and unwieldy that the only solution is collapse: i.e., a rapid decrease in complexity, usually by abolishing the old system and starting from scratch.

Monday, June 6th, 2022

Reflections on Design Systems and Boundaries - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Jim shares his thoughts on my recent post about declarative design systems. He picks up on the way I described a declarative design systems as “a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components”:

I like this definition of a design system: a set of boundaries. It’s about saying “don’t go there” rather than “you can only go here”. This embraces the idea of constraints as the mother of invention: it opens the door to creativity while keeping things bounded.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

The Case for Design Engineers - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is really interesting. I hadn’t thought too much about the connection between design engineering and declarative design before now, but Jim’s post makes the overlap very clear indeed.

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

Changing with the times · Chris Burnell

I think, with the sheer volume of functionality available to us nowadays on the front-end, it can be easy to forget how powerful and strong the functionality is that we get right off shelf with HTML. Yes, you read that right, functionality.

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!

Why blog? – Chuck Grimmett

Platforms come and go. Buy a domain and set up a permanent space on the web where others to find you and link back to. I have no idea what I put on Myspace back in the day, but everything I’ve published on this site since 2008 is still accessible and the links still work.

A personal website is a digital homestead that you can improve, tinker with, and live in for years to come. It is a home for your thoughts, musings, opinions, trials, and happenings, built in a way that suits you.

I like this little prompt:

What do you wish you had found via Google today but didn’t? Write that.

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2022

Bugblogging

A while back I wrote a blog post called Web Audio API weirdness on iOS. I described a bug in Mobile Safari along with a hacky fix. I finished by saying:

If you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Recently Jonathan Aldrich posted a thread about the same bug. He included a link to my blog post. He also said:

Thanks so much for your post, this was a truly pernicious problem!

That warms the cockles of my heart. It’s very gratifying to know that documenting the bug (and the fix) helped someone out. Or, as I put it:

Yay for bugblogging!

Forgive the Germanic compound word, but in this case I think it fits.

Bugblogging doesn’t need to involve a solution. Just documenting a bug is a good thing to do. Recently I documented a bug with progressive web apps on iOS. Before that I documented a bug in Facebook Container for Firefox. When I documented some weird behaviour with the Web Share API in Safari on iOS, I wasn’t even sure it was a bug but Tess was pretty sure it was and filed a proper bug report.

I’ve benefited from other people bugblogging. Phil Nash wrote Service workers: beware Safari’s range request. That was exactly what I needed to solve a problem I’d been having. And then that post about Phil solving my problem helped Peter Rukavina solve a similar issue so he wrote Phil Nash and Jeremy Keith Save the Safari Video Playback Day.

Again, this warmed the cockles of my heart. Bugblogging is worth doing just for the reward of that feeling.

There’s a similar kind of blog post where, instead of writing about a bug, you write about a particular technique. In one way, this is the opposite of bugblogging because you’re writing about things working exactly as they should. But these posts have a similar feeling to bugblogging because they also result in a warm glow when someone finds them useful.

Here are some recent examples of these kinds of posts—tipblogging?—that I’ve found useful:

All three are very handy tips. Thanks, Eric! Thanks, Rich! Thanks, Stephanie!

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Increasing the surface area of blogging

RSS is kind of an invisible technology. People call RSS dead because you can’t see it. There’s no feed, no login, no analytics. RSS feels subsurface.

But I believe we’re living in a golden age of RSS. Blogging is booming. My feed reader has 280 feeds in it.

RSS - Chris Coyier

How is all this social? It’s just slow social. If you want to respond to me, publish something linking to what I said. If I want to respond to you, I publish something linking to what you wrote. Old school. Good school. It’s high-effort, but I think the required effort is a positive thing for a social network. Forces you to think more.

Thursday, April 28th, 2022

Suspicion

I’ve already had some thoughtful responses to yesterday’s post about trust. I wrapped up my thoughts with a request:

I would love it if someone could explain why they avoid native browser features but use third-party code.

Chris obliged:

I can’t speak for the industry, but I have a guess. Third-party code (like the referenced Bootstrap and React) have a history of smoothing over significant cross-browser issues and providing better-than-browser ergonomic APIs. jQuery was created to smooth over cross-browser JavaScript problems. That’s trust.

Very true! jQuery is the canonical example of a library smoothing over the bumpy landscape of browser compatibilities. But jQuery is also the canonical example of a library we no longer need because the browsers have caught up …and those browsers support standards directly influenced by jQuery. That’s a library success story!

Charles Harries takes on my question in his post Libraries over browser features:

I think this perspective of trust has been hammered into developers over the past maybe like 5 years of JavaScript development based almost exclusively on inequality of browser feature support. Things are looking good in 2022; but as recently as 2019, 4 of the 5 top web developer needs had to do with browser compatibility.

Browser compatibility is one of the underlying promises that libraries—especially the big ones that Jeremy references, like React and Bootstrap—make to developers.

So again, it’s browser incompatibilities that made libraries attractive.

Jim Nielsen responds with the same message in his post Trusting Browsers:

We distrust the browser because we’ve been trained to. Years of fighting browser deficiencies where libraries filled the gaps. Browser enemy; library friend.

For example: jQuery did wonders to normalize working across browsers. Write code once, run it in any browser — confidently.

Three for three. My question has been answered: people gravitated towards libraries because browsers had inconsistent implementations.

I’m deliberately using the past tense there. I think Jim is onto something when he says that we’ve been trained not to trust browsers to have parity when it comes to supporting standards. But that has changed.

Charles again:

This approach isn’t a sustainable practice, and I’m trying to do as little of it as I can. Jeremy is right to be suspicious of third-party code. Cross-browser compatibility has gotten a lot better, and campaigns like Interop 2022 are doing a lot to reduce the burden. It’s getting better, but the exasperated I-just-want-it-to-work mindset is tough to uninstall.

I agree. Inertia is a powerful force. No matter how good cross-browser compatibility gets, it’s going to take a long time for developers to shed their suspicion.

Jim is glass-half-full kind of guy:

I’m optimistic that trust in browser-native features and APIs is being restored.

He also points to a very sensible mindset when it comes to third-party libraries and frameworks:

In this sense, third-party code and abstractions can be wonderful polyfills for the web platform. The idea being that the default posture should be: leverage as much of the web platform as possible, then where there are gaps to creating great user experiences, fill them in with exploratory library or framework features (features which, conceivably, could one day become native in browsers).

Yes! A kind of progressive enhancement approach to using third-party code makes a lot of sense. I’ve always maintained that you should treat libraries and frameworks like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached. If the library is solving a genuine need, it will be replaced by stable web standards in browsers (again, see jQuery).

I think that third-party libraries and frameworks work best as polyfills. But the whole point of polyfills is that you only use them when the browsers don’t supply features natively (and you also go back and remove the polyfill later when browsers do support the feature). But that’s not how people are using libraries and frameworks today. Developers are reaching for them by default instead of treating them as a last resort.

I like Jim’s proposed design princple:

Where available, default to browser-native features over third party code, abstractions, or idioms.

(P.S. It’s kind of lovely to see this kind of thoughtful blog-to-blog conversation happening. Right at a time when Twitter is about to go down the tubes, this is a demonstration of an actual public square with more nuanced discussion. Make your own website and join the conversation!)

How to Imagine Climate Futures - Long Now

The best climate fiction can do more than spur us to action to save the world we have — it can help us conceptualize the worlds, both beautiful and dire, that may lie ahead. These stories can be maps to the future, tools for understanding the complex systems that intertwine with the changing climates to come.

Wednesday, April 27th, 2022

Flexibly Centering an Element with Side-Aligned Content – Eric’s Archived Thoughts

This is a great little tip from Eric for those situations when you want an element to be centred but you want the content inside that element to remain uncentred:

max-inline-size: max-content;
margin-inline: auto;

And I completely concur with his closing thoughts on CSS today:

It’s a nice little example of the quiet revolution that’s been happening in CSS of late. Hard things are becoming easy, and more than easy, simple. Simple in the sense of “direct and not complex”, not in the sense of “obvious and basic”. There’s a sense of growing maturity in the language, and I’m really happy to see it.

Monday, April 11th, 2022

Agile and the Long Crisis of Software

Time and again, organizations have sought to contain software’s most troublesome tendencies—its habit of sprawling beyond timelines and measurable goals—by introducing new management styles. And for a time, it looked as though companies had found in Agile the solution to keeping developers happily on task while also working at a feverish pace. Recently, though, some signs are emerging that Agile’s power may be fading. A new moment of reckoning is in the making, one that may end up knocking Agile off its perch.

Monday, April 4th, 2022

The Unintended Consequences of China Leapfrogging to Mobile Internet · Yiqin Fu

Imagine a world without hyperlinks or search:

Take WeChat as an example. It is home to the vast majority of China’s original writing, and yet:

  1. It doesn’t allow any external links;
  2. Its posts are not indexed by search engines such as Google or Baidu, and its own search engine is practically useless;
  3. You can’t check the author’s other posts if open the page outside of the WeChat app. In other words, each WeChat article is an orphan, not linked to anything else on the Internet, not even the author’s previous work.

Search engine indexing is key to content discovery in the knowledge creation domain, but in a mobile-first world, it is extremely difficult to pull content across the walled gardens, whether or not there is a profit incentive to do so.

Again, the issue here is not censorship. Had China relaxed its speech restrictions, a search start-up would’ve faced the same level of resistance from content platforms when trying to index their content, and content platforms would’ve been equally reluctant to create their own search engines, as they could serve ads and profit without a functional search engine.

UA gotta be kidding

Brian recounts the sordid messy history of user-agent strings.

I remember somebody once describing a user-agent string as “a reverse-chronological history of web browsers.”