Tags: iQ

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Saturday, August 28th, 2021

Picture 1 Picture 2

Zürich vom Berg, Zürich vom See.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Monday, January 18th, 2021

Never Been Seen | Science Museum Group Collection

This is such a great use of an API—you can choose to view an object in the museum’s collection that no one else has seen yet.

It’s like the opposite of Amazon’s recommendation engine: “No one has ever purchased these items together…”

Monday, September 21st, 2020

Playing The Drunken Landlady (reel) on mandolin:

https://thesession.org/tunes/363

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIQj3uF_Js8

Friday, July 3rd, 2020

Uncommon CSS Properties

I count at least three clever CSS techniques I didn’t know about.

Monday, March 30th, 2020

Prioritising Requirements | Trys Mudford

Over the past few years, I’ve given quite a few workshops and talks on evaluating technology. This methodical approach to evaluation and prioritisation from Trys is right up my alley!

In any development project, there is a point at which one must decide on the tech stack. For some, that may feel like a foregone conclusion, dictated by team appetite and experience.

Even if the decision seems obvious, it’s always worth sense-checking your thought process. Along with experience and gut-feelings, we also have blind-spots and biases.

I feel like there’s a connection here to having good design principles—the kind that explicitly value one facet over another.

Sunday, March 22nd, 2020

Playing The Banks of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin: https://thesession.org/tunes/775 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs

Playing The Banks of Lough Gowna (jig) on mandolin:

https://thesession.org/tunes/775

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-eiqhVmSPcs

Saturday, March 21st, 2020

Playing Swinging On The Gate (reel) on mandolin: https://thesession.org/tunes/236 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq5sxhD_bTU

Playing Swinging On The Gate (reel) on mandolin:

https://thesession.org/tunes/236

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iq5sxhD_bTU

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020

Getting your priorities right | Clearleft

A ludicrously useful grab-bag of prioritisation techniques from Chris—so, so handy for workshops and sprint planning.

Thursday, February 6th, 2020

Innovation Can’t Keep the Web Fast | CSS-Tricks

I’ve come to accept that our current approach to remedy poor performance largely consists of engineering techniques that stem from the ill effects of our business, product management, and engineering practices. We’re good at applying tourniquets, but not so good at sewing up deep wounds.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that web performance isn’t solely an engineering problem, but a problem of people.

Thursday, September 19th, 2019

At Dynamicland, The Building Is The Computer — Carl Tashian

A look at the ubiquitous computing work that Bret Victor has been doing over the past few years at Dynamicland.

A bit of a tangent, but I love this description of reading maps:

Map reading is a complex and uniquely human skill, not at all obvious to a young child. You float out of your body and into the sky, leaving behind the point of view you’ve been accustomed to all your life. Your imagination turns squiggly blue lines and green shading into creeks, mountains, and forests seen from above. Bringing it all together in your mind’s eye, you can picture the surroundings.

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

Picture 1 Picture 2

Happy birthday, World Wide Web!

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

Using CSS Grid the right way | hey it’s violet

CSS Grid is easy to use but difficult to learn. It’s a more intuitive paradigm than any other CSS layout technique, but it’s completely different from its predecessors.

Some great advice here on how to approach CSS grid:

  • Use names, not numbers
  • Use fr as your flexible unit
  • Don’t use a grid system

Monday, August 20th, 2018

How can designers get better at learning from their mistakes?

Jon has seven answers:

  1. Build a culture to learn from mistakes
  2. Embrace healthy critique
  3. Fail little and often
  4. Listen to users
  5. Design. Learn. Repeat
  6. Create a shared understanding
  7. Always be accountable

It’s gratifying to see how much of this was informed by the culture of critique at Clearleft.

Sunday, June 10th, 2018

Grilling asparagus.

Grilling asparagus.

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Expectations

I noticed something interesting recently about how I browse the web.

It used to be that I would notice if a site were responsive. Or, before responsive web design was a thing, I would notice if a site was built with a fluid layout. It was worthy of remark, because it was exceptional—the default was fixed-width layouts.

But now, that has flipped completely around. Now I notice if a site isn’t responsive. It feels …broken. It’s like coming across an embedded map that isn’t a slippy map. My expectations have reversed.

That’s kind of amazing. If you had told me ten years ago that liquid layouts and media queries would become standard practice on the web, I would’ve found it very hard to believe. I spent the first decade of this century ranting in the wilderness about how the web was a flexible medium, but I felt like the laughable guy on the street corner with an apocalyptic sandwich board. Well, who’s laughing now

Anyway, I think it’s worth stepping back every now and then and taking stock of how far we’ve come. Mind you, in terms of web performance, the trend has unfortunately been in the wrong direction—big, bloated websites have become the norm. We need to change that.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve been somewhat obsessed with service workers lately, but I’ve started to notice my expectations around offline behaviour changing recently too. It’s not that I’m surprised when I can’t revisit an article without an internet connection, but I do feel disappointed—like an opportunity has been missed.

I really notice it when I come across little self-contained browser-based games like

Those games are great! I particularly love Battleship Solitaire—it has a zen-like addictive quality to it. If I load it up in a browser tab, I can then safely go offline because the whole game is delivered in the initial download. But if I try to navigate to the game while I’m offline, I’m out of luck. That’s a shame. This snack-sized casual games feel like the perfect use-case for working offline (or, even if there is an internet connection, they could still be speedily served up from a cache).

I know that my expectations about offline behaviour aren’t shared by most people. The idea of visiting a site even when there’s no internet connection doesn’t feel normal …yet.

But perhaps that expectation will change. It’s happened before.

(And if you want to be ready when those expectations change, I’ve written a Going Offline for you.)

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2018

The Tarot Cards Of Tech

A useful set of questions to ask on any project, shuffled and dealt to you.

They’ll not only help you foresee unintended consequences—they can also reveal opportunities for positive change.

All of the content in images. Not a single image has alternative text. If only they had asked themselves:

When you picture your user base, who is excluded? If they used your product, what would their experience be like?

Tuesday, March 27th, 2018

Compressive Images Revisited - TimKadlec.com

Tim explains why that neat trick of making a really big JPEG with quality set to 0% is no longer necessary, and how the savings you make in bandwidth with that technique are nullified by the expense of the memory footprint needed.

Tuesday, February 27th, 2018

Let’s talk about usernames

This post goes into specifics on Django, but the broader points apply no matter what your tech stack. I’m relieved to find out that The Session is using the tripartite identity pattern (although Huffduffer, alas, isn’t):

What we really want in terms of identifying users is some combination of:

  1. System-level identifier, suitable for use as a target of foreign keys in our database
  2. Login identifier, suitable for use in performing a credential check
  3. Public identity, suitable for displaying to other users

Many systems ask the username to fulfill all three of these roles, which is probably wrong.

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Ubiquity and consistency

I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.

Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:

  1. Use the HTML select element.
  2. Create your own dropdown widget using JavaScript (working with divs and spans).

The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.

But…

You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.

That’s where the second option comes in. By scripting your own dropdown, you get complete control over the appearance and behaviour of the widget. The disadvantage is that, because you’re now doing all the work instead of the browser, it’s up to you to do all the work—that means lots of JavaScript, thinking about edge cases, and making the whole thing accessible.

This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.

Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:

It is impossible to style select option. But is that really necessary? Is it worth abandoning the native browser behavior for a complete rewrite in JavaScript of the functionality?

The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.

But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:

The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.

So far I’ve only been looking at the micro scale of a single interface element, but this tension between ubiquity and consistency plays out at larger scales too. Take page navigations. That’s literally what browsers do. Click on a link, and the browser fetches that URL, displaying progress at it goes. The alternative, as exemplified by single page apps, is to do all of that for yourself using JavaScript: figure out the routing, show some kind of progress, load some JSON, parse it, convert it into HTML, and update the DOM.

Personally, I tend to go for the first option. Partly that’s because I like to apply the rule of least power, but mostly it’s because I’m very lazy (I also have qualms about sending a whole lotta JavaScript down the wire just so the end user gets to do something that their browser would do for them anyway). But I get it. I understand why others might wish for greater control, even if it comes with a price tag of fragility.

I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.

That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.

Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:

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

Like, say…

  1. The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
  2. Use a select element.
  3. Use JavaScript to replace that native element with a widget of your own devising.

Or…

  1. The user needs to navigate to another page.
  2. Use an a element with an href attribute.
  3. Use JavaScript to intercept that click, add a nice transition, and pull in the content using Ajax.

The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.

Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:

  1. Start with user needs.
  2. Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
  3. Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.

Ubiquity, then consistency.