Tags: ia

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Thursday, August 18th, 2022

system.css | A design system for building retro Apple-inspired interfaces

A stylesheet for when you’re nostalgic for the old Mac OS.

Tuesday, August 9th, 2022

This is what you’re nostalgic for - The History of the Web

❤️

I believe we aren’t nostalgic for the technology, or the aesthetic, or even the open web ethos. What we’re nostalgic for is a time when outsiders were given a chance to do something fun, off to the side and left alone, because mainstream culture had no idea what the hell to do with this thing that was right in front of it.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

How Florence Nightingale Changed Data Visualization Forever - Scientific American

The design process in action in Victorian England:

Recognizing that few people actually read statistical tables, Nightingale and her team designed graphics to attract attention and engage readers in ways that other media could not. Their diagram designs evolved over two batches of publications, giving them opportunities to react to the efforts of other parties also jockeying for influence. These competitors buried stuffy graphic analysis inside thick books. In contrast, Nightingale packaged her charts in attractive slim folios, integrating diagrams with witty prose. Her charts were accessible and punchy. Instead of building complex arguments that required heavy work from the audience, she focused her narrative lens on specific claims. It was more than data visualization—it was data storytelling.

Monday, July 25th, 2022

Control

In two of my recent talks—In And Out Of Style and Design Principles For The Web—I finish by looking at three different components:

  1. a button,
  2. a dropdown, and
  3. a datepicker.

In each case you could use native HTML elements:

  1. button,
  2. select, and
  3. input type="date".

Or you could use divs with a whole bunch of JavaScript and ARIA.

In the case of a datepicker, I totally understand why you’d go for writing your own JavaScript and ARIA. The native HTML element is quite restricted, especially when it comes to styling.

In the case of a dropdown, it’s less clear-cut. Personally, I’d use a select element. While it’s currently impossible to style the open state of a select element, you can style the closed state with relative ease. That’s good enough for me.

Still, I can understand why that wouldn’t be good enough for some cases. If pixel-perfect consistency across platforms is a priority, then you’re going to have to break out the JavaScript and ARIA.

Personally, I think chasing pixel-perfect consistency across platforms isn’t even desirable, but I get it. I too would like to have more control over styling select elements. That’s one of the reasons why the work being done by the Open UI group is so important.

But there’s one more component: a button.

Again, you could use the native button element, or you could use a div or a span and add your own JavaScript and ARIA.

Now, in this case, I must admit that I just don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you just use the native button element? It has no styling issues and the browser gives you all the interactivity and accessibility out of the box.

I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of a developer who wouldn’t use a native button element. The easy answer would be that they’re just bad people, and dismiss them. But that would probably be lazy and inaccurate. Nobody sets out to make a website with poor performance or poor accessibility. And yet, by choosing not to use the native HTML element, that’s what’s likely to happen.

I think I might have finally figured out what might be going on in the mind of such a developer. I think the issue is one of control.

When I hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, I think “Great! That’s less work for me. I can just let the browser deal with it.” In other words, I relinquish control to the browser (though not entirely—I still want the styling to be under my control as much as possible).

But I now understand that someone else might hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, and think “Uh-oh! What if there unexpected side-effects of these built-in behaviours that might bite me on the ass?” In other words, they don’t trust the browsers enough to relinquish control.

I get it. I don’t agree. But I get it.

If your background is in computer science, then the ability to precisely predict how a programme will behave is a virtue. Any potential side-effects that aren’t within your control are undesirable. The only way to ensure that an interface will behave exactly as you want is to write it entirely from scratch, even if that means using more JavaScript and ARIA than is necessary.

But I don’t think it’s a great mindset for the web. The web is filled with uncertainties—browsers, devices, networks. You can’t possibly account for all of the possible variations. On the web, you have to relinquish some control.

Still, I’m glad that I now have a bit more insight into why someone would choose to attempt to retain control by using div, JavaScript and ARIA. It’s not what I would do, but I think I understand the motivation a bit better now.

Wednesday, July 20th, 2022

Open Lecture at CIID: “Keeping up with the Kardashevians” – Petafloptimism

A terrfic presentation from Matt Jones (with the best talk title ever). Pace layers, seamful design, solarpunk, and more.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

How normal am I?

A fascinating interactive journey through biometrics using your face.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

Utopian project kickstarter — Figma

Do you like the ideas behind Utopia? Do you use Figma?

If the answer to both those questions is “yes”, then James has made a very handy Figma community file for you:

This work-in-progress is intended as a starting point for designers to start exploring the Utopia approach, thinking about type and space in fluid scales rather than device-based breakpoints.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

Patterns | APG | WAI | W3C

This is a terrific resource! A pattern library of interactive components: tabs, switches, dialogs, carousels …all the usual suspects.

Each component has an example implementation along with advice and a checklist for ensuring its accessible.

It’s so great to have these all gathered together in one place!

Am I on the IndieWeb Yet? | Miriam Eric Suzanne

Miriam has a wishlist for scaling up the indie web approach:

What I would like to see is a tool that helps bring the entire system together in one place. Somewhere that non-technical people can:

  • build their own site, with support for feeds/mentions
  • see what feeds are available on other sites, and subscribe to them
  • easily respond to other sites, and see the resulting threads

(Oh, and by linking to this post, this should show up as a bookmark—I’m also testing Miriam’s webmention setup.)

Wednesday, June 1st, 2022

What the Vai Script Reveals About the Evolution of Writing - SAPIENS

How a writing system went from being a dream (literally) to a reality, codified in unicode.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

Min-Max-Value Interpolation

Here’s a really nice little tool inspired by Utopia for generating one-off clamp() values for fluid type or spacing.

Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

Situational awereness

There was a week recently where I was out and about nearly every night.

One night, Jessica and I went to the cinema. There was a double bill of Alien and Aliens in the beautiful Duke of York’s picture house. We booked one of the comfy sofas on the balcony.

The next night we were out at the session in The Jolly Brewer, playing trad Irish tunes all evening. Bliss!

Then on the third night, we went to see Low playing in a church. Rich and Ben were there too.

It really felt like The Before Times. Of course in reality it wasn’t quite like old times. There’s always an awareness of relative risk. How crowded is the cinema likely to be? Will they have the doors open at The Jolly Brewer to improve the airflow? Will people at the Low gig comply with the band’s request to wear masks?

Still, in each case, I weighed the risk and decided the evening was worth it. If I caught Covid because of that cinematic double bill, or that tune-filled gathering, or that excellent gig, that price would be acceptable.

Mind you, I say that without having experienced the horribleness of having a nasty bout of coronavirus. And the prospect of long Covid is genuinely scary.

But there’s no doubt that the vaccines have changed the equation. There’s still plenty of risk but it’s on a different scale. The Situation isn’t over, but it has ratcheted down a notch to something more manageable.

Now with the weather starting to get nice, there’ll be more opportunities for safer outdoor gatherings. I’m here for it.

Actually, I’m not going to literally be here for all of it. I’m making travel plans to go and speak at European events—another positive signal of the changing situation. Soon I’ll be boarding the Eurostar to head to Amsterdam, and not long after I’ll be on the Eurostar again for a trip to Lille. And then of course there’s UX London at the end of June. With each gathering, there’s an inevitable sense of calculated risk, but there’s also a welcome sense of normality seeping back in.

Saturday, May 7th, 2022

Roboto … But Make It Flex - Material Design

This version of Roboto from Font Bureau is a very variable font indeed.

Friday, May 6th, 2022

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Fluid Type Scale - Generate responsive font-size variables

This is kind of a Utopia lite: pop in your minimum and maximum font sizes along with a modular scale and it spits out some custom properties for clamp() declarations.

You Don’t Need A UI Framework — Smashing Magazine

We noticed a trend: students who pick a UI framework like Bootstrap or Material UI get off the ground quickly and make rapid progress in the first few days. But as time goes on, they get bogged down. The daylight grows between what they need, and what the component library provides. And they wind up spending so much time trying to bend the components into the right shape.

I remember one student spent a whole afternoon trying to modify the masthead from a CSS framework to support their navigation. In the end, they decided to scrap the third-party component, and they built an alternative themselves in 10 minutes.

This tracks with my experience. These kinds of frameworks don’t save time; they defer it.

The one situation where that works well, as Josh also points out, is prototyping.

If the goal is to quickly get something up and running, and you don’t need the UI to be 100% professional, I do think it can be a bit of a time-saver to quickly drop in a bunch of third-party components.

Sunday, May 1st, 2022

Emily F. Gorcenski: Angelheaded Hipsters Burning for the Ancient Heavenly Connection

Twitter is a chatroom, and the problem that Twitter really solved was the discoverability problem. The internet is a big place, and it is shockingly hard to otherwise find people whose thoughts you want to read more of, whether those thoughts are tweets, articles, or research papers. The thing is, I’m not really sure that Twitter ever realized that this is the problem they solved, that this is where their core value lies. Twitter kept experimenting with algorithms and site layouts and Moments and other features to try to foist more discoverability onto the users without realizing that their users were discovering with the platform quite adeptly already. Twitter kept trying to amplify the signal without understanding that what users needed was better tools to cut down the noise.

Twitter, like many technology companies, fell into the classical trap by thinking that they, the technologists, were the innovators. Technologists today are almost never innovators, but rather plumbers who build pipelines to move ideas in the form of data back and forth with varying efficacy. Users are innovators, and its users that made Twitter unique.

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.