The philosophy behind these tools matches my own philosophy (which I think is one of the most important factors in choosing a tool that works for you, not against you).
Tuesday, January 9th, 2018
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:
- Use the HTML
The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.
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.
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:
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.
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:
- Identify core functionality.
- Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
- The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
- Use a
- The user needs to navigate to another page.
- Use an
aelement with an
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:
- Start with user needs.
- Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
- Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.
Ubiquity, then consistency.
Thursday, December 21st, 2017
The transcript of a terrific talk on the humane use of technology.
Instead of using technology to replace people, we should use it to augment ourselves to do things that were previously impossible, to help us make our lives better. That is the sweet spot of our technology. We have to accept human behaviour the way it is, not the way we would wish it to be.
Thursday, December 7th, 2017
When you start a redesign process for a company, it’s very easy to briefly look at all their products (apps, websites, newsletters, etc) and first of all make fun of how bad it all looks, and then design this one single design system for everything. However, once you start diving into why those decisions were made, they often reveal local knowledge that your design system doesn’t solve.
In this talk transcript, Rune Madsen enumerates the reasons for his informed scepticism towards design systems:
- The first concern, which is also the main argument of this talk, is that humans – especially designers and engineers – are obsessed with creating systems of order. This is not really driven by a demand from users, so they often tend to benefit the designer, not the user.
- My second concern relates to what I believe design systems is doing to our digital experience. We’ve always had trends in graphic design (Swiss design, Flat UI, etc), but I’m getting increasingly concerned that this broad adoption of design systems is creating a design monoculture that really narrows the idea of what digital products can be.
- My third concern is that with all this talk about design systems, there’s very little talk about the real problem in digital design, which is processes and tools. Designers love making design manuals, but any design system will completely and utterly fail if it doesn’t help people in the organization produce faster and better products.
Tuesday, November 28th, 2017
Take a break. Build a sandcastle. It’s relaxing.
Thursday, November 23rd, 2017
Brad always said that carousels were way to stop people beating each other up in meetings. I like the way Heydon puts it:
Carousels (or ‘content sliders’) are like men. They are not literally all bad — some are even helpful and considerate. But I don’t trust anyone unwilling to acknowledge a glaring pattern of awfulness. Also like men, I appreciate that many of you would rather just avoid dealing with carousels, but often don’t have the choice. Hence this article.
Monday, October 2nd, 2017
The BBC has been experimenting with some alternative layouts for some articles on mobile devices. Read on for the details, but especially for the philosophical musings towards the end—this is gold dust:
Even the subtext of Google’s marketing push around Progressive Web Apps is that mobile websites must aspire to be more like native apps. While I’m as excited about getting access to previously native-only features such as offline support and push notifications as the next web dev, I’m not sure that the mobile web should only try to imitate the kind of user interfaces that we see on native.
Do mobile websites really dream of being native apps, any more than they dreamt of being magazines?
Alan Kay’s initial description of a “Dynabook” written at Xerox PARC in 1972.
Friday, September 22nd, 2017
A great bit of web history spelunking in search of the first websites that allowed users to interact with data on a server. Applications, if you will. It’s well written, but I take issue with this:
The world wide web wasn’t supposed to be this fun. Berners-Lee imagined the internet as a place to collaborate around text, somewhere to share research data and thesis papers.
This often gets trotted out (“the web was intended for scientists sharing documents”), but it’s simply not true that Tim Berners-Lee was only thinking of his immediate use-case; he deliberately made the WWW project broad enough to allow all sorts of thitherto unforeseen uses. If he hadn’t …well, the web wouldn’t have been able to accommodate all those later developments. It’s not an accident that the web was later used for all sorts of unexpected things—that was the whole idea.
Anyway, apart from that misstep, the rest of the article is a fun piece, well worth reading.
Friday, September 8th, 2017
Monday, July 31st, 2017
Another great deep dive by Heydon into a single interface pattern. This time it’s the tooltip, and its cousin, the toggletip.
There’s some great accessibility advice in here.
Tuesday, July 11th, 2017
Vitaly’s been bitten with date-picker fever. Here’s his deep, deep, deep dive into one interface element.
Friday, July 7th, 2017
I can’t remember the last time I was genuinely surprised, delighted, and intrigued by an online story like this.
Wednesday, July 5th, 2017
Stop dilly-dallying and just get this work done, okay?
Monday, June 12th, 2017
The transcript of Josh’s fantastic talk on machine learning, voice, data, APIs, and all the other tools of algorithmic design:
The design and presentation of data is just as important as the underlying algorithm. Algorithmic interfaces are a huge part of our future, and getting their design right is critical—and very, very hard to do.
Josh put together ten design principles for conceiving, designing, and managing data-driven products. I’ve added them to my collection.
- Favor accuracy over speed
- Allow for ambiguity
- Add human judgment
- Advocate sunshine
- Embrace multiple systems
- Make it easy to contribute (accurate) data
- Root out bias and bad assumptions
- Give people control over their data
- Be loyal to the user
- Take responsibility
Saturday, June 3rd, 2017
This was my favourite talk from this year’s Interaction conference—packed full of insights, and delivered superbly.
It prompted so many thoughts, I found myself asking a question during the Q&A.
Wednesday, April 12th, 2017
There’s a lot of great knowledge in here that can be applied to plenty of other interface elements too.
Monday, April 10th, 2017
A small black mirror.