Tags: interface

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Tuesday, September 14th, 2021

Accessibility testing

I was doing some accessibility work with a client a little while back. It was mostly giving their site the once-over, highlighting any issues that we could then discuss. It was an audit of sorts.

While I was doing this I started to realise that not all accessibility issues are created equal. I don’t just mean in their severity. I mean that some issues can—and should—be caught early on, while other issues can only be found later.

Take colour contrast. This is something that should be checked before a line of code is written. When designs are being sketched out and then refined in a graphical editor like Figma, that’s the time to check the ratio between background and foreground colours to make sure there’s enough contrast between them. You can catch this kind of thing later on, but by then it’s likely to come with a higher cost—you might have to literally go back to the drawing board. It’s better to find the issue when you’re at the drawing board the first time.

Then there’s the HTML. Most accessibility issues here can be caught before the site goes live. Usually they’re issues of ommission: form fields that don’t have an explicitly associated label element (using the for and id attributes); images that don’t have alt text; pages that don’t have sensible heading levels or landmark regions like main and nav. None of these are particularly onerous to fix and they come with the biggest bang for your buck. If you’ve got sensible forms, sensible headings, alt text on images, and a solid document structure, you’ve already covered the vast majority of accessibility issues with very little overhead. Some of these checks can also be automated: alt text for images; labels for inputs.

Then there’s interactive stuff. If you only use native HTML elements you’re probably in the clear, but chances are you’ve got some bespoke interactivity on your site: a carousel; a mega dropdown for navigation; a tabbed interface. HTML doesn’t give you any of those out of the box so you’d need to make your own using a combination of HTML, CSS, JavaScript and ARIA. There’s plenty of testing you can do before launching—I always ask myself “What would Heydon do?”—but these components really benefit from being tested by real screen reader users.

So if you commission an accessibility audit, you should hope to get feedback that’s mostly in that third category—interactive widgets.

If you get feedback on document structure and other semantic issues with the HTML, you should fix those issues, sure, but you should also see what you can do to stop those issues going live again in the future. Perhaps you can add some steps in the build process. Or maybe it’s more about making sure the devs are aware of these low-hanging fruit. Or perhaps there’s a framework or content management system that’s stopping you from improving your HTML. Then you need to execute a plan for ditching that software.

If you get feedback about colour contrast issues, just fixing the immediate problem isn’t going to address the underlying issue. There’s a process problem, or perhaps a communication issue. In that case, don’t look for a technical solution. A design system, for example, will not magically fix a workflow issue or route around the problem of designers and developers not talking to each other.

When you commission an accessibility audit, you want to make sure you’re getting the most out of it. Don’t squander it on issues that you can catch and fix yourself. Make sure that the bulk of the audit is being spent on the specific issues that are unique to your site.

Thursday, September 9th, 2021

Accent all areas

Whenever a new version of Chrome comes out, there’s an accompanying blog post listing what’s new. Chrome 93 just came out and, sure enough, Pete has written a blog post about it.

But what I think is the most exciting addition to the browser isn’t listed.

What is this feature that’s got me so excited?

Okay, I’ve probably oversold it now because actually, it looks like a rather small trivial addition. It’s the accent-color property in CSS.

Up until now, accent colour was controlled by the operating system. If you’re on a Mac, go to “System Preferences” and then “General”. There you’ll see an option to change your accent colour. Try picking a different colour. You’ll see that change cascade down into the other form fields in that preference pane: checkboxes, radio buttons, and dropdowns.

Your choice will also cascade down into web pages. Any web page that uses native checkboxes, radio buttons and other interface elements will inherit that colour.

This is how interface elements are supposed to work. The browser inherits the look’n’feel of the inputs from the operating system.

That’s the theory anyway. In practice, form elements—such as dropdowns—can look different from browser to browser, something that shouldn’t be happening if the browsers are all inheriting from the operating system.

Anyway, it’s probably this supposed separation of responsibility between browser and operating system which has led to the current situation with form fields and CSS. Authors can style form fields up to a point, but there’s always a line that you don’t get to cross.

The accent colour of a selected radio button or a checkbox has historically been on the other side of that line. You either had to accept that you couldn’t change the colour, or you had to make your own checkbox or radio button interface. You could use CSS to hide the native element and replace it with an image instead.

That feels a bit over-engineered and frankly kind of hacky. It reminds me of the bad old days of image replacement for text before we had web fonts.

Now, with the accent-color property in CSS, authors can over-ride the choice that the user has set at the operating system level.

On the one hand, this doesn’t feel great to me. Who are we to make that decision? Shouldn’t the user’s choice take primacy over our choices?

But then again, where do we draw the line? We’re allowed over-ride link colours. We’re allowed over-ride font choices.

Ultimately I think it’s a good thing that authors can now specify an accent colour. What makes me think that is the behaviour that authors have shown if they don’t have this ability—they do it anyway, and in a hackier manner. This is why I think the work of the Open UI group is so important. If developers don’t get a standardised way to customise native form controls, they’ll just recreate their own over-engineered versions.

The purpose of Open UI to the web platform is to allow web developers to style and extend built-in web UI controls, such as select dropdowns, checkboxes, radio buttons, and date/color pickers.

Trying to stop developers from styling checkboxes and radio buttons is like trying to stop teenagers from having sex. You might as well accept that it’s going to happen and give them contraception so they can at least do it safely.

So I welcome this new CSS condom.

You can see accent-color in action in this demo. Change the value of the accent-color property to see the form fields update:

:root {
  accent-color: rebeccapurple;
}

Applying it at the document level like that will make it universal, but you can also use the property on an element-by-element basis using whatever selector you want.

That demo works in Chrome and Edge 93, the current release. It also works in Firefox 92, which literally just landed (like as I was writing this blog post, support for accent-color magically arrived!).

As for Safari, well, who knows? If Apple published a roadmap, then developers would have a clue when to expect a property like this to land. But we mere mortals cannot be trusted with such important hush-hush information.

In the meantime, keep an eye on Can I Use. And lack of support on one browser is no reason not to use accent-color anyway. It’s a progressive enhancement. Add it to your CSS today and it will work in more browsers in the future.

Tuesday, August 31st, 2021

Why are hyperlinks blue?

A wonderful bit of spelunking into the annals of software interfaces by Elise Blanchard.

Monday, August 30th, 2021

Computers should expose their internal workings as a 6th sense (Interconnected)

What about a scarf or collar so the back of your neck prickles when somebody is talking about you on Twitter.

Or a ghost detector for homes, restaurants, etc that glows when someone is “visiting” in Google Maps/Facebook Pages or looking through a webcam? Maybe it would be better to control the air conditioning to produce a chill, or play barely audible infrasound, indications that there is a haunting in progress and the veil here is thin.

Monday, August 16th, 2021

Collecting my thoughts about notation and user interfaces (Interconnected)

HTML sits on a boundary between the machine, the creator, and the reader.

Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021

How To Build Resilient JavaScript UIs — Smashing Magazine

The opening paragraphs of this article should be a mantra recited by every web developer before they begin their working day:

Things on the web can break — the odds are stacked against us. Lots can go wrong: a network request fails, a third-party library breaks, a JavaScript feature is unsupported (assuming JavaScript is even available), a CDN goes down, a user behaves unexpectedly (they double-click a submit button), the list goes on.

Fortunately, we as engineers can avoid, or at least mitigate the impact of breakages in the web apps we build. This however requires a conscious effort and mindset shift towards thinking about unhappy scenarios just as much as happy ones.

I love, love, love the emphasis on reducing assumptions:

Taking a more defensive approach when writing code helps reduce programmer errors arising from making assumptions. Pessimism over optimism favours resilience.

Hell, yeah!

Accepting the fragility of the web is a necessary step towards building resilient systems. A more reliable user experience is synonymous with happy customers. Being equipped for the worst (proactive) is better than putting out fires (reactive) from a business, customer, and developer standpoint (less bugs!).

Tuesday, July 6th, 2021

CSS Anchored Positioning

An interesting proposal for defining how one element could be “anchored” to another, and how that positioning could be expressed declaratively instead of having to write a whole load of JavaScript. Melanie’s looking for use cases so share ‘em if you have ‘em.

Personally, I’m not convinced that a new element is needed but I’m open to the suggestion.

Tabs in HTML?

I’ve been having some really interesting chats with Brian about tabs, markup, progressive enhancement and accessibility. Here’s a braindump of his current thinking which is well worth perusing.

Tuesday, June 29th, 2021

Whatever Happened to UI Affordances? – Terence Eden’s Blog

Flat, minimalist, clean, material - whatever you want to call it - is an annoying antipattern. Computers are here to make life easier for humans. Removing affordances is just a nasty thing to do to your users.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2021

davatron5000/awesome-standalones

A curated list of awesome framework-agnostic standalone web components.

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

Design as (un)ethical illusion

Many, if not all, of our world’s most wicked problems are rooted in the excessive hiding of complexity behind illusions of simplicity—the relentless shielding of messy details in favor of easy-to-use interfaces.

Seams.

But there’s always a tradeoff between complexity, truth, and control. The more details are hidden, the harder it is to understand how the system actually works. (And the harder it is to control). The map becomes less and less representative of the territory. We often trade completeness and control for simplicity. We’d rather have a map that’s easy to navigate than a map that shows us every single detail about the territory. We’d rather have a simple user interface than an infinitely flexible one that exposes a bunch of switches and settings. We don’t want to have to think too hard. We just want to get where we’re going.

Seamful and seamless design are reframed here as ethical and deceptive design:

Ethical design is like a glove. It obscures the underlying structure (i.e. your hand) but preserves some truth about its shape and how it works. Deceptive design is like a mitten. It obscures the underlying structure and also hides a lot about its shape and how it works.

Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

My chatbot is dead · Why yours should probably be too · Adrian Z

The upside to being a terrible procrastinator is that certain items on my to-do list, like, say, “build a chatbot”, will—given enough time—literally take care of themselves.

I ultimately feel like it has slowly turned into a fad. I got fooled by the trend, and as a by-product became part of the trend itself.

Thursday, September 17th, 2020

Geri Reid - Forms best practice

This is a terrific collection of guidelines for form design.

Monday, September 14th, 2020

Why Do We Interface?

A short web book on the past, present and future of interfaces, written in a snappy, chatty style.

From oral communication and storytelling 500,000 years ago to virtual reality today, the purpose of information interfaces has always been to communicate more quickly, more deeply, to foster relationships, to explore, to measure, to learn, to build knowledge, to entertain, and to create.

We interface precisely because we are human. Because we are intelligent, because we are social, because we are inquisitive and creative.

We design our interfaces and they in turn redefine what it means to be human.

Friday, August 28th, 2020

Robin Rendle ・ A Rocket-Powered Jumbo Jet

Before the hagiographical praise for working with an iPad Pro, Robin nails the fundamental shape of the design process:

I had forgotten that there are two modes of design, just as there is in writing.

The first mode is understanding the problem, getting a ten-thousand foot view of the land. It’s getting people to acknowledge that this really is the problem we need to agree upon. This work needs to happen in a sketchbook in the form of messy, back-of-the-napkin drawings or in writing. All this helps you to form a proper argument and focus your thoughts.

The second mode of design is taking that ten-thousand foot view and zooming all the way in to the hairs on the back of the rabbit; figuring out the precise UI and components, the copywriting, the animations, the everything else. This should be done in a design tool like Figma or Sketch. And this is when we should be talking about color palettes, icons, design systems, and consistency.

The problem with almost all design work is that first phase never really happens. People don’t take that ten thousand foot view of the problem and are focusing instead on the pixels; they’re trapped by the system they know too well.

Yes, yes, yes! Spot on:

I think people get stuck in that second mode because productivity in design is often tied to “how many pages or frames did I design today?” when productivity should instead be thought of as “how did my understanding of the problem change?

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

BetrayURL

Back in February, I wrote about an excellent proposal by Jake for how browsers could display URLs in a safer way. Crucially, this involved highlighting the important part of the URL, but didn’t involve hiding any part. It’s a really elegant solution.

Turns out it was a Trojan horse. Chrome are now running an experiment where they will do the exact opposite: they will hide parts of the URL instead of highlighting the important part.

You can change this behaviour if you’re in the less than 1% of people who ever change default settings in browsers.

I’m really disappointed to see that Jake’s proposal isn’t going to be implemented. It was a much, much better solution.

No doubt I will hear rejoinders that the “solution” that Chrome is experimenting with is pretty similar to what Jake proposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jake’s solution empowered users with knowledge without taking anything away. What Chrome will be doing is the opposite of that, infantalising users and making decisions for them “for their own good.”

Seeing a complete URL is going to become a power-user feature, like View Source or user style sheets.

I’m really sad about that because, as Jake’s proposal demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Sunday, August 9th, 2020

If I got made king of web browsers, here’s what I’d do (Interconnected)

I guess, because browser-makers tend to be engineers so they do engineering-type things like making the browser an app-delivery platform able to run compiled code. Or fight meaningless user experience battles like hiding the URL, or hiding View Source – both acts that don’t really help early users that much, but definitely impede the user path from being a consumer to being a fully-fledged participant/maker.

Saturday, August 1st, 2020

The things of everyday design || Matthew Ström: designer & developer

The evolution of affordances on the web:

The URL for a page goes at the top. Text appears in a vertically scrolling column. A dropdown menu has a downward-pointing triangle next to it. Your mouse cursor is a slanted triangle with a tail, and when you hover over a link it looks like Mickey Mouse’s glove.

Most of these affordances don’t have any relationship to the physical characteristics of the interaction they mediate. But remove them from a website, application, or interface, and users get disoriented, frustrated, and unproductive.

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Striking a Balance Between Native and Custom Select Elements | CSS-Tricks

I think this a solution worthy of Solomon. In this case, the Gordian knot is the select element and its inevitable recreation in order to style it.

What if we instead deliver a native select by default and replace it with a more aesthetically pleasing one if possible? That’s where the “hybrid” select idea comes into action. It’s “hybrid” because it consists of two selects, showing the appropriate one at the right moment:

  • A native select, visible and accessible by default
  • A custom select, hidden until it’s safe to be interacted with a mouse

The implementation uses a genius combination of a hover media query and an adjacent sibling selector in CSS. It has been tested on a number of device/platform/browser combinations but more tests are welcome!

What I love about this solution is that it satisfies the stakeholders insisting on a custom component but doesn’t abandon all the built-in accessibility that you get from native form controls.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

Robin Rendle ・ Notes about product design

Some good thought morsels from Robin on product design:

Bad product design is when folks talk more about the UI than what the UI is built on top of.

There’s a lot of talk about how great design is invisible—mostly boring conversations with little substance—but! I think that’s true when it comes to product design.

Bad product design is when your interface looks like your org chart.