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Wednesday, June 29th, 2022

How we think about browsers | The GitHub Blog

JavaScript doesn’t get executed on very old browsers when native syntax for new language features is encountered. However, thanks to GitHub being built following the principle of progressive enhancement, users of older browsers still get to interact with basic features of GitHub, while users with more capable browsers get a faster experience.

That’s the way to do it!

Concepts like progressive enhancement allow us to deliver the best experience possible to the majority of customers, while delivering a useful experience to those using older browsers.

Read on for the nitty-gritty details…

Monday, June 27th, 2022

SPAs: theory versus practice | Read the Tea Leaves

At the risk of grossly oversimplifying things, I propose that the core of the debate can be summed up by these truisms:

  1. The best SPA is better than the best MPA.
  2. The average SPA is worse than the average MPA.

In and Out of Style · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

Some thoughts—and kind words—prompted by my recent talk, In And Out Of Style.

Friday, June 24th, 2022

Talking about style

I’ve published a transcription of the talk I gave at CSS Day:

In And Out Of Style.

The title is intended to have double meaning. The obvious reference is that CSS is about styling web pages. But the talk also covers some long-term trends looking at ideas that have appear, disappear, and reappear over time. Hence, style as in trends and fashion.

There are some hyperlinks in the transcript but I also published a list of links if you’re interested in diving deeper into some of the topics mentioned in the talk.

I also published the slides but, as usual, they don’t make much sense out of context. They’re on Noti.st too.

I made an audio recording for your huffduffing pleasure.

There are two videos of this talk. On Vimeo, there’s the version I pre-recorded for An Event Apart online. On YouTube, there’s the recording from CSS Day.

It’s kind of interesting to compare the two (well, interesting to me, anyway). The pre-recorded version feels like a documentary. The live version has more a different vibe and it obviously has more audience interaction. I think my style of delivery suits a live audience best.

I invite you to read, watch, or listen to In And Out Of Style, whichever you prefer.

Monday, June 20th, 2022

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.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

Introducing Opportunities & Experiments: Taking the Guesswork out of Performance - WebPageTest Blog

WebPageTest just got even better! Now you can mimic the results of what would’ve previously required actually shipping, like adding third-party scripts, switching from a client-rendered to a server-rendered architecture and other changes that could potentially have a big effect on performance. Now you can run an experiment to get the results before actual implementation.

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.

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.

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

Pace layers and design principles

I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.

I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.

Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:

My own little mash-up is applying pace layers to the World Wide Web. Tom even brought it to life as an animation.

See the Pen Web Layers Of Pace by Tom (@webrocker) on CodePen.

Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.

I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):

Purpose » Principles » Patterns

Your purpose is “why?”

That then influences your principles, “how?”

Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”

Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:

  • Production
  • Patterns
  • Principles
  • Purpose

Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.

As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.

I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.

Monday, May 23rd, 2022

The balance has shifted away from SPAs | Read the Tea Leaves

I’ve got the same hunch as Nolan:

There’s a feeling in the air. A zeitgeist. SPAs are no longer the cool kids they once were 10 years ago.

And I think he’s right to frame the appeal of single page apps in terms of control (even if that control comes at the expense of performance and first-load user experience).

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

6, 97: Why scorpions?

A fascinating and inspiring meditation on aerodynamics.

Image previews with the FileReader API

I added a “notes” section to this website eight years ago. I set it up so that notes could be syndicated to Twitter. Ever since then, that’s the only way I post to Twitter.

A few months later I added photos to my notes. Again, this would get syndicated to Twitter.

Something’s bothered me for a long time though. I initially thought that if I posted a photo, then the accompanying text would serve as a decription of the image. It could effectively act as the alt text for the image, I thought. But in practice it didn’t work out that way. The text was often a commentary on the image, which isn’t the same as a description of the contents.

I needed a way to store alt text for images. To make it more complicated, it was possible for one note to have multiple images. So even though a note was one line in my database, I somehow needed a separate string of text with the description of each image in a single note.

I eventually settled on using the file system instead of the database. The images themselves are stored in separate folders, so I figured I could have an accompanying alt.txt file in each folder.

Take this note from yesterday as an example. Different sizes of the image are stored in the folder /images/uploaded/19077. Here’s a small version of the image and here’s the original. In that same folder is the alt text.

This means I’m reading a file every time I need the alt text instead of reading from a database, which probably isn’t the most performant way of doing it, but it seems to be working okay.

Here’s another example:

In order to add the alt text to the image, I needed to update my posting interface. By default it’s a little textarea, followed by a file upload input, followed by a toggle (a checkbox under the hood) to choose whether or not to syndicate the note to Twitter.

The interface now updates automatically as soon as I use that input type="file" to choose any images for the note. Using the FileReader API, I show a preview of the selected images right after the file input.

Here’s the code if you ever need to do something similar. I’ve abstracted it somewhat in that gist—you should be able to drop it into any page that includes input type="file" accept="image/*" and it will automatically generate the previews.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this was. The FileReader API worked just as expected without any gotchas. I think I always assumed that this would be quite complex to do because once upon a time, it was quite complex (or impossible) to do. But now it’s wonderfully straightforward. Story of the web.

My own version of the script does a little bit more; it also generates another little textarea right after each image preview, which is where I write the accompanying alt text.

I’ve also updated my server-side script that handles the syndication to Twitter. I’m using the /media/metadata/create method to provide the alt text. But for some reason it’s not working. I can’t figure out why. I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking at an image I’ve posted on Twitter and you’re judging me for its lack of alt text, my apologies. But each tweet of mine includes a link back to the original note on this site and you will most definitely find the alt text for the image there.

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

The Demise of the Mildly Dynamic Website

It me:

Broadly, these are websites which are still web pages, not web applications; they’re pages of essentially static information, personal websites, blogs, and so on, but they are slightly dynamic. They might have a style selector at the top of each page, causing a cookie to be set, and the server to serve a different stylesheet on every subsequent page load.

This rings sadly true to me:

Suppose a company makes a webpage for looking up products by their model number. If this page were made in 2005, it would probably be a single PHP page. It doesn’t need a framework — it’s one SELECT query, that’s it. If this page were made in 2022, a conundrum will be faced: the company probably chose to use a statically generated website. The total number of products isn’t too large, so instead their developers stuff a gigantic JSON file of model numbers for every product made by the company on the website and add some client-side JavaScript to download and query it. This increases download sizes and makes things slower, but at least you didn’t have to spin up and maintain a new application server. This example is fictitious but I believe it to be representative.

Also, I never thought about “serverless” like this:

Recently we’ve seen the rise in popularity of AWS Lambda, a “functions as a service” provider. From my perspective this is literally a reinvention of CGI, except a) much more complicated for essentially the same functionality, b) with vendor lock-in, c) with a much more complex and bespoke deployment process which requires the use of special tools.

Reinventing W3C Governance

To be honest, I’m not all that convinced by Robin’s arguments here about overhauling the governance model at the World Wide Web Consortium (partly because the way he describes the current model sounds pretty okay to me). But I’m very interested in what he has to say in the broader philosophical sense about using values to solve problems:

A value is worth something if it’s there to help you when the rubber hits the road and starts hydroplaning. Sure, you’ll need a handful of high-level lofty values as reminders, if only because there’s always a vocal guy (it’s always a guy) who thinks it’s just outrageous to put people before profits. But mostly you want Values You Can Use.

That might be the best description I’ve come across yet for design principles: values you can use.

When we say that engineering is about trade-offs, we’re saying that engineers solve their hardest problems using values (which they call “heuristics” because everyone’s entitled to be fancy some). In implementing a system, you might need to decide between an option that provides people with the best experience, another that delivers the greatest value to the shareholders, and yet a third one that makes the control centre blinkenlights dance in the prettiest way.

Tuesday, May 10th, 2022

Agile design principles

I may have mentioned this before, but I’m a bit of a nerd for design principles. Have I shown you my equivalent of an interesting rock collection lately?

If you think about design principles for any period of time, it inevitably gets very meta very quickly. You start thinking about what makes for good design principles. In other words, you start wondering if there are design principles for design principles.

I’ve written before about how I think good design principles should encode some level of prioritisation. The classic example is the HTML design principle called the priority of consitituencies:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.

It’s wonderfully practical!

I realised recently that there’s another set of design princples that put prioritisation front and centre—the Agile manifesto:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

And there’s this excellent explanation which could just as well apply to the priorty of constituencies:

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Yes! That’s the spirit!

Ironically, the Agile manifesto also contains a section called principles behind the Agile manifesto which are …less good (at least they’re less good as design principles—they’re fine as hypotheses to be tested).

Agile is far from perfect. See, for example, Miriam Posner’s piece Agile and the Long Crisis of Software. But where Agile isn’t fulfilling its promise, I’d say it’s not because of its four design principles. If anything, I think the problems arise from organisations attempting to implement Agile without truly internalising the four principles.

Oh, and that’s another thing I like about the Agile manifesto as a set of design principles—the list of prioritised principles is mercifully short. Just four lines.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Why I don’t miss React: a story about using the platform - Jack Franklin

This is a great case study of switching from a framework mindset to native browser technologies.

Though this is quite specific to Jack’s own situation, I do feel like there’s something in the air here. The native browser features are now powerful and stable enough to make the framework approach feel outdated.

And if you do want to use third-party dependencies, Jack makes a great case for choosing smaller single-responsibility helpers rather than monolithic frameworks.

Replacing lit-html would be an undertaking but much less so than replacing React: it’s used in our codebase purely for having our components (re)-render HTML. Replacing lit-html would still mean that we can keep our business logic, ultimately maintaining the value they provide to end-users. Lit-Html is one small Lego brick in our system, React (or Angular, or similar) is the entire box.

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

Trust • Robin Rendle

Robin adds a long-zoom perspective on my recent post:

I am extremely confident that pretty much any HTML I write today will render the same way in 50 years’ time. How confident am I that my CSS will work correctly? Mmmm…70%. Hand-written JavaScript? Way less, maybe 50%. A third-party service I install on a website or link to? 0% confident. Heck, I’m doubtful that any third-party service will survive until next year, let alone 50 years from now.

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

Trust and suspicion | Keenan Payne

Another thoughtful reponse to my recent post.

Reflections on native browser features and third-party library adoption.

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!)