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Monday, August 9th, 2021

Turning 30 · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

I have no idea what the web will look like in another 30 years. But I am sure that we will look back at the first 30 years of the Web like we look back at the silent era in cinema today: as the formative years of a medium that was about to evolve to even higher heights.

The Web has always been about what each and every one of us contributes. And contributing is easier and more important than ever. So let’s not leave the future of the Web to big tech alone. Inclusiveness, accessibility, performance, security, usability, decentralization, openness – in almost all areas, the Web is far from done.

Design Titles

Keep refreshing until you find your next job title.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

Midweight Design Engineer | Clearleft

Want to work with me? If so, come and be a design engineer at Clearleft!

What’s a design engineer? A front-end developer at the front of the front end who values accessibility, performance, and progressive enhancement.

We’re looking for a design-friendly front-end developer with demonstrable skills in pattern-based prototyping and production to join our friendly and supportive team in the heart of Brighton.

Even if this isn’t for you, please spread the word …especially to potential candidates who aren’t mediocre middle-aged white dudes (I’ve already got that demographic covered).

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.

Sunday, March 28th, 2021

Content Design Basics by Giles Turnbull - YouTube

This is a great series of short videos all about content design. The one on writing for humans is particularly good.

Tuesday, February 23rd, 2021

239: New CSS Tricks and Design Engineers | CSS-Tricks

We need engineers, we need designers, and we absolutely need design engineers to make that connection across the great divide between the front-of-the-front-end and the back-of-the-front-end. It’s only then that we can make truly great things together.

Friday, February 19th, 2021

Design Engineering - Snook.ca

Here’s a seven-year old post by Snook—this design engineer thing is not new.

Design engineer

It’s been just over two years since Chris wrote his magnum opus about The Great Divide. It really resonated with me, and a lot of other people.

The crux of it is that the phrase “front-end development” has become so broad and applies to so many things, that it has effectively lost its usefulness:

Two front-end developers are sitting at a bar. They have nothing to talk about.

Brad nailed the differences in responsibilities when he described them as front-of-the-front-end and back-of-the-front-end web development:

A front-of-the-front-end developer is a web developer who specializes in writing HTML, CSS, and presentational JavaScript code.

A back-of-the-front-end developer is a web developer who specializes in writing JavaScript code necessary to make a web application function properly.

In my experience, the term “full stack developer” is often self-applied by back-of-the-front-end developers who perhaps underestimate the complexity of front-of-the-front development.

Me, I’m very much a front-of-the-front developer. And the dev work we do at Clearleft very much falls into that realm.

This division of roles and responsibilities reminds me of a decision we made in the founding days of Clearleft. Would we attempt to be a full-service agency, delivering everything from design to launch? Or would we specialise? We decided to specialise, doubling down on UX design, which was at the time an under-served area. But we still decided to do front-end development. We felt that working with the materials of the web would allow us to deliver better UX.

We made a conscious decision not to do back-end development. Partly it was a question of scale. If you were a back-end shop, you probably had to double down on one stack: PHP or Ruby or Python. We didn’t want to have to turn away any clients based on their tech stack. Of course this meant that we had to partner with other agencies that specialised in those stacks, and that’s what we did—we had trusted partners for Drupal development, Rails development, Wordpress development, and so on.

The world of front-end development didn’t have that kind of fragmentation. The only real split at the time was between Flash agencies and web standards (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript).

Overall, our decision to avoid back-end development stood us in good stead. There were plenty of challenges though. We had to learn how to avoid “throwing stuff over the wall” at whoever would be doing the final back-end implementation. I think that’s why we latched on to design systems so early. It was clearly a better deliverable for the people building the final site—much better than mock-ups or pages.

Avoiding back-end development meant we also avoided long-term lock-in with maintainence, security, hosting, and so on. It might sound strange for an agency to actively avoid long-term revenue streams, but at Clearleft it’s always been our philosophy to make ourselves redundant. We want to give our clients everything they need—both in terms of deliverables and knowledge—so that they aren’t dependent on us.

That all worked great as long as there was a clear distinction between front-end development and back-end development. Front-end development was anything that happened in a browser. Back-end development was anything that happened on the server.

But as the waters muddied and complex business logic migrated from the server to the client, our offering became harder to clarify. We’d tell clients that we did front-end development (meaning we’d supply them with components formed of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript) and they might expect us to write application logic in React.

That’s why Brad’s framing resonated with me. Clearleft does front-of-front-end development, but we liaise with our clients’ back-of-the-front-end developers. In fact, that bridging work—between design and implementation—is where devs at Clearleft shine.

As much as I can relate to the term front-of-front-end, it doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. I don’t expect it to be anyone’s job title anytime soon.

That’s why I was so excited by the term “design engineer,” which I think I first heard from Natalya Shelburne. There’s even a book about it and the job description sounds very much like the front-of-the-front-end work but with a heavy emphasis on the collaboration and translation between design and implementation. As Trys puts it:

What I love about the name “Design Engineer”, is that it’s entirely focused on the handshake between those two other roles.

There’s no mention of UI, CSS, front-end, design systems, documentation, prototyping, tooling or any ‘hard’ skills that could be used in the role itself.

Trys has been doing some soul-searching and has come to the conclusion “I think I might be a design engineer…”. He has also written on the Clearleft blog about how well the term describes design and development at Clearleft.

Personally, I’m not a fan of using the term “engineer” to refer to anyone who isn’t actually a qualified engineer—I explain why in my talk Building—but I accept that that particular ship has sailed. And the term “design developer” just sounds odd. So I’m all in using the term “design engineer”.

I can imagine this phrase being used in a job ad. It could also be attached to levels: a junior design engineer, a mid-level design engineer, a senior design engineer; each level having different mixes of code and collaboration (maybe a head of design enginering never writes any code).

Trys has written a whole series of posts on the nitty-gritty work involved in design engineering. I highly recommend reading all of them:

Monday, January 25th, 2021

Halt and Catch Fire Syllabus

The intent is for this website to be used by self-forming small groups that want to create a “watching club” (like a book club) and discuss aspects of technology history that are featured in this series.

I’m about ready to rewatch Halt And Catch Fire. Anybody want to form a watching club with me?

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

Not so short note on aria-label usage – Big Table Edition – HTML Accessibility

This is a very handy table of elements from Steve of where aria-label can be applied.

Like, for example, not on a div element.

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

People Problems | CSS-Tricks

I’d maybe simplify this people problem a bit: the codebase is easy to change, but the incentives within a company are not. And yet it’s the incentives that drive what kind of code gets written — what is acceptable, what needs to get fixed, how people work together. In short, we cannot be expected to fix the code without fixing the organization, too.

Wednesday, October 14th, 2020

How-to: Create accessible forms - The A11Y Project

Another five pieces of sweet, sweet low-hanging fruit:

  • Always label your inputs.
  • Highlight input element on focus.
  • Break long forms into smaller sections.
  • Provide error messages.
  • Avoid horizontal layout forms unless necessary.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

5 most annoying website features I face as a blind person every single day by Holly Tuke

Five pieces of low-hanging fruit:

  • Unlabelled links and buttons
  • No image descriptions
  • Poor use of headings
  • Inaccessible web forms
  • Auto-playing audio and video

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

SydCSS 7th Birthday with Ethan Marcotte - YouTube

A great talk by Ethan called The Design Systems Between Us.

SydCSS 7th Birthday with Ethan Marcotte

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Uniting the team with Jamstack | Trys Mudford

This is a superb twenty minute presentation by Trys! It’s got everything: a great narrative, technical know-how, and a slick presentation style.

Conference organisers: you should get Trys to speak at your event!

Tuesday, August 25th, 2020

The difference between aria-label and aria-labelledby - Tink - Léonie Watson

A handy reminder from Léonie (though remember that the best solution is to avoid the problem in the first place—if you avoid using ARIA, do that).

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

The design systems between us. — Ethan Marcotte

Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.

Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

as days pass by — Browsers are not rendering engines

You see, diversity of rendering engines isn’t actually in itself the point. What’s really important is diversity of influence: who has the ability to make decisions which shape the web in particular ways, and do they make those decisions for good reasons or not so good?

Stuart responds to a post from Brian that was riffing off a post of mine from a while back. I like this kind of social network.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

Five Key Milestones in the Life of a Design System - daverupert.com

Five moments in the lifecycle of a design system. They grow up so fast!

  1. Formation of the Design System Team
  2. First Page Shipped
  3. Consumable Outside the Main Product
  4. First Non-System Team Consumer
  5. First Breaking Change

Dave makes the observation that design systems are less like open source software and more like enterprise software—software you didn’t choose to use:

Often, in my experience, for an internal Design System to have widespread adoption it requires a literal executive mandate from the top floor of the building.

Also: apparently design systems have achieved personhood now and we’re capitalising them as proper names. First name Design, last name System.

“Please, call me Design. Mr. System was my father.”

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

Why does writing matter in remote work? — Tim Casasola

Some good writing advice in here:

  • Spell out your acronyms.
  • Use active voice, not passive voice.
  • Fewer commas. More periods.