Ethan ponders what the web might be like if the kind of legal sticks that exist for accessibility in some countries also existed for performance.
Thursday, November 8th, 2018
Monday, October 15th, 2018
I recently asked a friend who happens to be blind if he’d share some sites that were built really well—sites that were beautifully accessible. You know what he said? “I don’t use the web. Everything is broken.”
Everything is broken. And it’s broken because we broke it.
But we can do better.
Monday, September 10th, 2018
Robustness and least power
There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:
Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.
In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:
It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.
In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.
I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?
Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.
In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.
- Instead of using ARIA to give a certain
rolevalue to a
span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.
It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.
There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:
So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.
There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.
After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…
Tuesday, August 21st, 2018
A deep, deep dive into biomicry in digital design.
Nature is our outsourced research and development department. Observing problems solved by nature can help inform how we approach problems in digital design. Nature doesn’t like arbitrary features. It finds a way to shed unnecessary elements in advancing long-term goals over vast systems.
Friday, April 20th, 2018
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
Dave has curated a handy list of eponymous laws.
Thursday, January 18th, 2018
The transcript of a talk by Charles Stross on the perils of prediction and the lessons of the past. It echoes Ted Chiang’s observation that runaway AIs are already here, and they’re called corporations.
History gives us the perspective to see what went wrong in the past, and to look for patterns, and check whether those patterns apply to the present and near future. And looking in particular at the history of the past 200-400 years—the age of increasingly rapid change—one glaringly obvious deviation from the norm of the preceding three thousand centuries—is the development of Artificial Intelligence, which happened no earlier than 1553 and no later than 1844.
I’m talking about the very old, very slow AIs we call corporations, of course.
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
- Fitts’s Law
- Hick’s Law
- Jakob’s Law
- Law of Prägnanz
- Law of Proximity
- Miller’s Law
- Parkinson’s Law
- Serial Position Effect
- Tesler’s Law
- Van Restorff Effect
- Murphy’s Law
- Sturgeon’s Law
Monday, June 12th, 2017
- People v. Dronimos
- Writers v. A.I. Rowling
- The Algorithm Defense
Friday, February 3rd, 2017
Are you an EU/EEA national living in the UK? Worried about your rights and options post-Brexit?
Alex has an organised an event at 68 Middle Street for March 16th with an immigration advisor, The £5 ticket fee is refundable after the event or you can donate it to charity.
Monday, November 21st, 2016
A series of quick’n’dirty prototypes to illustrate some of the design challenges involved in handling personal data:
- Data access tracker
- Data minimisation
- Guardian for digital identity
- Home privacy settings
- Portable shopping list
- Single trip insurance checker
If we don’t start exploring what the General Data Protection Regulation means for people, the same thing that happened with the cookie law will happen again.
These new rights have the potential to improve how our digital products and services work.
Saturday, October 8th, 2016
Finally! Apple are being sued for refusing to allow any non-Webkit browsers to be installed on iOS.
I’m not usually in favour of legal action but in this case, there doesn’t seem to be any other recourse.
We would be delighted at Nexedi to create a Web browser for iOS with better HTML5 support based on a recent version of Blink library for example. But as soon as we would publish it, it would be banned from Apple’s AppStore. Many developers have experienced this situation already. Many companies are being hurt by this situation. Some companies have already begged Apple to improve HTML5 support in iOS with little significant results.
Tuesday, May 17th, 2016
Marvellous insights from Mark on how the robustness principle can and should be applied to styeguides and pattern libraries (‘sfunny—I was talking about Postel’s Law just this morning at An Event Apart in Boston).
Being liberal in accepting things into the system, and being liberal about how you go about that, ensures you don’t police the system. You collaborate on it.
So, what about the output? Remember: be ’conservative in what you do’. For a design system, this means your output of the system – guidelines, principles, design patterns, code, etc etc. – needs to be clear, unambiguous, and understandable.
Monday, February 8th, 2016
Good news for net neutrality from India:
No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content.
Friday, September 25th, 2015
I refuse to believe that this cramped, stifling, stalkerish vision of the commercial Internet is the best we can do.
Sunday, June 28th, 2015
Sunday, December 7th, 2014
Sounds like a cute idea, right?
In fact it’s the best thing you’re ever likely to read on Peruvian ursine immigration.
Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014
This is a superbly-written, empathetic, nuanced look at the issues around Creative Commons licensing, particularly the danger of inferring a “spirit” in a legal agreement.
“Spirit” as it’s being used in this conversation is a relative term. You have the spirit of the user, the spirit of the license, the spirit of the community, the spirit of the service, and the spirit of the law. All these can align and all these can diverge and that’s OK. It is also the reason we have a legal system that sets clear parameters for how things can be interpreted: Spirit is relative, legal decisions and documents are not (at least in theory). The whole idea of a legal contract (under which we can find CC licenses) is that there is no room for interpretation. The meaning of the document is singular, unambiguous, and not up for debate. Of course this is purely theoretical, but that’s the idea anyway.
The problem arises when the spirit – or intent – of the user when applying a license differs from the actual legal interpretation of that same license.
The title is harsh, but this is a good summation of the issues involved in choosing a Creative Commons licence.
Open licensing is about giving up control so that other people can benefit. That’s all it will cost you: control. Having control feels nice. But you should ask yourself what it really gets you. And you should think about what others might gain if you were able to let go.
Think carefully and decide what you need. No one is going to make you tick that Creative Commons box. But when you do, it’s a promise.
Creative Commons licences have a variety of attributes, that can be combined together:
- No-derivatives: the work can be reused, but not altered.
- Attribution: the work must be credited.
- Share-alike: any derivates must share the same licence.
- Non-commercial: the work can be used, but not for commercial purposes.
That last one is important. If you don’t attach a non-commercial licence to your work, then your work can be resold for profit (it might be remixed first, or it might have to include your name—that all depends on what other attributes you’ve included in the licence).
If you’re not comfortable with anyone reselling your work, you should definitely choose a non-commercial licence.
Flickr is planning to sell canvas prints of photos that have been licensed under Creative Commons licenses that don’t include the non-commercial clause. They are perfectly within their rights to do this—this is exactly what the licence allows—but some people are very upset about it.
Jeffrey says it’s short-sighted and sucky because it violates the spirit in which the photos were originally licensed. I understand that feeling, but that’s simply not the way that the licences work. If you want to be able to say “It’s okay for some people to use my work for profit, but it’s not okay for others”, then you need to apply a more restrictive licence (like copyright, or Creative Commons Non-commercial) and then negotiate on a case-by-case basis for each usage.
But if you apply a licence that allows commercial usage, you must accept that there will be commercial usages that you aren’t comfortable with. Frankly, Flickr selling canvas prints of your photos is far from a worst-case scenario.
I licence my photos under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. That means they can be used anywhere—including being resold for profit—as long as I’m credited as the photographer. Because of that, my photos have shown up in all sorts of great places: food blogs, Wikipedia, travel guides, newspapers. But they’ve also shown up in some awful places, like Techcrunch. I might not like that, but it’s no good me complaining that an organisation (even one whose values I disagree with) is using my work exactly as the licence permits.
Before allowing commercial use of your creative works, you should ask “What’s the worst that could happen?” The worst that could happen includes scenarios like white supremacists, misogynists, or whacko conspiracy theorists using your work on their websites, newsletters, and billboards (with your name included if you’ve used an attribution licence). If you aren’t willing to live with that, do not allow commercial use of your work.
When I chose to apply a Creative Commons Attribution licence to my photographs, it was because I decided I could live with those worst-case scenarios. I decided that the potential positives outweighed the potential negatives. I stand by that decision. My photos might appear on a mudsucking site like Techcrunch, or get sold as canvas prints to make money for Flickr, but I’m willing to accept those usages in order to allow others to freely use my photos.
Some people have remarked that this move by Flickr to sell photos for profit will make people think twice about allowing commercial use of their work. To that I say …good! It has become clear that some people haven’t put enough thought into their licensing choices—they never asked “What’s the worst that could happen?”
And let’s be clear here: this isn’t some kind of bait’n’switch by Flickr. It’s not like liberal Creative Commons licensing is the default setting for photos hosted on that site. The default setting is copyright, all rights reserved. You have to actively choose a more liberal licence.
So I’m trying to figure out how it ended up that people chose the wrong licence for their photos. Because I want this to be perfectly clear: if you chose a licence that allows for commercial usage of your photos, but you’re now upset that a company is making commercial usage of your photos, you chose the wrong licence.
Perhaps the licence-choosing interface could have been clearer. Instead of simply saying “here’s what attribution means” or “here’s what non-commercial means”, perhaps it should also include lists of pros and cons: “here’s some of the uses you’ll be enabling”, but also “here’s the worst that could happen.”
Jen suggests a new Creative Commons licence that essentially inverts the current no-derivates licence; this would be a “derivative works only” licence. But unfortunately it sounds a bit too much like a read-my-mind licence:
What if I want to allow someone to use a photo in a conference slide deck, even if they are paid to present, but I don’t want to allow a company that sells stock photos to snatch up my photo and resell it?
Jen’s post is entitled I Don’t Want “Creative Commons By” To Mean You Can Rip Me Off …but that’s exactly what a Creative Commons licence without a non-commercial clause can mean. Of course, it’s not the only usage that such a licence allows (it allows many, many positive scenarios), but it’s no good pretending it were otherwise. If you’re not comfortable with that use-case, don’t enable it. Personally, I’m okay with that use-case because I believe it is offset by the more positive usages.
And that’s an important point: this is a personal decision, and not one to be taken lightly. Personally, I’m not a professional or even amateur photographer, so commercial uses of my photos are fine with me. Most professional photographers wouldn’t dream of allowing commercial use of their photos without payment, and rightly so. But even for non-professionals like myself, there are implications to allowing commercial use (one of those implications being that there will be usages you won’t necessarily be happy about).
So, going back to my earlier question, does the licence-choosing interface on Flickr make the implications of your choice clear?
Here’s the page for applying licences. You get to it by going to “Settings”, then “Privacy and Permissions,” then under “Defaults for new uploads,” the setting “What license will your content have.”
On that page, there’s a heading “Which license is right for you?” That has three hyperlinks:
- A page on Creative Commons about the licences,
- Frequently Asked Questions,
- A page of issues specifically related to images.
In that list of Frequently Asked Questions, there’s What things should I think about before I apply a Creative Commons license? and How should I decide which license to choose? There’s some good advice in there (like when in doubt, talk to a lawyer), but at no point does it suggest that you should ask yourself “What’s the worst that could happen?”
So it certainly seems that Flickr could be doing a better job of making the consequences of your licensing choice clearer. That might have the effect of making it a scarier choice, and it might put some people off using Creative Commons licences. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I would much rather that people made an informed decision.
When I chose to apply a Creative Commons Attribution licence to my photos, I did not make the decision lightly. I assumed that others who made the same choice also understood the consequences of that decision. Now I’m not so sure. Now I think that some people made uninformed licensing decisions in the past, which explains why they’re upset now (and I’m not blaming them for making the wrong decision—Flickr, and even Creative Commons, could have done a better job of providing relevant, easily understable information).
But this is one Internet Outrage train that I won’t be climbing aboard. Alas, that means I must now be considered a corporate shill who’s sold out to The Man.
Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows the Klu Klux Klan to use your work isn’t the same as defending the Klu Klux Klan.
Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows a hardcore porn film to use your music isn’t the same as defending hardcore porn.
Pointing out that a particular Creative Commons licence allows Yahoo to flog canvas prints of your photos isn’t the same as defending Yahoo.