Tags: materials

12

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Wednesday, April 10th, 2019

Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

Thursday, November 22nd, 2018

Essays « Object Lessons

Fax machines, pop-up books, radioactive televisions, writing boxes, microfilm readers, nuclear bomb cores, cupholders, bidets, jet engines, index cards, wiffle balls, oil barrels, lightning rods, playing cards, air conditioning, hair dryers, wheelchair ramps, handbags, diving bells, slippers, laundry chutes, sewing machines, pockets, skee-ball, safety pins, chalkboards, tote bags, holograms, hearing aids, dollhouses, billboards, airports, flash drives, cardigans, beer cans, stethoscopes, text editors, mugs, wallpaper, towel dispensers, bumber stickers, staplers, microscopes, fingerless gloves, wire hangers, toast, and more.

I’ll be in my bunk.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Neodymium – Popula

Magnets: How Do They Work?

Magnetism might be the most romantic of all the topics in science to be metaphorically butchered by poets.

How Do We Keep Up? What Happens if CSS Grid Changes? - YouTube

Another great video from Jen as part of her Layout Land series. This time she addresses the question of the overwhelming technology landscape for developers and where they should invest their time.

She references my most recent talk, where I’ve been drawing a distinction between “materials” (HTML, CSS, JavaScript) and “tools” (everything else).

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Steve Jobs on Prototypes - Snook.ca

I’ve thought often of how our design and prototyping tools for the web are often not of the web. Tools like Photoshop and Sketch and Invision create approximations but need to walk the line between being a tool to build native apps and to build web apps. They do well in their ability to quickly validate designs but do little to validate technical approach.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Understandable excitement

An Event Apart Seattle just wrapped. It was a three-day special edition and it was really rather good. Lots of the speakers (myself included) were unveiling brand new talks, so there was a real frisson of excitement.

It was interesting to see repeating, overlapping themes. From a purely technical perspective, three technologies that were front and centre were:

  • CSS grid,
  • variable fonts, and
  • service workers.

From listening to other attendees, the overwhelming message received was “These technologies are here—they’ve arrived.” Now, depending on your mindset, that understanding can be expressed as “Oh shit! These technologies are here!” or “Yay! Finally! These technologies are here!”

My reaction is very firmly the latter. That in itself is an interesting data-point, because (as discussed in my talk) my reaction towards new technological advances isn’t always one of excitement—quite often it’s one of apprehension, even fear.

I’ve been trying to self-analyse to figure out which kinds of technologies trigger which kind of reaction. I don’t have any firm answers yet, but it’s interesting to note that the three technologies mentioned above (CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers) are all additions to the core languages of the web—the materials we use to build the web. Frameworks, libraries, build tools, and other such technologies are more like tools than materials. I tend to get less excited about advances in those areas. Sometimes advances in those areas not only fail to trigger excitement, they make me feel overwhelmed and worried about falling behind.

Since figuring out this split between materials and tools, it has helped me come to terms with my gut emotional reaction to the latest technological advances on the web. I think it’s okay that I don’t get excited about everything. And given the choice, I think maybe it’s healthier to be more excited about advances in the materials—HTML, CSS, and JavaScript APIs—than advances in tooling …although, it is, of course, perfectly possible to get equally excited about both (that’s just not something I seem to be able to do).

Another split I’ve noticed is between technologies that directly benefit users, and technologies that directly benefit developers. I think there was a bit of a meta-thread running through the talks at An Event Apart about CSS grid, variable fonts, and service workers: all of those advances allow us developers to accomplish more with less. They’re good for performance, in other words. I get much more nervous about CSS frameworks and JavaScript libraries that allow us to accomplish more, but require the user to download the framework or library first. It feels different when something is baked into browsers—support for CSS features, or JavaScript APIs. Then it feels like much more of a win-win situation for users and developers. If anything, the onus is on developers to take the time and do the work and get to grips with these browser-native technologies. I’m okay with that.

Anyway, all of this helps me understand my feelings at the end of An Event Apart Seattle. I’m fired up and eager to make something with CSS grid, variable fonts, and—of course—service workers.

Sunday, March 4th, 2018

Futurists & realists – The Man in Blue

Cameron contrasts Syd Mead with Frank Lloyd Wright.

Mastery of materials is a valuable thing to have. It will help you build what’s needed now and forge ahead into the near future. But vision is also valuable – it helps inspire and drive teams, and lays out a longer term future that can alter the path of humanity. What I take from the futurists and the realists is that there’s a place for every person and every process; what you need to do is find your own place, get comfortable, and own it.

Friday, January 12th, 2018

Saving Your Web Workflows with Prototyping · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

A well-written (and beautifully designed) article on the nature of the web, and what that means for those of us who build upon it. Matthias builds on the idea of material honestly and concludes that designing through prototypes—rather than making pictures of websites—results in a truer product.

A prototyping mindset means cultivating transparency and showing your work early to your team, to users – and to clients as well, which can spark excited conversations. A prototyping mindset also means valuing learning over fast results. And it means involving everyone from the beginning and closely working together as a team to dissolve the separation of linear workflows.

Thursday, September 12th, 2013

BBC Click: 10 Sept 2013: Brighton Digital Festival on Huffduffer

A report from the BBC on this year’s Brighton Digital Festival including interviews with Honor, Timo, and Seb.

Tuesday, September 10th, 2013

Immaterials, dConstruct and Culture Ships on Vimeo

Iain M.Banks and dConstruct, together at last.

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Immaterials - Talks - BERG

Matt Jones on sociality, data, radio and time.