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Sunday, January 10th, 2021

My typical day

Colin wrote about his typical day and suggested I do the same.

Y’know, in the Before Times I think this would’ve been trickier. What with travelling and speaking, I didn’t really have a “typical” day …and I liked it that way. Now, thanks to The Situation, my days are all pretty similar.

  • 8:30am — This is the time I’ve set my alarm for, but sometimes I wake up a bit earlier. I get up, fire up the coffee machine, go to the head and empty my bladder. Maybe I’ll have a shower.
  • 9am — I fire up email and Slack, wishing my co-workers a good morning. Over the course of each day, I’ve usually got short 1:1s booked in with two or three of my colleagues. Just fifteen minutes or so to catch up and find out what they’re working on, what’s interesting, what’s frustrating. The rest of the time, I’ll probably be working on the Clearleft podcast.
  • 1pm — Lunch time. Jessica takes her lunch break at the same time. We’ll usually have a toasted sandwich or a bowl of noodles. While we eat, Jessica will quiz me with the Learned League questions she’s already answered that morning. I get all the fun of testing my knowledge without the pressure of competing.
  • 2pm — If the weather’s okay, we might head out for a brisk walk, probably to the nearby park where we can watch good doggos. Otherwise, it’s back to the podcast mines. I’ve already amassed a fair amount of raw material from interviews, so I’m spending most of my time in Descript, crafting and editing each episode. In about three hours of work, I reckon I get four or five minutes of good audio together. I should really be working on my upcoming talk for An Event Apart too, but I’m procrastinating. But I’m procrastinating by doing the podcast, so I’ve kind of tricked myself into doing something I’m supposed to be doing by avoiding something else I’m supposed to be doing.
  • Sometime between 5pm and 6pm — I knock off work. I pick up my mandolin and play some tunes. If Jessica’s done with work too, we play some tunes together.
  • 7pm — If it’s a Tuesday or Thursday, then it’s a ballet night for Jessica. While she’s in the kitchen doing her class online, I chill out in the living room, enjoying a cold beer, listening to some music with headphones on, and doing some reading or writing. I might fire up NetNewsWire and read the latest RSS updates from my friends, or I might write a blog post.
  • 8pm — If it is a ballet night, then dinner will be something quick and easy to prepare; probably pasta. Otherwise there’s more time to prepare something with care and love. Jessica is the culinary genius so my contributions are mostly just making sure she’s got her mise en place ahead of time, and cleaning up afterwards. I choose a bottle of wine and set the table, and then we sit down to eat together. It is definitely the highlight of the day.
  • 9pm — After cleaning up, I make us both cups of tea and we settle in on the sofa to watch some television. Not broadcast television; something on the Apple TV from Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney+, or BBC iPlayer most likely. If we’re in the right mood, we’ll watch a film.
  • Sometime between 11pm and midnight — I change into my PJs, brush and floss my teeth, and climb into bed with a good book. When I feel my eyelids getting heavy, I switch off the light and go to sleep. That’s where I’m a Viking!

That’s a typical work day. My work week is Monday to Thursday. I switched over to a four-day week when The Situation hit, and now I don’t ever want to go back. It means making less money, but it’s worth it for a three day weekend.

My typical weekend involves more mandolin playing, more reading, more movies, and even better meals. I’ll also do some chores: clean the floors; back up my data.

Monday, January 4th, 2021

Speaking online

I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.

Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.

But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).

Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.

Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.

I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.

Time to prepare a conference talk.

Design Principles For The Web

The opening presentation from An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus held online in August 2020.

I’d like to take you back in time, just over 100 years ago, at the beginning of World War One. It’s 1914. The United States would take another few years to join, but the European powers were already at war in the trenches, as you can see here.

A drawing of early trench warfare with soldiers wearing winter coats and peaked caps.

What I want to draw your attention to is what they’re wearing, specifically what they’re wearing on their heads. This is the standard issue for soldiers at the beginning of World War One, a very fetching cloth cap. It looks great. Not very effective at stopping shrapnel from ripping through flesh and bone.

It wasn’t long before these cloth caps were replaced with metal helmets; much sturdier, much more efficient at protection. This is the image we really associate with World War One; soldiers wearing metal helmets fighting in the trenches.

A photograph of three allied soldiers sitting together for a meal in a trench wearing camouflage uniforms and metal helmets.

Now, an interesting thing happened after the introduction of these metal helmets. If you were to look at the records from the field hospitals, you would see that there was an increase in the number of patients being admitted with severe head injuries after the introduction of these metal helmets. That seems odd and the only conclusion that we could draw seems to be that cloth helmets are actually better than the metal helmets at stopping these kind of injuries. But that wouldn’t be correct.

You can see the same kind of data today. Any state where they introduce motorcycle helmet laws saying it’s mandatory to wear motorcycle helmets, you will see an increase in the number of emergency room admissions for severe head injuries for motorcyclists.

Now, in both cases, what’s missing is the complete data set because, yes, while in World War One there was an increase in the field hospital admissions for head injuries, there was a decrease in deaths. Just as today, if there’s an increase in emergency room admissions for severe head injuries because of motorcycle helmets, you will see a decrease in the number of people going to the morgue.

Analytics

I kind of like these stories of analytics where there’s a little twist in the tale where the obvious solution turns out not to be the correct answer and our expectations are somewhat subverted. My favorite example of analytics on the web comes from a little company called YouTube. This is from a few years back.

It was documented by an engineer at YouTube called Chris Zacharias. He blogged about this. He was really frustrated with the page weight on a YouTube video page, which at the time was 1.2 megabytes. That’s without the video. That’s the HTML, the CSS, the JavaScript, the images. This just seemed too big (and I would agree: it is too big).

Chris set about working on making a smaller version of a video page. He called this Project Feather. He worked and worked at it, and he managed to get a page down to just 98 kilobytes, so from 1.2 megabytes to 98 kilobytes. That’s an order of magnitude difference.

Then he set up shipping this to different segments of the audience and watching the analytics to see what rolled in. He was hoping to see a huge increase in the number of people engaging with the content. But here’s what he blogged.

The average aggregate page latency under Feather had actually increased. I had decreased the total page weight and number of requests to a tenth of what they were previously and somehow the numbers were showing that it was taking longer for videos to load on Feather, and this could not be possible. Digging through the numbers more (and after browser testing repeatedly), nothing made sense.

I was just about to give up on the project with my world view completely shattered when my colleague discovered the answer: geography. When we plotted the data geographically and compared it to our total numbers (broken out by region), there was a disproportionate increase in traffic from places like Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and even remote regions of Siberia.

A further investigation revealed that, in those places, the average page load time under Feather was over two minutes. That means that a regular video page (at over a megabyte) was taking over 20 minutes to load.

Again, what was happening here was that there was a whole new set of data. There were people who literally couldn’t even load the page because it would take 20 minutes who couldn’t access YouTube who now, because of this Project Feather, for the first time were able to access YouTube. What that looked like, according to the analytics, was that page load time had overall gone up. What was missing was the full data set.

Expectations

I really like these stories that kind of play with our expectations. When the reveal comes, it’s almost like hearing the punchline to a joke, right? Your expectations are set up and then subverted.

Jeff Greenspan is a comedian who talks about this. He talks about expectations in terms of music and comedy. He points out that they both deal with expectations over time.

In music, the pleasure comes from your expectations being met. A song sets up a rhythm. When that rhythm is met, that’s pleasurable. A song is using a particular scale and when those notes on that scale are hit, it’s pleasurable. Music that’s not fun to listen to tends to be arhythmic and atonal where you can’t really get a handle on what’s going to come next.

Comedy works the other way where it sets up expectations and then pulls the rug out from under you — the surprise.

Now, you can use music and you can use comedy in your designs. If you were setting up a lovely grid and a vertical rhythm, that’s like music. It’s a lovely, predictable feeling to that. But you can also introduce a bit of comedy; something that peeks out from the grid. You upset (just occasionally) something with a bit of subverted expectations.

You don’t want something that’s all music. Maybe that’s a little boring. You don’t want something that’s all comedy because then it’s just crazy and hard to get a handle on.

You can see music and comedy in how you consume news. You notice that when you read your news sources, all it does is confirm what you already believe. You read something about someone, and you think, “Yes, they’ve done something bad and I always thought they were bad, so that has confirmed my expectations.” It’s like music.

I read something that somebody has done and I always thought they were a good person. This now confirms that they are a good person. That is music to my ears. If your news feels like that, feels like music, then you may be in a bubble.

The comedy approach to music would be more like the clickbait you see at the bottom of the Internet where it’s like, “Click here. You won’t believe what these child stars look like now.” The promise there is that we will subvert your expectations, and that’s where the pleasure will come.

Survivorship bias

My favorite story from history about analytics is not from World War One but from the sequel, World War Two, where again the United States were a few years late to this world war. But when they did arrive and started their bombing raids on Germany, they were coming from England. The bombers would come back all shot up, and so there was a whole thinktank dedicated to figuring out how we can reinforce these planes in certain areas.

You can’t reinforce the whole plane. That would make it too heavy, but you could apply some judicious use of metal reinforcement to protect the plane.

A scatterplot diagram of an airplane showing bullet holes concentrated in the middle of the fuselage, the wings, and the tail.

They treated this as a data problem, as an analytics problem. They looked at the planes coming back. They plotted where the bullet holes were, and that led them to conclude where they should put the reinforcements. You can see here that the wings were getting all shot up, the middle of the fuselage, so clearly that’s where the reinforcements should go.

There was a statistician, a mathematician named Abraham Wald. He looked at the exact same data and he said, “No, we need to reinforce the front of the plane where there are no bullet holes. We need to reinforce the back of the fuselage where there are no bullet holes.”

What he realized was that all the data they were seeing was actually a subset of the complete data set. They were only seeing the planes that made it back. What was missing were all the planes that got shot down. If all the planes that made it back didn’t have any bullet holes in the front of the plane, then you could probably conclude that if you get a bullet hole in the front of the plane, you’re not going to make it back. This became the canonical example of what we now call survivorship bias, which is this tendency to look at the subset of data — the winners.

You see survivorship bias all the time. You walk into a bookstore and you look at the business section and its books by successful business people; that’s survivorship bias. Really, the whole section should be ten times as big and feature ten times as many books written by people who had unsuccessful businesses because that would be a much more representative sample.

We see survivorship bias. You go onto Instagram and you look at people’s Instagram photos. Generally, they’re posting their best life, right? It’s the perfect selfie. It’s the perfect shot. It’s not a representative sample of what somebody’s life looks like. That’s survivorship bias.

Design systems

We have a tendency to do it on the web, too, when people publish their design systems. Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that companies are making their design systems public. It’s something I’ve really lobbied for. I’ve encouraged people to do this. Please, if you have a design system, make it public so we can all learn from it.

I really appreciate that people do that, but they do tend to wait until it’s perfect. They tend to wait until they’ve got the success.

What we’re missing are all the stories of what didn’t work. We’re missing the bigger picture of the things they tried that just failed completely. I feel like we could learn so much from that. I feel like we can learn as much from anti-patterns as we can from patterns, if not more so.

Robin Rendle talked about this in a blog post recently about design systems. He said:

The ugly truth is that design systems work is not easy. What works for one company does not work for another. In most cases, copying the big tech company of the week will not make a design system better at all. Instead, we have to acknowledge how difficult our work is collectively. Then we have to do something that seems impossible today—we must publicly admit to our mistakes. To learn from our community, we must be honest with one another and talk bluntly about how we’ve screwed things up.

I completely agree. I think that would be wonderful if we shared more openly. I do try to encourage people to share their stories, successes, and failures.

I organized a conference a few years back all about design systems called Patterns Day and invited the best and brightest: Alla Kholmatova, Jina Anne, Paul Lloyd, Alice Bartlett – all these wonderful people. It was wonderful to hear people come up and sort of reassure you, “Hey, none of us have got this figured out. We’re all trying to figure out what we’re doing here.” The audience really needed to hear that. They really needed to hear that reassurance that this is hard.

Gaps and overlaps

I did Patterns Day again last year. My favorite talk at Patterns Day last year, I think, was probably from Danielle Huntrods. I’m biased here because I used to work with Danielle. She used to work at Clearleft, and she’s an absolutely brilliant front-end developer.

She had this lens that she used when she was talking about design systems and other things. She talked about gaps and overlaps, which is one of those things that’s lodged in my brain. I kind of see it everywhere.

She said that when you’re categorizing things, you’re putting things into categories, that means some things will fall between those categories. That leaves you with the gaps, the things that aren’t being covered. It’s almost like Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns and all that.

What can also happen when you put things into categories is you get these overlaps where there’s duplication; two things are responsible for the same task. This duplication of effort, of course, is what we’re trying to avoid with design systems. We’re trying to be efficient. We don’t want multiple versions of the same thing. We want to be able to reuse one component. There’s a danger there.

She’s saying what we do with the design system is we concentrate on cataloging these components. We do our interface inventory, but we miss the connective part. We miss the gaps between the components. Really, what makes something a system is not so much a collection of components but how those components fit together, those gaps between them.

Fluffy edges

Danielle went further. She didn’t just talk about gaps and overlaps in terms of design systems and components. She talked about it in terms of roles and responsibilities. If you have two people who believe they’re responsible for the same thing, that’s going to lead to a clash.

Worse, you’re working on a project and you find out that there was nobody responsible for doing something. It’s a gap. Everyone assumes that the other person was responsible for getting that thing done.

“Oh, you’re not doing that?” “I thought you were doing that.” “Oh, I thought you were doing that.”

This is the source of so much frustration in projects, either these gaps or these overlaps in roles and responsibilities. Whenever we start a project at Clearleft, we spend quite a bit of time getting this role mapping correct, trying to make sure there aren’t any gaps and there aren’t any overlaps. Really, it’s about surfacing those assumptions.

“Oh, I assumed I was responsible for that.” “No, no. I assumed I was the one who would be doing that.”

We clarify this stuff as early as possible in the design process. We even have a game we play called Fluffy Edges. It’s literally like a card game. We’d ask these questions, “Who is responsible for this? Who is going to do this?” It’s kind of good fun, but really it is about surfacing those assumptions and getting clarity on the roles at the beginning of the design process.

The design process

Now, the design process, I’m talking about the design process like it’s this known thing and it really isn’t. It’s a notoriously difficult thing to talk about the design process.

A squiggle that starts big and messy on the left but resolves into a straight line on the right.

Here’s one way of thinking about the design process. This is The Design Squiggle by Damien Newman. He used to be at IDEO. I actually think this is a pretty accurate representation of what the design process feels like for an individual designer. You go into the beginning and it’s chaos, it’s a mess, and it’s entropy. Then, over time, you begin to get a handle on things until you get to this almost inevitable result at the end.

I’m not sure it’s an accurate representation of what the collaborative design process feels like. There’s a different diagram that resonates a lot with us at Clearleft, which is the Double Diamond diagram from Chris Vanstone at the Design Council. The way of thinking about the Double Diamond is almost like it’s two design squiggles back-to-back.

Two back-to-back diamond shapes. The first diamond is labelled with the words discover and define. The second diamond is labelled with the words execute and deliver.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the idea is that the design process is split into these triangles. First, it’s the discovery. Then we define. So we’re going out wide with discovery. Then we narrow it down with the definition. Then it’s time to build a thing and we open up wide again to figure out how we’re going to execute this thing. Once we got that figured out, we narrow down into the delivery phase.

The way of thinking about this is the first diamond (discovery and definition), that’s about building the right thing. Make sure you’re building the right thing first. The second diamond (about execution and delivery), that’s about building the thing right. Building the right thing and building the thing right.

The important thing is they follow this pattern of going wide and going narrow. This divergent phase with discovery and then convergent for definition. There’s a divergent phase for execution and then convergent for delivery.

If you take nothing else in the Double Diamond approach, it’s this way of making explicit when you’re in a divergent or convergent phase. Again, it’s kind of about servicing that assumption. “Oh, I assumed we were converging.” “No, no, no. We are diverging here.” That’s super, super useful.

I’ll give you an example. If you are in a meeting, at the beginning of the meeting, state whether it’s a divergent meeting or a convergent meeting. If you were in a meeting where the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible during a meeting, make that clear at the beginning because what you don’t want is somebody in the meeting who thinks the point is to converge on a solution.

You’ve got these people generating ideas and then there’s one person going, “No, that will never work. Here’s why. Oh, that’s technically impossible. Here’s why.” No, if you make it clear at the start, “There are no bad ideas. We’re in a divergent meeting,” everyone is on the same page.

Conversely, if it’s a convergent meeting, you need to make that clear and say, “The point of this meeting is that we come to a decision, one decision,” and you need to make that clear because what you don’t want in a convergent meeting is it’s ten minutes to launch time, converging on something, and then somebody in the meeting goes, “Hey, I just had an idea. How about if we…?” You don’t want that. You don’t want that.

If you take nothing else from this, this idea of making divergence and convergence explicit is really, really, really useful. Again, like I say, this pattern of just assumptions being surfaced is so useful.

This initial diamond of the Double Diamond phase, it’s where we spend a lot of our time at Clearleft. I think, early in the years of Clearleft, we spent more time on the second diamond. We were more about execution and delivery. Now, I feel like we deliver a lot more value in the discovery and definition phase of the design process.

There’s so much we do in this initial discovery phase. I mentioned already we have this fluffy edges game we play for role mapping to figure out the roles and responsibilities. We have things like a project canvas we use to collaborate with the clients to figure out the shape of what’s to come.

We sometimes run an exercise called a pre-mortem. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. It’s like a post-mortem except you do it at the beginning of the project. It’s kind of a scenario planning.

You say, “Okay, it’s so many months after the launch and it’s been a complete disaster. What went wrong?” You map that out. You talk about it. Then once you’ve got that mapped out, you can then take steps to avoid that disaster happening.

Of course, what we do in the discovery phase, almost more than anything else, is research. You can’t go any further without doing the research.

Assumptions

All of these things, all of these exercises, these ways of working are about dealing with assumptions, either surfacing assumptions that we didn’t know were there or turning assumptions into hypotheses that can be tested. If you think about what an assumption is, it kind of goes back to expectations that I was talking about.

Assumptions are expectations plus internal biases. That gives you an assumption. The things that you don’t even realize you believe; they lead to assumptions. This can obviously be very bad. This is like you’ve got blind spots in your assumptions because of your own biases that you didn’t even realize you had.

They’re not necessarily bad things. Assumptions aren’t necessarily bad. If you think about your expectations plus your biases, that’s another way of thinking about your values. What do you hold to be really dear to you? The things that are self-evident to you, those are your values, your internal expectations and biases.

Values

Now, at Clearleft, we have our company values, our core values, the things we believe. I am not going to share the Clearleft values with you. There are two reasons for that.

One is that they’re Clearleft’s values. They are useful for us. That’s for us to know internally.

Secondly, there’s nothing more boring than a company sharing their values with you. I say nothing more boring. Maybe the only thing more boring than a company sharing their values is when a so-called friend tells you about a dream they had and you have to sit there and smile and nod politely while they tell you about something that is only of interest to them.

Purpose

These values are essentially what give you purpose, whether it’s at an individual level, your personal moral values give you your purpose, or at a company or organization level, you get your purpose – or any endeavor. You think about the founding of a nation-state like the United States of America. You got the Declaration of Independence. That encodes the values. That has the purpose. It’s literally saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” These are assumptions here. That’s your purpose is something like the Declaration of Independence.

Principles

Then you get the principles, how you’re going to act. The Constitution would be an example of a collection of principles. These principles must be influenced by the purpose. Your values must influence the principles you’re going to use to act in the world.

Patterns

Then those principles have an effect on the final patterns, the outputs that you’ll see. In the case of a nation-state like America, I would say the patterns are the laws that you end up with. Those laws come from the principles encoded in the Constitution. The Constitution, those principles in the Constitution are influenced and encoded from the purpose in the Declaration of Independence.

The purpose influences the principles. The principles influence the pattern. This would be true in the case of software as well. You think about the patterns are the final interface elements, the user interface. Those are the patterns. Those have been influenced by the principles of that company, how they choose to act, and those principles are influenced by the purpose of that company and what they believe.

Design principles

This is why I find principles, in particular, to be fascinating because they sit in the middle. They are influenced by the purpose and they, in turn, influence the patterns. I’m talking about design principles, something I’m really into. I’m so into design principles, I actually have a website dedicated to design principles at principles.adactio.com.

Now, all I do on this website is collect design principles. I don’t pass judgment. I don’t say whether I think they’re good design principles or bad design principles. I just document them. That’s turned out to be a good thing to do over time because sometimes design principles disappear, go away, or get changed. I’ve got a record of design principles from the past.

For example, Google used to have a set of principles called Ten Things We Know to Be True — we know to be true, right? We hold these truths to be self-evident. That’s no longer available on the Google website, those ten things, those ten principles. One of them was, “You can make money without doing evil.” Like I said, that’s gone now. That’s not available on the Google website.

There was another set of design principles from Google that’s also not available anymore. That was called Ten Principles That Contribute to a Googley User Experience. I think we understand why those are no longer available. The sheer embarrassment of saying the word Googley out loud, I think.

I’ll tell you something I notice when I see design principles. Like I say, I catalog them without judgment, but I do have ideas. I think about what makes for good or bad design principles or sets of design principles.

Whenever I see somebody with a list that’s exactly ten principles, I’m suspicious. Like, “Really? That’s such a convenient round number. You didn’t have nine principles that contribute to a Googley user experience? You didn’t have 11 things that we know to be true? It happened to be exactly ten?” It feels almost like a bad code smell to me that it’s exactly ten principles.

Even some great design principles like Dieter Rams, the brilliant designer. He has a fantastic set of design principles called Ten Principles for Good Design. But even there I have to think, “Hmm. That’s a bit convenient, isn’t it, that it’s exactly ten principles for good design? Isn’t it, Dieter?”

Now, just in case you think I’m being blasphemous by sugging that Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design is not a good set of design principles, I am not being blasphemous. I would be blasphemous if I pointed out that in the Old Testament, God supposedly delivers 10 commandments, not 9, not 11, exactly 10 commandments. Really, Moses, ten?

Anyway, what I’m talking about here is, like I say, almost like these code smells for design principles. Can we evaluate design principles? Are there heuristics for saying whether a design principle is a good design principle or a bad design principle?

Universal principles

To get meta about this, what I’m talking about is, are there design principles for design principles? I kind of think there are. I think you can evaluate design principles and say that’s a good one or that’s a bad one. You can evaluate them by how useful they are.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a design principle like this:

Make it usable.

That’s a design principle. I think this is a bad design principle. It’s not because I don’t agree with it. It’s actually a bad design principle because I agree with it and everyone agrees with it. It’s so agreeable that it’s hard to argue with and that’s not what a design principle is for.

Design principles aren’t these things to go, “Rah-rah! Yes! I feel good about this.” They are there to kind of surface stuff and have discussions, have disagreements – get it out in the open. Let’s say we took this design principle, “make it usable”, and it was rephrased to something more contentious. Let’s say somebody had the design principle like:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh! Now we’re talking.

See, I think this is a good design principle. I’m not saying I agree with it. I’m saying it’s a good design principle because what it has now is priority.

We’re saying something is valued more than something else and that’s what you want from design principles is to figure out what the priorities of this organization are. What do they value? How are they going to behave?

I think this is a great phrasing for design principles. If you can phrase a design principle like this:

___, even over ___

Then that’s really going to make it clear what your values are. You can phrase a design principle as:

Usability, even over profitability.

That’s good.

Now you can have that discussion early on about whether everyone is on board with that. If there’s disagreement, you need to hammer that out and figure it out early on in the process.

Here’s another thing about this phrasing that I really like, “blank, even over blank.” It passes another test of a good design principle, which is reversibility. Rather than being a universal thing, a design principle should be reversible for a different organization.

One organization might have a design principle that says “usability, even over profitability,” and another organization, you can equally imagine having a design principle that says, “profitability, even over usability.” The fact that this principle is reversible like that is a good thing. That shows that it’s an effective design principle because it’s about priorities.

My favorite design principle of all—because I’m such a nerd for design principles, I do have a favorite—is from the HTML design principles. It’s called The Priority of Constituencies. It states:

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

That’s so good.

First of all, it just starts with, “In case of conflict.” Yes! That is exactly what design principles are for. Again, they’re not there to be like, “Rah-rah! Feel-good design principles.” No, they are there to sort out conflict.

Then, “consider users over authors.” That’s like:

Users, even over authors. Authors, even over implementors. Implementors even over theoretical purity.

Really good stuff.

There are, I think, design principles for design principles, these kind of smell tests that you can run your design principles past and see if they pass or fail.

I talked about how design principles are unique to the organization. The reversibility test kind of helps with that. You can imagine a different organization that has the complete opposite design principles to you.

Eponymous laws

I do wonder: are there some design principles that are truly universal? Well, there’s kind of a whole category of principles that we treat as universal truths. That’s kind of these laws. They tend to be the eponymous laws. They’re usually named after a person and there’s some kind of universal truth. There are a lot of them out there.

Hofstadter’s law

Hofstadter’s law, that’s from Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s law states:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.

That does sound like a universal truth and certainly, my experience matches that. Yeah, I would say Hofstadter’s law feels like a universal design principle.

Sturgeon’s law

90% of everything is crap.

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer and people would poo-poo science fiction and point out that it was crap. He would say, “Yeah, but 90% of science fiction is crap because 90% of everything is crap.” That became Sturgeon’s law.

Yeah, you look at movies, books, and music. It’s hard to argue with Sturgeon’s law. Yeah, 90% of everything is crap. That feels like a universal law.

Murphy’s law

Here’s one we’ve probably all heard of. Murphy’s law:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It tends to get treated as this funny thing but, actually, it’s a genuinely useful design principle and one we could use on the web a lot more.

Cole’s law

There’s Cole and Cole’s law. You’ve probably heard of that. That’s:

Shredded raw cabbage with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise dressing.

Cole’s law.

Moving swiftly on, there’s another sort of category of these laws, these universal principles that have a different phrasing, and it’s this idea of a razor. Here it’s being explicit about in case of conflict. Here it’s being explicit saying when you try to choose between two choices, which to choose.

Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a famous example that states:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

If you’re trying to find a reason for something, don’t go straight to assuming malice. Incompetence tends to be a greater force in the world than malice.

I think it’s generally true, although, there’s also a law by Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke’s third law, which states that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you take Clarke’s third law and you mash it up with Hanlon’s razor, then the result is that any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Occam’s razor

Another razor that we hear about a lot is Occam’s razor. This is very old. It goes back to William of Occam. Sometimes it’s misrepresented as being the most obvious solution is the correct solution. We know that that’s not true because we saw in the stories of metal helmets in World War One and motorcycle helmets or the bombers in World War Two or the YouTube videos that it’s not about the most obvious solution.

What Occam’s razor actually states is:

Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.

In other words, if you’re coming up with an explanation for something and your explanation requires that you now have to explain even more things—you’re multiplying the things that need to be explained—it’s probably not the true thing.

If your explanation for something is “aliens did it,” well, now you’ve got to explain the existence of aliens and explain how they got here and all this. You’re multiplying the entities. Most conspiracy theories fail the test of Occam’s razor because they unnecessarily multiply entities.

World Wide Web

These design principles that we can borrow, we’ve got these universal ones we can borrow. I also think maybe we can borrow from specific projects and see things that would apply to us. Certainly, when we’re working on the World Wide Web and we’re building things on the World Wide Web, we could look at the design principles that informed the World Wide Web when it was being built by Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, and Robert Cailliau, who worked with him.

The World Wide Web started at CERN and started life in 1989 as just a proposal. Tim Berners-Lee wrote this really quite boring memo called “Information Management: A Proposal” with indecipherable diagrams on it. This is March 12, 1989. His supervisor Mike Sendall, he later saw this proposal and must have seen the possibility here because he scrawled across the top:

Vague but exciting.

Tim Berners-Lee did get the go-ahead to work on this project, this World Wide Web project, and he created the first web browser. He created the first web server. He created HTML.

I was in the neighbourhood so I just had to come by and say hello…

You can see the world’s first web server in the Science Museum in London. It’s this NeXTcube. NeXT was the company that Steve Jobs formed after leaving Apple.

I have a real soft spot for this machine because I was very lucky to be invited to CERN last year to take part in this project where we were trying to recreate the experience of using that first web browser that Tim Berners-Lee created on that NeXT machine. You can go to this website worldwideweb.cern.ch and you can see what it feels like to use this web browser. You can use a modern browser with this emulation inside of it. It’s really good fun.

My colleagues were spending their time actually doing the hard work. I spent most of my time working on the website about the project. I built this timeline because I was fascinated about what was influencing Tim Berners-Lee.

Timeline

It’s kind of easy to look at the 30 years of the web, but I thought it would be more interesting to also look back at the 30 years before the web and see what influenced Tim Berners-Lee when it came to networks, hypertext, and format. Were there design principles that he adhered to?

We don’t have to look far because Tim Berners-Lee himself has published design principles (that he formulated or borrowed from elsewhere) in a document called Axioms of web Architecture. I think he first published this in 1998. These are really useful things that we can take and we can apply when we’re building on the web.

Particularly, now I’m talking about the second diamond of the Double Diamond. When we are choosing how we’re going to execute something or how we’re going to deliver it, building the thing right, that’s when these design principles come in handy.

He was borrowing; Tim Berners-Lee was borrowing from things that had come before, existing creations that the web is built on top of like the Internet and computing. He said:

Principles such as simplicity and modularity are the stuff of software engineering.

So he borrowed those principles about simplicity and modularity.

He also said:

Decentralization and tolerance are the life and breath of the Internet.

Those principles, tolerance and decentralization, they’d proven themselves to work on the Internet. The web is built on top of the Internet. So, it makes sense to carry those principles forward on the World Wide Web.

Robustness

That principle of tolerance, in particular, is something I think you really see on the web. It comes from the principles underlying the Internet. In particular, this person, Jon Postel, who is responsible for maintaining the Domain Name System, DNS, he has an eponymous law named after him. It’s also called the Robustness Principle or Postel’s law. This law states:

Be conservative in what you send. Be liberal in what you accept.”

Now, he was talking about packet switching on the Internet that if you’re going to send a packet over the Internet, try to make it as well-formed as possible. But on the other hand, when you receive a packet and if it’s got errors or something, try and deal with it. Be liberal in what you can accept.

I see this at work all the time on the web, not just in terms of technical things but in terms of UX and usability. The example I always use is if you’re going to make a form on the web, be conservative in what you send. Send as few form fields as possible down the wire to the end-user. But then when the user is filling out that form, be liberal in what you accept. Don’t make them formulate their telephone number or credit card in a certain format. Be liberal in what you accept.

Be conservative in what you send when it comes from front-end development. This matters. Literally, just in terms of what we’re sending down the wire to the end-user, we should be more conservative in what we send. We don’t think about this enough, just the weight, the sheer weight of things we’re sending.

I was doing some consulting with a client and we did a kind of top four of where the weight was coming from. I think this applies to websites in general.

4: Web fonts

Coming in at number four, we had web fonts. They can get quite weighty, but we have ways of dealing with this now. We’ve got font display in CSS. We can subset our web fonts. Variable fonts can be a way of reducing the size of fonts. So, there are solutions to this. There are ways of handling it.

3: Images

At number three, images. Images do account for a lot of the sheer weight of the web. But again, we have solutions here. We’ve got responsive images with source set and picture. Using the right format, right? Not using a PNG if you should be using a JPEG, using WebP, using SVGs where possible. We can deal with this. There are solutions out there, as long as we’re aware of it.

2: Your JavaScript

At number two, your JavaScript, the JavaScript that you send down the wire that you’ve written to the client. It’s gotten kind of out of hand. Libraries in your code, it’s gotten very, very weighty. This is bad, but not as bad as number one, which is other people’s JavaScript, third-party JavaScript.

1: Other people’s JavaScript

“Oh, the marketing department just wanted to add that one line, that one script that then pulls in another script that pulls in three more scripts.” Before you know it, it’s out of hand. Third-party JavaScript is really tough to deal with because so often it’s out of our hands. It’s like we don’t have control over that.

JavaScript

JavaScript is particularly troublesome because, with all the other things—images, web fonts—yeah, we’re talking about weight. It’s the file size is the issue. That’s only part of the issue with JavaScript. Yes, we are sending too much JavaScript, but it also is expensive in terms of the end-user has to not just download that JavaScript, but parse the JavaScript, execute that JavaScript. It’s particularly expensive compared to CSS, HTML, images, or fonts.

It is eating the world. We heard that software is eating the world. I’d say JavaScript is eating the world. There’s another eponymous law from Jeff Atwood. Atwood’s law states that:

Any application that can be written in JavaScript will eventually be written in JavaScript.

We’re seeing that now.

Back in my day, we used to joke about, “Well, you could never build a Photoshop in a web browser.” Now, everything is migrating to being written in JavaScript, which is kind of amazing and speaks to the power of JavaScript. It’s fantastic in one way, but it does feel like we’re using JavaScript to do everything, including things that could be done with other languages.

When it comes to choosing a language, there’s a fantastic design principle that Tim Berners-Lee used when he was designing the World Wide Web. It’s the principle of least power. The principle of least power states:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

That sounds very counterintuitive. Why would you want to choose the least powerful language? Well, in a way, it’s about keeping things simple. There’s another design principle, “Keep it simple, stupid.” KISS.

It’s kind of related to Occam’s razor, not multiplying entities unnecessarily. Choose the simplest language. The simplest language is likely to be more universal and, because it’s simpler, it might not be as powerful but it’ll generally be more robust.

I’ll give you an example. I’ll quote from Derek Featherstone. He said:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, 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.

He’s absolutely right. This is about robustness here. It’s less fragile.

The classic example with ARIA: the best ARIA attribute is no ARIA attribute. Rather than having div role="button", just use a button. If you can do something in CSS rather than JavaScript, do it in CSS. Choose the least powerful language.

Instead, we’re using JavaScript to send our content down the wire. That could be done in HTML. We’re using CSS in JS now, right? We’re using the most powerful language, JavaScript, to do everything, which kind of violates the principle of least power. There’s a set of design principles from the Government Digital Services here in the U.K. and they’re really good design principles. One of them stuck out to me. The design principle itself says:

Do less.

By way of explanation, they say:

Government should only do what only government can do.

Government shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. Government should do the things where private enterprise can’t do these things. The government has to do these things. The government should only do what only government can do.

I thought that this could be extrapolated out and made into a more universal design principle. You could say:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do

If that’s too abstract, let’s formulate it into this design principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

We can call this Keith’s Law or Keith’s Razor or something. I think it’s a good principle.

I remember the early uses of JavaScript for things like image rollovers and form validation. Now, I wouldn’t use JavaScript for image rollovers or hover effects. I’d use CSS. I wouldn’t use JavaScript for form validation if I can just use required attributes or input type="email". Apply the principle of least power.

Components

Let’s see whether we’re applying the principle of least power on the web. Take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a component that’s a button component. How are you going to go about building this? You could have bare minimal HTML, just a div or a span. You’ve got some CSS to make it look good. Sure. You apply all the JavaScript and ARIA that you need to make it work like a button.

Or, alternatively, you could use a button and you style it however you want using CSS.

Now, in this example, this particular component, I would say it’s a no-brainer. You go with the native button element. Don’t make your own button component with a div and JavaScript and ARIA. Use a native button element.

Okay. That seems pretty straightforward and that is a perfect example of the principle of least power. Choose the least powerful language suitable for the purpose.

But then what if you’ve got a drop-down component, selecting an option from a list of options? Well, you could build this using bare minimum HTML. Again, divs, maybe. You style it however you want it to look and you give it that opening and closing functionality. You give it accessibility using ARIA. Now you’ve got to think about making sure it works with a keyboard — all that stuff, all the edge cases.

Or you just use a select element — job done. You style it with CSS …Ah, well, yes, you can style it to a certain degree with CSS, but if you ever try to style the open state of a select element, you’re going to have a hard time.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. What do you care about more? Can you live with that open state not being styled exactly the way you might want it to be styled? If so, yes, choose the least powerful technology. Go with select. But I can kind of start to see why somebody would maybe roll their own in that case.

Or take this example: a date picker component. Again, you could have bare minimum HTML. Style it how you want. Write it all yourself using JavaScript. Make it accessible using ARIA. Or just use the native HTML input type="date" …and then have fun trying to style that in CSS. You won’t be able to do much, to be honest.

Do you still pick the least powerful technology here?

This would be kind of the under-engineered approach: to just use the native HTML approach: input type="date", select, button.

The over-engineered approach is to go with doing it all yourself: write JavaScript to make it go that way.

It feels like there’s this pendulum swing between the over-engineered versus the under-engineered. Like I say, what it comes down is, what do you prioritize?

Universality

What you get with the native approach is you get access. You get that universality by using the least powerful language. There’s more universal support.

What you get by rolling your own is you get much more control. You’re going from the spectrum of least power to most power and that’s also a spectrum going from most available (widest access) to least available but with more control.

You have to decide where your priorities lie. This is where I think, again, we can look at the web and we can take principles from the web.

Eric has something he said recently that really resonates with me. He said:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

That’s the purpose of the web. It’s the universal access. That’s the value encoded into it.

To put this in another way, we could formulate it as:

Ubiquity, even over consistency.

That’s the design principle of the web.

This passes the reversibility test. We can picture other projects that would say:

Consistency, even over ubiquity.

Native apps value consistency, even over ubiquity. iOS apps are very consistent on iOS devices, but just don’t work at all on Android devices. They’re consistent; they’re not ubiquitous.

We saw this in action with Flash and the web. Flash valued consistency, but you had to have the Flash plugin installed, so it was not ubiquitous. It was not universal.

The World Wide Web is about ubiquity, even over consistency. I think we should remember that.

When we look here in the world’s first-ever web browser, we are looking at the world’s first-ever webpage, which is still available at its original URL. That’s incredibly robust.

What’s amazing is you can not only look at the world’s first webpage in the world’s first web browser, you can look at the world’s first webpage in a modern web browser and it still works, which is kind of amazing. If you took a word processing document from 30 years ago and tried to open it in a modern word processing document, good luck. It just doesn’t work that way. But the web values this ubiquity over consistency.

Let’s apply those principles, apply the principle of least power, apply the robustness principle. Value ubiquity even over consistency. Value universal access over control. That way, you can make products and services that aren’t just on the web, but of the web.

Thank you.

Friday, January 1st, 2021

2020

In 2020, I didn’t have the honour and privilege of speaking at An Event Apart in places like Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis. I didn’t experience that rush that comes from sharing ideas with a roomful of people, getting them excited, making them laugh, sparking thoughts. I didn’t enjoy the wonderful and stimulating conversations with my peers that happen in the corridors, or over lunch, or at an after-party. I didn’t have a blast catching up with old friends or making new ones.

But the States wasn’t the only country I didn’t travel to. Closer to home, I didn’t have the opportunity to take the Eurostar and connecting trains to cities like Cologne, Lisbon, and Stockholm. I didn’t sample the food and drink of different countries.

In the summer, I didn’t travel to the west coast of Ireland for the second in year in a row for the annual Willie Clancy festival of traditional Irish music. I didn’t spend each day completely surrounded by music. I didn’t play in some great sessions. I didn’t hear some fantastic and inspiring musicians.

Back here in Brighton, I didn’t go to the session in The Jolly Brewer every Wednesday evening and get lost in the tunes. I didn’t experience that wonderful feeling of making music together and having a pint or two. And every second Sunday afternoon, I didn’t pop along to The Bugle for more jigs and reels.

I didn’t walk into work most days, arrive at the Clearleft studio, and make a nice cup of coffee while chit-chatting with my co-workers. I didn’t get pulled into fascinating conversations about design and development that spontaneously bubble up when you’re in the same space as talented folks.

Every few months, I didn’t get a haircut.

Throughout the year, I didn’t make any weekend trips back to Ireland to visit my mother.

2020 gave me a lot of free time. I used that time to not write a book. And with all that extra time on my hands, I read fewer books than I had read in 2019. Oh, and on the side, I didn’t learn a new programming language. I didn’t discover an enthusiasm for exercise. I didn’t get out of the house and go for a brisk walk on most days. I didn’t start each day prepping my sourdough.

But I did stay at home, thereby slowing the spread of a deadly infectious disease. I’m proud of that.

I did play mandolin. I did talk to my co-workers through a screen. I did eat very well—and very local and seasonal. I did watch lots of television programmes and films. I got by. Sometimes I even took pleasure in this newly-enforced lifestyle.

I made it through 2020. And so did you. That’s an achievement worth celebrating—congratulations!

Let’s see what 2021 doesn’t bring.

Thursday, December 31st, 2020

2020 in numbers

I posted to adactio.com 1442 times in 2020. sparkline

March was the busiest month with 184 posts. sparkline

This month, December, was the quietest with 68 posts. sparkline

Overall I published:

In amongst those notes are 128 photos. But the number I’m happiest with is 200. From to March 18th to October 3rd, I posted a tune a day for 200 days straight.

Elsewhere in 2020:

For obvious reasons, in 2020 I had far fewer check ins, did far less speaking and almost no travel.

Books I read in 2020

I only read twenty books this year. Considering the ample amount of free time I had, that’s not great. But I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Yes, I may have spent more time watching television than reading, but I’m cutting myself some slack. It was 2020, for crying out loud.

Anyway, here’s my annual round-up with reviews. Anything with three stars is good. Four stars is really good. Five stars is practically unheard of. As usual, I tried to get an equal balance of fiction and non-fiction.

Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

An enjoyable sequal to Ninefox Gambit. There are some convoluted politics but that all seems positively straightforward after the brain-bending calendrical warfare introduced in the first book.

The Human Use Of Human Beings: Cybernetics And Society by Norbert Wiener

★★★☆☆

The ur-text on systems and feedback. Reading it now is like reading a historical artifact but many of the ideas are timeless. It’s a bit dense in parts and it tries to cover life, the universe and everything, but when you remember that it was written in 1950, it’s clearly visionary.

The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★☆☆

Simultaneously a ripping yarn and a spiritual meditation. It’s Vietnam and the environmental movement rolled into one (like what Avatar attempted, but this actually works).

Abolish Silicon Valley by Wendy Liu

★★★★☆

Here’s my full review.

A Short History Of Irish Traditional Music by Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin

★★☆☆☆

A perfectly fine and accurate history of the music, but it’s a bit like reading Wikipedia. Still, it was quite the ego boost to see The Session listed in the appendix.

Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan

★★★☆☆

McEwan’s first foray into science fiction is a good tale but a little clumsily told. It’s like he really wants to show how much research he put into his alternative history. There are moments when characters practically turn to the camera to say, “Imagine how the world would’ve turned out if…” It’s far from McEwan’s best but even when he’s not on top form, his writing is damn good.

The Fabric Of Reality by David Deutsch

★★★☆☆

I’ve attempted to read this before. I may have even read it all before and had everything just leak out of my head. The problem is with me, not David Deutsch who does a fine job of making complex ideas approachable. This is like a unified theory of everything.

Helliconia Winter by Brian Aldiss

★★★☆☆

The third and final part of Aldiss’s epic is just as enjoyable as the previous two. The characters aren’t the main attraction here. It’s all about the planetary ballet.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

★★★★☆

A terrific memoir. It’s open and honest, and just snarky enough when it needs to be.

A Wizard Of Earthsea, The Tombs Of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

★★★★☆

There’s a real pleasure in finally reading books that you should’ve read years ago. I can only imagine how wonderful it would’ve been to read these as a teenager. It’s an immersive world but there’s something melancholy about the writing that makes the experience of reading less escapist and more haunting.

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini

★★★★★

Absolutely superb! I liked Angela Saini’s previous book, Inferior, but I loved this. It’s a harrowing read at times, but written with incredible clarity and empathy. I can’t recommend this highly enough.

Purple People by Kate Bulpitt

★★★★☆

Full disclosure: Kate is a friend of mine, so I probably can’t evaluate her book in a disinterested way. That said, I enjoyed the heck out of this and I think you will too. It’s very hard to classify and I think that’s what makes it so enjoyable. Technically, it’s sci-fi I suppose—an alternative history tale, probably—but it doesn’t feel like it. It’s all about the characters, and they’re all vividly realised. Honestly, I’m not sure how best to describe it—other then it being like the inside of Kate’s head—but the description of it being “a jolly dystopia” comes close. Take a chance and give it a go.

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality by Adam Rutherford

★★★☆☆

Good stuff from Adam Rutherford, though not his best. If I hadn’t already read Angela Saini’s Superior I might’ve rated this higher, but it pales somewhat by comparison. Still, it was interesting to see the same subject matter tackled in two different ways.

Agency by William Gibson

★★☆☆☆

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Agency, but there’s nothing particularly great about it either. It’s just there. Maybe I’m being overly harsh because the first book, The Peripheral, was absolutely brilliant. This reminded me of reading Gibson’s Spook Country, which left me equally unimpressed. That book was sandwiched between the brilliant Pattern Recognition and the equally brilliant Zero History. That bodes well for the forthcoming third book in this series. This second book just feels like filler.

Last Night’s Fun: In And Out Of Time With Irish Music by Ciaran Carson

★★★☆☆

It’s hard to describe this book. Memoir? Meditation? Blog? I kind of like that about it, but I can see how it divides opinion. Some people love it. Some people hate it. I thought it was enjoyable enough. But it doesn’t matter what I think. This book is doing its own thing.

Revenant Gun by Yoon Ha Lee

★★★☆☆

The third book in the Machineries of Empire series has much less befuddlement. It’s even downright humourous in places. If you liked Ninefox Gambit and Raven Strategem, you’ll enjoy this too.

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

★★★☆☆

The central thesis of this book is refuting the Hobbesian view of humanity as being one crisis away from breakdown. I feel like that argument was made more strongly in Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another by Philip Ball. But where this book shines is in its vivid description of past catastrophes and their aftermaths: the San Francisco fire; the Halifax explosion; the Mexico City earthquake; and the culmination with Katrina hitting New Orleans. I was less keen on the more blog-like personal musings but overall, this is well worth reading.

Blindsight by Peter Watts

★★☆☆☆

I like a good tale of first contact, and I had heard that this one had a good twist on the Fermi paradox. But it felt a bit like a short story stretched to the length of a novel. It would make for a good Twilight Zone episode but it didn’t sustain my interest.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

I’m still reading this Hugo-winning novella and enjoying it so far.


Alright, time to wrap up this look back at the books I read in 2020 and pick my favourites: one fiction and one non-fiction.

My favourite non-fiction book of the year was easily Superior by Angela Saini. Read it. It’s superb.

What about fiction? Hmm …this is tricky.

You know what? I’m going to go for Purple People by Kate Bulpitt. Yes, she’s a friend (“it’s a fix!”) but it genuinely made an impression on me: it was an enjoyable romp while I was reading it, and it stayed with me afterwards too.

Head on over to Bookshop and pick up a copy.

Words I wrote in 2020

Once again I wrote over a hundred blog posts this year. While lots of other activities dropped off significantly while my main focus was to just keep on keepin’ on, I still found solace and reward in writing and publishing. Like I said early on in The Situation, my website is an outlet for me:

While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Here are some blog posts that turned out alright:

  • Architects, gardeners, and design systems. Citing Frank Chimero, Debbie Chachra, and Lisa O’Neill.
  • Hydration. Progressive enhancement. I do not think it means what you think it means.
  • Living Through The Future. William Gibson, Arthur C.Clarke, Daniel Dafoe, Stephen King, Emily St. John Mandel, John Wyndham, Martin Cruz-Smith, Marina Koren and H.G. Wells.
  • Principles and priorities. Using design principles to embody your priorities.
  • Hard to break. Brittleness is the opposite of resilience. But they both share something in common.
  • Intent. Black lives matter.
  • Accessibility. Making the moral argument.
  • T E N Ǝ T. A spoiler-filled look at the new Christopher Nolan film.
  • Portals and giant carousels. Trying to understand why people think they need to make single page apps.
  • Clean advertising. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that behavioural advertising is more effective than contextual advertising.

I find it strangely comforting that even in a year as shitty as 2020, I can look back and see that there were some decent blog posts in there. Whatever 2021 may bring, I hope to keep writing and publishing through it all. I hope you will too.

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2020

SVGs in dark mode

I added a dark mode to my site last year. Since then I’ve been idly toying with the addition of a dark mode to The Session too.

As with this site, the key to adding a dark mode was switching to custom properties for color and background-color declarations. But my plans kept getting derailed by the sheet music on the site. The sheet music is delivered as SVG generated by ABCJS which hard-codes the colour in stroke and fill attributes:

fill="#000000" stroke="#000000"

When I was describing CSS recently I mentioned the high specifity of inline styles:

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity.

Given that harsh fact of life, I figured it would be nigh-on impossible to over-ride the colour of the sheetmusic. But then I realised I was an idiot.

The stroke and fill attributes in SVG are presentational but they aren’t inline styles. They’re attributes. They have no affect on specifity. I can easily over-ride them in an external style sheet.

In fact, if I had actually remembered what I wrote when I was adding a dark mode to adactio.com, I could’ve saved myself some time:

I have SVGs of sparklines on my homepage. The SVG has a hard-coded colour value in the stroke attribute of the path element that draws the sparkline. Fortunately, this can be over-ridden in the style sheet:

svg.activity-sparkline path {
  stroke: var(--text-color);
}

I was able to do something similar on The Session. I used the handy currentColor keyword in CSS so that the sheet music matched the colour of the text:

svg path {
  fill: currentColor;
}
svg path:not(stroke="none") {
  stroke: currentColor;
}

Et voila! I now had light-on-dark sheet music for The Session’s dark mode all wrapped up in a prefers-color-scheme: dark media query.

I pushed out out the new feature and started getting feedback. It could be best summarised as “Thanks. I hate it.”

It turns out that while people were perfectly fine with a dark mode that inverts the colours of text, it felt really weird and icky to do the same with sheet music.

On the one hand, this seems odd. After all, sheet music is a writing system like any other. If you’re fine with light text on a dark background, why doesn’t that hold for light sheet music on a dark background?

But on the other hand, sheet music is also like an image. And we don’t invert the colours of our images when we add a dark mode to our CSS.

With that in mind, I went back to the drawing board and this time treated the sheet music SVGs as being intrinsicly dark-on-light, rather than a stylistic choice. It meant a few more CSS rules, but I’m happy with the final result. You can see it in action by visiting a tune page and toggling your device’s “appearance” settings between light and dark.

If you’re a member of The Session, I also added a toggle switch to your member profile so you can choose dark or light mode regardless of your device settings.

Monday, December 21st, 2020

Web Audio API weirdness on iOS

I told you about how I’m using the Web Audio API on The Session to generate synthesised audio of each tune setting. I also said:

Except for some weirdness on iOS that I had to fix.

Here’s that weirdness…

Let me start by saying that this isn’t anything to do with requiring a user interaction (the Web Audio API insists on some kind of user interaction to prevent developers from having auto-playing sound on websites). All of my code related to the Web Audio API is inside a click event handler. This is a different kind of weirdness.

First of all, I noticed that if you pressed play on the audio player when your iOS device is on mute, then you don’t hear any audio. Seems logical, right? Except if using the same device, still set to mute, you press play on a video or audio element, the sound plays just fine. You can confirm this by going to Huffduffer and pressing play on any of the audio elements there, even when your iOS device is set on mute.

So it seems that iOS has different criteria for the Web Audio API than it does for audio or video. Except it isn’t quite that straightforward.

On some pages of The Session, as well as the audio player for tunes (using the Web Audio API) there are also embedded YouTube videos (using the video element). Press play on the audio player; no sound. Press play on the YouTube video; you get sound. Now go back to the audio player and suddenly you do get sound!

It’s almost like playing a video or audio element “kicks” the browser into realising it should be playing the sound from the Web Audio API too.

This was happening on iOS devices set to mute, but I was also getting reports of it happening on devices with the sound on. But it’s that annoyingly intermittent kind of bug that’s really hard to reproduce consistently. Sometimes the sound doesn’t play. Sometimes it does.

Following my theory that the browser needs a “kick” to get into the right frame of mind for the Web Audio API, I resorted to a messy little hack.

In the event handler for the audio player, I generate the “kick” by playing a second of silence using the JavaScript equivalent of the audio element:

var audio = new Audio('1-second-of-silence.mp3');
audio.play();

I’m not proud of that. It’s so hacky that I’ve even wrapped the code in some user-agent sniffing on the server, and I never do user-agent sniffing!

Still, if you ever find yourself getting weird but inconsistent behaviour on iOS using the Web Audio API, this nasty little hack could help.

Wednesday, December 16th, 2020

npm ruin dev

This was originally published on CSS Tricks in December 2020 as part of a year-end round-up of responses to the question “What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?”

In 2020, I rediscovered the enjoyment of building a website with plain ol’ HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—no transpilin’, no compilin’, no build tools other than my hands on the keyboard.

Seeing as my personal brand could be summed up “so late to the game that the stadium has been demolished”, I decided to start a podcast in 2020. It’s the podcast of my agency, Clearleft, and it has been given the soaringly imaginative title of The Clearleft Podcast. I’m really pleased with how the first season turned out. I’m also really pleased with the website I put together for it.

The website isn’t very big, though it will grow with time. I had a think about what the build process for the site should be and after literally seconds of debate, I settled on a build process of none. Zero. Nada.

This turned out to be enormously liberating. It felt very hands-on to write the actual HTML and CSS that will be delivered to end users, without any mediation. I felt like I was getting my hands into the soil of the site.

CSS has evolved so much in recent years—with features like calc() and custom properties—that you don’t have to use preprocessors like Sass. And vanilla JavaScript is powerful, fully-featured, and works across browsers without any compiling.

Don’t get me wrong—I totally understand why complicated pipelines are necessary for complicated websites. If you’re part of a large team, you probably need to have processes in place so that everyone can contribute to the codebase in a consistent way. The more complex that codebase is, the more technology you need to help you automate your work and catch errors before they go live.

But that set-up isn’t appropriate for every website. And all those tools and processes that are supposed to save time sometimes end up wasting time further down the road. Ever had to revisit a project after, say, six or twelve months? Maybe you just want to make one little change to the CSS. But you can’t because a dependency is broken. So you try to update it. But it relies on a different version of Node. Before you know it, you’re Bryan Cranston changing a light bulb. You should be tweaking one line of CSS but instead you’re battling entropy.

Whenever I’m tackling a problem in front-end development, I like to apply the principle of least power: choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose. A classic example would be using a simple HTML button element instead of trying to recreate all the native functionality of a button using a div with lashings of ARIA and JavaScript. This year, I realized that this same principle applies to build tools too.

Instead of reaching for all-singing all-dancing toolchain by default, I’m going to start with a boring baseline. If and when that becomes too painful or unwieldy, then I’ll throw in a task manager. But every time I add a dependency, I’ll be limiting the lifespan of the project.

My new year’s resolution for 2021 will be to go on a diet. No more weighty node_modules folders; just crispy and delicious HTML, CSS, and JavaScript.

Audio

I spent the last couple of weekends rolling out a new feature on The Session. It involves playing audio in a web page. No big deal these days, right? But the history involves some old file formats…

The first venerable format is ABC notation. File extension: .abc, mime type: text/vnd.abc. It’s an ingenious text format for musical notation using ASCII. The metadata of the piece of music is defined in JSON-like key/value pairs. Then the contents are encoded with letters: A, B, C, etc. Uppercase and lowercase denote different octaves. Numbers can be used for note lengths.

The format was created by Chris Walshaw in 1997 when dial-up was the norm. With ABC, people were able to swap tunes on email lists or bulletin boards without transferring weighty image or sound files. If you had ABC software on your computer, you could convert that lightweight text file into sheet music …or audio.

That brings me to the second old format: midi files. File extension: .mid, mime-type: audio/midi. Like ABC, it’s a lightweight format for encoding the instructions for music instead of the music itself.

Think of it like SVG: instead of storing the final pixels of an image, SVG stores the instructions for drawing the image instead. The instructions in a midi file are like “play this note for this long on this instrument.” Again, as with ABC, you need some software to turn the instructions into sound.

There was a time when lots of software could play midi files. Quicktime on the Mac, for example. You could even embed midi files in web pages. I mean literally embed them …with the embed element. No Geocities page was complete without an autoplaying midi file.

On The Session, people submit tunes in ABC format. Then, using the amazing ABCJS JavaScript library, the ABC is turned into SVG on the fly! For years I’ve also offered midi files, generated on the server from the ABC notation.

But times have changed. These days it’s hard to find software that plays midi files. Quicktime doesn’t do it anymore. And you’d need to go to the app store on iOS to find a midi file player. It’s time to phase out the midi files on The Session.

I still want to provide automatically-generated audio though. Fortunately ABCJS gives me a way to do this. But instead of using the old technology of midi files, it uses a more modern browser feature: the Web Audio API.

The end result sounds like a midi file, but the underlying technique is more like a synthesiser. There’s a separate mp3 file for each note. The JavaScript figures out how long each “sample” needs to be played for, strings them all together, and outputs them with Web Audio. So you’ve got cutting-edge browser technology recreating a much older file format. Paul Rosen—the creator of ABCJS—has a presentation explaining how it all works under the hood.

Not only is there a separate short mp3 file for each note in seven octaves, but if you want the sound of a different instrument, you need samples for all seven octaves in that instrument. They’re called soundfonts.

Paul provides soundfonts for ABCJS. It’s a repo that was forked from this repo from Benjamin Gleitzman. And here’s where it gets small worldy…

The reason why Benjamin has a repo of soundfonts is because he needed to create midi-like audio in the browser. He wanted to do this for a project on September 28th and 29th, 2013 …at Science Hack Day San Francisco!

I was there too—working on my own audio-related hack—and I remember the excellent (and winning) hack that Benjamin worked on. It was called Symphony of Satellites and it’s still online along with the promo video. Here’s Benjamin’s post-hackday write-up from seven years ago.

It’s rare that the worlds of the web and Irish music cross over. When I got to meet Paul—creator of ABCJS—at a web conference a couple of years ago it kind of blew my mind. Last weekend when I set out to dabble with a feature on The Session, I certainly didn’t expect to stumble on a connection to Science Hack Day! (Aside: the first Science Hack Day was ten years ago—yowzers!)

Anyway, I was able to get that audio playback working on The Session. Except for some weirdness on iOS that I had to fix. But that’s a hack for another day.

Tuesday, December 15th, 2020

Ampvisory

I was very inspired by something Terence Eden wrote on his blog last year. A report from the AMP Advisory Committee Meeting:

I don’t like AMP. I think that Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages are a bad idea, poorly executed, and almost-certainly anti-competitive.

So, I decided to join the AC (Advisory Committee) for AMP.

Like Terence, I’m not a fan of Google AMP—my initially positive reaction to it soured over time as it became clear that Google were blackmailing publishers by privileging AMP pages in Google Search. But all I ever did was bitch and moan about it on my website. Terence actually did something.

So this year I put myself forward as a candidate for the AMP advisory committee. I have no idea how the election process works (or who does the voting) but thanks to whoever voted for me. I’m now a member of the AMP advisory committee. If you look at that blog post announcing the election results, you’ll see the brief blurb from everyone who was voted in. Most of them are positively bullish on AMP. Mine is not:

Jeremy Keith is a writer and web developer dedicated to an open web. He is concerned that AMP is being unfairly privileged by Google’s search engine instead of competing on its own merits.

The good news is that main beef with AMP is already being dealt with. I wanted exactly what Terence said:

My recommendation is that Google stop requiring that organisations use Google’s proprietary mark-up in order to benefit from Google’s promotion.

That’s happening as of May of this year. Just as well—the AMP advisory committee have absolutely zero influence on Google search. I’m not sure how much influence we have at all really.

This is an interesting time for AMP …whatever AMP is.

See, that’s been a problem with Google AMP from the start. There are multiple defintions of what AMP is. At the outset, it seemed pretty straightforward. AMP is a format. It has a doctype and rules that you have to meet in order to be “valid” AMP. Part of that ruleset involved eschewing HTML elements like img and video in favour of web components like amp-img and amp-video.

That messaging changed over time. We were told that AMP is the collection of web components. If that’s the case, then I have no problem at all with AMP. People are free to use the components or not. And if the project produces performant accessible web components, then that’s great!

But right now it’s not at all clear which AMP people are talking about, even in the advisory committee. When we discuss improving AMP, do we mean the individual components or the set of rules that qualify an AMP page being “valid”?

The use-case for AMP-the-format (as opposed to AMP-the-library-of-components) was pretty clear. If you were a publisher and you wanted to appear in the top stories carousel in Google search, you had to publish using AMP. Just using the components wasn’t enough. Your pages had to be validated as AMP-the-format.

That’s no longer the case. From May, pages that are fast enough will qualify for the top stories carousel. What will publishers do then? Will they still maintain separate AMP-the-format pages? Time will tell.

I suspect publishers will ditch AMP-the-format, although it probably won’t happen overnight. I don’t think anyone likes being blackmailed by a search engine:

An engineer at a major news publication who asked not to be named because the publisher had not authorized an interview said Google’s size is what led publishers to use AMP.

The pre-rendering (along with the lightning bolt) that happens for AMP pages in Google search might be a reason for publishers to maintain their separate AMP-the-format pages. But I suspect publishers don’t actually think the benefits of pre-rendering outweigh the costs: pre-rendered AMP-the-format pages are served from Google’s servers with a Google URL. If anything, I think that publishers will look forward to having the best of both worlds—having their pages appear in the top stories carousel, but not having their pages hijacked by Google’s so-called-cache.

Does AMP-the-format even have a future without Google search propping it up? I hope not. I think it would make everything much clearer if AMP-the-format went away, leaving AMP-the-collection-of-components. We’d finally see these components being evaluated on their own merits—usefulness, performance, accessibility—without unfair interference.

So my role on the advisory committee so far has been to push for clarification on what we’re supposed to be advising on.

I think it’s good that I’m on the advisory committee, although I imagine my opinions could easily be be dismissed given my public record of dissent. I may well be fooling myself though, like those people who go to work at Facebook and try to justify it by saying they can accomplish more from inside than outside (or whatever else they tell themselves to sleep at night).

The topic I’ve volunteered to help with is somewhat existential in nature: what even is AMP? I’m happy to spend some time on that. I think it’ll be good for everyone to try to get that sorted, regardless about how you feel about the AMP project.

I have no intention of giving any of my unpaid labour towards the actual components themselves. I know AMP is theoretically open source now, but let’s face it, it’ll always be perceived as a Google-led project so Google can pay people to work on it.

That said, I’ve also recently joined a web components community group that Lea instigated. Remember she wrote that great blog post recently about the failed promise of web components? I’m not sure how much I can contribute to the group (maybe some meta-advice on the nature of good design principles?) but at the very least I can serve as a bridge between the community group and the AMP advisory committee.

After all, AMP is a collection of web components. Maybe.

Cascading Style Sheets

There are three ways—that I know of—to associate styles with markup.

External CSS

This is probably the most common. Using a link element with a rel value of “stylesheet”, you point to a URL using the href attribute. That URL is a style sheet that is applied to the current document (“the relationship of the linked resource it is that is a ‘stylesheet’ for the current document”).

<link rel="stylesheet" href="/path/to/styles.css">

In theory you could associate a style sheet with a document using an HTTP header, but I don’t think many browsers support this in practice.

You can also pull in external style sheets using the @import declaration in CSS itself, as long as the @import rule is declared at the start, before any other styles.

@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');

When you use link rel="stylesheet" to apply styles, it’s a blocking request: the browser will fetch the style sheet before rendering the HTML. It needs to know how the HTML elements will be painted to the screen so there’s no point rendering the HTML until the CSS is parsed.

Embedded CSS

You can also place CSS rules inside a style element directly in the document. This is usually in the head of the document.

<style>
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

When you embed CSS in the head of a document like this, there is no network request like there would be with external style sheets so there’s no render-blocking behaviour.

You can put any CSS inside the style element, which means that you could use embedded CSS to load external CSS using an @import statement (as long as that @import statement appears right at the start).

<style>
@import url('/path/to/more-styles.css');
element {
    property: value;
}
</style>

But then you’re back to having a network request.

Inline CSS

Using the style attribute you can apply CSS rules directly to an element. This is a universal attribute. It can be used on any HTML element. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the styles will work, but your markup is never invalidated by the presence of the style attribute.

<element style="property: value">
</element>

Whereas external CSS and embedded CSS don’t have any effect on specificity, inline styles are positively radioactive with specificity. Any styles applied this way are almost certain to over-ride any external or embedded styles.

You can also apply styles using JavaScript and the Document Object Model.

element.style.property = 'value';

Using the DOM style object this way is equivalent to inline styles. The radioactive specificity applies here too.

Style declarations specified in external style sheets or embedded CSS follow the rules of the cascade. Values can be over-ridden depending on the order they appear in. Combined with the separate-but-related rules for specificity, this can be very powerful. But if you don’t understand how the cascade and specificity work then the results can be unexpected, leading to frustration. In that situation, inline styles look very appealing—there’s no cascade and everything has equal specificity. But using inline styles means foregoing a lot of power—you’d be ditching the C in CSS.

A common technique for web performance is to favour embedded CSS over external CSS in order to avoid the extra network request (at least for the first visit—there are clever techniques for caching an external style sheet once the HTML has already loaded). This is commonly referred to as inlining your CSS. But really it should be called embedding your CSS.

This language mix-up is not a hill I’m going to die on (that hill would be referring to blog posts as blogs) but I thought it was worth pointing out.

Monday, December 14th, 2020

Lists

We often have brown bag lunchtime presentations at Clearleft. In the Before Times, this would involve a trip to Pret or Itsu to get a lunch order in, which we would then proceed to eat in front of whoever was giving the presentation. Often it’s someone from Clearleft demoing something or playing back a project, but whenever possible we’d rope in other people to swing by and share what they’re up to.

We’ve continued this tradition since making the switch to working remotely. Now the brown bag presentations happen over Zoom. This has two advantages. Firstly, if you don’t want the presenter watching you eat your lunch, you can switch your camera off. Secondly, because the presenter doesn’t have to be in Brighton, there’s no geographical limit on who could present.

Our most recent brown bag was truly excellent. I asked Léonie if she’d be up for it, and she very kindly agreed. As well as giving us a whirlwind tour of how assistive technology works on the web, she then invited us to observe her interacting with websites using a screen reader.

I’ve seen Léonie do this before and it’s always struck me as a very open and vulnerable thing to do. Think about it: the audience has more information than the presenter. We can see the website at the same time as we’re listening to Léonie and her screen reader.

We got to nominate which websites to visit. One of them—a client’s current site that we haven’t yet redesigned—was a textbook example of how important form controls are. There was a form where almost everything was hunky-dory: form fields, labels, it was all fine. But one of the inputs was a combo box. Instead of using a native select with a datalist, this was made with JavaScript. Because it was lacking the requisite ARIA additions to make it accessible, it was pretty much unusable to Léonie.

And that’s why you use the right HTML element wherever possible, kids!

The other site Léonie visited was Clearleft’s own. That was all fine. Léonie demonstrated how she’d form a mental model of a page by getting the screen reader to read out the headings. Interestingly, the nesting of headings on the Clearleft site is technically wrong—there’s a jump from an h1 to an h3—probably a result of the component-driven architecture where you don’t quite know where in the page a heading will appear. But this didn’t seem to be an issue. The fact that headings are being used at all was the more important fact. As Léonie said, there’s a lot of incorrect HTML out there so it’s no wonder that screen readers aren’t necessarily sticklers for nesting.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if you’re using headings, labelling form fields, and providing alternative text for images, you’re already doing a better job than most websites.

Headings weren’t the only way that Léonie got a feel for the page architecture. Landmark roles—like header and nav—really helped too. Inside the nav element, she also heard how many items there were. That’s because the navigation was marked up as a list: “List: six items.”

And that reminded me of the Webkit issue. On Webkit browsers like Safari, the list on the Clearleft site would not be announced as a list. That’s because the lists’s bullets have been removed using CSS.

Now this isn’t the only time that screen readers pay attention to styling. If you use display: none to hide an element from sight, it will also be unavailable to screen reader users. Makes sense. But removing the semantic meaning of lists based on CSS? That seems a bit much.

There are good reasons for it though. Here’s a thread from James Craig on where this decision came from (James, by the way, is an absolute unsung hero of accessibility). It turns out that developers went overboard with lists a while back and that’s why we can’t have nice things. In over-compensating from divitis, developers ended up creating listitis, marking up anything vaguely list-like as an unordered list with styling adjusted. That was very annoying for screen reader users trying to figure out what was actually a list.

And James also asks:

If a sighted user doesn’t need to know it’s a list, why would a screen reader user need to know or want to know? Stated another way, if the visible list markers (bullets, image markers, etc.) are deemed by the designers to be visually burdensome or redundant for sighted users, why burden screen reader users with those semantics?

That’s a fair point, but the thing is …bullets maketh not the list. There are many ways of styling something that is genuinely a list that doesn’t involve bullets or image markers. White space, borders, keylines—these can all indicate visually that something is a list of items.

If you look at, say, the tunes page on The Session, you can see that there are numerous lists—newest tunes, latest comments, etc. In this case, as a sighted visitor, you would be at an advantage over a screen reader user in that you can, at a glance, see that there’s a list of five items here, a list of ten items there.

So I’m not disagreeing with the thinking behind the Webkit decision, but I do think the heuristics probably aren’t going to be quite good enough to make the call on whether something is truly a list or not.

Still, while I used to be kind of upset about the Webkit behaviour, I’ve become more equanimous about it over time. There are two reasons for this.

Firstly, there’s something that Eric said:

We have come so far to agree that websites don’t need to look the same in every browser mostly due to bugs in their rendering engines or preferences of the user.

I think the same is true for screen readers and other assistive technology: Websites don’t need to sound the same in every screen reader.

That’s a really good point. If we agree that “pixel perfection” isn’t attainable—or desirable—in a fluid, user-centred medium like the web, why demand the aural equivalent?

The second reason why I’m not storming the barricades about this is something that James said:

Of course, heuristics are imperfect, so authors have the ability to explicitly override the heuristically determined role by adding role="list”.

That means more work for me as a developer, and that’s …absolutely fine. If I can take something that might be a problem for a user, and turn into something that’s a problem for me, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.

I don’t have to petition Webkit to change their stance or update their heuristics. If I feel strongly that a list styled without bullets should still be announced as a list, I can specificy that in the markup.

It does feel very redundant to write ul role="list”. The whole point of having HTML elements with built-in semantics is that you don’t need to add any ARIA roles. But we did it for a while when new structural elements were introduced in HTML5—main role="main", nav role="navigation", etc. So I’m okay with a little bit of redundancy. I think the important thing is that you really stop and think about whether something should be announced as a list or not, regardless of styling. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer (hence why it’s nigh-on impossible to get the heuristics right). Each list needs to be marked up on a case-by-case basis.

And I wouldn’t advise spending too much time thinking about this either. There are other, more important areas to consider. Like I said, headings, forms, and images really matter. I’d prioritise those elements above thinking about lists. And it’s worth pointing out that Webkit doesn’t remove all semantic meaning from styled lists—it updates the role value from list to group. That seems sensible to me.

In the case of that page on The Session, I don’t think I’m guilty of listitis. Yes, there are seven lists on that page (two for navigation, five for content) but I’m reasonably confident that they all look like lists even without bullets or markers. So I’ve added role="list" to some ul elements.

As with so many things related to accessibility—and the web in general—this is a situation where the only answer I can confidentally come up with is …it depends.

Tuesday, November 17th, 2020

Insecure …again

Back in March, I wrote about a dilemma I was facing. I could make the certificates on The Session more secure. But if I did that, people using older Android and iOS devices could no longer access the site:

As a site owner, I can either make security my top priority, which means you’ll no longer be able to access my site. Or I can provide you access, which makes my site less secure for everyone.

In the end, I decided in favour of access. But now this issue has risen from the dead. And this time, it doesn’t matter what I think.

Let’s Encrypt are changing the way their certificates work and once again, it’s people with older devices who are going to suffer:

Most notably, this includes versions of Android prior to 7.1.1. That means those older versions of Android will no longer trust certificates issued by Let’s Encrypt.

This makes me sad. It’s another instance of people being forced to buy new devices. Last time ‘round, my dilemma was choosing between security and access. This time, access isn’t an option. It’s a choice between security and the environment (assuming that people are even in a position to get new devices—not an assumption I’m willing to make).

But this time it’s out of my hands. Let’s Encrypt certificates will stop working on older devices and a whole lotta websites are suddenly going to be inaccessible.

I could look at using a different certificate authority, one I’d have to pay for. It feels a bit galling to have to go back to the scammy world of paying for security—something that Let’s Encrypt has taught us should quite rightly be free. But accessing a website should also be free. It shouldn’t come with the price tag of getting a new device.

Saturday, November 14th, 2020

The Correct Material

I’ve been watching The Right Stuff on Disney Plus. It’s a modern remake of the ’80s film of the ’70s Tom Wolfe book of ’60s events.

It’s okay. The main challenge, as a viewer, is keeping track of which of the seven homogenous white guys is which. It’s like Merry, Pippin, Ant, Dec, and then some.

It’s kind of fun watching it after watching For All Mankind which has some of the same characters following a different counterfactual history.

The story being told is interesting enough (although Tom has pointed out that removing the Chuck Yeager angle really diminishes the narrative). But ultimately the tension is manufactured around a single event—the launch of Freedom 7—that was very much in the shadow of Gargarin’s historic Vostok 1 flight.

There are juicier stories to be told, but those stories come from Russia.

Some of these stories have been told in film. The Spacewalker told the amazing story of Alexei Leonov’s mission, though it messes with the truth about what happened with the landing and recovery—a real shame, considering that the true story is remarkable enough.

Imagine an alternative to The Right Stuff that relayed the drama of Soyuz 1—it’s got everything: friendship, rivalries, politics, tragedy…

I’d watch the heck out of that.

Thursday, November 12th, 2020

Caching and storing

When I was speaking at conferences last year about service workers, I’d introduce the Cache API. I wanted some way of explaining the difference between caching and other kinds of storage.

The way I explained was that, while you might store stuff for a long time, you’d only cache stuff that you knew you were going to need again. So according to that definition, when you make a backup of your hard drive, that’s not caching …becuase you hope you’ll never need to use the backup.

But that explanation never sat well with me. Then more recently, I was chatting with Amber about caching. Once again, we trying to define the difference between, say, the Cache API and things like LocalStorage and IndexedDB. At some point, we realised the fundamental difference: caches are for copies.

Think about it. If you store something in LocalStorage or IndexedDB, that’s the canonical home for that data. But anything you put into a cache must be a copy of something that exists elsewhere. That’s true of the Cache API, the browser cache, and caches on the server. An item in one of those caches is never the original—it’s always a copy of something that has a canonical home elsewhere.

By that definition, backing up your hard drive definitely is caching.

Anyway, I was glad to finally have a working definition to differentiate between caching and storing.

Wednesday, November 11th, 2020

Upgrades and polyfills

I started getting some emails recently from people having issues using The Session. The issues sounded similar—an interactive component that wasn’t, well …interacting.

When I asked what device or browser they were using, the answer came back the same: Safari on iPad. But not a new iPad. These were older iPads running older operating systems.

Now, remember, even if I wanted to recommend that they use a different browser, that’s not an option:

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to.

It gets worse. Not only is there no choice when it comes to rendering engines on iOS, but the rendering engine is also tied to the operating system.

If you’re on an old Apple laptop, you can at least install an up-to-date version of Firefox or Chrome. But you can’t install an up-to-date version of Safari. An up-to-date version of Safari requires an up-to-date version of the operating system.

It’s the same on iOS devices—you can’t install a newer version of Safari without installing a newer version of iOS. But unlike the laptop scenario, you can’t install any version of Firefox of Chrome.

It’s disgraceful.

It’s particularly frustrating when an older device can’t upgrade its operating system. Upgrades for Operating system generally have some hardware requirements. If your device doesn’t meet those requirements, you can’t upgrade your operating system. That wouldn’t matter so much except for the Safari issue. Without an upgraded operating system, your web browsing experience stagnates unnecessarily.

For want of a nail

  • A website feature isn’t working so
  • you need to upgrade your browser which means
  • you need to upgrade your operating sytem but
  • you can’t upgrade your operating system so
  • you need to buy a new device.

Apple doesn’t allow other browsers to be installed on iOS devices so people have to buy new devices if they want to use the web. Handy for Apple. Bad for users. Really bad for the planet.

It’s particularly galling when it comes to iPads. Those are exactly the kind of casual-use devices that shouldn’t need to be caught in the wasteful cycle of being used for a while before getting thrown away. I mean, I get why you might want to have a relatively modern phone—a device that’s constantly with you that you use all the time—but an iPad is the perfect device to just have lying around. You shouldn’t feel pressured to have the latest model if the older version still does the job:

An older tablet makes a great tableside companion in your living room, an effective e-book reader, or a light-duty device for reading mail or checking your favorite websites.

Hang on, though. There’s another angle to this. Why should a website demand an up-to-date browser? If the website has been built using the tried and tested approach of progressive enhancement, then everyone should be able to achieve their goals regardless of what browser or device or operating system they’re using.

On The Session, I’m using progressive enhancement and feature detection everywhere I can. If, for example, I’ve got some JavaScript that’s going to use querySelectorAll and addEventListener, I’ll first test that those methods are available.

if (!document.querySelectorAll || !window.addEventListener) {
  // doesn't cut the mustard.
  return;
}

I try not to assume that anything is supported. So why was I getting emails from people with older iPads describing an interaction that wasn’t working? A JavaScript error was being thrown somewhere and—because of JavaScript’s brittle error-handling—that was causing all the subsequent JavaScript to fail.

I tracked the problem down to a function that was using some DOM methods—matches and closest—as well as the relatively recent JavaScript forEach method. But I had polyfills in place for all of those. Here’s the polyfill I’m using for matches and closest. And here’s the polyfill I’m using for forEach.

Then I spotted the problem. I was using forEach to loop through the results of querySelectorAll. But the polyfill works on arrays. Technically, the output of querySelectorAll isn’t an array. It looks like an array, it quacks like an array, but it’s actually a node list.

So I added this polyfill from Chris Ferdinandi.

That did the trick. I checked with the people with those older iPads and everything is now working just fine.

For the record, here’s the small collection of polyfills I’m using. Polyfills are supposed to be temporary. At some stage, as everyone upgrades their browsers, I should be able to remove them. But as long as some people are stuck with using an older browser, I have to keep those polyfills around.

I wish that Apple would allow other rendering engines to be installed on iOS devices. But if that’s a hell-freezing-over prospect, I wish that Safari updates weren’t tied to operating system updates.

Apple may argue that their browser rendering engine and their operating system are deeply intertwingled. That line of defence worked out great for Microsoft in the ‘90s.

Tuesday, November 10th, 2020

aria-live

I wrote a little something recently about using ARIA attributes as selectors in CSS. For me, one of the advantages is that because ARIA attributes are generally added via JavaScript, the corresponding CSS rules won’t kick in if something goes wrong with the JavaScript:

Generally, ARIA attributes—like aria-hidden—are added by JavaScript at runtime (rather than being hard-coded in the HTML).

But there’s one instance where I actually put the ARIA attribute directly in the HTML that gets sent from the server: aria-live.

If you’re not familiar with it, aria-live is extremely useful if you’ve got any dynamic updates on your page—via Ajax, for example. Let’s say you’ve got a bit of your site where filtered results will show up. Slap an aria-live attribute on there with a value of “polite”:

<div aria-live="polite">
...dynamic content gets inserted here
</div>

You could instead provide a value of “assertive”, but you almost certainly don’t want to do that—it can be quite rude.

Anyway, on the face it, this looks like exactly the kind of ARIA attribute that should be added with JavaScript. After all, if there’s no JavaScript, there’ll be no dynamic updates.

But I picked up a handy lesson from Ire’s excellent post on using aria-live:

Assistive technology will initially scan the document for instances of the aria-live attribute and keep track of elements that include it. This means that, if we want to notify users of a change within an element, we need to include the attribute in the original markup.

Good to know!

Monday, November 9th, 2020

Bookshop

Back at the start of the (first) lockdown, I wrote about using my website as an outlet:

While you’re stuck inside, your website is not just a place you can go to, it’s a place you can control, a place you can maintain, a place you can tidy up, a place you can expand. Most of all, it’s a place you can lose yourself in, even if it’s just for a little while.

Last week was eventful and stressful. For everyone. I found myself once again taking refuge in my website, tinkering with its inner workings in the way that someone else would potter about in their shed or take to their garage to strip down the engine of some automotive device.

Colly drew my attention to Bookshop.org, newly launched in the UK. It’s an umbrella website for independent bookshops to sell through. It’s also got an affiliate scheme, much like Amazon. I set up a Bookshop page for myself.

I’ve been tracking the books I’m reading for the past three years here on my own website. I set about reproducing that list on Bookshop.

It was exactly the kind of not-exactly-mindless but definitely-not-challenging task that was perfect for the state of my brain last week. Search for a book; find the ISBN number; paste that number into a form. It’s the kind of task that a real programmer would immediately set about automating but one that I embraced as a kind of menial task to keep me occupied.

I wasn’t able to get a one-to-one match between the list on my site and my reading list on Bookshop. Some titles aren’t available in the online catalogue. For example, the book I’m reading right now—A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit—is nowhere to be found, which seems like an odd omission.

But most of the books I’ve read are there on Bookshop.org, complete with pretty book covers. Then I decided to reverse the process of my menial task. I took all of the ISBN numbers from Bookshop and add them as machine tags to my reading notes here on my own website. Book cover images on Bookshop have predictable URLs that use the ISBN number (well, technically the EAN number, or ISBN-13, but let’s not go down a 927 rabbit hole here). So now I’m using that metadata to pull in images from Bookshop.org to illustrate my reading notes here on adactio.com.

I’m linking to the corresponding book on Bookshop.org using this URL structure:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/{{ affiliate code }}/{{ ISBN number }}

I realised that I could also link to the corresponding entry on Open Library using this URL structure:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/{{ ISBN number }}

Here, for example, is my note for The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie. That entry has a tag:

book:ean=9780356506999

With that information I can illustrate my note with this image:

https://images-eu.bookshop.org/product-images/images/9780356506999.jpg

I’m linking off to this URL on Bookshop.org:

https://uk.bookshop.org/a/980/9780356506999

And this URL on Open Library:

https://openlibrary.org/isbn/9780356506999

The end result is that my reading list now has more links and pretty pictures.

Oh, I also set up a couple of shorter lists on Bookshop.org:

The books listed in those are drawn from my end of the year round-ups when I try to pick one favourite non-fiction book and one favourite work of fiction (almost always speculative fiction). The books in those two lists are the ones that get two hearty thumbs up from me. If you click through to buy one of them, the price might not be as cheap as on Amazon, but you’ll be supporting an independent bookshop.