Tags: medium

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Monday, June 18th, 2018

Praise for Going Offline

I’m very, very happy to see that my new book Going Offline is proving to be accessible and unintimidating to a wide audience—that was very much my goal when writing it.

People have been saying nice things on their blogs, which is very gratifying. It’s even more gratifying to see people use the knowledge gained from reading the book to turn those blogs into progressive web apps!

Sara Soueidan:

It doesn’t matter if you’re a designer, a junior developer or an experienced engineer — this book is perfect for anyone who wants to learn about Service Workers and take their Web application to a whole new level.

I highly recommend it. I read the book over the course of two days, but it can easily be read in half a day. And as someone who rarely ever reads a book cover to cover (I tend to quit halfway through most books), this says a lot about how good it is.

Eric Lawrence:

I was delighted to discover a straightforward, very approachable reference on designing a ServiceWorker-backed application: Going Offline by Jeremy Keith. The book is short (I’m busy), direct (“Here’s a problem, here’s how to solve it“), opinionated in the best way (landmine-avoiding “Do this“), and humorous without being confusing. As anyone who has received unsolicited (or solicited) feedback from me about their book knows, I’m an extremely picky reader, and I have no significant complaints on this one. Highly recommended.

Ben Nadel:

If you’re interested in the “offline first” movement or want to learn more about Service Workers, Going Offline by Jeremy Keith is a really gentle and highly accessible introduction to the topic.

Daniel Koskine:

Jeremy nails it again with this beginner-friendly introduction to Service Workers and Progressive Web Apps.

Donny Truong

Jeremy’s technical writing is as superb as always. Similar to his first book for A Book Apart, which cleared up all my confusions about HTML5, Going Offline helps me put the pieces of the service workers’ puzzle together.

People have been saying nice things on Twitter too…

Aaron Gustafson:

It’s a fantastic read and a simple primer for getting Service Workers up and running on your site.

Ethan Marcotte:

Of course, if you’re looking to take your website offline, you should read @adactio’s wonderful book

Lívia De Paula Labate:

Ok, I’m done reading @adactio’s Going Offline book and as my wife would say, it’s the bomb dot com.

If that all sounds good to you, get yourself a copy of Going Offline in paperbook, or ebook (or both).

Sunday, June 17th, 2018

Detecting image requests in service workers

In Going Offline, I dive into the many different ways you can use a service worker to handle requests. You can filter by the URL, for example; treating requests for pages under /blog or /articles differently from other requests. Or you can filter by file type. That way, you can treat requests for, say, images very differently to requests for HTML pages.

One of the ways to check what kind of request you’re dealing with is to see what’s in the accept header. Here’s how I show the test for HTML pages:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('text/html')) {
    // Handle your page requests here.
}

So, logically enough, I show the same technique for detecting image requests:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('image')) {
    // Handle your image requests here.
}

That should catch any files that have image in the request’s accept header, like image/png or image/jpeg or image/svg+xml and so on.

But there’s a problem. Both Safari and Firefox now use a much broader accept header: */*

My if statement evaluates to false in those browsers. Sebastian Eberlein wrote about his workaround for this issue, which involves looking at file extensions instead:

if (request.url.match(/\.(jpe?g|png|gif|svg)$/)) {
    // Handle your image requests here.
}

So consider this post a patch for chapter five of Going Offline (page 68 specifically). Wherever you see:

if (request.headers.get('Accept').includes('image'))

Swap it out for:

if (request.url.match(/\.(jpe?g|png|gif|svg)$/))

And feel to add any other image file extensions (like webp) in there too.

Friday, June 8th, 2018

Registering service workers

In chapter two of Going Offline, I talk about registering your service worker wrapped up in some feature detection:

<script>
if (navigator.serviceworker) {
  navigator.serviceworker.register('/serviceworker.js');
}
</script>

But I also make reference to a declarative way of doing this that isn’t very widely supported:

<link rel="serviceworker" href="/serviceworker.js">

No need for feature detection there. Thanks to the liberal error-handling model of HTML (and CSS), browsers will just ignore what they don’t understand, which isn’t the case with JavaScript.

Alas, it looks like that nice declarative alternative isn’t going to be making its way into browsers anytime soon. It has been removed from the HTML spec. That’s a shame. I have a preference for declarative solutions where possible—they’re certainly easier to teach. But in this case, the JavaScript alternative isn’t too onerous.

So if you’re reading Going Offline, when you get to the bit about someday using the rel value, you can cast a wistful gaze into the distance, or shed a tiny tear for what might have been …and then put it out of your mind and carry on reading.

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Clearleft.com is a progressive web app

What’s that old saying? The cobbler’s children have no shoes that work offline. Or something.

It’s been over a year since the Clearleft site relaunched and I listed some of the next steps I had planned:

Service worker. It’s a no-brainer. Now that the Clearleft site is (finally!) running on HTTPS, having a simple service worker to cache static assets like CSS, JavaScript and some images seems like the obvious next step.

You know how it is. Those no-brainer tasks are exactly the kind of thing that end up on a to-do list without ever quite getting to-done. Meanwhile I’ve been writing and speaking about how any website can be a progressive web app. I think Alanis Morissette used to sing about this sort of situation.

Enough is enough! Clearleft.com is now a progressive web app. It has a manifest file and a service worker script.

The service worker logic is fairly straightforward, and taken almost verbatim from Going Offline. As you navigate around the site, the service worker applies different logic depending on the kind of file you’re requesting:

  • Pages are served fresh from the network, falling back to the cache when there’s a problem.
  • Everything else is served from the cache where possible, resorting to the network only if there’s no match in the cache—quite the performance boost!

In both cases, if a page or a file is retrieved from the network, it’s gets put into a cache. I’ve got one cache for pages, and another for everything else. And even if a file is retrieved from that cache, I still fire off a fetch request to grab a fresh copy for the cache. So while there’s a chance that a stale file might be served up, it will only ever be slightly stale, and the next time it’s requested, it’ll be fresh.

In the worst-case scenario, when a page can’t be retrieved from the network or the cache, you end up seeing a custom offline page. There you can see a list of any pages that are cached (meaning you can revisit them even without an internet connection).

A custom offline page showing a list of URLs.

It’s not ideal—page titles would be friendlier than URLs—but it’s a start. I’m sure I’ll revisit it soon. Honest.

Oh, and after a year of procrastinating about doing this, guess how long it took? About half a day. Admittedly, this isn’t my first progressive web app, and the more you build ‘em, the easier it gets. Still, it’s a classic example of a small investment of time leading to a big improvement in performance and user experience.

If you think your company’s website could benefit from being a progressive web app (and believe me, it definitely could), you have a couple of options:

  1. Arm yourself with a copy of Going Offline and give it a go yourself. Or
  2. Get in touch with Clearleft. We can help you. (See, I can say that with a straight face now that we’re practicing what we preach.)

Either way, don’t dilly dally …like I did.

Monday, June 4th, 2018

Expectations

I noticed something interesting recently about how I browse the web.

It used to be that I would notice if a site were responsive. Or, before responsive web design was a thing, I would notice if a site was built with a fluid layout. It was worthy of remark, because it was exceptional—the default was fixed-width layouts.

But now, that has flipped completely around. Now I notice if a site isn’t responsive. It feels …broken. It’s like coming across an embedded map that isn’t a slippy map. My expectations have reversed.

That’s kind of amazing. If you had told me ten years ago that liquid layouts and media queries would become standard practice on the web, I would’ve found it very hard to believe. I spent the first decade of this century ranting in the wilderness about how the web was a flexible medium, but I felt like the laughable guy on the street corner with an apocalyptic sandwich board. Well, who’s laughing now

Anyway, I think it’s worth stepping back every now and then and taking stock of how far we’ve come. Mind you, in terms of web performance, the trend has unfortunately been in the wrong direction—big, bloated websites have become the norm. We need to change that.

Now, maybe it’s because I’ve been somewhat obsessed with service workers lately, but I’ve started to notice my expectations around offline behaviour changing recently too. It’s not that I’m surprised when I can’t revisit an article without an internet connection, but I do feel disappointed—like an opportunity has been missed.

I really notice it when I come across little self-contained browser-based games like

Those games are great! I particularly love Battleship Solitaire—it has a zen-like addictive quality to it. If I load it up in a browser tab, I can then safely go offline because the whole game is delivered in the initial download. But if I try to navigate to the game while I’m offline, I’m out of luck. That’s a shame. This snack-sized casual games feel like the perfect use-case for working offline (or, even if there is an internet connection, they could still be speedily served up from a cache).

I know that my expectations about offline behaviour aren’t shared by most people. The idea of visiting a site even when there’s no internet connection doesn’t feel normal …yet.

But perhaps that expectation will change. It’s happened before.

(And if you want to be ready when those expectations change, I’ve written a Going Offline for you.)

Sunday, June 3rd, 2018

AMPstinction

I’ve come to believe that the goal of any good framework should be to make itself unnecessary.

Brian said it explicitly of his PhoneGap project:

The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.

That makes total sense, especially if your code is a polyfill—those solutions are temporary by design. Autoprefixer is another good example of a piece of code that becomes less and less necessary over time.

But I think it’s equally true of any successful framework or library. If the framework becomes popular enough, it will inevitably end up influencing the standards process, thereby becoming dispensible.

jQuery is the classic example of this. There’s very little reason to use jQuery these days because you can accomplish so much with browser-native JavaScript. But the reason why you can accomplish so much without jQuery is because of jQuery. I don’t think we would have querySelector without jQuery. The library proved the need for the feature. The same is true for a whole load of DOM scripting features.

The same process is almost certain to occur with React—it’s a good bet there will be a standardised equivalent to the virtual DOM at some point.

When Google first unveiled AMP, its intentions weren’t clear to me. I hoped that it existed purely to make itself redundant:

As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.

Alas, as time has passed, that hope shows no signs of being fulfilled. If anything, I’ve noticed publishers using the existence of their AMP pages as a justification for just letting their “regular” pages put on weight.

Worse yet, the messaging from Google around AMP has shifted. Instead of pitching it as a format for creating parallel versions of your web pages, they’re now also extolling the virtues of having your AMP pages be the only version you publish:

In fact, AMP’s evolution has made it a viable solution to build entire websites.

On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).

But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance …which is kind of odd, because that’s also what Google’s Polymer project is. The difference being that pages made with Polymer don’t get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. I can’t help but wonder how the Polymer team feels about AMP’s gradual pivot onto their territory.

If the AMP project existed in order to create a web where AMP was no longer needed, I think I could get behind it. But the more it’s positioned as the only viable solution to solving performance, the more uncomfortable I am with it.

Which, by the way, brings me to one of the most pernicious ideas around Google AMP—positioning anyone opposed to it as not caring about web performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s precisely because performance on the web is so important that it deserves a long-term solution, co-created by all of us: not some commandents delivered to us from on-high by one organisation, enforced by preferential treatment by that organisation’s monopoly in search.

It’s the classic logical fallacy:

  1. Performance! Something must be done!
  2. AMP is something.
  3. Now something has been done.

By marketing itself as the only viable solution to the web performance problem, I think the AMP project is doing itself a great disservice. If it positioned itself as an example to be emulated, I would welcome it.

I wish that AMP were being marketed more like a temporary polyfill. And as with any polyfill, I look forward to the day when AMP is no longer necesssary.

I want AMP to become extinct. I genuinely think that the Google AMP team should share that wish.

Friday, June 1st, 2018

Document

A little while back, I showed Paul what I was working on with The Gęsiówka Story. I value his opinion and I really like the Bradshaw’s Guide project that he’s been working on. We’re both in complete agreement with Russell Davies’ call for an internet of unmonetisable enthusiasms. Call them side projects if you like, but for me, these are the things that the World Wide Web excels at.

These unomentisable enthusiasms/side projects are what got me hooked on the web in the first place. Fray.com—back when it was a website for personal stories—was what really made the web click for me. I had seen brochure sites, I had seen e-commerce sites, but it was seeing something built purely for the love of it that caused that lightbulb moment for me.

I told Paul about another site I remembered from that time (we’re talking about the mid-to-late nineties here). It was called Private Art. It was the work of one family, the children of Private Art Pranger who served in World War Two and wrote letters from the front. Without any expectations, I did a quick search, and amazingly, the site is still up!

Yes, it’s got tiled background images, and the framesetted content is in a pop-up window, but it works. The site hasn’t been updated for fifteen years but it works perfectly in a web browser today. That’s kind of amazing. We really shouldn’t take the longevity of our materials for granted. Could you imagine trying to open a word processing document from the late nineties on your computer today? You’d have a bad time.

Working on The Gęsiówka Story helped to remind me of some of the things that made me fall in love with the web in the first place. What I wrote about it is equally true of Private Art:

When we talk about documents on the web, we usually use the word “document” as a noun. But working on The Gęsiówka Story, I came to think of the word “document” as a verb.

The World Wide Web is a medium that’s works for quick, short-term lightweight bits of fun and also for long-term, deeper, slower, thoughtful archives of our collective culture.

The web is a many-splendoured thing.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2018

The Gęsiówka Story

While I was in Warsaw for a conference last week, I sought out a commerative plaque in a residential neighbourhood. The English translation reads:

On 5th August 1944 “Zośka” the scouts’ battalion of the “Radosław” unit Armia Krajowa captured the German concentration camp “Gęsiówka” and liberated 348 Jewish prisoners, citizens of various European countries, many of whom later fought and fell in the Warsaw Uprising.

I knew about the plaque—and the incredible events it commemorates—thanks to a piece of writing called The Gęsiówka Story by Edward Kossoy, a relative of mine.

My ancestral lineage is an unusual mix. I’ve got generations of Irish on my mother’s side, and generations of Eastern European jews on my father’s side.

Edward wasn’t closely related to me. He was my grandfather’s cousin. My father’s father (from whom I got my middle name, Ivan) was driving ambulances in London during the war. Meanwhile his cousin Edward in Poland was trying desperately to get his family out. Separated from his wife and daughter, he was arrested by the Russians in Ukraine and sentenced to hard labour in a gulag. He survived. His wife and child were did not. They were murdered by the nazis during Operation Harvest Festival.

Edward was a lawyer. He spent the rest of his life fighting for reparations for victims of the Holocaust. He represented tens of thousands of jews, Poles, and Roma. He lived in Tel Aviv, Munich, and finally Geneva. That was where he met the Polish war hero Wacław Micuta who first told him about what happened at Gęsiówka. What he heard sounded implausible, but when he found Gęsiówka survivors among his own clientelle, Edward was able to corrobarate Micuta’s story.

(Micuta, by the way, had much to discuss with Edward’s second wife Sonia. She fought in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, escaping by being smuggled out in a suitcase.)

As well as being a lawyer, Edward was also an author. In 2004 he wrote The Gęsiówka Story for the journal Yad Vashem Studies. I came across it in PDF form while I was searching for more details of Edward’s life and legacy. I was completely astonished by what I read—if it were a Hollywood film, you would think it too far-fetched to be true.

I decided to transfer the story into a more durable format. I’ve marked it up, styled it, and published it here:

gesiowka.adactio.com

The subheading of The Gęsiówka Story is “A Little Known Page of Jewish Fighting History.” I certainly think it’s a piece of history that deserves to be more widely known. That’s why I’ve turned it into a web page.

When we talk about documents on the web, we usually use the word “document” as a noun. But working on The Gęsiówka Story, I came to think of the word “document” as a verb. And I think the web is well-suited to documenting the stories and experiences of our forebears.

Edward died six years ago, just one year shy of a hundred. I never got to meet him in person, which is something I very much regret. But by taking his words and working with them while trying my best to treat them with respect, I’ve come to feel a bit closer to this great man.

This was a little labour of love for me. I hope I did his words justice. And I hope you’ll read The Gęsiówka Story.

Tuesday, May 29th, 2018

Scripting News: The Internet is going the wrong way

The Internet is a place for the people, like parks, libraries, museums, historic places. It’s okay if corporations want to exploit the net, like DisneyLand or cruise lines, but not at the expense of the natural features of the net.

Friday, May 18th, 2018

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.

Wednesday, May 16th, 2018

HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest = progressive web app

I gave a quick talk at the Delta V conference in London last week called Any Site can be a Progressive Web App. I had ten minutes, but frankly I only needed enough time to say the title of the talk because, well, that was also the message.

There’s a common misconception that making a Progressive Web App means creating a Single Page App with an app-shell architecture. But the truth is that literally any website can benefit from the performance boost that results from the combination of HTTPS + Service Worker + Web App Manifest.

See how I define a progressive web app as being HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest? I’ve been doing that for a while. Here’s a post from last year called Progressing the web:

Literally any website can be a progressive web app:

That last step can be tricky if you’re new to service workers, but it’s not unsurmountable. It’s certainly a lot easier than completely rearchitecting your existing website to be a JavaScript-driven single page app.

Later I wrote a post called What is a Progressive Web App? where I compared the definition to responsive web design.

Regardless of the specifics of the name, what I like about Progressive Web Apps is that they have a clear definition. It reminds me of Responsive Web Design. Whatever you think of that name, it comes with a clear list of requirements:

  1. A fluid layout,
  2. Fluid images, and
  3. Media queries.

Likewise, Progressive Web Apps consist of:

  1. HTTPS,
  2. A service worker, and
  3. A Web App Manifest.

There’s more you can do in addition to that (just as there’s plenty more you can do on a responsive site), but the core definition is nice and clear.

But here’s the thing. Outside of the confines of my own website, it’s hard to find that definition anywhere.

On Google’s developer site, their definition uses adjectives like “reliable”, “fast”, and “engaging”. Those are all great adjectives, but more useful to a salesperson than a developer.

Over on the Mozilla Developer Network, their section on progressive web apps states:

Progressive web apps use modern web APIs along with traditional progressive enhancement strategy to create cross-platform web applications. These apps work everywhere and provide several features that give them the same user experience advantages as native apps. 

Hmm …I’m not so sure about that comparison to native apps (and I’m a little disturbed that the URL structure is /Apps/Progressive). So let’s click through to the introduction:

PWAs are web apps developed using a number of specific technologies and standard patterns to allow them to take advantage of both web and native app features.

Okay. Specific technologies. That’s good to hear. But instead of then listing those specific technologies, we’re given another list of adjectives (discoverable, installable, linkable, etc.). Again, like Google’s chosen adjectives, they’re very nice and desirable, but not exactly useful to someone who wants to get started making a progressive web app. That’s why I like to cut to the chase and say:

  • You need to be running on HTTPS,
  • Then you can add a service worker,
  • And don’t forget to add a web app manifest file.

If you do that, you’ve got a progressive web app. Now, to be fair, there’a lot that I’m leaving out. Your site should be fast. Your site should be responsive (it is, after all, on the web). There’s not much point mucking about with service workers if you haven’t sorted out the basics first. But those three things—HTTPS + service worker + web app manifest—are specifically what distinguishes a progressive web app. You can—and should—have a reliable, fast, engaging website before turning it into a progressive web app.

Jason has been thinking about progressive web apps a lot lately (he should write a book or something), and he said to me:

I agree with you on the three things that comprise a PWA, but as far as I can tell, you’re the first to declare it as such.

I was quite surprised by that. I always assumed that I was repeating the three ingredients of a progressive web app, not defining them. But looking through all the docs out there, Jason might be right. It’s surprising because I assumed it was obvious why those three things comprise a progressive web app—it’s because they’re testable.

Lighthouse, PWA Builder, Sonarwhal and other tools that evaluate your site will measure its progressive web app score based on the three defining factors (HTTPS, service worker, web app manifest). Then there’s Android’s Add to Home Screen prompt. Here finally we get a concrete description of what your site needs to do to pass muster:

  • Includes a web app manifest…
  • Served over HTTPS (required for service workers)
  • Has registered a service worker with a fetch event handler

(Although, as of this month, Chrome will no longer show the prompt automatically—you also have to write some JavaScript to handle the beforeinstallprompt  event).

Anyway, if you’re looking to turn your website into a progressive web app, here’s what you need to do (assuming it’s already performant and responsive):

  1. Switch over to HTTPS. Certbot can help you here.
  2. Add a web app manifest.
  3. Add a service worker to your site so that it responds even when there’s no network connection.

That last step might sound like an intimidating prospect, but help is at hand: I wrote Going Offline for exactly this situation.

Monday, May 14th, 2018

Taking Back The Web

This presentation on the indie web was delivered as the opening keynote at Webstock in Wellington, Zealand in February 2018.

Thank you. Thank you very much, Mike; it really is an honour and a privilege to be here. Kia Ora! Good morning.

This is quite intimidating. I’m supposed to open the show and there’s all these amazing, exciting speakers are going to be speaking for the next two days on amazing, exciting topics, so I’d better level up: I’d better talk about something exciting. So, let’s do it!

Economics

Yeah, we need to talk about capitalism. Capitalism is one of a few competing theories on how to structure an economy and the theory goes that you have a marketplace and the marketplace rules all and it is the marketplace that self-regulates through its kind of invisible hand. Pretty good theory, the idea being that through this invisible hand in the marketplace, wealth can be distributed relatively evenly; sort of a bell-curve distribution of wealth where some people have more, some people have less, but it kind of evens out. You see bell-curve distributions right for things like height and weight or IQ. Some have more, some have less, but the difference isn’t huge. That’s the idea, that economies could follow this bell-curve distribution.

A graph showing a bell-curve distribution.

But, without any kind of external regulation, what tends to happen in a capitalistic economy is that the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and it runs out of control. Instead of a bell-curve distribution you end up with something like this which is a power-law distribution, where you have the wealth concentrated in a small percentage and there’s a long tail of poverty.

A graph showing a power-law distribution.

That’s the thing about capitalism: it sounds great in theory, but not so good in practice.

Monopoly

The theory, I actually agree with, the theory being that competition is good and that competition is healthy. I think that’s a sound theory. I like competition: I think there should be a marketplace of competition, to try and avoid these kind of monopolies or duopolies that you get in these power-law distributions. The reason I say that is that we as web designers and web developers, we’ve seen what happens when monopolies kick in.

The icon for Microsoft Internet Explorer.

We were there: we were there when there was a monopoly; when Microsoft had an enormous share of the browser market, it was like in the high nineties, percentage of browser share with Internet Explorer, which they achieved because they had an enormous monopoly in the desktop market as well, they were able to bundle Internet Explorer with the Windows Operating System. Not exactly an invisible hand regulating there.

But we managed to dodge this bullet. I firmly believe that the more browsers we have, the better. I think a diversity of browsers is a really good thing. I know sometimes as developers, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if there was just one browser to develop for: wouldn’t that be great?” No. No it would not! We’ve been there and it wasn’t pretty. Firefox was pretty much a direct result of this monopoly situation in browsers. But like I say, we dodged this bullet. In some ways the web interpreted this monopoly as damage and routed around it. This idea of interpreting something as damaged and routing around it, that’s a phrase that comes from network architecture

Networks

As with economies, there are competing schools of thought on how you would structure a network; there’s many ways to structure a network.

A ring of small circles, each one connected to a larger circle in the middle.

One way, sort of a centralised network approach is, you have this hub and spoke model, where you have lots of smaller nodes connecting to a single large hub and then those large hubs can connect with one another and this is how the telegraph worked, then the telephone system worked like this. Airports still pretty much work like this. You’ve got regional airports connecting to a large hub and those large hubs connect to one another, and it’s a really good system. It works really well until the hub gets taken out. If the hub goes down, you’ve got these nodes that are stranded: they can’t connect to one another. That’s a single point of failure, that’s a vulnerability in this network architecture.

A circle of  small circles, with no connections between them.

It was the single point of failure, this vulnerability, that led to the idea of packet-switching and different network architectures that we saw in the ARPANET, which later became the Internet. The impetus there was to avoid the single point of failure. What if you took these nodes and gave them all some connections?

A scattering of circles, each one with some connections to other circles.

This is more like a bell-curve distribution of connections now. Some nodes have more connections than others, some have fewer, but there isn’t a huge difference between the amount of connections between nodes. Then the genius of packet-switching is that you just need to get the signal across the network by whatever route works best at the time. That way, if a node were to disappear, even a relatively well-connected one, you can route around the damage. Now you’re avoiding the single point of failure problem that you would have with a hub and spoke model.

The same scattering of circles, with one of them removed. The other circles are still connected.

Like I said, this kind of thinking came from the ARPANET, later the Internet and it was as a direct result of trying to avoid having that single point of failure in a command-and-control structure. If you’re in a military organisation, you don’t want to have that single point of failure. You’ve probably heard that the internet was created to withstand a nuclear attack and that’s not exactly the truth but the network architecture that we have today on the internet was influenced by avoiding that command-and-control, that centralised command-and-control structure.

Some people kind of think there’s sort of blood on the hands of the internet because it came from this military background, DARPA…Defence Advance Research Project. But actually, the thinking behind this was not to give one side the upper hand in case of a nuclear conflict: quite the opposite. The understanding was, if there were the chance of a nuclear conflict and you had a hub and spoke model of communication, then actually you know that if they take out your hub, you’re screwed, so you’d better strike first. Whereas if you’ve got this kind of distributed network, then if there’s the possibility of attack, you might be more willing to wait it out and see because you know you can survive that initial first strike. And so this network approach was not designed to give any one side the upper hand in case of a nuclear war, but to actually avoid nuclear war in the first place. On the understanding that this was in place for both sides, so Paul Baran and the other people working on the ARPANET, they were in favour of sharing this technology with the Russians, even at the height of the Cold War.

The World Wide Web

In this kind of network architecture, there’s no hubs, there’s no regional nodes, there’s just nodes on the network. It’s very egalitarian and the network can grow and shrink infinitely; it’s scale-free, you can just keep adding nodes to network and you don’t need to ask permission to add a node to this network. That same sort of architecture then influenced the World Wide Web, which is built on top of the Internet and Tim Berners-Lee uses this model where anybody can add a website to the World Wide Web: you don’t need to ask for permission, you just add one more node to the network; there’s no plan to it, there’s no structure and so it’s a mess! It’s a sprawling, beautiful mess with no structure.

Walled Gardens

And it’s funny, because in the early days of the Web it wasn’t clear that the Web was going to win; not at all. There was competition. You had services like Compuserve and AOL. I’m not talking about AOL the website. Before it was a website, it was this thing separate to the web, which was much more structured, much safer; these were kind of the walled gardens and they would make wonderful content for you and warn you if you tried to step outside the bounds of their walled gardens into the wild, lawless lands of the World Wide Web and say, ooh, you don’t want to go out there. And yet the World Wide Web won, despite its chaoticness, its lawlessness. People chose the Web and despite all the content that Compuserve and AOL and these other walled gardens were producing, they couldn’t compete with the wild and lawless nature of the Web. People left the walled gardens and went out into the Web.

And then a few years later, everyone went back into the walled gardens. Facebook, Twitter, Medium. Very similar in a way to AOL and Compuserve: the nice, well-designed places, safe spaces not like those nasty places out in the World Wide Web and they warn you if you’re about to head out into the World Wide Web. But there’s a difference this time round: AOL and Compuserve, they were producing content for us, to keep us in the walled gardens. With the case of Facebook, Medium, Twitter, we produce the content. These are the biggest media companies in the world and they don’t produce any media. We produce the media for them.

How did this happen? How did we end up with this situation when we returned into the walled gardens? What happened?

Facebook, I used to wonder, what is the point of Facebook? I mean this in the sense that when Facebook came along, there were lots of different social networks, but they all kinda had this idea of being about a single, social object. Flickr was about the photograph and upcoming.org was about the event and Dopplr was about travel. And somebody was telling me about Facebook and saying, “You should get on Facebook.” I was like, “Oh yeah? What’s it for?” He said: “Everyone’s on it.” “Yeah, but…what’s it for? Is it photographs, events, what is it?” And he was like, “Everyone’s on it.” And now I understand that it’s absolutely correct: the reason why everyone is on Facebook is because everyone is on Facebook. It’s a direct example of Metcalfe’s Law.

The icon for Facebook, superimposed on a graph showing a power-law distribution.

Again, it’s a power-law distribution: that the value of the network is proportional to the square of the number of nodes on a network. Basically, the more people on the network the better. The first person to have a fax machine, that’s a useless lump of plastic. As soon as one more person has a fax machine, it’s exponentially more useful. Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook. Which turns it into a hub. It is now a centralised hub, which means it is a single point of failure, by the way. In security terms, I guess you would talk about it having a large attack surface.

Let’s say you wanted to attack media outlets, I don’t know, let’s say you were trying to influence an election in the United States of America… Instead of having to target hundreds of different news outlets, you now only need to target one because it has a very large attack surface.

It’s just like, if you run WordPress as a CMS, you have to make sure to keep it patched all the time because it’s a large attack surface. It’s not that it’s any more or less secure or vulnerable than any other CMS, it’s just that it’s really popular and therefore is more likely to be attacked. Same with a hub like Facebook.

OK. Why then? Why did we choose to return to these walled gardens? Well, the answer’s actually pretty obvious, which is: they’re convenient. Walled gardens are nice to use. The user experience is pretty great; they’re well-designed, they’re nice.

The disadvantage is what you give up when you gain this convenience. You give up control. You no longer have control over the content that you publish. You don’t control who’s going to even see what you publish. Some algorithm is taking care of that. These silos—Facebook, Twitter, Medium—they now have control of the hyperlinks. Walled gardens give you convenience, but the cost is control.

The Indie Web

This is where this idea of the indie web comes in, to try and bridge this gap that you could somehow still have the convenience of using these beautiful, well-designed walled gardens and yet still have the control of owning your own content, because let’s face it, having your own website, that’s a hassle: it’s hard work, certainly compared to just opening up Facebook, opening a Facebook account, Twitter account, Medium account and just publishing, boom. The barrier to entry is really low whereas setting up your own website, registering a domain, do you choose a CMS? There’s a lot of hassle involved in that.

But maybe we can bridge the gap. Maybe we can get both: the convenience and the control. This is the idea of the indie web. At its heart, there’s a fairly uncontroversial idea here, which is that you should have your own website. I mean, there would have been a time when that would’ve been a normal statement to make and these days, it sounds positively disruptive to even suggest that you should have your own website.

Longevity

I have my own personal reasons for wanting to publish on my own website. If anybody was here back in the…six years ago, I was here at Webstock which was a great honour and I was talking about digital preservation and longevity and for me, that’s one of the reasons why I like to have the control over my own content, because these things do go away. If you published your content on, say, MySpace: I’m sorry. It’s gone. And there was a time when it was unimaginable that MySpace could be gone; it was like Facebook, you couldn’t imagine the web without it. Give it enough time. MySpace is just one example, there’s many more. I used to publish in GeoCities. Delicious; Magnolia, Pownce, Dopplr. Many, many more.

Now, I’m not saying that everything should be online for ever. What I’m saying is, it should be your choice. You should be able to choose when something stays online and you should be able to choose when something gets taken offline. The web has a real issue with things being taken offline. Linkrot is a real problem on the web, and partly that’s to do with the nature of the web, the fundamental nature of the way that linking works on the web.

Hyperlinks

When Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau were first coming up with the World Wide Web, they submitted a paper to a hypertext conference, I think it was 1991, 92, about this project they were building called the World Wide Web. The paper was rejected. Their paper was rejected by these hypertext experts who said, this system: it’ll never work, it’s terrible. One of the reasons why they rejected it was it didn’t have this idea of two-way linking. Any decent hypertext system, they said, has a concept of two-way linking where there’s knowledge of the link at both ends, so in a system that has two-way linking, if a resource happens to move, the link can move with it and the link is maintained. Now that’s not the way the web works. The web has one-way linking; you can just link to something, that’s it and the other resource has no knowledge that you’re linking to it but if that resource moves or goes away, the link is broken. You get linkrot. That’s just the way the web works.

But. There’s a little technique that if you sort of squint at it just the right way, it sort of looks like two-way linking on the web and involves a very humble bit of HTML. The rel attribute. Now, you’ve probably seen the rel attribute before, you’ve probably seen it on the link element. Rel is short for relationship, so the value of the rel attribute will describe the relationship of the linked resource, whatever’s inside the href; so I’m sure you’ve probably typed this at some point where you say rel=stylesheet on a link element. What you’re saying is, the linked resource, what’s in the href, has the relationship of being a style sheet for the current document.

link rel="stylesheet" href="..."

You can use it on A elements as well. There’s rel values like prev for previous and next, say this is the relationship of being the next document, or this is the relationship of being the previous document. Really handy for pagination of search results, for example.

a rel="prev" href="..."
a rel="next" href="..."

And then there’s this really silly value, rel=me.

a rel="me" href="..."

Now, how does that work? The linked document has a relationship of being me? Well, I use this. I use this on my own website. I have A elements that link off to my profiles on these other sites, so I’m saying, that Twitter profile over there: that’s me. And that’s me on Flickr and that’s me on GitHub.

a rel="me" href="https://twitter.com/adactio"
a rel="me" href="https://flickr.com/adactio"
a rel="me" href="https://github.com/adactio"

OK, but still, these are just regular, one-way hyperlinks I’m making. I’ve added a rel value of “me” but so what?

Well, the interesting thing is, if you go to any of those profiles, when you’re signing up, you can add your own website: that’s one of the fields. There’s a link from that profile to your own website and in that link, they also use rel=me.

a rel="me" href="https://adactio.com"

I’m linking to my profile on Twitter saying, rel=me; that’s me. And my Twitter profile is linking to my website saying, rel=me; that’s me. And so you’ve kind of got two-way linking. You’ve got this confirmed relationship, these claims have been verified. Fine, but what can you do with that?

RelMeAuth

Well, there’s a technology called RelMeAuth that uses this, kind of piggy-backs on something that all these services have in common: Twitter and Flickr and GitHub. All of these services have OAuth, authentication. Now, if I wanted to build an API, I should probably, for a right-API, I probably need to be an OAuth provider. I am not smart enough to become an OAuth provider; that sounds way too much like hard work for me. But I don’t need to because Twitter and Flickr and GitHub are already OAuth providers, so I can just piggy-back on the functionality that they provide, just be adding rel=me.

Here’s an example of this in action. There’s an authentication service called IndieAuth and I literally sign in with my URL. I type in my website name, it then finds the rel=me links, the ones that are reciprocal; I choose which one I feel like logging in with today, let’s say Twitter, I get bounced to Twitter, I have to be logged in on Twitter for this to work and then I’ve authenticated. I’ve authenticated with my own website; I’ve used OAuth without having to write OAuth, just by adding rel=me to a couple of links that were already on my site.

Micropub

Why would I want to authenticate? Well, there’s another piece of technology called micropub. Now, this is definitely more complicated than just adding rel=me to a few links. This is an end-point on my website and can be an end-point on your website and it accepts POST requests, that’s all it does. And if I’ve already got authentication taken care of and now I’ve got an end-point for POST requests, I’ve basically got an API, which means I can post to my website from other places. Once that end-point exists, I can use somebody else’s website to post to my website, as long as they’ve got this micropub support. I log in with that IndieAuth flow and then I’m using somebody else’s website to post to my website. That’s pretty nice. As long as these services have micropub support, I can post from somebody else’s posting interface to my own website and choose how I want to post.

In this example there, I was using a service called Quill; it’s got a nice interface. You can do long-form writing on it. It’s got a very Medium-like interface for long-form writing because a lot of people—when you talk about why are they on Medium—it’s because the writing experience is so nice, so it’s kind of been reproduced here. This was made by a friend of mine named Aaron Parecki and he makes some other services too. He makes OwnYourGram and OwnYourSwarm, and what they are is they’re kind of translation services between Instagram and Swarm to micropub.

Instagram and Swarm do not provide micropub support but by using these services, authenticating with these services using the rel=me links, I can then post from Instagram and from Swarm to my own website, which is pretty nice. If I post something on Swarm, it then shows up on my own website. And if I post something on Instagram, it goes up on my own website. Again I’m piggy-backing. There’s all this hard work of big teams of designers and engineers building these apps, Instagram and Swarm, and I’m taking all that hard work and I’m using it to post to my own websites. It feels kind of good.

Screenshots of posts on Swarm and Instagram, accompanied by screenshots of the same content on adactio.com.

Syndication

There’s an acronym for this approach, and it’s PESOS, which means you Publish Elsewhere and Syndicate to your Own Site. There’s an alternative to this approach and that’s POSSE, or you Publish on your Own Site and then you Syndicate Elsewhere, which I find preferable, but sometimes it’s not possible. For example, you can’t publish on your own site and syndicate it to Instagram; Instagram does not allow any way of posting to it except through the app. It has an API but it’s missing a very important method which is post a photograph. But you can syndicate to Medium and Flickr and Facebook and Twitter. That way, you benefit from the reach, so I’m publishing the original version on my own website and then I’m sending out copies to all these different services.

For example, I’ve got this section on my site called Notes which is for small little updates of say, oh, I don’t know, 280 characters and I’ve got the option to syndicate if I feel like it to say, Twitter or Flickr. When I post something on my own website—like this lovely picture of an amazingly good dog called Huxley—I can then choose to have that syndicated out to other places like Flickr or Facebook. The Facebook one’s kind of a cheat because I’m just using an “If This Then That” recipe to observe my site and post any time I post something. But I can syndicate to Twitter as well. The original URL is on my website and these are all copies that I’ve sent out into the world.

Webmention

OK, but what about…what about when people comment or like or retweet, fave, whatever it is they’re doing, the copy? They don’t come to my website to leave a comment or a fave or a like, they’re doing it on Twitter or Flickr. Well, I get those. I get those on my website too and that’s possible because of another building block called webmention. Webmention is another end-point that you can have on your site but it’s very, very simple: it just accepts pings. It’s basically a ping tracker. Anyone remember pingback? We used to have pingbacks on blogs; and it was quite complicated because it was XML-RPC and all this stuff. This is literally just a post that goes “ping”.

Let’s say you link to something on my website; I have no way of knowing that you’ve linked to me, I have no way of knowing that you’ve effectively commented on something I’ve posted, so you send me a ping using webmention and then I can go check and see, is there really a link to this article or this post or this note on this other website and if there is: great. It’s up to me now what I do with that information. Do I display it as a comment? Do I store it to the database? Whatever I want to do.

And you don’t even have to have your own webmention end-point. There’s webmentions as a service that you can subscribe to. Webmention.io is one of those; it’s literally like an answering service for pings. You can check in at the end of the day and say, “Any pings for me today?” Like a telephone answering service but for webmentions.

And then there’s this really wonderful service, a piece of open source software called Bridgy, which acts as a bridge. Places like Twitter and Flickr and Facebook, they do not send webmentions every time someone leaves a reply, but Bridgy—once you’ve authenticated with the rel=me values—Bridgy monitors your social media accounts and when somebody replies, it’ll take that and translate it into a webmention and send it to your webmention end-point. Now, any time somebody makes a response on one of the copies of your post, you get that on your own website, which is pretty neat.

It’s up to you what you do with those webmentions. I just display them in a fairly boring manner, the replies appear as comments and I just say how many shares there were, how many likes, but this is a mix of things coming from Twitter, from Flickr, from Facebook, from anywhere where I’ve posted copies. But you could make them look nicer too. Drew McLellan has got this kind of face-pile of the user accounts of the people who are responding out there on Twitter or on Flickr or on Facebook and he displays them in a nice way.

Drew, along with Rachel Andrew, is one of the people behind Perch CMS; a nice little CMS where a lot of this technology is already built in. It has support for webmention and all these kind of things, and there’s a lot of CMSs have done this where you don’t have to invent this stuff from scratch. If you like what you see and you think, “Oh, I want to have a webmention end-point, I want to have a micropub end-point”, chances are it already exists for the CMS you’re using. If you’re using something like WordPress or Perch or Jekyll or Kirby: a lot of these CMSs already have plug-ins available for you to use.

Building Blocks

Those are a few technologies that we can use to try and bridge that gap, to try and still get the control of owning your own content on your own website and still have the convenience of those third party services that we get to use their interfaces, that we get to have those conversations, the social effects that come with having a large network. Relatively simple building blocks: rel=me, micropub and webmention.

But they’re not the real building blocks of the indie web; they’re just technologies. Don’t get too caught up with the technologies. I think the real building blocks of the indie web can be found here in the principles of the indie web.

There’s a great page of design principles about why are we even doing this. There are principles like own your own data; focus on the user experience first; make tools for yourself and then see how you can scale them and share them with other people. But the most important design principle, I think, that’s on that list comes at the very end and it’s this: that we should 🎉 have fun (and the emoji is definitely part of the design principle).

Your website is your playground; it’s a place for you to experiment. You hear about some new technologies, you want to play with them? You might not get the chance at work but you can try out that CSS grid and the service worker or the latest JavaScript APIs you want to play with. Use your website as a playground to do that.

I also think we should remember the original motto of the World Wide Web, which was: let’s share what we know. And over the next few days, you’re going to hear a lot of amazing, inspiring ideas from amazing, inspiring people and I hope that you would be motivated to maybe share your thoughts. You could share what you know on Mark Zuckerberg’s website. You could share what you know on Ev Williams’s website. You could share what you know on Biz Stone and Jack Dorsey’s website. But I hope you’ll share what you know on your own website.

Thank you.

A group of smiling people, gathered together at an Indie Web Camp.

Sunday, May 13th, 2018

Unworn Pleasures

I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, and how Peter Saville’s iconic cover design for Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures always reminds of her.

There are many, many memetic variations of that design.

Spaghetti, All Lined Up Quite Nicely. Furr Division. Depeche Mode, Boys Don't Cry. What is this? I’ve seen it on Tumblr.

I assumed that somebody somewhere at some time must have made a suitable tribute to the discover of those pulses, but I’ve never come across any Jocelyn-themed variation of the Joy Division album art.

So I made my own.

Jocelyn T-shirt.

The test order I did just showed up, and it’s looking pretty nice (although be warned that the sizes run small—I ordered a large, and I probably should’ve gone for extra large). If your music/radio-astronomy Venn diagram overlaps like mine, then you too might enjoy being the proud bearer of this wearable tribute to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Choosing tools for scaling design

Tools and processes are intertwined. A company or a department or an individual has a way of doing things—that’s the process. They also have software to carry out the process—those are the tools.

Ideally, they should be loosely coupled. You should be able to change your tools without necessarily changing your process. So swapping out, say, one framework or library for another shouldn’t involve fundamentally changing the way you work. Likewise, trying a new way of working shouldn’t require you to use unfamiliar tools.

When it comes to scaling design within organisations, the challenges are almost always around switching processes (well, really it’s about trying to change culture, but that starts with changing processes—any sufficiently advanced process is indistinguishable from culture). All too often, though, I see people getting hung up on the tools.

We need to get more efficient in how we deliver designs …so let’s switch over to this particular design tool.

We should have a design system …so let’s get everyone using this particular JavaScript framework.

I understand this desire to shortcut the work of figuring out processes and jump straight to production solutions. For one thing, it allows you to create an easy list of requirements when it comes to recruiting talent: “Join our company—you must demonstrate experience and proficiency in this tool or that library.”

But when tools and processes become tightly coupled like this, there’s a real danger of stagnation. If a process can be defined as “the way we do things around here”, that’s not something you want to tie to any particular tool or technology. Otherwise, before you know it, you’re in the frustrating situation of using outdated tools, but you can’t swap them out for newer or better-suited technologies without disrupting everyone’s work.

This is technical debt (although it applies just as much to design). You’re paying a penalty in the present because of a decision that somebody made in the past. The problem isn’t so much with the decision itself, but with the longevity of its effects.

I think it’s important to remember what a tool is: it’s a piece of technology that enables you to work faster or better. You should enjoy using your tools, but you shouldn’t be utterly dependent on any particular one. Otherwise, the tail starts wagging the dog—you are now in service to the tool, instead of the other way around.

Treat your tools like cattle, not pets. Don’t get too attached to any one technology to the detriment of missing out on others.

Mind you, if you constantly tried every single new tool or technology out there, you’d never settle on anything—I’m pretty sure that three new JavaScript frameworks have been released since you started reading this paragraph.

The tools you choose at any particular time should be suited to what you’re trying to accomplish at that time. In other words, you’ve got to figure out what you’re trying to accomplish first (the vision), then figure out how you’re going to accomplish it (the process), and only then figure out which tools are the best fit. If you jump straight to choosing tools, you could end up trying to tighten a screw with a hammer.

Alas, I’ve seen plenty of consultants who conflate strategy with tooling. They’re brought in to solve process problems and, surprise, surprise, the solution always seems to involve purchasing the software that their company sells. I’ve been guilty of this myself: I see an organisation struggling to systemise their design patterns, and I think “Oh, they should use Fractal!” …but that’s jumping the gun. They might be better served with something simpler, or something more complex (I mean, Fractal is very, very flexible but it’s still just one option—there are plenty of other pattern library tools out there).

Once you separate out the tools from the process, there’s an added benefit. Making the right technology choice is no longer a life-or-death decision. You can suck it and see. Try out the technology and see if it works. If it’s working, great! Carry on using it. If it’s not working, that’s okay too. Try something different.

I realise I’m oversimplifying things, but I honestly believe that the real challenge is not choosing the right tools, but figuring out the right process for your team.

Google Duplicitous

I can’t recall the last time I was so creeped out by a technology as I am by Google Duplex—the AI that can make reservations over the phone by pretending to be a human.

I’m not sure what’s disturbing me more: the technology itself, or the excited reaction of tech bros who can’t wait to try it.

Thing is …when these people talk about being excited to try it, I’m pretty sure they are only thinking of trying it as a caller, not a callee. They aren’t imagining that they could possibly be one of the people on the other end of one of those calls.

The visionaries of technology—Douglas Engelbart, J.C.R Licklider—have always recognised the potential for computers to augment humanity, to be bicycles for the mind. I think they would be horrified to see the increasing trend of using humans to augment computers.

Tuesday, May 8th, 2018

Alternative analytics

Contrary to the current consensual hallucination, there are alternatives to Google Analytics.

I haven’t tried Open Web Analytics. It looks a bit geeky, but the nice thing about it is that you can set it up to work with JavaScript or PHP (sort of like Mint, which I miss).

Also on the geeky end, there’s GoAccess which provides an interface onto your server logs. You can view the data in a browser or on the command line. I gave this a go on adactio.com and it all worked just fine.

Matomo was previously called Piwik, and it’s the closest to Google Analytics. Chris Ruppel wrote about using it as a drop-in replacement. I gave it a go on adactio.com and it did indeed collect analytics very nicely …but then I deleted it, because it still felt creepy to have any kind of analytics script at all (neither Huffduffer or The Session have any analytics tracking either).

Fathom isn’t out yet, but it looks interesting:

It will track users on a website, the key actions they are taking, and give you a non-nerdy breakdown of their journey. It’ll do so with user-centric rights and privacy, and without selling, sharing or giving away the data you collect.

I don’t think any of these alternatives offer quite the same ease-of-use that you’d get from Google Analytics. But I also don’t think that should be your highest priority. There’s a fundamental difference between doing your own analytics (self-hosted), and outsourcing the job to Google who can then track your site’s visitors across domains.

I was hoping that GDPR would put the squeeze on third-party tracking, but it looks like Google have found a way out. By declaring themselves a data controller (but not a data processor), they pass can pass the buck to the data processors to obtain consent.

If you have Google Analytics on your site, that’s you, that is.

Process and culture

Cameron has a bone to pick. Why, oh, why, he wonders, are we so quick to create processes when what we really need is a good strong culture?

Strong culture = less process

To stop people breaking stuff: make a process for it. Want to make people act responsibly: make a process for it. Tired of telling people about something? Make a process for it.

For any single scenario you can name it’ll be easier to create a process for it than build a culture that handles it automatically. But each process is a tiny cut away from the freedom that you want your team to enjoy.

I take his point, but I also think that some processes are not only inevitable, but downright positive. There should be a process for handling payroll. There should be a process for handling promotions. Leaving that to culture might sound nice and nimble, but it could also lead to unintentional bias and unfairness.

But let’s leave those kind of operational processes aside and focus on process and culture when it comes to design and engineering. Cameron’s point is well taken here. Surely you want people to just know the way things are done? Surely you want people to just get on with doing the work without putting hurdles in their way?

On the face of it, yes. If you’re trying to scale design at your organisation, then every extra bit of process is going to slow down your progress.

But what if speed isn’t the most important metric of success when it comes to scaling design? You’ve got to make sure you’re scaling the right things.

Mark writes:

This is a post in defence of process. Yes, I know what you’re thinking: ‘urgh, process is a thing put in place to make up for mediocre teams’; or ‘prioritise discussion over documentation’; or ‘I get enough red tape in other parts of my life’.

The example he gives is undeniably a process that will slow things down …deliberately.

Whenever someone asks me to do something that I think seems ill-conceived in some way, I ask them to write it down. That’s it. Because writing is high effort. Making sentences is the easy bit, it’s the thinking I want them to do. By considering their request it slows them down. Maybe 30% of the time or something, they come back and say ‘oh, that thing I asked you to do, I’ve had a think and it’s fine, we don’t need to do it’.

I’ve seen this same tactic employed in standards bodies. Somebody bursts into a group and says “I’ve got a great idea—we should make this a thing!” The response, no matter what the idea is, is to say “Document use-cases.” It’s a stumbling block, and also a bit of a test—if they do come back with use-cases, the idea can be taken seriously; the initial enthusiasm needs to be backed up with hard graft.

(On a personal level, I sometimes use a little trick when it comes to email. If someone sends me a short email that would require a long response from me, I’ll quickly fire back a clarifying question: “Quick question: did you mean X or Y?” Now the ball is back in their court. If they respond swiftly with an answer to my question, then they’ve demonstrated their commitment and I honour their initial request.)

Anyway, it sounds like Cameron is saying that process is bad, and Mark is saying process can be good. Cody Cowan from Postlight thinks they’re both right:

To put it bluntly: people, not process, are the problem.

Even so, he acknowledges Cameron’s concern:

One of the biggest fears that people have about process is that something new is going to disrupt their work, only to be replaced by yet another rule or technique.

I think we can all agree that pointlessly cumbersome processes are bad. The disagreement is about whether all processes are inherently bad, or whether some processes are not only necessary, but sometimes even beneficial.

When Cameron talks about the importance of company culture, he knows whereof he speaks. He’s been part of Canva’s journey from a handful of people to hundreds of people. They’ve managed to scale their (excellent) culture along the way. That’s quite an achievement—scaling culture is really, really challenging. Scaling design is hard. Scaling culture is even harder.

But you know what’s even more challenging than scaling culture? Changing culture.

What if your company didn’t start with a great culture to begin with? What if you’re not Canva? What if you’re not AirBnB? What are your options then?

You can’t create a time travel machine to go back to the founding of the company and ensure a good culture from the outset.

You can’t shut down your existing company and create a new company from scratch, this time with a better culture.

You’ve got to work with what you’ve got. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your company culture, but it’s not going to be easy. Culture is pretty far down the stack of pace layers—it’s slow to change. But you can influence culture by changing something that’s less slow to change. I would argue the perfect medium for this is …process.

Once you know what values you’re trying to embed into your culture, create processes that amplify and reward those values. I totally understand the worry that these processes will reduce autonomy and freedom, but I think that only applies if the company already has a strong culture of autonomy and freedom. If you’re trying to create a culture of autonomy and freedom, then—as counter-intuitive as it may seem—you can start by putting processes in place.

Then, over time, those processes can seep into the day-to-day understanding of how things are done. Process dissolves into culture. It’s a long game to play, but as Cameron points out, that’s the nature of culture change:

Where culture pays off is in the long run. It’s hard work: defining the culture, hiring for the culture and communicating the culture again, and again, and again. But if you want to make a company where people are empowered, passionate, and champions of your organisation then it’s the only path forward.

Monday, May 7th, 2018

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

Friday, May 4th, 2018

Webstock ‘18: Jeremy Keith - Taking Back The Web on Vimeo

Here’s the talk I gave at Webstock earlier this year all about the indie web:

In these times of centralised services like Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, having your own website is downright disruptive. If you care about the longevity of your online presence, independent publishing is the way to go. But how can you get all the benefits of those third-party services while still owning your own data? By using the building blocks of the Indie Web, that’s how!

Webstock '18: Jeremy Keith - Taking Back The Web

Thursday, May 3rd, 2018

Good griddance

I’m not great at estimation, but I still try to do it on any project I’m working, even if it’s just for my own benefit. I break down different bits of the work, and ask myself two questions:

  1. How important is this?
  2. How long will it take?

If I were smart, I’d plot the answers on a graph. I start doing the important stuff, beginning with whatever won’t take too long. Then I’ve got a choice: either do the stuff that’s not all that important, but won’t take long—or do the stuff that will take quite a while, but is quite important. Finally, there’s stuff that’s not important and will take quite a while to do. I leave that to the end. If it never ends up getting done, it’s not the end of the world.

I guess it’s not really about estimation; it’s more about prioritisation.

Anyway, I’m working on a fun little project right now—the website for one of Clearleft’s many excellent events. There was one particular part of the design that I had estimated would take quite a while to do, so I didn’t get around to it until today. It was a layout that I figured would take maybe half a day of wrangling CSS.

I used CSS grid and I was done in five minutes. That’s not an exaggeration. It was literally five minutes.

I thought to myself, “Well, I want these elements to be arranged in two rows of three columns, but I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.”

Normally my next step would be to figure out how to translate those wishes into floats and clears, or maybe flexbox. But this time, there was almost no translation. I could more or less write the CSS like I would write English.

I want these elements to be arranged in rows of three columns.

display: grid;
grid-template-columns: 1fr 1fr fr

I want that particular one to always be in the last column of the top row.

grid-row: 1;
grid-column: 3;

That was it. I was done.

I think I may need to recalibrate the estimation part of my brain to account for just how powerful CSS grid is.