Essentially every single aspect of the web is terrible. It was designed as a static document presentation system with hyperlinks.
It appears to be a universally accepted truth. The web was designed for sharing documents, and was never meant for the kind of applications we can build these days.
I don’t think that’s quite right. I think it’s fairer to say that the first use case for the web was document retrieval. And yes, that initial use case certainly influenced the first iteration of HTML. But right from the start, the vision for the web wasn’t constrained by what it was being asked to do at the time. (I mean, if you need an example of vision, Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web when it was just on one computer!)
The original people working on the web—Tim Berners-Lee, Robert Cailliau, Jean-Francois Groff, etc.—didn’t to try define the edges of what the web would be capable of. Quite the opposite. All of them really wanted a more interactive read-write web where documents could not only be read, but also edited and updated.
As for the idea of having a programming language in browsers (as well as a markup language), Tim Berners-Lee was all for it …as long as it could be truly ubiquitous.
To say that the web was made for sharing documents is like saying that the internet was made for email. It’s true in the sense that it was the most popular use case, but that never defined the limits of the system.
The secret sauce of the internet lies in its flexibility—it’s a deliberately dumb network that doesn’t care about the specifics of what runs on it. This lesson was then passed on to the web—another deliberately simple system designed to be agnostic to use cases.
The web (like the internet upon which it runs) was designed to be flexible, and to adjust to future use-cases that couldn’t be predicted in advance. The best proof of this flexibility is the fact that we can and do now build rich interactive applications on the World Wide Web. If the web had truly been designed only for documents, that wouldn’t be possible.
Nosedive has become a handy shortcut for pointing to the dangers of social media (in the same way that Minority Report was a handy shortcut for gestural interfaces and Her is a handy shortcut for voice interfaces).
“Social media is bad, m’kay?” is an understandable but, I think, fairly shallow reading of Nosedive. The problem isn’t with the apps, it’s with the system. A world in which we desperately need to keep our score up if we want to have any hope of advancing? That’s a nightmare scenario.
The thing is …that system exists today. Credit scores are literally a means of applying a numeric value to human beings.
Nosedive depicts a world where your score determines which seats you get in a restaurant, or which model of car you can rent. Meanwhile, in our world, your score determines whether or not you can get a mortgage.
Nosedive depicts a world in which you know your own score. Meanwhile, in our world, good luck with that:
It is very difficult for a consumer to know in advance whether they have a high enough credit score to be accepted for credit with a given lender. This situation is due to the complexity and structure of credit scoring, which differs from one lender to another.
Lenders need not reveal their credit score head, nor need they reveal the minimum credit score required for the applicant to be accepted. Owing only to this lack of information to the consumer, it is impossible for him or her to know in advance if they will pass a lender’s credit scoring requirements.
Black Mirror has a good track record of exposing what’s unsavoury about our current time and place. On the surface, Nosedive seems to be an exposé on the dangers of going to far with the presentation of self in everyday life. Scratch a little deeper though, and it reveals an even more uncomfortable truth: that we’re living in a world driven by systems even worse than what’s depicted in this dystopia.
Two years ago Douglas Rushkoff had an unpleasant encounter outside his Brooklyn home. Taking out the rubbish on Christmas Eve, he was mugged — held at knife-point by an assailant who took his money, his phone and his bank cards. Shaken, he went back indoors and sent an email to his local residents’ group to warn them about what had happened.
“I got two emails back within the hour,” he says. “Not from people asking if I was OK, but complaining that I’d posted the exact spot where the mugging had taken place — because it might adversely affect their property values.”
It had been a while since we had a movie night at Clearleft so I organised one for last night. We usually manage to get through two movies, and there’s always a unifying theme decided ahead of time.
For last night, I decided that the broad theme would be …transport. But then, through voting on Slack, people could decide what the specific mode of transport would be. The choices were:
Nobody voted for submarines. That’s a shame, but in retrospect it’s easy to understand—submarine films aren’t about transport at all. Quite the opposite. Submarine films are about being trapped in a metal womb/tomb (and many’s the spaceship film that qualifies as a submarine movie).
There were some votes for taxis and trucks, but the getaway car was the winner. I then revealed which films had been pre-selected for each mode of transport.
I thought Baby Driver would be a shoe-in for the first film, but enough people had already seen it quite recently to put it out of the running. We watched Wheelman instead, which was like Locke meets Drive.
So what would the second film be?
Well, some of those films in the full list could potentially fall into more than one category. The taxi in Collateral is (kinda) being used as a getaway car. And if you expand the criterion to getaway vehicle, then Furiosa’s war rig surely counts, right?
Okay, we were just looking for an excuse to watch Fury Road again. I mean, c’mon, it was the black and chrome edition! I had the great fortune of seeing that on the big screen a while back and I’ve been raving about it ever since. Besides, you really don’t need an excuse to rewatch Fury Road. I loved it the first time I saw it, and it just keeps getting better and better each time. The editing! The sound! The world-building!
With every viewing, it feels more and more like the film for our time. It may have been a bit of stretch to watch it under the thematic umbrella of getaway vehicles, but it’s a getaway for our current political climate: instead of the typical plot involving a gang driving at full tilt from a bank heist, imagine one where the gang turns around, ousts the bankers, and replaces the whole banking system with a matriarchal community.
“Hope is a mistake”, Max mansplains (maxplains?) to Furiosa at one point. He’s wrong. Judicious hope is what drives us forward (or, this case, back …to the citadel). Watching Fury Road again, I drew hope from the character of Nux. An alt-warboy in thrall to a demagogue and raised on a diet of fake news (Valhalla! V8!) can not only be turned by tenderness, he can become an ally to those working for a better world.
Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.
It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.
1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.
My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.
As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:
Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).
There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…
Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.
Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.
And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.
The problem is that, in a data-driven environment, decisions ultimately come down to whether something works or not. But just because something works, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
If I were trying to convince you to buy a product, or use a service, one way I could accomplish that would be to literally put a gun to your head. It would work. Except it’s not exactly a good solution, is it? But if we were to judge by the numbers (100% of people threatened with a gun did what we wanted), it would appear to be the right solution.
One of the core principles of our organisation is that we want to be very customer-focused. And A/B testing is really a way for us to institutionalise that customer focus.
I’m not so sure. I think A/B testing is a way to institutionalise a focus on business goals—increasing sales, growth, conversion, and all of that. Now, ideally, those goals would align completely with the customer’s goals; happy customers should mean more sales …but more sales doesn’t necessarily mean happy customers. Using business metrics (sales, growth, conversion) as a proxy for customer satisfaction might not always work …and is clearly not the case with many of these kinds of sites. Whatever the company values might say, a company’s true focus is on whatever they’re measuring as success criteria. If that’s customer satisfaction, then the company is indeed customer-focused. But if the measurements are entirely about what works for sales and conversions, then that’s the real focus of the company.
I’m not saying A/B testing is bad—far from it! (although it can sometimes be taken to the extreme). I feel it’s best wielded in combination with usability testing with real users—seeing their faces, feeling their frustration, sharing their joy.
In short, I think that A/B testing needs to be counterbalanced. There should be some kind of mechanism for getting the answer to “why?” whenever A/B testing provides to the answer to “what?” In-person testing could be one way of providing that balance. Or it could be somebody’s job to always ask “why?” and determine if a solution is qualitatively—and not just quantitatively—good. (And if you look around at your company and don’t see anyone doing that, maybe that’s a role for you.)
Curious: How many large companies have an ethics board? Or some kind of moral advisory role employed?
If there really is a connection between having a data-driven culture of A/B testing, and a product that’s filled with dark patterns, then the disturbing conclusion is that dark patterns work …at least in the short term.
It seems like any new field goes through an inevitable growth spurt that involves “defining the damn thing.” For the first few years of the IA Summit, every second presentation seemed to be about defining what Information Architecture actually is. See also: UX. See also: Content Strategy.
Now it seems to be happening with Progressive Web Apps …which is odd, considering the damn thing is defined damn well.
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:
A fluid layout,
Fluid images, and
Likewise, Progressive Web Apps consist of:
A service worker, and
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.
Except, for some reason, that clarity is being lost.
Progressive Web Apps are user experiences that have the reach of the web, and are:
Reliable - Load instantly and never show the downasaur, even in uncertain network conditions.
Fast - Respond quickly to user interactions with silky smooth animations and no janky scrolling.
Engaging - Feel like a natural app on the device, with an immersive user experience.
Those are great descriptions of the benefits of Progressive Web Apps. Perfect material for convincing your clients or your boss. But that appears on developers.google.com …surely it would be more beneficial for that audience to know the technologies that comprise Progressive Web Apps?
Ben Halpern again:
Google’s continued use of the term “quality” in describing things leaves me with a ton of confusion. It really seems like they want PWA to be a general term that doesn’t imply any particular implementation, and have it be focused around the user experience, but all I see over the web is confusion as to what they mean by these things. My website is already “engaging” and “immersive”, does that mean it’s a PWA?
I think it’s important to use the right language for the right audience.
If you’re talking to the business people, tell them about the return on investment you get from Progressive Web Apps.
If you’re talking to the marketing people, tell them about the experiential benefits of Progressive Web Apps.
But if you’re talking to developers, tell them that a Progressive Web App is a website served over HTTPS with a service worker and manifest file.
The foreword to the self-published short book about design for non-designers.
Whenever I dipped my toe in the waters of the semantic web, I noticed there were two fundamentally different approaches. One approach was driven by the philosophy that absolutely everything in the universe should be theoretically describable. The other approach was far more lax, concentrating only on the popular use-cases: people, places, events, and that was pretty much it. These few common items, so the theory went, accounted for about 80% of actual usage in the real world. Trying to codify the remaining 20% would result in a disproportionate amount of effort.
I always liked that approach. I think it applies to a lot of endeavours. Coding, sketching, cooking—you can get up to speed on the bare essentials pretty quickly, and then spend a lifetime attaining mastery. But we don’t need to achieve mastery at every single thing we do. I’m quite happy to be just good enough at plenty of skills so that I can prioritise the things I really want to spend my time doing.
Perhaps web design isn’t a priority for you. Perhaps you’ve decided to double-down on programming. That doesn’t mean foregoing design completely. You can still design something pretty good …thanks to this book.
Tracy understands the fundamentals of web design so you don’t have to. She spent years learning, absorbing, and designing, and now she has very kindly distilled down the 80% of that knowledge that’s going to be the most useful to you.
Think of Hello Web Design as a book of cheat codes. It’s short, to the point, and tells you everything you need to know to be a perfectly competent web designer.
I vaguely remember there being some talk of changing the labelling, but I could’ve sworn it was going to change to “install”. I’ve got to be honest, just having the word “add” doesn’t seem to provide much context. Based on the quick’n’dirty usability testing I did with some co-workers, it just made things confusing. “Add what?” “What am I adding?”
Additionally, the prompt appeared immediately on the first visit to the site. I thought there was supposed to be an added “engagement” metric in order for the prompt to appear; that the user needs to visit the site more than once.
You’d think I’d be happy that users will be presented with the home-screen prompt immediately, but based on the behaviour I saw, I’m not sure it’s a good thing. Here’s what I observed:
The user types the URL archive.dconstruct.org into the address bar.
The site loads.
The home-screen prompt slides up from the bottom of the screen.
The user immediately moves to dismiss the prompt (cue me interjecting “Don’t close that!”).
This behaviour is entirely unsurprising for three reasons:
We web designers and web developers have trained users to dismiss overlays and pop-ups if they actually want to get to the content. Nobody’s going to bother to actually read the prompt if there’s a 99% chance it’s going to say “Sign up to our newsletter!” or “Take our survey!”.
Because the prompt now appears on the first visit, no trust has been established between the user and the site. If the prompt only appeared on later visits (or later navigations during the first visit) perhaps it would stand a greater chance of survival.
It’s still possible to add a Progressive Web App to the home screen, but the option to do that is hidden behind the mysterious three-dots-vertically-stacked icon (I propose we call this the shish kebab icon to distinguish it from the equally impenetrable hamburger icon).
When a Firefox 58 user arrives on a website that is served over HTTPS and has a valid manifest, a subtle badge will appear in the address bar: when tapped, an “Add to Home screen” confirmation dialog will slide in, through which the web app can be added to the Android home screen.
This kind of badging also has issues (without the explicit text “add to home screen”, the user doesn’t know what the icon does), but I think a more persistently visible option like this works better than the a one-time prompt.
Sadly, I feel that any solution that relies on an unrequested overlay is doomed. That’s on us. The way we’ve turned browsing the web—especially on mobile—into a frustrating chore of dismissing unwanted overlays is a classic tragedy of the commons. We blew it. Users don’t trust unrequested overlays, and I can’t blame them.
For what it’s worth, my opinion is that ambient badging is a better user experience than one-time prompts. That opinion is informed by a meagre amount of testing though. I’d love to hear from anyone who’s been doing more detailed usability testing of both approaches. I assume that Google, Mozilla, and Samsung are doing this kind of testing, and it would be really great to see the data from that (hint, hint).
But it might well be that ambient badging is just too subtle to even be noticed by the user.
On one end of the scale you’ve got the intrusiveness of an add-to-home-screen prompt, but on the other end of the scale you’ve got the discoverability problem of a subtle badge icon. I wonder if there might be a compromise solution—maybe a badge icon that pulses or glows on the first or second visit?
Of course that would also need to be thoroughly tested.
I’m really proud of the three years I ran the show—2012, 2013, and 2014—and I have great memories from each event. I’m inordinately pleased that the individual websites are still online after all these years. I’m equally pleased with the dConstruct audio archive that we put online in 2012. Now that the event itself is no longer running, it truly is an archive—a treasury of voices from the past.
I think that these kinds of online archives are eminently suitable for some offline design. So I’ve added a service worker script to the dConstruct archive.
But what about the individual pages? For something like Resilient Web Design—another site that won’t be updated—I pre-cache everything. I could do that with the dConstruct archive. All of the pages with all of the images add up to less than two megabytes; the entire site weighs less than a single page on Wired.com or The Verge.
In the end, I decided to go with a cache-as-you-go strategy. Every time a page or an image is fetched from the network, it is immediately put in a cache. The next time that page or image is requested, the file is served from that cache instead of the network.
Here’s the logic for fetch requests:
First, look to see if the file is in a cache. If it is, great! Serve that.
If the file isn’t in a cache, make a network request and serve the response …but put a copy of a file in the cache.
The next time that file is requested, go to step one.
Save for offline
That caching strategy works great for pages, images, and other assets. But there’s one kind of file on the dConstruct archive that’s a bit different: the audio files. They can be fairly big, so I don’t want to cache those unless the user specifically requests it.
If you end up on the page for a particular talk, and your browser supports service workers, you’ll get an additional UI element in the list of options: a toggle to “save offline” (under the hood, it’s a checkbox). If you activate that option, then the audio file gets put into a cache.
Now if you lose your network connection while browsing the site, you’ll get a custom offline page with the option to listen to any audio files you saved for offline listening. You’ll also see this collection of talks on the homepage, regardless of whether you’ve got an internet connection or not.
So if you’ve got a long plane journey ahead of you, have a browse around the dConstruct archive and select some talks for your offline listening pleasure.
Or just enjoy the speediness of browsing the site.
New presenters often feel that they need to write a brand-new talk for each conference they are invited to. Unless your job is giving presentations, or you are being paid very well for each talk you give, it is unlikely that you will be able to keep this up if you do more than a couple of talks per year.
It’s true. When I first started giving talks, I felt really guilty at the thought of “recycling” a talk I had already given. “Those people have paid money to be here—they deserve a brand new talk”, I thought. But then someone pointed out to me, “Y’know, it’s actually really arrogant to think that anyone would’ve seen any previous talk of yours.” Good point.
I explain it to people like a band touring an album. Lots of work goes into the album, and the tour puts those ideas on display. To expect a band to write a brand new album’s worth of music in between Pittsburgh and Chicago is absurd.
Giving the same talk more than once also allows me to put in the extra effort into the talk prep. If I’m going through the hair-tearing-out hell of trying to wrestle a talk into shape, I’m inevitably going to ask, “Why am I putting myself through this‽” If the answer to that question is “So you can give this talk just once”, I’d probably give up in frustration. But if I know that I’ll have an opportunity to present it more than once, improving it each time, then that gives me the encouragement to keep going.
I do occasionally give a one-off specially-commissioned talk, but those are the exceptions. My talk on the A element at CSS Day’s HTML Special was one of those. Same with my dConstruct talk back in 2008. I just gave a new talk on indie web building blocks at Mozilla’s View Source event, but I’d quite like to give that one again (if you’re running an event, get in touch if that sounds like something you’d like).
My most recent talk isEvaluating Technology. I first gave it at An Event Apart in San Francisco exactly a year ago. I’ll present it for the final time at An Event Apart in Denver in a few weeks. Then it will be retired; taken out to the woodshed; pivoted to video.
I’m already starting to think about my next talk. The process of writing a talk is something else that Rachel has written about. She’s far more together than me. My process involves lots more procrastination, worry, panic, and pacing. Some of the half-baked ideas will probably leak out as blog posts here. It’s a tortuous process, but in the end, I find the satisfaction of delivering the final talk to be very rewarding.
Here’s the thing, though: until I deliver the talk for the first time in front of an audience—no matter how much I might have practiced it—I have literally no idea if it’s any good. I honestly can’t tell whether what I’ve got is gold dust or dog shit (and during the talk prep, my opinion of it can vacillate within the space of five minutes). And so, even though I’ve been giving talks for many years now, if it’s brand new material, I get very nervous.
That’s one more reason to give the same talk more than once instead of creating a fresh hell each time.
But when I hear AMP described as an open, community-led project, it strikes me as incredibly problematic, and more than a little troubling. AMP is, I think, best described as nominally open-source. It’s a corporate-led product initiative built with, and distributed on, open web technologies.
But so what, right? Tom-ay-to, tom-a-to. Well, here’s a pernicious example of where it matters: in a recent announcement of their intent to ship a new addition to HTML, the Google Chrome team cited the mood of the web development community thusly:
Web developers: Positive (AMP team indicated desire to start using the attribute)
If AMP were actually the product of working web developers, this justification would make sense. As it is, we’ve got one team at Google citing the preference of another team at Google but representing it as the will of the people.
This is just one example of AMP’s sneaky marketing where some finely-shaved semantics allows them to appear far more reasonable than they actually are.
At AMP Conf, the Google Search team were at pains to repeat over and over that AMP pages wouldn’t get any preferential treatment in search results …but they appear in a carousel above the search results. Now, if you were to ask any right-thinking person whether they think having their page appear right at the top of a list of search results would be considered preferential treatment, I think they would say hell, yes! This is the only reason why The Guardian, for instance, even have AMP versions of their content—it’s not for the performance benefits (their non-AMP pages are faster); it’s for that prime real estate in the carousel.
The same semantic nit-picking can be found in their defence of caching. See, they’ve even got me calling it caching! It’s hosting. If I click on a search result, and I am taken to page that has a URL beginning with https://www.google.com/amp/s/... then that page is being hosted on the domain google.com. That is literally what hosting means. Now, you might argue that the original version was hosted on a different domain, but the version that the user gets sent to is the Google copy. You can call it caching if you like, but you can’t tell me that Google aren’t hosting AMP pages.
That’s a particularly low blow, because it’s such a bait’n’switch. One of the reasons why AMP first appeared to be different to Facebook Instant Articles or Apple News was the promise that you could host your AMP pages yourself. That’s the very reason I first got interested in AMP. But if you actually want the benefits of AMP—appearing in the not-search-results carousel, pre-rendered performance, etc.—then your pages must be hosted by Google.
So, to summarise, here are three statements that Google’s AMP team are currently peddling as being true:
I don’t think those statements are even truthy, much less true. In fact, if I were looking for the right term to semantically describe any one of those statements, the closest in meaning would be this:
A statement used intentionally for the purpose of deception.
That is the dictionary definition of a lie.
Update: That last part was a bit much. Sorry about that. I know it’s a bit much because The Register got all gloaty about it.
I don’t think the developers working on the AMP format are intentionally deceptive (although they are engaging in some impressive cognitive gymnastics). The AMP ecosystem, on the other hand, that’s another story—the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP pages in the carousel and in search results; that’s messed up.
Still, I would do well to remember that there are well-meaning people working on even the fishiest of projects.
Except for the people working at the shitrag that is The Register.
(The other strong signal that I overstepped the bounds of decency was that this post attracted the pond scum of Hacker News. That’s another place where the “well-meaning people work on even the fishiest of projects” rule definitely doesn’t apply.)
Ever since its founding in 2005, Clearleft has been laser-focused on user experience design.
Recently we’ve been doing a lot of strategic design work—the really in-depth long-term engagements that begin with research and continue through to design consultancy and collaboration. That means we’ve got availability for front-end development work. Whether it’s consultancy or production work you’re looking for, this could be a good opportunity for us to work together.
There are three particular areas of front-end expertise we’re obsessed with…
We caught the design systems bug years ago, way back when Natalie started pioneering pattern libraries as our primary deliverable (or pattern portfolios, as we called them then). This approach has proven effective time and time again. We’ve spent years now refining our workflow and thinking around modular design. Fractal is the natural expression of this obsession. Danielle and Mark have been working flat-out on version 2. They’re very eager to share everything they’ve learned along the way …and help others put together solid pattern libraries.
Thinking about it, it’s no surprise that we’re crazy about performance at Clearleft. Like I said, our focus on user experience, and when it comes to user experience on the web, nothing but nothing is more important than performance. The good news is that the majority of performance fixes can be done on the front end—images, scripts, fonts …it’s remarkable how much a good front-end overhaul can make to the bottom line. That’s what Graham has been obsessing over.
Progressive Web Apps
Over the years I’ve found myself getting swept up in exciting new technologies on the web. When Clearleft first formed, my head was deep into DOM Scripting and Ajax. Half a decade later it was HTML5. Now it’s service workers. I honestly think it’s a technology that could be as revolutionary as Ajax or HTML5 (maybe I should write a book to that effect).
There’s endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology. It’s very powerful.
Combine a service worker with a web app manifest and you’ve got yourself a Progressive Web App. It’s not just a great marketing term—it’s an opportunity for the web to truly excel at delivering the kind of user experiences previously only associated with native apps.
I’m very very keen to work with companies and organisations that want to harness the power of service workers and Progressive Web Apps. If that’s you, get in touch.
Whether it’s pattern libraries, performance, or Progressive Web Apps, we’ve got the skills and expertise to share with you.
If I install an app on my phone, the first thing I do is switch off all notifications. That saves battery life and sanity.
The only time my phone is allowed to ask for my attention is for phone calls, SMS, or FaceTime (all rare occurrences). I initiate every other interaction—Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, the web. My phone is a tool that I control, not the other way around.
To me, this seems like a perfectly sensible thing to do. I was surprised by how others thought it was radical and extreme.
I’m always shocked when I’m out and about with someone who has their phone set up to notify them of any activity—a mention on Twitter, a comment on Instagram, or worst of all, an email. The thought of receiving a notification upon receipt of an email gives me the shivers. Allowing those kinds of notifications would feel like putting shackles on my time and attention. Instead, I think I’m applying an old-school RSS mindset to app usage: pull rather than push.
Don’t get me wrong: I use apps on my phone all the time: Twitter, Instagram, Swarm (though not email, except in direst emergency). Even without enabling notifications, I still have to fight the urge to fiddle with my phone—to check to see if anything interesting is happening. I’d like to think I’m in control of my phone usage, but I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know that my behaviour would be a lot, lot worse if notifications were enabled.
I was a bit horrified when Apple decided to port this notification model to the desktop. There doesn’t seem to be any way of removing the “notification tray” altogether, but I can at least go into System Preferences and make sure that absolutely nothing is allowed to pop up an alert while I’m trying to accomplish some other task.
It’s the same on iOS—you can control notifications from Settings—but there’s an added layer within the apps themselves. If you have notifications disabled, the apps encourage you to enable them. That’s fine …at first. Being told that I could and should enable notifications is a perfectly reasonable part of the onboarding process. But with some apps I’m told that I should enable notifications Every. Single. Time.
Of the apps I use, Instagram and Swarm are the worst offenders (I don’t have Facebook or Snapchat installed so I don’t know whether they’re as pushy). This behaviour seems to have worsened recently. The needling has been dialed up in recent updates to the apps. It doesn’t matter how often I dismiss the dialogue, it reappears the next time I open the app.
Initially I thought this might be a bug. I’ve submitted bug reports to Instagram and Swarm, but I’m starting to think that they see my bug as their feature.
In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal, but I would appreciate some respect for my deliberate choice. It gets pretty wearying over the long haul. To use a completely inappropriate analogy, it’s like a recovering alcoholic constantly having to rebuff “friends” asking if they’re absolutely sure they don’t want a drink.
I don’t think there’s malice at work here. I think it’s just that I’m an edge-case scenario. They’ve thought about the situation where someone doesn’t have notifications enabled, and they’ve come up with a reasonable solution: encourage that person to enable notifications. After all, who wouldn’t want notifications? That question, if it’s asked at all, is only asked rhetorically.
The model that web browsers use for notifications seems quite sensible in comparison. If you arrive on a site that asks for permission to send you notifications (without even taking you out to dinner first) then you have three options: allow, block, or dismiss. If you choose “block”, that site will never be able to ask that browser for permission to enable notifications. Ever. (Oh, how I wish I could apply that browser functionality to all those sites asking me to sign up for their newsletter!)
That must seem like the stuff of nightmares for growth-hacking disruptive startups looking to make their graphs go up and to the right, but it’s a wonderful example of truly user-centred design. In that situation, the browser truly feels like a user agent.
Myself and Jessica were on our way over to Ireland for a few days to visit my mother. It’s a straightforward combination of three modes of transport: a car to Brighton train station; a train to Gatwick airport; a plane to Cork.
We got in the taxi to start the transport relay. “Going anywhere nice?” asked the taxi driver. “Ireland”, I said. He mentioned that he had recently come back from a trip to Crete. “Lovely place”, he said. “Great food.” That led to a discussion of travel destinations, food, and exchange rates. The usual taxi banter. We mentioned that we were in Iceland recently, where the exchange rate was eye-watering. “Iceland?”, he said, “Did you see the Northern Lights?” We hadn’t, but we mentioned some friends of ours who travelled to Sweden recently just to see the Aurorae. That led to a discussion of the weirdness of the midnight sun. “Yeah”, he said, “I was in the Barents Sea once and it was like broad daylight in the middle of the night.” We mentioned being in Alaska in Summer, and how odd the daylight at night was, but now my mind was preoccupied. As soon as there was a lull in the conversation I asked “So …what brought you to the Barents Sea?”
He paused. Then said, “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
Then he told us.
“We were on a secret mission. It was the ’80s, the Cold War. The Russians had a new submarine, the Typhoon. Massive, it was. Bigger than anything the Americans had. We were there with the Americans. They had a new camera that could see through smoke and cloud. The Russians wouldn’t know we were filming them. I was on a support ship. But one time, at four in the morning, the Russians shot at us—warning shots across the bow. I remember waking up and it was still so light, and there were this explosions of water right by the ship.”
“Wow!” was all I could say.
“It was so secret, that mission”, he said, “that if you didn’t go on it, you’d have to spend the duration in prison.”
By this time we had reached the station. “Do you believe me?” he asked us. “Yes”, we said. We paid him, and thanked him. Then I added, “And thanks for the story.”
But I wasn’t just there to sample the delights of the hawker centres. I had been invited by Mozilla to join them on the opening leg of their Developer Roadshow. We assembled in the PayPal offices one evening for a rapid-fire round of talks on emerging technologies.
We got an introduction to Quantum, the new rendering engine in Firefox. It’s looking good. And fast. Oh, and we finally get support for input type="date".
But this wasn’t a product pitch. Most of the talks were by non-Mozillians working on the cutting edge of technologies. I kicked things off with a slimmed-down version of my talk on evaluating technology. Then we heard from experts in everything from CSS to VR.
The highlight for me was meeting Hui Jing and watching her presentation on CSS layout. It was fantastic! Entertaining and informative, it was presented with gusto. I think it got everyone in the room very excited about CSS Grid.
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!
A presentation from the Beyond Tellerrand conference held in Düsseldorf in May 2017. I also presented a version of this talk at An Event Apart, Smashing Conference, Render, Frontend United, and From The Front.
I’m going to show you some code. Who wants to see some code?
All right, I’ll show you some code. This is code. This is a picture of code.
The code base in this case is the deoxyribonucleic acid. This is literally a photograph of code. It’s the famous Photograph 51, which was taken by Rosalind Franklin, the X-ray crystallographer. And it was thanks to her work that we were able to decode the very structure of DNA.
Base-4, unlike the binary base that we work with, with computers, it’s base-4 A-C-G-T: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine. From those four simple ingredients we get DNA, and from DNA we get every single life form on our planet: mammals, birds, fish, plants. Everything is made of DNA. This huge variety from such simple building blocks.
What’s interesting, though, is if you look at this massive variety of life on our planet, you start to see some trends over time as life evolves through the process of natural selection. You see a trend towards specialisation, a species becoming really, really good at something as the environment selects for fitness. A trend towards ubiquity as life attempts to spread as far as possible. And, interestingly, a trend towards cooperation, that a group could be more powerful than an individual.
Now we’re no different to any other life form, and this is how we have evolved over time from simpler beginnings. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as being a more highly evolved species than other species, but the truth is that every species of life on this planet is the most highly evolved species of life on this planet because they’re still here. Every species is fit for its environment. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here.
This is the process, this long, slow process of natural selection. It’s messy. It takes a long time. It relies on errors in the code to get selected for. This is the process that we human beings have gone through, same as every other species on the planet.
But then we figured out a way to hack the process. We figured out a way to get a jumpstart on evolution, and that’s through technology. Through technology we can bypass the process of natural selection and augment ourselves, extend our capabilities like this.
This is a very early example of technology. It existed for millions of years in this form, ubiquitous, across the planet. This is the Acheulean hand ax. We didn’t need to evolve a sharp cutting tool at the end of our limb because, through technology, we were able to create a sharp cutting tool at the end of our limb. Then through that we were able to extend our capabilities and shape our environment.
We shape our tools and, thereafter, the tools shape us.
And we have other tools. This is a modern tool, the pencil. I’m sure you’ll all familiar with it. You use it all the time. I think it’s a great piece of technology, great affordance on there. Built in progress bar, and it’s got an undo at the end.
What’s interesting is if you look at the evolution of technology and you compare it to the evolution of biology, you start to see some of the same trends; trends towards specialisation, ubiquity, and cooperation.
The pencil does one thing really, really well. The Acheulean hand ax does one thing really, really well.
All over the world you found Acheulean hand axes, and all over the world you will find the pencil in pretty much the same form.
And, most importantly of all, cooperation. No human being can make a pencil. Not by themselves. It requires cooperation.
There’s a famous book by Leonard Read called I, Pencil, and it’s told from the point of view of a pencil and describing how it requires cooperation. It requires human beings to come together to fell the trees to get the wood, to get the graphite, to put it all together. No single human being can do that by themselves. We have to cooperate to create technology.
You can try to create technology by yourself, but you’re probably going to have a hard time. Like Thomas Thwaites, he’s an artist in the U.K. You might have seen his most recent project. He tried to live as a goat for a year.
This is from a while back where he attempted to make a toaster from scratch. When I say from scratch, I mean from scratch. He wanted to mine his own metals. He wanted to smelt the steel. He wanted to create the plastic, wire it all up, and do it all by himself. It was a very interesting process. It didn’t really work out. I mean it worked for like a second or two when he plugged it in and then completely burned out, and it was prohibitively expensive.
When it comes to technology, cooperation is built in, along with those other trends: specialisation, ubiquity.
It’s easy to think when we compare these trends in biology and technology and we see the overlap, to fall into the trap of thinking they’re basically the same process, but they’re not. Underneath the hood the process is very different.
In biology it’s natural selection, this long, messy, slow process. But kind of like DNA, it’s very simple building blocks that results in amazing complexity. With technology it’s kind of the other way around. Nature doesn’t imagine the end result of a species and then work towards that end result. Nature doesn’t imagine an elephant or an ostrich. It’s just, that’s the end result of evolution. Whereas with technology, we can imagine things, design things, and then build them. Picture something in our mind that we want to exist in the world and then work together to build that.
Now one of my favourite examples of imagining technology and then creating it is a design school called Chindogu created by Kenji Kawakami. He started the International Chindogu Society in 1995. There’s goals, principles behind Chindogu, and the main one is that these things, these pieces of technology must be not exactly useful, but somehow not all together useless.
I’ll show you what I mean and you get the idea. You look at these things and you think, uh, that’s crazy. But actually, is it crazy or is it brilliant? Like this, I think, well, that’s ridiculous. Well— actually, not entirely useless, not exactly useful, but, you know, keeping your shoes dry in the rain. That seems sort of useful.
They’re described as being un-useless. These are un-useless objects. But why not? I mean why not harvest the kinetic energy of your child to clean the floors? If you don’t have a child, that’s fine. It works other ways.
These things, I mean they’re fun to imagine and to create, but you couldn’t imagine them actually in the world being used. You couldn’t imagine mass adoption. Like, I found this thing from the book of Chindogu from 1995, and it describes this device where you kind of put a camera on the end of a stick so you can take self portraits, but you couldn’t really imagine anyone actually using something like this out in the world, right?
These are all examples of what we see in the history of technology. From Acheulean hand axes to pencils to Chindogu, there are bits of hardware. When we think of technology, that’s what we tend to think of: bits of hardware. And the hardware is augmenting the human. The human is using the hardware to gain benefit.
Something interesting happened in the 20th Century when we started to get another layer in between the human and the hardware, and that’s software. Then the human can interact with the software, and the software can interact with the hardware. I would say the best example of this, looking back through the history of technology of the last 100 years or so, would be the Apollo Program, the perfect mixture of human, software, and hardware.
By the way, seeing as we were just talking about selfies and selfie sticks, I just want to point out that this picture is one of the very few examples of an everyone-elsie. This picture was taken by Michael Collins in the Command Module, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are in that spaceship, and every human being alive on planet earth is also in this picture with one exception, Michael Collins, the person taking the picture. It’s an everyone-elsie.
I think the Apollo program is the pinnacle of human achievement so far, I would say, and this perfect example of this mixture of, like, amazing humans required to do this, amazing hardware to get them there, and amazing software. It’s hard to imagine how it would have been possible to send people to the moon without the work of Margaret Hamilton. Writing the onboard flight software and also creating entire schools of thought of software engineering.
Since then, and looking through the trend of technology from then onwards, what you start to notice is that the hardware becomes less and less important, and the software is what really starts to count with Moore’s law and everything like that, that we can put more and more complexity into the software. Maybe the end goal of technology is eventually that the hardware becomes completely irrelevant, fades away. This idea of design dissolving in behaviour.
This idea of the hardware becoming irrelevant in a way was kind of what was at the heart of the World Wide web project created by Tim Berners-Lee when he was at CERN because there at CERN — CERN is an amazing place, but everybody just kind of does whatever they want. It’s crazy. There’s almost no hierarchy, which means everybody uses whatever kind of computer they want. You can’t dictate to people at CERN you all must use this operating system. That was at the heart of the World Wide web project, the idea to make the hardware irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter what kind of computer you’ve got. You should still be able to access information.
We kind of take that for granted today, but it is quite a revolutionary thought. We don’t worry about it today. You make a website, of course you can look at it on a Windows device or a Mac or a Linux machine or an iPhone, an iOS device, or an Android device. Of course. But it wasn’t clear at the time. You know back at the time you would make software for specific operating systems, so this idea of making hardware irrelevant was kind of revolutionary.
The World Wide web project is a classic example of a piece of technology that didn’t come out of nowhere. It built on what came before. Like every other piece of technology, it built on what was already there. You can’t have Twitter or Facebook without the World Wide Web, and you can’t have the World Wide web without the Internet. You can’t have the Internet without computers. You can’t have computers without electricity. You can’t have electricity without the Industrial Revolution. Building on the shoulders of giants all the way up.
There’s also this idea of the adjacent possible. It’s when these things become possible. You couldn’t have had the World Wide web right after the Industrial Revolution because these other steps hadn’t yet taken place. It’s something that the author Steven Johnson takes about: the adjacent possible. It was impossible to invent the microwave oven in 16th Century Holland because there were too many other things that needed to be invented in the way.
It’s easy to see this as an inevitable process that, of course electricity follows industrialisation. Of course computers come, and of course the Internet comes. And there is a certain amount of inevitability. This happens all the time in the history of technology where there’s simultaneous inventions and people are beating one another to the patent office by hours to patent, whether it’s radio or the telephone or any of these devices that it seemed inevitable.
I don’t think the specifics are inevitable. Something like the World Wide web was inevitable, but the World Wide web we got was not. Something like the Internet was inevitable, but not the Internet that we got.
The World Wide web project itself has these building blocks: HTTP, the protocol, URLs as identifiers, and HTML was a simple format. Again, these formats are built upon what came before. Because it turns out that making the technology—creating a format or a protocol or spec for identifying things—not to belittle the work, but that’s actually not the hard part. The hard part is convincing people to use the protocol, convincing people to use the format.
That’s where you butt up against humans. How do you convince humans? Which always reminds me of Grace Hopper, an amazing computer scientist, rear admiral Grace Hopper, co-inventor of COBOL and the inventor of the compiler, without which we wouldn’t have computing as we know it today. She bumped up against this all the time, that people were reluctant to try new things. She had this phrase. She said, “Humans are allergic to change.” Now, she used to try and fight that. In fact, she used to have a clock on her wall that went backwards to simply demonstrate that it’s an arbitrary convention. You could change the convention.
She said the most dangerous phrase in the English language is, “We’ve always done it that way.” So she was right to notice that humans are allergic to change. I think we could all agree on that.
But her tactic was, “I try to change that,” whereas with Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, he sort of embraced it. He sort of went with it. He said, “Okay. I’ve got these things I want to convince people to use, but humans are allergic to change,” and that’s why he built on top of what was already there.
He didn’t create these things from scratch. HTTP, the protocol, is built on top of TCP/IP, the work of Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf. The URLs work on top of the Domain Name System and the work of Jon Postel. And HTML, this very simple format, was built on top of a format, a flavour of SGML, that everybody at CERN was already using. So it wasn’t a hard sell to get people to use HTML because it was very familiar.
In fact, if you were to look at SGML back then in use at CERN, you would see these elements.
These are SGML elements used in CERN SGML. You could literally take a CERN SGML document, change the file extension to .htm, and it was an HTML document.
It’s true. Humans are allergic to change, so go with that. Don’t make it hard for them.
Now of course, we got these elements in HTML. This is where they came from. It’s just taking wholesale from SGML. Over time, we got a whole bunch more elements. We got more semantic richness added to HTML, so we can structure our documents more clearly.
Where it gets really interesting is that we also got more behavioural elements added to HTML, the elements that browsers recognise and do quite advanced things with like video and audio and canvas.
<canvas> <video> <audio> <picture> <datalist>
Now what’s interesting is that I find it fascinating that we can evolve a format like this. We can just keep adding things to the format. The reason why we could do that is because these elements were designed with backwards compatibility built in. If you have an open video tag, closing video tag, you can put content in between there for the browsers that don’t understand the video tag.
The same with canvas. You can put fallback content in there, so you don’t have to wait for every browser to support one of these elements. You can start using it straight away and still provide something for older browsers. That’s very deliberate.
The canvas element was actually a proprietary element created by Apple and other browsers saw it and said, “Oh, yeah, we like that. We’re going to take that,” and they started standardising on it. To begin with, it was a standalone element like img. You put a closing slash there or whatever. But when it got standardised, they deliberately added a closing tag so that people could put fallback content in there. What I’m saying is it wasn’t an accident. It was designed.
Now Chris yesterday mentioned the HTML design principles, and this is one of them—that when you’re creating new elements, new attributes, you should design them in such a way that “the content can degrade gracefully in older or less capable user agents even when making use of these new elements, attributes, APIs, content models.” It is a design decision. There are HTML design principles. They’re very good.
I like design principles. I like design principles a lot. I actually collect them. I’m a bit of a nerd for design principles, and I collect them at this URL:
There you will find design principles for software, for organisations, for people, for schools of thought. There’s Chindogu design principles I’ve collected there.
I guess why I’m fascinated by principles is where they sit. Jina talked about this yesterday in relation to a design system, in that you begin with the goals. This is like the vision, what you’re trying to achieve, and then the principles define how you’re going to achieve that. Then the patterns are the result of the principles. The principles are based on the goals, which result in the patterns.
In the case of the World Wide Web, the goal is to make hardware irrelevant. Access to information regardless of hardware. The principles are encoded in the HTML design principles, and then the patterns are those elements that we get, those elements that are designed with backwards compatibility in mind.
Now when we look at new things added to HMTL, new features, new browser APIs, what we tend to ask, of course, is: how well does it work?
How well does this thing do what it claims it’s going to do? That’s an excellent question to ask whenever you’re evaluating a new technology or tool. But I don’t think it’s the most important question. I think it’s just as important to ask: how well does it fail?
How well does it fail?
If you look at those HTML elements, which have been designed that way, they fail well. They fail well in older browsers. You can have that fallback content. I think this is a good lens to look at technology through because what we tend to do, when there’s a new browser API, we go to Can I Use, and we see, well, what’s the support like? We see some green, and we see some red. But the red doesn’t tell you how well it fails.
Here’s an example: CSS shapes. If you go to caniuse.com and you look at the support, there’s some green, and there’s some red. You might think there’s not enough green, so I’m not going to use it. But what you should really be asking is, how well does it fail?
In the case of CSS shapes, here’s an example of CSS shapes in action. I’ve got a border radius on this image, and on this text here I’ve said, shape-outside: circle on the image, so the text is wrapping around that circle. How well does it fail? Well, let’s look at it in a browser that doesn’t support CSS shapes, and we see the text goes in a straight line.
I’d say it fails pretty well because this is what would have happened anyway, and the text wrapping around the circle was kind of an enhancement on top of what would have happened anyway. Actually, it fails really well, so you might as well go ahead and use it. You might as well go ahead and use it even if it was only supported in one browser or two browsers because it fails well.
Let’s use that lens of asking how well does it work and how well does it fail to look at some of the technologies that you’ve probably been hearing about—some of the buzzwords in the world of front-end development. Let’s start with this. This is a big buzzword these days: service workers.
Who has heard of service workers? Okay. Quite a few.
Who is using service workers? Not so many. Interesting.
The rest of you, you’ve heard of it, and you’re currently probably in the state of evaluating the technology, trying to decide whether you should use this technology.
I’m not going to explain how service workers work. I guess I’ll just describe what it can do. It’s an amazing piece of technology that you kind of install on the user’s machine and then it sits there like a virus intercepting requests, which sounds scary, but actually is really powerful because you can really improve performance. You can serve things from a cache. You get access to the cache API. You can make things work offline, which is kind of amazing, because you’ve got access to those requests.
I was trying to describe it the other day and the best way I could think of describing it was a service worker is like doing a man-in-the-middle attack on your own website, but in a good way—in a good way. There’s endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology. It’s very powerful. And, at the very least, you can make a nice, custom, offline page instead of the dinosaur game or whatever people would normally get when they’re offline. You can have a custom offline page in the same way you could have a custom 404 page.
The Guardian have a service worker on their site, and they do a crossword puzzle. You’re on the train, you’re trying to read that article, but there’s no internet connection. Well, you can play the crossword puzzle. Little things like that, so it can be used for real delight. It’s a great technology.
Well, let’s see what the support is like on Can I Use. Not bad. Not bad at all. Some good green there, but there’s quite a bit of red. If this is the reason why you haven’t used service workers yet because you see the support and you think, “Not enough support. I’m not going to invest my time,” I think you haven’t asked the question, “how well does it fail?” This is where I think the absolute genius of service worker comes in.
Service workers fail superbly because here’s what happens with a service worker. The first time someone visits your site there, of course, is no service worker installed on the client. They must first visit your site, get the downloads, have that service worker installed, which means every browser doesn’t support service workers for the first visit.
Then, on subsequent visits, you can use the service worker for the browsers that support it as this enhancement. Provide the custom offline page. Cache those assets. Do offline first stuff. But you’re not going to harm any of those browsers that are in the red on Can I Use, and that’s deliberate in the design of service workers. It’s been designed that way. I think service workers fail really well.
Let’s look at another hot topic.
Who has heard of web components? Who is using web components—the real thing now? Okay. Wow. Brave. Brave person.
Web components actually aren’t a specific technology. web components is an umbrella term. I mean, in a way, service workers is kind of an umbrella term because it’s what you get access to through service workers that counts. You get access to the fetch API and the cache API and even notifications through a service worker.
With web components, it’s this term for a combination of specs, a combination of APIs like custom elements, the very sinister sounding shadow DOM, which is not as scary as it sounds, and there’s other things in there too like HTML imports and template. All of this stuff together is given the label web components. The idea is we’ve already got these very powerful elements in HTML, and it’s great when they get added to HTML, but it takes a long time. The standards process is slow. What if we could just make our own elements? That’s what you get to do with custom elements. You get to make shit up.
These common patterns. You keep having to reinvent the wheel. Let’s make an element for that. The only requirement with a custom element is that you have to have a hyphen in there. This is kind of a long-term agreement with the spec makers that they will never make an HTML element with a hyphen in it. Therefore, it’s kind of a safe space to use a hyphen in a made up element.
Okay, but if you just make up an element like this, it’s effectively the same as having a span in your document. It doesn’t do anything. It’s the other specs that make it come to life, like having HTML imports that link off to a file that describes what the browser is supposed to do with this new element that you’ve created.
Web components are intended as a solution to this, so it sounds pretty great. How well does it work? Well, let’s see what the browser support is like for some parts of web components. Let’s take custom elements. Yeah, some green, but there’s an awful lot of red. Never mind, as we’ve learned from looking at things like CSS shapes and service workers. But the red doesn’t tell us anything because the lack of support in a browser doesn’t answer the question, how well does it fail? How well do web components fail?
This is where it gets interesting because the answer to the question, “How well do web components fail?” is …it depends.
It depends on how you use the web components. It depends on if you applied the same kind of design principles that the creators of HTML applied when they’re making new elements.
Let’s say you make an image-gallery element, and you make it so that the content of the image gallery is inside the open and closing tag.
Now in a non-supporting browser this is actually acceptable because they won’t understand what this image-gallery thing is. They won’t throw an error because HTML is very tolerant of stuff it doesn’t understand. They’ll just display the images as images. That’s acceptable.
In fact, there’s demo sites to demonstrate the power of web components that do this. The Polymer Project, there’s a whole collection of web components, and they created an entire online shop to demonstrate how cool web components are, and this is the HTML of that shop.
The body element simply contains a shop-app custom element and then a script, and all the power is in the script. Here the web component fails really badly because you get absolutely nothing. That’s what I mean when I say it depends. It depends entirely on how we use them.
Now the good news is, as we saw from looking at Can I Use, it’s very early days with web components. We haven’t figured out yet what the best practices are, so we can set the course of the future here. We can decide that there should be design principles for how we collectively use this powerful technology like web components.
See, the exciting thing about web components is that they give us developers the same power that previously only browser makers had. But the scary thing about web components is that they give us developers the same power that previously only browser makers had. With great power, et cetera, et cetera, and we should rise to the challenge of that responsibility.
What’s interesting about both these things we’re looking at is that, like I said, they’re not really a single technology in themselves. They’re kind of these umbrella terms. With service worker it’s an umbrella term for fetch and cache and notifications, background sync — very cool stuff. With web components it’s an umbrella term for custom elements and HTML imports and shadow DOM and all this stuff.
But they’re both coming from the same place, the same sort of point of view, which is this idea that we, web developers, should be given that power and that responsibility to have access to these low-level APIs rather than just waiting for standards bodies to give us access through new APIs. This is all encapsulated in a school of thought called The Extensible Web, that we should have access to these low-level APIs.
The Extensible web is effectively — it’s literally a manifesto. There’s a manifesto for The Extensible Web. It’s just a phrase. It’s not a technology, just words, but words are very powerful when it comes to technology, when it comes to adopting technology. Words can get you very far. Ajax is just a word. It’s just a word for technologies that already existed at the time, but Jesse James Garrett put a word on it, and it made it easier to talk about it, and it helped the adoption of those technologies.
Responsive web Design: what Ethan did was he put a phrase to a collection of technologies: media queries, fluid layouts, fluid images. Wrapped it all up in a very powerful term, Responsive web Design, and the web was never the same.
Progressive Web Apps
Here’s a term you’ve probably heard of over the last couple of days: progressive web apps. Anybody who went to the Microsoft talk yesterday at lunchtime would have heard about progressive web apps. It’s just a term. It’s just an umbrella term for other technologies underneath. Progressive web app is the combination of having your site run over HTTPS, so it’s secure, which by the way is a requirement for running a service worker, and then also having a manifest file, which contains all this metadata. Chris mentioned it yesterday. You point to your icons and metadata about your site. All that adds up to, hey, you’ve got a progressive web app.
It’s a good sounding — I like this term. It’s a good sounding term. It was created by Frances Berriman and her husband, Alex Russell, to describe this. Again, a little bit of a manifesto in that these sites should be responsive and intuitive and they need to fulfil these criteria. But I worry sometimes about the phrasing. I mean, all the technologies are great. And you will actually get rewarded if you use these technologies. If you use HTTPS, you got a service worker, you got a manifest file. On Chrome for Android, if someone visits your site a couple of times, they’ll be prompted to add the site to the home screen just as though it were a native app. It will behave like a native app in the app switcher. You’re getting rewarded for these best practices.
But when I see the poster children for progressive web apps, my heart sinks when I see stuff like this. This is the Washington Post progressive web app, but this is what you get if you visit on the “wrong” device. In this case I’m visiting on a desktop browser, and I’m being told to come back with a mobile browser. Oh, how the tables have turned! It was not that long ago when we were being turned away on our mobile devices, and now we’re turning people away on desktops.
This was a solved problem. We did this with responsive web design. The idea of having a separate site for your progressive web app - no, no, no. We’re going back to the days of m.sites and the “real” website. No. No. I feel this is the wrong direction.
I worry that maybe this progressive web app terminology might be hurting it and the way that Google are pushing this app shell model. Anything can be a progressive web app, anything on the web.
I mean I’ve got things that I’ve turned into progressive web apps, and some of them might be, okay, maybe you consider this site, Huffduffer, as an app. I don’t know what a web app is, but people tell me it might be a web app. But I’ve also got like a community website, and it fulfils all the criteria. I guess it’s a progressive web app. My personal site, it’s a blog, but technically it’s a progressive web app. I put a book online. A book is an app now because it fulfils all the criteria. Even a single page collecting design principles is technically a progressive web app.
I worry about the phrasing, potentially limiting people when they come to evaluate the technology. “Oh, progressive web app, well, that’s not for me because I’m not building apps. I’m building some other kind of site.” I think that would be a real shame because literally every site on the web can benefit from those technologies, which brings me to the next question when we’re evaluating technology. Who benefits from the technology?
Broadly speaking, I would say there’s kind of two schools of who could benefit from a particular technology on the Web. Does the technology benefit the developer or does the technology benefit the user? Much like what Chris was showing yesterday with the Tetris blocks and kind of going on a scale from technologies that benefit users to technologies that benefit developers.
Now I would say that nine times out of ten there is no conflict. Nine times out of ten a piece of technology is beneficial to the developer and beneficial to the user. You could argue that any technology that benefits the developer is de facto a benefit to the user because the developer is working better, working faster, therefore they can get the website out, and that’s good for the user.
Let’s talk about technologies that directly impact users versus the technologies that directly impact developers. Now personally I’m going to generally fall down on the side of technologies that benefit users over technologies that benefit developers. I mean, you look at something like service workers. There isn’t actually a benefit to developers. If anything, there’s a tax because you’ve got to get your head around service workers. You’ve got a new thing to learn. You’ve got to get your head down, learn how it works, write the code. It’s actually not beneficial for developers, but the end result—offline pages, faster performance—hugely beneficial for users. I’ll fall down on that side.
Going back to when I told you I was a nerd for design principles. Well, I actually have a favourite design principle and it’s from the HTML design principles. It’s the one that Chris mentioned yesterday morning. It’s known as the priority of constituencies:
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over specifiers over theoretical purity.
That’s pretty much the way I evaluate technology too. I think of the users first. And the authors, that’s us, we have quite a strong voice in that list, but it is second to users.
Now when we’re considering the tools and we’re evaluating who benefits from this tool, “Is it developers, or is it users, or is it both?” I think we need to stop and make a distinction about the kinds of tools we work with. I’m trying to work out how to phrase this distinction, and I kind of think of it as inward facing tools and outward facing tools: inward facing tools developers use; outward facing tools that directly touch end users.
Now when it comes to evaluating these technologies, my attitude is, whatever works for you. Now we can have arguments and say, “Oh, I prefer this tool over that tool”, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is: does it work for you? Does it make you work faster? Does it make your team work faster? That’s really the only criteria because none of these directly touch the end user.
The most important question—I’d say this is true of evaluating any technology—is, what are the assumptions?
What are the assumptions?
What are the assumptions that have been baked into the tool you’re about to use, because I guarantee you there are assumptions baked into those tools. I know that because those tools were created by humans. And we humans, we have biases. We have assumptions, and we can’t help but encode those biases and assumptions into what we make. It’s true of anything we make. It’s particularly true of software.
We talk about opinionated software. But in a way, all software is opinionated. You just have to realise where the opinions lie. This is why you can get into this situation where we’re talking about frameworks and libraries, and one person is saying, “Oh, this library rocks”, and the other person is saying, “No, this library sucks!” They’re both right and they’re both wrong because it entirely depends on how well the philosophy of that tool matches your own philosophy.
If you’re using a tool that’s meant to extend your capabilities and that tool matches your own philosophy, you will work with the tool, and you will work faster and better. But if the philosophy of the tool has a mismatch with your own philosophy, you’re going to fight that tool every step of the way. That’s why people can be right and wrong about these frameworks. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. All software is opinionated.
It makes it really hard to try and create un-opinionated software. At Clearleft we’ve got this tool. It’s an open source project now called Fractal for building pattern libraries, working with pattern libraries. The fundamental principle behind it was that it should be as agnostic as possible, completely agnostic to build tools, completely agnostic to templating languages, that it should be able to work just about anywhere. It turns out it’s really, really hard to make agnostic software because you keep having to make decisions that favour one thing over another at every step.
Whether it’s writing the documentation or showing an example, you have to show the example in some templating language. You have to choose a winner in the documentation to demonstrate something. It’s really hard to write agnostic software. Every default you add to a piece of software shows your assumptions because those defaults matter.
But I don’t want to make it sound like these tools have a way of working and there’s no changing it, that the assumptions are baked in and there’s nothing you can do about it; that you can’t fight against those assumptions. Because there are examples of tools being used other than the uses for which they were intended right throughout the history of technology. I mean, when Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone, he thought that people would use it to listen to concerts that were happening far away. When Edison created the gramophone, he thought that people would record their voices so they could have conversations at a distance. Those two technologies ended up being used for the exact opposition purposes than what their inventors intended.
Here’s an example from the history of technology from Hedy Lamarr, the star of the silver screen the first half of the 20th Century here in Europe. She ended up married to an Austrian industrialist arms manufacturer. After the Anschluss, she would sit in on those meetings taking notes. Nobody paid much attention to her, but she was paying attention to the technical details.
She managed to get out of Nazi occupied Europe, which was a whole adventure in itself. Made her way to America, and she wanted to do something for the war effort, particularly after an incident where a refuge ship was sunk by a torpedo. A whole bunch of children lost their lives, and she wanted to do something to make it easier to get the U-boats. She worked on a system for torpedoes. It was basically a guidance system for radio controlled torpedoes.
The problem is, if you have a radio frequency you’re using to control the torpedo to guide it towards its target, if the enemy figure out what the frequency is, they can jam the signal and now you can no longer control the torpedo. Together with a composer named George Antheil, Hedy Lamarr came up with this system for constantly switching the frequency, so both the torpedo and the person controlling it are constantly switching the radio frequency to the same place, and now it’s much, much harder to jam that transmission.
Okay. But what’s that got to do with us, some technology for guided missiles in World War II? In this room, I’m guessing you’ve got devices that have WiFi and Bluetooth and GPS, and all of those technologies depend on frequency hopping. That wasn’t the use for which it was created, but that’s the use we got out of it.
I get that out in the real world as well: “I guess this technology is coming”, you know, with self-driving cars, machine learning, whatever it happens to be. I guess we’ve just got to accept it. There’s even this idea of technological determinism that technology is the driving force of human history. We’re just along for the ride. It’s the future. Take it.
The ultimate extreme of this attitude of technological determinism is the idea of the technological singularity, kind of like the rapture for the nerds. It’s an idea borrowed from cosmology where you have a singularity at the heart of a black hole. You know a star collapses to as dense as possible. It creates a singularity. Nothing can escape, not even light.
The point is there’s an event horizon around a black hole, and it’s impossible from outside the event horizon to get any information from what’s happening beyond the event horizon. With a technological singularity, the idea is that technology will advance so quickly and so rapidly there will be an event horizon, and it’s literally impossible for us to imagine what’s beyond that event horizon. That’s the technological singularity. It makes me uncomfortable.
But looking back over the history of technology and the history of civilisation, I think we’ve had singularities already. I think the Agricultural Revolution was a singularity because, if you tried to describe to nomadic human beings before the Agricultural Revolution what life would be like when you settle down and work on farms, it would be impossible to imagine. The Industrial Revolution was kind of a singularity because it was such a huge change from agriculture. And we’re probably living through a third singularity now, an information age singularity.
But the interesting thing is, looking back at those previous singularities, they didn’t wipe away what came before. Those things live alongside. We still have agriculture at the same time as having industry. We still have nomadic peoples, so it’s not like everything gets wiped out by what comes before.
In fact, Kevin Kelly, who is a very interesting character, he writes about technology. In one of his books he wrote that no technology has ever gone extinct, which sounds like actually a pretty crazy claim, but try and disprove it. And he doesn’t mean it is a technology sitting in a museum somewhere. He means that somewhere in the world somebody is still using that piece of technology, some ancient piece of farming equipment, some ancient piece of computer equipment.
He writes these very provocational sort of books with titles like What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable, which makes it sound like he’s on the side of technological determinism, but actually his point is a bit more subtle. He’s trying to point out that there is an inevitability to what’s coming down the pipe with these technologies, but we shouldn’t confuse that with not being able to control it and not being able to steer the direction of those technologies.
Like I was saying, something like the World Wide Web was inevitable, but the World Wide Web we got was not. I think it’s true of any technology. We can steer it. We can choose how we use the technologies.
Looking at Kevin Kelly and his impressive facial hair, you might be forgiven for thinking that he’s Amish. He isn’t Amish, but he would describe himself as Amish-ish in that he’s lived with the Amish, and he thinks we can learn a lot from the Amish.
It turns out they get a very bad reputation. People think that the Amish reject technology. It’s not true. What they do is they take their time.
The Amish are steadily adopting technology at their pace. They are slow geeks.
I think we could all be slow geeks. We could all be a bit more Amish-ish. I don’t mean in our dress sense or facial hair. I mean in the way that we are slow geeks and we ask questions of our technology. We ask questions like, “How well does it work?” but also, “How well does it fail?” That we ask, “Who benefits from this technology?” And perhaps most importantly that we ask, “What are the assumptions of those technologies?”
Because when I look back at the history of human civilisation and the history of technology, I don’t see technology as the driving force; that it was inevitable that we got to where we are today. What I see as the driving force are people, remarkable people, it’s true, but people nonetheless.
And you know who else is remarkable? You’re remarkable. And your attitude shouldn’t be, “It’s the future. Take it.” It should be, “It’s the future. Make it.” And I’m looking forward to seeing the future you make. Thank you.
I saw Ruth give a fantastic talk on the Web Audio API at CSS Day this year. It had just the right mixture of code and inspiration. I decided there and then that I’d have to find some opportunity to play around with web audio.
As ever, my own website is the perfect playground. I added an audio Easter egg to adactio.com a while back, and so far, no one has noticed. That’s good. It’s a very, very silly use of sound.
In her talk, Ruth emphasised that the Web Audio API is basically just about dealing with numbers. Lots of the examples of nice usage are the audio equivalent of data visualisation. Data sonification, if you will.
It sounds terrible. It’s like a theremin with hiccups.
Still, I kind of like it. I mean, I wish it sounded nicer (and I’m open to suggestions on how to achieve that—feel free to fork the code), but there’s something endearing about hearing a month’s worth of activity turned into a wobbling wave of sound. And it’s kind of fun to hear how a particular tag is used more frequently over time.
Anyway, it’s just a silly little thing, but anywhere you spot a sparkline on my site, you can tap it to hear it translated into sound.