A collection of design patterns and principles for mitigating the presence and spread of online hate and harassment in social platforms.
Tuesday, August 30th, 2022
Wednesday, August 10th, 2022
I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.
My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”
Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?
I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.
Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.
But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.
Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)
I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.
The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.
Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.
(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)
In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?
He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.
You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:
We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.
And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.
This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).
Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.
That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)
The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.
At first I thought that would be a classic
/927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.
That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:
UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.
That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.
Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).
Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.
I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.
Monday, June 20th, 2022
I believe that we haven’t figured out when and how to give a developer access to an abstraction or how to evaluate when an abstraction is worth using. Abstractions are usually designed for a set of specific use-cases. The problems, however, start when a developer wants to do something that the abstraction did not anticipate.
Smart thoughts from Surma on the design of libraries, frameworks, and other abstractions:
Abstractions that take work off of developers are valuable! Of course, they are. The problems only occur when a developer feels chained to the abstractions in a situation where they’d rather do something differently. The important part is to not force patterns onto them.
This really resonated with parts of my recent talk at CSS Day when I was talking about Sass and jQuery:
If you care about DX and the adoption of your abstraction, it is much more beneficial to let developers use as much of their existing skills as possible and introduce new concepts one at a time.
Tuesday, June 7th, 2022
This is a terrific resource! A pattern library of interactive components: tabs, switches, dialogs, carousels …all the usual suspects.
Each component has an example implementation along with advice and a checklist for ensuring its accessible.
It’s so great to have these all gathered together in one place!
Tuesday, May 24th, 2022
Pace layers and design principles
I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.
I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.
Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.
Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:
- Rich applied pace layers to career paths,
- Mark applied pace layers to the design process, and
- Jorge Arango applied pace layers to reading.
Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.
I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):
Purpose » Principles » Patterns
Your purpose is “why?”
That then influences your principles, “how?”
Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”
Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:
Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.
As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.
I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.
Wednesday, May 4th, 2022
We noticed a trend: students who pick a UI framework like Bootstrap or Material UI get off the ground quickly and make rapid progress in the first few days. But as time goes on, they get bogged down. The daylight grows between what they need, and what the component library provides. And they wind up spending so much time trying to bend the components into the right shape.
I remember one student spent a whole afternoon trying to modify the masthead from a CSS framework to support their navigation. In the end, they decided to scrap the third-party component, and they built an alternative themselves in 10 minutes.
This tracks with my experience. These kinds of frameworks don’t save time; they defer it.
The one situation where that works well, as Josh also points out, is prototyping.
If the goal is to quickly get something up and running, and you don’t need the UI to be 100% professional, I do think it can be a bit of a time-saver to quickly drop in a bunch of third-party components.
Tuesday, April 12th, 2022
I completely agree with Dan that when it comes to design systems, completeness is an over-rated—and even counter-productive—goal:
Some organizations seem to hold up the ideal that, once a design system exists, everything in an interface can and should be built with it. Not only is that an unrealistic goal for most enterprises, but it can often be a toxic mindset that anything less than 100% coverage is misuse of a design system at best or utter failure at worst.
Sunday, February 6th, 2022
I remember Lara telling me a great quote from the Clarity conference a few years back: “A design system needs to be correct before it’s complete.” In other words, it’s better to have one realistic component that’s actually in production than to have a pattern library full of beautiful but unimplemented components. I feel like Robin is getting at much the same point here, but he frames it in terms of correctness and usefulness:
If we want to be correct, okay, let’s have components of everything and an enormous Figma library of stuff we need to maintain. But if we want to be useful to designers who want to get an understanding of the system, let’s be brief.
Thursday, December 23rd, 2021
Even more writing on web.dev
The final five are here! The course on responsive design I wrote for web.dev is now complete, just in time for Christmas. The five new modules are:
These five felt quite “big picture”, and often quite future-facing. I certainly learned a lot researching proposals for potential media features and foldable screens. That felt like a fitting way to close out the course, bookending it nicely with the history of responsive design in the introduction.
And with that, the full course is now online. Go forth and learn responsive design!
Tuesday, October 5th, 2021
It’s great to see former Clearlefties like Nat, Paul and Anna rightly getting namechecked in this history of designing for the web in a systemic way. It’s a tradition that continues to this day with projects like Utopia.
Thursday, September 30th, 2021
Want to take a deep dive into tiling images? Like, a really deep dive. Rob has you covered.
Thursday, September 16th, 2021
A nice little collection of very simple—and very lightweight—SVGs to use as background patterns.
Tuesday, June 8th, 2021
Deceptive dark patterns
When I was braindumping my thoughts prompted by last week’s UX Fest conference, I wrote about dark patterns.
Well, actually I wrote about deceptive dark patterns. That was a deliberate choice.
The phrase “dark pattern” is …problematic. We really don’t need to be associating darkness with negativity any more than we already do in our language and culture.
This is something I discussed with Melissa Smith after her talk on this topic. The consensus in general seems to be that the terminology is far from ideal, but it’s a bit late to change it now (I’m sure if Harry were coining the term today, he would choose a different phrase).
The defining characteristic of a “dark” pattern is that intentionally deceptive. How about we shift the terminology to talk about deceptive patterns?
Now, I get that inertia is a powerful force and it would be confusing to try do to a find-and-replace on all the resources that already exist on documenting “dark” patterns. So here’s a compromise:
From here on out, let’s start using the adjective “deceptive” in addition to the existing adjective “dark.” That’s what I did in my blog post. I only used the phrase “deceptive dark patterns.”
If we do that consistently, then after a while we’ll be able to drop one of those adjectives—“dark”—and refer to “deceptive patterns.”
Personally I’d love it if we could change the terminology overnight—and I’m quite heartened by the speed at which we changed our Github branches from “master” to “main”—but being pragmatic, I think this approach stands a greater chance of success.
Who’s with me?
Monday, June 7th, 2021
Bringing Dark Patterns to Light. Transcript of the speech I gave at the… | by Harry Brignull | Jun, 2021 | Medium
Harry gave a speech at the Federal Trade Commission’s Dark Patterns workshop in April. Here’s the transcript, posted to Ev’s blog.
When I first worked on Dark Patterns in 2010, I was quite naive. I thought that they could be eradicated by shaming the companies that used them, and by encouraging designers to use a code of ethics.
The fact that we’re here today means that approach didn’t work.
Weighing up UX
You can listen to an audio version of Weighing up UX.
This is the month of UX Fest 2021—this year’s online version of UX London. The festival continues with masterclasses every Tuesday in June and a festival day of talks every Thursday (tickets for both are still available). But it all kicked off with the conference part last week: three back-to-back days of talks.
I have the great pleasure of hosting the event so not only do I get to see a whole lot of great talks, I also get to quiz the speakers afterwards.
Right from day one, a theme emerged that continued throughout the conference and I suspect will continue for the rest of the festival too. That topic was metrics. Kind of.
See, metrics come up when we’re talking about A/B testing, growth design, and all of the practices that help designers get their seat at the table (to use the well-worn cliché). But while metrics are very useful for measuring design’s benefit to the business, they’re not really cut out for measuring user experience.
People have tried to quantify user experience benefits using measurements like NetPromoter Score, which is about as useful as reading tea leaves or chicken entrails.
So we tend to equate user experience gains with business gains. That makes sense. Happy users should be good for business. That’s a reasonable hypothesis. But it gets tricky when you need to make the case for improving the user experience if you can’t tie it directly to some business metric. That’s when we run into the McNamara fallacy:
Making a decision based solely on quantitative observations (or metrics) and ignoring all others.
The way out of this quantitative blind spot is to use qualitative research. But another theme of UX Fest was just how woefully under-represented researchers are in most organisations. And even when you’ve gone and talked to users and you’ve got their stories, you still need to play that back in a way that makes sense to the business folks. These are stories. They don’t lend themselves to being converted into charts’n’graphs.
And so we tend to fall back on more traditional metrics, based on that assumption that what’s good for user experience is good for business. But it’s a short step from making that equivalency to flipping the equation: what’s good for the business must, by definition, be good user experience. That’s where things get dicey.
Broadly speaking, the talks at UX Fest could be put into two categories. You’ve got talks covering practical subjects like product design, content design, research, growth design, and so on. Then you’ve got the higher-level, almost philosophical talks looking at the big picture and questioning the industry’s direction of travel.
The tension between these two categories was the highlight of the conference for me. It worked particularly well when there were back-to-back talks (and joint Q&A) featuring a hands-on case study that successfully pushed the needle on business metrics followed by a more cautionary talk asking whether our priorities are out of whack.
For example, there was a case study on growth design, which emphasised the importance of A/B testing for validation, immediately followed by a talk on deceptive dark patterns. Now, I suspect that if you were to A/B test a deceptive dark pattern, the test would validate its use (at least in the short term). It’s no coincidence that a company like Booking.com, which lives by the A/B sword, is also one of the companies sued for using distressing design patterns.
Using A/B tests alone is like using a loaded weapon without supervision. They only tell you what people do. And again, the solution is to make sure you’re also doing qualitative research—that’s how you find out why people are doing what they do.
But as I’ve pondered the lessons from last week’s conference, I’ve come to realise that there’s also a danger of focusing purely on the user experience. Hear me out…
At one point, the question came up as to whether deceptive dark patterns were ever justified. What if it’s for a good cause? What if the deceptive dark pattern is being used by an organisation actively campaigning to do good in the world?
In my mind, there was no question. A deceptive dark pattern is wrong, no matter who’s doing it.
(There’s also the problem of organisations that think they’re doing good in the world: I’m sure that every talented engineer that worked on Google AMP honestly believed they were acting in the best interests of the open web even as they worked to destroy it.)
Where it gets interesting is when you flip the question around.
Suppose you’re a designer working at an organisation that is decidedly not a force for good in the world. Say you’re working at Facebook, a company that prioritises data-gathering and engagement so much that they’ll tolerate insurrectionists and even genocidal movements. Now let’s say there’s talk in your department of implementing a deceptive dark pattern that will drive user engagement. But you, being a good designer who fights for the user, take a stand against this and you successfully find a way to ensure that Facebook doesn’t deploy that deceptive dark pattern.
Does that count as being a good user experience designer? Yes, you’ve done good work at the coalface. But the overall business goal is like a deceptive dark pattern that’s so big you can’t take it in. Is it even possible to do “good” design when you’re inside the belly of that beast?
Facebook is a relatively straightforward case. Anyone who’s still working at Facebook can’t claim ignorance. They know full well where that company’s priorities lie. No doubt they sleep at night by convincing themselves they can accomplish more from the inside than without. But what about companies that exist in the grey area of being imperfect? Frankly, what about any company that relies on surveillance capitalism for its success? Is it still possible to do “good” design there?
There are no easy answers and that’s why it so often comes down to individual choice. I know many designers who wouldn’t work at certain companies …but they also wouldn’t judge anyone else who chooses to work at those companies.
At Clearleft, every staff member has two levels of veto on client work. You can say “I’m not comfortable working on this”, in which case, the work may still happen but we’ll make sure the resourcing works out so you don’t have anything to do with that project. Or you can say “I’m not comfortable with Clearleft working on this”, in which case the work won’t go ahead (this usually happens before we even get to the pitching stage although there have been one or two examples over the years where we’ve pulled out of the running for certain projects).
Going back to the question of whether it’s ever okay to use a deceptive dark pattern, here’s what I think…
It makes no difference whether it’s implemented by ProPublica or Breitbart; using a deceptive dark pattern is wrong.
But there is a world of difference in being a designer who works at ProPublica and being a designer who works at Breitbart.
That’s what I’m getting at when I say there’s a danger to focusing purely on user experience. That focus can be used as a way of avoiding responsibility for the larger business goals. Then designers are like the soldiers on the eve of battle in Henry V:
For we know enough, if we know we are the kings subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.
Thursday, April 29th, 2021
Collection of common CSS mistakes, and how to fix them.
I like the way this is organised: it’s like “code smells” for CSS. Some of them will probably be familiar, in which case, you can dive in and find out what’s going on.
Tuesday, April 20th, 2021
A curated list of awesome framework-agnostic standalone web components.
Monday, March 22nd, 2021
Vitaly has rounded up a whole load of accessibility posts. I think I’ve linked to most of them at some point, but it’s great to have them all gathered together in one place.
Thursday, March 18th, 2021
What’s important is that you test it with real users… and stop using hover menus.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2021
I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.