Monday, January 20th, 2020
Friday, January 17th, 2020
I’m usually building one of three things: a demo, a prototype, or a minimum viable product (MVP).
I’ve seen some confusion over these terms — some people seem to use them somewhat interchangeable. But they’re not the same thing, and building one when you need another can cause problems.
This is a very useful distinction!
Friday, January 10th, 2020
If you end up with a draft of a short story or a few paragraphs of a typical UX interaction scenario, or a storyboard, or a little film of someone swiping on a screen to show how your App idea would work — you have not done Design Fiction.
What you’ve done is write a short story, which can only possibly be read as a short story.
What you should ideally produce is something a casual observer may mistake for a contemporary artefact, but which only reveals itself as a fiction on closer inspection. It should be very much “as if..” this thing really existed. It should feel real, normal, not some fantasy.
Monday, December 2nd, 2019
The design history of the New York subway map.
Thursday, October 31st, 2019
Remember when I wrote about adding travel maps to my site at the recent Indie Web Camp Brighton? I must confess that the last line I wrote was an attempt to catch a fish from the river of the lazy web:
It’s a shame that I can’t use the lovely Stamen watercolour tiles for these static maps though.
In the spirit of Cunningham’s Law, I was hoping that somebody was going to respond with “It’s totally possible to use Stamen’s watercolour tiles for static maps, dumbass—look!” (to which my response would have been “thank you very much!”).
Alas, no such response was forthcoming. The hoped-for schooling never forthcame.
Still, I couldn’t quite let go of the idea of using those lovely watercolour maps somewhere on my site. But I had decided that dynamic maps would have been overkill for my archive pages:
Sure, it looked good, but displaying the map required requests for a script, a style sheet, and multiple map tiles.
Then I had a thought. What if I keep the static maps on my archive pages, but make them clickable? Then, on the other end of that link, I can have the dynamic version. In other words, what if I had a separate URL just for the dynamic maps?
These seemed like a good plan to me, so while I was travelling by Eurostar—the only way to travel—back from the lovely city of Antwerp where I had been speaking at Full Stack Europe, I started hacking away on making the dynamic maps even more dynamic. After all, now that they were going to have their own pages, I could go all out with any fancy features I wanted.
I kept coming back to my original goal:
I was looking for something more like the maps in Indiana Jones films—a line drawn from place to place to show the movement over time.
I found a plug-in for Leaflet.js that animates polylines—thanks, Iván! With a bit of wrangling, I was able to get it to animate between the lat/lon points of whichever archive section the map was in. Rather than have it play out automatically, I also added a control so that you can start and stop the animation. While I was at it, I decided to make that “play/pause” button do something else too. Ahem.
If you’d like to see the maps in action, click the “play” button on any of these maps:
- Everything from this August.
- Links from June 2017.
- Photos from October 2014.
- The entirety of 2018—that might take a while.
You get the idea. It’s all very silly really. It’s right up there with the time I made my sparklines playable. But that’s kind of the point. It’s my website so I can do whatever I want with it, no matter how silly.
First of all, the research department for adactio.com (that’s me) came up with the idea. Then that had to be sold in to upper management (that’s me too). A team was spun up to handle design and development (consisting of me and me). Finally, the finished result went live thanks to the tireless efforts of the adactio.com ops group (that would be me). Any feedback should be directed at the marketing department (no idea who that is).
Monday, October 21st, 2019
It was Indie Web Camp Brighton on the weekend. After a day of thought-provoking discussions, I thoroughly enjoyed spending the second day tinkering on my website.
For a while now, I’ve wanted to add maps to my monthly archive pages (to accompany the calendar heatmaps I added at a previous Indie Web Camp). Whenever I post anything to my site—a blog post, a note, a link—it’s timestamped and geotagged. I thought it would be fun to expose that in a glanceable way. A map seems like the right medium for that, but I wanted to avoid the obvious route of dropping a load of pins on a map. Instead I was looking for something more like the maps in Indiana Jones films—a line drawn from place to place to show the movement over time.
After two hours, I admitted defeat.
I was able to find the kind of static maps I wanted from Mapbox—I’m already using them for my check-ins. I could even add a polyline, which is exactly what I wanted. But instead of passing latitude and longitude co-ordinates for the points on the polyline, the docs explain that I needed to provide …cur ominous thunder and lightning… The Encoded Polyline Algorithm Format.
Go to that link. I’ll wait.
Did you read through the eleven steps of instructions? Did you also think it was a piss take?
- Take the initial signed value.
- Multiply it by 1e5.
- Convert that decimal value to binary.
- Left-shift the binary value one bit.
- If the original decimal value is negative, invert this encoding.
- Break the binary value out into 5-bit chunks.
- Place the 5-bit chunks into reverse order.
- OR each value with 0x20 if another bit chunk follows.
- Convert each value to decimal.
- Add 63 to each value.
- Convert each value to its ASCII equivalent.
This was way beyond my brain’s pay grade. But surely someone else had written the code I needed? I did some Duck Duck Going and found a piece of PHP code to do the encoding. It didn’t work. I Ducked Ducked and Went some more. I found a different piece of PHP code. That didn’t work either.
At this point, my allotted time was up. If I wanted to have something to demo by the end of the day, I needed to switch gears. So I did.
It waits until the page has finished loading, then it searches for any instances of the
h-geo microformat (a way of encoding latitude and longitude coordinates in HTML). If there are three or more, it generates a
script element to pull in the Leaflet library, and a corresponding
style element. Then it draws the map with the polyline on it. I ended up using Stamen’s beautiful watercolour map tiles.
That’s what I demoed at the end of the day.
But I wasn’t happy with it.
Sure, it looked good, but displaying the map required requests for a script, a style sheet, and multiple map tiles. I made sure that it didn’t hold up the loading of the rest of the page, but it still felt wasteful.
So after Indie Web Camp, I went back to investigate static maps again. This time I did finally manage to find some PHP code for encoding lat/lon coordinates into a polyline that worked. Finally I was able to construct URLs for a static map image that displays a line connecting multiple points with a line.
I’ve put this maps on any of the archive pages that also have calendar heat maps. Some examples:
- Everything from August 2019
- Notes from July 2018
- Links from June 2017
- Photos from October 2014
- Journal entries from December 2012
If you go back much further than that, the maps start to trail off. That’s because I wasn’t geotagging everything from the start.
I’m pretty happy with the final results. It’s certainly far more responsible from a performance point of view. Oh, and I’ve also got the maps inside a
picture element so that I can swap out the tiles if you switch to dark mode.
It’s a shame that I can’t use the lovely Stamen watercolour tiles for these static maps though.
Sunday, July 21st, 2019
A look at all the factors that went into choosing the Apollo landing sites, including this gem:
Famous amateur astronomer, Sir Patrick Moore, also produced a hand drawn map of the moon from his own observations using his homemade telescope at his home in Selsey, Sussex. These detailed pen and ink maps of the Moon’s surface were used by NASA as part of their preparations for the moon landing.
Monday, July 15th, 2019
A short, snappy web book on product development from Ryan Singer at Basecamp.
Like Resilient Web Design, the whole thing is online for free (really free, not “give us your email address” free).
Monday, July 1st, 2019
The Decolonial Atlas is a growing collection of maps which, in some way, help us to challenge our relationships with the land, people, and state. It’s based on the premise that cartography is not as objective as we’re made to believe.
For example: Names and Locations of the Top 100 People Killing the Planet — a cartogram showing the location of decision makers in the top 100 climate-hostile companies.
This map is a response to the pervasive myth that we can stop climate change if we just modify our personal behavior and buy more green products. Whether or not we separate our recycling, these corporations will go on trashing the planet unless we stop them.
Sunday, June 30th, 2019
Lighthouses of the world, mapped.
Wednesday, June 26th, 2019
1,841 instances of dark patterns on ecommerce sites, in the categories of sneaking, urgency, misdirection, social proof, scarcity, obstruction, and forced action. You can browse this overview, read the paper, or look at the raw data.
We conducted a large-scale study, analyzing ~53K product pages from ~11K shopping websites to characterize and quantify the prevalence of dark patterns.
Tuesday, June 18th, 2019
I’ve been kicking the tyres on this great new tool from Remy. Give it a URL and it’ll find all the links in its
h-entrys and automatically send webmentions to them. Very cool!
The documentation on the site is excellent, guiding you to the right solution for your particular needs. Read Remy’s announcement:
I’ve also tried very hard to get the documentation to be as welcoming as I can. I’ve tried to think about my dear visitor and what they want to do with the software, rather than type my typical developer approach to documentation - listing all the features and options.
Monday, June 17th, 2019
How cartography made early modern global trade possible.
Maps and legends. Beautiful!
Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.
Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.
I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.
Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.
I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).
As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.
Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.
Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.
So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.
We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.
For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.
That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.
It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.
Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.
So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!
I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.
It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.
It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:
Complexity reinforces privilege.
The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.
Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:
If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.
I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:
By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.
This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.
Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:
My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.
I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:
- Materials vs. tools,
- Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
- User experience vs. developer experience,
- Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
- Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.
But the split that worries the most is this:
- The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.
Tuesday, March 5th, 2019
From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
The unstoppable engine of An Event Apart in Seattle rolls onward. The second talk of the second day is from the indominatable Una Kravets. Her talk is called From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life. Here’s the description:
Have you ever had a looming deadline and no idea where to start? Do you have a big task to face but are having trouble figuring out how to get there? Have you ever wanted to learn a technology, or build a side project but didn’t know what to build? In this talk, Una will go over an actionable approach and several techniques for applying design thinking to our work and every aspect of our lives. This includes ideating product features, blog post ideas, or even what general direction we want to move toward in our businesses. We’ll go over traditional approaches and breakout techniques that will leave you feeling more in control and ready to reach your goals.
Let’s see if I can keep up with this…
Una’s going to talk about design thinking. Una does a variety of different work outside her day job—a podcast, dev doodles, etc. Sometimes at work she’s given big, big tasks like “build a design system.” Her reaction is “whut?” How do you even start with a task like that.
Also, we make big goals sometimes. Who makes new year’s resolutions? But what does “get more fit” or “earn more income” even mean?
In this talk, Una will break things down and show how design thinking can be applied to anything.
A stategic, solution-based approach to solving problems.
It’s a process. It’s iterative. It’s used by IBM, Apple, GE, and it’s taught to students at a lot of different universities.
Tim Brown of Ideo points out that there’s a Venn diagram of feasability, desirability, and viability. In the middle is the point of innovation.
The steps are:
- Empathise — develop a deep understanding of the challenge
- Define — clearly articulate the problem.
- Ideate — brainstorm potential solutions.
- Prototype — design a protoype to
- Test — and iterate.
Una feels that the feedback part is potentially missing there. IBM uses a loop diagram to include feedback. Ideo uses these steps:
- Frame a question
- Gather inspiration
- Generate ideas
- Make ideas tangible
- Test to learn
- Share the story
Another way to think about this is how the teams interact. There’s divergence and convergence throughout. Then there’s the double diamond: design, deliver, discover.
Ideo wrote a book called Design Thinking for Libraries. It has some useful tools and diagrams. Una found this fascinating because it wasn’t specifically about products. In healthcare, GE Health used design thinking for their Adventure Series MRI scanners—it resulted in 80% less need to use sedatives. The solution might seem obvious to us in hindsight, but it wouldn’t have been obvious to medical professionals in their everyday busy lives.
Design thinking is bullshit, says Natasha Jen. She describes how it’s become an over-used term that has lost its value. Una can relate—she gets annoyed when there’s too much talking and not enough doing. Design thinking is not diagrams and sticky notes. It’s a process. It’s very much about doing something to shift perspective. It’s another tool in our toolkit, even if it has become an overused term like “synergy.”
Back in 2014, when Una was working at IBM, she thought design thinking was stupid. It seemed to be all talk, talk, talk. It felt tedious. It was 75% talking and 25% development. The balance wasn’t right.
But it’s also true that solutioning too early leads to cruft. If you end up going back to the drawing board, maybe the time could’ve been better spent doing some design thinking up front. Focus on the problem, not the solution.
Now some developers might be thinking that this is outside their area. But it can really help you in your career. It can help you choose technologies. Also, everyone on the team, regardless of role, is responsible for the product.
Understand your users and the challenge. This could be a task that a user is trying to accomplish, or it could be you trying to get a raise.
Sometimes we forget who our user is. The techniques in this first step helps us solve their needs, not our needs.
You might have many users that you’re trying to help, but try focusing in on a few. You can create personas. When Una was working at Digital Ocean, the users were developers. The personas reflected this. Do the research to get to know your users.
Next, you can create an empathy map for your users. What are their goals? What are their hopes? What will they gain from your product?
Connect the empathy map to a specific context—a goal and or a scenario that the user is going through.
Bear in mind that there are many layers to your user. There are conscious rational thoughts, but also subconscious emotional thoughts. Empathy mapping helps you understand how to best communicate with your user.
Una shares a real-life scenario of hers: create a new shop-able product that increases time on site. That’s a pretty big goal. She creates a persona for a college-educated woman working in the medical field who commutes on the subway, keeps a skin-caring routing, and is getting into cake-making. Next, Una creates an empathy map for this persona. What she says, thinks, feels, and does. All of this is within the context of browsing your fashion media website casually at work.
The problem statement should be:
- Specific, but not too technical (don’t solutionise too soon),
- Narrow in scope.
How can we best create a product-highlighting web experience that Rosalyn will enjoy to increase her time on site?
You can use a tool with two columns: As-Is and to-Be. The first column is what users currently do. The second column is what you want to achieve.
This is the fun part. Good old-fashioned brainstorming is good here. Go for quantity here. Get loads of ideas out.
There’s also a “worst possible ideas” game you can play at this stage. It can be a good ice-breaker.
Have a second round of brainstorming where you play the “yes, and…” game to build on the first round.
When Una was working on The Zoe Report, she found that moodboards were really useful. The iteration cycle was very fast. A moodboard allowed them to skip a lot of the back and forth between design and development. They built the website without any visual design mock-ups. They prototyped quickly, tested quickly, and shipped quickly.
Journey-mapping is the next tool you can use in this ideation phase. Map out the steps between the start and end of a user journey. Keep it simple. This is a great time to refine your product and reduce complexity.
Next, start sketching out ideas. Again, this is a great time to uncover issues and solve problems before things get too defined. But remember, when you’re showcasing your ideas in sketches, too many ideas can lead to analyis paralysis.
Go forth and build. A prototype can exist on a number of different axes:
- Representation—the form it takes.
- Precision—the detail it contains.
- Interactivity—the extent a user can interact with it.
- Evolution—the life stage it is at.
There are lot of prototyping tools out there. Prototypr.io helps you find the right tool for you. It breaks things down by fidelity and life cycle.
But not all prototyping has to be digital. Paper prototyping only needs pen, paper, and scissors. Some tips:
- Use a transparency sheet for forms.
- Use well-visible and mid-tip pens.
- Draw up your prototype in black and white—people can get caught up in colour.
But on the web, Una recommends getting to digital as quickly as possible because interaction is such a big part of the experience. That’s why Una likes to prototype in code. But this is still a rapid prototyping phase so don’t get too caught up in the details.
Testing with internal teams is fine during the ideation phase, but to understand how users will relate to your product, you need to test with representative people. We are not our users.
As well as the user, have a facilitator, a computer, and a scriber. As a facilitator, it’s a good idea to reduce the amount of input you give a user. Don’t hand-hold too much or you will give away your pre-existing knowledge. Encourage your user to be verbal.
Sessioncam is a tool for creating a heatmap of where people are interacting. There are also tools for tracking clicks or mouse hovers. These all feel so utterly icky to me.
The metrics you might be looking to gather could be click-through rate, time-on-site, etc. But, Una cautions, be very wary of adding all these third-party scripts to your site and slowing it down. Who’s testing the A/B tests?
On Bustle, Una wanted to measure interactions on mobile. They tested different UI elements for interactions. They ended up updating the product with a horizontal swiping component. They were able to improve the product and ship a more refined experience.
6. Review and iterate
Una feels that this step is the most important. Analyse your successes and failures, and plan to improve.
Technology changes over time so what’s feasible and viable also changes.
Design thinking on the daily
Another goal might be “Write a blog post.”
Empathise. Your users are your potential readers. Who do you have in mind? Make personas. Define. What’s the topic? Ideate. If you don’t know what to write about, brainstorm. What are you working on at work that you’re learning from? Select one to try. Prototype. Write. Test. Maybe show it to co-workers. Review. How did it go? Good? Bad? Refine your process for the next blog post.
Here’s a goal: “Buy a gift for someone.”
Empathise. What does this person like? What have they enjoyed receiving in the past? Define. Is the gift something they’ll enjoy for a long time? Something they can share? Ideate. Bounce ideas off friends and relatives. Prototype. In this case, this means getting the gift. Review. Did they like it?
In this case, the review part is probably the most important part.
Marie Kondo asks “Does this spark joy?” Ask the same question of your goals.
Remember, design thinking is not just about talking, and sticky notes. It’s about getting in the right headspace for your users.
Design thinking matters—because everything we do, we do for people. Having the tools to see through the lens of those people will help you be a more well-rounded person.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
I’m going to say no.
On the surface, our project has all the hallmarks of a design sprint. A group of people who don’t normally work together were thrown into an instense week of problem-solving and building, culminating in a tangible testable output. But when you look closer, the journey itself was quite different. A design sprint is typical broken into five phases, each one mapped on to a day of work:
- Understand and Map
- Demos and Sketch
- Decide and Storyboard
There was certainly plenty of understanding, sketching, and prototyping involved in our hack week at CERN, but we knew going in what the output would be at the end of the week. That’s not the case with most design sprints: figuring out what you’re going to make is half the work. In our case, we knew what needed to be produced; we just had to figure out how. Our process looked more like this:
- Understand and Map
- Research and Sketch
Now you could say that it’s a kind of design sprint, but I think there’s value in reserving the term “design sprint” for the specific five-day process. As it is, there’s enough confusion between the term “sprint” in its agile sense and “design sprint”.
Monday, February 11th, 2019
A nice counterpoint to the last time I linked to Paul’s weeknotes:
However, there’s another portion of the industry, primarily but not exclusively within the public sector, where traditional development approaches (progressive enhancement, server-side rendering) remain prevalent, or less likely to be dismissed, at least. Because accessibility isn’t optional when your audience is everyone, these organisations tend to attract those with a pragmatic outlook who like to work more diligently and deliberately.
Sunday, February 3rd, 2019
Frustrating on a personal level, but also infuriating when you consider how such gatekeeping is limiting welcome attempts to diversify our industry.
Sunday, January 27th, 2019
Hear, hear! And before you dismiss this viewpoint as some lawn-off-getting fist-waving from “the old guard”, bear this in mind:
A browser extension that encrypts and decrypts posts on Facebook—if two users have the extension installed, they can communicate without Facebook being able read their messages.