Dave has curated a handy list of eponymous laws.
Thursday, April 12th, 2018
Tuesday, April 10th, 2018
The transcript of a terrific talk by Paul, calling for a more thoughtful, questioning approach to digital design. It covers the issues I’ve raised about Booking.com’s dark patterns and a post I linked to a while back about the shifting priorities of designers working at scale.
Drawing inspiration from architectural practice, its successes and failures, I question the role of design in a world being eaten by software. When the prevailing technocratic culture permits the creation of products that undermine and exploit users, who will protect citizens within the digital spaces they now inhabit?
Friday, April 6th, 2018
A remarkably practical in-depth guide to making ethical design decisions, with enjoyable diversions into the history of philosophy throughout.
Monday, February 26th, 2018
Ends and means
The latest edition of the excellent History Of The Web newsletter is called The Day(s) The Web Fought Back. It recounts the first time that websites stood up against bad legislation in the form of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), and goes to recount the even more effective use of blackout protests against SOPA and PIPA.
I remember feeling very heartened to see WikiPedia, Google and others take a stand on January 18th, 2012. But I also remember feeling uneasy. In this particular case, companies were lobbying for a cause I agreed with. But what if they were lobbying for a cause I didn’t agree with? Large corporations using their power to influence politics seems like a very bad idea. Isn’t it still a bad idea, even if I happen to agree with the cause?
Cloudflare quite rightly kicked The Daily Stormer off their roster of customers. Then the CEO of Cloudflare quite rightly wrote this in a company-wide memo:
Literally, I woke up in a bad mood and decided someone shouldn’t be allowed on the Internet. No one should have that power.
There’s an uncomfortable tension here. When do the ends justify the means? Isn’t the whole point of having principles that they hold true even in the direst circumstances? Why even claim that corporations shouldn’t influence politics if you’re going to make an exception for net neutrality? Why even claim that free speech is sacrosanct if you make an exception for nazi scum?
Those two examples are pretty extreme and I can easily justify the exceptions to myself. Net neutrality is too important. Stopping fascism is too important. But where do I draw the line? At what point does something become “too important?”
There are more subtle examples of corporations wielding their power. Google are constantly using their monopoly position in search and browser marketshare to exert influence over website-builders. In theory, that’s bad. But in practice, I find myself agreeing with specific instances. Prioritising mobile-friendly sites? Sounds good to me. Penalising intrusive ads? Again, that seems okey-dokey to me. But surely that’s not the point. So what if I happen to agree with the ends being pursued? The fact that a company the size and power of Google is using their monopoly for any influence is worrying, regardless of whether I agree with the specific instances. But I kept my mouth shut.
Now I see Google abusing their monopoly again, this time with AMP. They may call the preferential treatment of Google-hosted AMP-formatted pages a “carrot”, but let’s be honest, it’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.
By the way, I have no doubt that the engineers working on AMP have the best of intentions. We are all pursuing the same ends. We all want a faster web. But we disagree on the means. If Google search results gave preferential treatment to any fast web pages, that would be fine. But by only giving preferential treatment to pages written in a format that they created, and hosted on their own servers, they are effectively forcing everyone to use AMP. I know for a fact that there are plenty of publications who are producing AMP content, not because they are sold on the benefits of the technology, but because they feel strong-armed into doing it in order to compete.
If the ends justify the means, then it’s easy to write off Google’s abuse of power. Those well-intentioned AMP engineers honestly think that they have the best interests of the web at heart:
We were worried about the web not existing anymore due to native apps and walled gardens killing it off. We wanted to make the web competitive. We saw a sense of urgency and thus we decided to build on the extensible web to build AMP instead of waiting for standard and browsers and websites to catch up. I stand behind this process. I’m a practical guy.
There’s real hubris and audacity in thinking that one company should be able to tackle fixing the whole web. I think the AMP team are genuinely upset and hurt that people aren’t cheering them on. Perhaps they will dismiss the criticisms as outpourings of “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But that would be a mistake. The many thoughtful people who are extremely critical of AMP are on the same side as the AMP team when it comes the end-goal of better, faster websites. But burning the web to save it? No thanks.
: seriously, just give me a bloody opt-out from this knock-off web— Alex Russell (@slightlylate) January 14, 2017
Ben Thompson goes into more detail on the tension between the ends and the means in The Aggregator Paradox:
The problem with Google’s actions should be obvious: the company is leveraging its monopoly in search to push the AMP format, and the company is leveraging its dominant position in browsers to punish sites with bad ads. That seems bad!
And yet, from a user perspective, the options I presented at the beginning — fast loading web pages with responsive designs that look great on mobile and the elimination of pop-up ads, ad overlays, and autoplaying videos with sounds — sounds pretty appealing!
From that perspective, there’s a moral argument to be made for wielding monopoly power like Google is doing. No doubt the AMP team feel it would be morally wrong for Google not to use its influence in search to give preferential treatment to AMP pages.
Going back to the opening examples of online blackouts, was it morally wrong for companies to use their power to influence politics? Or would it have been morally wrong for them not to have used their influence?
When do the ends justify the means?
Here’s a more subtle example than Google AMP, but one which has me just as worried for the future of the web. Mozilla announced that any new web features they add to their browser will require HTTPS.
This is a step too far. Again, I am in total agreement that we should be encouraging everyone to switch to HTTPS. But requiring HTTPS in order to use CSS? The ends don’t justify the means.
If there were valid security reasons for making HTTPS a requirement, I would be all for enforcing this. But these are two totally separate areas. Enforcing HTTPS by withholding CSS support is no different to enforcing AMP by withholding search placement. In some ways, I think it might actually be worse.
There’s an assumption in this decision that websites are being made by professionals who will know how to switch to HTTPS. But the web is for everyone. Not just for everyone to use. It’s for everyone to build.
One of my greatest fears for the web is that building it becomes the domain of a professional priesthood. Anything that raises the bar to writing some HTML or CSS makes me very worried. Usually it’s toolchains that make things more complex, but in this case the barrier to entry is being brought right into the browser itself.
I’m trying to imagine future Codebar evenings, helping people to make their first websites, but now having to tell them that some CSS will be off-limits until they meet the entry requirements of HTTPS …even though CSS and HTTPS have literally nothing to do with one another. (And yes, there will be an exception for
localhost and I really hope there’ll be an exception for
file: as well, but that’s simply postponing the disappointment.)
No doubt Mozilla (and the W3C Technical Architecture Group) believe that they are doing the right thing. Perhaps they think it would be morally wrong if browsers didn’t enforce HTTPS even for unrelated features like new CSS properties. They believe that, in this particular case, the ends justify the means.
I strongly disagree. If you also disagree, I encourage you to make your voice heard. Remember, this isn’t about whether you think that we should all switch to HTTPS—we’re all in agreement on that. This is about whether it’s okay to create collateral damage by deliberately denying people access to web features in order to further a completely separate agenda.
This isn’t about you or me. This is about all those people who could potentially become makers of the web. We should be welcoming them, not creating barriers for them to overcome.
Thursday, February 8th, 2018
I enjoyed chatting to Larry Botha on the Fixate On Code podcast—I hope you’ll enjoy hearing it.
Saturday, January 20th, 2018
Google won the analytics war because dropping one line of JS in the footer and handing a tried and tested interface to customers is an obvious no brainer in comparison to setting up an open source option that needs a cron job to parse the files, a database to store the results and doesn’t provide mobile interface.
Given the choice between making something my problem, and making something the user’s problem, I’ll choose to make it my problem every time.
It’s true that this often means doing more work. That’s why it’s called work. This is literally what our jobs are supposed to entail: we put in the work to make life easier for users. We’re supposed to be saving them time, not passing it along.
I’ve often thought the HTML design principle called the priority of constituencies could be adopted by web developers:
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors.
- Identify core functionality.
- Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
Now I’m wondering if I should’ve clarified that second step further. When I talk about choosing “the simplest possible technology”, what I mean is “the simplest possible technology for the user”, not “the simplest possible technology for the developer.”
Time and time again, I see decisions that favour developer convenience over user needs. Don’t get me wrong—as a developer, I absolutely want developer convenience …but not at the expense of user needs.
I know that “empathy” is an over-used word in the world of user experience and design, but with good reason. I think we should try to remind ourselves of why we make our architectural decisions by invoking who those decisions benefit. For example, “This tech stack is best option for our team”, or “This solution is the best for the widest range of users.” Then, given the choice, favour user needs in the decision-making process.
There will always be situations where, given time and budget constraints, we end up choosing solutions that are easier for us, but not the best for our users. And that’s okay, as long as we acknowledge that compromise and strive to do better next time.
But when the best solutions for us as developers become enshrined as the best possible solutions, then we are failing the people we serve.
That doesn’t mean we must become hairshirt-wearing martyrs; developer convenience is important …but not as important as user needs. Start with user needs.
Tuesday, January 16th, 2018
- Fitts’s Law
- Hick’s Law
- Jakob’s Law
- Law of Prägnanz
- Law of Proximity
- Miller’s Law
- Parkinson’s Law
- Serial Position Effect
- Tesler’s Law
- Van Restorff Effect
- Murphy’s Law
- Sturgeon’s Law
Friday, December 8th, 2017
Collections of design principles that you can contribute to.
The aim of the site is to help us analyse what good Design Principles are. How Design Principles are created and measured. How they develop.
Sunday, December 3rd, 2017
Monday, November 27th, 2017
The Fallacies of Distributed Computing (Applied to Front-End Performance) – CSS Wizardry – CSS Architecture, Web Performance Optimisation, and more, by Harry Roberts
Harry cautions against making assumptions about the network when it comes to front-end development:
Yet time and time again I see developers falling into the same old traps—making assumptions or overly-optimistic predictions about the conditions in which their apps will run.
Planning for the worst-case scenario is never a wasted effort:
If you build and structure applications such that they survive adverse conditions, then they will thrive in favourable ones.
Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
I really like this exercise by Harry. I’ve done similar kinds of grading using dot-voting in the past. It feels like an early step to establishing design principles: “this over that.”
By deciding what we value up-front, we have an agreement that we can look back on in order to help us settle these conflicts and get us back on track again.
Relative Requirements remove the personal aspect of these disagreements and instead focuses on more objective agreements that we made as a team.
These are really good ideas for evaluating design principles. In fact, I would go so far as to say they are design principles for design principles.
- Good design principles are memorable
- Good design principles help you say no.
- Good design principles aren’t truisms.
- Good design principles are applicable.
Monday, October 23rd, 2017
I love what Ben is doing with this single-serving site (similar to my design principles collection)—it’s a collection of handy links and resources around voice UI:
Designing a voice interface? Here’s a useful list of lists: as many guiding principles as we could find, all in one place. List compiled and edited by Ben Sauer @bensauer.
BONUS ITEM: Have him run a voice workshop for you!
Monday, October 9th, 2017
All you do is be mindful of when the team repeats design desires. This could be several members of the team say the same thing in a slightly different way, or that you keep circling around and around a problem but struggle to articulate it. By being mindful at all times to this a team can quickly pull together principles that are derived from doing the work on their particular problem rather than principles which are imposed on the work. An important difference.
Friday, September 29th, 2017
This is a fascinating exercise—take a good set of design principles and test them for reversibility. The results are entirely plausible.
I’ve taken this exercise to the extreme. The philosophy behind inclusive design is that the thing you create works for everybody, no matter the context. The idea behind this experiment in Exclusive Design is that you design something for one specific person, in a controlled environment, in a specific context. Tailor made.
Maybe I should add these to my collection.
- Provide a unique experience
- Ignore situation
- Be inconsistent/innovative
- Take control
- Offer the best possible solution
- Prioritise identity
- Add nonsense
Wednesday, September 6th, 2017
I love John’s long-zoom look at web development. Step back far enough and you can start to see the cycles repeating.
Underneath all of these patterns and practices and frameworks and libraries are core technologies. And underlying principles.
These are foundations – technological, and of practice – that we ignore, overlook, or flaunt at our peril.
Sunday, August 20th, 2017
I like this list:
This is not a checklist. Instead, it is a set of broad guidelines meant to preserve an underlying value. It can be used as a guide for someone working on implementation or as a tool to evaluate an existing project.
I’ve added them to my collection of design principles.
Sunday, August 6th, 2017
A series of questions to ask on any design project:
- What are my lenses?
- Am I just confirming my assumptions, or am I challenging them?
- What details here are unfair? Unverified? Unused?
- Am I holding onto something that I need to let go of?
- What’s here that I designed for me? What’s here that I designed for other people?
- What would the world look like if my assumptions were wrong?
- Who might disagree with what I’m designing?
- Who might be impacted by what I’m designing?
- What do I believe?
- Who’s someone I’m nervous to talk to about this?
- Is my audience open to change?
- What am I challenging as I create this?
- How can I reframe a mistake in a way that helps me learn?
- How does my approach to this problem today compare to how I might have approached this one year ago?
- If I could learn one thing to help me on this project, what would that one thing be?
- Do I need to slow down?
Thursday, June 22nd, 2017
Analysing what the web is. It’s not the technology stack.
To count as being part of the web, your app or page must:
- Be linkable, and
- Allow any client to access it.
I think that’s a pretty good definition.
Mind you, I think this is a bit rich in an article published on The Verge:
The HTML web may be slow and annoying and processor intensive, but before we rush too fast into replacing it, let’s not lose what’s good about it.
Still, we can agree on this:
Preserving the web, or more specifically the open principles behind it, means protecting one of the few paths for innovation left in the modern tech world that doesn’t have a giant company acting as a gatekeeper.
Friday, June 9th, 2017