I’ve thought about these questions for over a year and narrowed my feelings of browser diversity down to two major value propositions:
- Browser diversity keeps the Web deliberately slow
- Browser diversity fosters consensus and cooperation over corporate rule
Monday, September 7th, 2020
Sunday, August 30th, 2020
RFC 8890 maybe the closest thing we’ve got to a Hippocratic oath right now.
A community that agrees to principles that are informed by shared values can use them to navigate hard decisions.
Many discussions influenced this document, both inside and outside of the IETF and IAB. In particular, Edward Snowden’s comments regarding the priority of end users at IETF 93 and the HTML5 Priority of Constituencies were both influential.
Monday, August 17th, 2020
Mind the gap
In May 2012, Brian LeRoux, the creator of PhoneGap, wrote a post setting out the beliefs, goals and philosophy of the project.
The beliefs are the assumptions that inform everything else. Brian stated two core tenets:
- The web solved cross platform.
- All technology deprecates with time.
That second belief then informed one of the goals of the PhoneGap project:
The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.
Last week, PhoneGap succeeded in its goal:
Since the project’s beginning in 2008, the market has evolved and Progressive Web Apps (PWAs) now bring the power of native apps to web applications.
Today, we are announcing the end of development for PhoneGap.
I think Brian was spot-on with his belief that all technology deprecates with time. I also think it was very astute of him to tie the goals of PhoneGap to that belief. Heck, it’s even in the project name: PhoneGap!
I recently wrote this about Sass and clamp:
jQuery is the perfect example of this. jQuery is no longer needed because cross-browser DOM Scripting is now much easier …thanks to jQuery.
Successful libraries and frameworks point the way. They show what developers are yearning for, and that’s where web standards efforts can then focus. When a library or framework is no longer needed, that’s not something to mourn; it’s something to celebrate.
That’s particularly true if the library of code needs to be run by a web browser. The user pays a tax with that extra download so that the developer gets the benefit of the library. When web browsers no longer need the library in order to provide the same functionality, it’s a win for users.
In fact, if you’re providing a front-end library or framework, I believe you should be actively working towards making it obselete. Think of your project as a polyfill. If it’s solving a genuine need, then you should be looking forward to the day when your code is made redundant by web browsers.
One more thing…
I think it was great that Brian documented PhoneGap’s beliefs, goals and philosophy. This is exactly why design principles can be so useful—to clearly set out the priorities of a project, so that there’s no misunderstanding or mixed signals.
If you’re working on a project, take the time to ask yourself what assumptions and beliefs are underpinning the work. Then figure out how those beliefs influence what you prioritise.
Ultimately, the code you produce is the output generated by your priorities. And your priorities are driven by your purpose.
You can make those priorities tangible in the form of design principles.
You can make those design principles visible by publishing them.
Thursday, April 30th, 2020
This is a great case study of the excellent California COVID-19 response site. Accessibility and performance are the watchwords here.
Want to know their secret weapon?
A $20 device running Android 9, with no contract commitment has been one of the most useful and effective tools in our effort to be accessible.
Leaner, faster sites benefit everybody, but making sure your applications run smoothly on low-end hardware makes a massive difference for those users.
Tuesday, April 28th, 2020
There is a huge world out there where design isn’t embraced, where designers are clawing for resources, and where design isn’t prioritized. Most of the organizations that are changing your world don’t know much about design, aren’t looking for designers, and won’t even understand what designers are talking about when they show up at the front door.
Monday, April 27th, 2020
Principles and priorities
I think about design principles a lot. I’m such a nerd for design principles, I even have a collection. I’m not saying all of the design principles in the collection are good—far from it! I collect them without judgement.
As for what makes a good design principle, I’ve written about that before. One aspect that everyone seems to agree on is that a design principle shouldn’t be an obvious truism. Take this as an example:
Make it usable.
Who’s going to disagree with that? It’s so agreeable that it’s practically worthless as a design principle. But now take this statement:
Usability is more important than profitability.
Ooh, now we’re talking! That’s controversial. That’s bound to surface some disagreement, which is a good thing. It’s now passing the reversability test—it’s not hard to imagine an endeavour driven by the opposite:
Profitability is more important than usability.
In either formulation, what makes these statements better than the bland toothless agreeable statements—“Usability is good!”, “Profitability is good!”—is that they introduce the element of prioritisation.
I like design principles that can be formulated as:
X, even over Y.
It’s not saying that Y is unimportant, just that X is more important:
Usability, even over profitability.
Profitability, even over usability.
Design principles formulated this way help to crystalise priorities. Chris has written about the importance of establishing—and revisiting—priorities on any project:
Prioritisation isn’t and shouldn’t be a one-off exercise. The changing needs of your customers, the business environment and new opportunities from technology mean prioritisation is best done as a regular activity.
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over specifiers over theoretical purity.
Or put another way:
- Users, even over authors.
- Authors, even over implementors.
- Implementors, even over specifiers.
- Specifiers, even over theoretical purity.
When it comes to evaluating technology for the web, I think there are a number of factors at play.
Mind you, some technologies have no direct effect on the end user. When it comes to build tools, version control, toolchains …all the stuff that sits on your computer and never directly interacts with users. In that situation, the wants and needs of developers can absolutely take priority.
But as a general principle, I think this works:
User experience, even over developer experience.
Sadly, I think the current state of “modern” web development reverses that principle. Developer efficiency is prized above all else. Like I said, that would be absolutely fine if we’re talking about technologies that only developers are exposed to, but as soon as we’re talking about shipping those technologies over the network to end users, it’s negligent to continue to prioritise the developer experience.
I feel like personal websites are an exception here. What you do on your own website is completely up to you. But once you’re taking a paycheck to make websites that will be used by other people, it’s incumbent on you to realise that it’s not about you.
I’ve been talking about developers here, but this is something that applies just as much to designers. But I feel like designers go through that priority shift fairly early in their career. At the outset, they’re eager to make their mark and prove themselves. As they grow and realise that it’s not about them, they understand that the most appropriate solution for the user is what matters, even if that’s a “boring” tried-and-tested pattern that isn’t going to wow any fellow designers.
I’d like to think that developers would follow a similar progression, and I’m sure that some do. But I’ve seen many senior developers who have grown more enamoured with technologies instead of honing in on the most appropriate technology for end users. Maybe that’s because in many organisations, developers are positioned further away from the end users (whereas designers are ideally being confronted with their creations being used by actual people). If a lead developer is focused on the productivity, efficiency, and happiness of the dev team, it’s no wonder that their priorities end up overtaking the user experience.
I realise I’m talking in very binary terms here: developer experience versus user experience. I know it’s not always that simple. Other priorities also come into play, like business needs. Sometimes business needs are in direct conflict with user needs. If an online business makes its money through invasive tracking and surveillance, then there’s no point in having a design principle that claims to prioritise user needs above all else. That would be a hollow claim, and the design principle would become worthless.
Because that’s the point with design principles. They’re there to be used. They’re not a nice fluffy exercise in feeling good about your work. The priority of constituencies begins, “in case of conflict” and that’s exactly when a design principle matters—when it’s tested.
Suppose someone with a lot of clout in your organisation makes a decision, but that decision conflicts with your organisations’s design principles. Instead of having an opinion-based argument about who’s right or wrong, the previously agreed-upon design principles allow you to take ego out of the equation.
Prioritisation isn’t easy, and it gets harder the more factors come into play: user needs, business needs, technical constraints. But it’s worth investing the time to get agreement on the priority of your constituencies. And then formulate that agreement into design principles.
Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020
Garrett’s observation is spot-on here:
Sunday, November 17th, 2019
Let us not overlook the fact that a semantic HTML web site is inherently accessible by default. When we bend the web to our will, we break that. So we have a responsibility to correct it. Sure the new technologies are neat, but the end result is usually garbage. This all requires some next-level narcissism that our goals and priorities as developers are far more important than that of the audience we’re theoretically building software to serve.
Friday, October 18th, 2019
What over a decade of number-crunching analytics has taught me is that spending an hour writing, sharing, or helping someone is infinitely more valuable than spending that hour swimming through numbers. Moreover, trying to juice the numbers almost invariably divorces you from thinking about customers and understanding people. On the surface, it seems like a convenient proxy, but it’s not. They’re just numbers. If you’re searching for business insights, talking to real people beats raw data any day. It’s not as convenient, but when is anything worth doing convenient?
Wednesday, August 21st, 2019
Performance and accessibility aren’t features that can linger at the bottom of a Jira board to be considered later when it’s convenient.
Instead we must start to see inaccessible and slow websites for what they are: a form of cruelty. And if we want to build a web that is truly a World Wide Web, a place for all and everyone, a web that is accessible and fast for as many people as possible, and one that will outlive us all, then first we must make our websites something else altogether; we must make them kind.
Thursday, August 8th, 2019
I recently wrote about a web-specific example of a general principle for choosing the right tool for the job:
I was—yet again—talking about appropriateness. Use the right technology for the task at hand. Here’s the example I gave:
Surprisingly, I got some pushback on this. Šime Vidas wrote:
Based on my experience, this is not necessarily the case.
Going from server-side rendering and progressive enhancement via JS to a single-page app powered by a JS framework was a enormous reduction in complexity for me (so the opposite of over-engineering).
(Emphasis mine.) He goes on to say:
My main concerns are ease of use & maintainability. If you get those things right, you’re good and it’s not over-engineering.
There’s no doubt that maintainability is a desirable goal. And ease of use for the developer is also important …but I think they pale in comparison to ease of use for the end user.
To be fair, the specific use-case I mentioned was making a blog. And a blog is a personal thing. You can do whatever the heck you like on your own website and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
So I probably chose a poor example to illustrate my point. I was thinking more about when you’re making websites for a living. You’re being paid money to make something available on the web. In that situation, I strongly believe that user needs should win out over developer convenience.
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.
That’s why I responded to Šime, saying:
Your main concern should be user needs—not your own.
When I talk about over-engineering, I’m speaking from the perspective of end users, not developers.
Before considering your ease of use, and maintainability, consider users first.
In fairness to Šime, he’s being very open and honest about his priorities. I admire that. I’ve seen too many developers try to provide user experience justifications for decisions made for developer convenience. Once again I recommend Alex’s excellent article, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch:
The swap is executed by implying that by making things better for developers, users will eventually benefit equivalently. The unstated agreement is that developers share all of the same goals with the same intensity as end users and even managers. This is not true.
Now I worry I wasn’t specific enough when I talked about choosing appropriate technology:
Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand.
I should have made it clear that I was talking about what is appropriate or inapropriate for users. I think I made the mistake of assuming that this was obvious, and didn’t need saying. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
If you’re in that situation—you are being paid money to make websites, and you are making technology decisions—I urge you to remember Charlie’s words: it isn’t about you.
Monday, June 24th, 2019
Frank Chimero on causing ‘good trouble’ and re-imagining the status quo to combat achievement culture | Creative Boom
It’s really easy to think that not working full bore is somehow failing your teammates or that withholding effort is poor work ethic and moral weakness. That thought is worth interrogating, though, and it all seems kind of ridiculous once you get it out in the open. There should be no guilt for refusing to work hysterically.
Tuesday, December 18th, 2018
It’s a terribly clickbaity (and negatively phrased) title, but if you turn it around, there’s some good advcie in here for deciding where to focus when it comes to dev technology:
- Programming languages are different, but design smells are alike.
- Frameworks are different, but the same design patterns shine through.
- Developers are different, but rules of dealing with people are uniform.
Friday, December 7th, 2018
Designing your design process:
- Know your strengths and focus resources on your weaknesses.
- Learn to identify the immovable objects.
- What has to be perfect now and what can be fixed later?
Thursday, December 6th, 2018
I’ve come to believe that accessibility is not something you do for a small group of people. Accessibility is about promoting inclusion. When the product you use daily is accessible, it means that we all get to work with a greater number and a greater variety of colleagues. Accessibility benefits everyone.
Monday, November 26th, 2018
Prototypes and production
When we do front-end development at Clearleft, we’re usually delivering production code, often in the form of a component library. That means our priorities are performance, accessibility, robustness, and other markers of quality when it comes to web development.
We do a lot of design sprints, where time is of the essence. The prototype we produce on the penultimate day of the sprint definitely won’t be production quality, but it will be good enough to test.
What’s interesting is that—when it comes to prototyping—our usual front-end priorities can and should go out the window. The priority now is speed. If that means sacrificing semantics or performance, then so be it. If I’m building a prototype and I find myself thinking “now, what’s the right
class name for this component?”, then I know I’m in the wrong mindset. That question might be valid for production code, but it’s a waste of time for prototypes.
So these two kinds of work require very different attitudes. For production work, quality is key. For prototyping, making something quickly is what matters.
Alternating between production projects and prototyping projects can be quite fun, if a little disorienting. It’s almost like I have to flip a switch in my brain to change tracks.
When a prototype is successful, works great, and tests well, there’s a real temptation to use the prototype code as the basis for the final product. Don’t do this! I’ve made that mistake in the past and it always ends badly. I ended up spending far more time trying to wrangle prototype code to a production level than if I had just started from a clean slate.
Build prototypes to test ideas, designs, interactions, and interfaces …and then throw the code away. The value of a prototype is in answering questions and testing hypotheses. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy when it’s time to switch over into production mode.
Of course it should go without saying that you should never, ever release prototype code into production.
Heydon recently highlighted an article that offered this tip for aspiring web developers:
As for HTML, there’s not much to learn right away and you can kind of learn as you go, but before making your first templates, know the difference between in-line elements like
spanand how they differ from block ones like
That’s perfectly reasonable advice …if you’re building a prototype. But if you’re building something for public consumption, you have a duty of care to the end users.
Saturday, November 10th, 2018
Rachel does some research to find out why people use CSS frameworks like Bootstrap—it can’t just be about grids, right?
In our race to get our site built quickly, our desire to make things as good as possible for ourselves as the designers and developers of the site, do we forget who we are doing this for? Do the decisions made by the framework developer match up with the needs of the users of the site you are building?
Not for the first time, I’m reminded of Rachel’s excellent post from a few years ago: Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.
Thursday, October 11th, 2018
Some sensible answers to this question here…
…of which, exactly zero mention end users.
Sunday, August 12th, 2018
A terrific piece by Hidde, about CSS grid, but also about a much bigger question:
I don’t think we owe it to any users to make it all exactly the same. Therefore we can get away with keeping fallbacks very simple. My hypothesis: users don’t mind, they’ve come for the content.
If users don’t mind, that leaves us with team members, bosses and clients. In my ideal world we should convince each other, and with that I mean visual designers, product owners, brand people, developers, that it is ok for our lay-out not to look the same everywhere. Because serving good-looking content everywhere is more important than same grids everywhere.
Sunday, July 8th, 2018
A website is not a magazine, though it might have magazine-like articles. A website is not an application, although you might use it to purchase products or interact with other people. A website is not a database, although it might be driven by one.