Tags: process

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Tuesday, September 20th, 2022

Accessibility is systemic

I keep thinking about this blog post I linked to last week by Jacob Kaplan-Moss. It’s called Quality Is Systemic:

Software quality is more the result of a system designed to produce quality, and not so much the result of individual performance. That is: a group of mediocre programmers working with a structure designed to produce quality will produce better software than a group of fantastic programmers working in a system designed with other goals.

I think he’s on to something. I also think this applies to design just as much as development. Maybe more so. In design, there’s maybe too much emphasis placed on the talent and skill of individual designers and not enough emphasis placed on creating and nurturing a healthy environment where anyone can contribute to the design process.

Jacob also ties this into hiring:

Instead of spending tons of time and effort on hiring because you believe that you can “only hire the best”, direct some of that effort towards building a system that produces great results out of a wider spectrum of individual performance.

I couldn’t agree more! It just one of the reasons why the smart long-term strategy can be to concentrate on nurturing junior designers and developers rather than head-hunting rockstars.

As an aside, if you think that the process of nurturing junior designers and developers is trickier now that we’re working remotely, I highly recommend reading Mandy’s post, Official myths:

Supporting junior staff is work. It’s work whether you’re in an office some or all of the time, and it’s work if Slack is the only office you know. Hauling staff back to the office doesn’t make supporting junior staff easier or even more likely.

Hiring highly experienced designers and developers makes total sense, at least in the short term. But I think the better long-term solution—as outlined by Jacob—is to create (and care for) a system where even inexperienced practitioners will be able to do good work by having the support and access to knowledge that they need.

I was thinking about this last week when Irina very kindly agreed to present a lunch’n’learn for Clearleft all about inclusive design.

She answered a question that had been at the front of my mind: what’s the difference between inclusive design and accessibility?

The way Irina put it, accessibility is focused on implementation. To make a website accessible, you need people with the necessary skills, knowledge and experience.

But inclusive design is about the process and the system that leads to that implementation.

To use that cliché of the double diamond, maybe inclusive design is about “building the right thing” and accessibility is about “building the thing right.”

Or to put it another way, maybe accessibility is about outputs, whereas inclusive design is about inputs. You need both, but maybe we put too much emphasis on the outputs and not enough emphasis on the inputs.

This is what made me think of Jacob’s assertion that quality is systemic.

Imagine someone who’s an expert at accessibility: they know all the details of WCAG and ARIA. Now put that person into an organisation that doesn’t prioritise accessibility. They’re going to have a hard time and they probably won’t be able to be very effective despite all their skills.

Now imagine an organisation that priorities inclusivity. Even if their staff don’t (yet) have the skills and knowledge of an accessibility expert, just having the processes and priorities in place from the start will make it easier for everyone to contribute to a more accessible experience.

It’s possible to make something accessible in the absence of a system that prioritises inclusive design but it will be hard work. Whereas making sure inclusive design is prioritised at an organisational level makes it much more likely that the outputs will be accessible.

Wednesday, September 14th, 2022

Quality Is Systemic - Jacob Kaplan-Moss

Software quality is more the result of a system designed to produce quality, and not so much the result of individual performance. That is: a group of mediocre programmers working with a structure designed to produce quality will produce better software than a group of fantastic programmers working in a system designed with other goals.

This talks about development, but I believe it applies equally—if not more—to design.

And this is very insightful:

Instead of spending tons of time and effort on hiring because you believe that you can “only hire the best”, direct some of that effort towards building a system that produces great results out of a wider spectrum of individual performance.

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022

Open sourcing the Product Planning Prompt Pack

This is very generous of Anna! She has a deck of cards with questions she asks in product planning meetings. You can download the pack for free.

Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

How Florence Nightingale Changed Data Visualization Forever - Scientific American

The design process in action in Victorian England:

Recognizing that few people actually read statistical tables, Nightingale and her team designed graphics to attract attention and engage readers in ways that other media could not. Their diagram designs evolved over two batches of publications, giving them opportunities to react to the efforts of other parties also jockeying for influence. These competitors buried stuffy graphic analysis inside thick books. In contrast, Nightingale packaged her charts in attractive slim folios, integrating diagrams with witty prose. Her charts were accessible and punchy. Instead of building complex arguments that required heavy work from the audience, she focused her narrative lens on specific claims. It was more than data visualization—it was data storytelling.

Thursday, July 14th, 2022

Procrastination and low motivation make productivity difficult. Body-doubling might help - ABC Everyday

I’ve done this and I can attest that it works, but I never knew it had a name.

Body-doubling is simply having another person in the room with you, working quietly alongside you. They can work on something similar, or something completely different.

Wednesday, July 13th, 2022

The Grug Brained Developer

If only all thinkpieces on complexity in software development were written in such an entertaining style! (Although, admittedly, that would get very old very fast.)

A layman’s guide to thinking like the self-aware smol brained

Thursday, June 23rd, 2022

The Demo → Demo Loop - daverupert.com

I’m 100% convinced that working demo-to-demo is the secret formula to making successful creative products.

Sunday, June 12th, 2022

The collapse of complex software | Read the Tea Leaves

Even when each new layer of complexity starts to bring zero or even negative returns on investment, people continue trying to do what worked in the past. At some point, the morass they’ve built becomes so dysfunctional and unwieldy that the only solution is collapse: i.e., a rapid decrease in complexity, usually by abolishing the old system and starting from scratch.

Monday, June 6th, 2022

Reflections on Design Systems and Boundaries - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Jim shares his thoughts on my recent post about declarative design systems. He picks up on the way I described a declarative design systems as “a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components”:

I like this definition of a design system: a set of boundaries. It’s about saying “don’t go there” rather than “you can only go here”. This embraces the idea of constraints as the mother of invention: it opens the door to creativity while keeping things bounded.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

The Case for Design Engineers - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is really interesting. I hadn’t thought too much about the connection between design engineering and declarative design before now, but Jim’s post makes the overlap very clear indeed.

Monday, May 16th, 2022

On Design Thinking

Design Thinking didn’t change business at all, rather it changed Design into business, adopting its language, priorities and techniques. It sold out Design in an attempt to impress those in power, and in so doing lost its heart.

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

Changing with the times · Chris Burnell

I think, with the sheer volume of functionality available to us nowadays on the front-end, it can be easy to forget how powerful and strong the functionality is that we get right off shelf with HTML. Yes, you read that right, functionality.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

You Don’t Need A UI Framework — Smashing Magazine

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.

Friday, April 22nd, 2022

Blogging and the heat death of the universe • Robin Rendle

A cautionary tale on why you should keep your dependencies to a minimum and simplify your build process (if you even need one):

If it’s not link rot that gets you then it’s this heat death of the universe problem with entropy setting in slowly over time. And the only way to really defend against it is to build things progressively, to make sure that you’re not tied to one dependency or another. That complex build process? That’s a dependency. Your third party link to some third party font service that depends on their servers running forever? Another dependency.

Monday, April 11th, 2022

Agile and the Long Crisis of Software

Time and again, organizations have sought to contain software’s most troublesome tendencies—its habit of sprawling beyond timelines and measurable goals—by introducing new management styles. And for a time, it looked as though companies had found in Agile the solution to keeping developers happily on task while also working at a feverish pace. Recently, though, some signs are emerging that Agile’s power may be fading. A new moment of reckoning is in the making, one that may end up knocking Agile off its perch.

Sunday, April 3rd, 2022

Notes, links, etc | 28 March - 2 April weeknotes

There’s a difference between creativity and production. I knit things but it’s not a creative process for me, it’s a physical one. I’m not interested in doing ‘something new’ with knitting (I don’t even call myself a ‘knitter’ to be honest. I don’t really think I’ve earned it). I haven’t learned the methods of construction. I’ve never tried to make something new out of the stitches I’ve learned. It’s not why I knit. I knit to relax. There’s joy in following a pattern and knowing that a more accomplished, knowledgeable person has done the hard creative work for me, and if I just do what they say, thing’s will probably work out fine. And I love the things I make. I put care into the production process - I take care to get the stitches neat, if I can. But when people look at the things I make and say “you’re so creative” - it’s just not true. In that context I can only ever say “no, I followed a pattern - it’s a good pattern. Do you want the link?”

Sunday, February 6th, 2022

The difference between correct-ness and useful-ness in a design system • Robin Rendle

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.

Tuesday, January 11th, 2022

Chesterton’s Fence: A Lesson in Second Order Thinking - Farnam Street

Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.