Tags: progressive

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Tuesday, January 24th, 2023

In between

I was chatting with my new colleague Alex yesterday about a link she had shared in Slack. It was the Nielsen Norman Group’s annual State of Mobile User Experience report.

There’s nothing too surprising in there, other than the mention of Apple’s app clips and Google’s instant apps.

Remember those?

Me neither.

Perhaps I lead a sheltered existence, but as an iPhone user, I don’t think I’ve come across a single app clip in the wild.

I remember when they were announced. I was quite worried about them.

See, the one thing that the web can (theoretically) offer that native can’t is instant access to a resource. Go to this URL—that’s it. Whereas for a native app, the flow is: go to this app store, find the app, download the app.

(I say that the benefit is theoretical because the website found at the URL should download quickly—the reality is that the bloat of “modern” web development imperils that advantage.)

App clips—and instant apps—looked like a way to route around the convoluted install process of native apps. That’s why I was nervous when they were announced. They sounded like a threat to the web.

In reality, the potential was never fulfilled (if my own experience is anything to go by). I wonder why people didn’t jump on app clips and instant apps?

Perhaps it’s because what they promise isn’t desirable from a business perspective: “here’s a way for users to accomplish their tasks without downloading your app.” Even though app clips can in theory be a stepping stone to installing the full app, from a user’s perspective, their appeal is the exact opposite.

Or maybe they’re just too confusing to understand. I think there’s an another technology that suffers from the same problem: progressive web apps.

Hear me out. Progressive web apps are—if done well—absolutely amazing. You get all of the benefits of native apps in terms of UX—they even work offline!—but you retain the web’s frictionless access model: go to a URL; that’s it.

So what are they? Are they websites? Yes, sorta. Are they apps? Yes, sorta.

That’s confusing, right? I can see how app clips and instant apps sound equally confusing: “you can use them straight away, like going to a web page, but they’re not web pages; they’re little bits of apps.”

I’m mostly glad that app clips never took off. But I’m sad that progressive web apps haven’t taken off more. I suspect that their fates are intertwined. Neither suffer from technical limitations. The problem they both face is inertia:

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

True of progressive web apps. Equally true of app clips.

But when I was chatting to Alex, she made me look at app clips in a different way. She described a situation where somebody might need to interact with some kind of NFC beacon from their phone. Web NFC isn’t supported in many browsers yet, so you can’t rely on that. But you don’t want to make people download a native app just to have a quick interaction. In theory, an app clip—or instant app—could do the job.

In that situation, app clips aren’t a danger to the web—they’re polyfills for hardware APIs that the web doesn’t yet support!

I love having my perspective shifted like that.

The specific situations that Alex and I were discussing were in the context of museums. Musuems offer such interesting opportunities for the physical and the digital to intersect.

Remember the pen from Cooper Hewitt? Aaron spoke about it at dConstruct 2014—a terrific presentation that’s well worth revisiting and absorbing.

The other dConstruct talk that’s very relevant to this liminal space between the web and native apps is the 2012 talk from Scott Jenson. I always thought the physical web initiative had a lot of promise, but it may have been ahead of its time.

I loved the thinking behind the physical web beacons. They were deliberately dumb, much like the internet itself. All they did was broadcast a URL. That’s it. All the smarts were to be found at the URL itself. That meant a service could get smarter over time. It’s a lot easier to update a website than swap out a piece of hardware.

But any kind of technology that uses Bluetooth, NFC, or other wireless technology has to get over the discovery problem. They’re invisible technologies, so by default, people don’t know they’re even there. But if you make them too discoverable— intrusively announcing themselves like one of the commercials in Minority Report—then they’re indistinguishable from spam. There’s a sweet spot of discoverability right in the middle that’s hard to get right.

Over the past couple of years—accelerated by the physical distancing necessitated by The Situation—QR codes stepped up to the plate.

They still suffer from some discoverability issues. They’re not human-readable, so you can’t be entirely sure that the URL you’re going to go to isn’t going to be a Rick Astley video. But they are visible, which gives them an advantage over hidden wireless technologies.

They’re cheaper too. Printing a QR code sticker costs less than getting a plastic beacon shipped from China.

QR codes turned out to be just good enough to bridge the gap between the physical and digital for those one-off interactions like dining outdoors during a pandemic:

I can see why they chose the web over a native app. Online ordering is the only way to place your order at this place. Telling people “You have to go to this website” …that seems reasonable. But telling people “You have to download this app” …that’s too much friction.

Ironically, the nail in the coffin for app clips and instant apps might’ve been hammered in by Apple and Google when they built QR-code recognition into their camera software.

Tuesday, January 17th, 2023

Henry From Online | How To Make a Website

Write meaningful HTML that communicates the structure of your document before any style or additional interactivity has loaded. Write CSS carefully, reason your methodology and stick to it, and feel empowered to skip frameworks. When it comes time to write JavaScript, write not too much, make sure you know what it all does, and above all, make sure the website works without it.

The whole article is great, and really charmingly written, with some golden nuggets embedded within, like:

  • You’ll find that spending more time getting HTML right reveals or even anticipates and evades accessibility issues. It’s just easier to write accessible code if it’s got semantic foundations.
  • In my experience, you will almost always spend more time overriding frameworks or compromising your design to fit the opinions of a framework.
  • Always style from the absolute smallest screen your content will be rendered on first, and use @media (min-width) queries to break to layouts that allow for more real estate as it becomes available.
  • If your site doesn’t work without JavaScript, your site doesn’t work.
  • Always progressively enhance your apps, especially when you’re fucking with something as browser-critical as page routing.

Wednesday, January 4th, 2023

Tree views in CSS

Styling a list of nested details elements to create a beautiful lokking tree view, all in CSS, all nicely accessible.

Wednesday, December 21st, 2022

The Performance Inequality Gap, 2023 - Infrequently Noted

It is not an exaggeration to say that modern frontend is so enamoured by post-scarcity fairy tales that it is mortgaging the web’s future for another round of night drinking at the JavaScript party.

Strong—and true—words from Alex.

This isn’t working for users or for businesses that hire developers hopped up Facebook’s latest JavaScript hopium. A correction is due.

I concur.

Frontend’s failure to deliver in today’s mostly-mobile, mostly-Android world is shocking, if only for the durability of the myths that sustain the indefensible. We can’t keep doing this.

If you disagree, I encourage you to dive into the data that Alex shares.

Tuesday, December 13th, 2022

Pluralistic: Web apps could de-monopolize mobile devices (13 Dec 2022) – Pluralistic: Daily links from Cory Doctorow

But you can’t have a web app without a web-app-compatible browser, and you can’t get a web-app-compatible browser in Apple’s App Store. The only browsers permitted in the App Store are those based on WebKit, the browser engine behind Safari. This means that every browser on iOS, from Firefox to Edge to Chrome, is just a reskinned version of Safari.

Friday, November 18th, 2022

Remix and the Alternate Timeline of Web Development - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

It sounds like Remix takes a sensible approach to progressive enhancement.

Sunday, October 30th, 2022

Overloading buttons

It’s been almost two years since I added audio playback on The Session. The interface is quite straightforward. For any tune setting, there’s a button that says “play audio”. When you press that button, audio plays and the button’s text changes to “pause audio.”

By updating the button’s text like this, I’m updating the button’s accessible name. In other situations, where the button text doesn’t change, you can indicate whether a button is active or not by toggling the aria-pressed attribute. I’ve been doing that on the “share” buttons that act as the interface for a progressive disclosure. The label on the button—“share”—doesn’t change when the button is pressed. For that kind of progressive disclosure pattern, the button also has an aria-controls and aria-expanded attribute.

From all the advice I’ve read about button states, you should either update the accessible name or change the aria-pressed attribute, but not both. That would lead to the confusing situation of having a button labelled “pause audio” as having a state of “pressed” when in fact the audio is playing.

That was all fine until I recently added some more functionality to The Session. As well as being able to play back audio, you can now adjust the tempo of the playback speed. The interface element for this is a slider, input type="range".

But this means that the “play audio” button now does two things. It plays the audio, but it also acts as a progressive disclosure control, revealing the tempo slider. The button is simultaneously a push button for playing and pausing music, and a toggle button for showing and hiding another interface element.

So should I be toggling the aria-pressed attribute now, even though the accessible name is changing? Or is it enough to have the relationship defined by aria-controls and the state defined by aria-expanded?

Based on past experience, my gut feeling is that I’m probably using too much ARIA. Maybe it’s an anti-pattern to use both aria-expanded and aria-pressed on a progressive disclosure control.

I’m kind of rubber-ducking here, and now that I’ve written down what I’m thinking, I’m pretty sure I’m going to remove the toggling of aria-pressed in any situation where I’m already toggling aria-expanded.

What I really need to do is enlist the help of actual screen reader users. There are a number of members of The Session who use screen readers. I should get in touch and see if the new functionality makes sense to them.

Thursday, October 20th, 2022

Why We’re Breaking Up with CSS-in-JS | Brad Frost

I’ve seen the pendulum swing back and forth many times over my years building on the web. I too feel like there’s something in the air right now, and people are finally acknowledging that most single page apps are crap.

But Brad makes the interesting point that, because they were incubated when profligate client-side JavaScript was all the rage, web components may have ended up inheriting the wrong mindset:

So now the world of web components has egg on its face because the zeitgeist at the time of its design didn’t have such a strong focus on SSR/HTML-first/ progressive enhancement. Had web components been designed in the current zeitgeist, things would almost certainly be different.

Thursday, October 13th, 2022

Two JavaScripts

There are two JavaScripts.

One for the server - where you can go wild.

One for the client - that should be thoughtful and careful.

Yes! This! I’m always astounded to see devs apply the same mindset to backend and frontend development, just because it happens to be in the same language. I don’t care what you use on your own machine or your own web server, but once you’re sending something down the wire to end users, you need to prioritise their needs over your own.

It’s the JavaScript on the client side that’s the problem. What’s given to the visitor.

I’d ask you, if you’re still reading, that you consider a separation of JavaScript between client and server. If you’re a dev, consider the payload, your bundle and work to reduce the cost to your visitor. Heck, think progressive enhancement.

The Web’s Next Transition | Epic Web Dev by Kent C. Dodds

The primary benefit of Progressive Enhancement is not that “your app works without JavaScript” (though that’s a nice side-benefit) but rather that the mental model is drastically simpler.

I think that’s the primary benefit to developers. The primary benefit to users is that what you build will faster and more resilient.

Anyway, this is a really good deep dive into different architectural choices for building on the web. Although I was surprised by this assertion in the first paragraph:

The most popular architecture employed by web developers today is the Single Page App (SPA)

Citation needed. Single Page Apps do indeed dominate the discussion, but I don’t think that necessarily matches the day-to-day reality.

Progressively enhance for a more resilient web :: jjenzz

I realised, progressive enhancement isn’t only about supporting that 1%. It’s about testing your app without JavaScript to ensure 100% of your users have a more performant, usable, available, and resilient experience.

A really good explanation of progressive enhancement as an approach to building anything on the web:

Progressive enhancement does not mean you need to provide the exact same UI without JavaScript. The enhanced experience should be better and it should do more, otherwise the enhanced experience is not needed at all. It enhances a degraded experience that also allows the user to accomplish their goal. For example, entering a postal code manually into a text box might be the degraded experience, and the progressively enhanced experience would prefill the text box based on Geolocation data.

Sunday, September 11th, 2022

Giving your future self a little credit with progressive enhancement - Blog - Pixo | Apps, websites, and software development

We often talk about technical debt — the costs we’ll need to pay in the future when we make short-term compromises. Progressive enhancement is the opposite of that — a sort of technical credit that will make things easier for us in the future.

A good explanation of how progressive enhancement works perfectly with the idea of a minimal viable product:

We focus first on a core experience that delivers what your users are looking for, and then we start adding enhancements that will delight them.

Monday, August 15th, 2022

Baldur Bjarnason -

This is kind of brilliant:

Maybe what’s needed for websites and web apps is a kind of Prepper Web Dev?

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2022

It’s Time to Build a Progressive Web App. Here’s How – The New Stack

Much as I appreciate the optimism of this evaluation, I don’t hold out much hope that people’s expectations are going to change any time soon:

Indeed, when given a choice, users will opt for the [native] app version of a platform because it’s been considered the gold standard for reliability. With progressive web apps (PWAs), that assumption is about to change.

Nonetheless, this is a level-headed look at what a progressive web app is, mercifully free of hand-waving:

  • App is served through HTTPS.
  • App has a web app manifest with at least one icon. (We’ll talk more about the manifest shortly.)
  • App has a registered service worker with a fetch event handler. (More on this later too.)

Sunday, July 31st, 2022

Equality vs. Equity :: Aaron Gustafson

Though I didn’t make the connection until much later, the philosophy of progressive enhancement in web design, which I’ve been advocating for nearly two decades now, is very much the embodiment of equity. It’s concerned with building interfaces that adapt to a wide range of circumstances, both tied to an individual user’s capabilities as well as those of the devices, networks, and environment in which they are accessing our creations.

Tuesday, July 12th, 2022

Stop supporting Internet Explorer!

The headline is clickbaity, but the advice is solid. Use progressive enhancement and don’t worry about polyfilling.

When I say ‘Stop supporting IE’ it means to me that I won’t go the extra mile to get unsupported features working in Internet Explorer, but still make sure Internet Explorer users get the basics, and can use the site.

Wednesday, June 29th, 2022

How we think about browsers | The GitHub Blog

JavaScript doesn’t get executed on very old browsers when native syntax for new language features is encountered. However, thanks to GitHub being built following the principle of progressive enhancement, users of older browsers still get to interact with basic features of GitHub, while users with more capable browsers get a faster experience.

That’s the way to do it!

Concepts like progressive enhancement allow us to deliver the best experience possible to the majority of customers, while delivering a useful experience to those using older browsers.

Read on for the nitty-gritty details…

Saturday, June 25th, 2022

The Biggest Thing from WWDC 2022 - Webventures

Web Push on iOS will change the “we need to build a native app” decision.

I agree.

Push notifications are definitely not the sole reason to go native, but in my experience, it’s one of the first things clients ask for. They may very well be the thing that pushes your client over the edge and forces them, you and the entire project to accept the logic of the app store model.

Tuesday, June 7th, 2022

News from WWDC22: WebKit Features in Safari 16 Beta | WebKit

Good news and bad news…

The good news is that web notifications are coming to iOS—my number one wish!

The bad news is that it won’t happen until next year sometime.

Saturday, April 30th, 2022

CSS { In Real Life } | My Browser Support Strategy

This is a great succinct definition of progressive enhancement:

Progressive enhancement is a web development strategy by which we ensure that the essential content and functionality of a website is accessible to as many users as possible, while providing an improved experience using newer features for users whose devices are capable of supporting them.