Tags: responsive



Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Container queries

Every single browser maker has the same stance when it comes to features—they want to hear from developers at the coalface.

“Tell us what you want! We’re listening. We want to know which features to prioritise based on real-world feedback from developers like you.”

“How about container quer—”

“Not that.”

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that literally every web developer I know would love to have container queries. If you’ve worked on any responsive project of any size, you’re bound to have bumped up against the problem of only being able to respond to viewport size, rather than the size of the containing element. Without container queries, our design systems can never be truly modular.

But there’s a divide growing between what our responsive designs need to do, and the tools CSS gives us to meet those needs. We’re making design decisions at smaller and smaller levels, but our code asks us to bind those decisions to a larger, often-irrelevant abstraction of a “page.”

But the message from browser makers has consistently been “it’s simply too hard.”

At the Frontend United conference in Athens a little while back, Jonathan gave a whole talk on the need for container queries. At the same event, Serg gave a talk on Houdini.

Now, as I understand it, Houdini is the CSS arm of the extensible web. Just as web components will allow us to create powerful new HTML without lobbying browser makers, Houdini will allow us to create powerful new CSS features without going cap-in-hand to standards bodies.

At this year’s CSS Day there were two Houdini talks. Tab gave a deep dive, and Philip talked specifically about Houdini as a breakthrough for polyfilling.

During the talks, you could send questions over Twitter that the speaker could be quizzed on afterwards. As Philip was talking, I began to tap out a question: “Could this be used to polyfill container queries?” My thumb was hovering over the tweet button at the very moment that Philip said in his talk, “This could be used to polyfill container queries.”

For that happen, browsers need to implement the layout API for Houdini. But I’m betting that browser makers will be far more receptive to calls to implement the layout API than calls for container queries directly.

Once we have that, there are two possible outcomes:

  1. We try to polyfill container queries and find out that the browser makers were right—it’s simply too hard. This certainty is itself a useful outcome.
  2. We successfully polyfill container queries, and then instead of asking browser makers to figure out implementation, we can hand it to them for standardisation.

But, as Eric Portis points out in his talk on container queries, Houdini is still a ways off (by the way, browser makers, that’s two different conference talks I’ve mentioned about container queries, just in case you were keeping track of how much developers want this).

Still, there are some CSS features that are Houdini-like in their extensibility. Custom properties feel like they could be wrangled to help with the container query problem. While it’s easy to think of custom properties as being like Sass variables, they’re much more powerful than that—the fact they can be a real-time bridge between JavaScript and CSS makes them scriptable. Alas, custom properties can’t be used in media queries but maybe some clever person can figure out a way to get the effect of container queries without a query-like syntax.

However it happens, I’d just love to see some movement on container queries. I’m not alone.

I know container queries would revolutionize my design practice, and better prepare responsive design for mobile, desktop, tablet—and whatever’s coming next.

Tuesday, June 27th, 2017

Progressing the web

Frances has written up some of the history behind her minting of the term “progressive web app”. She points out that accuracy is secondary to marketing:

I keep seeing folks (developers) getting all smart-ass saying they should have been PW “Sites” not “Apps” but I just want to put on the record that it doesn’t matter. The name isn’t for you and worrying about it is distraction from just building things that work better for everyone. The name is for your boss, for your investor, for your marketeer.

Personally, I think “progressive web app” is a pretty good phrase—two out of three words in it are spot on. I really like the word “progressive”, with its echoes of progressive enhancement. I really, really like the word “web”. But, yeah, I’m one of those smart-asses who points out that the “app” part isn’t great.

That’s not just me being a pedant (or, it’s not only me being a pedant). I’ve seen people who were genuinely put off investigating the technologies behind progressive web apps because of the naming.

Here’s an article with the spot-on title Progressive Web Apps — The Next Step In Responsive Web Design:

Late last week, Smashing Magazine, one of the largest and most influential online publications for web design, posted on Facebook that their website was “now running as a Progressive Web App.”

Honestly, I didn’t think much of it. Progressive Web Apps are for the hardcore web application developers creating the next online cloud-based Photoshop (complicated stuff), right? I scrolled on and went about my day.

And here’s someone feeling the cognitive dissonance of turning a website into a progressive web app, even though that’s exactly the right thing to do:

My personal website is a collection of static HTML files and is also a progressive web app. Transforming it into a progressive web app felt a bit weird in the beginning because it’s not an actual application but I wanted to be one of the cool kids, and PWAs still offer a lot of additional improvements.

Still, it could well be that these are the exceptions and that most people are not being discouraged by the “app” phrasing. I certainly hope that there aren’t more people out there thinking “well, progressive web apps aren’t for me because I’m building a content site.”

In short, the name might not be perfect but it’s pretty damn good.

What I find more troubling is the grouping of unrelated technologies under the “progressive web app” banner. If Google devrel events were anything to go by, you’d be forgiven for thinking that progressive web apps have something to do with AMP or Polymer (they don’t). One of the great things about progressive web apps is that they are agnostic to tech stacks. Still, I totally get why Googlers would want to use the opportunity to point to their other projects.

Far more troubling is the entanglement of the term “progressive web app” with the architectural choice of “single page app”. I’m not the only one who’s worried about this.

Here’s the most egregious example: an article on Hacker Noon called Before You Build a PWA You Need a SPA.

No! Not true! Literally any website can be a progressive web app:

That last step can be tricky if you’re new to service workers, but it’s not unsurmountable. It’s certainly a lot easier than completely rearchitecting your existing website to be a JavaScript-driven single page app.

Alas, I think that many of the initial poster-children for progressive web apps gave the impression that you had to make a completely separate app/site at a different URL. It was like a return to the bad old days of m. sites for mobile. The Washington Post’s progressive web app (currently offline) went so far as to turn away traffic from the “wrong” browsers. This is despite the fact that the very first item in the list of criteria for a progressive web app is:

Responsive: to fit any form factor

Now, I absolutely understand that the immediate priority is to demonstrate that a progressive web app can compete with a native mobile app in terms of features (and trounce it in terms of installation friction). But I’m worried that in our rush to match what native apps can do, we may end up ditching the very features that make the web a universally-accessible medium. Killing URLs simply because native apps don’t have URLs is a classic example of throwing the baby out with the bath water:

Up until now I’ve been a big fan of Progressive Web Apps. I understood them to be combining the best of the web (responsiveness, linkability) with the best of native (installable, connectivity independent). Now I see that balance shifting towards the native end of the scale at the expense of the web’s best features. I’d love to see that balance restored with a little less emphasis on the “Apps” and a little more emphasis on the “Web.” Now that would be progressive.

If the goal of the web is just to compete with native, then we’ve set the bar way too low.

So if you’ve been wary of investing the technologies behind progressive web apps because you’re “just” building a website, please try to see past the name. As Frances says:

It’s marketing, just like HTML5 had very little to do with actual HTML. PWAs are just a bunch of technologies with a zingy-new brandname.

Literally any website can—and should—be a progressive web app. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

I was at an event last year where I heard Chris Heilmann say that you shouldn’t make your blog into a progressive web app. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He repeats that message in this video chat:

When somebody, for example, turns their blog into a PWA, I don’t see the point. I don’t want to have that icon on my homepage. This doesn’t make any sense to me.

Excuse me!? Just because you don’t want to have someone’s icon on your home screen, that person shouldn’t be using state-of-the-art technologies!? Excuse my French, but Fuck. That. Shit!

Our imaginations have become so limited by what native mobile apps currently do that we can’t see past merely imitating the status quo like a sad cargo cult.

I don’t want the web to equal native; I want the web to surpass it. I, for one, would prefer a reality where my home screen isn’t filled with the icons of startups and companies that have fulfilled the criteria of the gatekeepers. But a home screen filled with the faces of people who didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission to publish? That’s what I want!

Like Frances says:

Remember, this is for everyone.

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

Using CSS variables correctly - Mike Riethmuller

Mike examines the real power of CSS custom properties compared to Sass variables—they can change at runtime.

I’m convinced that in almost all cases, responsive design logic should now be contained in variables. There is a strong argument too, that when changing any value, whether in a media query or an element scope, it belongs in a variable. If it changes, it is by definition a variable and this logic should be separated from design.

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

Left to our own devices. — Ethan Marcotte

Your website’s only as strong as the weakest device you’ve tested it on.

Wednesday, May 31st, 2017

Emmet Re:view — fast and easy way to test responsive design in multiple viewports

It’s no substitute for testing with real devices, but the “device wall” view in this Chrome plug-in is a nifty way of getting an overview of a site’s responsiveness at a glance.

Friday, May 19th, 2017

Presentation: Accessibility in a Responsive World, A11Y Days 2017

There are some great hands-on accessibility patterns in this talk transcript from Scott.

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

Container Query Discussion | CSS-Tricks

Chris rounds up the discussion that’s been happening around container queries, for and against.

Personally, I’d like to see about 100 different use cases fleshed out. If it turns out some of them can be done sans container queries, awesome, but it still seems highly likely to me that having container queries available to us would be mighty handy.

Tuesday, April 4th, 2017

A bit more on container queries. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan wrote about container queries on his website. Paul wrote his counter-argument on his website. Now Ethan responds. It’s fun to watch two gentlemen engage in civilised discourse.

Blogs, man. They’re gonna big, I tells ya.

Monday, April 3rd, 2017

Questioning Container Queries / Paul Robert Lloyd

Paul’s being contrary again.

Seriously though, this is a good well-reasoned post about why container queries might not be the the all-healing solution for our responsive design problems. Thing is, I don’t think container queries are trying to be an all-encompassing solution, but rather a very useful solution for one particular class of problem.

So I don’t really see container queries competing with, say, grid layout (any more than grid layout is competing with flexbox), but rather one more tool that would be really useful to have in our arsenal.

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Movies with Mikey

I know it’s just a landing page for YouTube channel of movie reviews but I really like the art direction and responsiveness of this.

Friday, March 3rd, 2017

Small steps

The new Clearleft website is live! Huzzah!

Many people have been working very hard on it and it’s all looking rather nice. But, as I said before, the site launch isn’t the end—it’s just the beginning.

There are some obvious next steps: fixing bugs, adding content, tweaking copy, and, oh yeah, that whole “testing with real users” thing. But there’s also an opportunity to have some fun on the front end. Now that the site is out there in the wild, there’s a real incentive to improve its performance.

Off the top of my head, these are some areas where I think we can play around:

  • Font loading. Right now the site is just using @font-face. A smart font-loading strategy—at least for the body copy—could really help improve the perceived performance.
  • Responsive images. A long-term solution will require some wrangling on the back end, but I reckon we can come up with some way of generating different sized images to reference in srcset.
  • Service worker. It’s a no-brainer. Now that the Clearleft site is (finally!) running on HTTPS, having a simple service worker to cache static assets like CSS, JavaScript and some images seems like the obvious next step. The question is: what other offline shenanigans could we get up to?

I’m looking forward to tinkering with some of those technologies. Each one should make an incremental improvement to the site’s performance. There are already some steps on the back-end that are making a big difference: upgrading to PHP7 and using HTTP2.

Now the real fun begins.

Thursday, March 2nd, 2017

On container queries. — Ethan Marcotte

Unsurprisingly, I completely and utterly agree with Ethan’s assessment here:

I’ve written some code that’s saying, “Once the screen is this size and the element appears in a different, smaller container, use a narrower layout on this element.”

But, well, that’s weird. Why can’t we apply styles based on the space available to the module we’re designing, rather than looking at the shape of the viewport?

I also share his frustration with the “math is hard; let’s go shopping” response from browser vendors:

There’s an incredible clamor for container queries, with folks from every corner of the responsive community asking for something that solves this problem. So personally, I’d love to see at least one browser vendor partner with the RICG, and get properly fired up about this.

We had to drag browser makers kicking and screaming to responsive images (to this day, Hixie maintains it’s not a problem that needs solving) and I suspect even more activism is going to be needed to get them to tackle container queries.

Wednesday, March 1st, 2017

State of Responsive Images 2017 - Cloud Four

Jason revisits responsive images. On the whole, things are looking good when it comes to browser support, but he points out that scrset’s precursor in CSS—image-set seems to have dropped off the radar of most browser makers, which is a real shame.

Friday, December 23rd, 2016

What Comes Next Is the Future (2016) on Vimeo

Matt Griffin’s thoughtful documentary is now available for free on Vimeo. It’s a lovely look at the past, present, and future of the web, marred only by the brief appearance of yours truly.

Friday, December 9th, 2016

Get the Balance Right: Responsive Display Text ◆ 24 ways

Some really great CSS tips from Rich on sizing display text for multiple viewports.

Friday, October 28th, 2016

Working with mobile technology - Digital Service Manual - GOV.UK

Excellent guidelines from GDS on providing services that work well on mobile. The watchwords are:

  • responsive design,
  • progressive enhancement,
  • open data, and
  • emerging technology (service workers, notifications, etc.).

Native and hybrid apps are rarely justified.

Sunday, October 23rd, 2016

Simple, semantic and responsive tables (part II) – Design Today – Wouter Hillen

This uses generated content in CSS to make the aria-label attributes visible on small screens—clever!

Monday, October 3rd, 2016

Normalize (CSS) No More. | shaunrashid.com

This crystallises something I’ve been thinking about for a while. There’s a fundamental philosophical idea underpinning CSS reset or normalise boilerplate that feels at odds with the belief that it’s perfectly fine for websites to look different in different browsers and devices.

Friday, September 30th, 2016


In the latest issue of Justin’s excellent Responsive Web Design weekly newsletter, he includes a segment called “The Snippet Show”:

This is what tells all our browsers on all our devices to set the viewport to be the same width of the current device, and to also set the initial scale to 1 (not scaled at all). This essentially allows us to have responsive design consistently.

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1">

The viewport value for the meta element was invented by Apple when the iPhone was released. Back then, it was a safe bet that most websites were wider than the iPhone’s 320 pixel wide display—most of them were 960 pixels wide …because reasons. So mobile Safari would automatically shrink those sites down to fit within the display. If you wanted to over-ride that behaviour, you had to use the meta viewport gubbins that they made up.

That was nine years ago. These days, if you’re building a responsive website, you still need to include that meta element.

That seems like a shame to me. I’m not suggesting that the default behaviour should switch to assuming a fluid layout, but maybe the browser could just figure it out. After all, the CSS will already be parsed by the time the HTML is rendering. Perhaps a quick test for the presence of a crawlbar could be used to trigger the shrinking behaviour. No crawlbar, no shrinking.

Maybe someday the assumption behind the current behaviour could be flipped—assume a website is responsive unless the author explicitly requests the shrinking behaviour. I’d like to think that could happen soon, but I suspect that a depressingly large number of sites are still fixed-width (I don’t even want to know—don’t tell me).

There are other browser default behaviours that might someday change. Right now, if I type example.com into a browser, it will first attempt to contact http://example.com rather than https://example.com. That means the example.com server has to do a redirect, costing the user valuable time.

You can mitigate this by putting your site on the HSTS preload list but wouldn’t it be nice if browsers first checked for HTTPS instead of HTTP? I don’t think that will happen anytime soon, but someday …someday.

Monday, September 19th, 2016

The Typekit Blog | Variable fonts, a new kind of font for flexible design

This is what Nick Sherman has been banging on about for years, and now the time has come for variable fonts …as long as typographers, browser makers, and standards bodies get behind it.

More details on Ev’s blog.