Tags: system

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Monday, September 26th, 2022

Fermented Code: Modelling the Microbial Through Miso - Serpentine Galleries

Y’know, I started reading this great piece by Claire L. Evans thinking about its connections to systems thinking, but I ended up thinking more about prototyping. And microbes.

Design systems thinking

As you can probably tell from the stuff I’ve been linking to today and today’s Clearleft newsletter, I’ve got design systems on my mind.

What I like about design systems is they encourage systems thinking …in theory. I mean, it’s right there in the name, right? But in practice I see design sytems focusing on the opposite of systems thinking: analytical thinking.

Okay, I realise that’s a gross oversimplification of both systems and thinking and analytical thinking, but why stop now?

Analytical thinking is all about breaking a big thing down into its constituent parts. By examining the individual parts you gain an understanding of the whole.

This is a great approach to understanding the world, particularly when it comes to phenonema that work the same everywhere in the universe. But it doesn’t work so well with messy phenonema like, say, people doing things together.

Systems thinking takes the opposite approach. You look at the bigger picture with the understanding that the individual parts are all interconnected somehow and can’t really be viewed in isolation.

To put it very bluntly, analytical thinking is about zooming in whereas systems thinking is about zooming out.

When it comes to design systems—or design in general—you need to have a mix of both.

If you neglect the analytical thinking, you may end up with a design system that has well-documented processes for how it operates, but is lacking the individual components.

If you neglect the systems thinking, you may end up with a design system that’s a collection of components, but with no understanding of how they’re supposed to work together.

Ideally, you want a good mix of both.

But I’ve got to be honest: if I had to err on one side more than the other, I think I’d rather have less analytical thinking and more systems thinking.

Malleable Systems Collective

Modern computing is far too rigid. Applications can only function in preset ways determined by some far away team. Software is trapped in hermetically sealed silos and is rewritten many times over rather than recomposed.

This community catalogs and experiments with malleable software and systems that reset the balance of power via several essential principles…

I’ll be adding those principles to my collection.

Data Design Language

I like this approach to offering a design system. It seems less prescriptive than many:

Designed not as a rule set, but rather a toolbox, the Data Design Language includes a chart library, design guidelines, colour and typographic style specifications with usability guidance for internationalization (i18n) and accessibility (a11y), all reflecting our data design principles.

Your design system contribution practice is doomed to fail by Amy Hupe, content designer.

This is a great analysis by Amy of the conflicting priorities tugging at design systems.

No matter how hard we work to foster these socialist ideals, like community, collaboration, and contribution, it feels as though we’re always being dragged to a default culture of individualism.

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.

Thursday, August 18th, 2022

system.css | A design system for building retro Apple-inspired interfaces

A stylesheet for when you’re nostalgic for the old Mac OS.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Monday, June 20th, 2022

The cost of convenience — surma.dev

I believe that we haven’t figured out when and how to give a developer access to an abstraction or how to evaluate when an abstraction is worth using. Abstractions are usually designed for a set of specific use-cases. The problems, however, start when a developer wants to do something that the abstraction did not anticipate.

Smart thoughts from Surma on the design of libraries, frameworks, and other abstractions:

Abstractions that take work off of developers are valuable! Of course, they are. The problems only occur when a developer feels chained to the abstractions in a situation where they’d rather do something differently. The important part is to not force patterns onto them.

This really resonated with parts of my recent talk at CSS Day when I was talking about Sass and jQuery:

If you care about DX and the adoption of your abstraction, it is much more beneficial to let developers use as much of their existing skills as possible and introduce new concepts one at a time.

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.

Wednesday, April 20th, 2022

More UX London speaker updates

It wasn’t that long ago that I told you about some of the speakers that have been added to the line-up for UX London in June: Steph Troeth, Heldiney Pereira, Lauren Pope, Laura Yarrow, and Inayaili León. Well, now I’ve got another five speakers to tell you about!

Aleks Melnikova will be giving a workshop on day one, June 28th—that’s the day with a focus on research.

Stephanie Marsh—who literally wrote the book on user research—will also be giving a workshop that day.

Before those workshops though, you’ll get to hear a talk from the one and only Kat Zhou, the creator of Design Ethically. By the way, you can hear Kat talking about deceptive design in a BBC radio documentary.

Day two has a focus on content design so who better to deliver a workshop than Sarah Winters, author of the Content Design book.

Finally, on day three—with its focus on design systems—I’m thrilled to announce that Adekunle Oduye will be giving a talk. He too is an author. He co-wrote the Design Engineering Handbook. I also had the pleasure of talking to Adekunle for an episode of the Clearleft podcast on design engineering.

So that’s another five excellent speakers added to the line-up:

That’s a total of fifteen speakers so far with more on the way. And I’ll be updating the site with more in-depth descriptions of the talks and workshops soon.

If you haven’t yet got your ticket for UX London, grab one now. You can buy tickets for individual days, or to get the full experience and the most value, get a ticket for all three days.

Tuesday, April 12th, 2022

“Design System Coverage,” an article from SuperFriendly

I completely agree with Dan that when it comes to design systems, completeness is an over-rated—and even counter-productive—goal:

Some organizations seem to hold up the ideal that, once a design system exists, everything in an interface can and should be built with it. Not only is that an unrealistic goal for most enterprises, but it can often be a toxic mindset that anything less than 100% coverage is misuse of a design system at best or utter failure at worst.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

Design Systems Aren’t Cheap

Just like jQuery dominated the front end yesterday, React dominates it today. There will be something new that dominates it tomorrow. Your design system team will continue doing the same work and incurring more and more costs to keep up with framework churn. And let’s not forget the cost of updating tomorrow’s legacy apps, who are consumers of your soon to be legacy design system.

Tuesday, April 5th, 2022

UX London speaker updates

If you’ve signed up to the UX London newsletter then this won’t be news to you, but more speakers have been added to the line-up.

Steph Troeth will be giving a workshop on day one. That’s the day with a strong focus on research, and when it comes to design research, Steph is unbeatable. You can hear some of her words of wisdom in an episode of the Clearleft podcast all about design research.

Heldiney Pereira will be speaking on day two. That’s the day with a focus on content design. Heldiney previously spoke at our Content By Design event and it was terrific—his perspective on content design as a product designer is invaluable.

Lauren Pope will also be on day two. She’ll be giving a workshop. She recently launched a really useful content audit toolkit and she’ll be bringing that expertise to her UX London workshop.

Day three is going to have a focus on design systems (and associated disciplines like design engineering and design ops). Both Laura Yarrow and Inayaili León will be giving talks on that day. You can expect some exciting war stories from the design system trenches of HM Land Registry and GitHub.

I’ve got some more speakers confirmed but I’m going to be a tease and make you wait a little longer for those names. But check out the line-up so far! This going to be such an excellent event (I know I’m biased, but really, look at that line-up!).

June 28th to 30th. Tobacco Dock, London. Get your ticket if you haven’t already.

Thursday, March 3rd, 2022

An incoherent rant about design systems • Robin Rendle

No matter how fancy your Figma file is or how beautiful and lovingly well organized that Storybook documentation is; the front-end is always your source of truth. You can hate it as much as you like—all those weird buttons, variables, inaccessible form inputs—but that right there is your design system.

Some tough design system love from Robin.

Here’s my advice: take all that aspirational stuff out of your Figma design system file. Put it somewhere else. Your Figma docs should be a mirror of the front-end (because that’s really the source of truth).

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2022

Curating UX London 2022

The first speakers are live on the UX London 2022 site! There are only five people announced for now—just enough to give you a flavour of what to expect. There will be many, many more.

Putting together the line-up of a three-day event is quite challenging, but kind of fun too. On the one hand, each day should be able to stand alone. After all, there are one-day tickets available. On the other hand, it should feel like one cohesive conference, not three separate events.

I’ve decided to structure the three days to somewhat mimic the design process…

The first day is all about planning and preparation. This is like the first diamond in the double-diamond process: building the right thing. That means plenty of emphasis on research.

The second day is about creation and execution. It’s like that second diamond: building the thing right. This could cover potentially everything but this year the focus will be on content design.

The third day is like the third diamond in the double dia— no, wait. The third day is about growing, scaling, and maintaining design. That means there’ll be quite an emphasis on topics like design systems and design engineering, maybe design ops.

But none of the days will be exclusively about a single topic. There are evergreen topics that apply throughout the process: product design, design ethics, inclusive design.

It’s a lot to juggle! But I’m managing to overcome choice paralysis and assemble a very exciting line-up indeed. Trust me—you won’t want to miss this!

Early bird tickets are available until February 28th. That’s just a few days away. I recommend getting your tickets now—you won’t regret it!

Quite a few people are bringing their entire teams, which is perfect. UX London can be both an educational experience and a team-bonding exercise. Let’s face it, it’s been too long since any of us have had a good off-site.

If you’re one of those lucky people who’s coming along (or if you’re planning to), I’m curious: given the themes mentioned above, are there specific topics that you’d hope to see covered? Drop me a line and let me know.

Also, if you read the description of the event and think “Oh, I know the perfect speaker!” then I’d love to hear from you. Maybe that speaker is you. (Although, cards on the table; if you look like me—another middle-age white man—I may take some convincing.)

Right. Time to get back to my crazy wall of conference curation.

Saturday, February 19th, 2022

Code & Pixels

This forthcoming podcast about design engineering sounds like my cup of tea!