Ariel gave a TED talk and it’s mind-blowingly good!
Tuesday, July 14th, 2020
Monday, July 13th, 2020
Putting design principles into action
I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.
At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.
I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.
In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).
My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.
When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.
I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:
There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.
What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.
There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:
It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.
It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:
Because of observation A, apply action B.
Or in its full form:
Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:
The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.
This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.
Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:
Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.
Tuesday, May 26th, 2020
2010 was quite a year:
Nothing’s been quite the same since.
I remember being at that An Event Apart in Seattle where Ethan first unveiled the phrase and marvelling at how well everything just clicked into place, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist. I was in. 100%.
Tuesday, May 12th, 2020
Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.
Friday, April 17th, 2020
Future Sync 2020
I was supposed to be in Plymouth yesterday, giving the opening talk at this year’s Future Sync conference. Obviously, that train journey never happened, but the conference did.
The organisers gave us speakers the option of pre-recording our talks, which I jumped on. It meant that I wouldn’t be reliant on a good internet connection at the crucial moment. It also meant that I was available to provide additional context—mostly in the form of a deluge of hyperlinks—in the chat window that accompanied the livestream.
The whole thing went very smoothly indeed. Here’s the video of my talk. It was The Layers Of The Web, which I’ve only given once before, at Beyond Tellerrand Berlin last November (in the Before Times).
As well as answering questions in the chat room, people were also asking questions in Sli.do. But rather than answering those questions there, I was supposed to respond in a social medium of my choosing. I chose my own website, with copies syndicated to Twitter.
Here are those questions and answers…
The first few questions were about last years’s CERN project, which opens the talk:
It was an unbelievable privilege! I was so excited the whole time—I still can hardly believe it really happened!
Later in the presentation, I talked about service workers and progressive web apps. I got a technical question about that:
Great question! Yes, there are limits, but we’re generally talking megabytes here. It varies from browser to browser and depends on the available space on the device.
But files stored using the Cache API are less likely to be deleted than files stored in the browser cache.
More worrying is the announcement from Apple to only store files for a week of browser use:
Finally, there was a question about the over-arching theme of the talk…
Yes! …And that’s why I never once used the phrase “progressive enhancement” in my talk. 🙂
There’s a lot of misunderstanding of the term. Rather than correct it, I now avoid it:
Instead of using the phrase “progressive enhancement”, I now talk about the benefits and effects of the technique: resilience, universality, etc.
Thursday, April 16th, 2020
I’ve been on a few different podcasts recently.
Chris and Jeremy Keith discuss imbuing teams with a shared sense of ownership of their design system, creating design systems able to address unforeseen scenarios, design ops as an essential part of an effective design system, and more.
Welcome to World Wide Waste, a podcast about how digital is killing the planet, and what to do about it. In this session, I’m chatting with Jeremy Keith. Jeremy is a philosopher of the internet. Every time I see him speak, I’m struck by his calming presence, his brilliant mind and his deep humanity.
We talked about performance, energy consumption, and digital preservation. We agreed on a lot, but there were also points where we fundamentally disagreed. Good stuff!
If you like the sound of some Irishmen chatting on a podcast, then as well as listening to me and Gerry getting into it, you might also enjoy the episode of The Blarney Pilgrims podcast that I was on:
Jeremy Keith is the founder and keeper of thesession.org, probably the greatest irish music resource in the world. And this episode hopefully has something of the generous essence of that archive. We flow, from The North as a different planet to Galway as the centre of the ’90s slacker world. From the one-tune-a-week origin of thesession.org and managing an online community to the richness and value of constancy.
I’ve already written about how much this meant to me.
On the same topic—Irish music on the web—I made a brief appearance in the latest episode of Shannon Heaton’s Irish Music Stories, Irish Tunes in the Key of C-19:
How are traditional musicians and dancers continuing creative careers and group music events during the Covid-19 pandemic? How is social distancing affecting the jigs and reels? In this unexpected open of Season Four of Irish Music Stories, musicians from Ireland, England, Belgium, Sweden, and the U.S. address on and offline strategies… from a safe distance.
Tuesday, March 17th, 2020
Clearleft is a remote-working company right now. I mean, that’s hardly surprising—just about everyone I know is working from home.
We made this decision on Friday. It was clear that the spread of COVID-19 was going exponential (even with the very incomplete data available in the UK). Despite the wishy-washy advice from the government—which has since pivoted drastically—we made the decision to literally get ahead of the curve. We had one final get-together in the studio yesterday to plan logistics and pick up equipment. Then it was time to start this chapter.
- one Aeron chair,
- one big monitor,
- a wired keyboard,
- a wireless mouse, and
- noise-cancelling headphones.
Cassie kindly provided the use of her van to get that stuff home. The Aeron chair proved to be extremely tricky to get through my narrow front door. For a while there, it looked like I’d need to take the door off the hinges but with a whole lotta pushin’ and a-pullin’ Jessica and I managed to somehow get it in.
Now I’ve got a reasonable home studio set up, I can get back to working on that conference talk I’m prepar… Oh.
Yeah, I guess I’ve got a stay of execution on that. For the past few months I’ve had my head down preparing a new hour-long talk for An Event Apart. Yes, it takes me that long to put a talk together—it feels kinda like writing a book. I’d like to think it’s because I’m so meticulous, but the truth is that I’m just very slow at most things. Also, I’m a bad one for procrastinating.
For the past week or so, while I’ve been making pretty darn good progress on the talk, a voice in the back of my head has been whispering “Hey, maybe the conference won’t even happen!” In answer to which, the voice in the front of my head has been saying “Would you shut the fuck up? I’m trying to work here!”
I was due to debut the talk at An Event Apart Seattle in May. Sure enough, that event has quite rightly been cancelled. So have a lot of other excellent events. It’s a real shame, and my heart goes out to event organisers who pour so much of themselves into their events; their love, their care, and not least, their financial risk.
I speak at quite a few events every year. I really, really enjoy it. For one, public speaking is one of the few things I think I’m actually any good at. Also, I just love the chance to meet my peers and collectively nerd out together for a short while.
Then there’s the travel. This year I was planning on drastically reducing my plane travel. I had bagged myself speaking slots in European cities that I could reach by train: Cologne, Strasbourg, even Lisbon, along with domestic destinations like Nottingham, Manchester, and Plymouth. I was quite looking forward to some train adventures. But those will have to wait.
Right now I’m going to settle into this new home routine. It’s not entirely new to me. Back in the early 2000s, I worked from home as a freelancer. Back then, Jessica and I worked not just in the same room, but on opposite ends of the same table!
We’ve got more room now. Jessica has her own office space. I’m getting used to mine. But as Jessica pointed out:
I’ve worked from home for 20(!) years, I love it, I’m made for it, I can’t imagine not doing it—and I’ve gotten absolutely nothing done for the past week.
Newly WFH folks, the situation now is totally unconducive to concentration and productivity. Be gentle with yourselves.
Monday, February 24th, 2020
It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.
Monday, February 10th, 2020
The transcript of David Heinemeier Hansson keynote from last year’s RailsConf is well worth reading. It’s ostensibily about open source software but it delves into much larger questions.
Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020
Good morning, everybody. It is a real honour to be here. As Simon said, I was here six, seven, eight years ago attending this conference because it’s such a great conference. I’m kind of feeling the pressure now that I’m up here on the stage speaking at this conference. I’m just glad I’m on first so I can get it over with and then listen to all these great talks.
I’m here today to talk to you …which is kind of weird when you think about it. I mean, first, the fact that it’s me up here on the stage through some clerical error.
But also, I’m going to talk to you. I’m going to vibrate air over my vocal cords and move this big meaty piece of flesh inside my jaw up and down vibrating the airwaves and you’re going to listen to me doing that. It seems like a crazy thing to do except for the fact that, of course, I’ll be using language.
Maybe the great distinguishing feature of our species, language. The great leap forward that happened—who knows—50,000, 100,000 years ago when we, as a species, developed language. With language, by moving those vocal cords and that big piece of flesh in my jaw, we can tell stories. I can recount something that happened in the past.
Perhaps more amazingly, we can imagine things that might come to be. I could tell you something that might happen in the future. So language is a kind of time travel.
It’s all possible because we’re speaking the same codebase. The particular language I’m talking now is English. As long as you can decode English then all these noises I’m making will make sense to you even if there isn’t actually any information in the words. I can say Chomsky’s famous one.
Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.
You can parse that. It doesn’t make any sense, but you can parse it.
Most of the time, the sentences we use also convey some kind of information. Language is not just time travel. Language is also communication.
There can be an idea that’s sitting in my head and I’ll, you know, vibrate the air and vocal cords, flap this big fleshy thing in my jaw around, and transfer the idea from my head to your head. Language is almost like a virus. You can’t help but take the idea in.
I can say to you, “Don’t think of an elephant,” right? Now you’ve just thought of an elephant. It’s the language equivalent of the chicken game which, if you haven’t played before, sorry. You’ve just lost.
This sentence, “Don’t think of an elephant,” is actually the title of a book by George Lakoff. George Lakoff is a linguist. He’s written many books. He wrote Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. He wrote this, Metaphors We Live By, because he’s kind of obsessed with metaphors.
We use metaphor all the time in language. We use conceptual metaphor, so when we take one idea and we use the language of that idea to talk about a different idea. The classic example being something intangible.
Let’s say time. How do we talk about time when we can’t touch it, we can’t feel it, it’s intangible? Well, we use metaphor.
We talk about time as though it’s a physical object moving through space. We say time flies or time drags or we talk about time as though it’s a resource. We talk about saving time, wasting time.
You can’t do any of those things with time. That’s not how time works. But the metaphor is very helpful.
The other kind of metaphor is the cognitive metaphor. This is what George Lakoff is interested in, particularly in things like political language. How we frame a debate can tip the scales of how that debate would unfold. If we were about to have a debate about tax relief, well, before the debate has even begun, we’ve framed taxation as something you need relief from and the scales have been tipped.
I’m very interested in this idea of metaphor, analogy, and simile and how we talk about the work we do. It’s such a young industry. What we do is we borrow from other industries. We’re not the first to do this. There’s a great book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Who’s read Understanding Comics? It’s great.
It’s about comics but, really, it’s just a fantastic book. It’s written as a comic. In it, Scott McCloud makes the point of this new medium, comics, had to kind of borrow from the existing mediums that came before. He points out that this isn’t new. He says:
Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays. Much early television was like radio with pictures.
Right? That it takes time.
Now, this idea of a new medium having to borrow the tropes and the language of the medium that came before, this idea pops up again on the web in this article published in the year 2000 by John Allsopp on A List Apart, A Dao of Web Design. Can I get a show of hands of who’s read A Dao of Web Design? Awesome. You are my people. The rest of you, please read it. It’s such a wonderful article.
It’s crazy that I’m standing up here recommending, “Oh, yeah, you should totally read this article from the year 2000,” but it is relevant. It’s amazingly relevant still today. It’s maybe more relevant today than when it was written. In the article, John says:
When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, it’s ritual, and it often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.
Now, at the time John was writing this, 2000, of course, we were borrowing from what had come before in the previous medium and that was print. We were trying to figure out how do we get the same level of control that we were used to in the world of print on the web. We did that using clever techniques thanks to David Siegel who wrote this book, Creating Killer Websites. David Siegel, if you don’t know the name, you’re certainly familiar with his work because he’s the guy who came up with the idea of using tables for layout or having a one-pixel by one-pixel spacer
Hey, listen. That was the only way we could do it back then. They were hacks, yes, but they were necessary hacks. He did actually recant. Years later, he wrote a piece that said, the web is ruined and I ruined it. This may be overstating the case, but you know.
He was pointing out we could use these techniques, these hacks to constrain Web and make it work like print. We could get pixel-perfect control. John Allsopp, in his article, he’s kind of pushing against and going, no, no, no:
The web is a new medium. It has emerged from the medium of printing whose skills and design language and convention strongly influence it. It is too often shaped by that from which it sprang. Killer websites are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper. Desktop publishing for the web.
So, I mean, John totally acknowledges that there is a lot to learn from this rich, rich history of print and, before print, just writing. This is clearly the second great leap of our species. We had language where we could communicate ideas, tell stories, imagine the future—as long as we’re in the same physical space—and then we came up with writing. Now we can communicate, re-viral ideas, talk about the future and the past, and we don’t even have to be in the same physical place. Someone who died centuries ago can put an idea in your head by putting language onto a medium like vellum or, later, paper.
You can see this evolution over centuries from illuminated manuscripts to the printing press, Gutenberg, until we get to the 20th Century and we really start to refine the design. We got the Swiss School of Design, the fonts, typography, and the grid system. There’s a lot to learn here.
What’s interesting to me, though, is what seems to be this battle of extremes. We’ve got David Siegel talking about desktop publishing for the web, effectively, and John Allsopp talking about, “No, the web is its own medium. It needs to have its own conventions.”
They seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Yet, they actually have a commonality because, on both sides, when they’re talking about this, they’re talking about websites — web sites. Now, that in itself is a metaphor. You don’t have physical sites on the web. It’s intangible like time. Yet, we chose this metaphor. The idea of a site, a place where you go to a physical place.
Site actually is pretty good with connotations of a building site, a construction site. That was literally the metaphor in the ’90s. The web is like a construction site. It kind of is constantly under construction. Oh, you want the full nostalgic effect?
There we go. We’re back to Geocities. But I feel like then we decided to grow out of this metaphor and use more grownup metaphors. We got professional. We had to borrow from other industries, other mediums, and here’s one that people are very fond of borrowing: architecture—describing what we do as architecture.
Whether it’s on the design side or the development side, talking about us as architects. It seems like a very appealing industry to borrow from, which is fascinating. If you ever talk to architects, man, it’s a shitty industry. Spec work, awards, and competition, it’s not a great industry.
But we seem to hold it up as, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re like architects because architects are awesome.” I think of Hollywood because every Hollywood movie that has an architect in it, the architects are always really nice people. They’re always like the protagonist, never the antagonist. The architect is never the villain.
It’s fair enough. It’s fair enough to borrow things from something like architecture. For example, I know plenty of designers who would say that this book is the best book about UX that they’ve ever read, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. It was published in 2007. It’s not written for UX designers. It’s not written about the web, but there are lessons in there that are directly applicable.
There are other works from the world of architecture that have definitely influenced the work we are doing today like the classic from Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. Now this—I say classic rightly—this is a classic book. A classic book is a book everyone has heard of and nobody has read.
That is certainly the case here. Published in 1977, and it influenced lots of people doing things in the digital space. Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, he said, yeah, he was really influenced by A Pattern Language.
The idea of a pattern language, it’s architecture, but breaking things down into components that you could change the parameters we used in public spaces, buildings, things like that. It’s a modular approach. Later on, in the software world, a gang of four, they wrote Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, and they were directly influenced by Christopher Alexander, this idea of a pattern language, components, patterns, modularity.
What’s interesting is there’s another book by Molly Wright Steenson, you may remember was a blogger, Girl Wonder. She worked in the world of architecture and she’s written a book about the influence of architects and designers on the digital space. Richard Saul Wurman, and information architecture. There’s a very direct metaphor there, but also Christopher Alexander.
She points out, actually, the funny thing is, he’s had way more of an influence in the digital space than he ever had in architecture. Most architects don’t like him. They think he’s a bit preachy. But his influence in the digital space is massive. Here I am talking about modularity, components, and patterns. Well, I mean, that is so hot right now. Design systems, we’re breaking things down into patterns. In fact, I ended up organizing a conference in 2017, purely about design systems, pattern libraries, styles, all this stuff called Patterns Day. It was great. We had these wonderful speakers. Jina Anne was there, Rachel Andrew, Alla Kholmatova, Alice Bartlett. It was great.
But, by the end of the day, I was kind of half-joking as saying, we should have had a drinking game where, every time someone referenced Christopher Alexander, we had to take a drink because his spirit loomed large over this. Actually, the full rules of the drinking game I came up with afterward where any time someone references Christopher Alexander, you take a drink. Any time someone says Lego, you take a drink. Any time someone says that naming things is hard, take a drink. Any time someone says atomic or atomic design, take a drink. Anytime someone says bootstrap, you puke the drink back up.
A Pattern Language is a work of architecture that directly not just influenced but is still influencing our work today; the idea of breaking things down into components to reuse.
Now, there’s another work from the world of architecture that has a big influence on me. It’s a classic book, again, How Buildings Learn. It’s the best book I’ve never read, published in 1994, by Stewart Brand. There was also a TV series that went with this that’s pretty fascinating.
In this, he talks about the work of a British architect named Frank Duffy and Duffy’s idea of something he called shearing layers. What Duffy said was that a building properly conceived is several layers of longevity. He kind of broke these down. You’ve got the sites that the building is on. We’re talking about geological time scales.
Then above that, the structure you hope will last for centuries. Then you’ve got the infrastructure inside the building that you might have to swap out every few decades. Change the plumbing. Then you’ve got the walls and the doors. You can change them every so often until you get into the room. You’ve got furniture, which you can move on a daily basis.
The time scales get faster as you move inward. He diagrammed it like this. This is shearing layers diagrammed for the building. I find this really interesting, this idea of different time scales.
But there’s another factor here I’m kind of fascinated by, which is that each layer depends on the layer below. You can’t have a structure until you’ve got a site to build on. You can’t have furniture inside a room until you’ve got the room. You need to have the walls there. Each layer is building on top of what’s come before. You can’t jump straight ahead to furniture without first having all those other layers.
Now, this reminds me of another idea that the writer Steven Johnson talks about a lot in his work, for example, this book, Where Good Ideas Come From. This is the idea of the adjacent possible, that certain inventions leap forward that can’t happen until other things have happened before them.
There’s a reason why the microwave oven wasn’t invented in medieval France. Too many other things had to be invented first before something like the microwave oven becomes inevitable.
Everything we do is kind of built on this idea of the adjacent possible because businesses and services on the web are on top of a whole bunch of layers of adjacent possibilities. You can’t have Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia until the web exists. The web itself is built on all of these layers that have to happen first.
We have to have the Industrial Revolution. We have to have electricity. Then somebody has to create circuitry. We have to get to the idea of having computers and then networked computers, something like the Internet. Then the web becomes possible. Once the web is possible, then all these businesses on top of the web become possible.
This idea of the adjacent possible, the shearing layers, they kind of fascinate me because I’m seeing a parallel there.
Now, Stewart Brand, who wrote about shearing layers and architecture, he revisited this idea of shearing layers and took them out from the world of architecture in a later work called The Clock of the Long Now. Stewart Brand is one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an organization dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a card-carrying member. The card is designed to last for a few thousand years as well.
They’re currently building a clock that will tell time for 10,000 years. Brian Eno has written an algorithm for the chimes so that when it chimes once a century, it will never be quite the same chime. It’s encouraging long now thinking.
In this book, the full title of the book being The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, he extrapolates shearing layers into something he calls pace layers. If you take the shearing layers model and look around you, it’s everywhere. It’s kind of like systems thinking, the Donella Meadows idea that systems are everywhere.
It’s kind of true. You look around these pace layers; shearing layers applied to the real world are everywhere. The example he gives is our species. If we look at the human race, we have these different time scales. The slowest is our physical nature as in our DNA, our physiological nature. That takes millennia to change. Physiologically, there’s no difference between a caveman and a spaceman.
Above that, you’ve got culture. This takes centuries, maybe longer, to accumulate over time.
Then systems of governance; not governments — governance. How are we going to run the societies?
An infrastructure, you want that to move faster, but not too fast or it could be very disruptive. Then you get into commerce, trading. Very fast-moving.
Then, finally, you’ve got fashion, which is super-fast. By fashion, he means things like popular music, anything that’s supposed to move fast. If fashion moved slowly, that wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s meant to move fast. It’s meant to try things out. “What about this? No, what about this? Try this.” Right? You don’t want for the things further down.
He’s mapped this onto these layers. From shearing layers, we go to pace layers. They have different timescales.
I’m talking about the difference between these really fast layers at the top, you know, “What about this? Try this? Today, we’re doing that,” compared to the really slow layers at the bottom that move slowly and are resistant to change.
Fast learns but slow remembers. Fast proposes and slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous but slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by a crude innovation, an occasional revolution, and slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, but slow has all the power.
Now, once I was exposed to this idea and this virus had landed in my head, I found that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started seeing pace layers everywhere. At Clear Left, where I work, it’s a running joke. On every project, we have a kickoff. It’s like, what’s the time to pace layers? How long will it be before someone makes a pace layer analogy? It’s like my brain has now been rewired to see pace layers everywhere.
It’s like, you know, the first time that someone points out the arrow in the FedEx logo. There was your life before that and there’s your life after that.
You’ve all seen the arrow in the FedEx logo. Yeah.
What about Toblerone? You’ve all seen the bear? Ah, yeah! Right? You will never be able to unsee that.
Consider the duck.
It’s a perfectly normal, ordinary duck. Agreed? But then your brain is exposed to the idea that all ducks are actually wearing dog masks.
All ducks are actually wearing dog masks. Now, when I show you the same picture of the same duck—
—you will never be able to unsee that. That’s how my brain feels when it comes to pace layers. I see them everywhere. It’s like the crazy wall part of the serial killer’s lair in the murder mystery. It’s just pace layers.
I couldn’t help but apply pace layers to the work we do mapping our medium to pace layers. Let’s try it with the World Wide Web.
Well, we build on top of the Internet. We can’t have the web before having Internet. At the very bottom layer, you’ve got the protocols of the Internet itself, you know, TCP/IP, which have been pretty much unchanged for decades. They were there from the ARPANET before the Internet. It’s a good thing that they’re unchanged. You would not want to be swapping out that low layer very quickly.
Above that, we have all the different protocols we use, protocols for email, protocols for file transfer, and protocols for the World Wide Web, HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol. Now, this has evolved over time. We now have HTTP2, but it’s been a slow process and that feels right. Again, we shouldn’t be swapping out too quickly, but it’s a bit faster moving than the Internet protocols. On top of HTTP, we can put our URLs. Now, I would love it if URLs were right down at the bottom layer and they were permanent and they never changed and they never went away. That is the web I want, but I must acknowledge that, alas, you have to work hard to keep URLs alive. They do change. They do move. They do get destroyed, which is a bit of a shame, but we can work at it, people. We can work on keeping our URLs alive.
What we put at that those URLs, at the simplest level, we’ve got HTML. It was there from the start. From day one of the web, HTML was there and it’s still there today, but it’s evolved. It’s changed over time. Initially, HTML had 21 elements and now it’s got 121 elements, so it’s evolved.
But it feels like you can keep up with the pace of change. The last big evolution of HTML was 2010, later, with HTML5. We do get new editions every now and then, but it’s fine. We can keep up with it.
Then CSS, CSS changes may be more — definitely changes more rapidly than HTML. That feels like a good thing. We kind of want more. Give us some more CSS and now we’ve got Grid and we’ve got Flexbox. We’ve got all these great, new CSS things. Custom properties.
I don’t feel too overwhelmed by that. I still feel like, “Oh, no, this is good. We’ve got new CSS. I’m feeling I can keep on top of this, you know, read the right articles, read the right books, try them out. It’s fine.”
The pace, I constantly feel like I’m falling behind like, “Oh, I haven’t even heard of this new thing that apparently everybody is using.”
Does anyone else feel overwhelmed by this pace of change? Okay, good. Keep your hands up for a sec and just look around. All right? You are not alone. This turns out to be normal.
Whereas, “Oh, okay. It’s supposed to move fast. It would be bad if it moved slow. It’s meant to be trying stuff out. We see what sticks.”
required attribute. The pattern, it stuck. The spaghetti stuck to the wall and it moved down the layers into something more stable.
Now, the other thing I realized by mapping our technology stack of the web onto this pace layer model is that this is how I build. When I’m building a website, I pretty much start at the third layer. I don’t worry about, is the Internet on.
This seems to me to make sense as a way of building on the web because it maps to the structure of the pace layers of the web. But it’s also a testament to the flexibility of the web that you don’t have to build this way. If you don’t want to build in this layered way, you don’t have to.
Now, this model makes complete sense in other mediums. I think other mediums have influenced our thinking on the web. Maybe we’ve borrowed the metaphors of these other mediums.
For example, if you’re building a native app, this makes complete sense. If you’re building an iOS app and I have an iOS device, it works great. I get 100% of what you designed. But if you build an iOS app and I have, say, an Android device, it doesn’t work at all. You can’t install an iOS app onto an Android device. Those are your options: either it works great or it doesn’t work at all. This mental model makes complete sense in that field.
On the web, because we can have this layered approach, that means we can build like this. We can go from something that doesn’t work at all to something that just about works—maybe it’s just text on a screen—to something that works fine—maybe it’s missing a bunch of behaviors, but the user can accomplish what they want to do—to something that works well, but maybe the latest and greatest browser APIs aren’t supported by a particular browser—and then to something that works great like the latest browser running the best device, great network.
Most people are going to be somewhere on this continuum. Maybe nobody is going to get 100% of what you hope they get, but no one is going to get zero percent either as long as you’re building in this way, as long as you’re building with the grain of the web, building in layers, one thing on top of the other.
I’m going to quote Ethan here. Hi, Ethan. Ethan said:
In a way, this is a way of busting assumptions, the what-ifs. What if something isn’t supported? By building in a layered way, it’s okay. Everything will fall back to the layer below, the adjacent possible.
Now, Ethan, of course, we all know from this article, Responsive Web Design, published on A List Apart. When was that? 2010. My God, nine years ago. Ten years after, John Allsopp published A Dao of Web Design on A List Apart. One of the first things Ethan does in this article is to reference A Dao of Web Design. You could say that Ethan was building on top of that foundational layer that was set by John Allsopp.
Architecture again. Responsive web design. The reason why Ethan chose that term was because there was this idea in architecture called responsive architecture about buildings that could respond to the conditions of the people in the buildings. That made a really good metaphor for talking about the web on large screens, small screens, and everything in between.
This architecture thing, as a metaphor, it’s not bad. We can learn from it. I think, just be careful not to take it too far.
It’s not the only metaphor we use. Here’s another one. When we don’t talk about ourselves as architects, we’re engineers. Yeah.
It sounds good. This one predates the web. We’ve been talking about the idea of software engineering for a long time. I’m very partial to this term: software engineering. Not so much for the term itself. Not that I think it’s a particularly good metaphor, but from where it comes from, which is fricken’ awesome.
The term “software engineering” comes from Margaret Hamilton. Margaret Hamilton was in charge of the onboard flight software on the Apollo moon landing. This is engineering. That is the code base she’s standing next to there, which would then literally be woven into the computers onboard Apollo.
But as a metaphor, engineering, well, there’s a whole bunch of different kinds of it. What kind of engineer are we talking about here? Is it material engineering, structural engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineering? They all have commonalities. One being, as an engineer, you’ve got to know two things. There’s the materials you’re going to be working with and the tools you’re going to use to shape those materials.
These are obvious tools we use to build the web, but there are less obvious tools. If you were working on a Web project, these tools also get used. You’re going to be talking over email. You’re going to be communicating over Slack, organizing spreadsheets, spreadsheets people.
We talk about these as productivity tools, though sometimes I know it feels like they are reducing productivity rather than increasing it. But it’s kind of a misnomer when you think about productivity tools. All tools are productivity tools. That’s literally what tools are for is to make you more productive.
I think we should acknowledge that these are legitimate design tools. You can’t launch a project without putting in some time and some kind of communication tool.
Then when it comes to the actual welding of these materials, we’ve got a whole bunch of tools that sit in our machines or sit in our Web servers. Now I feel like I’m back up at that top layer of the pace layers and I’m getting overwhelmed with the task runners, the build tools, the chains, the transpilers, and the preprocessors. Apparently, it changes every week. Oh, you’re still using Grunt? No, we’re using Gulp. No, Webpack. That’s what’s so overwhelming.
It also feels like it’s quite complicated. This is complicated stuff, but it’s like we’ve chosen it. We’ve chosen to make our lives complicated, in a way.
I’ll tell you what it reminds me of. Do you remember that startup, Juicero?
Where they sold a big, expensive, complicated machine to make juice, but you had to buy exactly the right juice packets to put in the big, expensive machine to make the juice. It works. It works great. The big, expensive, complicated machine does its job but somebody noticed that you could actually just take the packets and squeeze them by hand and it still produces juice. I’m just saying that squeezing by hand is still an option. You can build websites by squeezing by hand. (I think this metaphor has been stretched just about as far as it can do, so I will leave it there.)
There’s this other kind of spectrum, I guess, between the materials and the tools and then the people that will be exposed to the materials and the tools. They kind of fall into two categories: the engineers themselves and the end-users.
When we’re evaluating our tools and asking, “Is this the right tool to use?” we should evaluate it from our perspective, yes, “Is this going to be a helpful tool to me as an engineer?” if we’re using that metaphor. But I strongly feel we should also ask, “Is this going to be useful for the end-user?”
If those two things come into conflict, what then? Do we privilege our own experience over the user experience? I would hope not. I worry that, in a lot of tool choices, particularly on stuff that gets sent down to the browser. “Oh, I’m going to use a CSS framework.” Great. Good for you. That’s helping you out but now the user has to pay the cost of the benefit that you get from that CSS framework because they have to download the whole CSS framework.
Sometimes, these things come into conflict and I feel like maybe we privileged the developer experience over the user experience and that worries me. The other time they don’t come into conflict. All those tools like preprocessors and task runners that just sit on your own computer, no direct effect on the end-user experience. Frankly, use whatever you like. It doesn’t make a direct effect on the end-user experience.
When we’re evaluating tools, there are all these questions to ask. Who benefits from the tool? If I choose to use this tool, will it benefit the users? Will it benefit the engineers? Neither? Both?
There are other questions we ask like, well, just how good is this tool? To evaluate that we ask; yeah, how well does it work? Does this tool do what it says it will do well?
This, of course, is a completely valid question to ask but there’s a corollary that I think is more valid and that’s to ask not just how well does it work but how well does it fail?
What happens when something goes wrong?
These technologies on the web, they fail well by design. CSS fails well. Use a CSS property the browser doesn’t understand or CSS value. The browser just ignores it. It fails well.
HTML: Make up an HTML element. Throw it into a webpage. The browser doesn’t throw an error. The browser doesn’t stop parsing the webpage. It just ignores it and moves on. It fails well.
It actually makes sense to not jump ahead to the powerful stuff, to the top of the pace layers, but to try and build in layers and stay low for as long as possible. This is actually a principle, a principle that underlies the architecture of the web itself called the Principle of Least Power. You should choose the least powerful language for a given purpose, which seems really counterintuitive.
Why would I choose the least powerful language to do something? Surely, I want more power. The idea here is the power comes at an expense. Power comes at the expense of complexity, fragility. The more powerful technology is maybe more likely to fail badly.
Derek Featherstone put it well. He said:
:hover - done. Right? Oh, you need to make an interactive button? Use the
button element. Be lazy.
This makes a lot of sense, the Principle of Least Power. It makes a lot of sense to me on the web, especially when you combine it with a universal law that definitely applies on the web, and that’s Murphy’s Law:
Anything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong.
This comes directly from the world of engineering. Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. was an aerospace engineer. It’s because he had this attitude, he never lost anybody on his watch.
I think we tend to dismiss things going wrong as edge cases. We kind of assume the average output. Other industries, when they’re making cars, they test them. They strap crash test dummies in. They smack them into walls at high speed.
To be fair, a lot of the reason why they have to do that is because of regulation. They didn’t necessarily choose to do it, but still. Can you imagine if they went, well, actually, we realize that most people are going to drive cars on roads and people driving into walls is an edge case, so we’re not going to worry too much about that?
Now, obviously, you want to hope for the best but you should prepare for the worst. Trent Walton said:
Like cars designed to perform in extreme heat or on icy roads, websites should be built to face the reality of the web’s inherent variability.
The web’s inherent variability, that gets to the heart of it.
Dave Siegel was trying to battle with the pixel-perfect labels was the web’s inherent variability. What John Allsopp was calling was for us to embrace the web’s inherent variability. It’s a feature, not a bug.
Are we engineers? Can we call ourselves engineers? Well, let me tell you something from the world of structural engineering.
This is the plan for the Quebec Bridge in Canada, a cantilever bridge. Construction started at the start of the 20th Century. There was a competition to see who get to design and build a bridge because that’s the way the industry works.
The engineer in charge was named Theodore Cooper. Now, originally, the bridge was meant to be 490 meters long but Theodore Cooper changed the specification to make it 550 meters long, mostly because, up in Scotland, the Firth of Forth Bridge, that was the longest bridge in the world at the time, longest cantilever. He wanted this bridge to exceed that, so he made the bridge longer but he did not recalculate the already high stresses being placed on the material of the bridge.
Oh, also, Theodore Cooper refused to work on site. He was down in New York, supposedly overseeing construction from New York. And when it was proposed that somebody should check his calculations, he took that as a personal afront and said, “No, no, no. No, no, that won’t work,” so there was no code reviews happening on this project.
Now, someone was onsite, the young engineer named Norman McLure. By 1907, August 6th, he had started to notice that the steel was bending, getting a lot of stress. Then again, on August 27th, it had got worse.
Cooper was notified down in New York. He did send a telegram back to Quebec. He said, “Place no more load on Quebec bridge until all facts considered - stop.” But he was inferring that the work should stop. He never explicitly said, “Stop the work right now,” so the telegram was ignored and work continued.
On August 29th, 1907, the bridge collapsed. It was shortly before the end of the day. The whistle was just about to blow to signal the end of the working day. There were 86 workers on the bridge and 75 of them died.
Now, something started happening in Canada a few years after this, by 1925. Engineering schools in Canada started holding private ceremonies around graduation time. This was a ceremony that was separate from qualifications. This wasn’t about whether you were qualified to be an engineer. This was called The Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. You would speak an obligation penned by Rudyard Kipling, which I won’t repeat here because it’s meant to stay within the confines of this ritual.
You would also receive an iron ring. This iron ring would be a symbol of pride of being an engineer, but also a symbol of humility. For the longest time, the myth persisted that the iron itself was made from the steel in the Quebec Bridge. It’s not true, but the Quebec Bridge certainly looms over the idea of the iron ring. You’d wear it on the little finger of your working hand, so it would brush against the paper or the computer keyboard during your working day as a constant reminder of your responsibility as an engineer.
When we call ourselves engineers, I do have to ask, have we earned it? Do we take our responsibility seriously?
Maybe we don’t call ourselves engineers, but then what do we call ourselves? Does it even matter?
Well, we could go back to that original metaphor from the ’90s, under construction. Maybe we’re builders. We build things. The web is under construction. We’re the ones constructing it. It’s not so bad, you know, to be the ones literally building the web. It’s kind of awesome when you think about it.
Christopher Alexander, when he was talking about his reason for coming up with A Pattern Language, was because he said:
Most of the wonderful places in the world were not made by architects but by the people.
Maybe we’re at the bottom of the layer stack here as workers just building the web, but maybe we also have all the power — more power than we realize. Our collective power is greater than anything any architect could wield.
Yeah, maybe we’re builders. Maybe we’re bricklayers. I know Simon comes from a long line of bricklayers. It is a noble profession. Think about what our building blocks are, the building blocks of the World Wide Web.
The World Wide Web, I think, is the next great leap forward. We had language, writing, the printing press, and now hypertext in the form of the Word Wide Web. Who gets to build it? We do with this kind of building block: the URL, a link. What an amazing building block that is.
I can make a webpage and put two links on it linking to two different things. That combination of those two links has never existed before in the history of the web. We’ve created something new, link by link, building block by building block, building in layers.
I’m reminded of an apocryphal story may be from medieval times—who knows—a traveler coming across three workers. All three workers are doing the same thing. They’re building. They’re moving stones. They’re putting stones one on top of the other.
The traveler says to the first builder, “What are you doing?”
He says, “Oh, I’m moving stones.”
He says to the second builder, “What are you doing?” He says, “I’m building a wall.”
He says to the third builder, “What are you doing?”
He says, “I’m building a cathedral.”
They’re all doing the same task but thinking about it in different ways. Maybe that’s what we need to do. Forget about labels, metaphors, architecture, engineer, building, whatever. Just think about what a privilege it is to be doing this, to embrace the fact that we are the builders. We are the bricklayers.
Today, for example, we’re going to hear from quite an amazing collection of bricklayers that I’m really looking forward to hearing from. I want to hear what they’re building. I want to hear their stories of how they built it, why they built it.
But to do that, I need to stop moving air over these vocal cords and flapping this fleshy piece of meat around in my mouth and just stop talking. Thank you for listening.
Tuesday, January 7th, 2020
Dave shares some of his personal horror stories from public speaking, but also some of his practical tips for avoiding those kinds of situations.
Sunday, December 29th, 2019
This is the transcript of a brilliant presentation by Scott—read the whole thing! It starts with a much-needed history lesson that gets to where we are now with the dismal state of performance on the web, and then gives a whole truckload of handy tips and tricks for improving performance when it comes to styles, scripts, images, fonts, and just about everything on the front end.
Friday, December 20th, 2019
Guten Morgen. All right. I’m just going to get started because I’ve got a lot to talk about and I’m very, very excited to be here.
I’m excited to talk about the web. I’ve been thinking a lot about the web. You know, I think a lot about the web all the time, but this year, in particular, thinking about where the web came from; asking myself where the web came from, which is kind of a dumb question because it’s pretty obvious where the web came from.
It came from this guy. This is Tim Berners-Lee and he is the creator of the World Wide Web. It was 30 years ago, March 1989, that he wrote a proposal while he was at CERN, a very dull-looking proposal called “Information Management: A Proposal” that had incomprehensible diagrams trying to explain what he had in mind. But a supervisor, Mike Sendall, saw the potential and scrawled across the top, “Vague but exciting.”
Tim Berners-Lee starts working on this idea he has for a global hypertext system and he starts creating the world’s first web browser and the world’s first web server, which is this NeXT machine which is in the Science Museum in London, a lovely machine, the NeXT box.
I have a great affection for it because, earlier this year, I was very honored to be invited to CERN, along with this bunch of hackers, to take part in a project related to the 30th anniversary of that proposal. I will show you a video that explains the project.
So, we came to CERN this week in order to create some sort of modern-day interpretation of the very first web browser.
Well, the project is to restore the first browser which was developed by the inventor of the Web, and the idea is to create an experience for the people who could not use the web in its early days to have an idea how it felt to use the web at that time.
—Martin Akolo Chiteri
I think the biggest difficulty was to make the browser work in the NeXT machine that we had.
We really needed to work with an original NeXT box in order to really understand what that experience was like in order to be able to write some code and replicate that experience.
We got together a few years back to do a similar sort of hack project here at CERN which was creating the world’s second-ever web browser, which was the Line Mode browser. We had a lot of fun with it and it’s a great bunch of people from all over the world. It’s been really great to get back together and it’s always amazing to be here at CERN, to be at not just the birthplace of the Web, but the most important place on the planet for science.
Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. I kind of don’t want it to be over because we are in our element, hacking away, having fun, and just soaking up the atmosphere, and we are getting to chat with people who were there 30 years ago, Jean-Francois Groff and Robert Cailliau, these people who were involved in the creation of the World Wide web. To me, that’s amazing to be surrounded by so much World Wide Web history.
The plan is that this will go online and anyone will be able to access it because it’s on the web, and that’s the beautiful thing about the web is that anyone can visit a website, and so everyone will have the opportunity to try using the world’s first web browser and see what modern webpages would look like if they were passed through this first web browser.
Well, spoiler alert. The project was a success and you can, indeed, look at your websites in a recreation of the first-ever web browser. This is the URL. It’s worldwideweb.cern.ch.
As you gathered, again, I was really fascinated by the history of the Web, like, where did it come from, and the people who were there at the time and getting to pick their brains. I spent most of my time working on the accompanying website to go with this project. I was creating this timeline.
Because this was to mark the 30th anniversary of this proposal, I thought, well, we could easily look at what has happened in the last 30 years: websites, web servers, formats, standards - all that stuff. But I thought it would be fascinating to look at the previous 30 years as well and try and figure out the things that were happening that influenced Tim Berners-Lee in terms of hypertext, networks, computing, and all this stuff.
But I’d kind of had given myself this arbitrary cut-off point of 30 years to make this nice symmetry of it being the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. I could go further back. I could start asking, well, what happened before 30 years ago? What were the biggest influences on Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web?
Now, if you were to ask Tim Berners-Lee himself who his biggest influencers were, he would give you a straight-up answer. He will say his biggest influencers were Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, his father and mother, which is fair enough. Normally, when you ask people who their influences are, they say, “Oh, my parents. They gave me a loving environment. They kindled my curiosity,” and all that stuff. I’m sure that’s true but, in this case, it was also a big influence in a practical sense in that both Mary and Conway worked on the Ferranti Mark 1. That’s where they met. They were programmers. Tim Berners-Lee’s parents were programmers on the Ferranti Mark 1, a very early computer. This is in the 1950s in Britain.
Okay, this feels like a good origin story for the web, right? They were working on this early computer.
But it’s an early computer; it’s not the first computer. Maybe I need to go back further. How far back do I go to find the first computer?
Is this the first computer, the Antikythera mechanism? You can see this in a museum in Athens. This was recovered from a shipwreck. It was recovered at the start of the 20th Century, but it dates back thousands of years, a mechanism for predicting the position of stars and planets. It does calculations. It is a calculating device. Not a programmable computer as such, though.
If you’re thinking about the origins of the idea of a programmable computer, I think we could start to look at this gentleman, Charles Babbage. This is half of Charles Babbage’s brain, which is in the Science Museum in London along with that original NeXT box that the World Wide web was created on. The other half is in the Computing History Museum in California.
Charles Babbage lived in the 19th Century, and kind of got a lot of seed funding from the U.K. government to build a device, the Difference Engine, which would do calculations. Later on, he scrapped that and started working on the Analytical Engine which would be even better — a 2.0 version. It never got finished, by the way, but it was a really amazing idea because you could see the architecture of like a central processing unit, but it was still fundamentally a calculator, a calculating machine.
The breakthrough in terms of programming maybe came from Charles Babbage’s collaborator. This is Ada Lovelace. She was translating documents by an Italian mathematician about Difference Engines and calculations. She realized that—hang on—if we’re doing operations on numbers, what if those numbers could stand for other concepts, non-numerical like words or thoughts? Then we could do operations on things other than numbers, which is exactly what we do today in modern computing.
If you use a word processor, you’re not processing words; you’re operating on ones and zeros. If you use a graphics program, you’re not actually moving pixels around; you’re operating on ones and zeroes. This idea of how anything could stand in for ones and zeros for numbers kind of started with Ada Lovelace.
But, as I said, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, they never got finished, and this was kind of a dead-end. It turns out, they weren’t an influence.
Later on, for example, this genius who was definitely responsible for the first working computers, Alan Turing, he wasn’t aware of the work of Babbage and Lovelace, which is a shame. He was kind of working in isolation.
He came up with the idea of the universal machine, the Turing Machine. Give it an infinitely long tape and enough state, enough time, you could calculate literally anything, which is pretty much what computers are.
He was working at Bletchley Park breaking the code for the Enigma machines, and that leads to the creation of what I think would be the first programmable computer. This is Colossus at Bletchley Park. This was created by a colleague of Turing, Tommy Flowers.
It is programmable. It’s using valves, but it’s absolutely programmable. It was top secret, so even for years after the war, this was not known about. In the history books, even to this day, you’ll often see ENIAC listed as the first programmable computer, but I think that honor goes to Tommy Flowers and Colossus.
By the way, Alan Turing, after the war, after 1945, he did go on to work and keep on working in the field of computing. In fact, he worked as a consultant at Ferranti. He was working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the same computer where Tim Berners-Lee’s parents met when they were programmers.
As I say, that was after the war ended in 1945. Now, we can’t say that the work at Bletchley Park was responsible for winning the war, but we could probably say that it’s certainly responsible for shortening the war. If it weren’t for the work done by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the war might not have finished in 1945.
1945 is the year that this gentleman wrote a piece that was certainly influential on Tim Berners-Lee. This is Vannevar Bush, a scientist, a thinker. In 1945, he published a piece in the Atlantic Monthly under the heading, “A Scientist Looks at Tomorrow,” he publishes, “As We May Think.”
In this piece, he describes an imaginary device. It’s a mechanical device inside a desk, and the operator is allowed to work on reams and reams of microfilm and to connect ideas together, make these associative trails. This is kind of like hypertext before the word hypertext has been coined. Vannevar Bush calls this device the Memex. That’s published in 1945.
Also, in 1945, this young man has been drafted into the U.S. Navy and he’s shipping out to the Pacific. His name is Douglas Engelbart. Literally as the ship is leaving the harbor to head to the Pacific, word comes through that the war is over.
Now, he still gets shipped out to the Pacific. He’s in the Philippines. But now, instead of fighting against the Japanese, he’s lounging around in a hut on stilts reading magazines and that’s where he reads “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush.
Fast-forward years later; he’s trying to decide what to do with his life other than settle down, get married, have a job, you know, that kind of thing. He thinks, “No, no, I want to make the world a better place.” He realizes that computers could be the way to do this if they could implement something very much like the Memex. Instead of a mechanical device, what if computers could create the Memex, this hypertext system? He devotes his life to this and effectively invents the field of Human Computer Interaction.
On December 9th, 1968, he demonstrates what he’s been working at. This is in San Francisco, and he demonstrates bitmap screens. He demonstrates real-time collaboration on documents, working hypertext …and also he invents the mouse for the demo.
We have a pointing device called a mouse, a standard keyboard, and a special key set we have here. And we are going to go for a picture down on our laboratory in Menlo Park and pipe it up. It’ll show you, from another point of view, more about how that mouse works.
Come in, Menlo Park. Okay, there’s Don Anders’ hand in Menlo Park. In a second, we’ll see the screen that he’s working and the way the tracking spot moves in conjunction with movements of that mouse. I don’t know why we call it a mouse sometimes. I apologize; it started that way and we never did change it.
This was ground-breaking. The mother of all demos, it came to be known as. This was a big influence on Tim Berners-Lee.
At this point, we’ve entered the time cone of those 30 years before the proposal that Tim Berners-Lee made, which is good because this is the moment where I like to branch off from this timeline and sort of turn it around.
The question I’m sure nobody is asking—because you saw there was a video link-up there; Douglas Engelbart is in San Francisco, and he has a video link-up with Menlo Park to demonstrate real-time collaboration with computers—the question nobody is asking is, who is operating the video camera in Menlo Park?
Well, I’ll tell you the answer to that question that nobody is asking. The man operating the video camera in Menlo Park is this man. His name is Stuart Brand. Now, Stuart Brand has spent most of the ‘60s doing what you would do in the ‘60s; he was dropping acid. This was all kosher. This was before it was illegal.
He was on the Merry Pranksters bus with Ken Kesey and, on one particular acid trip, he literally saw the Earth curving away and realizing that, yeah, we’re all on one planet, man! And he started a campaign with badges called, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” I like the “yet” part in there like it’s a conspiracy that we haven’t seen a photograph of the whole Earth.
He was kind of onto something here, realizing that seeing our planet as a whole planet from space could be a consciousness-changing thing much like LSD is a consciousness-changing thing. Sure enough, people did talk about the effect it had when we got photographs like Earthrise from Apollo 8, and he used those pictures when he published the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a series of books.
The Whole Earth Catalog was basically like Wikipedia before the internet. It was this big manual of how to do everything. The idea was, if you were running a commune, living in a commune, you needed to know about technology, and agriculture, and weather, and all the stuff, and you could find that in the Whole Earth Catalog.
He was quite an influential guy, Stuart Brand. You probably heard the Steve Jobs commencement speech where he quotes Stuart Brand, “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” all that stuff.
Stuart Brand also did a lot of writing. After Douglas Engelbart’s demo, he started to see that this computer thing was something else. He literally said computers are the new LSD, so he starts really investigating computing and computers.
He writes this great article in “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1972 about space war, one of the first games you could play on the screen. But he has a wide range of interests. He kind of kicked off the environmental movement in some ways.
At one point, he writes a book about architecture. He writes a book called “How Buildings Learn.” There’s a television series that goes with it as well. This is a classic book (the definition of a classic book being a book that everyone has heard of and nobody has read).
In this book, he starts looking at the work of a British architect called Frank Duffy. Frank Duffy has this idea about architecture he calls shearing layers. The way that Frank Duffy puts it is that a building, properly conceived, consists of several layers of longevity, so kind of different rates of change.
He diagrams this out in terms of a building, and you see that you’ve got the site that the building is on that’s moving at a geological timescale, right? That should be around for thousands of years, we would hope.
Then you’ve got the actual structure that could stand for centuries.
Then you get into the infrastructure inside. You know, the plumbing and all that, you probably want to swap out every few decades.
Basically, until you get down to the stuff inside a room, the furniture that you can move around on a daily basis. You’ve got all these timescales moving from fast to slow as you move inwards into the house.
What I find fascinating about this idea of these different layers as well is the way that each layer depends on the layer below. Like, you can’t have the structure of a building without first having a site to put it on. You can’t move furniture around inside a room until you’ve made the room using the walls and the doors, right? This idea of shearing layers is kind of fascinating, and we’re going to get back to it.
Something else that Stuart Brand went on to do; he was one of the co-founders of the Long Now Foundation. Anybody here part of the Long Now Foundation? Any members of the Long Now Foundation? Ah… It’s a great organization. It’s literally dedicated to long-term thinking. It was founded by Stuart Brand and Danny Hillis, the computer scientist, and Brian Eno, the musician and producer. Like I said, dedicated to long-term thinking. This is my membership card made out of a durable metal because it’s got to last for thousands of years.
If you go on the website of the Long Now Foundation, you’ll notice that the years are made up of five digits, so instead of 2019, it will be 02019. Well, you know, you’ve got to solve the Y10K problem. They’re dedicated to long-term thinking, to trying to think in the longer now.
One of the most famous projects is the clock of the Long Now. This is a clock that will tell time for 10,000 years. Brian Eno has done the chimes. They’re generative. It’ll never chime the same way twice. It chimes once a century. This is a scale model that’s in the Science Museum in London along with half of Charles Babbage’s brain and the original NeXT machine that Tim Berners-Lee created World Wide Web on.
This is just a scale model. The full-sized clock is going to be inside a mountain in west Texas. You’ll be able to visit it. It’ll be like a pilgrimage. Construction is underway. I hope to visit the clock one day.
Stuart Brand collected his thoughts. It’s a really fascinating project when you think about, how do you design something to last 10,000 years? How do you communicate over 10,000 years? One of those tricky design problems almost like the Voyager Golden Record or the Yucca Mountain waste disposal. How do you communicate to future generations? You can’t rely on language. You can’t rely on semiotics. Anyway, he collected a lot of his thoughts into this book called “The Clock of the Long Now,” subtitled “Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer.” He’s thinking about time. That’s when he comes back to shearing layers and these different layers of rates of change; different layers of time.
Stuart Brand abstracts the idea of shearing layers into something called “pace layers.” What if it’s not just architecture? What if any kind of system has these different rates of change, these layers?
He diagrams this out in terms of the human species, so think of humans. We have these different layers that we operate at.
At the lowest, slowest level, there is our nature, literally, like what makes us human in terms of our DNA. That doesn’t change for tens of thousands of years. Physiologically, there’s no difference between a caveman and an astronaut, right?
Then you’ve got culture, which cumulates of centuries, and the tribal identities we have around things like nations, language, and things like that.
Governance, models of governance, so not governments but governance, as in the way we choose to run things, whether that’s a feudal society, or a monarchy, or representative democracy, right? Those things do change, but not too fast, hopefully.
Infrastructure: you’ve got to keep up with the times, you know? This needs to move at a faster pace, again.
Commerce: much more fast-moving. Commerce needs to — you’re getting into the faster timescales there.
Then he puts fashion at the top. By fashion, he means anything that is supposed to be new and exciting, so that includes pop music, for example. The whole idea with fashion is that it’s there to try stuff out and discard it very quickly.
“What about this?” “No.” “What about that?” “Try this.” “No, try that.”
The good stuff, the stuff that kind of sticks to the wall, will maybe find its way down to the longer-lasting layers. Maybe a really good pop song from fashion ends up becoming part of culture, over time.
Here’s the way that Stuart Brand describes pace layers. He says:
Fast learns; slow remembers. Fast proposals, and slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous; slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by a crude innovation and by occasional revolution, but slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.
Fast gets all of our attention but slow has all the power.
Pace layers is one of those ideas that, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You know when you want to make someone’s life a misery, you just teach them about typography. Now they can’t unsee all the terrible kerning in the world. I can’t unsee pace layers. I see them wherever I look.
Does anyone remember this book, UX designers in the room, “The Elements of User Experience,” by Jesse James Garrett? It’s old now. We’re going back in the way but, in it, he’s got this diagram about the different layers to a user experience. You’ve got the strategy below that finally ends up with an interface at the top.
I look at this, and I go, “Oh, right. It’s pace layers. It’s literally pace layers.” Each layer depending on the layer below, the slower layers at the bottom, the faster-moving things at the top.
With this mindset that pace layers are everywhere, I thought, “Can I map out the web in terms of pace layers, the technology stack of the web?” I’m going to give it a go.
At the lowest stack, the slowest moving, I would say there’s the internet itself, as in TCP/IP, the transmission control protocol, Internet protocol created by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf in the ‘70s and pretty much unchanged since then, deliberately dumb, deliberately simple. All it does is move packets around. Pretty much unchanged.
On top of that, you get the other protocols that use TCP/IP, like in the case of the web, the hypertext transfer protocol. Now, this has changed over time. We now have HTTP/2. But it hasn’t been rapid change. It’s been gradual. Again, that kind of feels right. It feels good that HTTP isn’t constantly changing underneath us too much.
Then we serve up over HTTP are URLs. I wish that URLs were down here. I wish that URLs were everlasting, never changing. But, unfortunately, I must acknowledge that that’s not true. Links die. We have to really work hard to keep them alive. I think we should work hard to keep them alive.
What do you put at those URLs? At the simplest level, it’s supposed to be plain text. But this is the web, so let’s say structured text. This is going to be HTML, the hypertext markup language, which Tim Berners-Lee came up with when he created the World Wide Web. I say, “Came up with.” He basically stole it from SGML that scientists at CERN were already using and sprinkled in one or two new tags, as they were calling it back then.
There were maybe like 20-something tags in HTML when Tim Berners-Lee created the web. Now we’ve got over 100 elements, as we call them. But I feel like I’ve been able to keep up with the pace of change. I mean, the vast big kind of growth spurt with HTML was probably HTML5. That’s been a while back now. It’s definitely change that I can keep on top of.
Then we have CSS, the presentation layer. That feels like it’s been moving at a nice clip lately. I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of cool stuff in CSS, like Flexbox and Grid, and all this new stuff that browsers are shipping. Still, I feel like, yeah, yeah, this is good. It’s right that we get lots of CSS pretty rapidly. It’s not completely overwhelming.
I find this very overwhelming. Can I get a show of hands of anybody else who feels overwhelmed by this rate of change? All right. Keep your hands up. Keep your hands up and just look around. I want you to see you are not alone. You are not alone.
input type="email" required. Again, the good stuff moves down into the sort of slower layers. Fast learns; slow remembers.
The other thing I realized when I diagrammed this out was that, “Huh, this kind of maps to how I approach building on the web.” I pretty much take this for granted that it’s going to be on the Internet. There’s not much I can do about that. Then I start thinking about URLs like URL-first design, the information architecture of a site. I think it’s underrated. I think people should create a URL-first design. URL design, in general, I think it’s a really good place to start if you’re building a product or a service.
Then, about your content in terms of structure. What is the most important thing on this page? That should be an H1. Is this a paragraph? Is it a list? Thinking about the structure first and then going on to think about the appearance which is definitely the way you want to go if you’re making something responsive. Think about the structure first and then the appearance and all these different form factors.
This maps really nicely to how I personally approach building things on the web. But, it is a testament to the flexibility of the World Wide Web that, if you don’t want to build in this way, you don’t have to.
Now I’ll point out that, in another medium, this would make complete sense. Like if you’re building a native app. If you build an iOS app and I’ve got an iOS device, I get 100% of what you’ve designed and built. But if you’re building an iOS app and I have an Android device, I get zero percent of what you’ve designed and built because you can’t install an iOS app on an Android device. Either it works great or it doesn’t work at all; 100% or zero percent.
The web doesn’t have to be like that. If you build in that layered way on the web, then maybe I don’t get 100% of what you’ve designed and built but I don’t get zero percent, either. I’ll get something somewhere along the way, hopefully, closer to working great. It goes from not working at all to just about working. It works fine and works well; it works great.
You’re building up these layers of experience, the idea being that nobody gets left behind. Everybody gets something regardless of their device, their network, their browser. Everyone is not going to get the same experience, but everybody gets something. That feels very true to the original sort of founding ideas of the web and it maps so nicely to our technical stack on the web, the fact that you can start to think about things like URLs-first and think about the structure, then the presentation, and then the behavior.
I’m not the only one who likes thinking in this layered kind of way when it comes to the web. I’m going to quote my friend Ethan Marcotte. He says:
That’s a really good point that when you build in the layered way, you’re building in the resilience that something can fall back to a layer a little further down.
This brings up something I’ve mentioned here before at Beyond Tellerrand, which is that, when we’re evaluating technologies, the question we tend to ask is, how well does it work? That’s an absolutely valid question. You’re about to try a new tool, a new framework, a new standard. You ask yourself; how well does it work?
I think the more important question to ask is:
How well does it fail?
Now, this brings up an idea, a principle that definitely influenced Tim Berners-Lee. It was at the heart of his design principles for the World Wide Web. It’s called the Principle of Least Power that states, “Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose,” which sounds really counterintuitive. Why would I choose the least powerful language to do something?
It’s kind of down to the fact that there’s a trade-off. With power, you get a fragility, right? Maybe something that is really powerful isn’t as universal as something simpler. It makes sense to figure out the simplest technology you can use to achieve a task.
I’ll give an example from my friend Derek Featherstone. He says:
Again, he’s talking about the resilience you get by building in a layered way and choosing the least powerful technology.
It’s like a classic example being ARIA. The first rule of ARIA is, don’t use ARIA if you don’t have to. Rather than using a
div and then adding the event handlers and the ARIA roles to make it look like a button, just use a
button. Use the simpler technology lower in the stack.
Now, I get pushback on this because people will tell me, “Well, that’s fine if you’re building something simple, but I’m not building something simple. I’m building something complex.” Everyone likes to think they’re building something complex, right? Everyone is convinced they’re working on really hard things, which makes sense. That’s human nature.
If you’re at a cocktail party and someone says, “What do you do?” and you describe your work and they say, “Oh, okay. That sounds really easy,” you’d be offended, right?
If you’re at a party and someone says, “What do you do?” you describe your work and they go, “Wow, God, that sounds hard,” you’d be like, “Yeah! Yeah, it is hard. What I do is hard.”
I think we gravitate to this, especially when someone markets it as, “This is a serious tool for serious, complex sites.” I’m like, “That’s me. I’m working on a serious, complex site.”
I don’t think the reality is quite like that. Reality is just messier. There’s nothing quite that simple. Very few things are really that complex.
Everything kind of exists on this continuum somewhere along the way. Even the simplest website has some form of interaction, something appy about it.
Those are those other two terms people use when talking about simple and complex is website and web app, as if you can divide the entirety of the whole World Wide Web into two categories: websites and web apps.
Again, that just doesn’t make sense to me. I think the truth is, things are messier and schmooshier between this continuum of websites and web apps. I don’t get why we even need the separate word. It’s all web stuff.
Though, there is this newer term, “Progressive Web App,” that I kind of like.
Who has heard of Progressive Web Apps? All right.
Who thinks they have a good handle on what a Progressive Web App is?
Okay. See, that’s a lot fewer hands, which is totally understandable because, if you start googling, “What is a Progressive Web App?” you get these Zen-like articles. “It’s a state of mind.” “It’s about rich, native-like interactions, man.”
No. No, it’s not. Worse still, you read, “Oh, a Progressive Web App is a Single PageApp.” I was like, no, you’ve lost me there. No, it’s not. Or least it can be, but any website can be a Progressive Web App. You can elevate a website to be a Progressive Web App.
I don’t mean in some sort of Zen-like fashion. I mean using technologies, three particular technologies.
- You make sure that website is running HTTPS,
- you have a web app manifest that’s a JSON file with metadata, and
- you have a service worker that gets installed on the user’s device.
That’s it. These three technologies turn a website into a Progressive Web App — no mystery about it.
I’m not going to go into how it works because I’ve written plenty about that in this book “Going Offline,” so if you want to know the code, you can go read the book.
I will say that when I first came across service workers, it totally did my head in because this is my mental model of the web. We’ve got the stack of technologies that we’re building on top of, each layer depending on the layer below. Then service workers come along and say, “Well, actually, you could have a website like this,” where the lowest layer, the network, the Internet goes away and the website still works. Mind is blown!
It took me a while to get my head around that. The service worker file is on the user’s device and, if they’ve got no Internet connect, it can still make decisions and serve up something like a custom offline page.
Here’s a website I run called huffduffer.com. It’s for making your own podcast out of found sounds. If you’re offline or the website is down, which happens, and you visit Huffduffer, you get this offline page saying, “Sorry, you’re offline.” Not very useful, but it’s branded like the site, okay? It’s almost like the way you have a custom 404 page. Now you can have a custom offline page that matches your site. It’s a small thing, but it can be handy.
We ran this conference in Brighton for two years, Ampersand. It’s a web typography conference. That also has a very simple offline page that just says, “Sorry. You’re offline,” but then it has the bare minimum information you need about the conference like where is this conference happening; what time does it start?
You can imagine a restaurant website having this, an offline page that tells you, “Here is the address. Here are the opening hours.” I would like it if restaurant websites had that information when you’re online as well, but…
You can also have fun with this, like Trivago. Their site relies on search, so there’s not much you can do when you’re offline, so they give you a game to play, the offline maze to keep you entertained.
That’s kind of at the simplest level of what you could do, a custom offline page.
Then at the other level, I’ve written this book called “Resilient web Design.” A lot of the ideas I’m talking about here are in this book. The book is a website. You go to the website and you read the book. That’s it. It’s free. You just go to resilientwebdesign.com. I mean free. I don’t ask for your email address and I’m not tracking any information at all.
This is how it looks when you’re online, and then this is how it looks when you’re offline. It is exactly the same. In fact, the moment you visit the website, it basically downloads the whole book.
Now, that’s the extreme example. Most websites, you wouldn’t want to do that because you kind of want the HTML to be fresh. This is never going to get updated. I’m done with this so I’m totally fine with, you go straight to the cache; never even go to the network. It’s absolutely offline first. You’re probably going to want something in between those two extremes.
On my own website, adactio.com, if you’re browsing around the website and you’re reading things, that’s all fine. Then what if you lose your internet connection? You get the custom offline page that says, “Sorry, you’re offline,” but then it also shows you the things you’ve previously visited.
You can revisit any of these pages. These have all been cached, so you can cache things as people are browsing around the site. That’s a nice little pattern that a lot of websites could benefit from. It only suffers from the fact that all I can show you is stuff you’ve already seen. You have to have already visited these pages for them to show up in this list. Another pattern that I think is maybe better from a user experience point is when you put the control in the hands of the user.
This website, archive.dconstruct.org, this is what it sounds like. It’s an archive. It’s conference talks.
We ran a conference called dConstruct for 10 years from 2005 to 2015. Breaking news; we’re bringing it back for a one-off event next year, September 2020.
Anyway, all the talks from ten years are online here as audio files. You can browse around and listen to these talks.
You’ll also see that there’s this option to save for offline, exposed on the interface. What that does it is doesn’t just save the page offline; it also saves the audio offline. Then, when you’re an airplane or at the bottom of the ocean or whatever, you can then listen to the things you explicitly asked to be saved offline. It’s effectively a podcast player in the browser.
You see there’s a lot of things you can do. There are kind of a lot of layers you can build upon once you have a service worker.
Then think about, well, maybe I should have a custom offline page, even if it’s just for the branding reasons of having that nice page, just like we have a custom 404 page.
Then you start thinking, well, I want the adding to home screen experience to be good, so you’ve got the web app manifest.
You implement one of those patterns there allowing the users to save things offline, maybe.
Also, push notifications are now possible thanks to service workers. It used to be, if you wanted to make someone’s life a misery, you had to build a native app to give them push notifications all day long. Now you can make someone’s life a misery on the web too.
There’s even more advanced APIs like background sync where the website can talk to the web server even when that website isn’t open in the browser and sync up information — super powerful stuff.
Now, the support for something like service worker and the cache API is almost universal at this point. The support for stuff like background sync notifications is spottier, not universal, and that’s okay because, as long as you’re adding these things in layers. Then it’s fine if something doesn’t have universal support, right? It’s making something work great but, if someone doesn’t get that, it still works good. It’s all about building in that layered way.
In the case of service workers, you literally cannot make a website that relies on a service worker. You have to make a website that works first without a service worker and then add the service worker on top, because, think about it; the first time anybody visits the website, even if their browser supports service workers, the service worker is not installed. So you have to build in layers.
I think this is why it appeals to me so much. The design of service workers is a layered design. You have to have something that works first, and then you elevate it. You improve the user experience using these technologies but you don’t rely on it. It’s not a single point of failure. It’s an enhancement.
That means you can take any website. Somebody’s homepage; a book that’s online; this archived stuff ; something that is more appy, sure, and make it work pretty much like a native app. It can appear full screen, add to the home screen, be indistinguishable from native apps so that the latest and greatest browsers and devices get the best experience. They’re making full use of the newest technologies.
But, as well as these things working in the latest and greatest browsers, they still work in the first web browser ever created. You can still look at these things in that very first web browser that Tim Berners-Lee created at worldwideweb.cern.ch.
It’s like it is an unbroken line over 30 years on the web. We’re not talking about the Long Now when we’re talking about 30 years but, in terms of technology, that does feel special.
You can also look at the world’s first webpage in the first-ever web browser but, almost more amazingly, you can look at the world’s first web page at its original URL in a modern web browser and it still works.
We managed to make the web so much better with new APIs, new technologies, without breaking it, without breaking that backward compatibility. There’s something special about that. There’s something special about the web if you build in layers.
I’m encouraging you to think in terms of layers and use the layers of the web.
Monday, December 16th, 2019
Liveblogging An Event Apart 2019
I managed to do a bit of liveblogging during the event. Combined with the liveblogging I did during the other two Events Apart that I attended this year—Seattle and Chicago—that makes a grand total of seventeen liveblogged presentations!
- Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
- Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
- Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
- Generation Style by Eric Meyer
- Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
- Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
- How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
- From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
- Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
- Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
- Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
- Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell
- Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
- Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby
- The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
- The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
- The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost
For my part, I gave my talk on Going Offline. Time to retire that talk now.
Here’s what I wrote when I first gave the talk back in March at An Event Apart Seattle:
I was quite nervous about this talk. It’s very different from my usual fare. Usually I have some big sweeping arc of history, and lots of pretentious ideas joined together into some kind of narrative arc. But this talk needed to be more straightforward and practical. I wasn’t sure how well I would manage that brief.
The dates for next year’s Events Apart have been announced, and I’ll be speaking at three of them:
The question is, do I attempt to deliver another practical code-based talk or do I go back to giving a high-level talk about ideas and principles? Or, if I really want to challenge myself, can I combine the two into one talk without making a Frankenstein’s monster?
Come and see me at An Event Apart in 2020 to find out.
Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost
You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.
I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…
“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.
When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.
Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.
He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:
- Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
- Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
- Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
- Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
- Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
- Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
- Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.
Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.
Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.
How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.
Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.
How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.
Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.
Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?
You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.
Design and build
Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:
Embrace the snowflakes.
The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.
When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.
The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.
Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.
So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.
It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.
The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.
Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.
You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.
What does it mean to “launch” a design system?
A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.
There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:
- Least integrated: static.
- Front-end reference code.
- Most integrated: consumable compents.
Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.
Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.
Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.
A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.
What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.
That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.
This is hard.
- Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
- Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
- Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
- Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
- Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
- Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
- Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.
You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.
Tuesday, December 10th, 2019
The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
Design systems have dominated web design conversations for a few years. Just as there’s no one way to make a website, there is no one way to make a design system. Unfortunately this has led to a lot of misconceptions around the creation and impact of this increasingly important tool.
Drawing on her experiences building design systems at two highly visible and vastly different organizations, Mina will debunk some common myths surrounding design systems.
Mina is a designer who codes. Or an engineer who designs. She makes websites. She works at Slack, but she doesn’t work on the product; she works on slack.com and the Slack blog. Mina also makes design systems. She loves design systems!
There are some myths she’s heard about design systems that she wants to dispel. She will introduce us to some mythological creatures along the way.
Myth 1: Designers “own” the design system
Mina was once talking to a product designer about design systems and was getting excited. The product designer said, nonplussed, “Aren’t you an engineer? Why do you care?” Mina explained that she loved design systems. The product designer said “Y’know, design systems should really be run by designers” and walked away.
Mina wondered if she had caused offense. Was she stepping on someone’s toes? The encounter left her feeling sad.
Thinking about it later, she realised that the conversation about design systems is dominated by product designers. There was a recent Twitter thread where some engineers were talking about this: they felt sidelined.
The reality is that design systems should be multi-disciplinary. That means engineers but it also means other kinds of designers other than product designers too: brand designers, content designers, and so on.
What you need is a hybrid, or unicorn: someone with complimentary skills. As Jina has said, design systems themselves are hybrids. Design systems give hybrids (people) a home. Hybrids help bring unity to an organization.
Myth 2: design systems kill creativity
Mina hears this one a lot. It’s intertwined with some other myths: that design systems don’t work for editorial content, and that design systems are just a collection of components.
Components are like mermaids. Everyone knows what one is supposed to look like, and they can take many shapes.
But if you focus purely on components, then yes, you’re going to get frustrated by a feeling of lacking creativity. Mina quotes @brijanp saying “Great job scrapbookers”.
Design systems encompass more than components:
- High level principles.
- Brand guidelines.
- Coding standards.
- Accessibility compliance.
A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.
Rules and creativity are not mutually exclusive. Rules can be broken.
For a long time, Mina battled against one-off components. But then she realised that if they kept coming up, there must be a reason for them. There is a time and place for diverging from the system.
It’s like Alice Lee says about illustrations at Slack:
There’s a time and place for both—illustrations as stock components, and illustrations as intentional complex extensions of your specific brand.
Your design system is your pantry, not your cookbook.
If you keep combining your ingredients in the same way, then yes, you’ll keep getting the same cake. But if you combine them in different ways, there’s a lot of room for creativity. Find the key moments of brand expression.
There are strict and loose systems.
Strict design systems are what we usually think of. AirBnB’s design system is a good example. It’s detailed and tightly controlled.
A loose design system will leave more space for experimentation. TED’s design system consists of brand colours and wireframes. Everything else is left to you:
Consistency is good only insofar as it doesn’t prevent you from trying new things or breaking out of your box when the context justifies it.
A good design sytem helps you improvise.
Thinking about strict vs. loose reminds Mina of product vs. marketing. A design system for a product might need to be pixel perfect, whereas editorial design might need more breathing room.
Mina has learned to stop fighting the one-off snowflake components in a system. You want to enable the snowflakes without abandoning the system entirely.
A loose system is key for maintaining consistency while allowing for exploration and creativity.
Myth 3: a design system is a side project
Brad guffaws at this one.
Okay, maybe no one has said this out loud, but you definitely see a company’s priorities focused on customer-facing features. A design system is seen as something for internal use only. “We’ll get to this later” is a common refrain.
“Later” is a mythical creature—a phoenix that will supposedly rise from the ashes of completed projects. Mina has never seen a phoenix. You never see “later” on a roadmap.
Don’t treat your design system as a second-class system. If you do, it will not mature. It won’t get enough time and resources. Design systems require real investment.
Mina has heard from people trying to start design systems getting the advice, “Just do it!” It seems like good advice, but it could be dangerous. It sets you up for failure (and burnout). “Just doing it” without support is setting people up for a bad experience.
The alternative is to put it on the roadmap. But…
Myth 4: a design system should be on the product roadmap
At a previous company, Mina once put a design system on the product roadmap because she saw it wasn’t getting the attention it needed. The answer came back: nah. Mina was annoyed. She had tried to “just do it” and now when she tried to do it through the right channels, she’s told she can’t.
But Mina realised that it’s not that simple. There are important metrics she might not have been aware of.
A roadmap is multi-faceted thing, like Cerebus, the three-headed dog of the underworld.
Okay, so you can’t put the design sytem on the roadmap, but you can tie it to something with a high priority. You could refactor your way to a design system. Or you could allocate room in your timeline to slip in design systems work (pad your estimates a little). This is like a compromise between “Just do it!” and “Put it on the roadmap.”
A system’s value is realized when products ship features that use a system’s parts.
The other problem with putting a design system on the roadmap is that it implies there’s an end date. But a design system is never finished (unless you abandon it).
Myth 5: our system should do what XYZ’s system did
It’s great that there are so many public design systems out there to look to and get inspired by. We can learn from them. “Let’s do that!”
But those inspiring public systems can be like a succubus. They’re powerful and seductive and might seem fun at first but ultimately leave you feeling intimidated and exhausted.
Your design system should be build for your company’s specific needs, not Google’s or Github’s or anyone’s.
Slack has multiple systems. There’s one for the product called Slack Kit. It’s got great documentation. But if you go on Slack’s marketing website, it doesn’t look like the product. It doesn’t use the same typography or even colour scheme. So it can’t use the existing the design system. Mina created the Spacesuit design system specifically for the marketing site. The two systems are quite different but they have some common goals:
- Establish common language.
- Reduce technical debt.
- Allow for modularity.
But there are many different needs between the Slack client and the marketing site. Also the marketing site doesn’t have the same resources as the Slack client.
Be inspired by other design systems, but don’t expect the same resutls.
Myth 6: everything is awesome!
When you think about design systems, everything is nice and neat and orderly. So you make one. Then you look at someone else’s design system. Your expectations don’t match the reality. Looking at these fully-fledged design systems is like comparing Instagram to real life.
The perfect design system is an angel. It’s a benevolent creature acting as an intermediary between worlds. Perhaps you think you’ve seen one once, but you can’t be sure.
The truth is that design system work is like laying down the railway tracks while the train is moving.
For a developer, it is a rare gift to be able to implement a project with a clean slate and no obligations to refactor an existing codebase.
Mina got to do a complete redesign in 2017, accompanied by a design system. The design system would power the redesign. Everything was looking good. Then slowly as the rest of the team started building more components for the website, unconnected things seemed to be breaking. This is what design systems are supposed to solve. But people were creating multiple components that did the same thing. Work was happening on a deadline.
Even on the Hillary For America design system (Pantsuit), which seemed lovely and awesome on the outside, there were multiple components that did the same thing. The CSS got out of hand with some very convoluted selectors trying to make things flexible.
Mina wants to share those stories because it sometimes seems that we only share the success stories.
Share work in progress. Learn out in the open. Be more vulnerable, authentic, and real.
Saturday, November 16th, 2019
Here are the slides from my opening keynote at Beyond Tellarrand on Thursday. They don’t make much sense out of context.
I’m really pleased with how this turned out. I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to be interested in the deep dive into history that I took for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but lots of people told me that they really enjoyed that part, so that makes me happy.
Monday, November 11th, 2019
The slides from Laura’s excellent talk at FF Conf on Friday.
FF Conf 2019
Friday was FF Conf day here in Brighton. This was the eleventh(!) time that Remy and Julie have put on the event. It was, as ever, excellent.
It’s a conference that ticks all the boxes for me. For starters, it’s a single-track event. The more I attend conferences, the more convinced I am that multi-track events are a terrible waste of time for attendees (and a financially bad model for organisers). I know that sounds like a sweeping broad generalisation, but ask me about it next time we meet and I’ll go into more detail. For now, I just want to talk about this mercifully single-track conference.
FF Conf has built up a rock-solid reputation over the years. I think that’s down to how Remy curates it. He thinks about what he wants to know and learn more about, and then thinks about who to invite to speak on those topics. So every year is like a snapshot of Remy’s brain. By happy coincidence, a snapshot of Remy’s brain right now looks a lot like my own.
You could tell that Remy had grouped the talks together in themes. There was a performance-themed chunk right after lunch. There was a people-themed chunk in the morning. There was a creative-coding chunk at the end of the day. Nice work, DJ.
I think it was quite telling what wasn’t on the line-up. There were no talks about specific libraries or frameworks. For me, that was a blessed relief. The only technology-specific talk was Alice’s excellent talk on Git—a tool that’s useful no matter what you’re coding.
One of the reasons why I enjoyed the framework-free nature of the day is that most talks—and conferences—that revolve around libraries and frameworks are invariably focused on the developer experience. Think about it: next time you’re watching a talk about a framework or library, ask yourself how it impacts user experience.
At FF Conf, the focus was firmly on people. In the case of Laura’s barnstorming presentation, those people are end users (I’m constantly impressed by how calm and measured Laura remains even when talking about blood-boilingly bad behaviour from the tech industry). In the case of Amina’s talk, the people are junior developers. And for Sharon’s presentation, the people are everyone.
One of the most useful talks of the day was from Anna who took us on a guided tour of dev tools to identify performance improvements. I found it inspiring in a very literal sense—if I had my laptop with me, I think I would’ve opened it up there and then and started tinkering with my websites.
Harry also talked about performance, but at Remy’s request, it was more business focused. Specifically, it was focused on Harry’s consultancy business. I think this would’ve been the perfect talk for more of an “industry” event, whereas FF Conf is very much a community event: Harry’s semi-serious jibes about keeping his performance secrets under wraps didn’t quite match the generous tone of the rest of the line-up.
(Oh, and Remy, when you start to put together the line-up for next year’s FF Conf, be sure to check out Charlotte Dann—her talk at Material was the perfect mix of code and creativity.)
I don’t think I can take credit for Charlotte being on the line-up, but I will take credit for saying she’d be the perfect fit.
And then Suz Hinton closed out the conference with this rallying cry that resonated perfectly with Laura’s talk:
Less mass-produced surveillance bullshit and more Harry Potter magic (please)!
I think that rallying cry could apply equally well to conferences, and I think FF Conf is a good example of that ethos in action.