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Monday, January 4th, 2021

Speaking online

I really, really missed speaking at conferences in 2020. I managed to squeeze in just one meatspace presentation before everything shut down. That was in Nottingham, where myself and Remy reprised our double-bill talk, How We Built The World Wide Web In Five Days.

That was pretty much all the travelling I did in 2020, apart from a joyous jaunt to Galway to celebrate my birthday shortly before the Nottingham trip. It’s kind of hilarious to look at a map of the entirety of my travel in 2020 compared to previous years.

Mind you, one of my goals for 2020 was to reduce my carbon footprint. Mission well and truly accomplished there.

But even when travel was out of the question, conference speaking wasn’t entirely off the table. I gave a brand new talk at An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus in August. It was called Design Principles For The Web and I’ve just published a transcript of the presentation. I’m really pleased with how it turned out and I think it works okay as an article as well as a talk. Have a read and see what you think (or you can listen to the audio if you prefer).

Giving a talk online is …weird. It’s very different from public speaking. The public is theoretically there but you feel like you’re just talking at your computer screen. If anything, it’s more like recording a podcast than giving a talk.

Luckily for me, I like recording podcasts. So I’m going to be doing a new online talk this year. It will be at An Event Apart’s Spring Summit which runs from April 19th to 21st. Tickets are available now.

I have a pretty good idea what I’m going to talk about. Web stuff, obviously, but maybe a big picture overview this time: the past, present, and future of the web.

Time to prepare a conference talk.

Design Principles For The Web

The opening presentation from An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus held online in August 2020.

I’d like to take you back in time, just over 100 years ago, at the beginning of World War One. It’s 1914. The United States would take another few years to join, but the European powers were already at war in the trenches, as you can see here.

A drawing of early trench warfare with soldiers wearing winter coats and peaked caps.

What I want to draw your attention to is what they’re wearing, specifically what they’re wearing on their heads. This is the standard issue for soldiers at the beginning of World War One, a very fetching cloth cap. It looks great. Not very effective at stopping shrapnel from ripping through flesh and bone.

It wasn’t long before these cloth caps were replaced with metal helmets; much sturdier, much more efficient at protection. This is the image we really associate with World War One; soldiers wearing metal helmets fighting in the trenches.

A photograph of three allied soldiers sitting together for a meal in a trench wearing camouflage uniforms and metal helmets.

Now, an interesting thing happened after the introduction of these metal helmets. If you were to look at the records from the field hospitals, you would see that there was an increase in the number of patients being admitted with severe head injuries after the introduction of these metal helmets. That seems odd and the only conclusion that we could draw seems to be that cloth helmets are actually better than the metal helmets at stopping these kind of injuries. But that wouldn’t be correct.

You can see the same kind of data today. Any state where they introduce motorcycle helmet laws saying it’s mandatory to wear motorcycle helmets, you will see an increase in the number of emergency room admissions for severe head injuries for motorcyclists.

Now, in both cases, what’s missing is the complete data set because, yes, while in World War One there was an increase in the field hospital admissions for head injuries, there was a decrease in deaths. Just as today, if there’s an increase in emergency room admissions for severe head injuries because of motorcycle helmets, you will see a decrease in the number of people going to the morgue.

Analytics

I kind of like these stories of analytics where there’s a little twist in the tale where the obvious solution turns out not to be the correct answer and our expectations are somewhat subverted. My favorite example of analytics on the web comes from a little company called YouTube. This is from a few years back.

It was documented by an engineer at YouTube called Chris Zacharias. He blogged about this. He was really frustrated with the page weight on a YouTube video page, which at the time was 1.2 megabytes. That’s without the video. That’s the HTML, the CSS, the JavaScript, the images. This just seemed too big (and I would agree: it is too big).

Chris set about working on making a smaller version of a video page. He called this Project Feather. He worked and worked at it, and he managed to get a page down to just 98 kilobytes, so from 1.2 megabytes to 98 kilobytes. That’s an order of magnitude difference.

Then he set up shipping this to different segments of the audience and watching the analytics to see what rolled in. He was hoping to see a huge increase in the number of people engaging with the content. But here’s what he blogged.

The average aggregate page latency under Feather had actually increased. I had decreased the total page weight and number of requests to a tenth of what they were previously and somehow the numbers were showing that it was taking longer for videos to load on Feather, and this could not be possible. Digging through the numbers more (and after browser testing repeatedly), nothing made sense.

I was just about to give up on the project with my world view completely shattered when my colleague discovered the answer: geography. When we plotted the data geographically and compared it to our total numbers (broken out by region), there was a disproportionate increase in traffic from places like Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and even remote regions of Siberia.

A further investigation revealed that, in those places, the average page load time under Feather was over two minutes. That means that a regular video page (at over a megabyte) was taking over 20 minutes to load.

Again, what was happening here was that there was a whole new set of data. There were people who literally couldn’t even load the page because it would take 20 minutes who couldn’t access YouTube who now, because of this Project Feather, for the first time were able to access YouTube. What that looked like, according to the analytics, was that page load time had overall gone up. What was missing was the full data set.

Expectations

I really like these stories that kind of play with our expectations. When the reveal comes, it’s almost like hearing the punchline to a joke, right? Your expectations are set up and then subverted.

Jeff Greenspan is a comedian who talks about this. He talks about expectations in terms of music and comedy. He points out that they both deal with expectations over time.

In music, the pleasure comes from your expectations being met. A song sets up a rhythm. When that rhythm is met, that’s pleasurable. A song is using a particular scale and when those notes on that scale are hit, it’s pleasurable. Music that’s not fun to listen to tends to be arhythmic and atonal where you can’t really get a handle on what’s going to come next.

Comedy works the other way where it sets up expectations and then pulls the rug out from under you — the surprise.

Now, you can use music and you can use comedy in your designs. If you were setting up a lovely grid and a vertical rhythm, that’s like music. It’s a lovely, predictable feeling to that. But you can also introduce a bit of comedy; something that peeks out from the grid. You upset (just occasionally) something with a bit of subverted expectations.

You don’t want something that’s all music. Maybe that’s a little boring. You don’t want something that’s all comedy because then it’s just crazy and hard to get a handle on.

You can see music and comedy in how you consume news. You notice that when you read your news sources, all it does is confirm what you already believe. You read something about someone, and you think, “Yes, they’ve done something bad and I always thought they were bad, so that has confirmed my expectations.” It’s like music.

I read something that somebody has done and I always thought they were a good person. This now confirms that they are a good person. That is music to my ears. If your news feels like that, feels like music, then you may be in a bubble.

The comedy approach to music would be more like the clickbait you see at the bottom of the Internet where it’s like, “Click here. You won’t believe what these child stars look like now.” The promise there is that we will subvert your expectations, and that’s where the pleasure will come.

Survivorship bias

My favorite story from history about analytics is not from World War One but from the sequel, World War Two, where again the United States were a few years late to this world war. But when they did arrive and started their bombing raids on Germany, they were coming from England. The bombers would come back all shot up, and so there was a whole thinktank dedicated to figuring out how we can reinforce these planes in certain areas.

You can’t reinforce the whole plane. That would make it too heavy, but you could apply some judicious use of metal reinforcement to protect the plane.

A scatterplot diagram of an airplane showing bullet holes concentrated in the middle of the fuselage, the wings, and the tail.

They treated this as a data problem, as an analytics problem. They looked at the planes coming back. They plotted where the bullet holes were, and that led them to conclude where they should put the reinforcements. You can see here that the wings were getting all shot up, the middle of the fuselage, so clearly that’s where the reinforcements should go.

There was a statistician, a mathematician named Abraham Wald. He looked at the exact same data and he said, “No, we need to reinforce the front of the plane where there are no bullet holes. We need to reinforce the back of the fuselage where there are no bullet holes.”

What he realized was that all the data they were seeing was actually a subset of the complete data set. They were only seeing the planes that made it back. What was missing were all the planes that got shot down. If all the planes that made it back didn’t have any bullet holes in the front of the plane, then you could probably conclude that if you get a bullet hole in the front of the plane, you’re not going to make it back. This became the canonical example of what we now call survivorship bias, which is this tendency to look at the subset of data — the winners.

You see survivorship bias all the time. You walk into a bookstore and you look at the business section and its books by successful business people; that’s survivorship bias. Really, the whole section should be ten times as big and feature ten times as many books written by people who had unsuccessful businesses because that would be a much more representative sample.

We see survivorship bias. You go onto Instagram and you look at people’s Instagram photos. Generally, they’re posting their best life, right? It’s the perfect selfie. It’s the perfect shot. It’s not a representative sample of what somebody’s life looks like. That’s survivorship bias.

Design systems

We have a tendency to do it on the web, too, when people publish their design systems. Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that companies are making their design systems public. It’s something I’ve really lobbied for. I’ve encouraged people to do this. Please, if you have a design system, make it public so we can all learn from it.

I really appreciate that people do that, but they do tend to wait until it’s perfect. They tend to wait until they’ve got the success.

What we’re missing are all the stories of what didn’t work. We’re missing the bigger picture of the things they tried that just failed completely. I feel like we could learn so much from that. I feel like we can learn as much from anti-patterns as we can from patterns, if not more so.

Robin Rendle talked about this in a blog post recently about design systems. He said:

The ugly truth is that design systems work is not easy. What works for one company does not work for another. In most cases, copying the big tech company of the week will not make a design system better at all. Instead, we have to acknowledge how difficult our work is collectively. Then we have to do something that seems impossible today—we must publicly admit to our mistakes. To learn from our community, we must be honest with one another and talk bluntly about how we’ve screwed things up.

I completely agree. I think that would be wonderful if we shared more openly. I do try to encourage people to share their stories, successes, and failures.

I organized a conference a few years back all about design systems called Patterns Day and invited the best and brightest: Alla Kholmatova, Jina Anne, Paul Lloyd, Alice Bartlett – all these wonderful people. It was wonderful to hear people come up and sort of reassure you, “Hey, none of us have got this figured out. We’re all trying to figure out what we’re doing here.” The audience really needed to hear that. They really needed to hear that reassurance that this is hard.

Gaps and overlaps

I did Patterns Day again last year. My favorite talk at Patterns Day last year, I think, was probably from Danielle Huntrods. I’m biased here because I used to work with Danielle. She used to work at Clearleft, and she’s an absolutely brilliant front-end developer.

She had this lens that she used when she was talking about design systems and other things. She talked about gaps and overlaps, which is one of those things that’s lodged in my brain. I kind of see it everywhere.

She said that when you’re categorizing things, you’re putting things into categories, that means some things will fall between those categories. That leaves you with the gaps, the things that aren’t being covered. It’s almost like Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns and all that.

What can also happen when you put things into categories is you get these overlaps where there’s duplication; two things are responsible for the same task. This duplication of effort, of course, is what we’re trying to avoid with design systems. We’re trying to be efficient. We don’t want multiple versions of the same thing. We want to be able to reuse one component. There’s a danger there.

She’s saying what we do with the design system is we concentrate on cataloging these components. We do our interface inventory, but we miss the connective part. We miss the gaps between the components. Really, what makes something a system is not so much a collection of components but how those components fit together, those gaps between them.

Fluffy edges

Danielle went further. She didn’t just talk about gaps and overlaps in terms of design systems and components. She talked about it in terms of roles and responsibilities. If you have two people who believe they’re responsible for the same thing, that’s going to lead to a clash.

Worse, you’re working on a project and you find out that there was nobody responsible for doing something. It’s a gap. Everyone assumes that the other person was responsible for getting that thing done.

“Oh, you’re not doing that?” “I thought you were doing that.” “Oh, I thought you were doing that.”

This is the source of so much frustration in projects, either these gaps or these overlaps in roles and responsibilities. Whenever we start a project at Clearleft, we spend quite a bit of time getting this role mapping correct, trying to make sure there aren’t any gaps and there aren’t any overlaps. Really, it’s about surfacing those assumptions.

“Oh, I assumed I was responsible for that.” “No, no. I assumed I was the one who would be doing that.”

We clarify this stuff as early as possible in the design process. We even have a game we play called Fluffy Edges. It’s literally like a card game. We’d ask these questions, “Who is responsible for this? Who is going to do this?” It’s kind of good fun, but really it is about surfacing those assumptions and getting clarity on the roles at the beginning of the design process.

The design process

Now, the design process, I’m talking about the design process like it’s this known thing and it really isn’t. It’s a notoriously difficult thing to talk about the design process.

A squiggle that starts big and messy on the left but resolves into a straight line on the right.

Here’s one way of thinking about the design process. This is The Design Squiggle by Damien Newman. He used to be at IDEO. I actually think this is a pretty accurate representation of what the design process feels like for an individual designer. You go into the beginning and it’s chaos, it’s a mess, and it’s entropy. Then, over time, you begin to get a handle on things until you get to this almost inevitable result at the end.

I’m not sure it’s an accurate representation of what the collaborative design process feels like. There’s a different diagram that resonates a lot with us at Clearleft, which is the Double Diamond diagram from Chris Vanstone at the Design Council. The way of thinking about the Double Diamond is almost like it’s two design squiggles back-to-back.

Two back-to-back diamond shapes. The first diamond is labelled with the words discover and define. The second diamond is labelled with the words execute and deliver.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the idea is that the design process is split into these triangles. First, it’s the discovery. Then we define. So we’re going out wide with discovery. Then we narrow it down with the definition. Then it’s time to build a thing and we open up wide again to figure out how we’re going to execute this thing. Once we got that figured out, we narrow down into the delivery phase.

The way of thinking about this is the first diamond (discovery and definition), that’s about building the right thing. Make sure you’re building the right thing first. The second diamond (about execution and delivery), that’s about building the thing right. Building the right thing and building the thing right.

The important thing is they follow this pattern of going wide and going narrow. This divergent phase with discovery and then convergent for definition. There’s a divergent phase for execution and then convergent for delivery.

If you take nothing else in the Double Diamond approach, it’s this way of making explicit when you’re in a divergent or convergent phase. Again, it’s kind of about servicing that assumption. “Oh, I assumed we were converging.” “No, no, no. We are diverging here.” That’s super, super useful.

I’ll give you an example. If you are in a meeting, at the beginning of the meeting, state whether it’s a divergent meeting or a convergent meeting. If you were in a meeting where the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible during a meeting, make that clear at the beginning because what you don’t want is somebody in the meeting who thinks the point is to converge on a solution.

You’ve got these people generating ideas and then there’s one person going, “No, that will never work. Here’s why. Oh, that’s technically impossible. Here’s why.” No, if you make it clear at the start, “There are no bad ideas. We’re in a divergent meeting,” everyone is on the same page.

Conversely, if it’s a convergent meeting, you need to make that clear and say, “The point of this meeting is that we come to a decision, one decision,” and you need to make that clear because what you don’t want in a convergent meeting is it’s ten minutes to launch time, converging on something, and then somebody in the meeting goes, “Hey, I just had an idea. How about if we…?” You don’t want that. You don’t want that.

If you take nothing else from this, this idea of making divergence and convergence explicit is really, really, really useful. Again, like I say, this pattern of just assumptions being surfaced is so useful.

This initial diamond of the Double Diamond phase, it’s where we spend a lot of our time at Clearleft. I think, early in the years of Clearleft, we spent more time on the second diamond. We were more about execution and delivery. Now, I feel like we deliver a lot more value in the discovery and definition phase of the design process.

There’s so much we do in this initial discovery phase. I mentioned already we have this fluffy edges game we play for role mapping to figure out the roles and responsibilities. We have things like a project canvas we use to collaborate with the clients to figure out the shape of what’s to come.

We sometimes run an exercise called a pre-mortem. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. It’s like a post-mortem except you do it at the beginning of the project. It’s kind of a scenario planning.

You say, “Okay, it’s so many months after the launch and it’s been a complete disaster. What went wrong?” You map that out. You talk about it. Then once you’ve got that mapped out, you can then take steps to avoid that disaster happening.

Of course, what we do in the discovery phase, almost more than anything else, is research. You can’t go any further without doing the research.

Assumptions

All of these things, all of these exercises, these ways of working are about dealing with assumptions, either surfacing assumptions that we didn’t know were there or turning assumptions into hypotheses that can be tested. If you think about what an assumption is, it kind of goes back to expectations that I was talking about.

Assumptions are expectations plus internal biases. That gives you an assumption. The things that you don’t even realize you believe; they lead to assumptions. This can obviously be very bad. This is like you’ve got blind spots in your assumptions because of your own biases that you didn’t even realize you had.

They’re not necessarily bad things. Assumptions aren’t necessarily bad. If you think about your expectations plus your biases, that’s another way of thinking about your values. What do you hold to be really dear to you? The things that are self-evident to you, those are your values, your internal expectations and biases.

Values

Now, at Clearleft, we have our company values, our core values, the things we believe. I am not going to share the Clearleft values with you. There are two reasons for that.

One is that they’re Clearleft’s values. They are useful for us. That’s for us to know internally.

Secondly, there’s nothing more boring than a company sharing their values with you. I say nothing more boring. Maybe the only thing more boring than a company sharing their values is when a so-called friend tells you about a dream they had and you have to sit there and smile and nod politely while they tell you about something that is only of interest to them.

Purpose

These values are essentially what give you purpose, whether it’s at an individual level, your personal moral values give you your purpose, or at a company or organization level, you get your purpose – or any endeavor. You think about the founding of a nation-state like the United States of America. You got the Declaration of Independence. That encodes the values. That has the purpose. It’s literally saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” These are assumptions here. That’s your purpose is something like the Declaration of Independence.

Principles

Then you get the principles, how you’re going to act. The Constitution would be an example of a collection of principles. These principles must be influenced by the purpose. Your values must influence the principles you’re going to use to act in the world.

Patterns

Then those principles have an effect on the final patterns, the outputs that you’ll see. In the case of a nation-state like America, I would say the patterns are the laws that you end up with. Those laws come from the principles encoded in the Constitution. The Constitution, those principles in the Constitution are influenced and encoded from the purpose in the Declaration of Independence.

The purpose influences the principles. The principles influence the pattern. This would be true in the case of software as well. You think about the patterns are the final interface elements, the user interface. Those are the patterns. Those have been influenced by the principles of that company, how they choose to act, and those principles are influenced by the purpose of that company and what they believe.

Design principles

This is why I find principles, in particular, to be fascinating because they sit in the middle. They are influenced by the purpose and they, in turn, influence the patterns. I’m talking about design principles, something I’m really into. I’m so into design principles, I actually have a website dedicated to design principles at principles.adactio.com.

Now, all I do on this website is collect design principles. I don’t pass judgment. I don’t say whether I think they’re good design principles or bad design principles. I just document them. That’s turned out to be a good thing to do over time because sometimes design principles disappear, go away, or get changed. I’ve got a record of design principles from the past.

For example, Google used to have a set of principles called Ten Things We Know to Be True — we know to be true, right? We hold these truths to be self-evident. That’s no longer available on the Google website, those ten things, those ten principles. One of them was, “You can make money without doing evil.” Like I said, that’s gone now. That’s not available on the Google website.

There was another set of design principles from Google that’s also not available anymore. That was called Ten Principles That Contribute to a Googley User Experience. I think we understand why those are no longer available. The sheer embarrassment of saying the word Googley out loud, I think.

I’ll tell you something I notice when I see design principles. Like I say, I catalog them without judgment, but I do have ideas. I think about what makes for good or bad design principles or sets of design principles.

Whenever I see somebody with a list that’s exactly ten principles, I’m suspicious. Like, “Really? That’s such a convenient round number. You didn’t have nine principles that contribute to a Googley user experience? You didn’t have 11 things that we know to be true? It happened to be exactly ten?” It feels almost like a bad code smell to me that it’s exactly ten principles.

Even some great design principles like Dieter Rams, the brilliant designer. He has a fantastic set of design principles called Ten Principles for Good Design. But even there I have to think, “Hmm. That’s a bit convenient, isn’t it, that it’s exactly ten principles for good design? Isn’t it, Dieter?”

Now, just in case you think I’m being blasphemous by sugging that Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design is not a good set of design principles, I am not being blasphemous. I would be blasphemous if I pointed out that in the Old Testament, God supposedly delivers 10 commandments, not 9, not 11, exactly 10 commandments. Really, Moses, ten?

Anyway, what I’m talking about here is, like I say, almost like these code smells for design principles. Can we evaluate design principles? Are there heuristics for saying whether a design principle is a good design principle or a bad design principle?

Universal principles

To get meta about this, what I’m talking about is, are there design principles for design principles? I kind of think there are. I think you can evaluate design principles and say that’s a good one or that’s a bad one. You can evaluate them by how useful they are.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a design principle like this:

Make it usable.

That’s a design principle. I think this is a bad design principle. It’s not because I don’t agree with it. It’s actually a bad design principle because I agree with it and everyone agrees with it. It’s so agreeable that it’s hard to argue with and that’s not what a design principle is for.

Design principles aren’t these things to go, “Rah-rah! Yes! I feel good about this.” They are there to kind of surface stuff and have discussions, have disagreements – get it out in the open. Let’s say we took this design principle, “make it usable”, and it was rephrased to something more contentious. Let’s say somebody had the design principle like:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh! Now we’re talking.

See, I think this is a good design principle. I’m not saying I agree with it. I’m saying it’s a good design principle because what it has now is priority.

We’re saying something is valued more than something else and that’s what you want from design principles is to figure out what the priorities of this organization are. What do they value? How are they going to behave?

I think this is a great phrasing for design principles. If you can phrase a design principle like this:

___, even over ___

Then that’s really going to make it clear what your values are. You can phrase a design principle as:

Usability, even over profitability.

That’s good.

Now you can have that discussion early on about whether everyone is on board with that. If there’s disagreement, you need to hammer that out and figure it out early on in the process.

Here’s another thing about this phrasing that I really like, “blank, even over blank.” It passes another test of a good design principle, which is reversibility. Rather than being a universal thing, a design principle should be reversible for a different organization.

One organization might have a design principle that says “usability, even over profitability,” and another organization, you can equally imagine having a design principle that says, “profitability, even over usability.” The fact that this principle is reversible like that is a good thing. That shows that it’s an effective design principle because it’s about priorities.

My favorite design principle of all—because I’m such a nerd for design principles, I do have a favorite—is from the HTML design principles. It’s called The Priority of Constituencies. It states:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over theoretical purity.

That’s so good.

First of all, it just starts with, “In case of conflict.” Yes! That is exactly what design principles are for. Again, they’re not there to be like, “Rah-rah! Feel-good design principles.” No, they are there to sort out conflict.

Then, “consider users over authors.” That’s like:

Users, even over authors. Authors, even over implementors. Implementors even over theoretical purity.

Really good stuff.

There are, I think, design principles for design principles, these kind of smell tests that you can run your design principles past and see if they pass or fail.

I talked about how design principles are unique to the organization. The reversibility test kind of helps with that. You can imagine a different organization that has the complete opposite design principles to you.

Eponymous laws

I do wonder: are there some design principles that are truly universal? Well, there’s kind of a whole category of principles that we treat as universal truths. That’s kind of these laws. They tend to be the eponymous laws. They’re usually named after a person and there’s some kind of universal truth. There are a lot of them out there.

Hofstadter’s law

Hofstadter’s law, that’s from Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s law states:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.

That does sound like a universal truth and certainly, my experience matches that. Yeah, I would say Hofstadter’s law feels like a universal design principle.

Sturgeon’s law

90% of everything is crap.

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer and people would poo-poo science fiction and point out that it was crap. He would say, “Yeah, but 90% of science fiction is crap because 90% of everything is crap.” That became Sturgeon’s law.

Yeah, you look at movies, books, and music. It’s hard to argue with Sturgeon’s law. Yeah, 90% of everything is crap. That feels like a universal law.

Murphy’s law

Here’s one we’ve probably all heard of. Murphy’s law:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It tends to get treated as this funny thing but, actually, it’s a genuinely useful design principle and one we could use on the web a lot more.

Cole’s law

There’s Cole and Cole’s law. You’ve probably heard of that. That’s:

Shredded raw cabbage with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise dressing.

Cole’s law.

Moving swiftly on, there’s another sort of category of these laws, these universal principles that have a different phrasing, and it’s this idea of a razor. Here it’s being explicit about in case of conflict. Here it’s being explicit saying when you try to choose between two choices, which to choose.

Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a famous example that states:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

If you’re trying to find a reason for something, don’t go straight to assuming malice. Incompetence tends to be a greater force in the world than malice.

I think it’s generally true, although, there’s also a law by Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke’s third law, which states that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you take Clarke’s third law and you mash it up with Hanlon’s razor, then the result is that any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Occam’s razor

Another razor that we hear about a lot is Occam’s razor. This is very old. It goes back to William of Occam. Sometimes it’s misrepresented as being the most obvious solution is the correct solution. We know that that’s not true because we saw in the stories of metal helmets in World War One and motorcycle helmets or the bombers in World War Two or the YouTube videos that it’s not about the most obvious solution.

What Occam’s razor actually states is:

Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.

In other words, if you’re coming up with an explanation for something and your explanation requires that you now have to explain even more things—you’re multiplying the things that need to be explained—it’s probably not the true thing.

If your explanation for something is “aliens did it,” well, now you’ve got to explain the existence of aliens and explain how they got here and all this. You’re multiplying the entities. Most conspiracy theories fail the test of Occam’s razor because they unnecessarily multiply entities.

World Wide Web

These design principles that we can borrow, we’ve got these universal ones we can borrow. I also think maybe we can borrow from specific projects and see things that would apply to us. Certainly, when we’re working on the World Wide Web and we’re building things on the World Wide Web, we could look at the design principles that informed the World Wide Web when it was being built by Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, and Robert Cailliau, who worked with him.

The World Wide Web started at CERN and started life in 1989 as just a proposal. Tim Berners-Lee wrote this really quite boring memo called “Information Management: A Proposal” with indecipherable diagrams on it. This is March 12, 1989. His supervisor Mike Sendall, he later saw this proposal and must have seen the possibility here because he scrawled across the top:

Vague but exciting.

Tim Berners-Lee did get the go-ahead to work on this project, this World Wide Web project, and he created the first web browser. He created the first web server. He created HTML.

I was in the neighbourhood so I just had to come by and say hello…

You can see the world’s first web server in the Science Museum in London. It’s this NeXTcube. NeXT was the company that Steve Jobs formed after leaving Apple.

I have a real soft spot for this machine because I was very lucky to be invited to CERN last year to take part in this project where we were trying to recreate the experience of using that first web browser that Tim Berners-Lee created on that NeXT machine. You can go to this website worldwideweb.cern.ch and you can see what it feels like to use this web browser. You can use a modern browser with this emulation inside of it. It’s really good fun.

My colleagues were spending their time actually doing the hard work. I spent most of my time working on the website about the project. I built this timeline because I was fascinated about what was influencing Tim Berners-Lee.

Timeline

It’s kind of easy to look at the 30 years of the web, but I thought it would be more interesting to also look back at the 30 years before the web and see what influenced Tim Berners-Lee when it came to networks, hypertext, and format. Were there design principles that he adhered to?

We don’t have to look far because Tim Berners-Lee himself has published design principles (that he formulated or borrowed from elsewhere) in a document called Axioms of web Architecture. I think he first published this in 1998. These are really useful things that we can take and we can apply when we’re building on the web.

Particularly, now I’m talking about the second diamond of the Double Diamond. When we are choosing how we’re going to execute something or how we’re going to deliver it, building the thing right, that’s when these design principles come in handy.

He was borrowing; Tim Berners-Lee was borrowing from things that had come before, existing creations that the web is built on top of like the Internet and computing. He said:

Principles such as simplicity and modularity are the stuff of software engineering.

So he borrowed those principles about simplicity and modularity.

He also said:

Decentralization and tolerance are the life and breath of the Internet.

Those principles, tolerance and decentralization, they’d proven themselves to work on the Internet. The web is built on top of the Internet. So, it makes sense to carry those principles forward on the World Wide Web.

Robustness

That principle of tolerance, in particular, is something I think you really see on the web. It comes from the principles underlying the Internet. In particular, this person, Jon Postel, who is responsible for maintaining the Domain Name System, DNS, he has an eponymous law named after him. It’s also called the Robustness Principle or Postel’s law. This law states:

Be conservative in what you send. Be liberal in what you accept.”

Now, he was talking about packet switching on the Internet that if you’re going to send a packet over the Internet, try to make it as well-formed as possible. But on the other hand, when you receive a packet and if it’s got errors or something, try and deal with it. Be liberal in what you can accept.

I see this at work all the time on the web, not just in terms of technical things but in terms of UX and usability. The example I always use is if you’re going to make a form on the web, be conservative in what you send. Send as few form fields as possible down the wire to the end-user. But then when the user is filling out that form, be liberal in what you accept. Don’t make them formulate their telephone number or credit card in a certain format. Be liberal in what you accept.

Be conservative in what you send when it comes from front-end development. This matters. Literally, just in terms of what we’re sending down the wire to the end-user, we should be more conservative in what we send. We don’t think about this enough, just the weight, the sheer weight of things we’re sending.

I was doing some consulting with a client and we did a kind of top four of where the weight was coming from. I think this applies to websites in general.

4: Web fonts

Coming in at number four, we had web fonts. They can get quite weighty, but we have ways of dealing with this now. We’ve got font display in CSS. We can subset our web fonts. Variable fonts can be a way of reducing the size of fonts. So, there are solutions to this. There are ways of handling it.

3: Images

At number three, images. Images do account for a lot of the sheer weight of the web. But again, we have solutions here. We’ve got responsive images with source set and picture. Using the right format, right? Not using a PNG if you should be using a JPEG, using WebP, using SVGs where possible. We can deal with this. There are solutions out there, as long as we’re aware of it.

2: Your JavaScript

At number two, your JavaScript, the JavaScript that you send down the wire that you’ve written to the client. It’s gotten kind of out of hand. Libraries in your code, it’s gotten very, very weighty. This is bad, but not as bad as number one, which is other people’s JavaScript, third-party JavaScript.

1: Other people’s JavaScript

“Oh, the marketing department just wanted to add that one line, that one script that then pulls in another script that pulls in three more scripts.” Before you know it, it’s out of hand. Third-party JavaScript is really tough to deal with because so often it’s out of our hands. It’s like we don’t have control over that.

JavaScript

JavaScript is particularly troublesome because, with all the other things—images, web fonts—yeah, we’re talking about weight. It’s the file size is the issue. That’s only part of the issue with JavaScript. Yes, we are sending too much JavaScript, but it also is expensive in terms of the end-user has to not just download that JavaScript, but parse the JavaScript, execute that JavaScript. It’s particularly expensive compared to CSS, HTML, images, or fonts.

It is eating the world. We heard that software is eating the world. I’d say JavaScript is eating the world. There’s another eponymous law from Jeff Atwood. Atwood’s law states that:

Any application that can be written in JavaScript will eventually be written in JavaScript.

We’re seeing that now.

Back in my day, we used to joke about, “Well, you could never build a Photoshop in a web browser.” Now, everything is migrating to being written in JavaScript, which is kind of amazing and speaks to the power of JavaScript. It’s fantastic in one way, but it does feel like we’re using JavaScript to do everything, including things that could be done with other languages.

When it comes to choosing a language, there’s a fantastic design principle that Tim Berners-Lee used when he was designing the World Wide Web. It’s the principle of least power. The principle of least power states:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

That sounds very counterintuitive. Why would you want to choose the least powerful language? Well, in a way, it’s about keeping things simple. There’s another design principle, “Keep it simple, stupid.” KISS.

It’s kind of related to Occam’s razor, not multiplying entities unnecessarily. Choose the simplest language. The simplest language is likely to be more universal and, because it’s simpler, it might not be as powerful but it’ll generally be more robust.

I’ll give you an example. I’ll quote from Derek Featherstone. He said:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and ARIA—if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

He’s absolutely right. This is about robustness here. It’s less fragile.

The classic example with ARIA: the best ARIA attribute is no ARIA attribute. Rather than having div role="button", just use a button. If you can do something in CSS rather than JavaScript, do it in CSS. Choose the least powerful language.

Instead, we’re using JavaScript to send our content down the wire. That could be done in HTML. We’re using CSS in JS now, right? We’re using the most powerful language, JavaScript, to do everything, which kind of violates the principle of least power. There’s a set of design principles from the Government Digital Services here in the U.K. and they’re really good design principles. One of them stuck out to me. The design principle itself says:

Do less.

By way of explanation, they say:

Government should only do what only government can do.

Government shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. Government should do the things where private enterprise can’t do these things. The government has to do these things. The government should only do what only government can do.

I thought that this could be extrapolated out and made into a more universal design principle. You could say:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do

If that’s too abstract, let’s formulate it into this design principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

We can call this Keith’s Law or Keith’s Razor or something. I think it’s a good principle.

I remember the early uses of JavaScript for things like image rollovers and form validation. Now, I wouldn’t use JavaScript for image rollovers or hover effects. I’d use CSS. I wouldn’t use JavaScript for form validation if I can just use required attributes or input type="email". Apply the principle of least power.

Components

Let’s see whether we’re applying the principle of least power on the web. Take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a component that’s a button component. How are you going to go about building this? You could have bare minimal HTML, just a div or a span. You’ve got some CSS to make it look good. Sure. You apply all the JavaScript and ARIA that you need to make it work like a button.

Or, alternatively, you could use a button and you style it however you want using CSS.

Now, in this example, this particular component, I would say it’s a no-brainer. You go with the native button element. Don’t make your own button component with a div and JavaScript and ARIA. Use a native button element.

Okay. That seems pretty straightforward and that is a perfect example of the principle of least power. Choose the least powerful language suitable for the purpose.

But then what if you’ve got a drop-down component, selecting an option from a list of options? Well, you could build this using bare minimum HTML. Again, divs, maybe. You style it however you want it to look and you give it that opening and closing functionality. You give it accessibility using ARIA. Now you’ve got to think about making sure it works with a keyboard — all that stuff, all the edge cases.

Or you just use a select element — job done. You style it with CSS …Ah, well, yes, you can style it to a certain degree with CSS, but if you ever try to style the open state of a select element, you’re going to have a hard time.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. What do you care about more? Can you live with that open state not being styled exactly the way you might want it to be styled? If so, yes, choose the least powerful technology. Go with select. But I can kind of start to see why somebody would maybe roll their own in that case.

Or take this example: a date picker component. Again, you could have bare minimum HTML. Style it how you want. Write it all yourself using JavaScript. Make it accessible using ARIA. Or just use the native HTML input type="date" …and then have fun trying to style that in CSS. You won’t be able to do much, to be honest.

Do you still pick the least powerful technology here?

This would be kind of the under-engineered approach: to just use the native HTML approach: input type="date", select, button.

The over-engineered approach is to go with doing it all yourself: write JavaScript to make it go that way.

It feels like there’s this pendulum swing between the over-engineered versus the under-engineered. Like I say, what it comes down is, what do you prioritize?

Universality

What you get with the native approach is you get access. You get that universality by using the least powerful language. There’s more universal support.

What you get by rolling your own is you get much more control. You’re going from the spectrum of least power to most power and that’s also a spectrum going from most available (widest access) to least available but with more control.

You have to decide where your priorities lie. This is where I think, again, we can look at the web and we can take principles from the web.

Eric has something he said recently that really resonates with me. He said:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

That’s the purpose of the web. It’s the universal access. That’s the value encoded into it.

To put this in another way, we could formulate it as:

Ubiquity, even over consistency.

That’s the design principle of the web.

This passes the reversibility test. We can picture other projects that would say:

Consistency, even over ubiquity.

Native apps value consistency, even over ubiquity. iOS apps are very consistent on iOS devices, but just don’t work at all on Android devices. They’re consistent; they’re not ubiquitous.

We saw this in action with Flash and the web. Flash valued consistency, but you had to have the Flash plugin installed, so it was not ubiquitous. It was not universal.

The World Wide Web is about ubiquity, even over consistency. I think we should remember that.

When we look here in the world’s first-ever web browser, we are looking at the world’s first-ever webpage, which is still available at its original URL. That’s incredibly robust.

What’s amazing is you can not only look at the world’s first webpage in the world’s first web browser, you can look at the world’s first webpage in a modern web browser and it still works, which is kind of amazing. If you took a word processing document from 30 years ago and tried to open it in a modern word processing document, good luck. It just doesn’t work that way. But the web values this ubiquity over consistency.

Let’s apply those principles, apply the principle of least power, apply the robustness principle. Value ubiquity even over consistency. Value universal access over control. That way, you can make products and services that aren’t just on the web, but of the web.

Thank you.

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

My website is a shifting house next to a river of knowledge. What could yours be?

My favorite aspect of websites is their duality: they’re both subject and object at once. In other words, a website creator becomes both author and architect simultaneously. There are endless possibilities as to what a website could be. What kind of room is a website? Or is a website more like a house? A boat? A cloud? A garden? A puddle? Whatever it is, there’s potential for a self-reflexive feedback loop: when you put energy into a website, in turn the website helps form your own identity.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

BBC Radio 4 - Under the Cloud

James made a radio programme about “the cloud”:

It’s the central metaphor of the internet - ethereal and benign, a fluffy icon on screens and smartphones, the digital cloud has become so naturalised in our everyday life we look right through it. But clouds can also obscure and conceal – what is it hiding? Author and technologist James Bridle navigates the history and politics of the cloud, explores the power of its metaphor and guides us back down to earth.

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

T E N Ǝ T

Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?

Monday, August 17th, 2020

Design Principles For The Web—the links

I’m speaking today at an online edition of An Event Apart called Front-End Focus. I’ll be opening up the show with a talk called Design Principles For The Web, which ironically doesn’t have much of a front-end focus:

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

That explains why I’ve been writing so much about design principles …well, that and the fact that I’m mildly obsessed with them.

To avoid technical difficulties, I’ve pre-recorded the talk. So while that’s playing, I’ll be spamming the accompanying chat window with related links. Then I’ll do a live Q&A.

Should you be interested in the links that I’ll be bombarding the attendees with, I’ve gathered them here in one place (and they’re also on the website of An Event Apart). The narrative structure of the talk might not be clear from scanning down a list of links, but there’s some good stuff here that you can dive into if you want to know what the inside of my head is like.

References

adactio.com

Wikipedia

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.

You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:

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.

Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:

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.

Or Clarke’s third 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.

For example:

Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.

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.

For example, even though devices, browsers, and networks are much, much better now than they were, say, ten years ago, that doesn’t mean that websites have become better or faster. Instead, it’s precisely because there’s more power available that people think nothing of throwing megabytes of JavaScript at users. See Scott’s theory that 5G Will Definitely Make the Web Slower, Maybe:

JavaScript size has ballooned as networks have improved.

This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.

Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.

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.

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

A tale of three skeuomorphs

A trashcan, a tyepface, and a tactile keyboard. Marcin gets obsessive (as usual).

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Responsive web design turns ten. — Ethan Marcotte

2010 was quite a year:

And exactly three weeks after Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 For Web Designers was first published, “Responsive Web Design” went live in A List Apart.

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%.

Friday, May 22nd, 2020

An Event Apart Human-Centered Design - Web Design & UX Conference

I’ll be speaking at this online version of An Event Apart on July 20th, giving a brand new talk called Design Principles For The Web—’twould be lovely to see you then!

Designing and developing on the web can feel like a never-ending crusade against the unknown. Design principles are one way of unifying your team to better fight this battle. But as well as the design principles specific to your product or service, there are core principles underpinning the very fabric of the World Wide Web itself. Together, we’ll dive into applying these design principles to build websites that are resilient, performant, accessible, and beautiful.

Thursday, April 16th, 2020

It was 20 years ago today… - Web Directions

John’s article, A Dao Of Web Design, is twenty years old. If anything, it’s more relevant today than when it was written.

Here, John looks back on those twenty years, and forward to the next twenty…

Saturday, February 15th, 2020

Standards for Writing Accessibly – A List Apart

  • Write Chronologically, Not Spatially
  • Write Left to Right, Top to Bottom
  • Don’t Use Colors and Icons Alone
  • Describe the Action, Not the Behavior

Monday, February 3rd, 2020

The Web is Industrialized and I helped industrialize it - daverupert.com

We’ve industrialized design and are relegated to squeezing efficiencies out of it through our design systems. All CSS changes must now have a business value and user story ticket attached to it.

Dave follows on from my post about design systems and automation.

At the same time, I have seen first hand how design systems can yield improvements in accessibility, performance, and shared knowledge across a willing team. I’ve seen them illuminate problems in design and code. I’ve seen them speed up design and development allowing teams to build, share, and validate prototypes or A/B tests before undergoing costly guesswork in production. There’s value in these tools, these processes.

Wednesday, January 29th, 2020

Architects, gardeners, and design systems

I compared design systems to dictionaries. My point was that design systems—like language—can be approached in a prescriptivist or descriptivist manner. And I favour descriptivism.

A prescriptive approach might give you a beautiful design system, but if it doesn’t reflect the actual product, it’s fiction. A descriptive approach might give a design system with imperfections and annoying flaws, but at least it will be accurate.

I think it’s more important for a design system to be accurate than beautiful.

Meanwhile, over on Frank’s website, he’s been documenting the process of its (re)design. He made an interesting comparison in his post Redesign: Gardening vs. Architecture. He talks about two styles of writing:

In interviews, Martin has compared himself to a gardener—forgoing detailed outlines and overly planned plot points to favor ideas and opportunities that spring up in the writing process. You see what grows as you write, then tend to it, nurture it. Each tendrilly digression may turn into the next big branch of your story. This feels right: good things grow, and an important quality of growth is that the significant moments are often unanticipated.

On the other side of writing is who I’ll call “the architect”—one who writes detailed outlines for plots and believes in the necessity of overt structure. It puts stock in planning and foresight. Architectural writing favors divisions and subdivisions, then subdivisions of the subdivisions. It depends on people’s ability to move forward by breaking big things down into smaller things with increasing detail.

It’s not just me, right? It all sounds very design systemsy, doesn’t it?

This is a false dichotomy, of course, but everyone favors one mode of working over the other. It’s a matter of personality, from what I can tell.

Replace “personality” with “company culture” and I think you’ve got an interesting analysis of the two different approaches to design systems. Descriptivist gardening and prescriptivist architecture.

Frank also says something that I think resonates with the evergreen debate about whether design systems stifle creativity:

It can be hard to stay interested if it feels like you’re painting by numbers, even if they are your own numbers.

I think Frank’s comparison—gardeners and architects—also speaks to something bigger than design systems…

I gave a talk last year called Building. You can watch it, listen to it, or read the transcript if you like. The talk is about language (sort of). There’s nothing about prescriptivism or descriptivism in there, but there’s lots about metaphors. I dive into the metaphors we use to describe our work and ourselves: builders, engineers, and architects.

It’s rare to find job titles like software gardener, or information librarian (even though they would be just as valid as other terms we’ve made up like software engineer or information architect). Outside of the context of open source projects, we don’t talk much about maintenance. We’re much more likely to talk about making.

Back in 2015, Debbie Chachra wrote a piece in the Atlantic Monthly called Why I Am Not a Maker:

When tech culture only celebrates creation, it risks ignoring those who teach, criticize, and take care of others.

Anyone who’s spent any time working on design systems can tell you there’s no shortage of enthusiasm for architecture and making—“let’s build a library of components!”

There’s less enthusiasm for gardening, care, communication and maintenance. But that’s where the really important work happens.

In her article, Debbie cites Ethan’s touchstone:

In her book The Real World of Technology, the metallurgist Ursula Franklin contrasts prescriptive technologies, where many individuals produce components of the whole (think about Adam Smith’s pin factory), with holistic technologies, where the creator controls and understands the process from start to finish.

(Emphasis mine.)

In that light, design systems take their place in a long history of dehumanising approaches to manufacturing like Taylorism. The priorities of “scientific management” are the same as those of design systems—increasing efficiency and enforcing consistency.

Humans aren’t always great at efficiency and consistency, but machines are. Automation increases efficiency and consistency, sacrificing messy humanity along the way:

Machine with the strength of a hundred men
Can’t feed and clothe my children.

Historically, we’ve seen automation in terms of physical labour—dock workers, factory workers, truck drivers. As far as I know, none of those workers participated in the creation of their mechanical successors. But when it comes to our work on the web, we’re positively eager to create the systems to make us redundant.

The usual response to this is the one given to other examples of automation: you’ll be free to spend your time in a more meaningful way. With a design system in place, you’ll be freed from the drudgery of manual labour. Instead, you can spend your time doing more important work …like maintaining the design system.

You’ve heard the joke about the factory of the future, right? The factory of the future will have just two living things in it: one worker and one dog. The worker is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to bite the worker if he touches anything.

Good joke.

Everybody laugh.

Roll on snare drum.

Curtains.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Building

The opening presentation from the New Adventures conference held in Nottingham in January 2019.

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.

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.

Chicken game. Don’t look at this chicken. Game over.

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 GIF.

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.

The Book of Kells. Gutenberg’s bible. Grid Systems.

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?

Under construction.

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.

Architects

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.

Shearing layers.

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.

Pace layers.

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.

He says:

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.

The layers of the 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.”

Then there’s the JavaScript ecosystem.

Specifically, the ecosystem, not the language, because the JavaScript language itself doesn’t actually change that often. ES6 or ES2000, whatever we’re talking about the evolution to the language, they’re not so rapid that we’d get overwhelmed. But the language ecosystem, the culture of JavaScript, that feels overwhelming to me. Right? Since I’ve been speaking up here, two new JavaScript frameworks have been released.

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.

But here’s the thing. By mapping these different rates onto this model of pace layers, I actually start to feel better about this because let’s say the JavaScript ecosystem is fashion: “It’s going to do this. No, no, today we’re doing that. Try this. Try that.”

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.”

With fashion, the best of pop music will probably last and find its way down the layers into culture, a slower pace layer. With the JavaScript, the patterns that work in JavaScript may find their way down into the slower moving layers.

To give you an example, when JavaScript was first invented—I’m showing my age here—I remember the common use cases were rollovers, image rollovers. And form validation, so mousing over something and changing how it looks, we’d use JavaScript for that. If someone is filling in a form and there’s a required field, we’d use JavaScript to make sure that required field was filled in.

These days, we wouldn’t even use JavaScript for either of those. We’d use CSS to do rollovers. We’d use HTML to add just one required attribute. The pattern, it stuck. The spaghetti stuck to the wall and it moved down the layers into something more stable.

That’s what JavaScript is kind of supposed to do. When we’re trying to responsive images, we had JavaScript solutions until we got to something that was further down the stack in HTML.

I do feel overwhelmed by the pace of change. But I’m starting to feel a little better about feeling overwhelmed, that it’s okay. JavaScript is meant to feel overwhelming. It’s where we try stuff out. It’s where stuff moves fast.

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.

I start with URLs. I think URL design is a really good place to start designing. It is a design discipline, a neglected one, but it is design. Then I think about the content and then structure that content using the best available markup of HTML. I think about the presentation may be on a small screen first and then the presentation on larger screens using CSS. Then start thinking about extra behaviors that I can’t get with HTML and CSS, so I reach for JavaScript to add those extra behaviors.

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.

In fact, you can build like this. You can put something that’s on the Internet, but you just do everything in JavaScript. URL routing, let’s do that in the browser in JavaScript. The Document Object Model, let’s generate that in the browser in JavaScript. CSS, apparently we’re doing it in JS now.

Everything in JavaScript. This is an absolutely legitimate choice. You can choose to build things on the web like this. The web allows this. Again, it’s a testament to the flexibility of the web.

Now, personally, I don’t build like this and this doesn’t feel quite right to me. It doesn’t feel like it maps to the web too well. It kind of turns it into this all or nothing situation where, as long as we’ve got JavaScript, everything is going to be great. But if we don’t, there’s nothing.

You end up with this situation where we’ve turned what we’re building on the web into a binary situation. Either it works great or it just doesn’t work at all. There’s this kind of single point of failure there with the JavaScript.

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.

Building in layers.

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:

I like designing in layers. I love looking at the design of a page, a pattern, whatever, and thinking about how it would change if, say, fonts aren’t available or JavaScript doesn’t work or if someone doesn’t see the design as you and I might and is having the page read aloud to them.

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.

Engineers

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.

Margaret Hamilton.

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.

Now, I think that we can use that metaphor and apply it to the web. I would say the materials on the web are HTML, CSS, and our JavaScript, hopefully in that order. Then we’ve got the tools we use to design for the materials of the web. 
Now, the most obvious tools we could think of are graphic design tools. We started using Photoshop even though that was never intended for Web design. Since then, we’ve evolved and we’ve got tools that are much more focused on the web, things like Sketch, Figma, and all this kind of stuff.

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?

This is exactly why I think this layered approach makes sense because, if you build in this layered way, each one of these layers can fail well. If you build like this, then JavaScript can fail well. What if something goes wrong and you’ve got an error in your JavaScript? You fall back to something that still works. Not as great as it worked before, but it still works. It fails well.

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:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and ARIA—if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof. It just works.

The example there was rollovers. How are you going to do rollovers? Do it in JavaScript? No, do it in CSS. :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.

The iron ring.

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?

Builders

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.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2020

This is Not my Beautiful House: Examining the Desktop Metaphor, 1980-1995 | continent.

From Xerox PARC to the World Wide Web:

The internet did not use a visual spatial metaphor. Despite being accessed through and often encompassed by the desktop environment, the internet felt well and truly placeless (or perhaps everywhere). Hyperlinks were wormholes through the spatial metaphor, allowing a user to skip laterally across directories stored on disparate servers, as well as horizontally, deep into a file system without having to access the intermediate steps. Multiple windows could be open to the same website at once, shattering the illusion of a “single file” that functioned as a piece of paper that only one person could hold. The icons that a user could arrange on the desktop didn’t have a parallel in online space at all.

Monday, December 16th, 2019

Liveblogging An Event Apart 2019

I was at An Event Apart in San Francisco last week. It was the last one of the year, and also my last conference of the year.

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!

  1. Slow Design for an Anxious World by Jeffrey Zeldman
  2. Designing for Trust in an Uncertain World by Margot Bloomstein
  3. Designing for Personalities by Sarah Parmenter
  4. Generation Style by Eric Meyer
  5. Making Things Better: Redefining the Technical Possibilities of CSS by Rachel Andrew
  6. Designing Intrinsic Layouts by Jen Simmons
  7. How to Think Like a Front-End Developer by Chris Coyier
  8. From Ideation to Iteration: Design Thinking for Work and for Life by Una Kravets
  9. Move Fast and Don’t Break Things by Scott Jehl
  10. Mobile Planet by Luke Wroblewski
  11. Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
  12. Making Research Count by Cyd Harrell
  13. Voice User Interface Design by Cheryl Platz
  14. Web Forms: Now You See Them, Now You Don’t! by Jason Grigsby
  15. The Weight of the WWWorld is Up to Us by Patty Toland
  16. The Mythology of Design Systems by Mina Markham
  17. 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.

I’m happy with how it turned out. I had quite a few people come up to me to say how much they appreciated how I was explaining the code. That was very nice to hear—I really wanted this talk to be approachable for everyone, even though it included plenty of JavaScript.

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

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

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.

As Mina said:

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.

Sell

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.

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.

Plan

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.

—Jina

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.

Launch

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.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. 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.

Maintain

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.

—Nathan Curtis

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.

Summary

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

It’s day two of An Event Apart San Francisco. The brilliant Mina Markham is here to talk to us about design systems (so hot right now!). I’m going to attempt to liveblog it:

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.
  • Governance.

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

—Mina

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.

Yesenia says:

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.

Yesenia again:

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.

—Nathan Curtis

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.

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Request with Intent: Caching Strategies in the Age of PWAs – A List Apart

Aaron outlines some sensible strategies for serving up images, including using the Cache API from your service worker script.