I would urge front-end developers to take a step back, breathe, and reassess. Let’s stop over engineering for the sake of it. Let’s think what we can do with the basic tools, progressive enhancement and a simpler approach to building websites. There are absolutely valid usecases for SPAs, React, et al. and I’ll continue to use these tools reguarly and when it’s necessary, I’m just not sure that’s 100% of the time.
Friday, April 12th, 2019
Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.
Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.
I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.
Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.
I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).
As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.
Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.
Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.
So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.
We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.
For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.
That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.
It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.
Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.
So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!
I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.
It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.
It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:
Complexity reinforces privilege.
The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.
Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:
If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.
I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:
By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.
This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.
Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:
My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.
I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:
- Materials vs. tools,
- Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
- User experience vs. developer experience,
- Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
- Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.
But the split that worries the most is this:
- The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.
In some cases, it’s entirely valid to explore new products and technologies, but in others, our striving for novelty becomes the driving factor for abandoning perfectly suitable solutions under the umbrella of technical debt.
Just because a technology is a few years old and possibly frustrating in some cases doesn’t mean you’re in technical debt. We need to stop projecting our annoyances as pitfalls of technological or design choices.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2019
We have a tendency in our line of work to assume that what benefits us as developers translates to a benefit for those who use what we make. This is an unsafe assumption.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
Frameworks (arguably) make building complex applications easier, but they make doing simple stuff more complex.
And that’s why I think people should learn vanilla JS first. I’ve had many students who tried to learn frameworks get frustated, quit, and focus on vanilla JS.
Some of them have gone back to frameworks later, and told me that knowing vanilla JS made it a lot easier for them to pick up frameworks afterwards.
Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019
Chris put together a terrific round-up of posts recently called Simple & Boring. It links off to a number of great articles on the topic of complexity (and simplicity) in web development.
You don’t hear about TextMate because TextMate is old. What would I tweet? Still using TextMate. Still good.
I think that’s a very good point.
It’s relatively easy to write and speak about new technologies. You’re excited about them, and there’s probably an eager audience who can learn from what you have to say.
It’s trickier to write something insightful about a tried and trusted (perhaps even boring) technology that’s been around for a while. You could maybe write little tips and tricks, but I bet your inner critic would tell you that nobody’s interested in hearing about that old tech. It’s boring.
The result is that what’s being written about is not a reflection of what’s being widely used. And that’s okay …as long as you know that’s the case. But I worry that theres’s a perception problem. Because of the outsize weighting of new and exciting technologies, a typical developer could feel that their skills are out of date and the technologies they’re using are passé …even if those technologies are actually in wide use.
I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like I’m behind the curve because I’m not currently using TypeScript or GraphQL or React. Those are all interesting technologies, to be sure, but the time to pick any of them up is when they solve a specific problem I’m having. Learning a new technology just to mitigate a fear of missing out isn’t a scalable strategy. It’s reasonable to investigate a technology because you genuinely think it’s exciting; it’s quite another matter to feel like you must investigate a technology in order to survive. That way lies burn-out.
I find it very grounding to talk to Drew and Rachel about the people using their Perch CMS product. These are working developers, but they are far removed from the world of tools and frameworks forged in the startup world.
In a recent (excellent) article comparing the performance of Formula One websites, Jake made this observation at the end:
However, none of the teams used any of the big modern frameworks. They’re mostly Wordpress & Drupal, with a lot of jQuery. It makes me feel like I’ve been in a bubble in terms of the technologies that make up the bulk of the web.
I think this is very astute. I also think it’s completely understandable to form ideas about what matters to developers by looking at what’s being discussed on Twitter, what’s being starred on Github, what’s being spoken about at conferences, and what’s being written about on Ev’s blog. But it worries me when I see browser devrel teams focusing their efforts on what appears to be the needs of typical developers based on the amount of ink spilled and breath expelled.
I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.
Trys wrote a great blog post called City life, where he compares his experience of doing CMS-driven agency work with his experience working at a startup in Shoreditch:
I was chatting to one of the team about my previous role. “I built two websites a month in WordPress”.
They laughed… “WordPress! Who uses that anymore?!”
Nearly a third of the web as it turns out - but maybe not on the Silicon Roundabout.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that there should be more articles and talks about older, more established technologies. Conferences in particular are supposed to give audiences a taste of what’s coming—they can be a great way of quickly finding out what’s exciting in the world of development. But we shouldn’t feel bad if those topics don’t match our day-to-day reality.
Ultimately what matters is building something—a website, a web app, whatever—that best serves end users. If that requires a new and exciting technology, that’s great. But if it requires an old and boring technology, that’s also great. What matters here is appropriateness.
When we’re evaluating technologies for appropriateness, I hope that we will do so through the lens of what’s best for users, not what we feel compelled to use based on a gnawing sense of irrelevancy driven by the perceived popularity of newer technologies.
Sunday, March 31st, 2019
Font metrics help the computer determine things like the default spacing between lines, how high or low sub and super scripts should go, and how to align two differently sized pieces of text next to each other.
Friday, March 29th, 2019
I think we’re often guilty of assuming that because our tools are great solutions for some things, they’re automatically the solution for everything.
Friday, February 1st, 2019
It’s interesting to compare the release notes for each browser and see the different priorities reflected in them (this is another reason why browser diversity is A Good Thing).
A lot of the Firefox changes are updates to dev tools; they just keep getting better and better. In fact, I’m not sure “dev tools” is the right word for them. With their focus on layout, typography, and accessibility, “design tools” might be a better term.
Oh, and Firefox is shipping support for some CSS properties that really help with print style sheets, so I’m disproportionately pleased about that.
In Safari’s changes, I’m pleased to see that the
datalist element is finally getting implemented. I’ve been a fan of that element for many years now. (Am I a dork for having favourite HTML elements? Or am I a dork for even having to ask that question?)
And, of course, it wouldn’t be a Safari release without a new made up
meta tag. From the people who brought you such hits as
apple-mobile-web-app-capable, comes …
supported-color-schemes (Apple likes to make up
meta tags almost as much as Google likes to make up
There’ll be a whole bunch of improvements in how progressive web apps will behave once they’ve been added to the home screen. We’ll finally get some state persistence if you navigate away from the window!
Updated the behavior of websites saved to the home screen on iOS to pause in the background instead of relaunching each time.
Maximiliano Firtman has a detailed list of the good, the bad, and the “not sure yet if good” for progressive web apps on iOS 12.2 beta. Thomas Steiner has also written up the progress of progressive web apps in iOS 12.2 beta. Both are published on Ev’s blog.
Chrome 72 for Android shipped the long-awaited Trusted Web Activity feature, which means we can now distribute PWAs in the Google Play Store!
Very interesting indeed! I’m not sure if I’m ready to face the Kafkaesque process of trying to add something to the Google Play Store just yet, but it’s great to know that I can. Combined with the improvements coming in iOS 12.2, these are exciting times for progressive web apps!
Thursday, January 31st, 2019
A really terrific piece from Garrett on the nature of the web:
Markup written almost 30 years ago runs exactly the same today as it did then without a single modification. At the same time, the platform has expanded to accommodate countless enhancements. And you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand or use the vast majority of it. Moreover, a well-constructed web page today would still be accessible on any browser ever made. Much of the newer functionality wouldn’t be supported, but the content would be accessible.
I share his concerns about the maintainability overhead introduced by new tools and frameworks:
I’d argue that for every hour these new technologies have saved me, they’ve cost me another in troubleshooting or upgrading the tool due to a web of invisible dependencies.
We assume that complex problems always require complex solutions. We try to solve complexity by inventing tools and technologies to address a problem; but in the process we create another layer of complexity that, in turn, causes its own set of issues.
The Principle of Least Power looms large over this:
Some of the most important things in the world are intentionally designed “stupid”. In any system, the potential for error directly increases with its complexity - that’s why most elections still work by putting pieces of paper in a box.
This article by Cassie is so, so good!
First off, there’s the actual practical content on how to change the hover styles of SVGs that aren’t embedded. Then there’s the really clear walkthrough she give, making some quite complex topics very understandable. Finally, there’s the fact that she made tool to illustrate the point!
Best of all, I get to work with the super-smart developer who did all this.
When we talk about HTML and CSS these discussions impact the entry point into this profession. Whether front or backend, many of us without a computer science background are here because of the ease of starting to write HTML and CSS. The magic of seeing our code do stuff on a real live webpage! We have already lost many of the entry points that we had. We don’t have the forums of parents teaching each other HTML and CSS, in order to make a family album. Those people now use Facebook, or perhaps run a blog on wordpress.com or SquareSpace with a standard template. We don’t have people customising their MySpace profile, or learning HTML via Neopets. We don’t have the people, usually women, entering the industry because they needed to learn HTML during that period when an organisation’s website was deemed part of the duties of the administrator.
I agree with every single word Rachel has written.
I care not a whit what tools or frameworks, or languages you use to build something on the web. But I really care deeply when particular tools, frameworks, or languages become mandatory for even getting a foot in the door.
This is for everyone.
I might be the “old guard” but if you think I’m incapable of learning React, or another framework, and am defending my way of working because of this, please get over yourself. However, 22 year old me would have looked at those things and run away. If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged. I have plenty of fight left in me to stand up against that.
Friday, January 11th, 2019
How did I miss this great post from 2016 by one of my favourite people‽ It’s even more more relevant today.
Monday, January 7th, 2019
Dave on the opaqueness of toolchains:
As toolchains grow and become more complex, unless you are expertly familiar with them, it’s very unclear what transformations are happening in our code. Tracking the differences between the input and output and the processes that code underwent can be overwhelming. When there’s a problem, it’s increasingly difficult to hop into the assembly line and diagnose the issue.
There’s a connection here to one of the biggest issues with what’s currently being labelled “AI”:
In the same way AI needs some design to show its work in how it came to its final answer, I feel that our automated build tools could use some help as well.
I really like this suggestion for making the invisble visible:
I sometimes wonder if Webpack or Gulp or [Insert Your Build Tool Here] could benefit from a Scratch-like interface for buildchains.
Tuesday, November 13th, 2018
Optimise without a face
I’ve been playing around with the newly-released Squoosh, the spiritual successor to Jake’s SVGOMG. You can drag images into the browser window, and eyeball the changes that any optimisations might make.
On a project that Cassie is working on, it worked really well for optimising some JPEGs. But there were a few images that would require a bit more fine-grained control of the optimisations. Specifically, pictures with human faces in them.
I’ve written about this before. If there’s a human face in image, I open that image in a graphics editing tool like Photoshop, select everything but the face, and add a bit of blur. Because humans are hard-wired to focus on faces, we’ll notice any jaggy artifacts on a face, but we’re far less likely to notice jagginess in background imagery: walls, materials, clothing, etc.
On the face of it (hah!), a browser-based tool like Squoosh wouldn’t be able to optimise for faces, but then Cassie pointed out something really interesting…
- Drag or upload an image into the browser window,
- A facial recognition algorithm finds any faces in the image,
- Those portions of the image remain crisp,
- The rest of the image gets a slight blur,
- Download the optimised image.
Maybe the selecting/blurring part would need canvas? I don’t know.
Anyway, I thought this was a brilliant bit of synthesis from Cassie, and now I’ve got two questions:
- Does this exist yet? And, if not,
- Does anyone want to try building it?
Monday, November 12th, 2018
A handy in-browser image compression tool. Drag, drop, tweak, and export.
Saturday, November 10th, 2018
Rachel does some research to find out why people use CSS frameworks like Bootstrap—it can’t just be about grids, right?
In our race to get our site built quickly, our desire to make things as good as possible for ourselves as the designers and developers of the site, do we forget who we are doing this for? Do the decisions made by the framework developer match up with the needs of the users of the site you are building?
Not for the first time, I’m reminded of Rachel’s excellent post from a few years ago: Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.