Tags: tools

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Tuesday, January 17th, 2023

Chain of tools

I shared this link in Slack with my co-workers today:

Cultivating depth and stillness in research by Andy Matuschak.

I wasn’t sure whether it belonged in the #research or the #design channel. While it’s ostensibly about research, I think it applies to design more broadly. Heck, it probably applies to most fields. I should have put it in the Slack channel I created called #iiiiinteresting.

The article is all about that feeling of frustration when things aren’t progressing quickly, even when you know intellectually that not everything should always progress quickly.

The article is filled with advice for battling this feeling, including this observation on curiosity:

Curiosity can also totally change my relationship to setbacks. Say I’ve run an experiment, collected the data, done the analysis, and now I’m writing an essay about what I’ve found. Except, halfway through, I notice that one column of the data really doesn’t support the conclusion I’d drawn. Oops. It’s tempting to treat this development as a frustrating impediment—something to be overcome expediently. Of course, that’s exactly the wrong approach, both emotionally and epistemically. Everything becomes much better when I react from curiosity instead: “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me? How might this change what I try next?”

But what really resonated with me was this footnote attached to that paragraph:

I notice that I really struggle to generate curiosity about problems in programming. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long, but I think it’s because my problems are usually with ephemeral ideas, incidental to what I actually care about. When I’m fighting some godforsaken Javascript build system, I don’t feel even slightly curious to “really” understand those parochial machinations. I know they’re just going to be replaced by some new tool next year.

I feel seen.

I know I’m not alone. I know people who were driven out of front-end development because they felt the unspoken ultimatum was to either become a “full stack” developer or see yourself out.

Remember Chris’s excellent post, The Great Divide? Zach referenced it recently. He wrote:

The question I keep asking though: is the divide borne from a healthy specialization of skills or a symptom of unnecessary tooling complexity?

Mostly I feel sad about the talented people we’ve lost because they felt their front-of-the-front-end work wasn’t valued.

But wait! Can I turn my frown upside down? Can I take Andy Matuschak’s advice and say, “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me?”

Here’s one way of squinting at the situation…

There’s an opportunity here. If many people—myself included—feel disheartened and ground down by the amount of time they need to spend dealing with toolchains and build systems, what kind of system would allow us to get on with making websites without having to deal with that stuff?

I’m not proposing that we get rid of these complex toolchains, but I am wondering if there’s a way to make it someone else’s job.

I guess this job is DevOps. In theory it’s a specialised field. In practice everyone adding anything to a codebase partakes in continual partial DevOps because they must understand the toolchains and build processes in order to change one line of HTML.

I’m not saying “Don’t Make Me Think” when it comes to the tooling. I totally get that some working knowledge is probably required. But the ratio has gotten out of whack. You need a lot of working knowledge of the toolchains and build processes.

In fact, that’s mostly what companies hire for these days. If you’re well versed in HTML, CSS, and vanilla JavaScript, but you’re not up to speed on pipelines and frameworks, you’re going to have a hard time.

That doesn’t seem right. We should change it.

Monday, November 28th, 2022

Designing a Utopian layout grid: Working with fluid responsive values in a static design tool. | Utopia

James describes his process for designing fluid grid layouts, which very much involves working with the grain of the web but against the grain of our design tools:

In 2022 our design tools are still based around fixed-size artboards, while we’re trying to design products which scale gracefully to suit any screen.

Tuesday, November 15th, 2022

When Our Tools Hold Us Back | OddBird

What happens if the ‘pace layers’ get out of sync?

A very thoughtful post by Miriam on how tools can adversely affect the pace of progress in the world of web standards.

When tools intervene between you and your access to the web platform, proceed with caution. Ask not only: How well does it work? But also: How well does it fail? Not only: What features do they provide? But also: What features do they prevent?

Monday, November 7th, 2022

Our web design tools are holding us back ⚒ Nerd

A good ol’ rant by Vasilis on our design tools for the web.

Tuesday, October 25th, 2022

Get Blogging!

Your easy guide to starting a new blog.

A blog is an easy way to get started writing on the web. Your voice is important: it deserves its own site. The more people add their unique perspectives to the web, the more valuable it becomes.

Wednesday, August 31st, 2022

Folk Interfaces

Folk creations fill a gap. They solve problems for individuals and small communities in a way that that centralised, top-down, industrial creations never can. They are informal, distributed practices that emerge from real world contexts. Contexts where individuals have little or no control over the “official” means of production – of furniture, urban architecture, crockery, artwork, media stories, or taxonomies. In response people develop their own unpolished, unofficial, and deeply practical creations.

Now apply that to software:

Only professional programmers and designers get to decide what buttons go on the interface, what features get prioritised, and what affordances users have access to. Subverting that dynamic is the only way people can get their needs met with the computational tools they have at hand.

Tuesday, August 16th, 2022

No code

When I wrote about democratising dev, I made brief mention of the growing “no code” movement:

Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

But I didn’t describe what no-code is, as I understand it.

I’m taking the term at face value to mean a mechanism for creating a website—preferably on a domain you control—without having to write anything in HTML, CSS, JavaScript, or any back-end programming language.

By that definition, something like WordPress.com (as opposed to WordPress itself) is a no-code tool:

Create any kind of website. No code, no manuals, no limits.

I’d also put Squarespace in the same category:

Start with a flexible template, then customize to fit your style and professional needs with our website builder.

And its competitor, Wix:

Discover the platform that gives you the freedom to create, design, manage and develop your web presence exactly the way you want.

Webflow provides the same kind of service, but with a heavy emphasis on marketing websites:

Your website should be a marketing asset, not an engineering challenge.

Bubble is trying to cover a broader base:

Bubble lets you create interactive, multi-user apps for desktop and mobile web browsers, including all the features you need to build a site like Facebook or Airbnb.

Wheras Carrd opts for a minimalist one-page approach:

Simple, free, fully responsive one-page sites for pretty much anything.

All of those tools emphasise that don’t need to need to know how to code in order to have a professional-looking website. But there’s a parallel universe of more niche no-code tools where the emphasis is on creativity and self-expression instead of slickness and professionalism.

neocities.org:

Create your own free website. Unlimited creativity, zero ads.

mmm.page:

Make a website in 5 minutes. Messy encouraged.

hotglue.me:

unique tool for web publishing & internet samizdat

I’m kind of fascinated by these two different approaches: professional vs. expressionist.

I’ve seen people grapple with this question when they decide to have their own website. Should it be a showcase of your achievements, almost like a portfolio? Or should it be a glorious mess of imagery and poetry to reflect your creativity? Could it be both? (Is that even doable? Or desirable?)

Robin Sloan recently published his ideas—and specs—for a new internet protocol called Spring ’83:

Spring ‘83 is a protocol for the transmission and display of something I am calling a “board”, which is an HTML fragment, limited to 2217 bytes, unable to execute JavaScript or load external resources, but otherwise unrestricted. Boards invite publishers to use all the richness of modern HTML and CSS. Plain text and blue links are also enthusiastically supported.

It’s not a no-code tool (you need to publish in HTML), although someone could easily provide a no-code tool to sit on top of the protocol. Conceptually though, it feels like it’s an a similar space to the chaotic good of neocities.org, mmm.page, and hotglue.me with maybe a bit of tilde.town thrown in.

It feels like something might be in the air. With Spring ’83, the Block protocol, and other experiments, people are creating some interesting small pieces that could potentially be loosely joined. No code required.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

Utopian project kickstarter — Figma

Do you like the ideas behind Utopia? Do you use Figma?

If the answer to both those questions is “yes”, then James has made a very handy Figma community file for you:

This work-in-progress is intended as a starting point for designers to start exploring the Utopia approach, thinking about type and space in fluid scales rather than device-based breakpoints.

Monday, June 6th, 2022

Reflections on Design Systems and Boundaries - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Jim shares his thoughts on my recent post about declarative design systems. He picks up on the way I described a declarative design systems as “a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components”:

I like this definition of a design system: a set of boundaries. It’s about saying “don’t go there” rather than “you can only go here”. This embraces the idea of constraints as the mother of invention: it opens the door to creativity while keeping things bounded.

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

The Case for Design Engineers - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

This is really interesting. I hadn’t thought too much about the connection between design engineering and declarative design before now, but Jim’s post makes the overlap very clear indeed.

Thursday, May 12th, 2022

Changing with the times · Chris Burnell

I think, with the sheer volume of functionality available to us nowadays on the front-end, it can be easy to forget how powerful and strong the functionality is that we get right off shelf with HTML. Yes, you read that right, functionality.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Contextual Spacing For Intrinsic Web Design | Modern CSS Solutions

To complement her talk at Beyond Tellerrand, Stephanie goes through some of the powerful CSS features that enable intrinsic web design. These are all great tools for the declarative design approach I was talking about:

Tuesday, April 26th, 2022

Progressively Enhanced Builds - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Rather than thinking, “how do I combine a bunch of disparate content, templates, and tooling into a functioning website?”, you might think “how do I start at a functioning website with content and then use templates and build tooling to enhance it?”

I think Jim is onto something here. The more dependencies you have in your build process, the likelier it is that over time one of them will become a single point of failure. A progressive enhancement approach to build tools means you’d still be able to launch your site (even if it’s not in its ideal state).

I want to be able to view, edit, and if need be ship a website, even if the build process fails. In essence, if the build does fail I can still take all the source files, put them on a server, and the website remains functional (however crude).

Tuesday, April 19th, 2022

Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager. - Build Excellent Websites

This one-page site that Andy has made to illustrate his talk at All Day Hey is exactly what I was talking about with declarative design.

Give the browser some solid rules and hints, then let it make the right decisions for the people that visit it, based on their device, connection quality and capabilities. This is how they will get a genuinely great user experience, rather than a fragmented, broken one.

Thursday, April 14th, 2022

Declarative design

I feel like in the past few years there’s been a number of web design approaches that share a similar mindset. Intrinsic web design by Jen; Every Layout by Andy and Heydon; Utopia by Trys and James.

To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.

As Andy puts it:

Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.

Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:

We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?

In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.

Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.

So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?

I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.

I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.

If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:

CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.

But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:

CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.

If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.

It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.

Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.

I wonder whether your path into web design and development might also factor into which end of the spectrum you’d identify with. Like, if your background is in declarative languages like HTML and CSS, maybe intrisic web design really resonates. But if your background is in imperative languages like JavaScript, perhaps Tailwind makes more sense to you.

Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.

Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2022

Design Systems Aren’t Cheap

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

Tuesday, December 7th, 2021

Inertia - CSS-Tricks

Here’s a thoughtful response from Chris to my post about Svelte, Astro, and React.

Sunday, November 28th, 2021

Modern CSS in a Nutshell - Cloud Four

I like this high-level view of the state of CSS today. There are two main takeaways:

  1. Custom properties, flexbox, and grid are game-changers.
  2. Pre- and post-processers are becoming less and less necessary.

This is exactly the direction we should be going in! More and more power from the native web technologies (while still remaining learnable), with less and less reliance on tooling. For CSS, the tools have been like polyfills that we can now start to remove.

Alas, while the same should be true of JavaScript (there’s so much you can do in native JavaScript now), people seem to have tied their entire identities to the tooling they use.

They could learn a thing or two from the trajectory of CSS: treat your frameworks as cattle, not pets.