The web is so much bigger than the little boxes we try to put it in. The web is good at many things and not great (yet) at others. The web is a snowball rolling down hill, absorbing other technologies along the way. The web is an interactive window across space and time, a near instant connection to anyone on the planet. The web is something different. I wish we’d see the web more for itself, not defined by its nearest neighbor or navel-gazing over some hypothetical pathway we could have gone down decades ago.
Saturday, February 27th, 2021
Monday, July 13th, 2020
Putting design principles into action
I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.
At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.
I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.
In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).
My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.
When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.
I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:
There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.
What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.
There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:
It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.
It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:
Because of observation A, apply action B.
Or in its full form:
Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:
The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.
This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.
Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:
Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2020
The minimum dependency for a web site should be an internet connection and the ability to parse HTML.
Thursday, April 5th, 2018
This is absolutely brilliant!
Forgive my excitement, but this transcript of Charlie’s talk is so, so good—an equal mix of history and practical advice. Once you’ve read it, share it. I want everyone to have the pleasure of reading this inspiring piece!
It is this flirty declarative nature makes HTML so incredibly robust. Just look at this video. It shows me pulling chunks out of the Amazon homepage as I browse it, while the page continues to run.
Let’s just stop and think about that, because we take it for granted. I’m pulling chunks of code out of a running computer application, AND IT IS STILL WORKING.
Just how… INCREDIBLE is that? Can you imagine pulling random chunks of code out of the memory of your iPhone or Windows laptop, and still expecting it to work? Of course not! But with HTML, it’s a given.
The first 22 years of the web platform were revolutionary. The open, accessible, and feature-rich applications that exist on the platform continue to drive the global economy. The next 5 years look like they’ll be filled with more innovation and growth than ever.
The web will be the platform of the Next Big Thing. Not just as the distribution network many see it as today; the web platform will deliver the most innovative experiences. They’ll be innovative not just for how they use new technology, but also because of how easy it will be for new users to experience.
Saturday, December 23rd, 2017
Ubiquity and consistency
I keep thinking about this post from Baldur Bjarnason, Over-engineering is under-engineering. It took me a while to get my head around what he was saying, but now that (I think) I understand it, I find it to be very astute.
Let’s take a single interface element, say, a dropdown menu. This is the example Laura uses in her article for 24 Ways called Accessibility Through Semantic HTML. You’ve got two choices, broadly speaking:
- Use the HTML
The advantage of the first choice is that it’s lightweight, it works everywhere, and the browser does all the hard work for you.
You don’t get complete control. Because the browser is doing the heavy lifting, you can’t craft the details of the dropdown to look identical on different browser/OS combinations.
This is the point that Baldur makes: no matter how much you over-engineer your own custom solution, there’ll always be something that falls between the cracks. So, ironically, the over-engineered solution—when compared to the simple under-engineered native browser solution—ends up being under-engineered.
Is it worth it? Rian Rietveld asks:
The answer, as ever, is it depends. It depends on your priorities. If your priority is having consistent control over the details, then foregoing native browser functionality in favour of scripting everything yourself aligns with your goals.
But I’m reminded of something that Eric often says:
The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.
Ubiquity; universality; accessibility—however you want to label it, it’s what lies at the heart of the World Wide Web. It’s the idea that anyone should be able to access a resource, regardless of technical or personal constraints. It’s an admirable goal, and what’s even more admirable is that the web succeeds in this goal! But sometimes something’s gotta give, and that something is control. Rian again:
The days that a website must be pixel perfect and must look the same in every browser are over. There are so many devices these days, that an identical design for all is not doable. Or we must take a huge effort for custom form elements design.
I think Jake’s navigation transitions proposal is fascinating. What if there were a browser-native way to get more control over how page navigations happen? I reckon that would cover the justification of 90% of single page apps.
That’s a great way of examining these kinds of decisions and questioning how this tension could be resolved. If people are frustrated by the lack of control in browser-native navigations, let’s figure out a way to give them more control. If people are frustrated by the lack of styling for
select elements, maybe we should figure out a way of giving them more control over styling.
Hang on though. I feel like I’ve painted a divisive picture, like you have to make a choice between ubiquity or consistency. But the rather wonderful truth is that, on the web, you can have your cake and eat it. That’s what I was getting at with the three-step approach I describe in Resilient Web Design:
- Identify core functionality.
- Make that functionality available using the simplest possible technology.
- The user needs to select an item from a list of options.
- Use a
- The user needs to navigate to another page.
- Use an
aelement with an
The pushback I get from people in the control/consistency camp is that this sounds like more work. It kinda is. But honestly, in my experience, it’s not that much more work. Also, and I realise I’m contradicting the part where I said I’m lazy, but that’s why it’s called work. This is our job. It’s not about what we prefer; it’s about serving the needs of the people who use what we build.
Anyway, if I were to rephrase my three-step process in terms of under-engineering and over-engineering, it might look something like this:
- Start with user needs.
- Build an under-engineered solution—one that might not offer you much control, but that works for everyone.
- Layer on a more over-engineered solution—one that might not work for everyone, but that offers you more control.
Ubiquity, then consistency.
Monday, August 7th, 2017
Paul goes into detail describing how he built a progressive web app that’s actually progressive (in the sense of “enhancement”). Most of the stuff about sharing code between server and client goes over my head, but I understood enough to get these points:
- the “app shell” model is not the only—or even the best—way of building a progressive web app, and
- always, always, always render from the server first.
Sunday, July 23rd, 2017
James gives—if you’ll pardon the pun— hands-on advice on making sites that consider motor impairment:
- Don’t assume keyboard access is all you need
- Auto complete/Autofill
- Show me my password
- Allow for fine motor control issues
- Don’t autoplay videos
- Avoid hover-only controls
- Infinite scrolling considerations
- Be mindful of touch
- Avoid small hit targets
- Provide alternate controls for touch gestures
Far from being a niche concern, visitors with some form of motor impairment likely make up a significant percentage of your users. I would encourage you to test your website or application with your less dominant hand. Is it still easy to use?
Friday, February 3rd, 2017
Phil describes the process of implementing the holy grail of web architecture (which perhaps isn’t as difficult as everyone seems to think it is):
I have been experimenting with something that seemed obvious to me for a while. A web development model which gives a pre-rendered, ready-to-consume, straight-into-the-eyeballs web page at every URL of a site. One which, once loaded, then behaves like a client-side, single page app.
Now that’s resilient web design!
Thursday, December 8th, 2016
Remy wants to be able to apply progressive enhancement to React: server-side and client-side rendering, sharing the same codebase. He succeeded, but…
In my opinion, an individual or a team starting out, or without the will, aren’t going to use progressive enhancement in their approach to applying server side rendering to a React app. I don’t believe this is by choice, I think it’s simply because React lends itself so strongly to client-side, that I can see how it’s easy to oversee how you could start on the server and progressive enhance upwards to a rich client side experience.
I’m hopeful that future iterations of React will make this a smoother option.
Friday, October 28th, 2016
Saturday, August 6th, 2016
Tuesday, June 28th, 2016
Accessibility Matters: Meet Our New Book, “Inclusive Design Patterns” (Pre-Release) – Smashing Magazine
I think it’s a safe bet that this new book by Heydon will be absolutely brilliant.
It’s a handbook with valuable, time-saving techniques that will help you avoid hacky workarounds and solve common issues effectively.
Monday, May 30th, 2016
Ensure that your class names never go out of sync with your style declarations with this one simple trick:
Take any CSS rule you want to apply, replace : by -, and dots by -dot-, and you get the name of the corresponding universal css classname.
The only thing missing is immutability, so I would suggest also putting
!important after each declaration in the CSS. Voila! No more specificity battles.
Sunday, May 22nd, 2016
Download it now and watch this space for more titles around building inclusive web apps, collaboration, and maintaining privacy and security.
Did I mention that it’s free?
Monday, March 21st, 2016
Well, I’m convinced.
On universal design: “We’re reframing disability as an opportunity.”
One day someone will write a history of the Internet, in which that great series of tubes will emerge as one long chain of inventions not just geared to helping people connect in more ways, but rather, to help more and more types of people communicate just as nimbly as anyone else.
Saturday, December 5th, 2015
I have no hands-on experience with React, but this tutorial by Jack Franklin looks like a great place to start. Before the tutorial begins he succinctly and clearly outlines the perfect architecture for building on the web today:
- The next time a user clicks, rather than being sent to the server, the client-side app is in control.
Y’know, I had a chance to chat briefly with Jack at the Edge conference in London and I congratulated him on the launch of a Go Cardless site that used exactly this technique. He told me that the decision to flip the switch and make it act as a single page app came right at the end of the project. I think that points to a crucial mindset that’s reiterated here:
Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
Saturday, May 2nd, 2015
Apps must run on specific platforms for specific devices. The app space, while large, isn’t universal.
Websites can be viewed by anyone with a web browser.
And that doesn’t mean foregoing modern features:
A web browser must only understand HTML. Further, newer HTML (like HTML 5) is still supported because the browser is built to ignore HTML it doesn’t understand. As a result, my site can run on the oldest browsers all the way to the newest ones. Got Lynx? No problem. You’ll still be able to find matches nearby. Got the latest smartphone and plentiful data? It’ll work there, too, and take advantage of its features.
This is why progressive enhancement is so powerful.
My site will take advantage of newer technologies like geolocation and local storage. However, the service will not be dependent on them.