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Sunday, May 22nd, 2022

Situational awereness

There was a week recently where I was out and about nearly every night.

One night, Jessica and I went to the cinema. There was a double bill of Alien and Aliens in the beautiful Duke of York’s picture house. We booked one of the comfy sofas on the balcony.

The next night we were out at the session in The Jolly Brewer, playing trad Irish tunes all evening. Bliss!

Then on the third night, we went to see Low playing in a church. Rich and Ben were there too.

It really felt like The Before Times. Of course in reality it wasn’t quite like old times. There’s always an awareness of relative risk. How crowded is the cinema likely to be? Will they have the doors open at The Jolly Brewer to improve the airflow? Will people at the Low gig comply with the band’s request to wear masks?

Still, in each case, I weighed the risk and decided the evening was worth it. If I caught Covid because of that cinematic double bill, or that tune-filled gathering, or that excellent gig, that price would be acceptable.

Mind you, I say that without having experienced the horribleness of having a nasty bout of coronavirus. And the prospect of long Covid is genuinely scary.

But there’s no doubt that the vaccines have changed the equation. There’s still plenty of risk but it’s on a different scale. The Situation isn’t over, but it has ratcheted down a notch to something more manageable.

Now with the weather starting to get nice, there’ll be more opportunities for safer outdoor gatherings. I’m here for it.

Actually, I’m not going to literally be here for all of it. I’m making travel plans to go and speak at European events—another positive signal of the changing situation. Soon I’ll be boarding the Eurostar to head to Amsterdam, and not long after I’ll be on the Eurostar again for a trip to Lille. And then of course there’s UX London at the end of June. With each gathering, there’s an inevitable sense of calculated risk, but there’s also a welcome sense of normality seeping back in.

Wednesday, May 18th, 2022

UX London should be your off-site

Check out the line up for this year’s UX London. I know I’m biased, but damn! That’s objectively an excellent roster of smart, interesting people.

When I was first putting that page together I had the name of each speaker followed by their job title and company. But when I stopped and thought about it—not to be too blunt—I realised “who cares?”. What matters is what they’ll be talking about.

And, wow, what they’ll be talking about sounds great! Designing for your international audiences, designing with the autistic community, how to win stakeholders and influence processes, the importance of clear writing in product development, designing good services, design systems for humans, and more. Not to mention workshops like designing your own research methods for a very diverse audience, writing for people who hate writing, and harnessing design systems.

You can peruse the schedule—which is almost complete now—to get a feel for how each day will flow.

But I’m not just excited about this year’s UX London because of the great talks and workshops. I’m also really, really excited at the prospect of gathering together—in person!—over the course of three days with my peers. That means meeting new and interesting people, but frankly, it’s going to be just as wonderful to hang out with my co-workers.

Clearleft has been a remote-only company for the past two years. We’ve still got our studio and people can go there if they like (but no pressure). It’s all gone better than I thought it would given how much of an in-person culture we had before the pandemic hit. But it does mean that it’s rare for us all to be together in the same place (if you don’t count Zoom as a place).

UX London is going to be like our off-site. Everyone from Clearleft is going to be there, regardless of whether “UX” or “design” appears in their job title. I know that the talks will resonate regardless. When I was putting the line-up together I made sure that all the talks would have general appeal, regardless of whether you were a researcher, a content designer, a product designer, a product manager, or anything else.

I’m guessing that the last two years have been, shall we say, interesting at your workplace too. And even if you’ve also been adapting well to remote work, I think you’ll agree that the value of having off-site gatherings has increased tenfold.

So do what we’re doing. Make UX London your off-site gathering. It’ll be a terrific three-day gathering in the sunshine in London from Tuesday, June 28th to Thursday, June 30th at the bright and airy Tobacco Dock.

If you need to convince your boss, I’ve supplied a list of reasons to attend. But you should get your tickets soon—standard pricing ends in just over two weeks on Friday, June 3rd. After that there’ll only be last-chance tickets available.

Tuesday, May 17th, 2022

I Replaced My Native iOS App with a Cross-Platform Web App and No One Noticed

It turns out that in 2022, for a lot of apps, the dream of write once run anywhere has finally arrived.

Every year browsers and web technologies become more capable and more powerful. Every year there are more kinds of app that you can make cross platform.

So before you start your next project, why don’t you take a look at cross platform web apps. Maybe they aren’t right for your project, but maybe, like me, you’ll discover that you can code once and run everywhere. And I think that’s amazing.

Sunday, May 15th, 2022

6, 97: Why scorpions?

A fascinating and inspiring meditation on aerodynamics.

Image previews with the FileReader API

I added a “notes” section to this website eight years ago. I set it up so that notes could be syndicated to Twitter. Ever since then, that’s the only way I post to Twitter.

A few months later I added photos to my notes. Again, this would get syndicated to Twitter.

Something’s bothered me for a long time though. I initially thought that if I posted a photo, then the accompanying text would serve as a decription of the image. It could effectively act as the alt text for the image, I thought. But in practice it didn’t work out that way. The text was often a commentary on the image, which isn’t the same as a description of the contents.

I needed a way to store alt text for images. To make it more complicated, it was possible for one note to have multiple images. So even though a note was one line in my database, I somehow needed a separate string of text with the description of each image in a single note.

I eventually settled on using the file system instead of the database. The images themselves are stored in separate folders, so I figured I could have an accompanying alt.txt file in each folder.

Take this note from yesterday as an example. Different sizes of the image are stored in the folder /images/uploaded/19077. Here’s a small version of the image and here’s the original. In that same folder is the alt text.

This means I’m reading a file every time I need the alt text instead of reading from a database, which probably isn’t the most performant way of doing it, but it seems to be working okay.

Here’s another example:

In order to add the alt text to the image, I needed to update my posting interface. By default it’s a little textarea, followed by a file upload input, followed by a toggle (a checkbox under the hood) to choose whether or not to syndicate the note to Twitter.

The interface now updates automatically as soon as I use that input type="file" to choose any images for the note. Using the FileReader API, I show a preview of the selected images right after the file input.

Here’s the code if you ever need to do something similar. I’ve abstracted it somewhat in that gist—you should be able to drop it into any page that includes input type="file" accept="image/*" and it will automatically generate the previews.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy this was. The FileReader API worked just as expected without any gotchas. I think I always assumed that this would be quite complex to do because once upon a time, it was quite complex (or impossible) to do. But now it’s wonderfully straightforward. Story of the web.

My own version of the script does a little bit more; it also generates another little textarea right after each image preview, which is where I write the accompanying alt text.

I’ve also updated my server-side script that handles the syndication to Twitter. I’m using the /media/metadata/create method to provide the alt text. But for some reason it’s not working. I can’t figure out why. I’ll keep working on it.

In the meantime, if you’re looking at an image I’ve posted on Twitter and you’re judging me for its lack of alt text, my apologies. But each tweet of mine includes a link back to the original note on this site and you will most definitely find the alt text for the image there.

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.

Cautionary Tales from Cryptoland

This quote from the brilliant Molly White is about web3/blockchain/cryptobollocks but it applies to evaluating technology in general (like, say, JavaScript frameworks):

I firmly believe that companies first need to identify and research the problem they are trying to solve, and then select the right technology to do it. Those technologies may not be the latest buzzword, and they may not cause venture capitalists to come crawling out of the woodwork, but choosing technologies with that approach tends to be a lot more successful in the long run — at least, assuming the primary goal is to actually solve a problem rather than attract VC money.

Wednesday, May 11th, 2022

The Demise of the Mildly Dynamic Website

It me:

Broadly, these are websites which are still web pages, not web applications; they’re pages of essentially static information, personal websites, blogs, and so on, but they are slightly dynamic. They might have a style selector at the top of each page, causing a cookie to be set, and the server to serve a different stylesheet on every subsequent page load.

This rings sadly true to me:

Suppose a company makes a webpage for looking up products by their model number. If this page were made in 2005, it would probably be a single PHP page. It doesn’t need a framework — it’s one SELECT query, that’s it. If this page were made in 2022, a conundrum will be faced: the company probably chose to use a statically generated website. The total number of products isn’t too large, so instead their developers stuff a gigantic JSON file of model numbers for every product made by the company on the website and add some client-side JavaScript to download and query it. This increases download sizes and makes things slower, but at least you didn’t have to spin up and maintain a new application server. This example is fictitious but I believe it to be representative.

Also, I never thought about “serverless” like this:

Recently we’ve seen the rise in popularity of AWS Lambda, a “functions as a service” provider. From my perspective this is literally a reinvention of CGI, except a) much more complicated for essentially the same functionality, b) with vendor lock-in, c) with a much more complex and bespoke deployment process which requires the use of special tools.

Reinventing W3C Governance

To be honest, I’m not all that convinced by Robin’s arguments here about overhauling the governance model at the World Wide Web Consortium (partly because the way he describes the current model sounds pretty okay to me). But I’m very interested in what he has to say in the broader philosophical sense about using values to solve problems:

A value is worth something if it’s there to help you when the rubber hits the road and starts hydroplaning. Sure, you’ll need a handful of high-level lofty values as reminders, if only because there’s always a vocal guy (it’s always a guy) who thinks it’s just outrageous to put people before profits. But mostly you want Values You Can Use.

That might be the best description I’ve come across yet for design principles: values you can use.

When we say that engineering is about trade-offs, we’re saying that engineers solve their hardest problems using values (which they call “heuristics” because everyone’s entitled to be fancy some). In implementing a system, you might need to decide between an option that provides people with the best experience, another that delivers the greatest value to the shareholders, and yet a third one that makes the control centre blinkenlights dance in the prettiest way.

Saturday, May 7th, 2022

Roboto … But Make It Flex - Material Design

This version of Roboto from Font Bureau is a very variable font indeed.

Friday, May 6th, 2022

wrong side of write

An opinionated blog about writing. I’ve subscribed in my feed reader.

Thursday, May 5th, 2022

Notes from a gopher:// site - daverupert.com

The result of adding more constraints means that the products have a broader appeal due to their simple interface. It reminds me of a Jeremy Keith talk I heard last month about programming languages like CSS which have a simple interface pattern: selector { property: value }. Simple enough anyone can learn. But simple doesn’t mean it’s simplistic, which gives me a lot to think about.

Even more UX London speaker updates

I’ve added five more faces to the UX London line-up.

Irina Rusakova will be giving a talk on day one, the day that focuses on research. Her talk on designing with the autistic community is one I’m really looking forward to.

Also on day one, my friend and former Clearleftie Cennydd Bowles will be giving a workshop called “What could go wrong?” He literally wrote the book on ethical design.

Day two is all about creation. My co-worker Chris How will be speaking. “Nepotism!” you cry! But no, Chris is speaking because I had the chance to his talk—called “Unexpectedly obvious”—and I thought “that’s perfect for UX London!”:

Let him take you on a journey through time and across the globe sharing stories of designs that solve problems in elegant if unusual ways.

Also on day two, you’ve got two additional workshops. Lou Downe will be running a workshop on designing good services, and Giles Turnbull will be running a workshop called “Writing for people who hate writing.”

I love that title! Usually when I contact speakers I don’t necessarily have a specific talk or workshop in mind, but I knew that I wanted that particular workshop from Giles.

When I wrote to Giles to ask come and speak, I began by telling how much I enjoy his blog—I’m a long-time suscriber to his RSS feed. He responded and said that he also reads my blog—we’re blog buddies! (That’s a terrible term but there should be a word for people who “know” each other only through reading each other’s websites.)

Anyway, that’s another little treasure trove of speakers added to the UX London roster:

That’s nineteen speakers already and we’re not done yet—expect further speaker announcements soon. But don’t wait on those announcements before getting your ticket. Get yours now!

Tim Brown: CSS forces

Some interesting thoughts from Tim here. What if CSS could “displace” design decisions from one area to another?

For example, a flexible line spacing value in one container could influence margins that surround the text block. That change in spaciousness may mean that nearby headings need size or spacing adjustments to stay feeling connected.

This feels like the complete opposite way that most people approach design systems—modular, componentised, and discrete—but very in-line with the way that CSS has been designed—interconnected, relational and cascading.

Wednesday, May 4th, 2022

Fluid Type Scale - Generate responsive font-size variables

This is kind of a Utopia lite: pop in your minimum and maximum font sizes along with a modular scale and it spits out some custom properties for clamp() declarations.

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:

Why I don’t miss React: a story about using the platform - Jack Franklin

This is a great case study of switching from a framework mindset to native browser technologies.

Though this is quite specific to Jack’s own situation, I do feel like there’s something in the air here. The native browser features are now powerful and stable enough to make the framework approach feel outdated.

And if you do want to use third-party dependencies, Jack makes a great case for choosing smaller single-responsibility helpers rather than monolithic frameworks.

Replacing lit-html would be an undertaking but much less so than replacing React: it’s used in our codebase purely for having our components (re)-render HTML. Replacing lit-html would still mean that we can keep our business logic, ultimately maintaining the value they provide to end-users. Lit-Html is one small Lego brick in our system, React (or Angular, or similar) is the entire box.

You Don’t Need A UI Framework — Smashing Magazine

We noticed a trend: students who pick a UI framework like Bootstrap or Material UI get off the ground quickly and make rapid progress in the first few days. But as time goes on, they get bogged down. The daylight grows between what they need, and what the component library provides. And they wind up spending so much time trying to bend the components into the right shape.

I remember one student spent a whole afternoon trying to modify the masthead from a CSS framework to support their navigation. In the end, they decided to scrap the third-party component, and they built an alternative themselves in 10 minutes.

This tracks with my experience. These kinds of frameworks don’t save time; they defer it.

The one situation where that works well, as Josh also points out, is prototyping.

If the goal is to quickly get something up and running, and you don’t need the UI to be 100% professional, I do think it can be a bit of a time-saver to quickly drop in a bunch of third-party components.