Tags: work

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Friday, May 26th, 2017

traintimes.org.uk performance notes

I love, love, *love, traintimes.org.uk—partly because it’s so useful, but also because it’s so fast. I know public transport is the clichéd use-case when it comes to talking about web performance, but in this case it’s genuine: I use the site on trains and in airports.

Matthew gives a blow-by-blow account of the performance optimisations he’s made for the site, including a service worker. The whole thing is a masterclass in performance and progressive enhancement. I’m so glad he took the time to share this!

Wednesday, May 24th, 2017

The Apophenic Machine — Real Life

To navigate the web is to beat a path through a labyrinth of links left by others, and to thereby create associative links yourself, unspooling them like a guiding thread onto a floor already carpeted with such connections. Each thread of connection is unique, individualized: everyone draws their own map of the network as they navigate it.

A workshop on evaluating technology

After hacking away at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf, I stuck around for Beyond Tellerrand. I ended up giving a talk, stepping in for Ellen. I was a poor substitute, but I hope I entertained the lovely audience for 45 minutes.

After Beyond Tellerrand, I got on a train to Nuremberg …along with a dozen of my peers who were also at the event.

All aboard the Indie Web Train from Düsseldorf to Nürnberg. Indie Web Train.

I arrived right in the middle of Web Week Nürnberg. Among the many events going on was a workshop that Joschi arranged for me to run called Evaluating Technology. The workshop version of my Beyond Tellerrand talk, basically.

This was an evolution of a workshop I ran a while back. I have to admit, I was a bit nervous going into this. I had no tangible material prepared; no slides, no handouts, nothing. Instead the workshop is a collaborative affair. In order for it to work, the attendees needed to jump in and co-create it with me. Luckily for me, I had a fantastic and enthusiastic group of people at my workshop.

Evaluating Technology

We began with a complete braindump. “Name some tools and technologies,” I said. “Just shout ‘em out.” Shout ‘em out, they did. I struggled to keep up just writing down everything they said. This was great!

Evaluating Technology

The next step was supposed to be dot-voting on which technologies to cover, but there were so many of them, we introduced an intermediate step: grouping the technologies together.

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Once the technologies were grouped into categories like build tools, browser APIs, methodologies etc., we voted on which categories to cover, only then diving deeper into specific technologies.

I proposed a number of questions to ask of each technology we covered. First of all, who benefits from the technology? Is it a tool for designers and developers, or is it a tool for the end user? Build tools, task runners, version control systems, text editors, transpilers, and pattern libraries all fall into the first category—they make life easier for the people making websites. Browser features generally fall into the second category—they improve the experience for the end user.

Looking at user-facing technologies, we asked: how well do they fail? In other words, can you add this technology as an extra layer of enhancement on top of what you’re building or do you have to make it a foundational layer that’s potentially a single point of failure?

For both classes of technologies, we asked the question: what are the assumptions? What fundamental philosophy has been baked into the technology?

Evaluating Technology Evaluating Technology

Now, the point of this workshop is not for me to answer those questions. I have a limited range of experience with the huge amount of web technologies out there. But collectively all of us attending the workshop will have a good range of experience and knowledge.

Interesting then that the technologies people voted for were:

  • service workers,
  • progressive web apps,
  • AMP,
  • web components,
  • pattern libraries and design systems.

Those are topics I actually do have some experience with. Lots of the attendees had heard of these things, they were really interested in finding out more about them, but they hadn’t necessarily used them yet.

And so I ended up doing a lot of the talking …which wasn’t the plan at all! That was just the way things worked out. I was more than happy to share my opinions on those topics, but it was of a shame that I ended up monopolising the discussion. I felt for everyone having to listen to me ramble on.

Still, by the end of the day we had covered quite a few topics. Better yet, we had a good framework for categorising and evaluating web technologies. The specific technologies we covered were interesting enough, but the general approach provided the lasting value.

All in all, a great day with a great group of people.

Evaluating Technology

I’m already looking forward to running this workshop again. If you think it would be valuable for your company, get in touch.

Tuesday, May 23rd, 2017

Going offline at Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf

I’ve just come back from a ten-day trip to Germany. The trip kicked off with Indie Web Camp Düsseldorf over the course of a weekend.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

Once again the wonderful people at Sipgate hosted us in their beautiful building, and once again myself and Aaron helped facilitate the two days.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

Saturday was the BarCamp-like discussion day. Plenty of interesting topics were covered. I led a session on service workers, and that’s also what I decided to work on for the second day—that’s when the talking is done and we get down to making.

IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017 IndieWebCamp Düsseldorf 2017

I like what Ethan is doing on his offline page. He shows a list of pages that have been cached, but instead of just listing URLs, he shows a title and description for each page.

I’ve already got a separate cache for pages that gets added to as the user browses around my site. I needed to figure out a way to store the metadata for those pages so that I could then display it on the offline page. I came up with a workable solution, and interestingly, it involved no changes to the service worker script at all.

When you visit any blog post, I put metadata about the page into localStorage (after first checking that there’s an active service worker):

if (navigator.serviceWorker && navigator.serviceWorker.controller) {
  window.addEventListener('load', function() {
    var data = {
      "title": "A minority report on artificial intelligence",
      "description": "Revisiting Spielberg’s films after a decade and a half.",
      "published": "May 7th, 2017",
      "timestamp": "1494171049"
    };
    localStorage.setItem(
      window.location.href,
      JSON.stringify(data)
    );
  });
}

In my case, I’m outputting the metadata from the server, but you could just as easily grab some from the DOM like this:

var data = {
  "title": document.querySelector("title").innerText,
  "description": document.querySelector("meta[name='description']").getAttribute("contents")
}

Meanwhile in my service worker, when you visit that same page, it gets added to a cache called “pages”. Both localStorage and the cache API are using URLs as keys. I take advantage of that on my offline page.

The nice thing about writing JavaScript on my offline page is that I know the page will only be seen by modern browsers that support service workers, so I can use all sorts of fancy from ES6, or whatever we’re calling it now.

I start by looping through the keys of the “pages” cache (that’s right—the cache API isn’t just for service workers; you can access it from any script). Then I check to see if there is a corresponding localStorage key with the same string (a URL). If there is, I pull the metadata out of local storage and add it to an array called browsingHistory:

const browsingHistory = [];
caches.open('pages')
.then( cache => {
  cache.keys()
  .then(keys => {
    keys.forEach( request => {
      let data = JSON.parse(localStorage.getItem(request.url));
        if (data) {
          data['url'] = request.url;
          browsingHistory.push(data);
      }
    });

Then I sort the list of pages in reverse chronological order:

browsingHistory.sort( (a,b) => {
  return b.timestamp - a.timestamp;
});

Now I loop through each page in the browsing history list and construct a link to each URL, complete with title and description:

let markup = '';
browsingHistory.forEach( data => {
  markup += `
<h2><a href="${ data.url }">${ data.title }</a></h2>
<p>${ data.description }</p>
<p class="meta">${ data.published }</p>
`;
});

Finally I dump the constructed markup into a waiting div in the page with an ID of “history”:

let container = document.getElementById('history');
container.insertAdjacentHTML('beforeend', markup);

All those steps need to be wrapped inside the then clause attached to caches.open("pages") because the cache API is asynchronous.

There you have it. Now if you’re browsing adactio.com and your network connection drops (or my server goes offline), you can choose from a list of pages you’ve previously visited.

The current situation isn’t ideal though. I’ve got a clean-up operation in my service worker to limit the number of items stored in my “pages” cache. The cache never gets bigger than 35 items. But there’s no corresponding clean-up of metadata stored in localStorage. So there could be a lot more bits of metadata in local storage than there are pages in the cache. It’s not harmful, but it’s a bit wasteful.

I can’t do a clean-up of localStorage from my service worker because service workers can’t access localStorage. There’s a very good reason for that: the localStorage API is synchronous, and everything that happens in a service worker needs to be asynchronous.

Service workers can access indexedDB: it’s asynchronous. I could use indexedDB instead of localStorage, but I’m not a masochist. My best bet would be to use the localForage library, which wraps indexedDB in the simple syntax of localStorage.

Maybe I’ll do that at the next Homebrew Website Club here in Brighton.

Service Worker Security FAQ - The Chromium Projects

Got questions about the security of service workers? This document probably has the answer.

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Are we making the web too complicated? | Seldo.Com Blog

Laurie Voss on the trade-off between new powerful web dev tools, and the messiness that abusing those tools can bring:

Is modern web development fearsomely, intimidatingly complicated? Yes, and that’s a problem. Will we make it simpler? Definitely, but probably not as soon as you’d like. Is all this new complexity worthwhile? Absolutely.

I agree that there’s bound to be inappropriate use of technologies, but I don’t agree that we should just accept it:

Are there some people using a huge pile of JavaScript and a monstrous build chain to throw together a single-pager web site with one box that collects an email address? For sure. And that’s silly and unnecessary. But so what? The misuse of technology does not invalidate it.

I think we can raise our standards. Inappropriate use of technology might have been forgivable ten years ago, but if we want web development to be taken seriously as a discipline, I think we should endeavour to use our tools and technologies appropriately.

But we can all agree that the web is a wonderful thing:

Nobody but nobody loves the web more than I do. It’s my baby. And like a child, it’s frustrating to watch it struggle and make mistakes. But it’s amazing to watch it grow up.

Evaluating Technology | Calum Ryan

Calum’s write-up of the workshop I ran in Nuremberg last week.

Thursday, May 4th, 2017

Going offline. — Ethan Marcotte

Ethan has added a service worker to his site and he’s got a nifty little recipe for showing a list of saved-for-offline articles.

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Creating a pattern library in Sketch, Roobottom.com

A smart approach to creating patterns as symbols in Sketch. Sounds like diligence and vigilance is required to make it work, but then, that’s true of any pattern library.

Monday, May 1st, 2017

The People’s Cloud

A documentary by Matt Parker (brother of Andy) that follows in the footsteps of people like Andrew Blum, James Bridle, and Ingrid Burrington, going in search of the physical locations of the internet, and talking to the people who maintain it. Steven Pemberton makes an appearance in the first and last of five episodes:

  1. What is the Cloud vs What Existed Before?
  2. Working out the Internet: it’s a volume game
  3. The Submarine Cable Network
  4. How Much Data Is There?
  5. Convergence

The music makes it feel quite sinister.

Offline Web Applications | Udacity

This is a free online video course recorded by Jake a couple of years back. It’s got a really good step-by-step introduction to service workers, delivered in Jake’s typically witty way. Some of the details are a bit out of date, and I must admit that I bailed when it got to IndexedDB, but I highly recommend giving this a go.

There’s also a free course on web accessibility I’m planning to check out.

Friday, April 28th, 2017

A Case for Progressive Web Applications in 2017

If your company is or is planning on doing business in emerging markets, architecting your web applications for performance through progressive enhancements is one easy way to drastically improve accessibility, retention, and user experience.

This article uses “progressive enhancement” and “progressive web app” interchangeably, which would be true in an ideal world. This is the first of a three part series, and it sounds like it will indeed document how to take an existing site and enhance it into a progressive web app—a strategy I much prefer to creating a separate silo that only works for a subset of devices (the app-shell model being pushed by Google).

Thursday, April 27th, 2017

Device intervention. — Ethan Marcotte

But here’s the thing about browsing the modern web with a six year-old laptop: nearly every browser tab causes my fan to spin, and my laptop to warm. Elements of web pages slowly, noticeably, gracelessly ka-chunk-fall into place as they render. While I browse the web, I feel each one of my laptop’s six years.

Wednesday, April 26th, 2017

Painting with Code : Airbnb Design

Very clever stuff here from Jon in the tradition of Bret Victor—alter Sketch files by directly manipulating code (React, in this case).

I’m not sure the particular use-case outlined here is going to apply much outside of AirBnB (just because the direction of code-to-Sketch feels inverted from most processes) but the underlying idea of treating visual design assets and code as two manifestations of the same process …that’s very powerful.

1 day public speaking workshop in Brighton for digital professionals - £95 + VAT Tickets, Thu, 18 May 2017 at 10:00 | Eventbrite

I’m not going to be around for this, but I wish I could go. If you’re in Brighton, I highly recommend this one-day workshop from Matt. He’s been doing some internal workshops at Clearleft and he’s pretty great.

Tuesday, April 18th, 2017

Offline-first for Your Templated Site (Part Two)

I’m really interested in this idea of service-worker side templating (I know that Glenn is working on something really, really cool in this area too). Can’t wait for part three of this series! (hint, hint, Jeff)

Progressive Web Apps - ILT  |  Web  |  Google Developers

A step-by-step guide to building progressive web apps. It covers promises, service workers, fetch, and cache, but seeing as it’s from Google, it also pushes the app-shell model.

This is a handy resource but I strongly disagree with some of the advice in the section on architectures (the same bit that gets all swoonsome for app shells):

Start by forgetting everything you know about conventional web design, and instead imagine designing a native app.

Avoid overly “web-like” design.

What a horribly limiting vision for the web! After all that talk about being progressive and responsive, we’re told to pretend we’re imitating native apps on one device type.

What’s really disgusting is the way that the Chrome team are withholding the “add to home screen” prompt from anyone who dares to make progressive web apps that are actually, y’know …webby.

Back to the Cave – Frank Chimero

Frank has published the (beautifully designed) text of his closing XOXO keynote.

Friday, March 24th, 2017

Code (p)reviews

I’m not a big fan of job titles. I’ve always had trouble defining what I do as a noun—I much prefer verbs (“I make websites” sounds fine, but “website maker” sounds kind of weird).

Mind you, the real issue is not finding the right words to describe what I do, but rather figuring out just what the heck it is that I actually do in the first place.

According to the Clearleft website, I’m a technical director. That doesn’t really say anything about what I do. To be honest, I tend to describe my work these days in terms of what I don’t do: I don’t tend to write a lot of HTML, CSS, and JavaScript on client projects (although I keep my hand in with internal projects, and of course, personal projects).

Instead, I try to make sure that the people doing the actual coding—Mark, Graham, and Danielle—are happy and have everything they need to get on with their work. From outside, it might look like my role is managerial, but I see it as the complete opposite. They’re not in service to me; I’m in service to them. If they’re not happy, I’m not doing my job.

There’s another aspect to this role of technical director, and it’s similar to the role of a creative director. Just as a creative director is responsible for the overall direction and quality of designs being produced, I have an oversight over the quality of front-end output. I don’t want to be a bottleneck in the process though, and to be honest, most of the time I don’t do much checking on the details of what’s being produced because I completely trust Mark, Graham, and Danielle to produce top quality code.

But I feel I should be doing more. Again, it’s not that I want to be a bottleneck where everything needs my approval before it gets delivered, but I hope that I could help improve everyone’s output.

Now the obvious way to do this is with code reviews. I do it a bit, but not nearly as much as I should. And even when I do, I always feel it’s a bit late to be spotting any issues. After all, the code has already been written. Also, who am I to try to review the code produced by people who are demonstrably better at coding than I am?

Instead I think it will be more useful for me to stick my oar in before a line of code has been written; to sit down with someone and talk through how they’re going to approach solving a particular problem, creating a particular pattern, or implementing a particular user story.

I suppose it’s really not that different to rubber ducking. Having someone to talk out loud with about potential solutions can be really valuable in my experience.

So I’m going to start doing more code previews. I think it will also incentivise me to do more code reviews—being involved in the initial discussion of a solution means I’m going to want to see the final result.

But I don’t think this should just apply to front-end code. I’d also like to exercise this role as technical director with the designers on a project.

All too often, decisions are made in the design phase that prove problematic in development. It usually works out okay, but it often means revisiting the designs in light of some technical considerations. I’d like to catch those issues sooner. That means sticking my nose in much earlier in the process, talking through what the designers are planning to do, and keeping an eye out for any potential issues.

So, as technical director, I won’t be giving feedback like “the colour’s not working for me” or “not sure about those type choices” (I’ll leave that to the creative director), but instead I can ask questions like “how will this work without hover?” or “what happens when the user does this?” as well as pointing out solutions that might be tricky or time-consuming to implement from a technical perspective.

What I want to avoid is the swoop’n’poop, when someone seagulls in after something has been designed or built and points out all the problems. The earlier in the process any potential issues can be spotted, the better.

And I think that’s my job.

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

Retrofit Your Website as a Progressive Web App — SitePoint

Turning your existing website into a progressive web “app”—a far more appealing prospect than trying to create an entirely new app-shell architecture:

…they are an enhancement of your existing website which should take no longer than a few hours and have no negative effect on unsupported browsers.