New Ways of Seeing considers the impact of digital technologies on the way we see, understand, and interact with the world. Building on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing from 1972, the show explores network infrastructures, digital images, systemic bias, education and the environment, in conversation with a number of contemporary art practitioners.
Monday, April 15th, 2019
Saturday, April 13th, 2019
Offline fallback page with service worker - Modern Web Development: Tales of a Developer Advocate by Paul Kinlan
Paul describes a fairly straightforward service worker recipe: a custom offline page for failed requests.
Friday, April 12th, 2019
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.
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.
document.querySelectorfirst got wide browser support and started to end jQuery’s ubiquity? It finally gave us a way to do natively what jQuery had been providing for years: easy selection of DOM elements. I believe the same is about to happen to frontend frameworks like Angular and React.
The article goes on to give a good technical overview of custom elements, templates, and the Shadow DOM, but I was surprised to see it making reference to the
is syntax for extending existing HTML elements—I’m pretty sure that that is, sadly, dead in the water.
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.
- Morality is not always relative.
- You’re a web professional.
- The web is accessible out-of-the-box. We break it.
- It’s not on people with disabilities to tell you how you screwed up.
- It should be easier. This is our job.
Monday, April 8th, 2019
An online documentary series featuring interviews with smart people about the changing role of design.
As technology becomes more complex and opaque, how will we as designers understand its potential, do hands-on work, translate it into forms people can understand and use, and lead meaningful conversations with manufacturers and policymakers about its downstream implications? We are entering a new technology landscape shaped by artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and synthetic biology.
So far there’s Kevin Slavin, Molly Wright Steenson, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, with more to come from the likes of Matt Jones, Anab Jain, Dan Hill, and many, many more.
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.
Friday, April 5th, 2019
This is a bit ranty but it resonates with what I’ve been noticing lately:
I’ve discovered how many others have felt similarly, overwhelmed by the choices we have as modern developers, always feeling like there’s something we should be doing better.
Thursday, April 4th, 2019
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.
Saturday, March 30th, 2019
These diagrams of early networks feel like manuscripts that you’d half expect to be marked with “Here be dragons” at the edges.
Friday, March 29th, 2019
Not only does the differentiation of terms create a divide within the industry, the term ‘web app’ regularly acts as an excuse for corner cutting and the exclusion of users.
We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.
I love the way that Benjamin is documenting his activities at Homebrew Website Club Brighton each week:
Another highly productive 90 mins.
Homebrew website club is on every Thursday evening 6.00-7.30pm at Clearleft. You should come along!
Thursday, March 28th, 2019
This is such a lovely farewell from Ellen. We’re all going to miss having her around.
Clearleft really set an example to other companies when it comes to their mission to help their staff pursue their ambitions — their training has given me a much bolder confidence for public speaking, for developing my voice and for getting my ideas out there. The generous attitude to learning, sharing and bold experimentation at Clearleft is one of the best things about working there.
I love everything about this article and I can’t wait for part two.
What we tend to forget is that the environment websites and web apps occupy is one and the same. Both are subject to the same environmental pressures that the large gradient of networks and devices impose. Those constraints don’t suddenly vanish when we decide to call what we build “apps”, nor do our users’ phones gain magical new powers when we do so.
Needless to say, I endorse this message:
Monday, March 25th, 2019
53% of mobile visits leave a page that takes longer than 3 seconds to load. That means that a large number of visitors probably abandoned these sites because they were staring at a blank screen for 3 seconds, said “fuck it,” and left approximately half way before the page showed up. The fact that the next page interaction would have been quicker—assuming all the JS files even downloaded correctly in the first attempt—doesn’t amount to much if they didn’t stick around for the first page to load. What was gained by putting the business logic in the front end in this scenario?