Are you a web dev that’s into progressive enhancement, accessibility, design systems, and all that good stuff?
You should come and work with me at Clearleft.
Are you a web dev that’s into progressive enhancement, accessibility, design systems, and all that good stuff?
You should come and work with me at Clearleft.
I believe that we haven’t figured out when and how to give a developer access to an abstraction or how to evaluate when an abstraction is worth using. Abstractions are usually designed for a set of specific use-cases. The problems, however, start when a developer wants to do something that the abstraction did not anticipate.
Smart thoughts from Surma on the design of libraries, frameworks, and other abstractions:
Abstractions that take work off of developers are valuable! Of course, they are. The problems only occur when a developer feels chained to the abstractions in a situation where they’d rather do something differently. The important part is to not force patterns onto them.
This really resonated with parts of my recent talk at CSS Day when I was talking about Sass and jQuery:
If you care about DX and the adoption of your abstraction, it is much more beneficial to let developers use as much of their existing skills as possible and introduce new concepts one at a time.
I’m standing on a huge stage in a giant hangar-like room already filled with at least a thousand people. More are arriving. I’m due to start speaking in a few minutes. But there’s a problem with my laptop. It connects to the external screen, then disconnects, then connects, then disconnects. The technicians are on the stage with me, quickly swapping out adaptors and cables as they try to figure out a fix.
This is a pretty standard stress dream for me. Except this wasn’t a dream. This was happening for real at the giant We Are Developers World Congress in Berlin last week.
In the run-up to the event, the organisers had sent out emails about providing my slide deck ahead of time so it could go on a shared machine. I understand why this makes life easier for the people running the event, but it can be a red flag for speakers. It’s never quite the same as presenting from your own laptop with its familiar layout of the presentation display in Keynote.
Fortunately the organisers also said that I could present from my own laptop if I wanted to so that’s what I opted for.
One week before the talk in Berlin I was in Amsterdam for CSS Day. During a break between talks I was catching up with Michelle. We ended up swapping conference horror stories around technical issues (prompted by some of our fellow speakers having issues with Keynote on the brand new M1 laptops).
Michelle told me about a situation where she was supposed to be presenting from her own laptop, but because of last-minute technical issues, all the talks were being transferred to a single computer via USB sticks.
“But the fonts!” I said. “Yes”, Michelle responded. Even though she had put the fonts on the USB stick, things got muddled in the rush. If you open the Keynote file before installing the fonts, Keynote will perform font substitution and then it’s too late. This is exactly what happened with Michelle’s code examples, messing them up.
“You know”, I said, “I was thinking about having a back-up version of my talks that’s made entirely out of images—export every slide as an image, then make a new deck by importing all those images.”
“I’ve done that”, said Michelle. “But there isn’t a quick way to do it.”
I was still thinking about our conversation when I was on the Eurostar train back to England. I had plenty of time to kill with spotty internet connectivity. And that huge Berlin event was less than a week away.
I opened up the Keynote file of the Berlin presentation. I selected
Then I created a new blank deck ready for the painstaking work that Michelle had warned me about. I figured I’d have to drag in each image individually. The presentation had 89 slides.
But I thought it was worth trying a shortcut first. I selected all of the images in Finder. Then I dragged them over to the far left column in Keynote, the one that shows the thumbnails of all the slides.
Each image was now its own slide. I selected all 89 slides and applied my standard transition: a one second dissolve.
That was pretty much it. I now had a version of my talk that had no fonts whatsoever.
If you’re going to try this, it works best if don’t have too many transitions within slides. Like, let’s say you’ve got three words that you introduce—by clicking—one by one. You could have one slide with all three words, each one with its own build effect. But the other option is to have three slides: each one like the previous slide but with one more word added. If you use that second technique, then the exporting and importing will work smoothly.
Oh, and if you have lots and lots of notes, you’ll have to manually copy them over. My notes tend to be fairly minimal—a few prompts and the occasional time check (notes that say “5 minutes” or “10 minutes” so I can guage how my pacing is going).
Back to that stage in Berlin. The clock is ticking. My laptop is misbehaving.
One of the other speakers who will be on later in the day was hoping to test his laptop too. It’s Håkon. His presentation includes in-browser demos that won’t work on a shared machine. But he doesn’t get a chance to test his laptop just yet—my little emergency has taken precedent.
“Luckily”, I tell him, “I’ve got a backup of my presentation that’s just images to avoid any font issues.” He points out the irony: we spent years battling against the practice of text-as-images on the web and now here we are using that technique once again.
My laptop continues to misbehave. It connects, it disconnects, connects, disconnects. We’re going to have to run the presentation from the house machine. I’m handed a USB stick. I put my images-only version of the talk on there. I’m handed a clicker (I can’t use my own clicker with the house machine). I’m quickly ushered backstage while the MC announces my talk, a few minutes behind schedule.
It works. It feels a little strange not being able to look at my own laptop, but the on-stage monitors have the presentation display including my notes. The unfamiliar clicker feels awkward but hopefully nobody notices. I deliver my talk and it seems to go over well.
I think I’ll be making image-only versions of all my talks from now on. Hopefully I won’t ever need them, but just knowing that the backup is there is reassuring.
Mind you, if you’re the kind of person who likes to fiddle with your slides right up until the moment of presenting, then this technique won’t be very useful for you. But for me, not being able to fiddle with my slides after a certain point is a feature, not a bug.
The web historically moves in waves.
Libraries are created to push complex features in an easier way. Then the libraries themselves get complicated, often more so than the benefits they provide.
Eventually, (some of) the core features of those libraries make their way into the browser itself, but the libraries linger like water on the shore, slowly receding.
And before the sand has a chance to fully dry, a new set of libraries washes in to push the web even further.
More on battling entropy:
Ever needed to change “just a small thing” on an old page you build years ago? I recently had the pleasure and the simple task of changing some colors in CSS lead to a whole day of me wrangling with old deprecated Grunt tasks and trying to get the build task running.
I like this mindset:
Be boring by default and enhance on the way.
This post really highlights one of the biggest issues with the convoluted build tools used for “modern” web development. If you return to a project after any length of time, this is what awaits:
I find entropy staring me back in the face: library updates, breaking API changes, refactored mental models, and possible downright obsolescence. An incredible amount of effort will be required to make a simple change, test it, and get it live.
Take a moment and think about this super power: if you write vanilla HTML, CSS, and JS, all you have to do is put that code in a web browser and it runs. Edit a file, refresh the page, you’ve got a feedback cycle. As soon as you introduce tooling, as soon as you introduce an abstraction not native to the browser, you may have to invent the universe for a feedback cycle.
Maintainability matters—if not for you, then for future you.
The more I author code as it will be run by the browser the easier it will be to maintain that code over time, despite its perceived inferior developer ergonomics (remember, developer experience encompasses both the present and the future, i.e. “how simple are the ergonomics to build this now and maintain it into the future?) I don’t mind typing some extra characters now if it means I don’t have to learn/relearn, setup, configure, integrate, update, maintain, and inevitably troubleshoot a build tool or framework later.
This is a really good description of the role of a front-end developer.
That’s front end, not full stack.
I was on the podcast A Question Of Code recently. It was fun! The podcast is aimed at people who are making a career change into web development, so it’s right up my alley.
I sometimes get asked about what a new starter should learn. On the podcast, I mentioned a post I wrote a while back with links to some great resources and tutorials. As I said then:
That’s assuming you want to be a good well-rounded web developer. But it might be that you need to get a job as quickly as possible. In that case, my advice would be very different. I would advise you to learn React.
Regardless of your initial route, what’s the next step? How do you go from starting out in web development to being a top-notch web developer?
I don’t consider myself to be a top-notch web developer (far from it), but I am very fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside some tippety-top-notch developers at Clearleft—Trys, Cassie, Danielle, Mark, Graham, Charlotte, Andy, and Natalie.
They—and other top-notch developers I’m fortunate to know—have something in common. They prioritise users. Sure, they’ll all have their favourite technologies and specialised areas, but they don’t lose sight of who they’re building for.
When you think about it, there’s quite a power imbalance between users and developers on the web. Users can—ideally—choose which web browser to use, and maybe make some preference changes if they know where to look, but that’s about it. Developers dictate everything else—the technology that a website will use, the sheer amount of code shipped over the network to the user, whether the site will be built in a fragile or a resilient way. Users are dependent on developers, but developers don’t always act in the best interests of users. It’s a classic example of the principal-agent problem:
The principal–agent problem, in political science and economics (also known as agency dilemma or the agency problem) occurs when one person or entity (the “agent”), is able to make decisions and/or take actions on behalf of, or that impact, another person or entity: the “principal”. This dilemma exists in circumstances where agents are motivated to act in their own best interests, which are contrary to those of their principals, and is an example of moral hazard.
A top-notch developer never forgets that they are an agent, and that the user is the principal.
But is it realistic to expect web developers to be so focused on user needs? After all, there’s a whole separate field of user experience design that specialises in this focus. It hardly seems practical to suggest that a top-notch developer needs to first become a good UX designer. There’s already plenty to focus on when it comes to just the technology side of front-end development.
So maybe this is too simplistic a way of defining the principle-agent relationship between users and developers:
user :: developer
There’s something that sits in between, mediating that relationship. It’s a piece of software that in the world of web standards is even referred to as a “user agent”: the web browser.
user :: web browser :: developer
So if making the leap to understanding users seems too much of a stretch, there’s an intermediate step. Get to know how web browsers work. As a web developer, if you know what web browsers “like” and “dislike”, you’re well on the way to making great user experiences. If you understand the pain points for browser when they’re parsing and rendering your code, you’ve got a pretty good proxy for understanding the pain points that your users are experiencing.
Mike sees the church of JS-first ignoring the lessons to be learned from the years of experience accumulated by CSS practitioners.
As the responsibilities of front-end developers have become more broad, some might consider the conventions outlined here to be not worth following. I’ve seen teams spend weeks planning the right combination of framework, build tools, workflows and patterns only to give zero consideration to the way they architect UI components. It’s often considered the last step in the process and not worthy of the same level of consideration.
It’s important! I’ve seen well-planned project fail or go well over budget because the UI architecture was poorly planned and became un-maintainable as the project grew.
Garrett’s observation is spot-on here:
I love the way that Amber is documenting her journey—I think this is so useful for others making the progression from junior to mid-level developer.
I recently wrote about a web-specific example of a general principle for choosing the right tool for the job:
I was—yet again—talking about appropriateness. Use the right technology for the task at hand. Here’s the example I gave:
Surprisingly, I got some pushback on this. Šime Vidas wrote:
Based on my experience, this is not necessarily the case.
Going from server-side rendering and progressive enhancement via JS to a single-page app powered by a JS framework was a enormous reduction in complexity for me (so the opposite of over-engineering).
(Emphasis mine.) He goes on to say:
My main concerns are ease of use & maintainability. If you get those things right, you’re good and it’s not over-engineering.
There’s no doubt that maintainability is a desirable goal. And ease of use for the developer is also important …but I think they pale in comparison to ease of use for the end user.
To be fair, the specific use-case I mentioned was making a blog. And a blog is a personal thing. You can do whatever the heck you like on your own website and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
So I probably chose a poor example to illustrate my point. I was thinking more about when you’re making websites for a living. You’re being paid money to make something available on the web. In that situation, I strongly believe that user needs should win out over developer convenience.
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.
That’s why I responded to Šime, saying:
Your main concern should be user needs—not your own.
When I talk about over-engineering, I’m speaking from the perspective of end users, not developers.
Before considering your ease of use, and maintainability, consider users first.
In fairness to Šime, he’s being very open and honest about his priorities. I admire that. I’ve seen too many developers try to provide user experience justifications for decisions made for developer convenience. Once again I recommend Alex’s excellent article, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch:
The swap is executed by implying that by making things better for developers, users will eventually benefit equivalently. The unstated agreement is that developers share all of the same goals with the same intensity as end users and even managers. This is not true.
Now I worry I wasn’t specific enough when I talked about choosing appropriate technology:
Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand.
I should have made it clear that I was talking about what is appropriate or inapropriate for users. I think I made the mistake of assuming that this was obvious, and didn’t need saying. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.
If you’re in that situation—you are being paid money to make websites, and you are making technology decisions—I urge you to remember Charlie’s words: it isn’t about you.
Chris broke both his arms just to avoid speaking at the JAMstack conference in London. Seems a bit extreme to me.
Anyway, to make up for not being there, he made a website of his talk. It’s good stuff, tackling the split.
It’s cool to see the tech around our job evolve to the point that we can reach our arms around the whole thing. It’s worthy of some concern when we feel like complication of web technology feels like it’s raising the barrier to entry
This is a wonderfully written post packed with hard-won wisdom.
This are the myths that Monica dispelled for herself:
- I’m a senior developer
- Everyone writes tests
- We’re so far behind everyone else (AKA “tech FOMO”)
- Code quality matters most
- Everything must be documented!!!!
- Technical debt is bad
- Seniority means being the best at programming
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:
But the split that worries the most is this:
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.
Something that I am increasingly uncomfortable with is our industry’s obsession with job titles. I understand that the landscape has gotten a lot more complex than when I started out in 2009, but I do think the sheer volume and variation in titles isn’t overly helpful in communicating what people actually do.
I share Andy’s concern. I kinda wish that the title for this open job role at Clearleft could’ve just said “Person”.
Cassie joined Clearleft as a junior front-end developer last year. It’s really wonderful having her around. It’s a win-win situation: she’s enthusiastic and eager to learn; I’m keen to help her skill up in any way I can. And it’s working out great for the company—she has already demonstrated that she can produce quality HTML and CSS.
I’m very happy about Cassie’s success, not just on a personal level, but also from a business perspective. Hiring people into junior roles—when you’ve got the time and ability to train them—is an excellent policy. Hiring Charlotte back in 2014 was Clearleft’s first foray into hiring for a junior front-end dev position and it was a huge success. Cassie is demonstrating that it wasn’t just a fluke.
Alas, we can’t only hire junior developers. We’ve got a lot of work in the pipeline right now and we’re going to need a full-time seasoned developer who can hit the ground running. That’s why Clearleft is recruiting for a senior front-end developer.
As lead developer, Danielle will make the hiring decision, but because she’s so busy on project work right now—hence the need to hire more people—I’m trying to help her out any way I can. I offered to write the job description.
Seeing as I couldn’t just write “A clone of Danielle, please”, I had to think about what makes for a great front-end developer who uses their experience wisely. But I didn’t want to create a list of requirements, and I certainly didn’t want to create a list of specific technologies.
My first instinct was to look at other job ads and take my cue from them. But, let’s face it, most job ads are badly written, and prone to turning into laundry lists. So I decided to just write like I normally would. You know, like a human.
Here’s what I wrote. I hope it’s okay. I don’t really have much to compare it to, other than what I don’t want it to be.
Have a read of it and see what you think. And if you’re an experienced front-end developer who’d like to work by the seaside, you should apply for the role.
Rachel does some research to find out why people use CSS frameworks like Bootstrap—it can’t just be about grids, right?
In our race to get our site built quickly, our desire to make things as good as possible for ourselves as the designers and developers of the site, do we forget who we are doing this for? Do the decisions made by the framework developer match up with the needs of the users of the site you are building?
Not for the first time, I’m reminded of Rachel’s excellent post from a few years ago: Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.