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.
Tuesday, May 17th, 2022
Thursday, May 12th, 2022
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.
Thursday, April 14th, 2022
To some extent, their strengths lie in technological advances in CSS: flexbox, grid, calc, and so on. But more importantly, they share an approach. They all focus on creating the right inputs rather than trying to control every possible output. Leave the final calculations for those outputs to the browser—that’s what computers are good at.
As Andy puts it:
Be the browser’s mentor, not its micromanager.
Reflecting on Utopia’s approach, Jim Nielsen wrote:
We say CSS is “declarative”, but the more and more I write breakpoints to accommodate all the different ways a design can change across the viewport spectrum, the more I feel like I’m writing imperative code. At what quantity does a set of declarative rules begin to look like imperative instructions?
In contrast, one of the principles of Utopia is to be declarative and “describe what is to be done rather than command how to do it”. This approach declares a set of rules such that you could pick any viewport width and, using a formula, derive what the type size and spacing would be at that size.
Declarative! Maybe that’s the word I’ve been looking for to describe the commonalities between Utopia, Every Layout, and intrinsic web design.
So if declarative design is a thing, does that also mean imperative design is also a thing? And what might the tools and technologies for imperative design look like?
I think that Tailwind might be a good example of an imperative design tool. It’s only about the specific outputs. Systematic thinking is actively discouraged; instead you say exactly what you want the final pixels on the screen to be.
I’m not saying that declarative tools—like Utopia—are right and that imperative tools—like Tailwind—are wrong. As always, it depends. In this case, it depends on the mindset you have.
If you agree with this statement, you should probably use an imperative design tool:
CSS is broken and I want my tools to work around the way CSS has been designed.
But if you agree with this statement, you should probably use a declarative design tool:
CSS is awesome and I want my tools to amplify the way that CSS had been designed.
If you agree with the first statement but you then try using a declarative tool like Utopia or Every Layout, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.
Likewise if you agree with the second statement but you then try using an imperative tool like Tailwind, you will probably have a bad time. You’ll probably hate it. You may declare the tool to be “bad”.
It all depends on whether the philosophy behind the tool matches your own philosophy. If those philosophies match up, then using the tool will be productive and that tool will act as an amplifier—a bicycle for the mind. But if the philosophy of the tool doesn’t match your own philosophy, then you will be fighting the tool at every step—it will slow you down.
Knowing that this spectrum exists between declarative tools and imperative tools can help you when you’re evaluating technology. You can assess whether a web design tool is being marketed on the premise that CSS is broken or on the premise that CSS is awesome.
Again, there’s no right or wrong here. This is about matching the right tool to the right mindset.
Personally, the declarative design approach fits me like a glove. It feels like it’s in the tradition of John’s A Dao Of Web Design or Ethan’s Responsive Web Design—ways of working with the grain of the web.
Sunday, March 13th, 2022
Excellent advice from Jeremy who wants us to build fast, reliable, resilient websites …even if the technologies involved in doing that don’t feel exciting.
Central to that endeavor is recognizing that the browser gives you a ton of stuff for free. Relying on those freebies requires a willingness to not
Tuesday, January 11th, 2022
Unless we know why someone made a decision, we can’t safely change it or conclude that they were wrong.
Tuesday, December 7th, 2021
Monday, November 8th, 2021
When I’ve spoken in the past about evaluating technology, I’ve mentioned two categories of tools for web development. I still don’t know quite what to call these categories. Internal and external? Developer-facing and user-facing?
I think the criteria for evaluating these different kinds of tools should be very different.
For the first category, developer-facing tools, use whatever you want. Use whatever makes sense to you and your team. Use whatever’s effective for you.
If a user-facing tool is only providing a developer benefit, is there any way to turn it into a developer-facing tool?
In my opinion, this is an excellent design decision.
I know there are ways of getting React to behave more like a category one tool, but it is most definitely not the default behaviour. And default behaviour really, really matters. For React, the default behaviour is to assume all the code you write—and the tool you use to write it—will be sent over the wire to end users. For Svelte, the default behaviour is the exact opposite.
But much as I love Svelte’s approach, I think it’s got its work cut out for it. It faces a formidable foe: inertia.
React has become so ubiquitous in the front-end development community that it’s often an unquestioned default choice for every project. It feels like enterprise software at this point. No one ever got fired for choosing React. Whether it’s appropriate or not becomes almost irrelevant. In much the same way that everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook, everyone uses React because everyone uses React.
That’s one of its biggest selling points to managers. If you’ve settled on React as your framework of choice, then hiring gets a lot easier: “If you want to work here, you need to know React.”
The same logic applies from the other side. If you’re starting out in web development, and you see that so many companies have settled on using React as their framework of choice, then it’s an absolute no-brainer: “if I want to work anywhere, I need to know React.”
This then creates a positive feedback loop. Everyone knows React because everyone is hiring React developers because everyone knows React because everyone is hiring React developers because…
At no point is there time to stop and consider if there’s a tool—like Svelte, for example—that would be less harmful for end users.
This is where I think Astro might have the edge over Svelte.
Astro has the same philosophy as Svelte. It’s a developer-facing tool by default. Have a listen to Drew’s interview with Matthew Phillips:
But crucially, unlike Svelte, Astro allows you to use the same syntax as the incumbent, React. So if you’ve learned React—because that’s what you needed to learn to get a job—you don’t have to learn a new syntax in order to use Astro.
I know you probably can’t take an existing React site and convert it to Astro with the flip of a switch, but at least there’s a clear upgrade path.
Astro reminds me of Sass. Specifically, it reminds me of the
.scss syntax. You could take any CSS file, rename its file extension from
.scss and it was automatically a valid Sass file. You could start using Sass features incrementally. You didn’t have to rewrite all your style sheets.
Sass also has a
.sass syntax. If you take a CSS file and rename it with a
.sass file extension, it is not going to work. You need to rewrite all your CSS to use the
.sass syntax. Some people used the
.sass syntax but the overwhelming majority of people used
I remember talking with Hampton about this and he confirmed the proportions. It was also the reason why one of his creations, Sass, was so popular, but another of his creations, Haml, was not, comparitively speaking—Sass is a superset of CSS but Haml is not a superset of HTML; it’s a completely different syntax.
I’m not saying that Svelte is like Haml and Astro is like Sass. But I do think that Astro has inertia on its side.
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021
The 1960s idea of “appropriate technology” feels like an early version of the principle of least power.
Sunday, April 18th, 2021
New technologies don’t have power; for that they’d need a community, documentation, and a thriving ecosystem of ancillary technology. What they have is potential, which resonates with the potential within the startup and the early adopter; perhaps they can all, over time, grow together.
This means startups don’t adopt new technologies despite their immaturity, they adopt them because of that immaturity. This drives a constant churn of novelty and obsolescence, which amplifies the importance of a technologist’s skillset, which drives startups to adopt new technologies.
This flywheel has been spinning for a long time, and won’t stop simply because I’ve pointed out that we’re conflating novelty with technological advancement. Hopefully we can slow it down, though, because I believe it’s causing real harm.
Saturday, April 3rd, 2021
Principles and the English language
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.
When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.
Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Be conservative in what words you send.
Then there’s the principle of least power:
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
That could be rephrased as:
Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.
Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:
Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.
Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2021
I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.
Monday, January 25th, 2021
You catch more flies with honey than Tailwind.
Monday, January 18th, 2021
The juxtaposition of The HTTP Archive’s analysis and The State of JS 2020 Survey results suggest that a disproportionately small—yet exceedingly vocal minority—of white male developers advocate strongly for React, and by extension, a development experience that favors thick client/thin server architectures which are given to poor performance in adverse conditions. Such conditions are less likely to be experienced by white male developers themselves, therefore reaffirming and reflecting their own biases in their work.
Wednesday, December 9th, 2020
Chris is gathering end-of-year thoughts from people in response to the question:
What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?
Friday, October 16th, 2020
Friday, July 31st, 2020
Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 1 – Introduction and technical approach – Blogs from the Natural History Museum
Now here’s the story from the team that made the website. It’s a great walkthrough of thoughtfully evaluating technologies to figure out the best approach.
Saturday, July 18th, 2020
A good explanation of the hydration problem in tools like Gatsby.
Wednesday, July 1st, 2020
Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.
Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.
Thursday, June 25th, 2020
I’m very selective about how I depend on other people’s work in my personal projects. Here are the factors I consider when evaluating dependencies.
- Complexity How complex is it, who absorbs the cost of that complexity, and is that acceptable?
- Comprehensibility Do I understand how it works, and if not, does that matter?
- Reliability How consistently and for how long can I expect it to work?
I really like Rob’s approach to choosing a particular kind of dependency when working on the web:
When I’m making things, that’s how I prefer to depend on others and have them depend on me: by sharing strong, simple ideas as a collective, and recombining them in novel ways with rigorous specificity as individuals.
Wednesday, May 13th, 2020
Ultimately, however, our decision to switch was driven by our difficulty in hiring new talent for $UNREMARKABLE_LANGUAGE, despite it being taught in dozens of universities across the United States. Our blog posts on $PRACTICAL_OPEN_SOURCE_FRAMEWORK seemed to get fewer upvotes when posted on Reddit as well, cementing our conviction that our technology stack was now legacy code.
This is all just mwah—chef’s kiss!—perfect:
Every metric that matters to us has increased substantially from the rewrite, and we even identified some that were no longer relevant to us, such as number of bugs, user frustration, and maintenance cost.