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Wednesday, August 10th, 2022

Democratising dev

I met up with a supersmart programmer friend of mine a little while back. He was describing some work he was doing with React. He was joining up React components. There wasn’t really any problem-solving or debugging—the individual components had already been thoroughly tested. He said it felt more like construction than programming.

My immediate thought was “that should be automated.”

Or at the very least, there should be some way for just about anyone to join those pieces together rather than it requiring a supersmart programmer’s time. After all, isn’t that the promise of design systems and components—freeing us up to tackle the meaty problems instead of spending time on the plumbing?

I thought about that conversation when I was listening to Laurie’s excellent talk in Berlin last month.

Chatting to Laurie before the talk, he was very nervous about the conclusion that he had reached and was going to share: that the time is right for web development to be automated. He figured it would be an unpopular message. Heck, even he didn’t like it.

But I reminded him that it’s as old as the web itself. I’ve seen videos from very early World Wide Web conferences where Tim Berners-Lee was railing against the idea that anyone would write HTML by hand. The whole point of his WorldWideWeb app was that anyone could create and edit web pages as easily as word processing documents. It’s almost an accident of history that HTML happened to be just easy enough—but also just powerful enough—for many people to learn and use.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Laurie’s talk. (Except for a weird bit where he dunks on people moaning about “the fundamentals”. I think it’s supposed to be punching up, but I’m not sure that’s how it came across. As Chris points out, fundamentals matter …at least when it comes to concepts like accessibility and performance. I think Laurie was trying to dunk on people moaning about fundamental technologies like languages and frameworks. Perhaps the message got muddled in the delivery.)

I guess Laurie was kind of talking about this whole “no code” thing that’s quite hot right now. Personally, I would love it if the process of making websites could be democratised more. I’ve often said that my nightmare scenario for the World Wide Web would be for its fate to lie in the hands of an elite priesthood of programmers with computer science degrees. So I’m all in favour of no-code tools …in theory.

The problem is that unless they work 100%, and always produce good accessible performant code, then they’re going to be another example of the law of leaky abstractions. If a no-code tool can get someone 90% of the way to what they want, that seems pretty good. But if that person than has to spend an inordinate amount of time on the remaining 10% then all the good work of the no-code tool is somewhat wasted.

Funnily enough, the person who coined that law, Joel Spolsky, spoke right after Laurie in Berlin. The two talks made for a good double bill.

(I would link to Joel’s talk but for some reason the conference is marking the YouTube videos as unlisted. If you manage to track down a URL for the video of Joel’s talk, let me know and I’ll update this post.)

In a way, Joel was making the same point as Laurie: why is it still so hard to do something on the web that feels like it should be easily repeatable?

He used the example of putting an event online. Right now, the most convenient way to do it is to use a third-party centralised silo like Facebook. It works, but now the business model of Facebook comes along for the ride. Your event is now something to be tracked and monetised by advertisers.

You could try doing it yourself, but this is where you’ll run into the frustrations shared by Joel and Laurie. It’s still too damn hard and complicated (even though we’ve had years and years of putting events online). Despite what web developers tell themselves, making stuff for the web shouldn’t be that complicated. As Trys put it:

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.

And yet here we are. You can either have the convenience of putting something on a silo like Facebook, or you can have the freedom of doing it yourself, indie web style. But you can’t have both it seems.

This is a criticism often levelled at the indie web. The barrier to entry to having your own website is too high. It’s a valid criticism. To have your own website, you need to have some working knowledge of web hosting and at least some web technologies (like HTML).

Don’t get me wrong. I love having my own website. Like, I really love it. But I’m also well aware that it doesn’t scale. It’s unreasonable to expect someone to learn new skills just to make a web page about, say, an event they want to publicise.

That’s kind of the backstory to the project that Joel wanted to talk about: the block protocol. (Note: it has absolutely nothing to do with blockchain—it’s just an unfortunate naming collision.)

The idea behind the project is to create a kind of crowdsourced pattern library—user interfaces for creating common structures like events, photos, tables, and lists. These patterns already exist in today’s silos and content management systems, but everyone is reinventing the wheel independently. The goal of this project is make these patterns interoperable, and therefore portable.

At first I thought that would be a classic /927 situation, but I’m pleased to see that the focus of the project is not on formats (we’ve been there and done that with microformats, RDF, schema.org, yada yada). The patterns might end up being web components or they might not. But the focus is on the interface. I think that’s a good approach.

That approach chimes nicely with one of the principles of the indie web:

UX and design is more important than protocols, formats, data models, schema etc. We focus on UX first, and then as we figure that out we build/develop/subset the absolutely simplest, easiest, and most minimal protocols and formats sufficient to support that UX, and nothing more. AKA UX before plumbing.

That said, I don’t think this project is a cure-all. Interoperable (portable) chunks of structured content would be great, but that’s just one part of the challenge of scaling the indie web. You also need to have somewhere to put those blocks.

Convenience isn’t the only thing you get from using a silo like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Medium. You also get “free” hosting …until you don’t (see GeoCities, MySpace, and many, many more).

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a place on the web that they could truly call their own? Today you need to have an uneccesary degree of technical understanding to publish something at a URL you control.

I’d love to see that challenge getting tackled.

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2022

Directory enquiries

I was talking to someone recently about a forgotten battle in the history of the early web. It was a battle between search engines and directories.

These days, when the history of the web is told, a whole bunch of services get lumped into the category of “competitors who lost to Google search”: Altavista, Lycos, Ask Jeeves, Yahoo.

But Yahoo wasn’t a search engine, at least not in the same way that Google was. Yahoo was a directory with a search interface on top. You could find what you were looking for by typing or you could zero in on what you were looking for by drilling down through a directory structure.

Yahoo wasn’t the only directory. DMOZ was an open-source competitor. You can still experience it at DMOZlive.com:

The official DMOZ.com site was closed by AOL on February 17th 2017. DMOZ Live is committed to continuing to make the DMOZ Internet Directory available on the Internet.

Search engines put their money on computation, or to use today’s parlance, algorithms (or if you’re really shameless, AI). Directories put their money on humans. Good ol’ information architecture.

It turned out that computation scaled faster than humans. Search won out over directories.

Now an entire generation has been raised in the aftermath of this battle. Monica Chin wrote about how this generation views the world of information:

Catherine Garland, an astrophysicist, started seeing the problem in 2017. She was teaching an engineering course, and her students were using simulation software to model turbines for jet engines. She’d laid out the assignment clearly, but student after student was calling her over for help. They were all getting the same error message: The program couldn’t find their files.

Garland thought it would be an easy fix. She asked each student where they’d saved their project. Could they be on the desktop? Perhaps in the shared drive? But over and over, she was met with confusion. “What are you talking about?” multiple students inquired. Not only did they not know where their files were saved — they didn’t understand the question.

Gradually, Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.

Dr. Saavik Ford confirms:

We are finding a persistent issue with getting (undergrad, new to research) students to understand that a file/directory structure exists, and how it works. After a debrief meeting today we realized it’s at least partly generational.

We live in a world ordered only by search:

While some are quite adept at using labels, tags, and folders to manage their emails, others will claim that there’s no need to do because you can easily search for whatever you happen to need. Save it all and search for what you want to find. This is, roughly speaking, the hot mess approach to information management. And it appears to arise both because search makes it a good-enough approach to take and because the scale of information we’re trying to manage makes it feel impossible to do otherwise. Who’s got the time or patience?

There are still hold-outs. You can prise files from Scott Jenson’s cold dead hands.

More recently, Linus Lee points out what we’ve lost by giving up on directory structures:

Humans are much better at choosing between a few options than conjuring an answer from scratch. We’re also much better at incrementally approaching the right answer by pointing towards the right direction than nailing the right search term from the beginning. When it’s possible to take a “type in a query” kind of interface and make it more incrementally explorable, I think it’s almost always going to produce a more intuitive and powerful interface.

Directory structures still make sense to me (because I’m old) but I don’t have a problem with search. I do have a problem with systems that try to force me to search when I want to drill down into folders.

I have no idea what Google Drive and Dropbox are doing but I don’t like it. They make me feel like the opposite of a power user. Trying to find a file using their interfaces makes me feel like I’m trying to get a printer to work. Randomly press things until something happens.

Anyway. Enough fist-shaking from me. I’m going to ponder Linus’s closing words. Maybe defaulting to a search interface is a cop-out:

Text search boxes are easy to design and easy to add to apps. But I think their ease on developers may be leading us to ignore potential interface ideas that could let us discover better ideas, faster.

Tuesday, July 26th, 2022

The line-up for dConstruct 2022 …revealed!

Alright, I’ve kept you in suspense for long enough. It’s time to reveal the magnificent line-up for dConstruct 2022.

I’ll now put names to the teasing list of descriptions I previously provided

A technologist, product designer, and writer who defies categorisation. They’ve headed up a design studio, co-founded a start-up, and now consult on super-clever machine learning stuff. Their blog is brilliant.

This is Matt Webb. Matt previously spoke at dConstruct back in 2007, when he gave a talk called The Experience Stack

An award-winning author from South Africa whose work has recently been adapted for television. Some of their work is kind of sci-fi, some of it is kind of horror, some of it is kind of magical realism, and all of it is great.

This is Lauren Beukes. Lauren previously spoke at dConstruct in 2012, when she gave a talk called Imagined Futures.

An artist and designer who has created logos and illustrations for NASA, Apple, and Intel as well as custom typefaces for British Airways and Waitrose. A lover of letterforms, they are now one of the world’s highest-profile calligraphers posting their mesmerising work on Instagram.

This is Seb Lester.

A Canadian digital designer who has previously worked in the agency world, at Silicon Valley startups, and even venture capital. But now they’re doing truly meaningful work, designing for busy healthcare workers in low-income countries.

This is Daniel Burka. Daniel previously spoke at dConstruct back in 2008, when he gave a talk called Designing for Interaction.

A multi-instrumentalist musician, producer and robotic artist who composes for film, theatre and the concert stage. They play a mean theremin.

This is Sarah Angliss. Sarah previously spoke at dConstruct in 2013, when she gave a talk called Tech and the Uncanny.

An Australian designer and entrepreneur. They work in the cultural heritage sector and they’re an expert on digital archives. Their latest challenge is working out how to make an online photography archive last for 100 years.

This is George Oates. George previously spoke at dConstruct back in 2007, where she and Denise Wilton had a conversation called Human Traffic.

A tireless defender of web standards and co-author of the Inclusive Design Principles. They’re a member of the W3C Advisory Board and of the BIMA Inclusive Design Council. Expect some thoughtful takes on the intersection of accessibility and emerging technologies.

This is Léonie Watson.

A professor of neuroscience who is also a bestselling author. They conduct experiments on people’s brains and then talk about it afterwards. Their talks have been known to be mind-altering.

This is Anil Seth.

That’s quite a line-up, isn’t it?

Deducing the full line-up just from those descriptions wasn’t easy, but Hidde de Vries managed it. So Hidde gets a free ticket to dConstruct 2022 …or, at least, he would if it weren’t for the fact that he already has a ticket (because Hidde is smart; be like Hidde). So a friend of Hidde’s is getting a free ticket instead (because Hidde is generous; be like Hidde).

If you’ve been putting off getting a ticket for dConstruct 2022 until you knew what the line-up would be, well, put off no longer.

You’ll want to be at the Duke of York’s in Brighton on Friday, September 9th. With this line-up of eight supersmart speakers, you know it’s going to be a fantastic day!

Monday, July 25th, 2022

Control

In two of my recent talks—In And Out Of Style and Design Principles For The Web—I finish by looking at three different components:

  1. a button,
  2. a dropdown, and
  3. a datepicker.

In each case you could use native HTML elements:

  1. button,
  2. select, and
  3. input type="date".

Or you could use divs with a whole bunch of JavaScript and ARIA.

In the case of a datepicker, I totally understand why you’d go for writing your own JavaScript and ARIA. The native HTML element is quite restricted, especially when it comes to styling.

In the case of a dropdown, it’s less clear-cut. Personally, I’d use a select element. While it’s currently impossible to style the open state of a select element, you can style the closed state with relative ease. That’s good enough for me.

Still, I can understand why that wouldn’t be good enough for some cases. If pixel-perfect consistency across platforms is a priority, then you’re going to have to break out the JavaScript and ARIA.

Personally, I think chasing pixel-perfect consistency across platforms isn’t even desirable, but I get it. I too would like to have more control over styling select elements. That’s one of the reasons why the work being done by the Open UI group is so important.

But there’s one more component: a button.

Again, you could use the native button element, or you could use a div or a span and add your own JavaScript and ARIA.

Now, in this case, I must admit that I just don’t get it. Why wouldn’t you just use the native button element? It has no styling issues and the browser gives you all the interactivity and accessibility out of the box.

I’ve been trying to understand the mindset of a developer who wouldn’t use a native button element. The easy answer would be that they’re just bad people, and dismiss them. But that would probably be lazy and inaccurate. Nobody sets out to make a website with poor performance or poor accessibility. And yet, by choosing not to use the native HTML element, that’s what’s likely to happen.

I think I might have finally figured out what might be going on in the mind of such a developer. I think the issue is one of control.

When I hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, I think “Great! That’s less work for me. I can just let the browser deal with it.” In other words, I relinquish control to the browser (though not entirely—I still want the styling to be under my control as much as possible).

But I now understand that someone else might hear that there’s a native HTML element—like button or select—that comes with built-in behaviours around interaction and accessibility, and think “Uh-oh! What if there unexpected side-effects of these built-in behaviours that might bite me on the ass?” In other words, they don’t trust the browsers enough to relinquish control.

I get it. I don’t agree. But I get it.

If your background is in computer science, then the ability to precisely predict how a programme will behave is a virtue. Any potential side-effects that aren’t within your control are undesirable. The only way to ensure that an interface will behave exactly as you want is to write it entirely from scratch, even if that means using more JavaScript and ARIA than is necessary.

But I don’t think it’s a great mindset for the web. The web is filled with uncertainties—browsers, devices, networks. You can’t possibly account for all of the possible variations. On the web, you have to relinquish some control.

Still, I’m glad that I now have a bit more insight into why someone would choose to attempt to retain control by using div, JavaScript and ARIA. It’s not what I would do, but I think I understand the motivation a bit better now.

Thursday, July 21st, 2022

Scale

A few years back, Jessica got a ceiling fan for our living room. This might seem like a strange decision, considering we live in England. Most of the time, the problem in this country is that it’s too cold.

But then you get situations like this week, when the country experienced the hottest temperatures ever recorded. I was very, very grateful for that ceiling fan. It may not get used for most of the year, but on the occasions when it’s needed, it’s a godsend. And it’s going to get used more and more often, given the inexorable momentum of the climate emergency.

Even with the ceiling fan, it was still very hot in the living room. I keep my musical instruments in that room, and they all responded to the changing temperature. The strings on my mandolin, bouzouki, and guitar went looser in the heat. The tuning dropped by at least a semitone.

I tuned them back up, but then I had to be careful when the extreme heat ended and the temperature began to drop. The strings began to tighten accordingly. My instruments went up a semitone.

I was thinking about this connection between sound and temperature when I was tuning the instruments back down again.

The electronic tuner I use shows the current tone in relation to the desired note: G, D, A, E. If the string is currently producing a tone that’s lower than, say, A, the tuner displays the difference on its little screen as lines behind the ideal A position. If the string is producing a tone higher than A, the lines appear in front of the desired note.

What if we thought about temperature like this? Instead of weather apps showing the absolute temperature in degrees, what if they showed the relative distance from a predefined ideal? Then you could see at a glance whether it’s a little cooler than you’d like, or a little hotter than you’d like.

Perhaps an interface like that would let you see at a glance how out of the tune the current temperature is.

Wednesday, July 20th, 2022

Subscribing to newsletters

I like reading RSS feeds. I’ve written before about how my feed reader feels different to my email client:

When I open my RSS reader to catch up on the feeds I’m subscribed to, it doesn’t feel like opening my email client. It feels more like opening a book. And, yes, books are also things to be completed—a bookmark not only marks my current page, it also acts as a progress bar—but books are for pleasure. The pleasure might come from escapism, or stimulation, or the pursuit of knowledge. That’s a very different category to email, calendars, and Slack.

Giles put it far better when described what using RSS feeds feels like :

To me, using RSS feeds to keep track of stuff I’m interested in is a good use of my time. It doesn’t feel like a burden, it doesn’t feel like I’m being tracked or spied on, and it doesn’t feel like I’m just another number in the ads game.

To me, it feels good. It’s a way of reading the web that better respects my time, is more likely to appeal to my interests, and isn’t trying to constantly sell me things.

That’s why I feel somewhat conflicted about email newsletters. On the one hand, people are publishing some really interesting things in newsletters. On the hand, the delivery mechanism is email, which feels burdensome. Add tracking into the mix, and they can feel downright icky.

But never fear! My feed reader came to the rescue. Many newsletter providers also provide RSS feeds. NetNewsWire—my feed reader of choice—will try to find the RSS feed that corresponds to the newsletter. Hurrah!

I get to read newsletters without being tracked, which is nice for me. But I also think it would be nice to let the authors of those newsletters know that I’m reading. So here’s a list of some of the newsletters I’m currently subscribed to in my feed reader:

The Whippet by McKinley Valentine:

A newsletter for the terminally curious.

Sentiers by Patrick Tanguay:

A carefully curated selection of articles with thoughtful commentary on technology, society, culture, and potential futures.

The Fitzwilliam:

Policy, ethics and applied rationality with an Irish slant.

The Science Of Fiction:

How science shapes stories about the future and how stories about the future shape science.

Adjacent Possible by Steven Johnson:

Exploring where good ideas come from—and how to keep them from turning against us.

Faster, Please! by James Pethokoukis:

Discovering, creating, and inventing a better world through technological innovation, economic growth, and pro-progress culture.

undefended / undefeated by Sara Hendren:

Ideas at the heart of material culture—the everyday stuff in all our lives

Today in Tabs by Rusty Foster:

Your favorite newsletter’s favorite newsletter.

Tuesday, July 19th, 2022

The line-up for dConstruct 2022

The line-up for dConstruct 2022 is complete!

If you haven’t yet got your ticket, it’s not too late.

Now here’s the thing…

When I announced the event back in May, I said:

I’m currently putting the line-up together. I’m not revealing anything just yet, but trust me, you will want to be there.

I still haven’t revealed anything, and I’m kind of tempted to keep it that way. Imagine showing up at an event and not knowing who’s going to be speaking. Is this is the best idea or the worst idea?

I suspect I’m going to have to announce the line-up at some point, but today is not that day. I’m going to string it out a bit longer.

But I am going to describe the line-up. And I’m going to throw in a challenge. The first person to figure out the complete line-up gets a free ticket. Send a tweet to the @dConstruct Twitter account with your deductions.

Ready? Here’s who’s speaking at dConstruct 2022 on Friday, September 9th in The Duke Of Yorks in Brighton…

  1. A technologist, product designer, and writer who defies categorisation. They’ve headed up a design studio, co-founded a start-up, and now consult on super-clever machine learning stuff. Their blog is brilliant.
  2. An award-winning author from South Africa whose work has recently been adapted for television. Some of their work is kind of sci-fi, some of it is kind of horror, some of it is kind of magical realism, and all of it is great.
  3. An artist and designer who has created logos and illustrations for NASA, Apple, and Intel as well as custom typefaces for British Airways and Waitrose. A lover of letterforms, they are now one of the world’s highest-profile calligraphers posting their mesmerising work on Instagram.
  4. A Canadian digital designer who has previously worked in the agency world, at Silicon Valley startups, and even venture capital. But now they’re doing truly meaningful work, designing for busy healthcare workers in low-income countries.
  5. A multi-instrumentalist musician, producer and robotic artist who composes for film, theatre and the concert stage. They play a mean theremin.
  6. An Australian designer and entrepreneur. They work in the cultural heritage sector and they’re an expert on digital archives. Their latest challenge is working out how to make an online photography archive last for 100 years.
  7. A tireless defender of web standards and co-author of the Inclusive Design Principles. They’re a member of the W3C Advisory Board and of the BIMA Inclusive Design Council. Expect some thoughtful takes on the intersection of accessibility and emerging technologies.
  8. A professor of neuroscience who is also a bestselling author. They conduct experiments on people’s brains and then talk about it afterwards. Their talks have been known to be mind-altering.

Sounds pretty freaking great, right?

Some further clues…

Many of these people have spoken at dConstruct in the past. After all, this year’s one-off event is going to be a kind of “best of.” So you might want to have a nose around the dConstruct archive.

Also, I’ve mentioned some nationalities like Australian, Canadian, and South African, but my self-imposed carbon footprint policy for this event forbids me from flying anyone in. So that’s a clue too.

The game is afoot! Tweet your deductions to the @dConstruct Twitter account or, even better, write a blog post and tweet the link, mentioning @dConstruct. The first correct answer gets a free ticket.

For everyone else, you can still get a ticket.

Thursday, June 30th, 2022

Negative

I no longer have Covid. I am released from isolation.

Alas, my negative diagnosis came too late for me to make it to UX London. But that’s okay—by the third and final day of the event, everything was running smooth like buttah! Had I shown up, I would’ve just got in the way. The Clearleft crew ran the event like a well-oiled machine.

I am in the coronaclear just in time to go away for a week. My original thinking was this would be my post-UX-London break to rest up for a while, but it turns out I’ve been getting plenty of rest during UX London.

I’m heading to the west coast of Ireland for The Willie Clancy Summer School, a trad music pilgrimage.

Jessica and I last went to Willie Week in 2019. We had a great time and I distinctly remember thinking “I’m definitely coming back next year!”

Well, a global pandemic put paid to that. The event ran online for the past two years. But now that it’s back for real, I wouldn’t miss it for the world.

My mandolin and I are bound for Miltown Malbay!

Wednesday, June 29th, 2022

Two books

I’ve mentioned before that I like to read a mixture of fiction of non-fiction. In fact, I try to alternate between the two. If I’ve just read some non-fiction, then I’ll follow it with a novel and I’ve just read some fiction, then I’ll follow it with some non-fiction.

But those categorisations can be slippery. I recently read two books that were ostensibly fiction but were strongly autobiographical and didn’t have the usual narrative structure of a novel.

Just to clarify, I’m not complaining! Quite the opposite. I enjoy the discomfort of not being able to pigeonhole a piece of writing so easily.

Also, both books were excellent.

The first one was A Ghost In The Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. It’s sort of about the narrator’s obsessive quest to translate the Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. But it’s also about the translator’s life, which mirrors the author’s. And it’s about all life—life in its bodily, milky, bloody, crungey reality. The writing is astonishing, creating an earthy musky atmosphere. It feels vibrant and new but somehow ancient and eternal at the same time.

By contrast, No One Is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood is rooted in technology. Reading the book feels like scrolling through Twitter, complete with nervous anxiety. Again, the narrator’s life mirrors that of the author, but this time the style has more of the arch detachment of the modern networked world.

It took me a little while at first, but then I settled into the book’s cadence and vibe. Then, once I felt like I had a handle on the kind of book I was reading, it began to subtly change. I won’t reveal how, because I want you to experience that change for yourself. It’s like a slow-building sucker punch.

When I started reading No One Is Talking About This, I thought it might end up being the kind of book where I would admire the writing, but it didn’t seem like a work that invited emotional connection.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. I can’t remember the last time a book had such an emotional impact on me. Maybe that’s because it so deliberately lowered my defences, but damn, when I finished reading the book, I was in pieces.

I’m still not quite sure how to classify A Ghost In The Throat or No One Is Talking About This but I don’t care. They’re both just great books.

Tuesday, June 28th, 2022

UX FOMO

Today is the first day of UX London 2022 …and I’m not there. Stoopid Covid.

I’m still testing positive although I’m almost certainly near the end of my infection. But I don’t want to take any chances. Much as I hate to miss out on UX London, I would hate passing this on even more. So my isolation continues.

Chris jumped in at the last minute to do the hosting duties—thanks, Chris!

From the buzz I’m seeing on Twitter, it sounds like everything is going just great without me, which is great to see. Still, I’m experiencing plenty of FOMO—even more than the usual levels of FOMO I’d have when there’s a great conference happening that I’m not at.

To be honest, nearly all of my work on UX London was completed before the event. My number one task was putting the line-up together, and I have to say, I think I nailed it.

If I were there to host the event, it would mostly be for selfish reasons. I’d get a real kick out of introducing each one of the superb speakers. I’d probably get very tedious, repeatedly saying “Oh, you’re going to love this next one!” followed by “Wasn’t that great‽”

But UX London isn’t about me. It’s about the inspiring talks and practical workshops.

I wish I were there to experience it in person but I can still bask in the glow of a job well done, hearing how much people are enjoying the event.

Monday, June 27th, 2022

On reading

On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder is a very short book. Most of the time, this is a feature, not a bug.

There are plenty of non-fiction books I’ve read that definitely could’ve been much, much shorter. Books that have a good sensible idea, but one that could’ve been written on the back of a napkin instead of being expanded into an arbitrarily long form.

In the world of fiction, there’s the short story. I guess the equivelent in the non-fiction world is the essay. But On Tyranny isn’t an essay. It’s got chapters. They’re just really, really short.

Sometimes that brevity means that nuance goes out the window. What might’ve been a subtle argument that required paragraphs of pros and cons in another book gets reduced to a single sentence here. Mostly that’s okay.

The premise of the book is that Trump’s America is comparable to Europe in the 1930s:

We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

But in making the comparison, Synder goes all in. There’s very little accounting for the differences between the world of the early 20th century and the world of the early 21st century.

This becomes really apparent when it comes to technology. One piece of advice offered is:

Make an effort to separate yourself from the internet. Read books.

Wait. He’s not actually saying that words on screens are in some way inherently worse than words on paper, is he? Surely that’s just the nuance getting lost in the brevity, right?

Alas, no:

Staring at screens is perhaps unavoidable but the two-dimensional world makes little sense unless we can draw upon a mental armory that we have developed somewhere else. … So get screens out of your room and surround yourself with books.

I mean, I’m all for reading books. But books are about what’s in them, not what they’re made of. To value words on a page more than the same words on a screen is like judging a book by its cover; its judging a book by its atoms.

For a book that’s about defending liberty and progress, On Tyranny is puzzingly conservative at times.

Friday, June 24th, 2022

Talking about style

I’ve published a transcription of the talk I gave at CSS Day:

In And Out Of Style.

The title is intended to have double meaning. The obvious reference is that CSS is about styling web pages. But the talk also covers some long-term trends looking at ideas that have appear, disappear, and reappear over time. Hence, style as in trends and fashion.

There are some hyperlinks in the transcript but I also published a list of links if you’re interested in diving deeper into some of the topics mentioned in the talk.

I also published the slides but, as usual, they don’t make much sense out of context. They’re on Noti.st too.

I made an audio recording for your huffduffing pleasure.

There are two videos of this talk. On Vimeo, there’s the version I pre-recorded for An Event Apart online. On YouTube, there’s the recording from CSS Day.

It’s kind of interesting to compare the two (well, interesting to me, anyway). The pre-recorded version feels like a documentary. The live version has more a different vibe and it obviously has more audience interaction. I think my style of delivery suits a live audience best.

I invite you to read, watch, or listen to In And Out Of Style, whichever you prefer.

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2022

In And Out Of Style

A presentation from An Event Apart Spring Summit held online in April 2022 and the opening presentation at CSS Day held in Amsterdam in June 2022.

Hello, my name is Jeremy and I am speaking to you today from Brighton on the south coast of England.

I want to tell you about something that happened here in Brighton back in 1985 (pretty sure it took place in one of those buildings along the seafront there). In 1985 Brighton was host to the International Information Theory Symposium. Fascinating.

Something exciting happened there. Word began to go around that there was an unexpected guest attending the event. This unexpected guest was this man, Claude Shannon. The way it was described later was somebody said it was as if Newton had showed up at a physics conference.

He wasn’t even meant to be there, but he was convinced at the dinner after the event to get up and say a few words. And he did, he got up and he started to talk, but he felt like he was losing the audience. So he proceeded to do some juggling.

That’s so Claude Shannon. He was very much into games. He took games very seriously. He was a very playful kind of person.

For example, he invented this machine, which is called the most beautiful machine, also the most useless machine. But I think it’s just wonderful. I mean, it’s like the perfect encapsulation of cybernetics, the ideal feedback loop.

But the reason why people were excited that Claude Shannon was at this event wasn’t because of the most beautiful machine. And it wasn’t because of his juggling. It was because of information theory.

Because Claude Shannon, it’s not like he just revolutionized the field of information theory; Claude Shannon pretty much invented the field of information theory in one fell swoop. In a paper in 1948 called the Mathematical Theory of Communication.

Here’s the TLDR. This is the mathematical part. I won’t go into the details of the mathematical part, but what I recall from Claude Shannon’s work is that he was able to effectively boil information down into fundamental particles. The idea that there’s a single bit of information.

This idea of entropy, the idea that for information to travel between communicator and the receiver, you’ve got the signal that you’re trying to transmit, but there’s also noise. And this noise is unavoidable.

And like I said, this idea of the bit; that any piece of information could be reduced down to a fundamental particle: a one or a zero; on or off, which of course is exactly how computers work. So it’s no exaggeration to say that Claude Shannon is like the father of the digital age.

And one other thing I take from Claude Shannon’s work is that when it comes to communication of information, context matters. In other words, that the expectation between the receiver and the communicator can make a lot of difference.

Shared context

So to give you an example of shared context being very important in information communication I want to illustrate it with a story from the pre-digital age. This is a story from the age of the electrical telegraph.

Now this story is probably completely apocryphal. In some versions of the story, it involves the novelist Victor Hugo. In other versions, it’s Oscar Wilde. But the point is there’s an author. He’s just published a book and now he’s gone off on holiday after writing the book. But while he’s on holiday, he’s really curious to know, how is the book doing? What are the sales like?

So he sends a telegram to his publisher, but because there’s enough shared context between the publisher and the author, all he sends is a single character. A question mark.

?

And then, because there’s this shared context between the publisher and the author and the publisher wants to let the author know that actually sales are going really, really well, the publisher also sends back a telegram with a single character. An exclamation mark.

!

So this is a classic example of the importance of context. I mean, you’re just sending a single character and yet both parties understand the message being conveyed.

Context matters. Shared context matters.

Now I want to try an experiment with you to test how much shared context there is between me (I’m going to try to transmit a message) and you (the receiver of the message).

So we’re starting with a blank slate. And now I’m going to provide one piece of information. Okay. Here’s the piece of information. Probably doesn’t tell you much. A diagonal line. There’s not enough context here.

All right. Back to the blank slate. I’m now going to provide another piece of information.

Okay. Again, in isolation, this probably doesn’t tell you much just another diagonal line. But if I combine it with the first bit of information, then now maybe it starts to become something you can parse. And if I provide just one more bit of information, now maybe it clicks into place that the piece of information I’m trying to convey is ten minutes past ten.

And yet all I’ve done here is I’ve provided you with two diagonal lines in a circle. Yet somehow two diagonal lines in a circle, when we have the shared context of how to read an analogue clock face, is enough to communicate ten minutes past ten.

(The time, by the way, is completely arbitrary. The only reason I chose that time is just that if you ever look at an advertisement for a watch, it’ll usually be ten past ten because the angles of the arms on the watch nicely frame the logo of the watchmaker.)

But anyway, the point is: with enough shared context, two diagonal lines in a circle are enough for me to communicate the piece of information, “ten minutes past ten o’clock.”

I mean, maybe you’re a digital native born in a 21st century, in which case you’re looking at this and thinking, “I just see two diagonal lines in a circle”, but if you can read an analogue clock face, then we have that shared context.

Where did this context come from? Why is it that that clock faces are set up the way they are? Why do clocks go clockwise? It seems like a fairly arbitrary decision.

It is somewhat arbitrary, but one neat solution is that the reason why clocks go in a clockwise direction is that that’s the way that a shadow on a sundial would travel …in the Northern hemisphere.

Now if you look at a sundial in the Southern hemisphere, like this one here—this is in Wellington, in New Zealand—the shadow would actually go in a counterclockwise direction.

A sundial in the Southern hemisphere.

So really it’s almost an accident of history that we have clocks that go clockwise. If clocks had been invented in the Southern hemisphere, then they would go in the other direction. It’s pretty arbitrary, but now we’ve decided, we’ve kind of settled on this arbitrary movement of clocks that they go clockwise and we’re stuck with it.

Because inertia is a very powerful force. If you tried to change the way the clocks work you’d have your work cut out for you, even if the reason why clocks work the way they do is arbitrary to begin with.

Inertia

You know, a very wise person once said the most dangerous phrase in the English language is “We’ve always done it that way.” And that very wise person was the brilliant computer scientist, rear admiral Grace Hopper.

Grace Hopper

She used to say:

Humans are allergic to change.

She said:

I try to fight that. And that’s why I have a clock on my wall that runs counterclockwise.

Right? It kind of drives home this idea that, hey, this is an arbitrary decision.

And it’s kind of weird for us to look at a clock that runs counterclockwise. I actually managed to find a watch a few years ago that worked like this, that ran counterclockwise. And I wore it for a while and I was able to train my brain to read the clock this way. And it worked fine, but it completely broke my brain for reading normal clocks. So I kind of had to just stop doing it.

But I’m fascinated by these examples of fairly arbitrary decisions made sometime in the past that you’re then stuck with, because it’s very hard to change the inertia. But only recently did I find out that there’s a term for this phenomenon. This is called path dependence.

Path dependence

History is full of path dependence. The classic example is if you wanted to make a new train or a new stretch of railway track, you’re gonna have to use the existing gauge of the railway in question. Now it’s not that there’s one gauge of railway that’s better or worse than any other gauge, but if someone’s made that decision in the past, it’s very hard to change. And you really do want to settle on one gauge so that you don’t have to switch trains when you move between different parts of a country (this actually happened down in Australia, where they had different gauges for the railways, it was kind of a mess).

It’s the canonical example of why you need standards. But really the point of standards isn’t necessarily to enshrine the best way of doing something. The point of standards is to enshrine the agreement. “Hey, let’s all agree to do things this.”

Whether the standard is good, bad, better or worse than other ways of doing things is in some ways less important than the agreement. You just need to have everyone agree on something.

Like, there’s a standard for which side of the road you drive on in your country. And it doesn’t really matter whether the standard is for it to be on the left side of the road or the right hand side of the road. But it really matters that you all agree on the same side of the road.

Agreement and standards brings us very nicely to the World Wide web. Because I think the World Wide web is a fantastic example of agreement.

The web is agreement

There’s a friend of mine, Paul Downey, who does these wonderful illustrations. Fantastic. He has this one called “the web is agreement.” Whenever I think about the word agreement, this is what I think of: that the web is agreement. And he does these kind of Hieronymous Bosch and Breughel-like images of all the different formats and standards that we use on the web.

The Web Is Agreement by Paul Downey.

And if you think about what the World Wide Web is, this combination of HTTP and URLs and HTML. This was, you know, when the web was first created. Yeah, these are just agreements.

I mean, HTTP is a protocol and that word protocol literally means agreement. (If you think about diplomatic protocols that are like diplomatic agreements, right?)

URLs, “Hey, let’s all agree to use this addressing scheme.”

And HTML, “If we all agree to use this format, then we get interoperability.”

So these formats, these protocols, this set of standards or agreements came from Sir Tim Berners-Lee. This was back when he was working at CERN at the nuclear physics laboratory in the late 1980s, early ’90s.

I’m somewhat fascinated about the birth of the web, which is why it was a huge honour and pleasure for me to be invited to CERN a few years back. This was in the run up to the 30th anniversary of the original proposal that Tim Berners-Lee submitted for what later became the World Wide web. And we did this project and you can check out the project at worldwideweb30.com.

This wonderful group of people came together for a week to kind of hack on something. And what we were hacking on was this project to recreate the very first web browser …but that you could run it in a modern web browser. This is what it looked like.

The first web browser was also called confusingly WorldWideWeb. It was created by Tim Berners-Lee on his NeXT machine. And this was the first demonstration of those three things working together: HTTP, URLs and HTML.

Now I say we were working on this. I didn’t make this part. This was the really smart bit; much cleverer people were working on the smart bit. What I worked on was the website that accompanied the project.

And specifically I worked on creating a timeline.

Timeline

Remember this is coming up on the 30th anniversary of the web, and I thought it’d be fascinating to not just graph out the 30 years that the web has existed, but also look back at the 30 years before the web existed to see what were the influences that fed into the web.

What I was looking at here really was the path dependencies. What were the path dependencies in computing and networks, hypertext and formats that all fed into that creation of the World Wide Web?

So let’s take formats, for example. Tim Berners-Lee creates HTML along with URLs and HTTP.

And if I show you these elements, they should be quite familiar to you. You recognize what this language is, right? Yeah. Clearly this language is…

SGML. Standard Generalized Markup Language.

Specifically, it’s a flavor of SGML that was being used in CERN at the time. And Tim Berners-Lee thought rather than create his own format, he would use what people were already used to.

He kind of had the same insight that Grace Hopper had, that humans are allergic to change. But instead of trying to change that, he sort of went with the flow.

So he took SGML and basically copied it to make HTML, introducing one new element, which is the, A element.

So, you know, there’s a path dependency, even in the name, right? You think Standard Generalized Markup Language. Oh right. And now we have HyperText Markup Language. So even the name HTML seems to have a path dependency to SGML.

But it goes deeper.

SGML was a specialized version of GML. And GML was supposed to stand for Generalized Markup Language. Except the people who created GML were named Goldfarb, Mosher, and Lorie, which is probably the real reason why it was named GML.

And later we got SGML and then we got HTML. So it turns out there’s a path dependency in the phrase “HTML” that goes back to three dudes wanting to get their names into a format many, many years ago.

Styling

What about styling when it came to the early web?

There’s no CSS at this point. But if you look at this first web browser—and this is the very first web page on the web, which is still available at its original URL—you can see that different types of elements are styled differently.

The links are styled differently than the text around them. The heading is styled differently to the body copy. This definition list has formatting going on. You can see the spacing there. So something is doing some styling.

Well, when we were at this hack week at CERN, we had access to the original source code for this project. We found this file in there.

And this is, I guess, the user agent style sheet. This is the bit that tells the first web browser how to style headings, how to style lists, how to style definitions.

It’s not very readable, but you can tell that, you know, there’s a lot of values here, not many property names, but if you squinted it just right, you can imagine, okay, this is some form of a style sheet.

It became clear though that it wasn’t enough to just allow the user agent to do the styling. Authors—that’s developers and designers—authors also needed a way to provide styling information.

Now for a while there, it looked like the way this was gonna happen was going to be in HTML. People started adding these proprietary elements and attributes to HTML that were all about presentation, all about styling. And that’s not what HTML is for. HTML is about structure, about the semantics, the meaning of a document.

It was really important that there’d be some kind of separation of concerns, that you would use one format—HTML—for your structure, and that there should be a separate format, some other kind of language, for styling.

The question is, what should that other format be?

Well, pretty early on, some proposals started coming in early mailing lists to do with the World Wide Web. Pretty much everyone on the web in the first few months was making their own web browser. It was by nerds for nerds.

Rob Raisch

I think the first proposal for some kind of styling for authors came from Rob Raisch, who was at O’Reilly at the time.

He sent an email to the www-talk mailing list in June of 1993, with this proposal as a way of styling.

@BODY fo(fa=he,si=18)

Now, again, looking at this, it’s not CSS, but if you squint just right, you can sort of make sense of it. It’s kind of like looking at a clock running counterclockwise. It’s not what we’re used to, but you feel like you could parse it.

Clearly the priority here was to do with brevity. We’ve got these two character things like FO for font, FA for face, HE for Helvetica, SI for size. You put that all together and you can say the font face should be Helvetica and the font size should be 18 of whatever unit we’re talking about here.

So, you know, just about able to parse it, there is the concept here of, you know, some kind of selector, right? The way that we say we’re talking about the BODY, we’re talking about the paragraph or talking about B or I.

Pei Wei

The next proposal that came along was by Pei Wei, who was building the Viola web browser. He sent an email to the www-talk mailing list in October of 1993. And he was able to put his entire style sheet in his proposal.

This is what it looks like. Kind of similar to what we saw before. We’ve got the idea of properties and values, but with equal signs rather than colons that we used to now.

But what’s really interesting here is this idea of nesting. We’ve got nesting going on in this proposal which is something that we’re really only just getting in CSS.

Håkon Wium Lie

Now, the next proposal came from Håkon Wium Lie. This was October of 1994 and he called his proposal Cascading HTML Style Sheets. And it looked like this.

h1.font.size = 24pt 100%

And again, you can kind of parse this, right? It’s not what we’re used to, but you squint at it and you can make sense of it. You can see the way that the selector and the properties are kind of scrunched together with this dot syntax. And again, there’s an equal sign rather than a colon, but we get it. It’s like, okay, the font size of an H1 element should be 24 points. Got it.

But wait, what’s this percentage after it, like this 100% or this 40%?

Influence

Well, this is a really interesting part of this proposal. This was this idea of influence. The idea that an author should be able to effectively say how much they care about a particular style being applied.

So if you really want that heading to be that size, you say 100%, I care about this. But if you only half care, you could say 50%.

And the idea was that users would also be providing styles and users would also specify how much they cared, how much influence they wanted to exert exert on the styles.

And then there’s kind of a bit of hand-wavy logic where it’s like, “And then the user agent figures out what the final style should be.”

And that last part it turned out was really hard to do. So this idea of influence somewhat fell by the wayside. But I think it’s very powerful and it definitely matched the ideas of Tim Berners-Lee with his first web browser, this idea that the web should be a read and write medium.

Because that first web browser—WorldWideWeb—wasn’t just a browser. It was also an editor.

The idea was you would open a document from the web, you’re looking at it and you think “I wanna make changes to this document. I’m gonna create my own copy, put it on my server and make the changes.”

Now it turned out that was really hard. And so that was one of the first things that got dropped from the World Wide Web, which is a bit of a shame because I think it is a very, very powerful idea, a very empowering idea.

We somewhat got back this idea of a read/write web with things like wikis and blogs and even social media to a certain extent.

And the idea that users should have influence over the styles of a website? Well, that survived in web browsers for quite a while, with this concept of user style sheets.

This is different to user agent style sheets. This was literally that in your browser, you could specify styles to override what an author has specified.

This got dropped from browsers over time because it turned out to be a real power-user feature. Most people weren’t using this. These days, if you want to apply styles as a user, you have to install a browser extension, some kind of plugin. Or your operating system has some kind of translation of like, “these are my preferences at the operating system level” and those get translated to the browser.

I think it’s a real shame that we lost user style sheets. I thought it was a very empowering feature. I get it. It was, you know, somewhat of an edge case. It was power-user feature, but I think it’s a shame we lost it.

I do see, however, a bit of a resurgence in the idea of giving users control over styling with some of the things we’re seeing in CSS, particularly in the media queries level five, this idea of what are being called preference queries. You can say, you know, prefers a color scheme, like dark mode prefers reduced motion, prefers reduced data.

Now it’s a bit different because it’s still up to the author of the style sheet on that website to honour these preferences, right? You still have to write the styles to do the right thing to respect the colour scheme or reduced motion or reduced data.

Though, you know, some browsers are looking into automatically applying some of this stuff automatically: inverting colors and reducing motion.

And on the whole, I welcome the idea that users should have more of a say in how websites are styled. I think it’s a good thing.

So we’re seeing a bit of a resurgence of this idea of influence in modern CSS.

And speaking of modern CSS being somewhat foreshadowed in Håkon’s original proposal, here’s something else that was in that original proposal…

font.size = 12pt
h1.font.size = font.size * 3
h2.font.size = font.size * 2.5
h3.font.size = font.size * 2

If you look at this, you can kind of figure out what’s going on. That there’s kind of a declaration at the top to say there’s a variable, if you like, that’s 12 points. And then that variable is used throughout the style sheet. It’s multiplied by different numbers.

And really, we’ve got this now in CSS, thanks to custom properties and calc(), right? The ability to set variables and do calculations on those variables. But it took a long time between this original proposal and this very modern CSS that we have today.

Bert Bos

The final proposal I want to mention came from Bert Bos. This was also in 1994 and his proposal looked like this.

I think this is the first time we started to see colons rather than equal signs for properties and values. But again, you can see the way that the selectors and the properties sort of munged together with this dot syntax.

It’s parsable, right? Again, it’s like looking at a clock running counterclockwise, but you can understand what’s going on here.

So Bert’s proposal is interesting. It’s one more proposal. But what I really like about what Bert did was Bert also provided design principles.

In other words, the thinking behind the proposal. Because like I was kind of saying, you know, the standard itself, in some ways, isn’t the important thing. The important thing is the agreement. So let’s all try and agree on what we’re trying to accomplish with some kind of style sheet language. And I will also freely admit I’m just a sucker for design principles.

Design principles

I’m fascinated by design principles. I even collect them. This is like my equivalent of my interesting rock collection. A collection of design principles at principles.adactio.com.

And if you go there, I’ve collected design principles from individuals, from organizations, and I have Bert’s principles there.

And they’re worth reading through, but one of the issues with Bert’s principles is there’s a lot of them. These are all the different things that feed into the design of a style sheet language. And these are all good things, but I think what’s missing here is some kind of prioritization.

Because the hard part about design principles, isn’t saying what you value. The hard part about design principles is saying we value one thing over another.

So let’s take two of these. We see simplicity and longevity. Well, do we value simplicity more than longevity? Do we value longevity more than simplicity? That’s actually the hard part, to specify the priorities.

So I think it’s a bit of a shame that there isn’t prioritization here, but I think it’s still fascinating that we can look at all of the things that Bert was imagining we have to balance in some kind of style sheet language.

Well, it became pretty clear that Bert and Håkon were working on the same sort of thing. And so they pooled their resources together and kids, that’s where CSS comes from. Jointly from Bert and Håkon.

CSS

And what they settled on—with all of those different design principles and all of the ideas from the different proposals that came before—this is what we got:

selector {
  property: value;
}

This one pattern. You’ve got a selector, a property and a value. Then we’ve got these special characters for syntax, right? Curly braces, colons, semicolons, but really it’s somewhat arbitrary. The point is that all of CSS pretty much can be boiled down to this one pattern: selector, property, value.

It’s a very simple pattern. And yet it allows for endless complexity. I mean, this is our shared context on the web for styling. If you think about the number of websites out there, right? Billions. And every one of them has a different style sheet and every one of them is different. And yet all of them use the same pattern at its root.

It’s the classic example of how a simple rule can create a complex system. And I think this might also be at the heart of why CSS can be misunderstood. Because this pattern is very simple and because it’s very simple, people might think well, CSS is therefore easy.

But there’s a difference between simplicity and easiness.

Like, you can learn the idea of CSS in an hour, right? Because effectively this pattern is it. You need to get your head around selector, property, value.

But you can then spend a lifetime trying to master CSS because of all the possible combinations of selectors and properties and values, right? It’s a lifetime of learning.

So this is where I think some of the disconnect comes with people thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ll pick up CSS. No problem. It’s easy.” And actually, no. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

And CSS has grown over time, right? We keep getting more selectors, we keep getting more properties and we keep getting more values. It grows and grows while still maintaining this fundamental pattern.

Hacks

And if we look at where the growth of CSS has come from, you know, a lot of the time it came from hacks. And I don’t mean literal CSS hacks, like the box model hack or tan hack for any anybody old enough to remember that.

I mean hacks in a sense of its original use of a clever solution to a problem, but probably not a great long term solution.

Layout

So the classic example of hacks on the web would’ve been layout. You know, in the early days we were using tables for layout. We had transparent gifs, one pixel by one pixel gifs that we would give width and height to allow us to make all the layouts we wanted. And it worked, but it was a hack.

So then we got CSS and we switched to using floats for layout, which was better. But, you know, it was still a hack because floats weren’t intended for layout. They were intended for, you know, having text flow around images.

And it’s only relatively recently in the history of the web that we finally are able to throw away our hacks and use proper layout tools.

Because now we’ve got flexbox and we’ve got grid and these are made for layout. It took quite a while for us to get there.

But you know, in the early days of the web, it wasn’t even clear if CSS should attempt to do layout or whether there should be a third format specifically for layout. Because maybe there needed to be that separation of concerns between structure (you’ve got HTML), styling (you’ve got CSS), and some third technology for layout which could be considered like its own its own thing.

I mean, if you think about it today, we kind of sequester layout into media queries. So you could imagine that being a separate technology.

But anyway, it became clear over time that CSS should be the home for layout as well as other kinds of styling.

And that’s what we’ve got now. We’ve got flexbox. We’ve got grid. We got proper layout on the web so we were able to stop using our hacks and use the real native tools.

Typography

It’s a similar story with typography.

If you wanted to use a font that wasn’t one of the system fonts that most people would have installed, well, you went into Photoshop and you made an image of text using the font you wanted, and now the user would have to download that image file and the text wasn’t selectable, it was a fixed width, it came with all sorts of problems. And we came up with very clever solutions to do what’s called image replacement in CSS, but they were all hacks.

And now we don’t need the hacks because we’ve got the @font-face rule. So we can literally specify the typeface we want to use. We can stop using the hacks.

Graphic design

We used a lot of hacks for graphic design as well. Things that we weren’t quite able to do natively in CSS.

I’m gonna air my laundry here and show you a website I made back in 2005. This was the website for my first book called DOM Scripting and it’s very much of its time.

This is the very 2005-feeling design. You see the way we’ve got that element there with rounded corners? And you see the way that there’s a gradient in the background of the page? Well, back in 2005, we didn’t have rounded corners in CSS and we didn’t have gradients.

So those rounded corners? Those are images that have been absolutely positioned into that element.

And that gradient is actually an image. It’s a one pixel wide, but very, very tall image that is tiled across the entire background.

So these were hacks and they worked, but obviously I wouldn’t need to do that today. Today, I’ve got border-radius to do my rounded corners and I got linear-gradient to do my gradients.

Ironically, right as we got the power to do rounded corners and gradients in CSS natively, we all collectively decided that, nah, actually what we want is flat design …which we could have been doing all along!

Anyway, let me show you another example. This is a website that dates back even further. This is my own personal website, adactio.com.

This design hasn’t really changed in over 20 years, but I have updated the technology.

Let’s the take image at the top. You can see that’s been given some treatment as a corner has been sliced out of one edge and a gradient has been applied so it fades out.

Now it used to be that I would have to do that in Photoshop. I’d take the original image, I’d slice off the corner, I’d add a gradient layer on top of it.

Well now I don’t need Photoshop because I can use clip-path to take off the corner. I can use a linear gradient using generated content—using the ::after pseudo element—to get the exact same result.

So now I’ve got something that looks pretty much the same, except where I had to do it in Photoshop before, now I’m able to do it natively in CSS.

And that might not sound like much of a win because the end result looks the same, right?

Except now when I’m applying a prefers-color-scheme style sheet and I give a dark mode to my site, I don’t have to make a separate image. Because this is being done natively in CSS. The gradient is in CSS. The clip path is in CSS. It’s all native to CSS.

Material honesty

This comes down to this idea of material honesty. About using the right material for the job, rather than using a material that’s pretending to be something else, whether that’s, you know, an image of text, pretending to be a font or an image of a gradient, pretending to be a real gradient or, you know, any of those graphic design tricks.

We can now be materially honest in CSS because we’ve got grid and flexbox and border-radius and @font-face. It’s more honest.

And also it’s easier, right? It’s less work to avoid the hacks.

Like, one of my favorite examples of something we got recently in CSS to avoid the hacks. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference in my opinion, is just styling things like check boxes and radio buttons.

We’ve always been able to do it, but it involved a hack where you’d hide the real checkbox off screen. And then you’d use a background image to show the different states of the checkbox. And it was fine and it worked and we could make it accessible.

But now we can just use accent-color and it’s easier.

So there’s been this movement from hacks to native CSS. And in a way, the hacks show the direction of travel. The hacks show us what the future could be.

Tools

The other place CSS has borrowed from or learned from, has been in our tools. Like the tools we use to generate our CSS.

Sass is the classic example, right? Sass is this enormously popular pre-processor for CSS and people were using Sass to do things you couldn’t do natively in CSS.

And I feel like one of the genius bits of design in Sass was that it worked a lot like the way HTML worked in the early days compared to SGML.

Remember, I was talking about how Tim Berners-Lee took SGML and literally turned it into HTML? Like, you were able to take an SGML document and change the file extension, and it would be a valid HTML document. And so that really helped with the adoption of HTML.

Well, that’s the same with Sass. You could take your existing style sheet document and just changed the file extension to .scss and it was already valid Sass, right? You didn’t have to learn a new syntax.

This isn’t supposition on my part—that this was a reason for the huge success of Sass—because actually Sass had two options, two different syntaxes, and you could choose.

There was this .sass syntax and the .scss syntax.

And with the .sass syntax, it used significant white space. It was more condensed, right? It used indentation.

But with .scss it used the syntax you were already familiar with from CSS.

So you could say that the .sass syntax was more efficient. You could say it’s a better format, but humans are allergic to change. And the .scss syntax was familiar enough that people go, “oh yeah, I get this.”

You could, you could take your existing CSS and just start using the features of Sass you wanted to.

And people overwhelmingly chose the .scss syntax over the .sass syntax. I got to meet Hampton Catlin who invented Sass and he confirmed the numbers for me. He said, yeah, it was a no brainer. Basically the .sass syntax lacks familiarity. It’s like looking at a clock running counter-clockwise.

But anyway, people started using Sass to do things like nesting, calculations (these mix-ins), variables; all these things that we now do in CSS.

Of course, the reason we can do these things in CSS is because Sass proved that there was a desire for these things.

So now you really don’t need Sass for a lot of stuff, but the reason you don’t need Sass is because of Sass. Sass paved the way. Sass showed that there was a demand for this stuff. And now it’s native in the CSS. We don’t need that tool anymore.

And I feel like that’s a test of a really good tool. A really successful tool is when it becomes redundant.

In the JavaScript world, jQuery is a classic example of this, right?

With jQuery you were able to do things using a CSS syntax, whereas otherwise you had to use this long winded DOM syntax of document.getElementsByTagName or getElementById.

Whereas in jQuerythe idea was, “Hey, if you already know how to select something in CSS, just use that syntax again!”

It’s using what people are familiar with. Humans are allergic to change.

But these days we don’t need jQuery because in the DOM, we’ve got querySelectorAll, we’ve got querySelector. We can use CSS selectors to do our DOM scripting.

Why don’t we need jQuery anymore? Because of jQuery.

jQuery showed that this was a really clever idea. It was something people wanted. And so now it’s been standardized. We don’t need jQuery.

So I really feel like the goal of any good library should be to make itself obsolete. It’s so successful, it’s no longer needed.

And you could kind of see this in the history of the web with Sass, with jQuery, even with something like Flash.

You know, Flash showed the way. It showed that, “Hey, we want a way to do animation. We need some way to do video on the web.” And people were using Flash because there was no other way to do those things.

Now we don’t need Flash or jQuery or Sass because we get them natively.

So all of these are almost like research and development for the web.

They’re kind of like hacks, but I think a better way of thinking about them is they’re more like polyfills—these are things we can use until we get a standardized way of doing it.

I think it’s fascinating to look at our tools and see what can they tell us about what’s coming into standards.

Methodologies

A whole set of tools are these methodologies that people came up with, like OOCSS from Nicole Sullivan. And there’s BEM. And SMACSS was another one. There’s a whole bunch.

But I’m fascinated by these because these aren’t an example of some technology we needed to lobby browser makers to implement. Because these are really agreements.

These are agreements. These are saying, “let’s all agree to structure our CSS in a certain way.” Nothing needed to change in browsers, right?

And all of these are testament to the power of the cascade. Because what they do is they almost deliberately limit the cascade, which is seen as almost being too powerful.

So they’re not really tools, they’re methodologies. Or another way of putting it is they are agreements.

Again, the power of saying “let’s all agree to do something.”

Scale

And the problem that most of them are trying to solve is trying to do CSS at scale, trying to do CSS when you’ve got a large team. Which is interesting to think about like, why wasn’t CSS designed to scale well like this?

Miriam Suzanne said:

Large companies find HTML and CSS frustrating “at scale” because the web is fundamentally an anticapitalist mashup art experiment designed to give consumers all the power.

Okay, it’s funny, but it’s kind of funny ’cause it’s true. If you look at those design principles that Bert Bos came up with, it was very much about empowering the end user, that CSS needed to be accessible. It needed to be something you could learn quickly.

So, you know, thinking about CSS as something that needs to be able to scale to multiple teams of people? That wasn’t really on the cards for CSS back then. It wasn’t a priority.

And maybe that’s why we came up with these methodologies like BEM and OOCSS and SMACSS to try and manage this stuff.

But even these methodologies, now the ideas behind them are finding their way into the standards. Now we’re getting cascade layers and scope in CSS.

To me, this feels like a return of this idea of influence that Håkon Wium Lie was talking about all those years ago.

Now it’s not so much about the influence between an author and a user; it’s about the influence between multiple authors working on, on a giant code base.

So it’s a very exciting time for CSS to see these new tools arrive that can solve these scale problems.

But I do ask myself, what’s still missing in CSS? And this is a great question to ask of JavaScript as well:

What’s still missing?

And you can answer the question by looking at what are we still using tools for? What are we still having to polyfil because we don’t yet have it natively in the browser?

And to answer this question, I’m gonna just quickly finish with three components that kind of demonstrate where CSS is still missing some features.

button

Let’s start with a button component.

All right. If you wanna implement a button component, you’ve kind of got two options. You can use a button element and then you style it with CSS to look however you want. Or you can, you know, make up your own button component using a div or a span, add the CSS and JavaScript and ARIA.

Really there’s absolutely no reason to do that. In this case, it’s a no brainer. You use a button element and you style it with CSS. I cannot think of any reason why you would not do that. There used to be reasons like ages ago in Internet Explorer it used to be hard to style buttons. Those days are long gone.

So in this case, really simple answer to the question. Material honesty. Use a button element. Use CSS to style it.

dropdown

All right. What about a dropdown component? There’s a number of options, you click in and you get a select dropdown.

Well, again, you can use a select element style with CSS, or you can just make your own dropdown component with a div and JavaScript and a bunch of ARIA to try and make it accessible.

Now here, I would still say, use a select element and style it with CSS, but you are gonna hit a limit. Like the open state of the dropdown is kind of out of our control. There’s not much you can do in CSS. So if you really care about styling the open state of a dropdown, I guess I can understand why you would reach for making your own with a div and JavaScript and ARIA.

I mean, I personally wouldn’t do it. But I guess I can see it, because CSS isn’t there yet. We don’t yet have the power to style a dropdown.

date picker

What about a date picker component? You click into it, the user chooses a date.

Again, there appears to be an obvious solution here, which is use input type="date". Boom. You’re done style it how you want, right?

Well, good luck with that. If you’ve ever try to style input type="date", there’s actually very little you can do. And so if you care about the styling of the date selector, you probably are gonna have to make up your own with a bunch of divs and JavaScript and try to make it accessible with ARIA.

Yeah, it’s a real shame.

So I think these three components kind of show the battle ground, if you will, where CSS is still falling short a bit, where we have to still use hacks. It’s kind of this battle between the under-engineered solution—just use the native HTML element—and the over-engineered solution, right? We’re gonna have to create all the functionality and all the accessibility by ourselves.

And I used to get mad at people choosing the hacks, choosing the over-engineered solution. But I realized that it’s kind of like, you know, trying to reduce teen pregnancy by telling people to just stop having sex. Abstinence isn’t realistic. People are going to do it anyway. And the question is, well, how do we make it better and safer in the long run?

So I think that’s the real battleground, is how do we style elements like select and date pickers natively in CSS? And that’s why I think the work being done by the open UI group is really, really important.

It’s at open-ui.org.

And they say:

The purpose of open UI to the web platform is to allow web developers to style and extend built in web controls, such as select dropdowns, check boxes, radio buttons, and date and color pickers.

I think it’s really important work. And I think that’s where we should be putting our effort.

The future

Because, you know, the difference between doing something natively in a web browser and doing something with a framework or with JavaScript is context.

Web browsers are the shared context between users and authors.

Whereas, if you want to use a framework or a library, you have to ship that context to the end user. And that puts a burden on them. It’s not good for performance. It’s not good for the user experience.

So web browsers are where past agreements live on today and they live on into the future.

When something lands in a browser, it stays in a browser. So by using what’s in web browsers, you are benefiting from decades of work by multitudes of people. And it’s better for users.

So treat frameworks and libraries as polyfils. Use them as a temporary measure when there’s something that’s still not possible in browsers (this is very true of JavaScript frameworks).

They can point the way to a shared context in the future, but they themselves are not the future. So don’t get too attached. Treat them as cattle, not pets.

Use frameworks and libraries as scaffolding to help you build. But they are not a foundation.

Web standards in the browser are your foundation to build upon.

You know, having an awareness of the history of technologies from sun dials to web browsers, it can help you understand the way things are today. And in some ways the lessons of path dependence and inertia are sort of grim, right? Because of some arbitrary decision in the past, we are now stuck with the consequences in our clockfaces, in CSS. And it’s very, very hard to change that.

But there’s another way to look at this.

Nothing was inevitable. Which means nothing is inevitable (you know, except for entropy and the heat death of the universe).

So if someone tells you, “Hey, that’s just the way things are; accept it”, don’t believe it.

Understand your position in the timeline.

Yes, the present moment is the result of decisions made in the past, many of them arbitrary, but that also means the future will be highly influenced by the decisions you make today even if those decisions seem small and inconsequential.

The choices you make now could turn out to have long-lasting repercussions into the future.

So make your decisions wisely. You are literally creating the future.

And I’m looking forward to seeing the results.

Thank you.

Monday, June 20th, 2022

Positive

That event in Berlin last week was by far the largest gathering of humans I’ve been with in over two years. If I was going to finally succumb to the ’rona, this was likely to be the place and time.

Sure enough, on my last day in Berlin I had a bit of a scratchy throat. I remained masked for the rest of the day for the travel back to England. Once I was back home I immediately tested and …nothing.

I guess it was just a regular sore throat after all.

Over the weekend the sore throat was accompanied by some sniffles. Just your typical cold symptoms. But I decided to be prudent and test again yesterday.

This time a very clear result was revealed. It was Covid-19 after all.

Today I was supposed to be travelling to Lille on the Eurostar to speak at a private event. Instead I’m isolating at home. My symptoms are quite mild. I feel worse about letting down the event organisers.

Still, better to finally get the novel coronavirus now rather than later in the month. I would hate to miss UX London. But I’m confident I’ll be recovered and testing negative by then.

For now I’ll be taking it easy and letting those magnificent vaccines do their work.

Sunday, June 19th, 2022

Backup

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 File, Export to, Images.

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.

It worked!

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.

Saturday, June 18th, 2022

CSS Day 2022

I was in Amsterdam two weeks ago for CSS Day. It was glorious!

I mean, even without the conference it was just so nice to travel somewhere—by direct train, no less!—and spend some time in a beautiful European city enjoying the good weather.

And of course the conference was great too. I’ve been to CSS Day many times. I love it although technically it should be CSS days now—the conference runs for two days.

It’s an event that really treats CSS for what it is—a powerful language worthy of respect. Also, it has bitterballen.

This time I wasn’t just there as an attendee. I also had the pleasure of opening up the show. I gave a talk called In And Out Of Style, a look at the history—and alternative histories—of CSS.

The video is already online! I’ll get the talk transcribed and publish the text here soon. Meanwhile here’s a list of links to relevant material.

I really, really enjoyed giving this talk. It was so nice to be speaking to a room—or in this case, a church—with real people. I’m done giving talks to my screen. It’s just not the same. Giving this talk made me realise how much I need that feedback from the crowd—the laughs, the nods, maybe even the occasional lightbulb appearing over someone’s head.

As usual, my talk was broad and philosophical in nature. Big-picture pretentious talks are kind of my thing. In this case, I knew that I could safely brush over the details of all the exciting new CSS stuff I mentioned because other talks would be diving deep. And boy, did they ever dive deep!

It’s a cliché to use the adjective “inspiring” to describe a conference, but given all that’s happening in the world of CSS right now, it was almost inevitable that CSS Day would be very inspiring indeed this year. Cascade layers, scoped styles, container queries, custom properties, colour spaces, animation and much much more.

If anything, it was almost too much. If I had one minor quibble with the event it would be that seven talks in a day felt like one talk too many to my poor brain (I think that Marc gets the format just right with Beyond Tellerrand—two days of six talks each). But what a great complaint to have—that there was a glut of great talks!

They’ve already announced the dates for next year’s CSS Day(s): June 8th and 9th, 2023. I strongly suspect that I’ll be there.

Thank you very much to ppk, Krijn, Martijn, and everyone involved in making this year’s CSS Day so good!

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

When I wrote about the idea of declarative design it really resonated with a lot of people.

I think that there’s a general feeling of frustration with the imperative approach to designing and developing—attempting to specify everything exactly up front. It just doesn’t scale. As Jason put it, the traditional web design process is fundamentally broken:

This is the worst of all worlds—a waterfall process creating dozens of artifacts, none of which accurately capture how the design will look and behave in the browser.

In theory, design systems could help overcome this problem; spend a lot of time up front getting a component to be correct and then it can be deployed quickly in all sorts of situations. But the word “correct” is doing a lot of work there.

If you’re approaching a design system with an imperative mindset then “correct” means “exact.” With this approach, precision is seen as valuable: precise spacing, precise numbers, precise pixels.

But if you’re approaching a design system with a declarative mindset, then “correct” means “resilient.” With this approach, flexibility is seen as valuable: flexible spacing, flexible ranges, flexible outputs.

These are two fundamentally different design approaches and yet the results of both would be described as a design system. The term “design system” is tricky enough to define as it is. This is one more layer of potential misunderstanding: one person says “design system” and means a collection of very precise, controlled, and exact components; another person says “design system” and means a predefined set of boundary conditions that can be used to generate components.

Personally, I think the word “system” is the important part of a design system. But all too often design systems are really collections rather than systems: a collection of pre-generated components rather than a system for generating components.

The systematic approach is at the heart of declarative design; setting up the rules and ratios in advance but leaving the detail of the final implementation to the browser at runtime.

Let me give an example of what I think is a declarative approach to a component. I’ll use the “hello world” of design system components—the humble button.

Two years ago I wrote about programming CSS to perform Sass colour functions. I described how CSS features like custom properties and calc() can be used to recreate mixins like darken() and lighten().

I showed some CSS for declaring the different colour elements of a button using hue, saturation and lightness encoded as custom properties. Here’s a CodePen with some examples of different buttons.

See the Pen Button colours by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

If these buttons were in an imperative design system, then the output would be the important part. The design system would supply the code needed to make those buttons exactly. If you need a different button, it would have to be added to the design system as a variation.

But in a declarative design system, the output isn’t as important as the underlying ruleset. In this case, there are rules like:

For the hover state of a button, the lightness of its background colour should dip by 5%.

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

button:hover {
    background-color: hsl(
        var(--button-colour-hue),
        var(--button-colour-saturation),
        calc(var(--button-colour-lightness) - 5%)
    );
}

In this kind of design system you can look at some examples to see the results of this rule in action. But those outputs are illustrative. They’re not the final word. If you don’t see the exact button you want, that’s okay; you’ve got the information you need to generate what you need and still stay within the pre-defined rules about, say, the hover state of buttons.

This seems like a more scalable approach to me. It also seems more empowering.

One of the hardest parts of embedding a design system within an organisation is getting people to adopt it. In my experience, nobody likes adopting something that’s being delivered from on-high as a pre-made sets of components. It’s meant to be helpful: “here, use this pre-made components to save time not reinventing the wheel”, but it can come across as overly controlling: “we don’t trust you to exercise good judgement so stick to these pre-made components.”

The declarative approach is less controlling: “here are pre-defined rules and guidelines to help you make components.” But this lack of precision comes at a cost. The people using the design system need to have the mindset—and the ability—to create the components they need from the systematic rules they’ve been provided.

My gut feeling is that the imperative mindset is a good match for most of today’s graphic design tools like Figma or Sketch. Those tools deal with precise numbers rather than ranges and rules.

The declarative mindset, on the other hand, increasingly feels like a good match for CSS. The language has evolved to allow rules to be set up through custom properties, calc(), clamp(), minmax(), and so on.

So, as always, there isn’t a right or wrong approach here. It all comes down to what’s most suitable for your organisation.

If your designers and developers have an imperative mindset and Figma files are considered the source of truth, than they would be better served by an imperative design system.

But if you’re lucky enough to have a team of design engineers that think in terms of HTML and CSS, then a declarative design system will be a force multiplier. A bicycle for the design engineering mind.

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Re-evaluating technology

There’s a lot of emphasis put on decision-making: making sure you’re making the right decision; evaluating all the right factors before making a decision. But we rarely talk about revisiting decisions.

I think perhaps there’s a human tendency to treat past decisions as fixed. That’s certainly true when it comes to evaluating technology.

I’ve been guilty of this. I remember once chatting with Mark about something written in PHP—probably something I had written—and I made some remark to the effect of “I know PHP isn’t a great language…” Mark rightly called me on that. The language wasn’t great in the past but it has come on in leaps and bounds. My perception of the language, however, had not updated accordingly.

I try to keep that lesson in mind whenever I’m thinking about languages, tools and frameworks that I’ve investigated in the past but haven’t revisited in a while.

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

The carousel is like one of those on a game show that shows the prizes that can be won. The tool will sit on there until I think it’s gone through enough maturing to actually be a viable tool for me, the team I’m working with and the clients I’m working for.

Crucially a carousel is circular: tools and technologies come back around for re-evaluation. It’s all too easy to treat technologies as being on a one-way conveyer belt—once they’ve past in front of your eyes and you’ve weighed them up, that’s it; you never return to re-evaluate your decision.

This doesn’t need to be a never-ending process. At some point it becomes clear that some technologies really aren’t worth returning to:

It’s a really useful strategy because some tools stay on the carousel and then I take them off because they did in fact, turn out to be useless after all.

See, for example, anything related to cryptobollocks. It’s been well over a decade and blockchains remain a solution in search of problems. As Molly White put it, it’s not still the early days:

How long can it possibly be “early days”? How long do we need to wait before someone comes up with an actual application of blockchain technologies that isn’t a transparent attempt to retroactively justify a technology that is inefficient in every sense of the word? How much pollution must we justify pumping into our atmosphere while we wait to get out of the “early days” of proof-of-work blockchains?

Back to the web (the actual un-numbered World Wide Web)…

Nolan Lawson wrote an insightful article recently about how he senses that the balance has shifted away from single page apps. I’ve been sensing the same shift in the zeitgeist. That said, both Nolan and I keep an eye on how browsers are evolving and getting better all the time. If you weren’t aware of changes over the past few years, it would be easy to still think that single page apps offer some unique advantages that in fact no longer hold true. As Nolan wrote in a follow-up post:

My main point was: if the only reason you’re using an SPA is because “it makes navigations faster,” then maybe it’s time to re-evaluate that.

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

“You look around one day and realize the things you assumed were immutable constants of the universe have changed. The foundations of our reality are shifting beneath our feet. We live in a house built on sand.”

The day I discovered that Apple Maps is kind of good now

Perhaps the best example of a technology that warrants regular re-evaluation is the World Wide Web itself. Over the course of its existence it has been seemingly bettered by other more proprietary technologies.

Flash was better than the web. It had vector graphics, smooth animations, and streaming video when the web had nothing like it. But over time, the web caught up. Flash was the hare. The World Wide Web was the tortoise.

In more recent memory, the role of the hare has been played by native apps.

I remember talking to someone on the Twitter design team who was designing and building for multiple platforms. They were frustrated by the web. It just didn’t feel as fully-featured as iOS or Android. Their frustration was entirely justified …at the time. I wonder if they’ve revisited their judgement since then though.

In recent years in particular it feels like the web has come on in leaps and bounds: service workers, native JavaScript APIs, and an astonishing boost in what you can do with CSS. Most important of all, the interoperability between browsers is getting better and better. Universal support for new web standards arrives at a faster rate than ever before.

But developers remain suspicious, still prefering to trust third-party libraries over native browser features. They made a decision about those libraries in the past. They evaluated the state of browser support in the past. I wish they would re-evaluate those decisions.

Alas, inertia is a very powerful force. Sticking with a past decision—even if it’s no longer the best choice—is easier than putting in the effort to re-evaluate everything again.

What’s the phrase? “Strong opinions, weakly held.” We’re very good at the first part and pretty bad at the second.

Just the other day I was chatting with one of my colleagues about an online service that’s available on the web and also as a native app. He was showing me the native app on his phone and said it’s not a great app.

“Why don’t you add the website to your phone?” I asked.

“You know,” he said. “The website’s going to be slow.”

He hadn’t tested this. But years of dealing with crappy websites on his phone in the past had trained him to think of the web as being inherently worse than native apps (even though there was nothing this particular service was doing that required any native functionality).

It has become a truism now. Native apps are better than the web.

And you know what? Once upon a time, that would’ve been true. But it hasn’t been true for quite some time …at least from a technical perspective.

But even if the technologies in browsers have reached parity with native apps, that won’t matter unless we can convince people to revisit their previously-formed beliefs.

The technologies are the easy bit. Getting people to re-evaluate their opinions about technologies? That’s the hard part.

Thursday, May 26th, 2022

dConstruct 2022 is happening!

dConstruct is back!

No, really, for real this time.

We had plans to do a one-off dConstruct anniversary event in 2020. It would’ve been five years since the event ran its ten year course from 2005 to 2015.

We all know what happened next. Not only was there no dConstruct in 2020, there were no live events at all. So we postponed the event. 2021 was slightly better than 2020 for live events, but still not safe enough for us.

Now, finally, the fifteenth anniversary edition of dConstruct is happening, um, on the seventeeth anniversary of dConstruct.

It’s all very confusing, I know. But this is the important bit:

dConstruct 2022 is happening on Friday, September 9th in the Duke of York’s picture house in Brighton.

Tickets are available now.

Or, at least some tickets are available now. Quite a lot of eager folks bought tickets when the 2020 event was announced and those tickets are still good for this 2022 event …which is the 2020 event, but postponed by two years.

I’m currently putting the line-up together. I’m not revealing anything just yet, but trust me, you will want to be there.

If you haven’t been to a dConstruct event before, it’s kind of hard to describe. It’s not a practical hands-on conference where you learn design or development skills. It’s brain food. It’s about technology, culutre, design, society, the future …well, like I said, it’s kind of hard to describe. Have a poke around the dConstruct archive and listen to the audio from previous talks to get some idea of what might be in store.

dConstruct 2022 is a one-off event. I wouldn’t want you to regret missing out, so grab your ticket now.

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Alt writing

I made the website for this year’s UX London by hand.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There’s exactly one build tool involved. I’m using Sergey to include global elements—the header and footer—something that’s still not possible in HTML.

So it’s minium viable static site generation rather than actual static files. It’s still very hands-on though and I enjoy that a lot; editing HTML and CSS directly without intermediary tools.

When I update the site, it’s usually to add a new speaker to the line-up (well, not any more now that the line up is complete). That involves marking up their bio and talk description. I also create a couple of different sized versions of their headshot to use with srcset. And of course I write an alt attribute to accompany that image.

By the way, Jake has an excellent article on writing alt text that uses the specific example of a conference site. It raises some very thought-provoking questions.

I enjoy writing alt text. I recently described how I updated my posting interface here on my own site to put a textarea for alt text front and centre for my notes with photos. Since then I’ve been enjoying the creative challenge of writing useful—but also evocative—alt text.

Some recent examples:

But when I was writing the alt text for the headshots on the UX London site, I started to feel a little disheartened. The more speakers were added to the line-up, the more I felt like I was repeating myself with the alt text. After a while they all seemed to be some variation on “This person looking at the camera, smiling” with maybe some detail on their hair or clothing.

  • Videha Sharma
    The beaming bearded face of Videha standing in front of the beautiful landscape of a riverbank.
  • Candi Williams
    Candi working on her laptop, looking at the camera with a smile.
  • Emma Parnell
    Emma smiling against a yellow background. She’s wearing glasses and has long straight hair.
  • John Bevan
    A monochrome portrait of John with a wry smile on his face, wearing a black turtleneck in the clichéd design tradition.
  • Laura Yarrow
    Laura smiling, wearing a chartreuse coloured top.
  • Adekunle Oduye
    A profile shot of Adekunle wearing a jacket and baseball cap standing outside.

The more speakers were added to the line-up, the harder I found it not to repeat myself. I wondered if this was all going to sound very same-y to anyone hearing them read aloud.

But then I realised, “Wait …these are kind of same-y images.”

By the very nature of the images—headshots of speakers—there wasn’t ever going to be that much visual variation. The experience of a sighted person looking at a page full of speakers is that after a while the images kind of blend together. So if the alt text also starts to sound a bit repetitive after a while, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. A screen reader user would be getting an equivalent experience.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to have the same alt text for each image—they are all still different. But after I had that realisation I stopped being too hard on myself if I couldn’t come up with a completely new and original way to write the alt text.

And, I remind myself, writing alt text is like any other kind of writing. The more you do it, the better you get.