Tags: transcript

74

sparkline

Wednesday, July 20th, 2022

Open Lecture at CIID: “Keeping up with the Kardashevians” – Petafloptimism

A terrfic presentation from Matt Jones (with the best talk title ever). Pace layers, seamful design, solarpunk, and more.

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.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2021

Podcast Notes: “Measuring Design” by Clearleft - Jim Nielsen’s Blog

Well, this is just wonderful! Jim has written copious notes after listening to my favourite episode of season three of the Clearleft podcast, measuring design:

I’m going to have to try really, really hard to not just copy/paste the entire transcript of this podcast. It‘s that good. Don’t miss it.

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021

Publishing The State Of The Web

Back in April I gave a talk at An Event Apart Spring Summit. The talk was called The State Of The Web, and I’ve published the transcript. I’ve also published the video.

I put a lot of work into this talk and I think it paid off. I wrote about preparing the talk. I also wrote about recording it. I also published links related to the talk. It was an intense process, but a rewarding one.

I almost called the talk The Overview Effect. My main goal with the talk was to instil a sense of perspective. Hence the references to the famous Earthrise photograph.

On the one hand, I wanted the audience to grasp just how far the web has come. So the first half of the talk is a bit of a trip down memory lane, with a constant return to just how much we can accomplish in browsers today. It’s all very positive and upbeat.

Then I twist the knife. Having shown just how far we’ve progressed technically, I switch gears the moment I say:

The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.

Then I dive into those challenges, as I see them. It turns out that technical challenges would be preferable to the seemingly intractable problems of today’s web.

I almost wish I could’ve flipped the order: talk about the negative stuff first but then finish with the positive. I worry that the talk could be a bit of a downer. Still, I tried to finish on an optimistic note.

I won’t spoil it any more for you. Watch the video or have a read of The State Of The Web.

Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021

The State Of The Web

The opening presentation from An Event Apart Spring Summit held online in April 2021.

Hello, my friends. I’d like us to try to collectively achieve something today. What I’d like us to achieve is a sense of perspective.

To do this we need to take a step back and cast an eye on the past.

For example, I can look back and say “Wow, what a terrible year!”

A year of death. A year of polarisation. Of inequality. A corrupt government. Protests in the street as people struggled to fight against systemic racism.

Yes, I am of course talking about the year 1968.

The past

By the end of 1968, the United States of America was a nation in turmoil. Civil rights. The war in Vietnam. It felt like the polarising issues of the day were splitting the country in two.

But in the final week of the year, something happened that offered a sense of perspective.

In an audacious move, NASA decided to bring forward the schedule of its Apollo programme. Apollo 7 was a success but that mission was confined to Earth orbit. For Apollo 8, human beings would leave Earth’s orbit for the first time in history. The bold plan was to fly to and around the moon before returning safely to Earth.

From today’s perspective, you might just see it as a dry run for Apollo 11 when human beings would step foot on the moon. But at the time, it was an unbelievably bold move. A literal moonshot.

On the winter solstice, December 21st 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders were launched on their six day mission to the moon and back.

The mission was a success. Everything went according to plan. But the reason why we remember the Apollo 8 mission today is for something that wasn’t planned.

First of all, after the translunar injection when the crew had left Earth orbit and were on their way to the moon (already the furthest distance ever travelled by our species), someone—probably Bill Anders—pointed a camera back at Earth.

This was the first picture ever taken by a human being of the whole earth. It’s quite a perspective-setting sight, seeing the whole Earth. To us today, it’s almost commonplace. But remember that were was a time when no one had ever seen this view.

In fact, throughout the 1960s activist Stewart Brand had a campaign, handing out buttons with the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”

I like the “yet” at the end of that. It gives it a conspiracy-tinged edge.

Stewart Brand suspected that if people could see their home planet in one image, it could reset their perspectives. They would truly grok the idea of Spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller would say. The idea came to Brand when he was on a rooftop, tripping on acid, experiencing the horizon curve away from him and giving him quite a sense of perspective.

Later, he would start the Whole Earth Catalog. It was like a print version of Wikipedia, with everything you needed to know to run a commune.

Later still, he went on to found the Long Now Foundation, an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a proud member.

Their most famous project is the clock of the long now, which will keep time for 10,000 years. This is just a scale model in the Science Museum in London. The full-size clock is being built inside a mountain on geologically stable ground. Just thinking about the engineering challenges involved is bound to give you a certain sense of perspective.

But let’s snap back from 10,000 in the future to that Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968.

This picture of the whole earth wasn’t the most important picture taken by Bill Anders on that flight. By Christmas Eve, the crew had reached the moon and successfully entered lunar orbit.

Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.

Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.

You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…

Oh man, that’s…

Quick! Quick!

This is what Bill Anders captured.

Earthrise.

I could try to describe it. But they should’ve sent a poet.

Fifty years later, this poet puts it beautifully. This is Amanda Gorman’s poem Earthrise.

On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut Bill Anders

Snapped a photo of the earth

As Apollo 8 orbited the moon.

Those three guys

Were surprised

To see from their eyes

Our planet looked like an earthrise

A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon,

with deep oceans and silver skies.
It was our world’s first glance at itself

Our first chance to see a shared reality,

A declared stance and a commonality;
A glimpse into our planet’s mirror,

And as threats drew nearer,

Our own urgency became clearer,

As we realize that we hold nothing dearer

than this floating body we all call home.

Astronauts have been known to experience something called the overview effect. It’s a profound change in perspective that comes from seeing the totality of our home planet in all its beauty and fragility.

The Earthrise photograph gave the world a taste of the overview effect, right at a time when it was most needed.

The World Wide Web

I wonder if it’s possible to get an overview effect for the World Wide Web?

There is no photograph of the whole web. We can’t see the web. We can’t travel into space and look back at our online home.

But we can travel back in time. Let’s travel back to 1945.

That was the year that an article was published in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush. He was a pop scientist of his day, like Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye.

The article was called As We May Think. In the article, Bush describes a hypothetical device called a memex.

Imagine a desk filled with reams and reams of microfilm. The operator of this device can find information and also make connections between bits of information, linking them together in whatever way makes sense to them.

This sounds a lot like hypertext. That word would be coined decades later by Ted Nelson to describe “text which is not constrained to be linear.”

Vannevar Bush’s idea of the memex and Ted Nelson’s ideas about hypertext would be a big influence on Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.

But his big breakthrough wasn’t just making hypertext into a reality. Other people had already done that.

Douglas Engelbart, who wanted to make the computer equivalent of the memex, had already demonstrated a working hypertext system in 1968 in an astonishing demonstration that came to be known as The Mother Of All Demos.

The idea of hypertext was kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Individual pieces of text in a book are connected with unique identifiers and you can jump from one piece of text to another within the same book.

But what if you could jump between books? That’s the other piece of the puzzle.

The idea of connecting computers together came from the concept of “time sharing” allowing you to remotely access another computer.

With funding from the US Department of Defence’s Advance Research Projects Agency, time sharing was taken to the next level with the creation of a computer network called the ARPANET.

It grew. And it grew. Until it was no longer just a network of computers. It was a network of networks. Or internetwork. Internet, for short.

Tim Berners-Lee took the infrastructure of the internet and mashed it up with the idea of hypertext. Instead of imagining hypertext as a book with interconnected concepts, he imaged a library of books where you could jump from one idea in one book to another idea in a completely different book in a completely different part of the library.

This was the World Wide Web. And Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web even when it only existed on his computer. You have to admire the chutspah of that!

But the really incredible thing is that it worked! In March of 1989 he proposed a global hypertext system, where anybody could create new pages without asking anyone for permission, and anyone could access those pages no matter what kind of device or operating system they were using.

And that’s what we have today. While the World Wide Web might seem inevitable in hindsight, it was anything but. It is a remarkable achievement.

The World Wide Web was somewhat lacking in colour originally. When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was limited.

Colour

When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was somewhat limited.

We had a palette of 216 web safe colours. You knew if a colour was “web safe” if the hexadecimal notation was three sets of duplicated values. If you altered one of those values even slightly, there was no guarantee that the colour would display consistently on the monitors of the time.

I have a confession to make: I kind of liked this constraint in a weird way. To this day, if I have a colour value that’s almost web-safe, I can’t resist nudging it slightly.

Fortunately, monitors improved. They got flatter for one thing. They were also capable of displaying plenty of colours.

And we also got more and more ways of specifying colours. As well as hexadecimal, we got RGB: Red, Green, Blue. Better yet, we got RGBa …with alpha transparency. That’s opacity to you and me.

Then we got HSL: hue, saturation, lightness. Or should I say HSLa: hue, saturation, lightness, and alpha transparency.

And there are more colour spaces on the way. HWB (hue, whiteness, blackness), LAB, LCH. And there’s work on a color() function so you can specify even more colour spaces.

Typography

In the beginning, typography on the World Wide Web was non-existent. Your browser used whatever was available on your operating system.

That situation continued for quite a while. You’d have to guess which fonts were likely to be available on Windows or Mac.

If you wanted to use a sans-serif typeface, there was Arial on Windows and Helvetica on the Mac. Verdana was a pretty safe bet too.

For a while your only safe option for a serif typeface was Times New Roman. When Mathew Carter’s Georgia was released, it was a godsend. Here was a typeface specifically designed for the screen.

Later Microsoft released another four fonts designed for the screen. Four new fonts! It felt like we were being spoiled.

But what if you wanted to use a typeface that didn’t come installed with an operating system? Well, you went into Photoshop and made an image of the text. Now the user had to download additional images. The text wasn’t selectable and it was a fixed width.

We came up with all sorts of clever techniques to do what was called “image replacement” for text. Some of the techniques involved CSS and background images. One of the techniques involved Flash. It was called sIFR: Scalable Inman Flash Replacement. A later technique called Cufón converted the letter shapes into paths in Canvas.

All of these techniques were hacks. Very clever hacks, but hacks nonetheless. They were clever and they worked but they always reminded me of Samuel Johnson’s description of a dog walking on its hind legs:

It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.

What if you wanted to use an actual font file in a web page?

There was only one browser that supported font embedding: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The catch was that you had to use a proprietary font format called Embedded Open Type.

Both type foundries and browser makers were nervous about allowing regular font files to be embedded in web pages. They were worried about licensing. Wouldn’t this lead to even more people downloading fonts illegally? How would the licensing be enforced?

The impasse was broken with a two-pronged approach. First of all, we got a new font format called Web Open Font Format or WOFF. It could be used to take a regular font file and wrap it in a light veneer of metadata about licensing. There’s a sequel that’s even better than the original, WOFF2.

The other breakthrough was the creation of intermediary services like Typekit and Fontdeck. They would take care of serving the actual font files, making sure they couldn’t be easily downloaded. They could also keep track of numbers to ensure that type foundries were being compensated fairly.

Over time it became clear to type foundries that most web designers wanted to do the right thing when it came to licensing fonts. And so these days, you can probably license a font straight from a type foundry for use on the web and host it yourself.

You might need to buy a few different weights. Regular. Bold. Maybe italic. What about extra bold? Or a light weight? It all starts to add up, especially for the end user who has to download all those files.

I remember being at the web typography conference Ampersand years ago and hearing a talk from Nick Sherman. He asked us to imagine one single font file that could go from light to regular to bold and everything in between. What he described sounded like science fiction.

It is now science fact, indistinguishable from magic. Variable fonts are here. You can typeset text on the web to be light, or regular, or bold, or anything in between.

When you use CSS to declare the font-weight property, you can use keywords like “normal” or “bold” but you can also use corresponding numbers like 400 or 700. There’s a scale with nine options from 100 to 900. But why isn’t the scale simply one to nine?

Well, even though the idea of variable fonts would have been pure fantasy when this part of CSS was being specced, the authors had some foresight:

One of the reasons we chose to use three-digit numbers was to support intermediate values in the future.

With the creation of variable fonts, Håkon Wium Lee added:

And the future is now.

On today’s web you could have 999 font-weight options.

Images

In the beginning, the World Wide Web was a medium for text only. There were no images and certainly no videos.

In an early mailing list discussion, there was talk of creating a new HTML element for images. Perhaps it should be called “icon”. Or maybe it should be more generic and be called “embed”. Tim Berners-Lee said he imagined using the rel attribute on the A element for embedding images.

While this discussion was happening, Marc Andreessen popped in to say that he had just shipped a new HTML element in the Mosaic browser. It’s called IMG and it takes an attribute called SRC that points to the source of the image.

This was a self-closing tag so there was no way to put fallback content in between the opening and closing tags if the image couldn’t be displayed. So the ALT attribute was introduced instead to provide an alternative description of the image.

For the images themselves, there were really only two choices. JPG for photographic images. GIF for icons or anything that needed basic transparency. GIFs could also do animation and today, that’s pretty much all they’re used for. That’s because there was a concerted campaign to ditch the GIF format on the web. Unisys, who owned the rights to a compression algorithm used by the GIF format, had started to make noises about potentially demanding license fees for its use.

The Portable Network Graphics format—or PNG—was created in response. It was more performant and it allowed you to have proper alpha transparency.

These were all bitmap formats. What if you wanted a vector format for images that would retain crispness at any size or resolution? There was only one option: Flash. You’d have to embed a Flash movie in your web page just to get the benefit of vector graphics.

By the 21st century there were some eggheads working on a text-based vector file format that could be embedded in webpages, but it sounded like a pipe dream. It was called SVG for Scalable Vector Graphics. The format was dreamed up in 2001 but for years, not a single browser supported it. It was like some theoretical graphical Shangri-La.

But by 2011, every major browser supported it. Styleable, scriptable, animatable, vector graphics have gone from fantasy to reality.

There’s more choice in the world of bitmap images too. WebP is well supported. AVIF is is gaining support.

The IMG element itself has grown too. You can use the srcset attribute to give the browser a range of images to choose from to best suit the user’s device and network connection. You can use the loading attribute to get lazy loading of images for free—no JavaScript required.

We now have audio in HTML. No JavaScript required. We now have video in HTML. No JavaScript required.

These elements have been designed with more thought than the IMG element. They are not self-closing elements, by design. You can put fallback content between the opening and closing tags.

The audio and video elements arrived long after the IMG element. For a long time, there was no easy way to do video or audio on the web.

That was very frustrating for me. The first websites I ever built were for bands. The only way to stream music was with a proprietary plug-in like Real Audio.

Or Flash.

While the web standards were still being worked on, Flash delivered the goods with streaming audio and video. This happened over and over. Flash gave us vector graphics, animation, video, and more. But the price was lock-in. Flash was a proprietary format.

Still, Flash showed the web standards bodies the direction of travel. Flash was the hare. Web standards were the tortoise.

We know how that race ended.

In a way, Flash was like the Research and Development incubator for the World Wide Web. We got CSS animations, SVG, and streaming video because Flash showed that there was an appetite for them.

Until web standards provide a way to do something, designers and developers will reach for whatever tool gets the job done. Take layout, for example.

Layout

In the early days of the web, you could have any layout you wanted …as long as it was a single column.

Before long, HTML expanded to provide some rudimentary formatting for that single column of text. Presentational elements and attributes were invented. And even when elements and attributes weren’t meant to be used for formatting, people got creative.

Tables for layout. A single pixel GIF that could be given width and height. These were clever solutions. But they were hacks. And they were in danger of turning HTML into a presentational language instead of a language for structuring content.

CSS came to the rescue. A language specifically for presentation.

But we still didn’t get proper layout tools. There was a lot of debate in the early days about whether CSS should even attempt to provide layout tools or whether that was a job for a separate technology.

We could lay things out using the float property, but really that was just another hack.

Floats were an improvement over tables for layout, but we only swapped one tool for another. Our collective thinking still wasn’t very web-like.

For example, designers and developers insisted on building websites with a fixed width. This started in the era of table layouts and carried over into CSS.

To start with, the fixed width was 640 pixels. Then it was 800 pixels. Then people settled on the magical number of 960 pixels. Designers and developers didn’t seem at all concerned that people had different sized screens.

That was until the iPhone came out. It caused a panic. What fixed width were we supposed to design for now?

The answer was there all along. Even before the web appeared in mobile devices, it was possible to build fluid layouts that would adapt to screen size. It’s just that the majority of designers and developers chose not to build in this way.

I was pleased that mobile came along and shook things up. It exposed the assumptions that people were making. And it forced designers and developers to think in a more fluid, webby way.

Even better, CSS had expanded to include media queries so it was possible to alter layouts at different breakpoints.

Ethan came along and put a nice bow on it with his definition of responsive design: fluid media, fluid layouts, and media queries.

I fell in love with responsive web design instantly becuase it matched how I was already thinking about the web. I was one of the handful of weirdos who insisted on building fluid websites when everyone else was using fixed-width layouts.

But I thought that responsive web design would struggle to take hold.

I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Responsive web design has become the default!

If I could go back to my past self in the mid 2000s, I’d love to tell them that in the future, everyone would be building with fluid layouts (and also that time travel had been invented apparently).

Not only that, but we finally have proper layout tools for the web. Flexbox. Grid. No more hacks. We’re even getting container queries soon (thanks, Miriam!).

Web browsers now are positively overflowing with fantastic design tools that would have been unimaginable to my past self. Support for these technologies is pretty much universal.

When browsers differ today, it’s only terms of which standards they don’t yet support. There was a time when browsers differed massively in how they handled basic web technologies.

There was a time when being a web developer meant understanding all the different quirks between browsers.

And browser makers spent a ludicrous amount of time reverse-engineering the quirky behaviour of whichever browser was the market leader.

That changed with HTML5. We remember HTML5 for introducing new APIs, new form fields, and new structural elements. But the biggest innovation was completely invisible. For the first time, error-handling was standardised. Browsers had a set of rules they could work from. Once browsers adopted this consistent approach to error-handling, cross-browser differences dried up.

That was good news for web developers. We were sick of dealing with different browsers taking different approaches. We had been burned with JavaScript.

JavaScript

In the beginning, there was no scripting on the web, just like there was no styling. Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t opposed to the idea of executing arbitrary code on the web. But he pointed out that you’d need everyone to agree on which programming language browsers would use.

You need something really powerful, but at the same time ubiquitous. Remember a facet of the web is universal readership. There is no universal interpreted programming language.

This problem of which language to choose was solved in the usual way. Brendan Eich, who was working at Netscape, created a completely new programming language in just ten days. It would be called… LiveScript. Then the marketing department got involved and because Java was the new hotness at the time, this scripting language was renamed to… JavaScript. Even though it has nothing to do with Java. Java is to JavaScript as ham is to hamster.

The important thing is that multiple browsers implemented it. Then the hype started. We were told about this great new technology called DHTML. The D stood for dynamic! This would allow us to programmatically manipulate elements in a web page.

But… the two major browsers at the time, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, used two completely incompatible syntaxes. For Netscape Navigator you’d use document.layers. For Internet Explorer it was document.all.

This was when developers said enough was enough. We wanted standards. The Web Standards Project was formed and we lobbied browser makers to implement web standards, like CSS and also the Document Object Model. This was a standardised way of manipulating elements in a web page. You could use methods like getElementById and getElementsByTagName.

That worked fine, but it was yet another vocabulary to learn. If you already knew CSS, then you already understood how to get an element by ID and get elements by tag name, but with a different syntax.

John Resig created jQuery so that you could use the CSS syntax to do DOM scripting. There were lots of other JavaScript libraries released around the same time, but jQuery was by far the most popular. Clearly, this syntax was something that developers wanted.

Now we no longer need jQuery. We’ve got querySelector and querySelectorAll. But the reason we no longer need jQuery is because of jQuery. Just like Flash, jQuery showed what developers wanted. And just as with Flash, the web standards took more time. But now jQuery is obsolete …precisely because it was so successful.

It’s a similar story with Sass and CSS. There was a time when Sass was the only way to have a feature like variables. But now with custom properties available in CSS, Sass is becoming increasingly obsolete …precisely because it was so successful and showed the direction of travel.

In a way, jQuery and Sass (and maybe even Flash) were kind of like polyfills. That’s a term that my friend Remy Sharp coined for JavaScript libraries that fill in the gaps until browsers have implemented web standards.

By way of explanation to anyone in the States, Polyfilla is a brand name in the UK for what you call spackling paste. So JavaScript libraries like jQuery spackled over the gaps in browsers.

But some capabilities can’t be polyfilled. If a browser doesn’t provide API access to a particular sensor, for example, there’s no way to spackle that gap.

For quite a while, if you wanted access to device APIs, you’d have to build a native app. But over time, that has changed. Now browsers are capable of providing app-like experiences. You can get location data. You can access the camera. You can provide notifications. You can even make websites work offline using service workers.

Native apps had all these capabilities before web browsers. Just as with Flash and jQuery, native apps pointed the way. The gap always looks insurmountable to begin with. But over time, the web always manages to catch up.

At the beginning of 2021, Ire said:

By the end of the year, I would predict that any major native mobile application could be instead built using native web capabilities.

The present

The web has come along way. It has grown and evolved. Browsers have become more and more powerful while maintaining backward compatibility.

In the past we had to hack our way around the technological limitations of the web and we had a long wish list of features we wanted.

I’m not saying we’re done. I’m sure that more features will keep coming. But our wish list has shrunk.

The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.

Today it is possible to create beautiful websites that make full use of colour, typography, layout, animation, and more. But this isn’t what users experience.

This is what users experience. A tedious frustrating game of whack-a-mole with websites that claim to value our privacy while asking us to relinquish it.

This is not a technical problem. It is a design decision. The decision might not be made by anyone with designer in their job title, but make no mistake, business decisions have a direct effect on user experience.

On the face of it, the problem seems to be with the business model of advertising. But that’s not quite right. To be more precise, the problem is with the business model of behavioural advertising. That relies on intermediaries to amass huge amounts of personal data so that they can supposedly serve up relevant advertising.

But contextual advertising, which serves up ads based on the content you’re looking at doesn’t require the invasive collection of personal data. And it works. Behavioural advertising, despite being a huge industry that depends on people giving up their privacy, doesn’t even work very well. And on the few occasions when it does work, it just feels creepy.

The problem is not advertising. The problem is tracking. The greatest trick the middlemen ever pulled was convincing us that you can’t have effective advertising without tracking. That is false. But they’ve managed to skew our sense of perspective so that invasive advertising seems inevitable.

Advertising was always possible on the web. You could publish anything and an ad is just one more thing you could choose to publish. But tracking was impossible. That’s because the early web was stateless. A browser requests a resource from a server and once that transaction is done, they both promptly forget about it. That made it very hard to do things like online shopping or logging into an account.

Two technologies were created later that enabled state on the web. Cookies and JavaScript. If these technologies had been limited to a same origin policy, they would have nicely solved the problems of online shopping and authentication.

But these technologies work across domains. Third party cookies and third-party JavaScript enables users to be tracked as they move from site to site. The web gone from having no state to having too much.

There is hope. Browsers like Firefox and Safari are blocking third-party cookies by default. Personally, I’d love it if third-party JavaScript got the same treatment. You can also install add-ons to make your browser more secure, although these add-ons are often labelled ad-blockers, which is a shame. Because the problem is not advertising. The problem is tracking.

Perhaps none of this applies to you anyway. You may be thinking that this is a problem for websites. But you build web apps.

Personally I’m not keen on the idea of dividing the entirety of the World Wide Web into two vaguely-defined categories. I have yet to hear a good definition of “web app” other than “a website that requires JavaScript to work.”

But the phrase “single page app” has a more definite meaning. It refers to an architectural decision. That decision is to reinvent the web browser inside a web browser.

In a sense, it’s a testament to the power of JavaScript that you can choose to do this. Browsers render content and perform navigations, but if you’d rather recreate that functionality from scratch in JavaScript, you can.

But should you? Browsers have increased in complexity so that we can build without complexity. We can use the built-in power of modern HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to make web browsers do the work. If we work with the grain of the web, we can accomplish more and more with less and less code.

But that isn’t what happened. Instead developers have recreated form controls like dropdowns and datepickers from scratch using divs and lashings and lashings of JavaScript.

Perhaps this points to some missing features on the web. It’s still too hard to style native dropdowns and datepickers (but that’s being worked on—there’s standards work underway to give us more styling control over form elements). But that doesn’t explain why developers would choose to recreate something like a button using divs and JavaScript when the button element already exists and can be styled any way you like.

I think there’s a certain mindset being applied to web development here. And that mindset comes from the world of software. Again, it’s a testament to how far the web has come that it can be treated as a software platform on par with operating systems like iOS, Android, or Windows. There’s a lot to be learned from the world of software development, like testing, for example. But the web is different. When a user navigates to a URL, it shouldn’t feel like they’re installing a piece of software.

We should be aiming to keep our payloads as small as possible. And given how powerful browsers have become, we need fewer and fewer dependencies—fewer and fewer polyfills.

But performance has gotten worse. Payloads have gotten bigger. Dependencies like JavaScript frameworks have become more and more widespread even as they became less and less necessary.

When asked to justify the enormous payloads, web developers have responded by saying that user’s expectations have changed. That is correct, but not in the way that I think they mean.

When I talk to people about using the web—especially on mobile—their expectations are that they will have a terrible experience. That websites will be slow to load. And I guarantee you that none of them are saying, “Well I’d be annoyed if this were a website but seeing as this is a web app, I’m absolutely fine with this terrible experience.”

I said that the biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges. I think the biggest challenge facing the web today is people’s expectations.

There is no technical reason for websites or web apps to be so frustrating. But we have collectively led people to expect a bad experience on the web.

Our intentions may be have good. We thought users wanted nice page transitions and form elements that were on-brand. But if you talk to people, you find out that what they want is to accomplish their task without megabytes of JavaScript getting in the way.

There’s a great German word, “Verschlimmbessern”: the act of making something worse in the attempt to make it better. Perhaps we verschlimmbessert the web.

Let’s step back. Get some perspective. Instead of assuming that a single page app architecture is needed, ask what users need to accomplish. Instead of assuming you need a CSS framework or a JavaScript library, see what you can do in browsers today with native CSS and vanilla JavaScript. Don’t include a bunch of dependencies by default just in case you might need them. Instead, as Rachel puts it:

Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.

Lean into what web browsers can accomplish today. If you find something missing, that’s the time to reach for a library …but treat it like a polyfill. Whereas web standards stick around, every library and framework comes with a limited lifespan. Treat them as cattle, not pets.

I understand that tools and frameworks can make your life easier. And if we’re talking about server-side frameworks, then I say “Go for it.” Or if you’re using build tools that sit on your computer to do version control, linting, pre-processing, or transpiling, then I say “Go for it.”

But once you make users download tools or frameworks, you’re making them pay a tax for your developer convenience.

We need to value user needs above developer convenience. If I have the choice of making something the user’s problem or making it my problem, I’ll make it my problem every time. That’s my job.

We need to change people’s expectations of the World Wide Web, especially on mobile. Otherwise, the web will be lost.

The future

Two years ago, I had the great honour of being invited to CERN to mark the 30th anniversary of the original proposal for the World Wide Web. One of the other people there was the journalist Zeynep Tüfekçi. She was on a panel along with Tim Berners-Lee and other luminaries of the early web. At the end of the panel discussion, she was asked:

What would you tell the next generation about how to use this wonderful tool?

She replied:

If you have something wonderful, if you do not defend it, you will lose it. If you do not defend the magic and the things that make it wonderful, it’s just not going to stay magical by itself.

I believe that we can save the web. I believe that we can change people’s expectations. We’ll do that by showing them what the web is capable of.

It sounds like a moonshot. But, y’know, moonshots aren’t made possible by astronauts. They’re made possible by people like Poppy Northcutt in mission control. Katherine Johnson running the numbers. And Margaret Hamilton inventing the field of software engineering to create the software for the lunar lander. Individual people working together on something bigger than any one person.

There’s a story told about the first time President Kennedy visited NASA. While he was a getting a tour of the place, he introduced himself to a janitor. And the president asked the janitor what he did. The janitor answered:

I’m helping put a man on the moon.

It’s the kind of story that’s trotted out by company bosses to make you feel good about having your labour exploited for the team. But that janitor’s loyalty wasn’t to NASA, an organisation. He was working for something bigger.

I encourage you to have that sense of perspective. Whatever company or organisation you happen to be working for right now, remember that you are building something bigger.

The future of the World Wide Web is in good hands. It’s in your hands.

Thursday, August 19th, 2021

Is Safari the new Internet Explorer?

The transcript from the latest episode of the HTTP 203 podcast is well worth perusing.

  • Internet Explorer halted development, no innovation. Would you say Safari is the new IE?
  • There was loads of stuff missing. Is Safari the new IE?
  • My early career was built on knowing the bugs in IE6 and how to solve them. Is Safari the new IE?
  • Internet Explorer 6, it had a really slow JavaScript engine, performance was bad in that browser. Is Safari the new IE?
  • Internet Explorer had a fairly cavalier attitude towards web standards. Is Safari the new IE?
  • Back in the day that we had almost no communication whatsoever. Is Safari the new IE?
  • Slow-release cycle. Is Safari the new IE?

Tuesday, August 17th, 2021

SafarIE

I was moaning about Safari recently. Specifically I was moaning about the ridiculous way that browser updates are tied to operating system updates.

But I felt bad bashing Safari. It felt like a pile-on. That’s because a lot of people have been venting their frustrations with Safari recently:

I think it’s good that people share their frustrations with browsers openly, although I agree with Baldur Bjarnason that’s good to avoid Kremlinology and the motivational fallacy when blogging about Apple.

It’s also not helpful to make claims like “Safari is the new Internet Explorer!” Unless, that is, you can back up the claim.

On a recent episode of the HTTP 203 podcast, Jake and Surma set out to test the claim that Safari is the new IE. They did it by examining Safari according to a number of different measurements and comparing it to the olden days of Internet Explorer. The result is a really fascinating trip down memory lane along with a very nuanced and even-handed critique of Safari.

And the verdict? Well, you’ll just to have to listen to the podcast episode.

If you’d rather read the transcript, tough luck. That’s a real shame because, like I said, it’s an excellent and measured assessment. I’d love to add it to the links section of my site, but I can’t do that in good conscience while it’s inaccessible to the Deaf community.

When I started the Clearleft podcast, it was a no-brainer to have transcripts of every episode. Not only does it make the content more widely available, but it also makes it easier for people to copy and paste choice quotes.

Still, I get it. A small plucky little operation like Google isn’t going to have the deep pockets of a massive corporation like Clearleft. But if Jake and Surma were to open up a tip jar, I’d throw some money in to get HTTP 203 transcribed (I recommend getting Tina Pham to do it—she’s great!).

I apologise for my note of sarcasm there. But I share because I care. It really is an excellent discussion; one that everyone should be able to access.

Update: the bug with that episode of the HTTP 203 podcast has been fixed. Here’s the transcript! And all future episodes will have transcripts too:

Monday, January 4th, 2021

Design Principles For The Web

The opening presentation from An Event Apart Online Together: Front-End Focus held online in August 2020.

I’d like to take you back in time, just over 100 years ago, at the beginning of World War One. It’s 1914. The United States would take another few years to join, but the European powers were already at war in the trenches, as you can see here.

A drawing of early trench warfare with soldiers wearing winter coats and peaked caps.

What I want to draw your attention to is what they’re wearing, specifically what they’re wearing on their heads. This is the standard issue for soldiers at the beginning of World War One, a very fetching cloth cap. It looks great. Not very effective at stopping shrapnel from ripping through flesh and bone.

It wasn’t long before these cloth caps were replaced with metal helmets; much sturdier, much more efficient at protection. This is the image we really associate with World War One; soldiers wearing metal helmets fighting in the trenches.

A photograph of three allied soldiers sitting together for a meal in a trench wearing camouflage uniforms and metal helmets.

Now, an interesting thing happened after the introduction of these metal helmets. If you were to look at the records from the field hospitals, you would see that there was an increase in the number of patients being admitted with severe head injuries after the introduction of these metal helmets. That seems odd and the only conclusion that we could draw seems to be that cloth helmets are actually better than the metal helmets at stopping these kind of injuries. But that wouldn’t be correct.

You can see the same kind of data today. Any state where they introduce motorcycle helmet laws saying it’s mandatory to wear motorcycle helmets, you will see an increase in the number of emergency room admissions for severe head injuries for motorcyclists.

Now, in both cases, what’s missing is the complete data set because, yes, while in World War One there was an increase in the field hospital admissions for head injuries, there was a decrease in deaths. Just as today, if there’s an increase in emergency room admissions for severe head injuries because of motorcycle helmets, you will see a decrease in the number of people going to the morgue.

Analytics

I kind of like these stories of analytics where there’s a little twist in the tale where the obvious solution turns out not to be the correct answer and our expectations are somewhat subverted. My favorite example of analytics on the web comes from a little company called YouTube. This is from a few years back.

It was documented by an engineer at YouTube called Chris Zacharias. He blogged about this. He was really frustrated with the page weight on a YouTube video page, which at the time was 1.2 megabytes. That’s without the video. That’s the HTML, the CSS, the JavaScript, the images. This just seemed too big (and I would agree: it is too big).

Chris set about working on making a smaller version of a video page. He called this Project Feather. He worked and worked at it, and he managed to get a page down to just 98 kilobytes, so from 1.2 megabytes to 98 kilobytes. That’s an order of magnitude difference.

Then he set up shipping this to different segments of the audience and watching the analytics to see what rolled in. He was hoping to see a huge increase in the number of people engaging with the content. But here’s what he blogged.

The average aggregate page latency under Feather had actually increased. I had decreased the total page weight and number of requests to a tenth of what they were previously and somehow the numbers were showing that it was taking longer for videos to load on Feather, and this could not be possible. Digging through the numbers more (and after browser testing repeatedly), nothing made sense.

I was just about to give up on the project with my world view completely shattered when my colleague discovered the answer: geography. When we plotted the data geographically and compared it to our total numbers (broken out by region), there was a disproportionate increase in traffic from places like Southeast Asia, South America, Africa, and even remote regions of Siberia.

A further investigation revealed that, in those places, the average page load time under Feather was over two minutes. That means that a regular video page (at over a megabyte) was taking over 20 minutes to load.

Again, what was happening here was that there was a whole new set of data. There were people who literally couldn’t even load the page because it would take 20 minutes who couldn’t access YouTube who now, because of this Project Feather, for the first time were able to access YouTube. What that looked like, according to the analytics, was that page load time had overall gone up. What was missing was the full data set.

Expectations

I really like these stories that kind of play with our expectations. When the reveal comes, it’s almost like hearing the punchline to a joke, right? Your expectations are set up and then subverted.

Jeff Greenspan is a comedian who talks about this. He talks about expectations in terms of music and comedy. He points out that they both deal with expectations over time.

In music, the pleasure comes from your expectations being met. A song sets up a rhythm. When that rhythm is met, that’s pleasurable. A song is using a particular scale and when those notes on that scale are hit, it’s pleasurable. Music that’s not fun to listen to tends to be arhythmic and atonal where you can’t really get a handle on what’s going to come next.

Comedy works the other way where it sets up expectations and then pulls the rug out from under you — the surprise.

Now, you can use music and you can use comedy in your designs. If you were setting up a lovely grid and a vertical rhythm, that’s like music. It’s a lovely, predictable feeling to that. But you can also introduce a bit of comedy; something that peeks out from the grid. You upset (just occasionally) something with a bit of subverted expectations.

You don’t want something that’s all music. Maybe that’s a little boring. You don’t want something that’s all comedy because then it’s just crazy and hard to get a handle on.

You can see music and comedy in how you consume news. You notice that when you read your news sources, all it does is confirm what you already believe. You read something about someone, and you think, “Yes, they’ve done something bad and I always thought they were bad, so that has confirmed my expectations.” It’s like music.

I read something that somebody has done and I always thought they were a good person. This now confirms that they are a good person. That is music to my ears. If your news feels like that, feels like music, then you may be in a bubble.

The comedy approach to music would be more like the clickbait you see at the bottom of the Internet where it’s like, “Click here. You won’t believe what these child stars look like now.” The promise there is that we will subvert your expectations, and that’s where the pleasure will come.

Survivorship bias

My favorite story from history about analytics is not from World War One but from the sequel, World War Two, where again the United States were a few years late to this world war. But when they did arrive and started their bombing raids on Germany, they were coming from England. The bombers would come back all shot up, and so there was a whole thinktank dedicated to figuring out how we can reinforce these planes in certain areas.

You can’t reinforce the whole plane. That would make it too heavy, but you could apply some judicious use of metal reinforcement to protect the plane.

A scatterplot diagram of an airplane showing bullet holes concentrated in the middle of the fuselage, the wings, and the tail.

They treated this as a data problem, as an analytics problem. They looked at the planes coming back. They plotted where the bullet holes were, and that led them to conclude where they should put the reinforcements. You can see here that the wings were getting all shot up, the middle of the fuselage, so clearly that’s where the reinforcements should go.

There was a statistician, a mathematician named Abraham Wald. He looked at the exact same data and he said, “No, we need to reinforce the front of the plane where there are no bullet holes. We need to reinforce the back of the fuselage where there are no bullet holes.”

What he realized was that all the data they were seeing was actually a subset of the complete data set. They were only seeing the planes that made it back. What was missing were all the planes that got shot down. If all the planes that made it back didn’t have any bullet holes in the front of the plane, then you could probably conclude that if you get a bullet hole in the front of the plane, you’re not going to make it back. This became the canonical example of what we now call survivorship bias, which is this tendency to look at the subset of data — the winners.

You see survivorship bias all the time. You walk into a bookstore and you look at the business section and its books by successful business people; that’s survivorship bias. Really, the whole section should be ten times as big and feature ten times as many books written by people who had unsuccessful businesses because that would be a much more representative sample.

We see survivorship bias. You go onto Instagram and you look at people’s Instagram photos. Generally, they’re posting their best life, right? It’s the perfect selfie. It’s the perfect shot. It’s not a representative sample of what somebody’s life looks like. That’s survivorship bias.

Design systems

We have a tendency to do it on the web, too, when people publish their design systems. Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that companies are making their design systems public. It’s something I’ve really lobbied for. I’ve encouraged people to do this. Please, if you have a design system, make it public so we can all learn from it.

I really appreciate that people do that, but they do tend to wait until it’s perfect. They tend to wait until they’ve got the success.

What we’re missing are all the stories of what didn’t work. We’re missing the bigger picture of the things they tried that just failed completely. I feel like we could learn so much from that. I feel like we can learn as much from anti-patterns as we can from patterns, if not more so.

Robin Rendle talked about this in a blog post recently about design systems. He said:

The ugly truth is that design systems work is not easy. What works for one company does not work for another. In most cases, copying the big tech company of the week will not make a design system better at all. Instead, we have to acknowledge how difficult our work is collectively. Then we have to do something that seems impossible today—we must publicly admit to our mistakes. To learn from our community, we must be honest with one another and talk bluntly about how we’ve screwed things up.

I completely agree. I think that would be wonderful if we shared more openly. I do try to encourage people to share their stories, successes, and failures.

I organized a conference a few years back all about design systems called Patterns Day and invited the best and brightest: Alla Kholmatova, Jina Anne, Paul Lloyd, Alice Bartlett – all these wonderful people. It was wonderful to hear people come up and sort of reassure you, “Hey, none of us have got this figured out. We’re all trying to figure out what we’re doing here.” The audience really needed to hear that. They really needed to hear that reassurance that this is hard.

Gaps and overlaps

I did Patterns Day again last year. My favorite talk at Patterns Day last year, I think, was probably from Danielle Huntrods. I’m biased here because I used to work with Danielle. She used to work at Clearleft, and she’s an absolutely brilliant front-end developer.

She had this lens that she used when she was talking about design systems and other things. She talked about gaps and overlaps, which is one of those things that’s lodged in my brain. I kind of see it everywhere.

She said that when you’re categorizing things, you’re putting things into categories, that means some things will fall between those categories. That leaves you with the gaps, the things that aren’t being covered. It’s almost like Donald Rumsfeld, the unknown unknowns and all that.

What can also happen when you put things into categories is you get these overlaps where there’s duplication; two things are responsible for the same task. This duplication of effort, of course, is what we’re trying to avoid with design systems. We’re trying to be efficient. We don’t want multiple versions of the same thing. We want to be able to reuse one component. There’s a danger there.

She’s saying what we do with the design system is we concentrate on cataloging these components. We do our interface inventory, but we miss the connective part. We miss the gaps between the components. Really, what makes something a system is not so much a collection of components but how those components fit together, those gaps between them.

Fluffy edges

Danielle went further. She didn’t just talk about gaps and overlaps in terms of design systems and components. She talked about it in terms of roles and responsibilities. If you have two people who believe they’re responsible for the same thing, that’s going to lead to a clash.

Worse, you’re working on a project and you find out that there was nobody responsible for doing something. It’s a gap. Everyone assumes that the other person was responsible for getting that thing done.

“Oh, you’re not doing that?” “I thought you were doing that.” “Oh, I thought you were doing that.”

This is the source of so much frustration in projects, either these gaps or these overlaps in roles and responsibilities. Whenever we start a project at Clearleft, we spend quite a bit of time getting this role mapping correct, trying to make sure there aren’t any gaps and there aren’t any overlaps. Really, it’s about surfacing those assumptions.

“Oh, I assumed I was responsible for that.” “No, no. I assumed I was the one who would be doing that.”

We clarify this stuff as early as possible in the design process. We even have a game we play called Fluffy Edges. It’s literally like a card game. We’d ask these questions, “Who is responsible for this? Who is going to do this?” It’s kind of good fun, but really it is about surfacing those assumptions and getting clarity on the roles at the beginning of the design process.

The design process

Now, the design process, I’m talking about the design process like it’s this known thing and it really isn’t. It’s a notoriously difficult thing to talk about the design process.

A squiggle that starts big and messy on the left but resolves into a straight line on the right.

Here’s one way of thinking about the design process. This is The Design Squiggle by Damien Newman. He used to be at IDEO. I actually think this is a pretty accurate representation of what the design process feels like for an individual designer. You go into the beginning and it’s chaos, it’s a mess, and it’s entropy. Then, over time, you begin to get a handle on things until you get to this almost inevitable result at the end.

I’m not sure it’s an accurate representation of what the collaborative design process feels like. There’s a different diagram that resonates a lot with us at Clearleft, which is the Double Diamond diagram from Chris Vanstone at the Design Council. The way of thinking about the Double Diamond is almost like it’s two design squiggles back-to-back.

Two back-to-back diamond shapes. The first diamond is labelled with the words discover and define. The second diamond is labelled with the words execute and deliver.

It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the idea is that the design process is split into these triangles. First, it’s the discovery. Then we define. So we’re going out wide with discovery. Then we narrow it down with the definition. Then it’s time to build a thing and we open up wide again to figure out how we’re going to execute this thing. Once we got that figured out, we narrow down into the delivery phase.

The way of thinking about this is the first diamond (discovery and definition), that’s about building the right thing. Make sure you’re building the right thing first. The second diamond (about execution and delivery), that’s about building the thing right. Building the right thing and building the thing right.

The important thing is they follow this pattern of going wide and going narrow. This divergent phase with discovery and then convergent for definition. There’s a divergent phase for execution and then convergent for delivery.

If you take nothing else in the Double Diamond approach, it’s this way of making explicit when you’re in a divergent or convergent phase. Again, it’s kind of about servicing that assumption. “Oh, I assumed we were converging.” “No, no, no. We are diverging here.” That’s super, super useful.

I’ll give you an example. If you are in a meeting, at the beginning of the meeting, state whether it’s a divergent meeting or a convergent meeting. If you were in a meeting where the idea is to generate as many ideas as possible during a meeting, make that clear at the beginning because what you don’t want is somebody in the meeting who thinks the point is to converge on a solution.

You’ve got these people generating ideas and then there’s one person going, “No, that will never work. Here’s why. Oh, that’s technically impossible. Here’s why.” No, if you make it clear at the start, “There are no bad ideas. We’re in a divergent meeting,” everyone is on the same page.

Conversely, if it’s a convergent meeting, you need to make that clear and say, “The point of this meeting is that we come to a decision, one decision,” and you need to make that clear because what you don’t want in a convergent meeting is it’s ten minutes to launch time, converging on something, and then somebody in the meeting goes, “Hey, I just had an idea. How about if we…?” You don’t want that. You don’t want that.

If you take nothing else from this, this idea of making divergence and convergence explicit is really, really, really useful. Again, like I say, this pattern of just assumptions being surfaced is so useful.

This initial diamond of the Double Diamond phase, it’s where we spend a lot of our time at Clearleft. I think, early in the years of Clearleft, we spent more time on the second diamond. We were more about execution and delivery. Now, I feel like we deliver a lot more value in the discovery and definition phase of the design process.

There’s so much we do in this initial discovery phase. I mentioned already we have this fluffy edges game we play for role mapping to figure out the roles and responsibilities. We have things like a project canvas we use to collaborate with the clients to figure out the shape of what’s to come.

We sometimes run an exercise called a pre-mortem. I don’t know if you’ve ever done that. It’s like a post-mortem except you do it at the beginning of the project. It’s kind of a scenario planning.

You say, “Okay, it’s so many months after the launch and it’s been a complete disaster. What went wrong?” You map that out. You talk about it. Then once you’ve got that mapped out, you can then take steps to avoid that disaster happening.

Of course, what we do in the discovery phase, almost more than anything else, is research. You can’t go any further without doing the research.

Assumptions

All of these things, all of these exercises, these ways of working are about dealing with assumptions, either surfacing assumptions that we didn’t know were there or turning assumptions into hypotheses that can be tested. If you think about what an assumption is, it kind of goes back to expectations that I was talking about.

Assumptions are expectations plus internal biases. That gives you an assumption. The things that you don’t even realize you believe; they lead to assumptions. This can obviously be very bad. This is like you’ve got blind spots in your assumptions because of your own biases that you didn’t even realize you had.

They’re not necessarily bad things. Assumptions aren’t necessarily bad. If you think about your expectations plus your biases, that’s another way of thinking about your values. What do you hold to be really dear to you? The things that are self-evident to you, those are your values, your internal expectations and biases.

Values

Now, at Clearleft, we have our company values, our core values, the things we believe. I am not going to share the Clearleft values with you. There are two reasons for that.

One is that they’re Clearleft’s values. They are useful for us. That’s for us to know internally.

Secondly, there’s nothing more boring than a company sharing their values with you. I say nothing more boring. Maybe the only thing more boring than a company sharing their values is when a so-called friend tells you about a dream they had and you have to sit there and smile and nod politely while they tell you about something that is only of interest to them.

Purpose

These values are essentially what give you purpose, whether it’s at an individual level, your personal moral values give you your purpose, or at a company or organization level, you get your purpose – or any endeavor. You think about the founding of a nation-state like the United States of America. You got the Declaration of Independence. That encodes the values. That has the purpose. It’s literally saying, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” These are assumptions here. That’s your purpose is something like the Declaration of Independence.

Principles

Then you get the principles, how you’re going to act. The Constitution would be an example of a collection of principles. These principles must be influenced by the purpose. Your values must influence the principles you’re going to use to act in the world.

Patterns

Then those principles have an effect on the final patterns, the outputs that you’ll see. In the case of a nation-state like America, I would say the patterns are the laws that you end up with. Those laws come from the principles encoded in the Constitution. The Constitution, those principles in the Constitution are influenced and encoded from the purpose in the Declaration of Independence.

The purpose influences the principles. The principles influence the pattern. This would be true in the case of software as well. You think about the patterns are the final interface elements, the user interface. Those are the patterns. Those have been influenced by the principles of that company, how they choose to act, and those principles are influenced by the purpose of that company and what they believe.

Design principles

This is why I find principles, in particular, to be fascinating because they sit in the middle. They are influenced by the purpose and they, in turn, influence the patterns. I’m talking about design principles, something I’m really into. I’m so into design principles, I actually have a website dedicated to design principles at principles.adactio.com.

Now, all I do on this website is collect design principles. I don’t pass judgment. I don’t say whether I think they’re good design principles or bad design principles. I just document them. That’s turned out to be a good thing to do over time because sometimes design principles disappear, go away, or get changed. I’ve got a record of design principles from the past.

For example, Google used to have a set of principles called Ten Things We Know to Be True — we know to be true, right? We hold these truths to be self-evident. That’s no longer available on the Google website, those ten things, those ten principles. One of them was, “You can make money without doing evil.” Like I said, that’s gone now. That’s not available on the Google website.

There was another set of design principles from Google that’s also not available anymore. That was called Ten Principles That Contribute to a Googley User Experience. I think we understand why those are no longer available. The sheer embarrassment of saying the word Googley out loud, I think.

I’ll tell you something I notice when I see design principles. Like I say, I catalog them without judgment, but I do have ideas. I think about what makes for good or bad design principles or sets of design principles.

Whenever I see somebody with a list that’s exactly ten principles, I’m suspicious. Like, “Really? That’s such a convenient round number. You didn’t have nine principles that contribute to a Googley user experience? You didn’t have 11 things that we know to be true? It happened to be exactly ten?” It feels almost like a bad code smell to me that it’s exactly ten principles.

Even some great design principles like Dieter Rams, the brilliant designer. He has a fantastic set of design principles called Ten Principles for Good Design. But even there I have to think, “Hmm. That’s a bit convenient, isn’t it, that it’s exactly ten principles for good design? Isn’t it, Dieter?”

Now, just in case you think I’m being blasphemous by sugging that Dieter Rams’ Ten Principles for Good Design is not a good set of design principles, I am not being blasphemous. I would be blasphemous if I pointed out that in the Old Testament, God supposedly delivers 10 commandments, not 9, not 11, exactly 10 commandments. Really, Moses, ten?

Anyway, what I’m talking about here is, like I say, almost like these code smells for design principles. Can we evaluate design principles? Are there heuristics for saying whether a design principle is a good design principle or a bad design principle?

Universal principles

To get meta about this, what I’m talking about is, are there design principles for design principles? I kind of think there are. I think you can evaluate design principles and say that’s a good one or that’s a bad one. You can evaluate them by how useful they are.

Let’s take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a design principle like this:

Make it usable.

That’s a design principle. I think this is a bad design principle. It’s not because I don’t agree with it. It’s actually a bad design principle because I agree with it and everyone agrees with it. It’s so agreeable that it’s hard to argue with and that’s not what a design principle is for.

Design principles aren’t these things to go, “Rah-rah! Yes! I feel good about this.” They are there to kind of surface stuff and have discussions, have disagreements – get it out in the open. Let’s say we took this design principle, “make it usable”, and it was rephrased to something more contentious. Let’s say somebody had the design principle like:

Usability is more important than profitability.

Ooh! Now we’re talking.

See, I think this is a good design principle. I’m not saying I agree with it. I’m saying it’s a good design principle because what it has now is priority.

We’re saying something is valued more than something else and that’s what you want from design principles is to figure out what the priorities of this organization are. What do they value? How are they going to behave?

I think this is a great phrasing for design principles. If you can phrase a design principle like this:

___, even over ___

Then that’s really going to make it clear what your values are. You can phrase a design principle as:

Usability, even over profitability.

That’s good.

Now you can have that discussion early on about whether everyone is on board with that. If there’s disagreement, you need to hammer that out and figure it out early on in the process.

Here’s another thing about this phrasing that I really like, “blank, even over blank.” It passes another test of a good design principle, which is reversibility. Rather than being a universal thing, a design principle should be reversible for a different organization.

One organization might have a design principle that says “usability, even over profitability,” and another organization, you can equally imagine having a design principle that says, “profitability, even over usability.” The fact that this principle is reversible like that is a good thing. That shows that it’s an effective design principle because it’s about priorities.

My favorite design principle of all—because I’m such a nerd for design principles, I do have a favorite—is from the HTML design principles. It’s called The Priority of Constituencies. It states:

In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementors over theoretical purity.

That’s so good.

First of all, it just starts with, “In case of conflict.” Yes! That is exactly what design principles are for. Again, they’re not there to be like, “Rah-rah! Feel-good design principles.” No, they are there to sort out conflict.

Then, “consider users over authors.” That’s like:

Users, even over authors. Authors, even over implementors. Implementors even over theoretical purity.

Really good stuff.

There are, I think, design principles for design principles, these kind of smell tests that you can run your design principles past and see if they pass or fail.

I talked about how design principles are unique to the organization. The reversibility test kind of helps with that. You can imagine a different organization that has the complete opposite design principles to you.

Eponymous laws

I do wonder: are there some design principles that are truly universal? Well, there’s kind of a whole category of principles that we treat as universal truths. That’s kind of these laws. They tend to be the eponymous laws. They’re usually named after a person and there’s some kind of universal truth. There are a lot of them out there.

Hofstadter’s law

Hofstadter’s law, that’s from Douglas Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s law states:

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law.

That does sound like a universal truth and certainly, my experience matches that. Yeah, I would say Hofstadter’s law feels like a universal design principle.

Sturgeon’s law

90% of everything is crap.

Theodore Sturgeon was a science fiction writer and people would poo-poo science fiction and point out that it was crap. He would say, “Yeah, but 90% of science fiction is crap because 90% of everything is crap.” That became Sturgeon’s law.

Yeah, you look at movies, books, and music. It’s hard to argue with Sturgeon’s law. Yeah, 90% of everything is crap. That feels like a universal law.

Murphy’s law

Here’s one we’ve probably all heard of. Murphy’s law:

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.

It tends to get treated as this funny thing but, actually, it’s a genuinely useful design principle and one we could use on the web a lot more.

Cole’s law

There’s Cole and Cole’s law. You’ve probably heard of that. That’s:

Shredded raw cabbage with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise dressing.

Cole’s law.

Moving swiftly on, there’s another sort of category of these laws, these universal principles that have a different phrasing, and it’s this idea of a razor. Here it’s being explicit about in case of conflict. Here it’s being explicit saying when you try to choose between two choices, which to choose.

Hanlon’s razor

Hanlon’s razor is a famous example that states:

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

If you’re trying to find a reason for something, don’t go straight to assuming malice. Incompetence tends to be a greater force in the world than malice.

I think it’s generally true, although, there’s also a law by Arthur C. Clarke, Clarke’s third law, which states that, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” If you take Clarke’s third law and you mash it up with Hanlon’s razor, then the result is that any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.

Occam’s razor

Another razor that we hear about a lot is Occam’s razor. This is very old. It goes back to William of Occam. Sometimes it’s misrepresented as being the most obvious solution is the correct solution. We know that that’s not true because we saw in the stories of metal helmets in World War One and motorcycle helmets or the bombers in World War Two or the YouTube videos that it’s not about the most obvious solution.

What Occam’s razor actually states is:

Entities should not be multiplied without necessity.

In other words, if you’re coming up with an explanation for something and your explanation requires that you now have to explain even more things—you’re multiplying the things that need to be explained—it’s probably not the true thing.

If your explanation for something is “aliens did it,” well, now you’ve got to explain the existence of aliens and explain how they got here and all this. You’re multiplying the entities. Most conspiracy theories fail the test of Occam’s razor because they unnecessarily multiply entities.

World Wide Web

These design principles that we can borrow, we’ve got these universal ones we can borrow. I also think maybe we can borrow from specific projects and see things that would apply to us. Certainly, when we’re working on the World Wide Web and we’re building things on the World Wide Web, we could look at the design principles that informed the World Wide Web when it was being built by Tim Berners-Lee, who created the World Wide Web, and Robert Cailliau, who worked with him.

The World Wide Web started at CERN and started life in 1989 as just a proposal. Tim Berners-Lee wrote this really quite boring memo called “Information Management: A Proposal” with indecipherable diagrams on it. This is March 12, 1989. His supervisor Mike Sendall, he later saw this proposal and must have seen the possibility here because he scrawled across the top:

Vague but exciting.

Tim Berners-Lee did get the go-ahead to work on this project, this World Wide Web project, and he created the first web browser. He created the first web server. He created HTML.

I was in the neighbourhood so I just had to come by and say hello…

You can see the world’s first web server in the Science Museum in London. It’s this NeXTcube. NeXT was the company that Steve Jobs formed after leaving Apple.

I have a real soft spot for this machine because I was very lucky to be invited to CERN last year to take part in this project where we were trying to recreate the experience of using that first web browser that Tim Berners-Lee created on that NeXT machine. You can go to this website worldwideweb.cern.ch and you can see what it feels like to use this web browser. You can use a modern browser with this emulation inside of it. It’s really good fun.

My colleagues were spending their time actually doing the hard work. I spent most of my time working on the website about the project. I built this timeline because I was fascinated about what was influencing Tim Berners-Lee.

Timeline

It’s kind of easy to look at the 30 years of the web, but I thought it would be more interesting to also look back at the 30 years before the web and see what influenced Tim Berners-Lee when it came to networks, hypertext, and format. Were there design principles that he adhered to?

We don’t have to look far because Tim Berners-Lee himself has published design principles (that he formulated or borrowed from elsewhere) in a document called Axioms of web Architecture. I think he first published this in 1998. These are really useful things that we can take and we can apply when we’re building on the web.

Particularly, now I’m talking about the second diamond of the Double Diamond. When we are choosing how we’re going to execute something or how we’re going to deliver it, building the thing right, that’s when these design principles come in handy.

He was borrowing; Tim Berners-Lee was borrowing from things that had come before, existing creations that the web is built on top of like the Internet and computing. He said:

Principles such as simplicity and modularity are the stuff of software engineering.

So he borrowed those principles about simplicity and modularity.

He also said:

Decentralization and tolerance are the life and breath of the Internet.

Those principles, tolerance and decentralization, they’d proven themselves to work on the Internet. The web is built on top of the Internet. So, it makes sense to carry those principles forward on the World Wide Web.

Robustness

That principle of tolerance, in particular, is something I think you really see on the web. It comes from the principles underlying the Internet. In particular, this person, Jon Postel, who is responsible for maintaining the Domain Name System, DNS, he has an eponymous law named after him. It’s also called the Robustness Principle or Postel’s law. This law states:

Be conservative in what you send. Be liberal in what you accept.”

Now, he was talking about packet switching on the Internet that if you’re going to send a packet over the Internet, try to make it as well-formed as possible. But on the other hand, when you receive a packet and if it’s got errors or something, try and deal with it. Be liberal in what you can accept.

I see this at work all the time on the web, not just in terms of technical things but in terms of UX and usability. The example I always use is if you’re going to make a form on the web, be conservative in what you send. Send as few form fields as possible down the wire to the end-user. But then when the user is filling out that form, be liberal in what you accept. Don’t make them formulate their telephone number or credit card in a certain format. Be liberal in what you accept.

Be conservative in what you send when it comes from front-end development. This matters. Literally, just in terms of what we’re sending down the wire to the end-user, we should be more conservative in what we send. We don’t think about this enough, just the weight, the sheer weight of things we’re sending.

I was doing some consulting with a client and we did a kind of top four of where the weight was coming from. I think this applies to websites in general.

4: Web fonts

Coming in at number four, we had web fonts. They can get quite weighty, but we have ways of dealing with this now. We’ve got font display in CSS. We can subset our web fonts. Variable fonts can be a way of reducing the size of fonts. So, there are solutions to this. There are ways of handling it.

3: Images

At number three, images. Images do account for a lot of the sheer weight of the web. But again, we have solutions here. We’ve got responsive images with source set and picture. Using the right format, right? Not using a PNG if you should be using a JPEG, using WebP, using SVGs where possible. We can deal with this. There are solutions out there, as long as we’re aware of it.

2: Your JavaScript

At number two, your JavaScript, the JavaScript that you send down the wire that you’ve written to the client. It’s gotten kind of out of hand. Libraries in your code, it’s gotten very, very weighty. This is bad, but not as bad as number one, which is other people’s JavaScript, third-party JavaScript.

1: Other people’s JavaScript

“Oh, the marketing department just wanted to add that one line, that one script that then pulls in another script that pulls in three more scripts.” Before you know it, it’s out of hand. Third-party JavaScript is really tough to deal with because so often it’s out of our hands. It’s like we don’t have control over that.

JavaScript

JavaScript is particularly troublesome because, with all the other things—images, web fonts—yeah, we’re talking about weight. It’s the file size is the issue. That’s only part of the issue with JavaScript. Yes, we are sending too much JavaScript, but it also is expensive in terms of the end-user has to not just download that JavaScript, but parse the JavaScript, execute that JavaScript. It’s particularly expensive compared to CSS, HTML, images, or fonts.

It is eating the world. We heard that software is eating the world. I’d say JavaScript is eating the world. There’s another eponymous law from Jeff Atwood. Atwood’s law states that:

Any application that can be written in JavaScript will eventually be written in JavaScript.

We’re seeing that now.

Back in my day, we used to joke about, “Well, you could never build a Photoshop in a web browser.” Now, everything is migrating to being written in JavaScript, which is kind of amazing and speaks to the power of JavaScript. It’s fantastic in one way, but it does feel like we’re using JavaScript to do everything, including things that could be done with other languages.

When it comes to choosing a language, there’s a fantastic design principle that Tim Berners-Lee used when he was designing the World Wide Web. It’s the principle of least power. The principle of least power states:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

That sounds very counterintuitive. Why would you want to choose the least powerful language? Well, in a way, it’s about keeping things simple. There’s another design principle, “Keep it simple, stupid.” KISS.

It’s kind of related to Occam’s razor, not multiplying entities unnecessarily. Choose the simplest language. The simplest language is likely to be more universal and, because it’s simpler, it might not be as powerful but it’ll generally be more robust.

I’ll give you an example. I’ll quote from Derek Featherstone. He said:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and ARIA—if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

He’s absolutely right. This is about robustness here. It’s less fragile.

The classic example with ARIA: the best ARIA attribute is no ARIA attribute. Rather than having div role="button", just use a button. If you can do something in CSS rather than JavaScript, do it in CSS. Choose the least powerful language.

Instead, we’re using JavaScript to send our content down the wire. That could be done in HTML. We’re using CSS in JS now, right? We’re using the most powerful language, JavaScript, to do everything, which kind of violates the principle of least power. There’s a set of design principles from the Government Digital Services here in the U.K. and they’re really good design principles. One of them stuck out to me. The design principle itself says:

Do less.

By way of explanation, they say:

Government should only do what only government can do.

Government shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. Government should do the things where private enterprise can’t do these things. The government has to do these things. The government should only do what only government can do.

I thought that this could be extrapolated out and made into a more universal design principle. You could say:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do

If that’s too abstract, let’s formulate it into this design principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

We can call this Keith’s Law or Keith’s Razor or something. I think it’s a good principle.

I remember the early uses of JavaScript for things like image rollovers and form validation. Now, I wouldn’t use JavaScript for image rollovers or hover effects. I’d use CSS. I wouldn’t use JavaScript for form validation if I can just use required attributes or input type="email". Apply the principle of least power.

Components

Let’s see whether we’re applying the principle of least power on the web. Take an example. Let’s say you’ve got a component that’s a button component. How are you going to go about building this? You could have bare minimal HTML, just a div or a span. You’ve got some CSS to make it look good. Sure. You apply all the JavaScript and ARIA that you need to make it work like a button.

Or, alternatively, you could use a button and you style it however you want using CSS.

Now, in this example, this particular component, I would say it’s a no-brainer. You go with the native button element. Don’t make your own button component with a div and JavaScript and ARIA. Use a native button element.

Okay. That seems pretty straightforward and that is a perfect example of the principle of least power. Choose the least powerful language suitable for the purpose.

But then what if you’ve got a drop-down component, selecting an option from a list of options? Well, you could build this using bare minimum HTML. Again, divs, maybe. You style it however you want it to look and you give it that opening and closing functionality. You give it accessibility using ARIA. Now you’ve got to think about making sure it works with a keyboard — all that stuff, all the edge cases.

Or you just use a select element — job done. You style it with CSS …Ah, well, yes, you can style it to a certain degree with CSS, but if you ever try to style the open state of a select element, you’re going to have a hard time.

Now, this is where it gets interesting. What do you care about more? Can you live with that open state not being styled exactly the way you might want it to be styled? If so, yes, choose the least powerful technology. Go with select. But I can kind of start to see why somebody would maybe roll their own in that case.

Or take this example: a date picker component. Again, you could have bare minimum HTML. Style it how you want. Write it all yourself using JavaScript. Make it accessible using ARIA. Or just use the native HTML input type="date" …and then have fun trying to style that in CSS. You won’t be able to do much, to be honest.

Do you still pick the least powerful technology here?

This would be kind of the under-engineered approach: to just use the native HTML approach: input type="date", select, button.

The over-engineered approach is to go with doing it all yourself: write JavaScript to make it go that way.

It feels like there’s this pendulum swing between the over-engineered versus the under-engineered. Like I say, what it comes down is, what do you prioritize?

Universality

What you get with the native approach is you get access. You get that universality by using the least powerful language. There’s more universal support.

What you get by rolling your own is you get much more control. You’re going from the spectrum of least power to most power and that’s also a spectrum going from most available (widest access) to least available but with more control.

You have to decide where your priorities lie. This is where I think, again, we can look at the web and we can take principles from the web.

Eric has something he said recently that really resonates with me. He said:

The web does not value consistency. The web values ubiquity.

That’s the purpose of the web. It’s the universal access. That’s the value encoded into it.

To put this in another way, we could formulate it as:

Ubiquity, even over consistency.

That’s the design principle of the web.

This passes the reversibility test. We can picture other projects that would say:

Consistency, even over ubiquity.

Native apps value consistency, even over ubiquity. iOS apps are very consistent on iOS devices, but just don’t work at all on Android devices. They’re consistent; they’re not ubiquitous.

We saw this in action with Flash and the web. Flash valued consistency, but you had to have the Flash plugin installed, so it was not ubiquitous. It was not universal.

The World Wide Web is about ubiquity, even over consistency. I think we should remember that.

When we look here in the world’s first-ever web browser, we are looking at the world’s first-ever webpage, which is still available at its original URL. That’s incredibly robust.

What’s amazing is you can not only look at the world’s first webpage in the world’s first web browser, you can look at the world’s first webpage in a modern web browser and it still works, which is kind of amazing. If you took a word processing document from 30 years ago and tried to open it in a modern word processing document, good luck. It just doesn’t work that way. But the web values this ubiquity over consistency.

Let’s apply those principles, apply the principle of least power, apply the robustness principle. Value ubiquity even over consistency. Value universal access over control. That way, you can make products and services that aren’t just on the web, but of the web.

Thank you.

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Uniting the team with Jamstack | Trys Mudford

This is a superb twenty minute presentation by Trys! It’s got everything: a great narrative, technical know-how, and a slick presentation style.

Conference organisers: you should get Trys to speak at your event!

Wednesday, July 8th, 2020

Design systems on the Clearleft podcast

If you’ve already subscribed to the Clearleft podcast, thank you! The first episode is sliding into your podcast player of choice.

This episode is all about …design systems!

I’m pretty happy with how this one turned out, although as it’s the first one, I’m sure I’ll learn how to do this better. I may end up looking back at this first foray with embarrassment. Still, it’s fairly representative of what you can expect from the rest of the season.

This episode is fairly short. Just under eighteen minutes. That doesn’t mean that other episodes will be the same length. Each episode will be as long (or as short) as it needs to be. Form follows function, or in this case, episode length follows content. Other episodes will be longer. Some might be shorter. It all depends on the narrative.

This flies in the face of accepted wisdom when it comes to podcasting. The watchword that’s repeated again and again for aspiring podcasters is consistency. Release on a consistent schedule and have a consistent length for episodes. I kind of want to go against that advice just out of sheer obstinancy. If I end up releasing episodes on a regular schedule, treat it as coincidence rather than consistency.

There’s not much of me in this episode. And there won’t be much of me in most episodes. I’m just there to thread together the smart soundbites coming from other people. In this episode, the talking heads are my colleagues Jon and James, along with my friends and peers Charlotte, Paul, and Amy (although there’s a Clearleft connection with all of them: Charlotte and Paul used to be Clearlefties, and Amy spoke at Patterns Day and Sofa Conf).

I spoke to each of them for about an hour, but like I said, the entire episode is less than eighteen minutes long. The majority of our conversations ended up on the cutting room floor (possibly to be used in future episodes).

Most of my time was spent on editing. It was painstaking, but rewarding. There’s a real pleasure to be had in juxtaposing two snippets of audio, either because they echo one another or because they completely contradict one another. This episode has a few examples of contradictions, and I think those are my favourite moments.

Needless to say, eighteen minutes was not enough time to cover everything about design systems. Quite the opposite. It’s barely an introduction. This is definitely a topic that I’ll be returning to. Maybe there could even be a whole season on design systems. Let me know what you think.

Oh, and you’ll notice that there’s a transcript for the episode. That’s a no-brainer. I’m a big fan of the spoken word, but it really comes alive when it’s combined with searchable, linkable, accessible text.

Anyway, have a listen and if you’re not already subscribed, pop the RSS feed into your podcast player.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2020

The History of the Future

It me:

Although some communities have listed journalists as “essential workers,” no one claims that status for the keynote speaker. The “work” of being a keynote speaker feels even more ridiculous than usual these days.

Monday, February 24th, 2020

Calling for a More-Than-Human Politics - Anab Jain - Medium

It may be the end of the world as we know it, but other worlds are possible.

Monday, February 10th, 2020

Open source beyond the market - Signal v. Noise

The transcript of David Heinemeier Hansson keynote from last year’s RailsConf is well worth reading. It’s ostensibily about open source software but it delves into much larger questions.

Wednesday, January 22nd, 2020

Building

The opening presentation from the New Adventures conference held in Nottingham in January 2019.

Good morning, everybody. It is a real honour to be here. As Simon said, I was here six, seven, eight years ago attending this conference because it’s such a great conference. I’m kind of feeling the pressure now that I’m up here on the stage speaking at this conference. I’m just glad I’m on first so I can get it over with and then listen to all these great talks.

I’m here today to talk to you …which is kind of weird when you think about it. I mean, first, the fact that it’s me up here on the stage through some clerical error.

But also, I’m going to talk to you. I’m going to vibrate air over my vocal cords and move this big meaty piece of flesh inside my jaw up and down vibrating the airwaves and you’re going to listen to me doing that. It seems like a crazy thing to do except for the fact that, of course, I’ll be using language.

Language

Maybe the great distinguishing feature of our species, language. The great leap forward that happened—who knows—50,000, 100,000 years ago when we, as a species, developed language. With language, by moving those vocal cords and that big piece of flesh in my jaw, we can tell stories. I can recount something that happened in the past.

Perhaps more amazingly, we can imagine things that might come to be. I could tell you something that might happen in the future. So language is a kind of time travel.

It’s all possible because we’re speaking the same codebase. The particular language I’m talking now is English. As long as you can decode English then all these noises I’m making will make sense to you even if there isn’t actually any information in the words. I can say Chomsky’s famous one.

Colourless green ideas sleep furiously.

You can parse that. It doesn’t make any sense, but you can parse it.

Most of the time, the sentences we use also convey some kind of information. Language is not just time travel. Language is also communication.

There can be an idea that’s sitting in my head and I’ll, you know, vibrate the air and vocal cords, flap this big fleshy thing in my jaw around, and transfer the idea from my head to your head. Language is almost like a virus. You can’t help but take the idea in.

I can say to you, “Don’t think of an elephant,” right? Now you’ve just thought of an elephant. It’s the language equivalent of the chicken game which, if you haven’t played before, sorry. You’ve just lost.

Chicken game. Don’t look at this chicken. Game over.

This sentence, “Don’t think of an elephant,” is actually the title of a book by George Lakoff. George Lakoff is a linguist. He’s written many books. He wrote Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. He wrote this, Metaphors We Live By, because he’s kind of obsessed with metaphors.

We use metaphor all the time in language. We use conceptual metaphor, so when we take one idea and we use the language of that idea to talk about a different idea. The classic example being something intangible.

Let’s say time. How do we talk about time when we can’t touch it, we can’t feel it, it’s intangible? Well, we use metaphor.

We talk about time as though it’s a physical object moving through space. We say time flies or time drags or we talk about time as though it’s a resource. We talk about saving time, wasting time.

You can’t do any of those things with time. That’s not how time works. But the metaphor is very helpful.

The other kind of metaphor is the cognitive metaphor. This is what George Lakoff is interested in, particularly in things like political language. How we frame a debate can tip the scales of how that debate would unfold. If we were about to have a debate about tax relief, well, before the debate has even begun, we’ve framed taxation as something you need relief from and the scales have been tipped.

I’m very interested in this idea of metaphor, analogy, and simile and how we talk about the work we do. It’s such a young industry. What we do is we borrow from other industries. We’re not the first to do this. There’s a great book called Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Who’s read Understanding Comics? It’s great.

It’s about comics but, really, it’s just a fantastic book. It’s written as a comic. In it, Scott McCloud makes the point of this new medium, comics, had to kind of borrow from the existing mediums that came before. He points out that this isn’t new. He says:

Each new medium begins its life by imitating its predecessors. Many early movies were like filmed stage plays. Much early television was like radio with pictures.

Right? That it takes time.

Now, this idea of a new medium having to borrow the tropes and the language of the medium that came before, this idea pops up again on the web in this article published in the year 2000 by John Allsopp on A List Apart, A Dao of Web Design. Can I get a show of hands of who’s read A Dao of Web Design? Awesome. You are my people. The rest of you, please read it. It’s such a wonderful article.

It’s crazy that I’m standing up here recommending, “Oh, yeah, you should totally read this article from the year 2000,” but it is relevant. It’s amazingly relevant still today. It’s maybe more relevant today than when it was written. 
In the article, John says:

When a new medium borrows from an existing one, some of what it borrows makes sense, but much of the borrowing is thoughtless, it’s ritual, and it often constrains the new medium. Over time, the new medium develops its own conventions, throwing off existing conventions that don’t make sense.

Now, at the time John was writing this, 2000, of course, we were borrowing from what had come before in the previous medium and that was print. We were trying to figure out how do we get the same level of control that we were used to in the world of print on the web. We did that using clever techniques thanks to David Siegel who wrote this book, Creating Killer Websites. David Siegel, if you don’t know the name, you’re certainly familiar with his work because he’s the guy who came up with the idea of using tables for layout or having a one-pixel by one-pixel spacer GIF.

Hey, listen. That was the only way we could do it back then. They were hacks, yes, but they were necessary hacks. He did actually recant. Years later, he wrote a piece that said, the web is ruined and I ruined it. This may be overstating the case, but you know.

He was pointing out we could use these techniques, these hacks to constrain Web and make it work like print. We could get pixel-perfect control. John Allsopp, in his article, he’s kind of pushing against and going, no, no, no:

The web is a new medium. It has emerged from the medium of printing whose skills and design language and convention strongly influence it. It is too often shaped by that from which it sprang. Killer websites are usually those which tame the wildness of the web, constraining pages as if they were made of paper. Desktop publishing for the web.

So, I mean, John totally acknowledges that there is a lot to learn from this rich, rich history of print and, before print, just writing. This is clearly the second great leap of our species. We had language where we could communicate ideas, tell stories, imagine the future—as long as we’re in the same physical space—and then we came up with writing. Now we can communicate, re-viral ideas, talk about the future and the past, and we don’t even have to be in the same physical place. Someone who died centuries ago can put an idea in your head by putting language onto a medium like vellum or, later, paper.

You can see this evolution over centuries from illuminated manuscripts to the printing press, Gutenberg, until we get to the 20th Century and we really start to refine the design. We got the Swiss School of Design, the fonts, typography, and the grid system. There’s a lot to learn here.

The Book of Kells. Gutenberg’s bible. Grid Systems.

What’s interesting to me, though, is what seems to be this battle of extremes. We’ve got David Siegel talking about desktop publishing for the web, effectively, and John Allsopp talking about, “No, the web is its own medium. It needs to have its own conventions.”

They seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. Yet, they actually have a commonality because, on both sides, when they’re talking about this, they’re talking about websites — web sites. Now, that in itself is a metaphor. You don’t have physical sites on the web. It’s intangible like time. Yet, we chose this metaphor. The idea of a site, a place where you go to a physical place.

Site actually is pretty good with connotations of a building site, a construction site. That was literally the metaphor in the ’90s. The web is like a construction site. It kind of is constantly under construction. Oh, you want the full nostalgic effect?

Under construction.

There we go. We’re back to Geocities. But I feel like then we decided to grow out of this metaphor and use more grownup metaphors. We got professional. We had to borrow from other industries, other mediums, and here’s one that people are very fond of borrowing: architecture—describing what we do as architecture.

Architects

Whether it’s on the design side or the development side, talking about us as architects. It seems like a very appealing industry to borrow from, which is fascinating. If you ever talk to architects, man, it’s a shitty industry. Spec work, awards, and competition, it’s not a great industry.

But we seem to hold it up as, like, “Oh, yeah, we’re like architects because architects are awesome.” I think of Hollywood because every Hollywood movie that has an architect in it, the architects are always really nice people. They’re always like the protagonist, never the antagonist. The architect is never the villain.

It’s fair enough. It’s fair enough to borrow things from something like architecture. For example, I know plenty of designers who would say that this book is the best book about UX that they’ve ever read, 101 Things I Learned in Architecture School by Matthew Frederick. It was published in 2007. It’s not written for UX designers. It’s not written about the web, but there are lessons in there that are directly applicable.

There are other works from the world of architecture that have definitely influenced the work we are doing today like the classic from Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language. Now this—I say classic rightly—this is a classic book. A classic book is a book everyone has heard of and nobody has read.

That is certainly the case here. Published in 1977, and it influenced lots of people doing things in the digital space. Ward Cunningham, the inventor of the wiki, he said, yeah, he was really influenced by A Pattern Language.

The idea of a pattern language, it’s architecture, but breaking things down into components that you could change the parameters we used in public spaces, buildings, things like that. It’s a modular approach. Later on, in the software world, a gang of four, they wrote Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software, and they were directly influenced by Christopher Alexander, this idea of a pattern language, components, patterns, modularity.

What’s interesting is there’s another book by Molly Wright Steenson, you may remember was a blogger, Girl Wonder. She worked in the world of architecture and she’s written a book about the influence of architects and designers on the digital space. Richard Saul Wurman, and information architecture. There’s a very direct metaphor there, but also Christopher Alexander.

She points out, actually, the funny thing is, he’s had way more of an influence in the digital space than he ever had in architecture. Most architects don’t like him. They think he’s a bit preachy. But his influence in the digital space is massive. Here I am talking about modularity, components, and patterns. Well, I mean, that is so hot right now. Design systems, we’re breaking things down into patterns. 
In fact, I ended up organizing a conference in 2017, purely about design systems, pattern libraries, styles, all this stuff called Patterns Day. It was great. We had these wonderful speakers. Jina Anne was there, Rachel Andrew, Alla Kholmatova, Alice Bartlett. It was great.

But, by the end of the day, I was kind of half-joking as saying, we should have had a drinking game where, every time someone referenced Christopher Alexander, we had to take a drink because his spirit loomed large over this. Actually, the full rules of the drinking game I came up with afterward where any time someone references Christopher Alexander, you take a drink. Any time someone says Lego, you take a drink. Any time someone says that naming things is hard, take a drink. Any time someone says atomic or atomic design, take a drink. Anytime someone says bootstrap, you puke the drink back up.

A Pattern Language is a work of architecture that directly not just influenced but is still influencing our work today; the idea of breaking things down into components to reuse.

Now, there’s another work from the world of architecture that has a big influence on me. It’s a classic book, again, How Buildings Learn. It’s the best book I’ve never read, published in 1994, by Stewart Brand. There was also a TV series that went with this that’s pretty fascinating.

In this, he talks about the work of a British architect named Frank Duffy and Duffy’s idea of something he called shearing layers. What Duffy said was that a building properly conceived is several layers of longevity. He kind of broke these down. You’ve got the sites that the building is on. We’re talking about geological time scales.

Then above that, the structure you hope will last for centuries. Then you’ve got the infrastructure inside the building that you might have to swap out every few decades. Change the plumbing. Then you’ve got the walls and the doors. You can change them every so often until you get into the room. You’ve got furniture, which you can move on a daily basis.

The time scales get faster as you move inward. He diagrammed it like this. This is shearing layers diagrammed for the building. I find this really interesting, this idea of different time scales.

Shearing layers.

But there’s another factor here I’m kind of fascinated by, which is that each layer depends on the layer below. You can’t have a structure until you’ve got a site to build on. You can’t have furniture inside a room until you’ve got the room. You need to have the walls there. Each layer is building on top of what’s come before. You can’t jump straight ahead to furniture without first having all those other layers.

Now, this reminds me of another idea that the writer Steven Johnson talks about a lot in his work, for example, this book, Where Good Ideas Come From. This is the idea of the adjacent possible, that certain inventions leap forward that can’t happen until other things have happened before them.

There’s a reason why the microwave oven wasn’t invented in medieval France. Too many other things had to be invented first before something like the microwave oven becomes inevitable.

Everything we do is kind of built on this idea of the adjacent possible because businesses and services on the web are on top of a whole bunch of layers of adjacent possibilities. You can’t have Twitter, Facebook, or Wikipedia until the web exists. The web itself is built on all of these layers that have to happen first.

We have to have the Industrial Revolution. We have to have electricity. Then somebody has to create circuitry. We have to get to the idea of having computers and then networked computers, something like the Internet. Then the web becomes possible. Once the web is possible, then all these businesses on top of the web become possible.

This idea of the adjacent possible, the shearing layers, they kind of fascinate me because I’m seeing a parallel there.

Now, Stewart Brand, who wrote about shearing layers and architecture, he revisited this idea of shearing layers and took them out from the world of architecture in a later work called The Clock of the Long Now. Stewart Brand is one of the founders of the Long Now Foundation. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s an organization dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a card-carrying member. The card is designed to last for a few thousand years as well.

They’re currently building a clock that will tell time for 10,000 years. Brian Eno has written an algorithm for the chimes so that when it chimes once a century, it will never be quite the same chime. It’s encouraging long now thinking.

In this book, the full title of the book being The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer, he extrapolates shearing layers into something he calls pace layers. If you take the shearing layers model and look around you, it’s everywhere. It’s kind of like systems thinking, the Donella Meadows idea that systems are everywhere.

Pace layers.

It’s kind of true. You look around these pace layers; shearing layers applied to the real world are everywhere. The example he gives is our species. If we look at the human race, we have these different time scales. The slowest is our physical nature as in our DNA, our physiological nature. That takes millennia to change. Physiologically, there’s no difference between a caveman and a spaceman.

Above that, you’ve got culture. This takes centuries, maybe longer, to accumulate over time.

Then systems of governance; not governments — governance. How are we going to run the societies?

An infrastructure, you want that to move faster, but not too fast or it could be very disruptive. 
Then you get into commerce, trading. Very fast-moving.

Then, finally, you’ve got fashion, which is super-fast. By fashion, he means things like popular music, anything that’s supposed to move fast. If fashion moved slowly, that wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s meant to move fast. It’s meant to try things out. “What about this? No, what about this? Try this.” Right? You don’t want for the things further down.

He’s mapped this onto these layers. From shearing layers, we go to pace layers. They have different timescales.

I’m talking about the difference between these really fast layers at the top, you know, “What about this? Try this? Today, we’re doing that,” compared to the really slow layers at the bottom that move slowly and are resistant to change.

He says:

Fast learns but slow remembers. Fast proposes and slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous but slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by a crude innovation, an occasional revolution, and slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy. Fast gets all our attention, but slow has all the power.

Now, once I was exposed to this idea and this virus had landed in my head, I found that I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started seeing pace layers everywhere. At Clear Left, where I work, it’s a running joke. On every project, we have a kickoff. It’s like, what’s the time to pace layers? How long will it be before someone makes a pace layer analogy? It’s like my brain has now been rewired to see pace layers everywhere.

It’s like, you know, the first time that someone points out the arrow in the FedEx logo. There was your life before that and there’s your life after that.

You’ve all seen the arrow in the FedEx logo. Yeah.

What about Toblerone? You’ve all seen the bear? Ah, yeah! Right? You will never be able to unsee that.

Consider the duck.

It’s a perfectly normal, ordinary duck. Agreed? But then your brain is exposed to the idea that all ducks are actually wearing dog masks.

All ducks are actually wearing dog masks. Now, when I show you the same picture of the same duck—

—you will never be able to unsee that. That’s how my brain feels when it comes to pace layers. I see them everywhere. It’s like the crazy wall part of the serial killer’s lair in the murder mystery. It’s just pace layers.

I couldn’t help but apply pace layers to the work we do mapping our medium to pace layers. Let’s try it with the World Wide Web.

The layers of the web.

Well, we build on top of the Internet. We can’t have the web before having Internet. At the very bottom layer, you’ve got the protocols of the Internet itself, you know, TCP/IP, which have been pretty much unchanged for decades. They were there from the ARPANET before the Internet. It’s a good thing that they’re unchanged. You would not want to be swapping out that low layer very quickly.

Above that, we have all the different protocols we use, protocols for email, protocols for file transfer, and protocols for the World Wide Web, HTTP, the hypertext transfer protocol. Now, this has evolved over time. We now have HTTP2, but it’s been a slow process and that feels right. Again, we shouldn’t be swapping out too quickly, but it’s a bit faster moving than the Internet protocols. 
On top of HTTP, we can put our URLs. Now, I would love it if URLs were right down at the bottom layer and they were permanent and they never changed and they never went away. That is the web I want, but I must acknowledge that, alas, you have to work hard to keep URLs alive. They do change. They do move. They do get destroyed, which is a bit of a shame, but we can work at it, people. We can work on keeping our URLs alive.

What we put at that those URLs, at the simplest level, we’ve got HTML. It was there from the start. From day one of the web, HTML was there and it’s still there today, but it’s evolved. It’s changed over time. Initially, HTML had 21 elements and now it’s got 121 elements, so it’s evolved.

But it feels like you can keep up with the pace of change. The last big evolution of HTML was 2010, later, with HTML5. We do get new editions every now and then, but it’s fine. We can keep up with it.

Then CSS, CSS changes may be more — definitely changes more rapidly than HTML. That feels like a good thing. We kind of want more. Give us some more CSS and now we’ve got Grid and we’ve got Flexbox. We’ve got all these great, new CSS things. Custom properties.

I don’t feel too overwhelmed by that. I still feel like, “Oh, no, this is good. We’ve got new CSS. I’m feeling I can keep on top of this, you know, read the right articles, read the right books, try them out. It’s fine.”

Then there’s the JavaScript ecosystem.

Specifically, the ecosystem, not the language, because the JavaScript language itself doesn’t actually change that often. ES6 or ES2000, whatever we’re talking about the evolution to the language, they’re not so rapid that we’d get overwhelmed. But the language ecosystem, the culture of JavaScript, that feels overwhelming to me. Right? Since I’ve been speaking up here, two new JavaScript frameworks have been released.

The pace, I constantly feel like I’m falling behind like, “Oh, I haven’t even heard of this new thing that apparently everybody is using.”

Does anyone else feel overwhelmed by this pace of change? Okay, good. Keep your hands up for a sec and just look around. All right? You are not alone. This turns out to be normal.

But here’s the thing. By mapping these different rates onto this model of pace layers, I actually start to feel better about this because let’s say the JavaScript ecosystem is fashion: “It’s going to do this. No, no, today we’re doing that. Try this. Try that.”

Whereas, “Oh, okay. It’s supposed to move fast. It would be bad if it moved slow. It’s meant to be trying stuff out. We see what sticks.”

With fashion, the best of pop music will probably last and find its way down the layers into culture, a slower pace layer. With the JavaScript, the patterns that work in JavaScript may find their way down into the slower moving layers.

To give you an example, when JavaScript was first invented—I’m showing my age here—I remember the common use cases were rollovers, image rollovers. And form validation, so mousing over something and changing how it looks, we’d use JavaScript for that. If someone is filling in a form and there’s a required field, we’d use JavaScript to make sure that required field was filled in.

These days, we wouldn’t even use JavaScript for either of those. We’d use CSS to do rollovers. We’d use HTML to add just one required attribute. The pattern, it stuck. The spaghetti stuck to the wall and it moved down the layers into something more stable.

That’s what JavaScript is kind of supposed to do. When we’re trying to responsive images, we had JavaScript solutions until we got to something that was further down the stack in HTML.

I do feel overwhelmed by the pace of change. But I’m starting to feel a little better about feeling overwhelmed, that it’s okay. JavaScript is meant to feel overwhelming. It’s where we try stuff out. It’s where stuff moves fast.

Now, the other thing I realized by mapping our technology stack of the web onto this pace layer model is that this is how I build. When I’m building a website, I pretty much start at the third layer. I don’t worry about, is the Internet on.

I start with URLs. I think URL design is a really good place to start designing. It is a design discipline, a neglected one, but it is design. Then I think about the content and then structure that content using the best available markup of HTML. I think about the presentation may be on a small screen first and then the presentation on larger screens using CSS. Then start thinking about extra behaviors that I can’t get with HTML and CSS, so I reach for JavaScript to add those extra behaviors.

This seems to me to make sense as a way of building on the web because it maps to the structure of the pace layers of the web. But it’s also a testament to the flexibility of the web that you don’t have to build this way. If you don’t want to build in this layered way, you don’t have to.

In fact, you can build like this. You can put something that’s on the Internet, but you just do everything in JavaScript. URL routing, let’s do that in the browser in JavaScript. The Document Object Model, let’s generate that in the browser in JavaScript. CSS, apparently we’re doing it in JS now.

Everything in JavaScript. This is an absolutely legitimate choice. You can choose to build things on the web like this. The web allows this. Again, it’s a testament to the flexibility of the web.

Now, personally, I don’t build like this and this doesn’t feel quite right to me. It doesn’t feel like it maps to the web too well. It kind of turns it into this all or nothing situation where, as long as we’ve got JavaScript, everything is going to be great. But if we don’t, there’s nothing.

You end up with this situation where we’ve turned what we’re building on the web into a binary situation. Either it works great or it just doesn’t work at all. There’s this kind of single point of failure there with the JavaScript.

Now, this model makes complete sense in other mediums. I think other mediums have influenced our thinking on the web. Maybe we’ve borrowed the metaphors of these other mediums.

For example, if you’re building a native app, this makes complete sense. If you’re building an iOS app and I have an iOS device, it works great. I get 100% of what you designed. But if you build an iOS app and I have, say, an Android device, it doesn’t work at all. You can’t install an iOS app onto an Android device. Those are your options: either it works great or it doesn’t work at all. This mental model makes complete sense in that field.

On the web, because we can have this layered approach, that means we can build like this. We can go from something that doesn’t work at all to something that just about works—maybe it’s just text on a screen—to something that works fine—maybe it’s missing a bunch of behaviors, but the user can accomplish what they want to do—to something that works well, but maybe the latest and greatest browser APIs aren’t supported by a particular browser—and then to something that works great like the latest browser running the best device, great network.

Building in layers.

Most people are going to be somewhere on this continuum. Maybe nobody is going to get 100% of what you hope they get, but no one is going to get zero percent either as long as you’re building in this way, as long as you’re building with the grain of the web, building in layers, one thing on top of the other.

I’m going to quote Ethan here. Hi, Ethan. Ethan said:

I like designing in layers. I love looking at the design of a page, a pattern, whatever, and thinking about how it would change if, say, fonts aren’t available or JavaScript doesn’t work or if someone doesn’t see the design as you and I might and is having the page read aloud to them.

In a way, this is a way of busting assumptions, the what-ifs. What if something isn’t supported? By building in a layered way, it’s okay. Everything will fall back to the layer below, the adjacent possible.

Now, Ethan, of course, we all know from this article, Responsive Web Design, published on A List Apart. When was that? 2010. My God, nine years ago. Ten years after, John Allsopp published A Dao of Web Design on A List Apart. One of the first things Ethan does in this article is to reference A Dao of Web Design. You could say that Ethan was building on top of that foundational layer that was set by John Allsopp.

Architecture again. Responsive web design. The reason why Ethan chose that term was because there was this idea in architecture called responsive architecture about buildings that could respond to the conditions of the people in the buildings. That made a really good metaphor for talking about the web on large screens, small screens, and everything in between.

This architecture thing, as a metaphor, it’s not bad. We can learn from it. I think, just be careful not to take it too far.

It’s not the only metaphor we use. Here’s another one. When we don’t talk about ourselves as architects, we’re engineers. Yeah.

Engineers

It sounds good. This one predates the web. We’ve been talking about the idea of software engineering for a long time. I’m very partial to this term: software engineering. Not so much for the term itself. Not that I think it’s a particularly good metaphor, but from where it comes from, which is fricken’ awesome.

Margaret Hamilton.

The term “software engineering” comes from Margaret Hamilton. Margaret Hamilton was in charge of the onboard flight software on the Apollo moon landing. This is engineering. That is the code base she’s standing next to there, which would then literally be woven into the computers onboard Apollo.

But as a metaphor, engineering, well, there’s a whole bunch of different kinds of it. What kind of engineer are we talking about here? Is it material engineering, structural engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineering? They all have commonalities. One being, as an engineer, you’ve got to know two things. There’s the materials you’re going to be working with and the tools you’re going to use to shape those materials.

Now, I think that we can use that metaphor and apply it to the web. I would say the materials on the web are HTML, CSS, and our JavaScript, hopefully in that order. Then we’ve got the tools we use to design for the materials of the web. 
Now, the most obvious tools we could think of are graphic design tools. We started using Photoshop even though that was never intended for Web design. Since then, we’ve evolved and we’ve got tools that are much more focused on the web, things like Sketch, Figma, and all this kind of stuff.

These are obvious tools we use to build the web, but there are less obvious tools. If you were working on a Web project, these tools also get used. You’re going to be talking over email. You’re going to be communicating over Slack, organizing spreadsheets, spreadsheets people.

We talk about these as productivity tools, though sometimes I know it feels like they are reducing productivity rather than increasing it. But it’s kind of a misnomer when you think about productivity tools. All tools are productivity tools. That’s literally what tools are for is to make you more productive.

I think we should acknowledge that these are legitimate design tools. You can’t launch a project without putting in some time and some kind of communication tool.

Then when it comes to the actual welding of these materials, we’ve got a whole bunch of tools that sit in our machines or sit in our Web servers. Now I feel like I’m back up at that top layer of the pace layers and I’m getting overwhelmed with the task runners, the build tools, the chains, the transpilers, and the preprocessors. Apparently, it changes every week. Oh, you’re still using Grunt? No, we’re using Gulp. No, Webpack. That’s what’s so overwhelming.

It also feels like it’s quite complicated. This is complicated stuff, but it’s like we’ve chosen it. We’ve chosen to make our lives complicated, in a way.

I’ll tell you what it reminds me of. Do you remember that startup, Juicero?

Where they sold a big, expensive, complicated machine to make juice, but you had to buy exactly the right juice packets to put in the big, expensive machine to make the juice. It works. It works great. The big, expensive, complicated machine does its job but somebody noticed that you could actually just take the packets and squeeze them by hand and it still produces juice. I’m just saying that squeezing by hand is still an option. You can build websites by squeezing by hand. (I think this metaphor has been stretched just about as far as it can do, so I will leave it there.)

There’s this other kind of spectrum, I guess, between the materials and the tools and then the people that will be exposed to the materials and the tools. They kind of fall into two categories: the engineers themselves and the end-users.

When we’re evaluating our tools and asking, “Is this the right tool to use?” we should evaluate it from our perspective, yes, “Is this going to be a helpful tool to me as an engineer?” if we’re using that metaphor. But I strongly feel we should also ask, “Is this going to be useful for the end-user?”

If those two things come into conflict, what then? Do we privilege our own experience over the user experience? I would hope not. I worry that, in a lot of tool choices, particularly on stuff that gets sent down to the browser. “Oh, I’m going to use a CSS framework.” Great. Good for you. That’s helping you out but now the user has to pay the cost of the benefit that you get from that CSS framework because they have to download the whole CSS framework.

Sometimes, these things come into conflict and I feel like maybe we privileged the developer experience over the user experience and that worries me. The other time they don’t come into conflict. All those tools like preprocessors and task runners that just sit on your own computer, no direct effect on the end-user experience. Frankly, use whatever you like. It doesn’t make a direct effect on the end-user experience.

When we’re evaluating tools, there are all these questions to ask. Who benefits from the tool? If I choose to use this tool, will it benefit the users? Will it benefit the engineers? Neither? Both?

There are other questions we ask like, well, just how good is this tool? To evaluate that we ask; yeah, how well does it work? Does this tool do what it says it will do well?

This, of course, is a completely valid question to ask but there’s a corollary that I think is more valid and that’s to ask not just how well does it work but how well does it fail?

What happens when something goes wrong?

This is exactly why I think this layered approach makes sense because, if you build in this layered way, each one of these layers can fail well. If you build like this, then JavaScript can fail well. What if something goes wrong and you’ve got an error in your JavaScript? You fall back to something that still works. Not as great as it worked before, but it still works. It fails well.

These technologies on the web, they fail well by design. CSS fails well. Use a CSS property the browser doesn’t understand or CSS value. The browser just ignores it. It fails well.

HTML: Make up an HTML element. Throw it into a webpage. The browser doesn’t throw an error. The browser doesn’t stop parsing the webpage. It just ignores it and moves on. It fails well.

It actually makes sense to not jump ahead to the powerful stuff, to the top of the pace layers, but to try and build in layers and stay low for as long as possible. This is actually a principle, a principle that underlies the architecture of the web itself called the Principle of Least Power. You should choose the least powerful language for a given purpose, which seems really counterintuitive.

Why would I choose the least powerful language to do something? Surely, I want more power. The idea here is the power comes at an expense. Power comes at the expense of complexity, fragility. The more powerful technology is maybe more likely to fail badly.

Derek Featherstone put it well. He said:

In the web front-end stack—HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and ARIA—if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof. It just works.

The example there was rollovers. How are you going to do rollovers? Do it in JavaScript? No, do it in CSS. :hover - done. Right? Oh, you need to make an interactive button? Use the button element. Be lazy.

This makes a lot of sense, the Principle of Least Power. It makes a lot of sense to me on the web, especially when you combine it with a universal law that definitely applies on the web, and that’s Murphy’s Law:

Anything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong.

This comes directly from the world of engineering. Edward Aloysius Murphy Jr. was an aerospace engineer. It’s because he had this attitude, he never lost anybody on his watch.

I think we tend to dismiss things going wrong as edge cases. We kind of assume the average output. Other industries, when they’re making cars, they test them. They strap crash test dummies in. They smack them into walls at high speed.

To be fair, a lot of the reason why they have to do that is because of regulation. They didn’t necessarily choose to do it, but still. Can you imagine if they went, well, actually, we realize that most people are going to drive cars on roads and people driving into walls is an edge case, so we’re not going to worry too much about that?

Now, obviously, you want to hope for the best but you should prepare for the worst. Trent Walton said:

Like cars designed to perform in extreme heat or on icy roads, websites should be built to face the reality of the web’s inherent variability.

The web’s inherent variability, that gets to the heart of it.

Dave Siegel was trying to battle with the pixel-perfect labels was the web’s inherent variability. What John Allsopp was calling was for us to embrace the web’s inherent variability. It’s a feature, not a bug.

Are we engineers? Can we call ourselves engineers? Well, let me tell you something from the world of structural engineering.

This is the plan for the Quebec Bridge in Canada, a cantilever bridge. Construction started at the start of the 20th Century. There was a competition to see who get to design and build a bridge because that’s the way the industry works.

The engineer in charge was named Theodore Cooper. Now, originally, the bridge was meant to be 490 meters long but Theodore Cooper changed the specification to make it 550 meters long, mostly because, up in Scotland, the Firth of Forth Bridge, that was the longest bridge in the world at the time, longest cantilever. He wanted this bridge to exceed that, so he made the bridge longer but he did not recalculate the already high stresses being placed on the material of the bridge.

Oh, also, Theodore Cooper refused to work on site. He was down in New York, supposedly overseeing construction from New York. And when it was proposed that somebody should check his calculations, he took that as a personal afront and said, “No, no, no. No, no, that won’t work,” so there was no code reviews happening on this project.

Now, someone was onsite, the young engineer named Norman McLure. By 1907, August 6th, he had started to notice that the steel was bending, getting a lot of stress. Then again, on August 27th, it had got worse.

Cooper was notified down in New York. He did send a telegram back to Quebec. He said, “Place no more load on Quebec bridge until all facts considered - stop.” But he was inferring that the work should stop. He never explicitly said, “Stop the work right now,” so the telegram was ignored and work continued.

On August 29th, 1907, the bridge collapsed. It was shortly before the end of the day. The whistle was just about to blow to signal the end of the working day. There were 86 workers on the bridge and 75 of them died.

Now, something started happening in Canada a few years after this, by 1925. Engineering schools in Canada started holding private ceremonies around graduation time. This was a ceremony that was separate from qualifications. This wasn’t about whether you were qualified to be an engineer. This was called The Ritual of the Calling of the Engineer. You would speak an obligation penned by Rudyard Kipling, which I won’t repeat here because it’s meant to stay within the confines of this ritual.

You would also receive an iron ring. This iron ring would be a symbol of pride of being an engineer, but also a symbol of humility. For the longest time, the myth persisted that the iron itself was made from the steel in the Quebec Bridge. It’s not true, but the Quebec Bridge certainly looms over the idea of the iron ring. You’d wear it on the little finger of your working hand, so it would brush against the paper or the computer keyboard during your working day as a constant reminder of your responsibility as an engineer.

The iron ring.

When we call ourselves engineers, I do have to ask, have we earned it? Do we take our responsibility seriously?

Maybe we don’t call ourselves engineers, but then what do we call ourselves? Does it even matter?

Builders

Well, we could go back to that original metaphor from the ’90s, under construction. Maybe we’re builders. We build things. The web is under construction. We’re the ones constructing it. It’s not so bad, you know, to be the ones literally building the web. It’s kind of awesome when you think about it.

Christopher Alexander, when he was talking about his reason for coming up with A Pattern Language, was because he said:

Most of the wonderful places in the world were not made by architects but by the people.

Maybe we’re at the bottom of the layer stack here as workers just building the web, but maybe we also have all the power — more power than we realize. Our collective power is greater than anything any architect could wield.

Yeah, maybe we’re builders. Maybe we’re bricklayers. I know Simon comes from a long line of bricklayers. It is a noble profession. Think about what our building blocks are, the building blocks of the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web, I think, is the next great leap forward. We had language, writing, the printing press, and now hypertext in the form of the Word Wide Web. Who gets to build it? We do with this kind of building block: the URL, a link. What an amazing building block that is.

I can make a webpage and put two links on it linking to two different things. That combination of those two links has never existed before in the history of the web. We’ve created something new, link by link, building block by building block, building in layers.

I’m reminded of an apocryphal story may be from medieval times—who knows—a traveler coming across three workers. All three workers are doing the same thing. They’re building. They’re moving stones. They’re putting stones one on top of the other.

The traveler says to the first builder, “What are you doing?”

He says, “Oh, I’m moving stones.”

He says to the second builder, “What are you doing?” 
He says, “I’m building a wall.”

He says to the third builder, “What are you doing?”

He says, “I’m building a cathedral.”

They’re all doing the same task but thinking about it in different ways. Maybe that’s what we need to do. Forget about labels, metaphors, architecture, engineer, building, whatever. Just think about what a privilege it is to be doing this, to embrace the fact that we are the builders. We are the bricklayers.

Today, for example, we’re going to hear from quite an amazing collection of bricklayers that I’m really looking forward to hearing from. I want to hear what they’re building. I want to hear their stories of how they built it, why they built it.

But to do that, I need to stop moving air over these vocal cords and flapping this fleshy piece of meat around in my mouth and just stop talking. Thank you for listening.

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

Move Fast & Don’t Break Things | Filament Group, Inc.

This is the transcript of a brilliant presentation by Scott—read the whole thing! It starts with a much-needed history lesson that gets to where we are now with the dismal state of performance on the web, and then gives a whole truckload of handy tips and tricks for improving performance when it comes to styles, scripts, images, fonts, and just about everything on the front end.

Essential!

Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019

Monday, October 14th, 2019

The World-Wide Work. — Ethan Marcotte

Here’s the transcript of Ethan’s magnificent closing talk from New Adventures. I’m pretty sure this is the best conference talk I’ve ever had the honour of seeing.

Tuesday, October 8th, 2019

You really don’t need all that JavaScript, I promise

The transcript of a fantastic talk by Stuart. The latter half is a demo of Portals, but in the early part of the talk, he absolutely nails the rise in popularity of complex front-end frameworks:

I think the reason people started inventing client-side frameworks is this: that you lose control when you load another page. You click on a link, you say to the browser: navigate to here. And that’s it; it’s now out of your hands and in the browser’s hands. And then the browser gives you back control when the new page loads.

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

Keeping it simple with CSS that scales - Andy Bell

The transcript of Andy’s talk from this year’s State Of The Browser conference.

I don’t think using scale as an excuse for over-engineering stuff—especially CSS—is acceptable, even for huge teams that work on huge products.

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

Apollo 11 in Real-time

What a magnificent website! You can watch, read, and listen to the entire Apollo 11 mission! Do it now, or wait until until July 16th when you can follow along in real time …time-shifted by half a century.