Journal

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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.

Monday, June 20th, 2022

Positive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 19th, 2022

Backup

I’m standing on a huge stage in a giant hangar-like room already filled with at least a thousand people. More are arriving. I’m due to start speaking in a few minutes. But there’s a problem with my laptop. It connects to the external screen, then disconnects, then connects, then disconnects. The technicians are on the stage with me, quickly swapping out adaptors and cables as they try to figure out a fix.

This is a pretty standard stress dream for me. Except this wasn’t a dream. This was happening for real at the giant We Are Developers World Congress in Berlin last week.

In the run-up to the event, the organisers had sent out emails about providing my slide deck ahead of time so it could go on a shared machine. I understand why this makes life easier for the people running the event, but it can be a red flag for speakers. It’s never quite the same as presenting from your own laptop with its familiar layout of the presentation display in Keynote.

Fortunately the organisers also said that I could present from my own laptop if I wanted to so that’s what I opted for.

One week before the talk in Berlin I was in Amsterdam for CSS Day. During a break between talks I was catching up with Michelle. We ended up swapping conference horror stories around technical issues (prompted by some of our fellow speakers having issues with Keynote on the brand new M1 laptops).

Michelle told me about a situation where she was supposed to be presenting from her own laptop, but because of last-minute technical issues, all the talks were being transferred to a single computer via USB sticks.

“But the fonts!” I said. “Yes”, Michelle responded. Even though she had put the fonts on the USB stick, things got muddled in the rush. If you open the Keynote file before installing the fonts, Keynote will perform font substitution and then it’s too late. This is exactly what happened with Michelle’s code examples, messing them up.

“You know”, I said, “I was thinking about having a back-up version of my talks that’s made entirely out of images—export every slide as an image, then make a new deck by importing all those images.”

“I’ve done that”, said Michelle. “But there isn’t a quick way to do it.”

I was still thinking about our conversation when I was on the Eurostar train back to England. I had plenty of time to kill with spotty internet connectivity. And that huge Berlin event was less than a week away.

I opened up the Keynote file of the Berlin presentation. I selected File, Export to, Images.

Then I created a new blank deck ready for the painstaking work that Michelle had warned me about. I figured I’d have to drag in each image individually. The presentation had 89 slides.

But I thought it was worth trying a shortcut first. I selected all of the images in Finder. Then I dragged them over to the far left column in Keynote, the one that shows the thumbnails of all the slides.

It worked!

Each image was now its own slide. I selected all 89 slides and applied my standard transition: a one second dissolve.

That was pretty much it. I now had a version of my talk that had no fonts whatsoever.

If you’re going to try this, it works best if don’t have too many transitions within slides. Like, let’s say you’ve got three words that you introduce—by clicking—one by one. You could have one slide with all three words, each one with its own build effect. But the other option is to have three slides: each one like the previous slide but with one more word added. If you use that second technique, then the exporting and importing will work smoothly.

Oh, and if you have lots and lots of notes, you’ll have to manually copy them over. My notes tend to be fairly minimal—a few prompts and the occasional time check (notes that say “5 minutes” or “10 minutes” so I can guage how my pacing is going).

Back to that stage in Berlin. The clock is ticking. My laptop is misbehaving.

One of the other speakers who will be on later in the day was hoping to test his laptop too. It’s Håkon. His presentation includes in-browser demos that won’t work on a shared machine. But he doesn’t get a chance to test his laptop just yet—my little emergency has taken precedent.

“Luckily”, I tell him, “I’ve got a backup of my presentation that’s just images to avoid any font issues.” He points out the irony: we spent years battling against the practice of text-as-images on the web and now here we are using that technique once again.

My laptop continues to misbehave. It connects, it disconnects, connects, disconnects. We’re going to have to run the presentation from the house machine. I’m handed a USB stick. I put my images-only version of the talk on there. I’m handed a clicker (I can’t use my own clicker with the house machine). I’m quickly ushered backstage while the MC announces my talk, a few minutes behind schedule.

It works. It feels a little strange not being able to look at my own laptop, but the on-stage monitors have the presentation display including my notes. The unfamiliar clicker feels awkward but hopefully nobody notices. I deliver my talk and it seems to go over well.

I think I’ll be making image-only versions of all my talks from now on. Hopefully I won’t ever need them, but just knowing that the backup is there is reassuring.

Mind you, if you’re the kind of person who likes to fiddle with your slides right up until the moment of presenting, then this technique won’t be very useful for you. But for me, not being able to fiddle with my slides after a certain point is a feature, not a bug.

Saturday, June 18th, 2022

CSS Day 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 31st, 2022

Declarative design systems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That ends up encoded in CSS like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 30th, 2022

Re-evaluating technology

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

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

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

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

Andy talks about this as the tech tool carousel:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For another example, see this recent XKCD cartoon:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, May 26th, 2022

dConstruct 2022 is happening!

dConstruct is back!

No, really, for real this time.

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

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

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

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

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

Tickets are available now.

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 25th, 2022

Alt writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some recent examples:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, May 24th, 2022

Pace layers and design principles

I think it was Jason who once told me that if you want to make someone’s life a misery, teach them about typography. After that they’ll be doomed to notice all the terrible type choices and kerning out there in the world. They won’t be able to unsee it. It’s like trying to unsee the arrow in the FedEx logo.

I think that Stewart Brand’s pace layers model is a similar kind of mind virus, albeit milder. Once you’ve been exposed to it, you start seeing in it in all kinds of systems.

Each layer is functionally different from the others and operates somewhat independently, but each layer influences and responds to the layers closest to it in a way that makes the whole system resilient.

Last month I sent out an edition of the Clearleft newsletter that was all about pace layers. I gathered together examples of people who have been infected with the pace-layer mindworm who were applying the same layered thinking to other areas:

My own little mash-up is applying pace layers to the World Wide Web. Tom even brought it to life as an animation.

See the Pen Web Layers Of Pace by Tom (@webrocker) on CodePen.

Recently I had another flare-up of the pace-layer pattern-matching infection.

I was talking to some visiting Austrian students on the weekend about design principles. I explained my mild obsession with design principles stemming from the fact that they sit between “purpose” (or values) and “patterns” (the actual outputs):

Purpose » Principles » Patterns

Your purpose is “why?”

That then influences your principles, “how?”

Those principles inform your patterns, “what?”

Hey, wait a minute! If you put that list in reverse order it looks an awful lot like the pace-layers model with the slowest moving layer at the bottom and the fastest moving layer at the top. Perhaps there’s even room for an additional layer when patterns go into production:

  • Production
  • Patterns
  • Principles
  • Purpose

Your purpose should rarely—if ever—change. Your principles can change, but not too frequently. Your patterns need to change quite often. And what you’re actually putting out into production should be constantly updated.

As you travel from the most abstract layer—“purpose”—to the most concrete layer—“production”—the pace of change increases.

I can’t tell if I’m onto something here or if I’m just being apopheniac. Again.

The complete line-up for UX London

The line-up for UX London is now complete!

Two thematically-linked talks have been added to day one. Emma Parnell will be talking about the work she did with NHS Digital on the booking service for Covid-19 vaccinations. Videha Sharma—an NHS surgeon!—will be talking about co-designing and prototyping in healthcare.

There’s a bunch of new additions to day three. Amir Ansari will be talking about design systems in an enterprise setting and there’ll be two different workshops on design systems from John Bevan and Julia Belling.

But don’t worry; if design systems aren’t your jam, you’ve got options. Also on day three, Alastair Somerville will be getting tactile in his workshop on sensory UX. And Trenton Moss will be sharing his mind-control tricks in his workshop, “How to sell in your work to anyone.”

You can peruse the full schedule at your leisure. But don’t wait too long before getting your tickets. Standard pricing ends in ten days on Friday, June 3rd.

And don’t forget, you get quite a discount when you buy five or more tickets at a time so bring the whole team. UX London should be your off-site.