State of the Web: Evaluating Technology | Jeremy Keith

Jeremy Keith at An Event Apart.

12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 6: We work with technology every day. And every day it seems like there’s more and more technology to understand: graphic design tools, build tools, frameworks and libraries, not to mention new HTML, CSS, and JavaScript features landing in browsers. How should we best choose which technologies to invest our time in? When we decide to weigh up the technology choices that confront us, what are the best criteria for doing that?

Jeremy Keith was the seventh speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco this month. His presentation, Evaluating Technology, set out to help us evaluate tools and technologies in a way that best benefits the people who use the websites we design and develop. We looked at some of the hottest new web technologies, like service workers and web components, and dug deep beneath the hype to find out whether they will really change life on the web for the better.

Days of future past

Its easy to be overwhelmed by all the change happening in web design and development. Things make more sense when we apply an appropriate perspective. Although his presentation often dealt with “bleeding-edge” technologies (i.e. technologies that are still being figured out and just beginning to be supported in some browsers and devices), Jeremy’s framing perspective was that of the history of computer science—a field, pioneered by women, that evolved rationally.

Extracting the unchanging design principles that gave rise to the advances in computer science, Jeremy showed how the web evolved from these same principles, and how the seemingly dizzying barrage of changes taking place in web design and development today could be understood through these principles as well—providing a healthy means to decide which technologies benefit human beings, and which may be discarded or at least de-prioritized by busy designer/developers working to stay ahead of the curve.

Resistance to change

“Humans are allergic to change,” computer science pioneer Grace Hopper famously said. Jeremy showed how that very fear of change manifested itself in the changes human beings accept: we have 60 seconds in a minute and 24 hours in a day because of counting systems first developed five thousand years ago. Likewise, we have widespread acceptance of HTML in large part because its creator, Tim Berners-Lee, based it on a subset of elements familiar from an already accepted markup language, SGML.

How well does it fail?

In our evaluating process, Jeremy argued, we should not only concern ourselves with how well a technology works, but also how well it fails. When XHTML 2.0 pages contained an error, the browser was instructed not to skip that error but to shut down completely. Thus, XHTML 2.0 was impractical and did not catch on. In contrast, when an HTML page contains an error or new element, the browser skips what it does not understand and renders the page. This allows us to add new elements to HTML over time, with no fear that browsers will choke on what they don’t understand. This fact alone helps account for the extraordinary success of HTML over the past 25 years.

Likewise, service workers, a powerful new technology that extends our work even when devices are offline, fails well, because it is progressively enhanced by design. If a device or browser does not support service workers, the content still renders.

Jeremy argued that pages built on fragile technologies—technologies which are powerful when they work, but which fail poorly—are a dangerous platform for web content. Frameworks that require JavaScript, for example, offer developers extraordinary power, but at a price: the failure of even a small script can result in no content at all. Service workers technology also offers tremendous power, but it fails well, so is safe to use in the creation of responsive sites and web applications.

On progressive web apps

Likewise, progressive web apps, when designed responsively and with progressive enhancement, are a tremendously exciting web development. But when they are designed the wrong way, they fail poorly, making them a step backward for the web.

Jeremy used the example of The Washington Post’s Progressive Web App, which has been much touted by Google, who are a driving force behind the movement for progressive web apps. A true progressive web app works for everyone. But The Washington Post’s progressive web app demands that you open it in your phone. This kind of retrograde door-slam is like the days when we told people they must use Flash, or must use a certain browser or platform, to view our work. This makes it the antithesis of progressive.

Dancing about architecture

There was much, much more to Jeremy’s talk—one of the shortest hours I’ve ever lived through, as 100 years of wisdom was applied to a dizzying array of technologies. Summarizing it here is like trying to describe the birth of your child in five words or less. Fortunately, you can see Jeremy give this presentation for yourself at several upcoming An Event Apart conference shows in 2017.

The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017. Tomorrow I’ll be back with more takeaways from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker.


Also published in Medium.

Of Patterns and Power: Web Standards Then & Now

IN “CONTENT Display Patterns” (which all front-end folk should read), Dan Mall points to a truth not unlike the one Ethan Marcotte shared last month on 24 ways. It is a truth as old as standards-based design: Construct your markup to properly support your content (not your design).

Modular/atomic design doesn’t change this truth, it just reinforces its wisdom. Flexbox and grid layout don’t change this truth, they just make it easier to do it better. HTML5 doesn’t change this truth, it just reminds us that the separation of structure from style came into existence for a reason. A reason that hasn’t changed. A reason that cannot change, because it is the core truth of the web, and is inextricably bound up with the promise of this medium.

Separating structure from style and behavior was the web standards movement’s prime revelation, and each generation of web designers discovers it anew. This separation is what makes our content as backward-compatible as it is forward-compatible (or “future-friendly,” if you prefer). It’s the key to re-use. The key to accessibility. The key to the new kinds of CMS systems we’re just beginning to dream up. It’s what makes our content as accessible to an ancient device as it will be to an unimagined future one.

Every time a leader in our field discovers, as if for the first time, the genius of this separation between style, presentation, and behavior, she is validating the brilliance of web forbears like Tim Berners-Lee, Håkon Wium Lie, and Bert Bos.

Every time a Dan or an Ethan (or a Sara or a Lea) writes a beautiful and insightful article like the two cited above, they are telling new web designers, and reminding experienced ones, that this separation of powers matters.

And they are plunging a stake into the increasingly slippery ground beneath us.

Why is it slippery? Because too many developers and designers in our amnesiac community have begun to believe and share bad ideas—ideas, like CSS isn’t needed, HTML isn’t needed, progressive enhancement is old-fashioned and unnecessary, and so on. Ideas that, if followed, will turn the web back what it was becoming in the late 1990s: a wasteland of walled gardens that said no to more people than they welcomed. Let that never be so. We have the power.

As Maimonides, were he alive today, would tell us: he who excludes a single user destroys a universe. Web standards now and forever.

Leo Laporte interviews JZ

IN EPISODE 63 of Triangulation, Leo Laporte, a gracious and knowledgeable podcaster/broadcaster straight outta Petaluma, CA, interviews Your Humble Narrator about web standards history, responsive web design, content first, the state of standards in a multi-device world, and why communists sometimes make lousy band managers.

An Event Apart Atlanta 2011

YOU FIND ME ENSCONCED in the fabulous Buckhead, Atlanta Intercontinental Hotel, preparing to unleash An Event Apart Atlanta 2011, three days of design, code, and content strategy for people who make websites. Eric Meyer and I co-founded our traveling web conference in December, 2005; in 2006 we chose Atlanta for our second event, and it was the worst show we’ve ever done. We hosted at Turner Field, not realizing that half the audience would be forced to crane their necks around pillars if they wanted to see our speakers or the screen on which slides were projected.

Also not realizing that Turner Field’s promised contractual ability to deliver Wi-Fi was more theoretical than factual: the venue’s A/V guy spent the entire show trying to get an internet connection going. You could watch audience members twitchily check their laptops for email every fourteen seconds, then make the “no internet” face that is not unlike the face addicts make when the crack dealer is late, then check their laptops again.

The food was good, our speakers (including local hero Todd Dominey) had wise lessons to impart, and most attendees had a pretty good time, but Eric and I still shudder to remember everything that went wrong with that gig.

Not to jinx anything, but times have changed. We are now a major three-day event, thanks to a kick-ass staff and the wonderful community that has made this show its home. We thank you from the bottoms of our big grateful hearts.

I will see several hundred of you for the next three days. Those not attending may follow along:

HTML5 Pour Les Web Designers

Sacre bleu! The French edition of the ebook of HTML5 For Web Designers is in the Top 5 sellers on iTunes Français.

Sacrebleu! The French edition of the ebook of Monsieur Jeremy Keith’s HTML5 For Web Designers is in the top five sellers in the iTunes Store Français.

To answer your other questions: an eBook version in English is coming to books.alistapart.com next week, will soon thereafter also be sold via the iTunes Store, and will be followed by a PDF version. Get those downloading fingers in shape now!

Episode 2: HTML5 For Designers

Zeldman, Dan Benjamin, and Jeremy Keith discuss HTML5 on The Big Web Show.

Now online for your listening and viewing pleasure: in Episode 2 of The Big Web Show, Dan and I chat with Jeremy Keith—designer, developer, content creator, agency co-founder, speaker extraordinaire, and author of HTML5 for Web Designers (A Book Apart, 2010). In this hour-long video podcast, we explore the goals, process, and inspiration behind the book, and discuss what HTML5 means for web creators and consumers—from semantics to strategy, accessibility to implementation.


HTML5 For Web Designers

HTML5 For Web Designers, by Jeremy Keith.

WHEN MANDY BROWN, Jason Santa Maria and I formed A Book Apart, one topic burned uppermost in our minds, and there was only one author for
the job.

Nothing else, not even “real fonts” or CSS3, has stirred the standards-based design community like the imminent arrival of HTML5. Born out of dissatisfaction with the pacing and politics of the W3C, and conceived for a web of applications (not just documents), this new edition of the web’s lingua franca has in equal measure excited, angered, and confused the web design community.

HTML5 For Web Designers

Win free copies of HTML5 For Web Designers on Gowalla!

Just as he did with the DOM and JavaScript, Jeremy Keith has a unique ability to illuminate HTML5 and cut straight to what matters to accessible, standards-based designer-developers. And he does it in this book, using only as many words and pictures as are needed.

The Big Web Show

Watch Jeremy Keith discuss HTML5 with Dan Benjamin and me live on The Big Web Show this Thursday at 1:00 PM Eastern.

There are other books about HTML5, and there will be many more. There will be 500 page technical books for application developers, whose needs drove much of HTML5’s development. There will be even longer secret books for browser makers, addressing technical challenges that you and I are blessed never to need to think about.

But this is a book for you—you who create web content, who mark up web pages for sense and semantics, and who design accessible interfaces and experiences. Call it your user guide to HTML5. Its goal—one it will share with every title in the forthcoming A Book Apart catalog—is to shed clear light on a tricky subject, and do it fast, so you can get back to work.


4 May 2010
Jeffrey Zeldman, Publisher
A Book Apart “for people who make websites”
In Association with A List Apart
An imprint of Happy Cog

The present-day content producer refuses to die.

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