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.

Jason Grigsby on Design Beyond Touch

Jason Grigsby at An Event Apart

12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 4: Jason Grigsby was the 10th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco last week. Jason’s session, Adapting to Input, presented designers and developers with a conundrum many of us hadn’t yet considered when designing for our new spectrum of web-capable devices.

Responsive web design forced us to accept that we don’t know the size of our canvas, and we’ve learned to embrace the squishiness of the web. Well, input, it turns out, is every bit as challenging as screen size! We have tablets with keyboards, laptops that become tablets, laptops with touch screens, phones with physical keyboards, and even phones that become desktop computers. What’s a design mother to do?

During his session, Jason guided us through the input landscape, showing us new forms of input (such as sensors and voice control) and sharing new lessons about old input standbys. We learned the design principles needed to build websites that respond and adapt to whichever inputs people choose to use.

Four truths about web inputs

Jason began by sharing four truths about input in 2016:

  1. Input is exploding — The last decade has seen everything from accelerometers to GPS to 3D touch.
  2. Input is a continuum — Phones have keyboards and cursors; desktop computers have touchscreens.
  3. Input is undetectable — Browser detection of touch‚ and nearly every other input type, is unreliable.
  4. Input is transient — Knowing what input someone uses one moment tells you little about what will be used next.

A Golden Rule of Inputs

Just as many of us screwed up our early approach to multi-device design by consigning the “mobile web” to a non-existent “mobile context,” we now risk making a similar blunder by believing that certain tasks are “only for the keyboard”—forgetting that by choice or of necessity, the people who engage with our websites use a variety of devices, and our work must be available to them all.

One of my principal takeaways from Jason’s presentation was that every desktop design must go “finger-friendly.” Or, as Josh Clark put it back in 2012, “When any desktop machine could have a touch interface, we have to proceed as if they all do.”

Learn More

For more illuminations on input, read Jason Grigsby’s “Adapting to Input” in A List Apart, and check out these amazing demos and articles:

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017 in the shadow of Mr Sarrinenen’s fabulous arch. See you there!

Identify “stress cases” and design with compassion: Eric Meyer

Eric Meyer at An Event Apart12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco – № 2: Eric Meyer was the 11th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended Wednesday. His session, Compassionate Design, discussed the pain that can occur when our carefully crafted websites and applications, designed to create an ideal experience for idealized users, instead collide with messy human reality.

You can’t always predict who will use your products, or what emotional state they’ll be in when they do. A case in point: when Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” feature, designed by well-meaning people to help Facebook users celebrate their most important memories from the preceding twelve months, shoved a portrait of Eric’s recently deceased daughter Rebecca in his face, surrounded by dancing and partying clip-art characters who appeared to be celebrating her death.

With great power…

Certainly, no one at Facebook intended to throw a hundred pound bag of salt into the open wound of a grieving parent. What happened, surely, was that no one sitting around the table when the feature was planned asked the question, what if one of our users just had the worst year of their lives?

If even one of the talented Facebook folks charged with creating the new feature had asked themselves “what’s the worst that can happen?”—if just one of them had realized that not everyone using Facebook felt like celebrating their year—they might have put in safeguards to prevent their algorithm from assuming that a Facebook user’s most visited (most “popular”) post of the year was also their happiest.

They might also have made the “year in review” feature an opt-in, with questions designed to protect those who had experienced recent tragedy. Facebook didn’t build in those protections, not because they don’t care, but because our approach to design is fundamentally flawed, in that we build our assumptions around idealized and average users and use cases, and neglect to ask ourselves and our teammates, “what if we’re wrong? How could our product hurt someone?”

It’s not just Facebook. We all ignore the user in crisis.

Eric shared many examples from leading sites and services of unintended and sometimes horrifying instances of designs that hurt someone—from ads that accidentally commented sadistically on tragic news stories (because keyword exclusion is underrated and underused in online advertising); to magic keywords Flickr and Google added to their customers’ photos without asking, resulting in a man’s portrait being labeled “gorilla” and a concentration camp photo being tagged a jungle gym.

The problem, Eric explained, is that our systems have not been designed with people in mind. They’ve been designed with consumers in mind. Consumers are manageable fictions. But human life is inherently messy. To create sites and applications that work for everyone, including  people who may be having the worst day of their lives at the time they encounter or product or service, we must always think about how our product could be used to hurt someone, and plan for the worst-case scenario whenever we design.

When we label a usage an “edge case,” we marginalize that user and choose not to care. Think “stress case,” instead, and design for that human.

We can do better.

Eric’s presentation included many techniques for bringing these new principles into our design workflows, and his book with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Design for Real Life, goes into even greater detail on the matter. (It’s one of those rare and important books that defines how we should be looking at our design jobs today, and I would say that even if I weren’t the publisher.)

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

 
Also published on Medium.

Private Parts: unlikely advocate fights for online privacy, anonymity

MESMERIZED as we have been by the spectacle of the flaming garbage scow of U.S. election news, it would have been easy to miss this other narrative. But in the past few days, just as Google, AT&T, and Time-Warner were poised to turn the phrase “online privacy” into a George Carlin punchline, in marched an unlikely hero to stop them: the American Federal Government. Who have just…

approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27, 2016

Given the increasingly deep bonds between corporate overlords and elected officials, this strong assertion of citizens’ right to privacy comes as something of a surprise. It’s especially startling given the way things had been going.

On Friday, Oct. 21, shortly before a massive DDOS attack took out most U.S. websites (but that’s another story), ProPublica reported that Google had quietly demolished its longstanding wall between anonymous online ad tracking and user’s names. I quote ProPublica’s reporting at length because the details matter:

When Google bought the advertising network DoubleClick in 2007, Google founder Sergey Brin said that privacy would be the company’s “number one priority when we contemplate new kinds of advertising products.”

And, for nearly a decade, Google did in fact keep DoubleClick’s massive database of web-browsing records separate by default from the names and other personally identifiable information Google has collected from Gmail and its other login accounts.

But this summer, Google quietly erased that last privacy line in the sand – literally crossing out the lines in its privacy policy that promised to keep the two pots of data separate by default. In its place, Google substituted new language that says browsing habits “may be” combined with what the company learns from the use Gmail and other tools.

The change is enabled by default for new Google accounts. Existing users were prompted to opt-in to the change this summer.

The practical result of the change is that the DoubleClick ads that follow people around on the web may now be customized to them based on your name and other information Google knows about you. It also means that Google could now, if it wished to, build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct.

The move is a sea change for Google and a further blow to the online ad industry’s longstanding contention that web tracking is mostly anonymous.

Google Has Quietly Dropped Ban on Personally Identifiable Web Tracking, by Julia Angwin, ProPublica, Oct. 21, 2016

Et tu, Google

Google has long portrayed itself as one of the good guys, and in many ways it continues to be that. I can’t think of any other insanely powerful mega-corporation that works so hard to advocate web accessibility and performance—although one of its recipes for improved web performance, making up a whole new proprietary markup language and then using its search engine dominance to favor sites that use that language and, of necessity, host their content on Google servers over sites that use standard HTML and host their own content, is hardly a white hat move. But that, too, is another story.

On privacy, certainly, Google had shown ethics and restraint. Which is why their apparent decision to say, “f–– it, everyone else is doing it, let’s stop anonymizing the data we share” came as such an unpleasant shock. And that sense of shock does not even take into account how many hundreds of millions of humans were slated to lose their privacy thanks to Google’s decision. Or just how momentous this change of heart is, given Google’s control and knowledge of our searches, our browsing history, and the contents and correspondents of our email.

Minority Report

Scant days after ProPublica broke the Google story, as a highlight of the proposed merger of AT&T and Time-Warner, came the delightful scenario of TV commercials customized just for you, based on combined knowledge of your web using and TV viewing habits. And while some humans might see it as creepy or even dangerous that the TV they’re watching with their family knows what they were up to on the internet last night, from an advertiser’s point of view the idea made $en$e:

Advertisers want … to combine the data intensity of internet advertising with the clear value and ability to change peoples’ perceptions that you get with a television ad. If you believe in a future where the very, very fine targeting of households or individuals with specific messaging makes economic sense to do at scale, what this merger does is enable that by making more audience available to target in that way.

Individualized Ads on TV Could Be One Result of AT&T-Time Warner Merger by Sapna Maheshwari, The New York Times, Oct. 26

An unlikely privacy advocate

Into this impending privacy hellscape marched the U.S. Government:

Federal officials approved broad new privacy rules on Thursday that prevent companies like AT&T and Comcast from collecting and giving out digital information about individuals — such as the websites they visited and the apps they used — in a move that creates landmark protections for internet users. …

The new rules require broadband providers to obtain permission from subscribers to gather and give out data on their web browsing, app use, location and financial information. Currently, broadband providers can track users unless those individuals tell them to stop.

The passage of the rules deal a blow to telecommunications and cable companies like AT&T and Comcast, which rely on such user data to serve sophisticated targeted advertising. The fallout may affect AT&T’s $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner, which was announced last week, because one of the stated ambitions of the blockbuster deal was to combine resources to move more forcefully into targeted advertising.

Broadband Providers Will Need Permission to Collect Private Data, by Cecilia Kang, The New York Times, Oct. 27

What happens next

The consequences of these new rules—exactly how advertising will change and networks will comply, the effect on these businesses and those that depend on them (i.e. newspapers), how Google in particular will be effected, who will cheat, who will counter-sue the government, and so on—remain to be seen. But, for the moment, we’re about to have a bit more online privacy and anonymity, not less. At least, more online privacy from advertisers. The government, one assumes, will continue to monitor every little thing we do online.


Co-published in Medium.

Ten Years Ago on the Web

2006 DOESN’T seem forever ago until I remember that we were tracking IE7 bugsworrying about the RSS feed validator, and viewing Drupal as an accessibility-and-web-standards-positive platform, at the time. Pundits were claiming bad design was good for the web (just as some still do). Joe Clark was critiquing WCAG 2. “An Inconvenient Truth” was playing in theaters, and many folks were surprised to learn that climate change was a thing.

I was writing the second edition of Designing With Web Standards. My daughter, who is about to turn twelve, was about to turn two. My dad suffered a heart attack. (Relax! Ten years later, he is still around and healthy.) A List Apart had just added a job board. “The revolution will be salaried,” we trumpeted.

Preparing for An Event Apart Atlanta, An Event Apart NYC, and An Event Apart Chicago (sponsored by Jewelboxing! RIP) consumed much of my time and energy. Attendees told us these were good shows, and they were, but you would not recognize them as AEA events today—they were much more homespun. “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!” we used to joke. “My mom will sew the costumes and my dad will build the sets.” (It’s a quotation from a 1940s Andy Hardy movie, not a reflection of our personal views about gender roles.)

Jim Coudal, Jason Fried and I had just launched The Deck, an experiment in unobtrusive, discreet web advertising. Over the next ten years, the ad industry pointedly ignored our experiment, in favor of user tracking, popups, and other anti-patterns. Not entirely coincidentally, my studio had just redesigned the website of Advertising Age, the leading journal of the advertising profession.

Other sites we designed that year included Dictionary.com and Gnu Foods. We also worked on Ma.gnolia, a social bookmarking tool with well-thought-out features like Saved Copies (so you never lost a web page, even if it moved or went offline), Bookmark Ratings, Bookmark Privacy, and Groups. We designed the product for our client and developed many of its features. Rest in peace.

I was reading Adam Greenfield’s Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing, a delightfully written text that anticipated and suggested design rules and thinking for our present Internet of Things. It’s a fine book, and one I helped Adam bring to a good publisher. (Clearly, I was itching to break into publishing myself, which I would do with two partners a year or two afterwards.)

In short, it was a year like any other on this wonderful web of ours—full of sound and fury, true, but also rife with innovation and delight.


As part of An Event Apart’s A Decade Apart celebration—commemorating our first ten years as a design and development conference—we asked people we know and love what they were doing professionally ten years ago, in 2006. If you missed parts onetwothree, or four, have a look back.

 

 

Helvetica With Curves—And Other Updated Classics

Keynotesnaps001

Title card from ‘Designing With Web Standards in 2016,’ An Event Apart presentation by Jeffrey Zeldman. Text is set in Forma, an upcoming face from Font Bureau.


NOT UNLIKE what Mattel has done with Barbie, the typographic geniuses at The Font Bureau are working on a humanist geometric sans-serif that could almost be thought of as Helvetica with curves.

Forma is the name of the as-yet unreleased font family, and you can get a peek at one weight of it in the above image, which is taken from my slide deck for “Designing With Web Standards in 2016,” which is the presentation I’ll premiere next month at An Event Apart Nashville.

This new presentation examines the seemingly ever-deepening complexity of designing for our medium today—a complexity that has driven some longtime web designers I know to declare that web design has become “too hard,” or that “the fun has gone out of it”—and asks what our traditions of designing with web standards can teach us about crafting web experiences for a multi-device, mobile-first world.

Given that my original (unpublished) title for Designing With Web Standards was going to be Forward Compatibility—and given that Forward Compatibility is not so different in concept from today’s phrase, Future-Friendly—I’m guessing that structured, semantically marked-up content, progressive enhancement, and the separation of style from structure and behavior still have a huge role to play in today’s day-to-day web design work.

Oh, dear, I hope that wasn’t a spoiler.

I look forward to sharing these ideas with you in greater detail at An Event Apart. Now celebrating our tenth year of bringing great ideas to our community, and creating a space where the smartest folks in web design and development can meet, mingle, bond, network, and learn together. Follow @aneventapart for show announcements, links to useful web resources, and free giveaways on the 10th of every month in 2016. (This month’s giveaway, ten beautiful fleece comforters monogrammed with the A Decade Apart logo, went to ten lucky winners on February 10th. Keep watching the skies.)

CSS Grid Layout with Rachel Andrew: Big Web Show

Rachel Andrew

RACHEL ANDREW—longtime web developer and web standards champion, co-founder of the Perch CMS, and author of Get Ready For CSS Grid Layout—is my guest on today’s Big Web Show. We discuss working with CSS Grid Layout, how Grid enables designers to “do something different” with web layout, why designers need to start experimenting with Grid Layout now, how front-end design has morphed into an engineering discipline, learning HTML and CSS versus learning frameworks, and the magic of David Bowie, RIP.

Enjoy Episode № 141 of The Big Web Show.

Sponsored by A List Apart and An Event Apart.

URLs

rachelandrew.co.uk
Get Ready for CSS Grid Layout
Perch CMS
Writing by Rachel Andrew
Books by Rachel Andrew
@rachelandrew

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.

The Year in Design

  • Mobile is today’s first screen. So design responsively, focusing on content and structure first.
  • Websites and apps alike should remove distractions and let people interact as directly as possible with content.
  • 90 percent of design is typography. And the other 90 percent is whitespace.
  • Boost usability and pleasure with progressive disclosure: menus and functions that appear only when needed.
  • One illustration or original photo beats 100 stock images.
  • Design your system to serve your content, not the other way around.
  • Remove each detail from your design until it breaks.
  • Style is the servant of brand and content. Style without purpose is noise.
  • Nobody waits. Speed is to today’s design what ornament was to yesterday’s.
  • Don’t design to prove you’re clever. Design to make the user think she is.

Also published in Medium

Translated into German (also here) by Mark Sargent

Translated into French by Jean-Baptiste Sachsé

Translated into Turkish by omerbalyali.

Translated into Spanish by Tam Lopez Breit.

Web Law & Disorder

The Perfect Storm in Digital Law by Heather Burns; illustration by Ping Zhu.

LEGISLATING THE WEB has long been murky ground. When glacial processes, uninformed committees, and international politics meet the individualized culture of the internet, friction ensues. Despite the resulting confusion, it’s our duty to work within the law—and to speak up for a better relationship between governing bodies and web professionals. In the current A List Apart, Heather Burns guides us through the current dilemmas in digital law, and offers a solution: professionalizing our industry to ensure a seat at the table.

☞ Enjoy The Perfect Storm in Digital Law by Heather Burns.

☞ And for more on Heather Burns and internet law, listen to The Law is an Ass: Digital Law & Web Design with Heather Burns. It’s Episode № 137 of The Big Web Show—everything web that matters.


Illustration: Ping Zhu