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24 ways

Web design and development articles and tutorials for advent.

Published: Tue, 17 Jan 2017 01:28:27 +0000

Last Build Date: Tue, 17 Jan 2017 01:28:27 +0000


Taking Device Orientation for a Spin

Sat, 24 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Drew McLellan wraps up our 2016 season with a look at the HTML5 Device Orientation API and how an annoying physical interaction can become an annoying virtual one. Like the silver sixpence in your figgy pudding, there’s treasure to be found in our browsers, so dig in. When The Police sang “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” they weren’t talking about using a smartphone to view a panoramic image on Facebook, but they could have been. For years, technology has driven relentlessly towards devices we can carry around in our pockets, and now that we’re there, we’re expected to take the thing out of our pocket and wave it around in front of our faces like a psychotic donkey in search of its own dangly carrot. But if you can’t beat them, join them. A brave new world A couple of years back all sorts of specs for new HTML5 APIs sprang up much to our collective glee. Emboldened, we ran a few tests and found they basically didn’t work in anything and went off disheartened into the corner for a bit of a sob. Turns out, while we were all busy boohooing, those browser boffins have actually being doing some work, and lo and behold, some of these APIs are even half usable. Mostly literally half usable—we’re still talking about browsers, after all. Now, of course they’re all a bit JavaScripty and are going to involve complex methods and maths and science and probably about a thousand dependancies from Github that will fall out of fashion while we’re still trying to locate the documentation, right? Well, no! So what if we actually wanted to use one of these APIs, say to impress our friends with our ability to make them wave their phones in front of their faces (because no one enjoys looking hapless more than the easily-technologically-impressed), how could we do something like that? Let’s find out. The Device Orientation API The phone-wavy API is more formally known as the DeviceOrientation Event Specification. It does a bunch of stuff that basically doesn’t work, but also gives us three values that represent orientation of a device (a phone, a tablet, probably not a desktop computer) around its x, y and z axes. You might think of it as pitch, roll and yaw if you like to spend your weekends wearing goggles and a leather hat. The main way we access these values is through an event listener, which can inform our code every time the value changes. Which is constantly, because you try and hold a phone still and then try and hold the Earth still too. The API calls those pitch, roll and yaw values alpha, beta and gamma. Chocks away: window.addEventListener('deviceorientation', function(e) { console.log(e.alpha); console.log(e.beta); console.log(e.gamma); }); If you look at this test page on your phone, you should be able to see the numbers change as you twirl the thing around your body like the dance partner you never had. Wrist strap recommended. One important note Like may of these newfangled APIs, Device Orientation is only available over HTTPS. We’re not allowed to have too much fun without protection, so make sure that you’re working on a secure line. I’ve found a quick and easy way to share my local dev environment over TLS with my devices is to use an ngrok tunnel. ngrok http -host-header=rewrite ngrok will then set up a tunnel to your dev site with both HTTP and HTTPS URL options. You, of course, want the HTTPS option. Right, where were we? Make something to look at It’s all well and good having a bunch of numbers, but they’re no use unless we do something with them. Something creative. Something to inspire the generations. Or we could just build that Facebook panoramic image viewer thing (because most of us are familiar with it and we’re not trying to be too clever here). Yeah, let’s just build one of those. Our basic framework is going to be similar to that used for an image carousel. We have a container, constrained in size, and CSS overflow property set to hidden. Into this we place our wide content[...]

CSS Writing Modes

Mon, 12 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Jen Simmons points us in the direction of a useful but less well known CSS feature that becomes increasingly important when designing page layouts for a global audience. Like the wise men following the Star of Bethlehem, sometimes the best direction is given to us, not chosen. Since you may not have a lot of time, I’m going to start at the end, with the dessert. You can use a little-known, yet important and powerful CSS property to make text run vertically. Like this. Or instead of running text vertically, you can layout a set of icons or interface buttons in this way. Or, of course, with anything on your page. The CSS I’ve applied makes the browser rethink the orientation of the world, and flow the layout of this element at a 90° angle to “normal”. Check out the live demo, highlight the headline, and see how the cursor is now sideways. See the Pen Writing Mode Demo — Headline by Jen Simmons (@jensimmons) on CodePen. Perhaps in the future we could define an L-shape or other non-rectangular area into which content could flow, as in the below currently invalid code where a quote is embedded into an L-shaped content area. .wrapper { display: grid; grid-template-areas: "sidebar header header" "sidebar content quote" "sidebar content content"; } Flowing content through grid cells or areas Some uses cases I have seen perhaps are not best solved by grid layout at all, but would involve grid working alongside other CSS specifications. As I detail in this post, there are a class of problems that I believe could be solved with the CSS Regions specification, or a revised version of that spec. Being able to create a grid layout, then flow content through the areas could be very useful. Jen Simmons presented to the CSS Working Group at the Lisbon meeting a suggestion as to how this might work. In a post from earlier this year I looked at a collection of ideas from specifications that include Grid, Regions and Exclusions. These working notes from my own explorations might prompt ideas of your own. Solving the keyboard/layout disconnect One issue that grid, and flexbox to a lesser extent, raises is that it is very easy to end up with a layout that is disconnected from the underlying markup. This raises problems for people navigating using the keyboard as when tabbing around the document you find yourself jumping to unexpected places. The problem is explained by Léonie Watson with reference to flexbox in Flexbox and the keyboard navigation disconnect. The grid layout specification currently warns against creating such a disconnect, however I think it will take careful work by web developers in order to prevent this. It’s also not always as straightforward as it seems. In some cases you want the logical order to follow the source, and others it would make more sense to follow the visual. People are thinking about this issue, as you can read in this mailing list discussion. Bringing your ideas to the future of Grid Layout When I’m not getting excited about new CSS features, my day job involves working on a software product - the CMS that is serving this very website, Perch. When we launched Perch there were many use cases that we had never thought of, despite having a good idea of what might be needed in a CMS and thinking through lots of use cases. The additional use cases brought to our attention by our customers and potential customers informed the development of the product from launch. The same will be true for Grid Layout. As a “product” grid has been well thought through by many people. Yet however hard we try there will be use cases we just didn’t think of. You may well have one in mind right now. That’s ok, because as with any CSS specification, once Level One of grid is complete, work can begin on Level Two. The feature set of Level Two will be informed by the use cases that emerge as people get to grips with what we have now. This is where you get to contribute to the future of layout o[...]

First Steps in VR

Sun, 11 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Shane Hudson dusts the snow from his jacket and helps us take our first tentative steps into the gloomy world of virtual reality. So mark his footsteps good my page, tread thou in them boldly. Thou shalt find the virtual world spin thy head less coldly. The web is all around us. As web folk, it is our responsibility to consider the impact our work can have. Part of this includes thinking about the future; the web changes lives and if we are building the web then we are the ones making decisions that affect people in every corner of the world. I find myself often torn between wanting to make the right decisions, and just wanting to have fun. To fiddle and play. We all know how important it is to sometimes just try ideas, whether they will amount to much or not. I think of these two mindsets as production and prototyping, though of course there are lots of overlap and phases in between. I mention this because virtual reality is currently seen as a toy for rich people, and in some ways at the moment it is. But with WebVR we are able to create interesting experiences with a relatively low entry point. I want us to have open minds, play around with things, and then see how we can use the tools we have at our disposal to make things that will help people. Every year we see articles saying it will be the “year of virtual reality”, that was especially prevalent this year. 2016 has been a year of progress, VR isn’t quite mainstream but with efforts like Playstation VR and Google Cardboard, we are definitely seeing much more of it. This year also saw the consumer editions of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. So it does seem to be a good time for an overview of how to get involved with creating virtual reality on the web. WebVR is an API for connecting to devices and retrieving continuous data such as the position and orientation. Unlike the Web Audio API and some other APIs, WebVR does not feel like a framework. You use it however you want, taking the data and using it as you wish. To make it easier, there are plenty of resources such as Three, A-Frame and ReactVR that help to make the heavy lifting a bit easier. Getting Started with A-Frame I like taking the opportunity to learn new things whenever I can. So while planning this article I thought that instead of trying to teach WebGL or even Three in a way that is approachable for all, I would create my first project using A-Frame and write about that. This is not a tutorial as such, I just want to show how to go about getting involved with VR. The beauty of A-Frame is that it is very similar to web components, you can just write HTML to build worlds that will automatically work on all the different types of devices. It uses WebGL and WebVR but in such a way that it quite drastically reduces the learning curve. That’s not to say you can’t build complex things, you have complete access to write JavaScript and shaders. I’m lazy. Whenever I learn a new language or framework I have found that the best way, personally, for me to learn is to have a project and to copy the starting code from someone else. A project lets you have a good idea of what you want to produce and it means you can ignore a lot of the irrelevant documentation, focussing purely on what you need. That reduces the stress of figuring things out. Copying code also makes it easier, because you know your boilerplate code is working. There’s nothing worse than getting stuck before anything actually works the first time. So I tinker. I take code and I modify it, I play around. It’s fun. For this project I wanted to keep things as simple as possible, so I can easily explain it without the classic “draw a circle then draw an owl”. I wrote a list of requirements, with some stretch goals that you can give a try yourself if you fancy: Must work on Google Cardboard at a minimum, because of price Therefore, it must not rely on having a controller Auto-moving around a maze would be a good example[...]

Watch Your Language!

Sat, 10 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Annie-Claude Côté gathers us round the hearth to tell a tale of many languages. Like choosing the right Christmas sweater to wear while building a snowman, we must choose the language we code in wisely. Make a poor choice and risk getting left out in the cold as the darkness draws in. I’m bilingual. My first language is French. I learned English in my early 20s. Learning a new language later in life meant that I was able to observe my thought processes changing over time. It made me realize that some concepts can’t be expressed in some languages, while other languages express these concepts with ease. It also helped me understand the way we label languages. English: business. French: romance. Here’s an example of how words, or the absence thereof, can affect the way we think: In French we love everything. There’s no straightforward way to say we like something, so we just end up loving everything. I love my sisters, I love broccoli, I love programming, I love my partner, I love doing laundry (this is a lie), I love my mom (this is not a lie). I love, I love, I love. It’s no wonder French is considered romantic. When I first learned English I used the word love rather than like because I hadn’t grasped the difference. Needless to say, I’ve scared away plenty of first dates! Learning another language made me realize the limitations of my native language and revealed concepts I didn’t know existed. Without the nuances a given language provides, we fail to express what we really think. The absence of words in our vocabulary gets in the way of effectively communicating and considering ideas. When I lived in Montréal, most people in my circle spoke both French and English. I could switch between them when I could more easily express an idea in one language or the other. I liked (or should I say loved?) those conversations. They were meaningful. They were efficient. I’m quadrilingual. I code in Ruby, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Python. In the past couple of years I have been lucky enough to write code in these languages at a massive scale. In learning Ruby, much like learning English, I discovered the strengths and limitations of not only the languages I knew but the language I was learning. It taught me to choose the right tool for the job. When I started working at Shopify, making a change to a view involved copy/pasting HTML and ERB from one view to another. The CSS was roughly structured into modules, but those modules were not responsive to different screen sizes. Our HTML was complete mayhem, and we didn’t consider accessibility. All this made editing views a laborious process. Grep. Replace all. Test. Ship it. Repeat. This wasn’t sustainable at Shopify’s scale, so the newly-formed front end team was given two missions: Make the app responsive (AKA Let’s Make This Thing Responsive ASAP) Make the view layer scalable and maintainable (AKA Let’s Build a Pattern Library… in Ruby) Let’s make this thing responsive ASAP The year was 2015. The Shopify admin wasn’t mobile friendly. Our browser support was set to IE10. We had the wind in our sails. We wanted to achieve complete responsiveness in the shortest amount of time. Our answer: container queries. It seemed like the obvious decision at the time. We would be able to set rules for each component in isolation and the component would know how to lay itself out on the page regardless of where it was rendered. It would save us a ton of development time since we wouldn’t need to change our markup, it would scale well, and we would achieve complete component autonomy by not having to worry about page layout. By siloing our components, we were going to unlock the ultimate goal of componentization, cutting the tie to external dependencies. We were cool. Writing the JavaScript handling container queries was my first contribution to Shopify. It was a satisfying project to work on. We could drop our component[...]

Get the Balance Right: Responsive Display Text

Fri, 09 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Richard Rutter shepherds a tea towel onto our collective heads and describes a technique for responsively scaling display text to maintain a consistent feel in both landscape and portrait screen orientations. That should put things back into proportion. Last year in 24 ways I urged you to Get Expressive with Your Typography. I made the case for grabbing your readers’ attention by setting text at display sizes, that is to say big. You should consider very large text in the same way you might a hero image: a picture that creates an atmosphere and anchors your layout. When setting text to be read, it is best practice to choose body and subheading sizes from a pre-defined scale appropriate to the viewport dimensions. We set those sizes using rems, locking the text sizes together so they all scale according to the page default and your reader’s preferences. You can take the same approach with display text by choosing larger sizes from the same scale. However, display text, as defined by its purpose and relative size, is text to be seen first, and read second. In other words a picture of text. When it comes to pictures, you are likely to scale all scene-setting imagery - cover photos, hero images, and so on - relative to the viewport. Take the same approach with display text: lock the size and shape of the text to the screen or browser window. Introducing viewport units With CSS3 came a new set of units which are locked to the viewport. You can use these viewport units wherever you might otherwise use any other unit of length such as pixels, ems or percentage. There are four viewport units, and in each case a value of 1 is equal to 1% of either the viewport width or height as reported in reference1 pixels: vw - viewport width, vh - viewport height, vmin - viewport height or width, whichever is smaller vmax - viewport height or width, whichever is larger In one fell swoop you can set the size of a display heading to be proportional to the screen or browser width, rather than choosing from a scale in a series of media queries. The following makes the heading font size 13% of the viewport width: h1 { font-size: 13 vw; } So for a selection of widths, the rendered font size would be: Rendered font size (px) Viewport width 13 vw 320 42 768 100 1024 133 1280 166 1920 250 A problem with using vw in this manner is the difference in text block proportions between portrait and landscape devices. Because the font size is based on the viewport width, the text on a landscape display is far bigger than when rendered on the same device held in a portrait orientation. Landscape text is much bigger than portrait text when using vw units. The proportions of the display text relative to the screen are so dissimilar that each orientation has its own different character, losing the inconsistency and considered design you would want when designing to make an impression. However if the text was the same size in both orientations, the visual effect would be much more consistent. This where vmin comes into its own. Set the font size using vmin and the size is now set as a proportion of the smallest side of the viewport, giving you a far more consistent rendering. h1 { font-size: 13vmin; } Landscape text is consistent with portrait text when using vmin units. Comparing vw and vmin renderings for various common screen dimensions, you can see how using vmin keeps the text size down to a usable magnitude: Rendered font size (px) Viewport 13 vw 13 vmin 320 × 480 42 42 414 × 736 54 54 768 × 1024 100 100 1024 × 768 133 100 1280 × 720 166 94 1366 × 768 178 100 1440 × 900 187 117 1680 × 1050 218 137 1920 × 1080 250 140 2560 × 1440 333 187 Hybrid font sizing Using vertical media queries to set text in direct proportion to screen dimensions works well when sizing display text. In can be less desirable when sizing supporting text such as sub-headings, which yo[...]

How to Make a Chrome Extension to Delight (or Troll) Your Friends

Thu, 08 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Leslie Zacharkow presents the purrfect solution for anyone who’s ever dreamt of creating their own Chrome browser extension. So kick back, and while your chestnuts roast on an open fire, roast your friends and colleagues in an open tab. If you’re like me, you grew up drawing mustaches on celebrities. Every photograph was subject to your doodling wrath, and your brilliance was taken to a whole new level with computer programs like Microsoft Paint. The advent of digital cameras meant that no one was safe from your handiwork, especially not your friends. And when you finally got your hands on Photoshop, you spent hours maniacally giggling at your artistic genius. But today is different. You’re a serious adult with important things to do and a reputation to uphold. You keep up with modern web techniques and trends, and have little time for fun other than a random Giphy on Slack… right? Nope. If there’s one thing 2016 has taught me, it’s that we—the self-serious, world-changing tech movers and shakers of the universe—haven’t changed one bit from our younger, more delightable selves. How do I know? This year I created a Chrome extension called Tabby Cat and watched hundreds of thousands of people ditch productivity for randomly generated cats. Tabby Cat replaces your new tab page with an SVG cat featuring a silly name like “Stinky Dinosaur” or “Tiny Potato”. Over time, the cats collect goodies that vary in absurdity from fishbones to lawn flamingos to Raybans. Kids and adults alike use this extension, and analytics show the majority of use happens Monday through Friday from 9-5. The popularity of Tabby Cat has convinced me there’s still plenty of room in our big, grown-up hearts for fun. Today, we’re going to combine the formula behind Tabby Cat with your intrinsic desire to delight (or troll) your friends, and create a web app that generates your friends with random objects and environments of your choosing. You can publish it as a Chrome extension to replace your new tab, or simply host it as a website and point to it with the New Tab Redirect extension. Here’s a sneak peek at my final result featuring my partner, my cat, and I in cheerfully weird accessories. Your result will look however you want it to. Along the way, we’ll cover how to build a Chrome extension that replaces the new tab page, and explore ways to program randomness into your work to create something truly delightful. What you’ll need Adobe Illustrator (or a similar illustration program to export PNG) Some images of your friends A text editor Note: This can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. Most of the application is pre-built so you can focus on kicking back and getting in touch with your creative side. If you want to dive in deeper, you’ll find ways to do it. Getting started Download a local copy of the boilerplate for today’s tutorial here, and open it in a text editor. Inside, you’ll find a simple web app that you can run in Chrome. Open index.html in Chrome. You should see a grey page that says “Noname”. Open template.pdf in Adobe Illustrator or a similar program that can export PNG. The file contains an artboard measuring 800px x 800px, with a dotted blue outline of a face. This is your template. Note: We’re using Google Chrome to build and preview this application because the end-result is a Chrome extension. This means that the application isn’t totally cross-browser compatible, but that’s okay. Step 1: Gather your friends The first thing to do is choose who your muses are. Since the holidays are upon us, I’d suggest finding inspiration in your family. Create your artwork For each person, find an image where their face is pointed as forward as possible. Place the image onto the Artwork layer of the Illustrator file, and line up their face with the template. Then, renam[...]

What the Heck Is Inclusive Design?

Wed, 07 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Heydon Pickering questions whether accessibility is really the name of the game, and asks if perhaps inclusivity might be a more broadly acceptable term for the valuable design work we do. Would a cinnamon spiced latte by any other name smell as sweet? Someone has to call it. Naming things is hard. And I don’t just mean CSS class names and JSON properties. Finding the right term for what we do with the time we spend awake and out of bed turns out to be really hard too. I’ve variously gone by “front-end developer”, “user experience designer”, and “accessibility engineer”, all clumsy and incomplete terms for labeling what I do as an… erm… see, there’s the problem again. It’s tempting to give up entirely on trying to find the right words for things, but this risks summarily dispensing with thousands of years spent trying to qualify the world around us. So here we are again. Recently, I’ve been using the term “inclusive design” and calling myself an “inclusive designer” a lot. I’m not sure where I first heard it or who came up with it, but the terminology feels like a good fit for the kind of stuff I care to do when I’m not at a pub or asleep. This article is about what I think “inclusive design” means and why I think you might like it as an idea. Isn’t ‘inclusive design’ just ‘accessibility’ by another name? No, I don’t think so. But that’s not to say the two concepts aren’t related. Note the ‘design’ part in ‘inclusive design’ — that’s not just there by accident. Inclusive design describes a design activity; a way of designing things. This sets it apart from accessibility — or at least our expectations of what ‘accessibility’ entails. Despite every single accessibility expert I know (and I know a lot) recommending that accessibility should be integrated into design process, it is rarely ever done. Instead, it is relegated to an afterthought, limiting its effect. The term ‘accessibility’ therefore lacks the power to connote design process. It’s not that we haven’t tried to salvage the term, but it’s beginning to look like a lost cause. So maybe let’s use a new term, because new things take new names. People get that. The ‘access’ part of accessibility is also problematic. Before we get ahead of ourselves, I don’t mean access is a problem — access is good, and the more accessible something is the better. I mean it’s not enough by itself. Imagine a website filled with poorly written and lackadaisically organized information, including a bunch of convoluted and confusing functionality. To make this site accessible is to ensure no barriers prevent people from accessing the content. But that doesn’t make the content any better. It just means more people get to suffer it. Whoopdidoo. Access is certainly a prerequisite of inclusion, but accessibility compliance doesn’t get you all the way there. It’s possible to check all the boxes but still be left with an unusable interface. And unusable interfaces are necessarily inaccessible ones. Sure, you can take an unusable interface and make it accessibility compliant, but that only placates stakeholders’ lawyers, not users. Users get little value from it. So where have we got to? Access is important, but inclusion is bigger than access. Inclusive design means making something valuable, not just accessible, to as many people as we can. So inclusive design is kind of accessibility + UX? Closer, but there are some problems with this definition. UX is, you will have already noted, a broad term encompassing activities ranging from conducting research studies to optimizing the perceived affordance of interface elements. But overall, what I take from UX is that it’s the pursuit of making interfaces understandable. As it happens, WCAG 2.0 already contai[...]

Public Speaking with a Buddy

Tue, 06 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Lara Hogan stands up and goes it alone to expound on the benefits of presenting on stage with a buddy. Preparing and delivering a presentation to a room full of people can be a daunting task, and sometimes two heads are better that one. Not even Rudolph could pull that sleigh alone. My book Demystifying Public Speaking focuses on the variety of fears we each have about giving a talk. From presenting to a client, to leading a team standup, to standing on a conference stage, there are lots of things we can do to prepare ourselves for the spotlight and reduce those fears. Though it didn’t make it into the final draft, I wanted to highlight how helpful it can be to share that public speaking spotlight with another person, or a few more people. If you have fears about not knowing the answer to a question, fumbling your words, or making a mistake in the spotlight, then buddying up may be for you! To some, adding more people to a presentation sounds like a recipe for on-stage disaster. To others, having a friendly face nearby—a partner who can step in if you fumble—is incredibly reassuring. As design director Yesenia Perez-Cruz writes, “While public speaking is a deeply personal activity, you don’t have to go it alone. Nothing has helped my speaking career more than turning it into a group effort.” Co-presenting can level up a talk in two ways: an additional brain and presentation skill set can improve the content of the talk itself, and you may feel safer with the on-stage safety net of your buddy. For example, when I started giving lengthy workshops about building mobile device labs with my co-worker Destiny Montague, we brought different experience to the table. I was able to talk about the user experience of our lab, and the importance of testing across different screen sizes. Destiny spoke about the hardware aspects of the lab, like power consumption and networking. Our audience benefitted from the spectrum of insight we included in the talk. Moreover, Destiny and I kept each other energized and engaging while teaching our audience, having way more fun onstage. Partnering up alleviated the risk (and fear!) of fumbling; where one person makes a mistake, the other person is right there to help. Buddy presentations can be helpful if you fear saying “I don’t know” to a question, as there are other people around you who will be able to help answer it from the stage. By partnering with someone whom I trust and respect, and whose work and knowledge augments my own, it made the experience—and the presentation!—significantly better. Co-presenting won’t work if you don’t trust the person you’re onstage with, or if you don’t have good chemistry working together. It might also not work if there’s an imbalance of responsibilities, both in preparing the talk and giving it. Read on for how to make partner talks work to your advantage! Trustworthiness If you want to explore co-presenting, make sure that your presentation partner is trustworthy and can carry their weight; it can be stressful if you find yourself trying to meet deadlines and prepare well and your partner isn’t being helpful. We’re all about reducing the fears and stress levels surrounding being in that spotlight onstage; make sure that the person you’re relying on isn’t making the process harder. Before you start working together, sketch out the breakdown of work and timeline you’re each committing to. Have a conversation about your preferred work style so you each have a concrete understanding of the best ways to communicate (in what medium, and how often) and how to check in on each other’s progress without micromanaging or worrying about radio silence. Ask your buddy how they prefer to receive feedback, and give them your own feedback preferences, so neither of you are surpr[...]

We Need to Talk About Technical Debt

Mon, 05 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Harry Roberts addresses the hastily-coded elephant in the room and helps us to identify what is technical debt, and what is just bad code. Hark the herald Harry sings, time for some refactoring. In my work with clients, a lot of time is spent assessing old, legacy, sprawling systems and identifying good code, bad code, and technical debt. One thing that constantly strikes me is the frequency with which bad code and technical debt are conflated, so let me start by saying this: Not all technical debt is bad code, and not all bad code is technical debt. Sometimes your bad code is just that: bad code. Calling it technical debt often feels like a more forgiving and friendly way of referring to what may have just been a poor implementation or a substandard piece of work. It is an oft-misunderstood phrase, and when mistaken for meaning ‘anything legacy or old hacky or nasty or bad’, technical debt is swept under the carpet along with all of the other parts of the codebase we’d rather not talk about, and therein lies the problem. We need to talk about technical debt. What We Talk About When We Talk About Technical Debt The thing that separates technical debt from the rest of the hacky code in our project is the fact that technical debt, by definition, is something that we knowingly and strategically entered into. Debt doesn’t happen by accident: debt happens when we choose to gain something otherwise-unattainable immediately in return for paying it back (with interest) later on. An Example You’re a front-end developer working on a SaaS product, and your sales team is courting a large customer – a customer so large that you can’t really afford to lose them. The customer tells you that as long as you can allow them to theme your SaaS application according to their branding, they are willing to sign on the dotted line… the problem being that your CSS architecture was never designed to incorporate theming at all, and there isn’t currently a nice, clean way to incorporate a theme into the codebase. You and the business make the decision that you will hack a theme into the product in two days. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to be ugly, but you can’t afford to lose a huge customer just because your CSS isn’t quite right, right now. This is technical debt. You deliver the theme, the customer signs up, and everyone is happy. Except you (and the business, because you are one and the same) have a decision to make: Do we go back and build theming into the CSS architecture as a first-class citizen, porting the hacked theme back into a codified and formal framework? Do we carry on as we are? Things are working okay, and the customer paid up, so is there any reason to invest time and effort into things after we (and the customer) got what we wanted? Option 1 is choosing to pay off your debts; Option 2 is ignoring your repayments. With Option 1, you’re acknowledging that you did what you could given the constraints, but, free of constraints, you’d have done something different. Now, you are choosing to implement that something different. With Option 2, however, you are avoiding your responsibility to repay your debt, and you are letting interest accrue. The problem here is that… your SaaS product now offers theming to one of your customers; another potential customer might also demand the ability to theme their instance of your product; you can’t refuse them that request, nor can you quickly fulfil it; you hack in another theme, thus adding to the balance of your existing debt; and so on (plus interest) for every subsequent theme you need to implement. Here you have increased entropy whilst making little to no attempt to address what you already knew to be problems. Your second, third, fourth, fifth request for theming will b[...]

Flexible Project Management in Inflexible Environments

Sun, 04 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Gillian Sibthorpe rearranges the doors on our advent calendar by looking at how to manage those tougher projects. Like a game of limbo at the office holiday party, it pays to remain flexible in the face of adversity. Handling unforeseen circumstances is an inevitable part of any project. It’s also often the most uncomfortable, and there is no amount of skill or planning that will fully eradicate the need to adapt to change. The ability to be flexible, responsive, and unafraid of facing not only problems, but also potentially positive scope changes and new ideas, isn’t an easy one to master. I am by no means saying that I have, but what I have learned is that there is often the temptation to shut out anything that might derail your plan, even sometimes at the cost of the quality you’re committed to. The reality is that as someone leading a project you know there will be challenges, but, in general, it’s a hassle to try keep the landscape open. Problems are bridges we should cross when we come to them, but intentional changes to the plan, and adapting for the sake of improving your first idea, is harder. There are tight schedules, resource is planned miles ahead, and you’re already juggling twenty other things. If you’re passionate about the quality of work you deliver and are working somewhere that considers itself expert within the field of digital, then having an attitude of flexibility is extremely important. It’s important when you’re overcoming a challenge or problem, but it’s also important for allowing ideas to evolve and be refined as much as they can be throughout the course of a project. Where theory falls short The premise of any Agile methodology, Scrum for example, is based around being able to work efficiently, react quickly and deliver relevant chunks of a product in manageable increments. It’s often hailed as king of flexible management and it can work really well, especially for in-house software products developed over a long or even an indefinite period of time. It holds off defining scope too far ahead and lets teams focus on smaller amounts of work, and allows them to regularly reprioritise. Unfortunately though, not all environments lend themselves as easily to a fully Agile setup. Even the ones that do may be restrained from putting it fully into practice for an array of other internal reasons. Delivering digital services to clients—within an agency setting or as a freelancer—often demands a more rigid structure. You need clear sign-off points, there’s a lot less flexibility in defining features, or working within budgets and timeframes. To start with, for a project to warrant a fully Agile team working on it, and especially for agencies, you need clients big enough and rich enough to justify the resource. You also need a lot of client trust to propose defining features and scope as you go. Although this is achievable—and there are agencies that operate an agile setup—it takes a long journey to reach that scale in the full sense of the word. Building a reputation that commands unconditional trust and reaching the point where your projects are consistently of a certain size often requires backing by long journey of success and excellence. So there is a lot of room left for understanding how we can best strive to still deliver excellent projects within more constrained structures. We know that rigid waterfall planning, more often than not, falls over as soon as a project gets anything past a basic brochure site. There are many critiques of the system, but one of the main ones tends to be that nobody considers each other’s work properly, which can result in very expensive and inefficient development. Equally, for reasons we’ve already touched upon, running fully ag[...]

A Favor for Your Future Self

Sat, 03 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Alicia Sedlock embodies the Ghost of Code Reviews Yet-to-Come with a call to start testing. Do you know your unit from your integration, your acceptance from your visual regression? And will you pass the ultimate Christmas test; are you naughty or nice? We tend to think about the future when we build things. What might we want to be able to add later? How can we refactor this down the road? Will this be easy to maintain in six months, a year, two years? As best we can, we try to think about the what-ifs, and build our websites, systems, and applications with this lens. We comment our code to explain what we knew at the time and how that impacted how we built something. We add to-dos to the things we want to change. These are all great things! Whether or not we come back to those to-dos, refactor that one thing, or add new features, we put in a bit of effort up front just in case to give us a bit of safety later. I want to talk about a situation that Past Alicia and Team couldn’t even foresee or plan for. Recently, the startup I was a part of had to remove large sections of our website. Not just content, but entire pages and functionality. It wasn’t a very pleasant experience, not only for the reason why we had to remove so much of what we had built, but also because it’s the ultimate “I really hope this doesn’t break something else” situation. It was a stressful and tedious effort of triple checking that the things we were removing weren’t dependencies elsewhere. To be honest, we wouldn’t have been able to do this with any amount of success or confidence without our test suite. Writing tests for code is one of those things that developers really, really don’t want to do. It’s one of the easiest things to cut in the development process, and there’s often a struggle to have developers start writing tests in the first place. One of the best lessons the web has taught us is that we can’t, in good faith, trust the happy path. We must make sure ourselves, and our users, aren’t in a tough spot later on because we only thought of the best case scenarios. JavaScript Regardless of your opinion on whether or not everything needs to be built primarily with JavaScript, if you’re choosing to build a JavaScript heavy app, you absolutely should be writing some combination of unit and integration tests. Unit tests are for testing extremely isolated and small pieces of code, which we refer to as the units themselves. Great for reused functions and small, scoped areas, this is the closest you examine your code with the testing microscope. For example, if we were to build a calculator, the most minute piece we could test could be the basic operations. /* * This example uses a test framework called Jasmine */ describe("Calculator Operations", function () { it("Should add two numbers", function () { // Say we have a calculator Calculator.init(); // We can run the function that does our addition calculation... var result = Calculator.addNumbers(7,3); // ...and ensure we're getting the right output expect(result).toBe(10); }); }); Even though these teeny bits work in isolation, we should ensure that connecting the large pieces work, as well. This is where integration tests excel. These tests ensure that two or more different areas of code, that may not directly know about each other, still behave in expected ways. Let’s build upon our calculator - we may want the operations to be saved in memory after a calculation runs. This isn’t as suited for a unit test because there are a few other moving pieces involved in the process (the calculations, checking if the result was an error, etc.). it(“Should remember the last calculati[...]

Creating a Weekly Research Cadence

Fri, 02 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Wren Lanier sets aside time to explore the benefits of a regular schedule for user research. Santa’s elves quickly discovered the benefits of working to a fixed schedule, which is of course why we don’t get presents at Easter. Working on a product team, it’s easy to get hyper-focused on building features and lose sight of your users and their daily challenges. User research can be time-consuming to set up, so it often becomes ad-hoc and irregular, only performed in response to a particular question or concern. But without frequent touch points and opportunities for discovery, your product will stagnate and become less and less relevant. Setting up an efficient cadence of weekly research conversations will re-focus your team on user problems and provide a steady stream of insights for product development. As my team transitioned into a Lean process earlier this year, we needed a way to get more feedback from users in a short amount of time. Our users are internet marketers—always busy and often difficult to reach. Scheduling research took days of emailing back and forth to find mutually agreeable times, and juggling one-off conversations made it difficult to connect with more than one or two people per week. The slow pace of research was allowing additional risk to creep into our product development. I wanted to find a way for our team to test ideas and validate assumptions sooner and more often—but without increasing the administrative burden of scheduling. The solution: creating a regular cadence of research and testing that required a minimum of effort to coordinate. Setting up a weekly user research cadence accelerated our learning and built momentum behind strategic experiments. By dedicating time every week to talk to a few users, we made ongoing research a painless part of every weekly sprint. But increasing the frequency of our research had other benefits as well. With only five working days between sessions, a weekly cadence forced us to keep our work small and iterative. Committing to testing something every week meant showing work earlier and more often than we might have preferred—pushing us out of your comfort zone into a process of more rapid experimentation. Best of all, frequent conversations with users helped us become more customer-focused. After just a few weeks in a consistent research cadence, I noticed user feedback weaving itself through our planning and strategy sessions. Comments like “Remember what Jenna said last week, about not being able to customize her lists?” would pop up as frequent reference points to guide our decisions. As discussions become less about subjective opinions and more about responding to user needs, we saw immediate improvement in the quality of our solutions. Establishing an efficient recruitment process The key to creating a regular cadence of ongoing user research is an efficient recruitment and scheduling process—along with a commitment to prioritize the time needed for research conversations. This is an invaluable tool for product teams (whether or not they follow a Lean process), but could easily be adapted for content strategy teams, agency teams, a UX team of one, or any other project that would benefit from short, frequent conversations with users. The process I use requires a few hours of setup time at the beginning, but pays off in better learning and better releases over the long run. Almost any team could use this as a starting point and adapt it to their own needs. Pick a dedicated time each week for research In order to make research a priority, we started by choosing a time each week when everyone on the product team was available. Between stand-ups, grooming sessions, and roadmap[...]

Internet of Stranger Things

Thu, 01 Dec 2016 12:00:00 +0000

Seb Lee-Delisle lights up our 2016 advent series with an illuminating guide to making your own Stranger Things style fairy lights to pick up messages from the upside-down (also known as the Internet). This year I’ve been running a workshop about using JavaScript and Node to work with all different kinds of electronics on the Raspberry Pi. So especially for 24 ways I’m going to show you how I made a very special Raspberry Pi based internet connected project! And nothing says Christmas quite like a set of fairy lights connected to another dimension1. What you’ll see You can rig up the fairy lights in your home, with the scrawly letters written under each one. The people from the other side (i.e. the internet) will be able to write messages to you from their browser in real time. In fact why not try it now; check this web page. When you click the lights in your browser, my lights (and yours) will turn on and off in real life! (There may be a queue if there are lots of people accessing it, hit the “Send a message” button and wait your turn.) src="" frameborder="0" webkitallowfullscreen mozallowfullscreen allowfullscreen> It’s all done with JavaScript, using Node running on both the Raspberry Pi and on the server. I’m using WebSockets to communicate in real time between the browser, server and Raspberry Pi. What you’ll need Raspberry Pi any of the following models: Zero (will need straight male header pins soldered2 and Micro USB OTG adaptor), A+, B+, 2, or 3 Micro SD card at least 4Gb Class 10 speed3 Micro USB power supply at least 2A USB Wifi dongle (unless you have a Pi 3 - that has wifi built in). Addressable fairy lights Logic level shifter (with pins soldered unless you want to do it!) Breadboard Jumper wires (3x male to male and 4x female to male) Optional but recommended Base board to hold the Pi and Breadboard (often comes with a breadboard!) Find links for where to buy all of these items that goes along with this tutorial. The total price should be around $1004. Setting up the Raspberry Pi You’ll need to install the SD card for the Raspberry Pi. You’ll find a link to download a disk image on the support document, ready-made with the Raspbian version of Linux, along with Node and all the files you need. Download it and write it to the SD card using the fantastic free software Etcher5. Next up you have to configure the wifi details on the SD card. If you plug the card into your computer you should see a drive called BOOT. There’s a text file on there called wpa_supplicant.conf. Open it up in your favourite text editor and replace mywifi and mypassword with your wifi details6. network={ ssid="mywifi" psk="mypassword" } Save the file, eject the card from your computer and plug it into the Raspberry Pi. If you have a base board or holder for the Raspberry Pi, attach it now. Then connect the wifi USB dongle7 and power supply, but don’t plug it in yet! Wiring! Time to wire everything up! First of all, push the Logic Level Converter into the middle of the breadboard: Logic Level Converter The logic level converter may be labelled differently from the one in the diagram but the pins are usually exactly the same internally. I would just make sure the pins marked HV (High Voltage) are on the bottom and LV (Low Voltage) are on the top. Raspberry Pi pins only output 3.3v but the lights need 5v. That’s why we need the logic level converter in there to boost up the signal. Connect the first two wires between the Raspberry Pi pins and the breadboard: Note that the pins on the Raspber[...]