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Web design and development articles and tutorials for advent.



Published: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 11:31:44 +0100

Last Build Date: Fri, 30 Sep 2016 11:31:44 +0100

 



Solve the Hard Problems

Thu, 24 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Drew McLellan brings our 2015 calendar to a motivational close with some encouragement for the year ahead. Year’s end is a time for reflection and finding new purpose and enthusiasm for what we do. By tackling the thorniest design and development problems, we can make the greatest impact – and have the most fun. Merry Christmas and a happy New Year! So, here we find ourselves on the cusp of 2016. We’ve had a good year – the web is still alive, no one has switched it off yet. Clients still have websites, teenagers still have phone apps, and there continue to be plenty of online brands to meaningfully engage with each day. Good job team, high fives all round. As it’s the time to make resolutions, I wanted to share three small ideas to take into the new year. Get good at what you do “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” the old joke goes. “Practise, practise, practise.” We work in an industry where there is an awful lot to learn. There’s a lot to learn to get started and then once you do, there’s a lot more to learn to keep your skills current. Just when you think you’ve mastered something, it changes. This is true of many industries, of course, but the sheer pace of change for us makes learning not an annual activity, but daily. Learning takes time, and while I’m not convinced that every skill takes the fabled ten thousand hours to master, there is certainly no escaping that to remain current we must reinvest time in keeping our skills up to date. Picking where to spend your time One of the hardest aspects of this thing of ours is just choosing what to learn. If you, like me, invested any time in learning the Less CSS preprocessor over the last few years, you’ll probably now be spending your time relearning Sass instead. If you spent time learning Grunt, chances are you’ll now be thinking about whether you should switch to Gulp. It’s not just that there are new types of tools, there are new tools and frameworks to do the things you’re already doing, but, well, differently. Deciding what to learn is hard and the costs of backing the wrong horse can seriously mount up; so much so that by the time you’ve learned and then relearned the tools everyone says you need for your job, there’s rarely enough time to spend really getting to know how best to use them.  Practise, practise, practise Do you know how you don’t get to Carnegie Hall? By learning a new instrument each week. It takes time and experience to really learn something well. That goes for a new JavaScript framework as much as a violin. If you flit from one shiny new thing to another, you’re destined to produce amateurish work forever. Learn the new thing, but then stick with it long enough to get really good at it – even if Twitter trolls try to convince you it’s not cool. What’s really not cool is living as a forevernoob. If you’re still not sure what to learn, go back to basics. Considering a new CSS or JavaScript framework? Invest that time in learning the underlying CSS or JavaScript really well instead. Those skills will stand the test of time. Audience and purpose Back when I was in school, my English teacher (a nice Welsh lady, who I appreciate more now than I did back then) used to love to remind us that every piece of writing should have an audience and a purpose. So much so that audience and purpose almost became her catch phrase. For every essay, article or letter, we were reminded to consider who we were writing it for and what we were trying to achieve. It’s something I think about a lot; certainly when writing, but also in almost every other creative endeavour. Asking who is this for and what am I trying to achieve applies equally to designing a logo or website, through to composing music or writing software. Being productive It seems like everyone wants to have a product these days. As someone who used to do client services work and now has a product company, I often talk with people who are interested in taking something they’ve built i[...]



Blow Your Own Trumpet

Wed, 23 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Andy Clarke encourages us to have confidence in the way we communicate with potential clients. Being open and genuine, and providing an insight into what working with you will be like can help prospective clients choose you over your competitors. So before you refresh your glass, refresh your website’s copy! Even if your own trumpet’s tiny and fell out of a Christmas cracker, blowing it isn’t something that everyone’s good at. Some people find selling themselves and what they do difficult. But, you know what? Boo hoo hoo. If you want people to buy something, the reality is you’d better get good at selling, especially if that something is you. For web professionals, the best place to tell potential business customers or possible employers about what you do is on your own website. You can write what you want and how you want, but that doesn’t make knowing what to write any easier. As a matter of fact, writing for yourself often proves harder than writing for someone else. I spent this autumn thinking about what I wanted to say about Stuff & Nonsense on the website we relaunched recently. While I did that, I spoke to other designers about how they struggled to write about their businesses. If you struggle to write well, don’t worry. You’re not on your own. Here are five ways to hit the right notes when writing about yourself and your work. Be genuine about who you are I’ve known plenty of talented people who run a successful business pretty much single-handed. Somehow they still feel awkward presenting themselves as individuals. They wonder whether describing themselves as a company will give them extra credibility. They especially agonise over using “we” rather than “I” when describing what they do. These choices get harder when you’re a one-man band trading as a limited company or LLC business entity. If you mainly work alone, don’t describe yourself as anything other than “I”. You might think that saying “we” makes you appear larger and will give you a better chance of landing bigger and better work, but the moment a prospective client asks, “How many people are you?” you’ll have some uncomfortable explaining to do. This will distract them from talking about your work and derail your sales process. There’s no need to be anything other than genuine about how you describe yourself. You should be proud to say “I” because working alone isn’t something that many people have the ability, business acumen or talent to do. Explain what you actually do How many people do precisely the same job as you? Hundreds? Thousands? The same goes for companies. If yours is a design studio, development team or UX consultancy, there are countless others saying exactly what you’re saying about what you do. Simply stating that you code, design or – God help me – “handcraft digital experiences” isn’t enough to make your business sound different from everyone else. Anyone can and usually does say that, but people buy more than deliverables. They buy something that’s unique about you and your business. Potentially thousands of companies deliver code and designs the same way as Stuff & Nonsense, but our clients don’t just buy page designs, prototypes and websites from us. They buy our taste for typography, colour and layout, summed up by our “It’s the taste” tagline and bowler hat tip to the PG Tips chimps. We hope that potential clients will understand what’s unique about us. Think beyond your deliverables to what people actually buy, and sell the uniqueness of that. Describe work in progress It’s sad that current design trends have made it almost impossible to tell one website from another. So many designers now demonstrate finished responsive website designs by pasting them onto iMac, MacBook, iPad and iPhone screens that their portfolios don’t fare much better. Every designer brings their own experience, perspective and process to a project. In my experience, it’s u[...]



How Tabs Should Work

Tue, 22 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Remy Sharp picks that old chestnut – tabs – and roasts it afresh on the open fire of JavaScript to see how a fully navigable, accessible and clickable set of tabs can work. Everybody knows some scripting and some CSS can help to make your website bright. Although it’s been said many times, many ways, please be careful to do it right. Tabs in browsers (not browser tabs) are one of the oldest custom UI elements in a browser that I can think of. They’ve been done to death. But, sadly, most of the time I come across them, the tabs have been badly, or rather partially, implemented. So this post is my definition of how a tabbing system should work, and one approach of implementing that. But… tabs are easy, right? I’ve been writing code for tabbing systems in JavaScript for coming up on a decade, and at one point I was pretty proud of how small I could make the JavaScript for the tabbing system: var tabs = $('.tab').click(function () { tabs.hide().filter(this.hash).show(); }).map(function () { return $(this.hash)[0]; }); $('.tab:first').click(); Simple, right? Nearly fits in a tweet (ignoring the whole jQuery library…). Still, it’s riddled with problems that make it a far from perfect solution. Requirements: what makes the perfect tab? All content is navigable and available without JavaScript (crawler-compatible and low JS-compatible). ARIA roles. The tabs are anchor links that: are clickable have block layout have their href pointing to the id of the panel element use the correct cursor (i.e. cursor: pointer). Since tabs are clickable, the user can open in a new tab/window and the page correctly loads with the correct tab open. Right-clicking (and Shift-clicking) doesn’t cause the tab to be selected. Native browser Back/Forward button correctly changes the state of the selected tab (think about it working exactly as if there were no JavaScript in place). The first three points are all to do with the semantics of the markup and how the markup has been styled. I think it’s easy to do a good job by thinking of tabs as links, and not as some part of an application. Links are navigable, and they should work the same way other links on the page work. The last three points are JavaScript problems. Let’s investigate that. The shitmus test Like a litmus test, here’s a couple of quick ways you can tell if a tabbing system is poorly implemented: Change tab, then use the Back button (or keyboard shortcut) and it breaks The tab isn’t a link, so you can’t open it in a new tab These two basic things are, to me, the bare minimum that a tabbing system should have. Why is this important? The people who push their so-called native apps on users can’t have more reasons why the web sucks. If something as basic as a tab doesn’t work, obviously there’s more ammo to push a closed native app or platform on your users. If you’re going to be a web developer, one of your responsibilities is to maintain established interactivity paradigms. This doesn’t mean don’t innovate. But it does mean: stop fucking up my scrolling experience with your poorly executed scroll effects. :breath: URI fragment, absolute URL or query string? A URI fragment (AKA the # hash bit) would be using mysite.com/config#content to show the content panel. A fully addressable URL would be mysite.com/config/content. Using a query string (by way of filtering the page): mysite.com/config?tab=content. This decision really depends on the context of your tabbing system. For something like GitHub’s tabs to view a pull request, it makes sense that the full URL changes. For our problem though, I want to solve the issue when the page doesn’t do a full URL update; that is, your regular run-of-the-mill tabbing system. I used to be from the school of using the hash to show the correct tab, but I’ve recently been exploring whether the query string can be used. The biggest reason is that multiple hashes don’t wor[...]



What’s Ahead for Your Data in 2016?

Mon, 21 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Heather Burns outlines the most important international legal issues whose effects will ripple through our work on the web in 2016 and beyond. Like the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, these trade agreements have approached slowly, gravely, silently. Perhaps now’s the time to take action. Who owns your data? Who decides what can you do with it? Where can you store it? What guarantee do you have over your data’s privacy? Where can you publish your work? Can you adapt software to accommodate your disability? Is your tiny agency subject to corporate regulation? Does another country have rights over your intellectual property? If you aren’t the kind of person who is interested in international politics, I hate to break it to you: in 2016 the legal foundations which underpin our work on the web are being revisited in not one but three major international political agreements, and every single one of those questions is up for grabs. These agreements – the draft EU Data Protection Regulation (EUDPR), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the draft Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – stand poised to have a major impact on your data, your workflows, and your digital rights. While some proposed changes could protect the open web for the future, other provisions would set the internet back several decades. In this article we will review the issues you need to be aware of as a digital professional. While each of these agreements covers dozens of topics ranging from climate change to food safety, we will focus solely on the aspects which pertain to the work we do on the web. The Trans-Pacific Partnership The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is a free trade agreement between the US, Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Singapore, Brunei, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Mexico, Chile and Peru – a bloc comprising 40% of the world’s economy. The agreement is expected to be signed by all parties, and thereby to come into effect, in 2016. This agreement is ostensibly about the bloc and its members working together for their common interests. However, the latest draft text of the TPP, which was formulated entirely in secret, has only been made publicly available on a Medium blog published by the U.S. Trade Representative which features a patriotic banner at the top proclaiming “TPP: Made in America.” The message sent about who holds the balance of power in this agreement, and whose interests it will benefit, is clear. By far the most controversial area of the TPP has centred around the provisions on intellectual property. These include copyright terms of up to 120 years, mandatory takedowns of allegedly infringing content in response to just one complaint regardless of that complaint’s validity, heavy and disproportionate penalties for alleged violations, and – most frightening of all – government seizures of equipment allegedly used for copyright violations. All of these provisions have been raised without regard for the fact that a trade agreement is not the appropriate venue to negotiate intellectual property law. Other draft TPP provisions would restrict the digital rights of people with disabilities by banning the workarounds they use every day. These include no exemptions for the adaptations of copywritten works for use in accessible technology (such as text-to-speech in ebook readers), a ban on circumventing DRM or digital locks in order to convert a file to an accessible format, and requiring the takedown of adapted works, such as a video with added subtitles, even if that adaptation would normally have fallen under the definition of fair use. The e-commerce provisions would prohibit data localisation, the practice of requiring data to be physically stored on servers within a country’s borders. Data localisation is growing in popularity following the Snowden revelations, and some of your own personal data may have been recently “localised” in respons[...]



Make a Comic

Sun, 20 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Rebecca Cottrell sharpens her trusty HB pencil and sketches out the steps to making a comic, before inking and colouring the whole deal with a few Photoshop tips for anyone unwilling to part with a screen over the festive season. Put that eggnog down and get drawing! For something slightly different over Christmas, why not step away from your computer and make a comic? Definitely not the author working on a comic in the studio, with the desk displaying some of the things you need to make a comic on paper. Why make a comic? First of all, it’s truly fun and it’s not that difficult. If you’re a designer, you can use skills you already have, so why not take some time to indulge your aesthetic whims and make something for yourself, rather than for a client or your company. And you can use a computer – or not. If you’re an interaction designer, it’s likely you’ve already made a storyboard or flow, or designed some characters for personas. This is a wee jump away from that, to the realm of storytelling and navigating human emotions through characters who may or may not be human. Similar medium and skills, different content. It’s not a client deliverable but something that stands by itself, and you’ve nobody’s criteria to meet except those that exist in your imagination! Thanks to your brain and the alchemy of comics, you can put nearly anything in a sequence and your brain will find a way to make sense of it. Scott McCloud wrote about the non sequitur in comics: “There is a kind of alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations.” Here’s an example of a non sequitur from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics – the images bear no relation to one another, but since they’re in a sequence our brains do their best to understand it: Once you know this it takes the pressure off somewhat. It’s a fun thing to keep in mind and experiment with in your comics! Materials needed A4 copy/printing paper HB pencil for light drawing Dip pen and waterproof Indian ink Bristol board (or any good quality card with a smooth, durable surface) Step 1: Get ideas You’d be surprised where you can take a small grain of an idea and develop it into an interesting comic. Think about a funny conversation you had, or any irrational fears, habits, dreams or anything else. Just start writing and drawing. Having ideas is hard, I know, but you will get some ideas when you start working. One way to keep track of ideas is to keep a sketch diary, capturing funny conversations and other events you could use in comics later. You might want to just sketch out the whole comic very roughly if that helps. I tend to sketch the story first, but it usually changes drastically during step 2. Step 2: Edit your story using thumbnails How thumbnailing works. Why use thumbnails? You can move them around or get rid of them! Drawings are harder and much slower to edit than words, so you need to draw something very quick and very rough. You don’t have to care about drawing quality at this point. You might already have a drafted comic from the previous step; now you can split each panel up into a thumbnail like the image above. Get an A4 sheet of printing paper and tear it up into squares. A thumbnail equals a comic panel. Start drawing one panel per thumbnail. This way you can move scenes and parts of the story around as you work on the pacing. It’s an extremely useful tip if you want to expand a moment in time or draw out a dialogue, or if you want to just completely cut scenes. Step 3: Plan a layout So you’ve got the story more or less down: you now need to know how they’ll look on the page. Sketch a layout and arrange the thumbnails into the layout. The simplest way to do this is to divide an A4 page into equal panels — say, nine. But if you want, you can be more cre[...]



Being Responsive to the Small Things

Sat, 19 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Jonathan Snook considers the problem of container (or element) queries in the context of responsive web design and looks at the approach taken by current open source JavaScript solutions. Remember, no matter what size of box your Christmas gift comes in, it’s the thought that counts. Brought to you by The CSS Layout Workshop. Does developing layouts with CSS seem like hard work? How much time could you save without all the trial and error? Are you ready to really learn CSS layout? It’s that time of the year again to trim the tree with decorations. Or maybe a DOM tree? Any web page is made of HTML elements that lay themselves out in a tree structure. We start at the top and then have multiple branches with branches that branch out from there. To decorate our tree, we use CSS to specify which branches should receive the tinsel we wish to adorn upon it. It’s all so lovely. In years past, this was rather straightforward. But these days, our trees need to be versatile. They need to be responsive! Responsive web design is pretty wonderful, isn’t it? Based on our viewport, we can decide how elements on the page should change their appearance to accommodate various constraints using media queries. Clearleft have a delightfully clean and responsive site Alas, it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. With complex layouts, we may have design chunks — let’s call them components — that appear in different contexts. Each context may end up providing its own constraints on the design, both in its default state and in its possibly various responsive states. Media queries, however, limit us to the context of the entire viewport, not individual containers on the page. For every container our component lives in, we need to specify how to rearrange things in that context. The more complex the system, the more contexts we need to write code for. @media (min-width: 800px) { .features > .component { } .sidebar > .component {} .grid > .component {} } Each new component and each new breakpoint just makes the entire system that much more difficult to maintain. @media (min-width: 600px) { .features > .component { } .grid > .component {} } @media (min-width: 800px) { .features > .component { } .sidebar > .component {} .grid > .component {} } @media (min-width: 1024px) { .features > .component { } } Enter container queries Container queries, also known as element queries, allow you to specify conditional CSS based on the width (or maybe height) of the container that an element lives in. In doing so, you no longer have to consider the entire page and the interplay of all the elements within. With container queries, you’ll be able to consider the breakpoints of just the component you’re designing. As a result, you end up specifying less code and the components you develop have fewer dependencies on the things around them. (I guess that makes your components more independent.) Awesome, right? There’s only one catch. Browsers can’t do container queries. There’s not even an official specification for them yet. The Responsive Issues (née Images) Community Group is looking into solving how such a thing would actually work. See, container queries are tricky from an implementation perspective. The contents of a container can affect the size of the container. Because of this, you end up with troublesome circular references. For example, if the width of the container is under 500px then the width of the child element should be 600px, and if the width of the container is over 500px then the width of the child element should be 400px. Can you see the dilemma? When the container is under 500px, the child element resizes to 600px and suddenly the container is 600px. If the container is 600px, then the child element is 400px! And so on, forever. This is bad. I guess we should [...]



Cooking Up Effective Technical Writing

Fri, 18 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Sally Jenkinson sets out her recipe for helpful documentation, suggesting you serve up structured, easily digestible and nutritious information for your readers. With a dusting of screencasts and GIFs, it’s a recipe for success at Christmas and beyond. Merry Christmas! May your preparations for this festive season of gluttony be shaping up beautifully. By the time you read this I hope you will have ordered your turkey, eaten twice your weight in Roses/Quality Street (let’s not get into that argument), and your Christmas cake has been baked and is now quietly absorbing regular doses of alcohol. Some of you may be reading this and scoffing Of course! I’ve also made three batches of mince pies, a seasonal chutney and enough gingerbread men to feed the whole street! while others may be laughing Bake? Oh no, I can’t cook to save my life. For beginners, recipes are the step-by-step instructions that hand-hold us through the cooking process, but even as a seasoned expert you’re likely to refer to a recipe at some point. Recipes tell us what we need, what to do with it, in what order, and what the outcome will be. It’s the documentation behind our ideas, and allows us to take the blueprint for a tasty morsel and to share it with others so they can recreate it. In fact, this is a little like the open source documentation and tutorials that we put out there, similarly aiming to guide other developers through our creations. The ‘just’ification of documentation Lately it feels like we’re starting to consider the importance of our words, and the impact they can have on others. Brad Frost warned us of the dangers of “Just” when it comes to offering up solutions to queries: “Just use this software/platform/toolkit/methodology…” “Just” makes me feel like an idiot. “Just” presumes I come from a specific background, studied certain courses in university, am fluent in certain technologies, and have read all the right books, articles, and resources. “Just” is a dangerous word. “Just” by Brad Frost I can really empathise with these sentiments. My relationship with code started out as many good web tales do, with good old HTML, CSS and JavaScript. University years involved some time with Perl, PHP, Java and C. In my first job I worked primarily with ColdFusion, a bit of ActionScript, some classic  ASP and pinch of Java. I’d do a bit of PHP outside work every now and again. .NET came in, but we never really got on, and eventually I started learning some Ruby, Python and Node. It was a broad set of learnings, and I enjoyed the similarities and differences that came with new languages. I don’t develop day in, day out any more, and my interests and work have evolved over the years, away from full-time development and more into architecture and strategy. But I still make things, and I still enjoy learning. I have often found myself bemoaning the lack of tutorials or courses that cater for the middle level – someone who may be learning a new language, but who has enough programming experience under their belt to not need to revise the concepts of how loops or objects work, and is perfectly adept at googling the syntax for getting a substring. I don’t want snippets out of context; I want an understanding of architectural principles, of the strengths and weaknesses, of the type of applications that work well with the language. I’m caught in the place between snoozing off when ‘Using the Instagram API with Ruby’ hand-holds me through what REST is, and feeling like I’m stupid and need to go back to dev school when I can’t get my environment and dependencies set up, let alone work out how I’m meant to get any code to run. It’s seems I’m not alone with this – Erin McKean seems to have been here too: “Some tutorials (especially coding tutorials) like to beg[...]



The Accessibility Mindset

Thu, 17 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Eric Eggert celebrates the simplicity of making websites accessible and, when accessibility is as fundamental to a project as performance and code quality, how it can improve the experience for all users. The web, like a gleeful cheer of “Merry Christmas” at yuletide, is for everyone. Accessibility is often characterized as additional work, hard to learn and only affecting a small number of people. Those myths have no logical foundation and often stem from outdated information or misconceptions. Indeed, it is an additional skill set to acquire, quite like learning new JavaScript frameworks, CSS layout techniques or new HTML elements. But it isn’t particularly harder to learn than those other skills. A World Health Organization (WHO) report on disabilities states that, [i]ncluding children, over a billion people (or about 15% of the world’s population) were estimated to be living with disability. Being disabled is not as unusual as one might think. Due to chronic health conditions and older people having a higher risk of disability, we are also currently paving the cowpath to an internet that we can still use in the future. Accessibility has a very close relationship with usability, and advancements in accessibility often yield improvements in the usability of a website. Websites are also more adaptable to users’ needs when they are built in an accessible fashion. Beyond the bare minimum In the time of table layouts, web developers could create code that passed validation rules but didn’t adhere to the underlying semantic HTML model. We later developed best practices, like using lists for navigation, and with HTML5 we started to wrap those lists in nav elements. Working with accessibility standards is similar. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) 2.0 can inform your decision to make websites accessible and can be used to test that you met the success criteria. What it can’t do is measure how well you met them. W3C developed a long list of techniques that can be used to make your website accessible, but you might find yourself in a situation where you need to adapt those techniques to be the most usable solution for your particular problem. The checkbox below is implemented in an accessible way: The input element has an id and the label associated with the checkbox refers to the input using the for attribute. The hover area is shown with a yellow background and a black dotted border: Open video The label is clickable and the checkbox has an accessible description. Job done, right? Not really. Take a look at the space between the label and the checkbox: Open video The gutter is created using a right margin which pushes the label to the right. Users would certainly expect this space to be clickable as well. The simple solution is to wrap the label around the checkbox and the text: Open video You can also set the label to display:block; to further increase the clickable area: Open video And while we’re at it, users might expect the whole box to be clickable anyway. Let’s apply the CSS that was on a wrapping div element to the label directly: Open video The result enhances the usability of your form element tremendously for people with lower dexterity, using a voice mouse, or using touch interfaces. And we only used basic HTML and CSS techniques; no JavaScript was added and not one extra line of CSS.
Button Example The button below looks like a typical edit button: a pencil icon on a real button element. But if you are using a screen reader or a braille keyboard, the button is just read as “button” without any indication of [...]



Beyond the Style Guide

Wed, 16 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Paul Robert Lloyd runs his finger along the seam between interface patterns and design systems, exploring how a visual design language can underpin and inform a web style guide, with judicious use of CSS preprocessing. Like a good Christmas jumper, sometimes you need to get creative with the rules. Much like baking a Christmas cake, designing for the web involves creating an experience in layers. Starting with a solid base that provides the core experience (the fruit cake), we can add further layers, each adding refinement (the marzipan) and delight (the icing). Don’t worry, this isn’t a misplaced cake recipe, but an evaluation of modular design and the role style guides can play in acknowledging these different concerns, be they presentational or programmatic. The auteur’s style guide Although trained as a graphic designer, it was only when I encountered the immediacy of the web that I felt truly empowered as a designer. Given a desire to control every aspect of the resulting experience, I slowly adopted the role of an auteur, exploring every part of the web stack: front-end to back-end, and everything in between. A few years ago, I dreaded using the command line. Today, the terminal is a permanent feature in my Dock. In straddling the realms of graphic design and programming, it’s the point at which they meet that I find most fascinating, with each dicipline valuing the creation of effective systems, be they for communication or code efficiency. Front-end style guides live at this intersection, demonstrating both the modularity of code and the application of visual design. Painting by numbers In our rush to build modular systems, design frameworks have grown in popularity. While enabling quick assembly, these come at the cost of originality and creative expression – perhaps one reason why we’re seeing the homogenisation of web design. In editorial design, layouts should accentuate content and present it in an engaging manner. Yet on the web we see a practice that seeks templated predictability. In ‘Design Machines’ Travis Gertz argued that (emphasis added): Design systems still feel like a novelty in screen-based design. We nerd out over grid systems and modular scales and obsess over style guides and pattern libraries. We’re pretty good at using them to build repeatable components and site-wide standards, but that’s sort of where it ends. […] But to stop there is to ignore the true purpose and potential of a design system. Unless we consider how interface patterns fully embrace the design systems they should be built upon, style guides may exacerbate this paint-by-numbers approach, encouraging conformance and suppressing creativity. Anatomy of a button Let’s take a look at that most canonical of components, the button, and consider what we might wish to document and demonstrate in a style guide. The different layers of our button component. Content The most variable aspect of any component. Content guidelines will exert the most influence here, dictating things like tone of voice (whether we should we use stiff, formal language like ‘Submit form’, or adopt a more friendly tone, perhaps ‘Send us your message’) and appropriate language. For an internationalised interface, this may also impact word length and text direction or orientation. Structure HTML provides a limited vocabulary which we can use to structure content and add meaning. For interactive elements, the choice of element can also affect its behaviour, such as whether a button submits form data or links to another page: Button text Note: One of the reasons I prefer to use



Grid, Flexbox, Box Alignment: Our New System for Layout

Sun, 06 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Rachel Andrew unwraps the new paradigms of web layout, comparing their features and showing how they can free us from grid-based, div-infested frameworks. Beautifully wrapped boxes look lovely under the Christmas tree, but we need to think and break out of them. Brought to you by The CSS Layout Workshop. Does developing layouts with CSS seem like hard work? How much time could you save without all the trial and error? Are you ready to really learn CSS layout? Three years ago for 24 ways 2012, I wrote an article about a new CSS layout method I was excited about. A specification had emerged, developed by people from the Internet Explorer team, bringing us a proper grid system for the web. In 2015, that Internet Explorer implementation is still the only public implementation of CSS grid layout. However, in 2016 we should be seeing it in a new improved form ready for our use in browsers. Grid layout has developed hidden behind a flag in Blink, and in nightly builds of WebKit and, latterly, Firefox. By being developed in this way, breaking changes could be safely made to the specification as no one was relying on the experimental implementations in production work. Another new layout method has emerged over the past few years in a more public and perhaps more painful way. Shipped prefixed in browsers, The flexible box layout module (flexbox) was far too tempting for developers not to use on production sites. Therefore, as changes were made to the specification, we found ourselves with three different flexboxes, and browser implementations that did not match one another in completeness or in the version of specified features they supported. Owing to the different ways these modules have come into being, when I present on grid layout it is often the very first time someone has heard of the specification. A question I keep being asked is whether CSS grid layout and flexbox are competing layout systems, as though it might be possible to back the loser in a CSS layout competition. The reality, however, is that these two methods will sit together as one system for doing layout on the web, each method playing to certain strengths and serving particular layout tasks. If there is to be a loser in the battle of the layouts, my hope is that it will be the layout frameworks that tie our design to our markup. They have been a necessary placeholder while we waited for a true web layout system, but I believe that in a few years time we’ll be easily able to date a website to circa 2015 by seeing
or
in the markup. In this article, I’m going to take a look at the common features of our new layout systems, along with a couple of examples which serve to highlight the differences between them. To see the grid layout examples you will need to enable grid in your browser. The easiest thing to do is to enable the experimental web platform features flag in Chrome. Details of current browser support can be found here. Relationship Items only become flex or grid items if they are a direct child of the element that has display:flex, display:grid or display:inline-grid applied. Those direct children then understand themselves in the context of the complete layout. This makes many things possible. It’s the lack of relationship between elements that makes our existing layout methods difficult to use. If we float two columns, left and right, we have no way to tell the shorter column to extend to the height of the taller one. We have expended a lot of effort trying to figure out the best way to make full-height columns work, using techniques that were never really designed for page layout. At a very simple level, the relationship between elements means that we can easily achieve full-height[...]



Universal React

Sat, 05 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Jack Franklin darns the holes left in our applications by exploring how our client-side JavaScript frameworks might also be run on the server to provide universal support for all types of user. How will you react when you see mommy kissing Server Claus? One of the libraries to receive a huge amount of focus in 2015 has been ReactJS, a library created by Facebook for building user interfaces and web applications. More generally we’ve seen an even greater rise in the number of applications built primarily on the client side with most of the logic implemented in JavaScript. One of the main issues with building an app in this way is that you immediately forgo any customers who might browse with JavaScript turned off, and you can also miss out on any robots that might visit your site to crawl it (such as Google’s search bots). Additionally, we gain a performance improvement by being able to render from the server rather than having to wait for all the JavaScript to be loaded and executed. The good news is that this problem has been recognised and it is possible to build a fully featured client-side application that can be rendered on the server. The way in which these apps work is as follows: The user visits www.yoursite.com and the server executes your JavaScript to generate the HTML it needs to render the page. In the background, the client-side JavaScript is executed and takes over the duty of rendering the page. The next time a user clicks, rather than being sent to the server, the client-side app is in control. If the user doesn’t have JavaScript enabled, each click on a link goes to the server and they get the server-rendered content again. This means you can still provide a very quick and snappy experience for JavaScript users without having to abandon your non-JS users. We achieve this by writing JavaScript that can be executed on the server or on the client (you might have heard this referred to as isomorphic) and using a JavaScript framework that’s clever enough handle server- or client-side execution. Currently, ReactJS is leading the way here, although Ember and Angular are both working on solutions to this problem. It’s worth noting that this tutorial assumes some familiarity with React in general, its syntax and concepts. If you’d like a refresher, the ReactJS docs are a good place to start.  Getting started We’re going to create a tiny ReactJS application that will work on the server and the client. First we’ll need to create a new project and install some dependencies. In a new, blank directory, run: npm init -y npm install --save ejs express react react-router react-dom That will create a new project and install our dependencies: ejs is a templating engine that we’ll use to render our HTML on the server. express is a small web framework we’ll run our server on. react-router is a popular routing solution for React so our app can fully support and respect URLs. react-dom is a small React library used for rendering React components. We’re also going to write all our code in ECMAScript 6, and therefore need to install BabelJS and configure that too. npm install --save-dev babel-cli babel-preset-es2015 babel-preset-react Then, create a .babelrc file that contains the following: { "presets": ["es2015", "react"] } What we’ve done here is install Babel’s command line interface (CLI) tool and configured it to transform our code from ECMAScript 6 (or ES2015) to ECMAScript 5, which is more widely supported. We’ll need the React transforms when we start writing JSX when working with React. Creating a server For now, our ExpressJS server is pretty straightforward. All we’ll do is render a view that says ‘Hello World’. Here’s our server code: import[...]



Get Expressive with Your Typography

Fri, 04 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Richard Rutter adapts an extract from his forthcoming book on web typography and encourages us to be brave with type choices. By allowing type to express a website’s intentions from even before the moment a visitor starts to read, we can help set the tone and our users’ expectations. In 1955 Beatrice Warde, an American communicator on typography, published a series of essays entitled The Crystal Goblet in which she wrote, “People who love ideas must have a love of words. They will take a vivid interest in the clothes that words wear.” And with that proposition Warde introduced the idea that just as we judge someone based on the clothes they are wearing, so we make judgements about text based on the typefaces in which it is set. Beatrice Warde. ©1970 Monotype Imaging Inc. Choosing the same typeface as everyone else, especially if you’re trying to make a statement, is like turning up to a party in the same dress; to a meeting in the same suit, shirt and tie; or to a craft ale dispensary in the same plaid shirt and turned-up skinny jeans. But there’s more to your choice of typeface than simply making an impression. In 2012 Jon Tan wrote on 24 ways about a scientific study called “The Aesthetics of Reading” which concluded that “good quality typography is responsible for greater engagement during reading and thus induces a good mood.” Furthermore, at this year’s Ampersand conference Sarah Hyndman, an expert in multisensory typography, discussed how typefaces can communicate with our subconscious. Sarah showed that different fonts could have an effect on how food tasted. A rounded font placed near a bowl of jellybeans would make them taste sweeter, and a jagged angular font would make them taste more sour. The quality of your typography can therefore affect the mood of your reader, and your font choice directly affect the senses. This means you can manipulate the way people feel. You can change their emotional state through type alone. Now that’s a real superpower! The effects of your body text design choices are measurable but subtle. If you really want to have an impact you need to think big. Literally. Display text and headings are your attention grabbers. They are your chance to interrupt, introduce and seduce. Display text and headings set the scene and draw people in. Text set large creates an image that visitors see before they read, and that’s your chance to choose a typeface that immediately expresses what the text, and indeed the entire website, stands for. What expectations of the text do you want to set up? Youthful enthusiasm? Businesslike? Cutting-edge? Hipster? Sensible and secure? Fun and informal? Authoritarian? Typography conveys much more than just information. It imparts feeling, emotion and sentiment, and arouses preconceived ideas of trust, tone and content. Think about taking advantage of this by introducing impactful, expressive typography to your designs on the web. You can alter the way your reader feels, so what emotion do you want to provoke? Maybe you want them to feel inspired like this stop smoking campaign: helsenorge.no Perhaps they should be moved and intrigued, as with Makeshift magazine: mkshft.org Or calmly reassured: www.cleopatra-marina.gr Fonts also tap into the complex library of associations that we’ve been accumulating in our brains all of our lives. You build up these associations every time you see a font from the context that you see it in. All of us associate certain letterforms with topics, times and places. Retiro is obviously Spanish: Retiro by Typofonderie Bodoni and Eurostile used in this menu couldn’t be much more Italian: Bodoni and Eurostile, both designed in Italy To me, Clarendon [...]



How to Do a UX Review

Thu, 03 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Joe Leech offers a rundown on his UX review process, sharing tips about analysing data and creating personas, and setting out findings in a form that benefits clients. From quick wins to workshops, there are gifts here everyone will be grateful for. A UX review is where an expert goes through a website looking for usability and experience problems and makes recommendations on how to fix them. I’ve completed a number of UX reviews over my twelve years working as a user experience consultant and I thought I’d share my approach. I’ll be talking about reviewing websites here; you can adapt the approach for web apps, or mobile or desktop apps. Why conduct a review Typically, a client asks for a review to be undertaken by a trusted and, ideally, detached third party who either works for an agency or is a freelancer. Often they may ask a new member of the UX team to complete one, or even set it as a task for a job interview. This indicates the client is looking for an objective view, seen from the outside as a user would see the website. I always suggest conducting some user research rather than a review. Users know their goals and watching them make (what you might think of as) mistakes on the website is invaluable. Conducting research with six users can give you six hours’ worth of review material from six viewpoints. In short, user research can identify more problems and show how common those problems might be. There are three reasons, though, why a review might better suit client needs than user research: Quick results: user research and analysis takes at least three weeks. Limited budget: the £6–10,000 cost to run user research is about twice the cost of a UX review. Users are hard to reach: in the business-to-business world, reaching users is difficult, especially if your users hold senior positions in their organisations. Working with consumers is much easier as there are often more of them. There is some debate about the benefits of user research over UX review. In my experience you learn far more from research, but opinions differ. Be objective The number one mistake many UX reviewers make is reporting back the issues they identify as their opinion. This can cause credibility problems because you have to keep justifying why your opinion is correct. I’ve had the most success when giving bad news in a UX review and then finally getting things fixed when I have been as objective as possible, offering evidence for why something may be a problem. To be objective we need two sources of data: numbers from analytics to appeal to reason; and stories from users in the form of personas to speak to emotions. Highlighting issues with dispassionate numerical data helps show the extent of the problem. Making the problems more human using personas can make the problem feel more real. Numbers from analytics The majority of clients I work with use Google Analytics, but if you use a different analytics package the same concepts apply. I use analytics to find two sets of things. 1. Landing pages and search terms Landing pages are the pages users see first when they visit a website – more often than not via a Google search. Landing pages reveal user goals. If a user landed on a page called ‘Yellow shoes’ their goal may well be to find out about or buy some yellow shoes. It would be great to see all the search terms bringing people to the website but in 2011 Google stopped providing search term data to (rightly!) protect users’ privacy. You can get some search term data from Google Webmaster tools, but we must rely on landing pages as a clue to our users’ goals. The thing to look for is high-traffic landing pages wi[...]



Being Customer Supportive

Wed, 02 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Elizabeth Galle extends goodwill to all customers this Christmas (and beyond) with some insights into establishing and maintaining good relationships through effective customer support. Every day in customer support is an inbox, a Twitter feed, or a software forum full of new questions. Each is brimming with your customers looking for advice, reassurance, or fixes for their software problems. Each one is an opportunity to take a break from wrestling with your own troublesome tasks and assist someone else in solving theirs. Sometimes the questions are straightforward and can be answered in a few minutes with a short greeting, a link to a help page, or a prewritten bit of text you use regularly: how to print a receipt, reset a password, or even, sadly, close your account. More often, a support email requires you to spend some time unpacking the question, asking for more information, and writing a detailed personal response, tailored to help that particular user on this particular day. Here I offer a few of my own guidelines on how to make today’s email the best support experience for both me and my customer. And even if you don’t consider what you do to be customer support, you might still find the suggestions useful for the next time you need to communicate with a client, to solve a software problem with teammates, or even reach out and ask for help yourself. (All the examples appearing in this article are fictional. Any resemblance to quotes from real, software-using persons is entirely coincidental. Except for the bit about Star Wars. That happened.) Who’s TAHT girl I’ll be honest: I briefly tried making these recommendations into a clever mnemonic like FAST (facial drooping, arm weakness, speech difficulties, time) or PAD (pressure, antiseptic, dressing). But instead, you get TAHT: tone, ask, help, thank. Ah, well. As I work through each message in my support queue, I listen to the tone of the email ask clarifying questions bring in extra help as needed and thank the customer when the problem is solved. Let’s open an email and get started! Leave your message at the sound of the tone With our enthusiasm for emoji, it can be very hard to infer someone’s tone from plain text. How much time have you spent pondering why your friend responded with “Thanks.” instead of “Thanks!”? I mean, why didn’t she :grin: or :wink: too? Our support customers, however, are often direct about how they’re feeling: I’m working against a deadline. Need this fixed ASAP!!!! This hasn’t worked in a week and I am getting really frustrated. I’ve done this ten times before and it’s always worked. I must be missing something simple. They want us to understand the urgency of this from their point of view, just as much as we want to help them in a timely manner. How this information is conveyed gives us an instant sense of whether they are frustrated, angry, or confused—and, just as importantly, how frustrated-angry-confused they are. Listen to this tone before you start writing your reply. Here are two ways I might open an email: “I’m sorry that you ran into trouble with this.” “Sorry you ran into trouble with this!” The content is largely the same, but the tone is markedly different. The first version is a serious, staid reaction to the problem the customer is having; the second version is more relaxed, but no less sincere. Matching the tone to the sender’s is an important first step. Overusing exclamation points or dropping in too-casual language may further upset someone who is already having a crummy time with your product. But to a cheerful user, a formal reply or an impersonal form [...]



Animating Your Brand

Tue, 01 Dec 2015 12:00:00 +0000

Donovan Hutchinson stamps his snow-caked boots, unwinds his scarf and eases [See what we did there? Did you?] us into December with some tips and resources on integrating animation into our website style guides. A warm animated welcome to 24 ways 2015! Brought to you by MightyDeals Get 10% off with code ‘24ways’ on all deals from MightyDeals.com: The best deals for web designers and developers. Let’s talk about how we add animation to our designs, in a way that’s consistent with other aspects of our brand, such as fonts, colours, layouts and everything else. Animating is fun. Adding animation to our designs can bring them to life and make our designs stand out. Animations can show how the pieces of our designs fit together. They provide context and help people use our products. All too often animation is something we tack on at the end. We put a transition on a modal window or sliding menu and we often don’t think about whether that animation is consistent with our overall design. Style guides to the rescue A style guide is a document that establishes and enforces style to improve communication. It can cover anything from typography and writing style to ethics and other, broader goals. It might be a static visual document showing every kind of UI, like in the Codecademy.com redesign shown below. UI toolkit from “Reimagining Codecademy.com” by @mslima It might be a technical reference with code examples. CodePen’s new design patterns and style guide is a great example of this, showing all the components used throughout the website as live code. CodePen’s design patterns and style guide A style guide gives a wide view of your project, it maintains consistency when adding new content, and we can use our style guide to present animations. Living documents Style guides don’t need to be static. We can use them to show movement. We can share CSS keyframe animations or transitions that can then go into production. We can also explain why animation is there in the first place. Just as a style guide might explain why we chose a certain font or layout, we can use style guides to explain the intent behind animation. This means that if someone else wants to create a new component, they will know why animation applies. If you haven’t yet set up a style guide, you might want to take a look at Pattern Lab. It’s a great tool for setting up your own style guide and includes loads of design patterns to get started. There are many style guide articles linked from the excellent, open sourced, Website Style Guide Resources. Anna Debenham also has an excellent pocket book on the subject. Adding animation Before you begin throwing animation at all the things, establish the character you want to convey. Andrex Puppy (British TV ad from 1994) List some words that describe the character you’re aiming for. If it was the Andrex brand, they might have gone for: fun, playful, soft, comforting. Perhaps you’re aiming for something more serious, credible and authoritative. Or maybe exciting and intense, or relaxing and meditative. For each scenario, the animations that best represent these words will be different. In the example below, two animations both take the same length of time, but use different timing functions. One eases, and the other bounces around. Either might be good, depending on your needs. Timing functions (CodePen) Example: Kitman Labs Working with Kitman Labs, we spent a little time working out what words best reflected the brand and came up with the following: Scientific Precise Fast Solid Dependable Helpful Consistent Clear With such a list of words in hand, we d[...]