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CSS Grid!

The Grid code is coming!  The Grid code is coming!  It’s really, finally coming to a browser near you!  Woohooooo!

Whoa, there.  What’s all the hubbub, bub?

CSS Grid is going to become supported-by-default in Chrome and Firefox in March of 2017.  Specifically, Mozilla will ship it in Firefox 52, scheduled for March 7th.  Due to the timing of their making Grid enabled-by-default in Chrome Canary, it appears Google will ship it in Chrome 57, scheduled for March 14th.  In each case, once the support is enabled by default in the public-release channels—that is to say, the “evergreen” browser releases that the general public uses—every bit of Grid support now in place in the developer editions of the browsers will become exposed in the public releases.  Anything Grid will Just Start Working™®©.

Are those dates an ironclad guarantee?

Heck no.  Surprise problems could cause a pushback to a later release.  The release schedule could shift.  The sun could explode.  But we know the browsers already have running code for Grid, and when they mark something as ready for public release, it usually gets released to the public on schedule.

So Grid support in March, huh?

Yep!

How long until I can actually use Grid, then?  Two or three years?

March 2017.  So about four months from now.

But it won’t be universally supported then!

Rounded corners aren’t universally supported even now, but I bet you’ve used them.

Now you’re just being disingenuous.

Look, I get it.  Base layout’s a little different than shaving pixels off corners, it’s true.  If you have a huge IE9 user base, converting everything to Grid, and only Grid, might be a bit much.  But I’m guessing that you do have a layout that functions in older browsers, yes?

Of course.

Then my original answer stands: March 2017.  Because any browsers that understand Grid will also understand @supports(), and you can use that to have a Grid layout for Grid-enabled browsers while still feeding a float-and-inline-block layout to browsers that don’t understand Grid.  Jen Simmons wrote a comprehensive article about @supports(), and I wrote a short article demonstrating its use to add layout enhancements.  The same principles will apply with Grid: you can set up downlevel rules, and then encapsulate the hot new rules in @supports().  You can retroactively enhance the layouts you already have, or take that approach with any new designs.

Writing two different layouts for the same page doesn’t sound like a good use of my time.

I get that too.  Look at it this way: at some point, you’re going to have to learn Grid.  Why not learn it on the job, experimenting with layouts you already understand and know how you want to have behave, instead of having to set aside extra time to learn it in a vacuum using example files that have nothing to do with your work?  You’ll be able to take it at your own pace, build up a new set of instincts, and future-proof your work.

Can’t I just wait until someone creates a framework for me?

You could, except here’s the thing: as Jen Simmons has observed, Grid is a framework.  Using a framework to abstract a framework seems inefficient at best.  I mean, sure, people are going to do it.  There will be Gridstraps and GAMLs and 1280.gses and what have you.  And when those are out, if you decide to use one, you’ll have spend time and energy learning how it works.  I recommend investing that time in learning Grid Actual, so that you can build your own layouts and not be constrained by the assumptions that are inevitably baked into frameworks.

Grid sounds like tables 2.0.  I thought we all agreed tables for layout were a bad idea.

We agreed table markup for layout was a bad idea, particularly because at the time it was popular, it required massive structural hacks just to get borders around boxes, never mind rounded corners.  The objection was that it took 50KB of HTML tags and three server calls just to do anything, and 100 times that to set up a whole page’s layout, plus table markup locked everything into a very precise source order that played merry hell with any concept of accessible, searchable content.  The objection wasn’t to the visual result.  It was to what it took to get those results.

With Grid, you get the ability to take simple, accessible markup, and lay it out pretty much however you want.  You can put the last element in the source first in layout, for example.  You can switch a couple of adjacent bits of the page.  Questions like “how do I order these elements to get them to lay out right?” become a thing of the past.  You order them properly, and then lay them out.  It’s the closest we’ve ever gotten to a clean separation between structure and presentation.

Not only that, but thanks to CSS transforms, clipping paths, float shapes, and more, you don’t have to make everything into a perfectly-edged grid layout.  There is so much room for visual creativity, you can’t even imagine.  I can’t even imagine.  Nobody can.

So Grid solves every single layout question we’ve ever had, huh?  Layout Nerdvana for all?

Oh, no, there are still things missing.  Subgrid didn’t make it into these releases, so there will still be some gridlike layouts that seem like they should be simple, but will actually be difficult or impossible.  You can’t style a grid cell or area directly; you have to have a markup element of some sort to hang there and style.  All grid areas and cells have to be rectangular—you can’t have an L-shaped area, for example.  Grid gaps (“gutters”) can only be of uniform size on a given axis, very much like border-spacing in table CSS.

You can usually fake your way around these limitations, but they’re still limitations, at least for now.  And yeah, there will probably be bugs found.  If not bugs, probably unexpected use cases that the spec doesn’t adequately cover.  But a lot of people have worked really hard over an extended period of time on stamping out bugs and supporting a variety of use cases.  This is solid work, and it’s going to ship in that state.

What happens if Firefox or Chrome pushes Grid back a release or two, but the other ships on schedule?

In that case, it will take a little longer for your @supports()-encapsulated Grid rules to be recognized by the tardy browser.  No big deal.  The same applies to MS Edge, which hasn’t caught up to the new Grid syntax even though it was the first to ship a Grid implementation—with different rules, all behind prefixes.  Once Edge gets wise to the new syntax and behaviors, your CSS will just start working there, same as it did in Firefox and Chrome and any other browser that adds Grid.

All right, so where can I go to learn how to use it?

There are several good resources, with more coming online even now.  Here are just a few:

  • The Experimental Layout Lab of Jen Simmons — great for seeing layout examples in action using a variety of new technologies.  If you’re laser-focused on just Grid, then start with example #7, “Image Gallery Study”, but the whole site is worth exploring.  Bonus: make sure to responsively test the top of the page, which has some great Grid-driven rearrangements as the page gets more narrow.
  • Rachel Andrews’ Grid By Example — a large and growing collection of examples, resources, tutorials, and more.  There’s a whole section titled “Learn Grid Layout” that’s further broken up into sections like “UI Patterns” and “Video tutorial”.
  • CSS-Tricks’ A Complete Guide to Grid — a boiled-down, pared-down, no-nonsense distillation of Grid properties and values.  It might be a bit bewildering if you’re new to Grid, but it’s the kind of resource you’ll probably come back to again and again as you’re getting familiar with Grid.
  • CSS Grid Layout specification — if all else fails, you can always go to the source, Luke.

But remember!  If you hit these sites before March 2017, you’ll need to make sure you have Grid support enabled in your browser so that you can make sense of the examples (not to mention anything you might create yourself).  Igalia has a brief and handy how-to page at Enable CSS Grid Layout, and Rachel also has a Browsers page with more information.

I’ve been hurt by layout promises before, and I’m afraid to trust.

I feel you.  Oh, do I feel you.  But this really looks like the real thing.  It’s coming.  Get ready.

Invisible Airwaves

All of a sudden, I’m on three different podcasts that released within the last week.  Check ‘em out:

  • The Web Ahead #115 — recorded LIVE! at An Event Apart Nashville, I joined Rachel Andrew, Jeffrey Zeldman, and host Jen Simmons for an hour-plus look at the present and future of web design and web design technologies, featuring a number of really sharp questions submitted by the audience as we talked.  We got Nostradamic with this one, so warm up the claim chowder pots!
  • User Defenders #20 — Sara and I talked with host Jason Ogle for just over an hour about Design for Real Life, digging deep into the themes and our intentions.  Jason really brought great questions from having just read the book, and I feel like Sara and I kept our answers focused and compact.
  • The Big Web Show #144 — Jeffrey and I talked for just under an hour about Design for Real Life and the themes of my AEA talk this year.  This one’s more of a ramble between two friends and colleagues, so if you prefer conversation a little looser, this one’s for you.

Share and enjoy!

Design for Real Life

The cover of ‘Design for Real Life’

On March 8th, 2016—just eight days from the day I’m writing this—Design for Real Life will be available from A Book Apart.  My co-author Sara Wachter-Boettcher and I are really looking forward to getting it into people’s hands.

The usual fashion is to say something like “getting it into people’s hands at long last”, but in this case, that’s not really how it went down.  Just over a year ago now, Sara published “Personal Histories”, and it was a revelation.  In her post, I could see the other half of the book that was developing in my head, a book that was growing out of “Designing for Crisis” and “Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty”.  So I emailed Sara and opened with:

Your post was like a bolt of lightning for me.  In the same way the Year in Review thing opened my eyes to what lay beyond “Designing for Crisis”, your post opened my eyes to how far that land beyond reaches.

After research and some intense discussions, we started writing in the spring of 2015, and finished before summer was over.  Fall of 2015 was devoted to rewrites, revisions, additions, and editing.  Winter 2015-2016 was spent in collaborative editorial and production work by the amazing team at A Book Apart.  And now…here we are.  The book is just a week away from being in people’s hands.

To celebrate, Sara and I will be hosting, with incredibly generous support from A Book Apart and PhillyCHI, a launch party at Frankford Hall in Philadelphia.  We’ll be providing some munchies, some tasty adult beverages, and there will be giveaways of both paper and digital copies of the book.  We’d love to see you there!  If you can make it, please do RSVP at that link, so we know how much food to order.

We chose Philadelphia as the site for our launch party for a few reasons.  For one, Sara lives there, so only one of us had to travel.  But to me, it brings some very personal histories full circle, because Philadelphia is where this really all got started.  It’s where Rebecca first went to be treated, where she was given the best possible shot at life, and where I started to notice the failures and successes of user experience design when it collided with the stresses of real life.

In a number of ways, this book has been a labor of love.  The most important, I think, is the love Sara and I have for our field, and how we would love to see it become more humane—really, more human.  That’s why we packed the book not just with examples of good and bad design choices, but of how we can do better.  The whole second part of the book is about how to take the principles we explore in the first part and put them to work right now—not by throwing out your current process and replacing it with a whole new, but by bringing them into your existing practice.  It’s very much about enhancing what you already do.

It’s been an intense process, both emotionally and work-wise.  We pushed as hard as we could to get this to you as soon as we could.  Now the time is almost here.  We’re really looking forward to hearing what you think of it.

Designing for Crisis, Design for Real Life

Back in October of 2014, at An Event Apart Orlando, I returned to public speaking with “Designing for Crisis”, my first steps toward illuminating how and why design needs to consider more than just the usual use cases.  I continued refining and delivering that talk throughout 2015, and it was recorded in October 2015 at An Event Apart Austin.  As of late last week, you can see the entire talk for free.

Vimeo: Designing for Crisis by Eric Meyer

There were a lot of strange confluences that went into that talk, some of them horrific, others just remarkable.  One that stands out for me, as I look at that screenshot, is how a few years ago, Jared Spool gave a talk at AEA where he discussed the GE Adventure Series, in a segment that never failed to choke me up (and often choked up Jared).  I remember being completely floored by that example, and at one point, based solely on what he’d said about the GE Adventure Series, I remarked to Jared that I occasionally thought about switching career tracks to become an experience designer.

Less than two years later, I stood in one of the first Adventure Series rooms at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, standing in the middle of a design I’d only ever seen on a projector screen, the same room you can see in the screenshot above, as my daughter’s head was scanned to see if the experimental medicine we’d been giving her had slowed her tumors.

Six months after that, I was talking about it on stage in Orlando, as an example of how designing for crisis can have spectacularly positive results.  The video we released last week came a year later, and is a much better version of that first talk.  I’m very happy that we can now share it with the world.

As I’ve said before, I came to realize that “Designing for Crisis” was just one piece of a larger puzzle.  To start exploring and understanding the whole puzzle, I recently finished co-authoring Design for Real Life with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, to be published by A Book Apart, possibly as soon as March (but there’s not an official date yet, so that could change).  In it, Sara and I explore a small set of principles to use in approaching design work, and talk about how to incorporate those principles into your existing design practice.  The book is the foundation for a new talk I’ll be presenting at every An Event Apart in 2016—including this year’s Special Edition show in Orlando.

As soon as the book is available for order, we’ll let everyone know—but for now, I hope you’ll find last year’s talk useful and enlightening.  Several people have told me it changed the way they approach their work, and it serves as a pretty good introduction to the ideas and themes I’ve built on it for the book and this year’s talk, so I hope it will be an hour well spent.

CSS:TDG Update

It’s time for a semi-periodic update on CSS: The Definitive Guide, 4th Edition!  The basic news is that things are proceeding, albeit slowly.  Eight chapters are even now available as ebooks or, in most cases, print-on-demand titles.  Behold:

  • CSS and Documents, which covers the raw basics of how CSS is associated with HTML, including some of the more obscure ways of strapping external styles to the document as well as media query syntax.  It’s free to download in any of the various formats O’Reilly offers.
  • Selectors, Specificity, and the Cascade, which combines two chapters to cover all of the various Level 3 selector patterns as well as the inner details of how specificity, inheritance, and cascade.
  • Values, Units and Colors, which covers all the various ways you can label numbers as well as use strings.  It also takes advantage of the new cheapness of color printing to use a bunch of nice color-value figures that aren’t forced to be all in grayscale.
  • CSS Fonts, which dives into the gory details of @font-face and how it can deeply affect the use of font-related properties, both those we use widely as well as many that are quickly gaining browser support.
  • CSS Text, which covers all the text styles that aren’t concerned with setting the font face—stuff like indenting, decoration, drop shadows, white-space handling, and so on.
  • Basic Visual Formatting in CSS, which covers how block, inline, inline-block, and other boxes are constructed, including the surprisingly-complicated topic of how lines of text are constructed.  Very fundamental stuff, but of course fundamentals are called that for a reason.
  • Transforms in CSS, which is currently FREE in ebook format, covers the transform property and its closely related properties.  2D, 3D, it’s all here.
  • Colors, Backgrounds, and Gradients, which covers those three topics in FULL GLORIOUS COLOR, fittingly enough.  Curious about the new background sizing options?  Ever wondered exactly how linear and radial gradients are constructed?  This book will tell you all that, and more.

Here’s what I have planned to write next:

  • Padding, Borders, Outlines, and Margins — including the surprisingly tricky border-image
  • Positioning – basically an update, with new and unexpected twists that have been revealed over the years (case in point)
  • Grid Layout – though this is coming faster than many of us realize, I may put this one off for a little bit while we see how browser implementations go, and find out what changes happen as a result

My co-author, Estelle, has these three chapters/short books currently in process:

  • Transitions
  • Animations
  • Flexbox

Beyond those 14 chapters, we have eight more on the roster, covering topics like floating, multicolumn layout, shapes, and more.  CSS is big now, y’all.

So that’s where we are right now.  Our hope is to have the whole thing written by the middle of 2016, at which point some interesting questions will have to be answered.  While most of the book is fine in grayscale, there are some chapters (like Colors, Backgrounds, and Gradients) that really beenfit from being in color.  Printing a 22-chapter book in color would make it punishingly expensive, even with today’s drastically lower cost of color printing.  So what to do?

Not to mention, printing a 22-chapter book is its own level of difficulty.  Even if we assume an average of 40 pages a chapter—an unreasonabnly low figure, but let’s go with it—that’s still a nine hundred page book, once you add front and back matter.  The binding requirements alone gets us into the realm of punishingly expensive, even without color.

Of course, ebook readers don’t have to care about any of that, but some people (like me) really do prefer paper.  So there will be some interesting discussions.  Print in two volumes?  Sell the individual chapter books in a giant boxed set, Chronicles of Narnia style?  We’ll see!

Content Blocking Primer

Content blockers have arrived, as I’m sure you’re aware by now.  They’re more commonly referred to as ad blockers, but they’re much more than that, really.  In fact, they’re a time machine.

Consider: a user who runs a content blocker can prevent the loading of Javascript, CSS, cookies, and web fonts.  (They can block more than that, but those asset types seem to be the main targets thus far.)  A person loading an article or other page from a web site gets the content, and that’s it, assuming the publisher hasn’t put some sort of “go away” server-side script in place.

Sound familiar?  It should.  We’ve been here before.  It’s 1995 all over again.

And, just as in 1995, publishers are faced with a landscape where they’re not sure how to make money, or even if they can make money.

Content blockers are a two-decade reset button.  We’re right back where we were, twenty years ago.  Except this: we already know a bunch of stuff that doesn’t work.

I don’t mean that ads don’t work.  Ads can work.  We’ve seen small, independent ad networks like The Deck do pretty okay.  They didn’t make anyone a billionaire, but they provided a good audience to advertisers via a low-impact mechanism, and some earnings for those who ran the ads and the network.

The ads that are at risk now are the ones delivered via bloated, badly managed, security-risk mechanisms.  In other words: what’s at risk here is terrible web development.

Granted, the development of these ads was so terrible that it made the entire mobile web ecosystem appear far more broken that it actually is, and prompted multiple attempts to rein it in.  Now we have content blockers, which are basically the nuclear option: if you aren’t going to even attempt to respect your customers, they’re happy to torch your entire infrastructure.

Ethical?  Moral?  Rational?  Hell if I know or care.  Content blockers became the top paid apps within hours of iOS9’s release, and remain so.  The market is speaking incredibly loudly.  It’s almost impossible not to hear it.  The roar is so loud, in fact, it’s difficult to make out what people are actually saying.

I have my interpretation of their shouting, but I’m going to keep it to myself.  The observation I really want to make is this: the entire industry is being given a do-over here.  Not the ad industry; the web industry.

Remember, this isn’t just about ads.  Ads are emblematic of the root problem, but they’re not the actual root problem.  If ads were the sole concern of content blockers, then the blockers (mostly) wouldn’t bother to block web fonts.  It’s possible to use web fonts smartly and efficiently, but most sites don’t, so web fonts are a major culprit in slow mobile load times.  The same is true for Javascript, whether it’s served by an ad network, an analytics engine, or some other source.  So they’re both targeted by blockers—not for enabling ads, but for disabling the web.

Content blockers strip the web back to what it was 20 years ago.  All the same challenges and questions are back, full force.  How do we make sites better, smarter, and cooler?  How do we make money by publishing online?

There are reputations and probably fortunes to be made by learning from our many mistakes and finding new, smarter ways to move forward.  I would advocate that people start with the core principles of the web standards movement, particularly progressive enhancement, but those are starting points, a foundation—just as they always were.

It’s not often that an entire industry gets an almost literal do-over.  We have two decades of hindsight to work with now, as we try to figure out how to (re)build a web where users don’t feel like they need content blockers just to be online.  This is an incredibly rare and exciting juncture.  Let’s not waste it.

Dislike

Facebook is emotionally smarter than we give it credit for, though perhaps not as algorithmically smart as it could be.

I’ve been pondering this for a few weeks now, and Zeynep Tufekci’s “Facebook and the Tyranny of the ‘Like’ in a Difficult World” prodded me to consolidate my thoughts.

(Note: This is not about what Tufekci writes about, exactly, and is not meant as a rebuttal to her argument.  I agree with her that post-ranking algorithms need to be smarter.  I also believe there are design solutions needed to compensate for the unthinking nature of those algorithms, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Tufekci’s piece perfectly describes the asymmetrical nature of Facebook’s “engagement” mechanisms, commented on for years: there is no negative mirror for the “Like” button.  As she says:

Of course he cannot like it. Nobody can. How could anyone like such an awful video?

What happens then to the video? Not much. It will mostly get ignored, because my social network has no way to signal to the algorithm that this is something they care about.

What I’ve been thinking of late is that the people in her network can comment as a way to signal their interest, caring, engagement, whatever you want to call it.  When “Like” doesn’t fit, comments are all that’s left, and I think that’s appropriate.

In a situation like Tufekci describes, or any post that deals with the difficult side of life, comments are exactly what’s called for.  Imagine if there were a “Dislike” button.  How many would just click it without commenting?  Before you answer that question, consider: how many click “Like” without commenting?  How many more would use “Dislike” as a way to avoid dealing with the situation at hand?

When someone posts something difficult—about themselves, or someone they care about, or the state of the world—they are most likely seeking the support of their community.  They’re asking to be heard.  Comments fill that need.  In an era of Likes and Faves and Stars and Hearts, a comment (usually) shows at least some measure of thought and consideration.  It shows that the poster has been heard.

Many of those posts can be hard to respond to.  I know, because many of the Facebook posts my wife and I were making two years (and one year) ago right now were doubtless incredibly hard to read.  I remember many people leaving comments along the lines of, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m thinking of you all.”  And even that probably felt awkward and insufficient to those who left such comments.  Crisis and grief and fear in others can make us very uncomfortable.  Pushing past that discomfort to say a few words is a huge show of support.  It matters.

Adding “Dislike” would be a step backward, in terms of emotional intelligence.  It could too easily rob people who post about the difficult parts of life of something they clearly seek.

Undoing oncut/oncopy/onpaste Falsities

Inspired by Ryan Joy’s excellent and deservedly popular tweet, I wrote a small, not-terribly-smart Javascript function to undo cut/copy/paste blocking in HTML.

function fixCCP() {
   var elems = document.getElementsByTagName('*');
   var attrs = ['onpaste','oncopy','oncut'];
   for (i = 0; i < elems.length; i++) {
      for (j = 0; j < attrs.length; j++) {
         if (elems[i].getAttribute(attrs[j])) {
            elems[i].setAttribute(attrs[j],elems[i]
            .getAttribute(attrs[j])
            .replace("return false","return true"));
         }
      }
   }
}

Here it is as a bookmarklet, if you still roll that way (as I do): fixCCP.  Thanks to the Bookmarklet Maker at bookmarklets.org for helping me out with that!

If there are obvious improvements to be made to its functionality, let me know and I’ll throw it up on Github.

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