Christian Heilmann

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Archive for January, 2016

Don’t tell me what my browser can’t do!

Saturday, January 16th, 2016

Chances are, your guess is wrong!

you are obviously in the wrong place
Arrogance towards possible customers never pays out – as shown in “Pretty Woman”

There is nothing more frustrating than being capable of something and not getting a chance to do it. The same goes for being blocked out from something although you are capable of consuming it. Or you’re even willing to put some extra effort or even money in and you still don’t get to consume it.

For example, I’d happily pay $50 a month to get access to Netflix’s world-wide library from any country I’m in. But the companies Netflix get their content from won’t go for that. Movies and TV show are budgeted by predicted revenue in different geographical markets with month-long breaks in between the releases. A world-wide network capable of delivering content in real time? Preposterous — let’s shut that down.

On a less “let’s break a 100 year old monopoly” scale of annoyance, I tweeted yesterday something glib and apparently cruel:

“Sorry, but your browser does not support WebGL!” – sorry, you are a shit coder.

And I stand by this. I went to a web site that promised me some cute, pointless animation and technological demo. I was using Firefox Nightly — a WebGL capable browser. I also went there with Microsoft Edge — another WebGL capable browser. Finally, using Chrome, I was able to delight in seeing an animation.

I’m not saying the creators of that thing lack in development capabilities. The demo was slick, beautiful and well coded. They still do lack in two things developers of web products (and I count apps into that) should have: empathy for the end user and an understanding that they are not in control.

Now, I am a pretty capable technical person. When you tell me that I might be lacking WebGL, I know what you mean. I don’t lack WebGL. I was blocked out because the web site did browser sniffing instead of capability testing. But I know what could be the problem.

A normal user of the web has no idea what WebGL is and — if you’re lucky — will try to find it on an app store. If you’re not lucky all you did is confuse a person. A person who went through the effort to click a link, open a browser and wait for your thing to load. A person that feels stupid for using your product as they have no clue what WebGL is and won’t ask. Humans hate feeling stupid and we do anything not to appear it or show it.

This is what I mean by empathy for the end user. Our problems should never become theirs.

A cryptic error message telling the user that they lack some technology helps nobody and is sloppy development at best, sheer arrogance at worst.

The web is, sadly enough, littered with unhelpful error messages and assumptions that it is the user’s fault when they can’t consume the thing we built.

Here’s a reality check — this is what our users should have to do to consume the things we build:

That’s right. Nothing. This is the web. Everybody is invited to consume, contribute and create. This is what made it the success it is. This is what will make it outlive whatever other platform threatens it with shiny impressive interactions. Interactions at that time impossible to achieve with web technologies.

Whenever I mention this, the knee-jerk reaction is the same:

How can you expect us to build delightful experiences close to magic (and whatever other soundbites were in the last Apple keynote) if we keep having to support old browsers and users with terrible setups?

You don’t have to support old browsers and terrible setups. But you are not allowed to block them out. It is a simple matter of giving a usable interface to end users. A button that does nothing when you click it is not a good experience. Test if the functionality is available, then create or show the button. This is as simple as it is.

If you really have to rely on some technology then show people what they are missing out on and tell them how to upgrade. A screenshot or a video of a WebGL animation is still lovely to see. A message telling me I have no WebGL less so.

Even more on the black and white scale, what the discussion boils down to is in essence:

But it is 2016 — surely we can expect people to have JavaScript enabled — it is after all “the assembly language of the web”

Despite the cringe-worthy misquote of the assembly language thing, here is a harsh truth:

You can absolutely expect JavaScript to be available on your end users computers in 2016. At the same time it is painfully naive to expect it to work under all circumstances.

JavaScript is brittle. HTML and CSS both are fault tolerant. If something goes wrong in HTML, browsers either display the content of the element or try to fix minor issues like unclosed elements for you. CSS skips lines of code it can’t understand and merrily goes on its way to show the rest of it. JavaScript breaks on errors and tells you that something went wrong. It will not execute the rest of the script, but throws in the towel and tells you to get your house in order first.

There are many outside influences that will interfere with the execution of your JavaScript. That’s why a non-naive and non-arrogant — a dedicated and seasoned web developer — will never rely on it. Instead, you treat it as an enhancement and in an almost paranoid fashion test for the availability of everything before you access it.

Sorry (not sorry) — this will never go away. This is the nature of JavaScript. And it is a good thing. It means we can access new features of the language as they come along instead of getting stuck in a certain state. It means we have to think about using it every time instead of relying on libraries to do the work for us. It means that we need to keep evolving with the web — a living and constantly changing medium, and not a software platform. That’s just part of it.

This is why the whole discussion about JavaScript enabled or disabled is a massive waste of time. It is not the availability of JavaScript we need to worry about. It is our products breaking in perfectly capable environments because we rely on perfect execution instead of writing defensive code. A tumblr like Sigh, JavaScript is fun, but is pithy finger-pointing.

There is nothing wrong with using JavaScript to build things. Just be aware that the error handling is your responsibility.

Any message telling the user that they have to turn on JavaScript to use a certain product is a proof that you care more about your developer convenience than your users.

It is damn hard these days to turn off JavaScript – you are complaining about a almost non-existent issue and tell the confused user to do something they don’t know how to.

The chance that something in the JavaScript execution of any of your dozens of dependencies went wrong is much higher – and this is your job to fix. This is why advice like using noscript to provide alternative content is terrible. It means you double your workload instead of enhancing what works. Who knows? If you start with something not JavaScript dependent (or running it server side) you might find that you don’t need the complex solution you started with in the first place. Faster, smaller, easier. Sounds good, right?

So, please, stop sniffing my browser, you will fail and tell me lies. Stop pretending that working with a brittle technology is the user’s fault when something goes wrong.

As web developers we work in the service industry. We deliver products to people. And keeping these people happy and non-worried is our job. Nothing more, nothing less.

Without users, your product is nothing. Sure, we are better paid and well educated and we are not flipping burgers. But we have no right whatsoever to be arrogant and not understanding that our mistakes are not the fault of our end users.

Our demeanor when complaining about how stupid our end users and their terrible setups are reminds me of this Mitchell and Webb sketch.

Don’t be that person. Our job is to enable people to consume, participate and create the web. This is magic. This is beautiful. This is incredibly rewarding. The next markets we should care about are ready to be as excited about the web as we were when we first encountered it. Browsers are good these days. Use what they offer after testing for it and enjoy what you can achieve. Don’t tell the user when things go wrong – they can not fix what you messed up.

Don’t use Slack?

Sunday, January 10th, 2016


When I joined my current company last year, we introduced Slack as the tool to communicate with each other. Of course we have the normal communication channels like email, video calls, phones, smoke signs, flag semaphore and clandestinely tapped Morse code stating “please let it end!” during meetings. But Slack seemed cool and amazing much like BaseCamp used to. And Wikis. And CampFire. And many other tools that came and went.

Here’s the thing though: I really like Slack. I have a soft spot for the team behind it and I know the beauty they are capable of. Flickr was the bomb and one of the most rewarding communities to be part of.

Slack is full of little gems that make it a great collaboration tool. The interface learns from your use. The product gently nudges you towards new functionality and it doesn’t overwhelm you with a “here’s 11452 features that will make your more productive” interface. You learn it while you use it, not after watching a few hours of video training or paying for a course how to use it. I went through many other “communication tools” that required those.

Another thing I love about Slack is that it can be extended. You can pull all kind of features and notifications in. It is a great tool, still frolicking in the first rounds of funding and untainted by a takeover by a large corporation and smothered in ads and “promoted content”.

Seeing that I enjoy Slack at work, I set out to consider running a community on my own. Then life and work happened. But when yesterday my friend Tomomi Imura asked if there are any evangelism/developer advocacy Slack groups, I told her I’d started one a few weeks ago and we now have it filling up nicely with interesting people sharing knowledge on a specialist subject matter.

And then my friend and ex-colleague Marco Zehe wanted to be part of this. And, by all means, he should. Except, there is one small niggle: Marco can’t see and uses a screen reader to navigate the web. And Slack’s interface is not accessible to screen readers as – despite the fact that it is HTML - there is no semantic value to speak of in it. It’s all DIVs and SPANs, monkeys and undergrowth – nothing to guide you.

What followed was a quick back and forth on Twitter about the merits of Slack vs. open and accessible systems like IRC. The main point of Marco was that he can not use Slack and it isn’t open, that’s why it is a bad tool to use for team communication. IRC is open, accessible, time-proven and – if used properly – turns X-Factor dropouts into Freddy Mercury and pot noodles into coq au vin.

Marco has a point: there is a danger that Slack will go away, that Slack will have to pivot into something horrible like many other community tools have. It is a commercial product that isn’t open, meaning it can not easily be salvaged or forked should it go pear shaped. And it isn’t as accessible as IRC is.

But: it is an amazing product and it does everything right in terms of interface that you can. Everything IRC is not.

I love IRC. I used IRC before I used email – on a Commodore 64 with a 2400 baud modem and 40 character per line display. I spent a long time on getting and publishing HTML documentation via XDCC file transfer. Some of my longest standing friends and colleagues I know from IRC.

If you introduce someone who is used to apps and messaging on mobile devices to IRC though, you don’t see delight but confusion on their faces. Rachel Nabors complained a lot about this in her State of Web Animation talks. IRC is very accessible, but not enjoyable to use. I am sure there are clients that do a good job at that, but most have an interface and features that only developers can appreciate and call usable.

Using IRC can be incredibly effective. If you are organised and use it with strict channel guidelines. Used wrongly, IRC is an utter mess resulting in lots of log files you only can make sense of if you’re good with find and grep.

I have been sitting on this for a long time, and now I want to say it: open and accessible doesn’t beat usable and intelligent. It is something we really have to get past in the open source and web world if we want what we do to stay relevant. I’m tired of crap interfaces being considered better because they are open. I’m tired of people slagging off great tools and functionality because they aren’t open. I don’t like iOS, as I don’t want to locked into an ecosystem. But damn, it is pretty and I see people being very effective with it. If you want to be relevant, you got to innovate and become better. And you have to keep inventing new ways to use old technology, not complain about the problems of the closed ones.

So what about the accessibility issue of Slack? Well, we should talk to them. If Slack wants to be usable in the Enterprise and government, they’ll have to fix this. This is an incentive – something Hipchat tries to cover right now as Jira is already pretty grounded there.

As the people who love open, free, available and accessible we have to ask ourselves one question: why is it much easier to create an inaccessible interface than an accessible one? How come this is the status quo? How come that in 2016 we still have to keep repeating basic things like semantic HTML, alternative text and not having low contrast interfaces? When did this not become a simple delivery step in any project description? It has been 20 years and we still complain more than we guide.

How come that developer convenience has became more important than access for all – a feature baked into the web as one of its main features?

When did we lose that fight? What did we do to not make it obvious that clean, semantic HTML gives you nothing but benefits and accessibility as a side effect? What did we do to become the grouchy people shouting from the balcony that people are doing it wrong instead of the experts people ask for advice to make their products better?

Accessibility can not be added at a later stage. You can patch and fix and add some ARIA magic to make things work to a degree, but the baby is thrown out with the bath water already. Much like an interface built to only work in English is very tough to internationalise, adding more markup to make something accessible is frustrating patchwork.

Slack is hot right now. And it is lovely. We should be talking to them and helping them to make it accessible, helping with testing and working with them. I will keep using Slack. And I will meet people there, it will make me effective and its features will delight the group and help us get better.

Slack is based on web technologies. It very much can be accessible to all.

What we need though is a way to talk to the team and see if we can find some low hanging fruit bugs to fix. Of course, this would be much easier in an open source project. But just consider what a lovely story it would be to tell that by communicating we made Slack accessible to all.

Closed doesn’t have to evil. Mistakes made doesn’t mean you have to disregard a product completely. If we do this and keep banging on about old technology that works but doesn’t delight everybody loses.

So, use Slack. And tell them when you can’t and that you very much would like to. Maybe that is exactly the feature they need to remain what they are now rather than being yet another great tool to die when the money runs dry.

Photo by CogDogBlog

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