Christian Heilmann

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Creating Happy Little Web Sites – my tech talk at the Guardian

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

Here’s a presentation I have given today at the Guardian office in London. In it I am covering the different great ideas I found out about developing web sites. Check the presentation here:

[slideshare id=488632&doc=happylittlewebsites-1214566328957709-8&w=425]

The Guardian have recorded my talk and will release it on the Inside Guardian blog

In praise of mistakes

Thursday, May 15th, 2008

I’ve been talking to a lot of developers lately in order to make people work better together and get things done faster. One thing that keeps fascinating me is the length people go to not to communicate mistakes and problems.

We are very much happy to celebrate successes and point out the obvious benefits of what we produce and do, but there is an innate tendency not to own up to mistakes or to welcome people telling you what is wrong.

I once heard the quote “a good friend tells you they like your shirt, a great friend tells you that you have dirt on your nose before you go on a date” (I think it was on Sherman’s Lagoon).

Mistakes are a great thing. They hurt, they make us think, they make us angry and they make us learn. The one wrong thing we do with them is to take these negative gut reactions and vent them in the wrong direction in most of the cases.

This is how we are wired, the first cave-man finding a burning branch after a lightning storm will have put his hand in the fire and quickly found out that it is a bad plan. He then most probably told others (the ones he liked) not to do that. He probably also pondered to use that fire against the ones he doesn’t like – sadly enough something we seem to excel at as humans.

Making mistakes makes us fell inadequate and uneasy – we failed as the crown of evolution and should be better than that. They also makes us feel protective – we don’t want to own up that we make mistakes as that would make us look weak or stupid in the eyes of others. This is a mistake in itself as we all are fallible and do stupid things all the time.

Case in point: I was chuffed when my first A List Apart article was posted – having been a fan of the site for ages. The article JavaScript image replacement sparked a very strong counter-post by Peter-Paul Koch, aptly named Why ALA’s ‘JavaScript Image Replacement’ Sucks.

I was shattered. PPK was someone I looked up to and his post accused me of stealing his idea and code (we solved that riddle on a mailing list proving with time stamps that I did indeed neither) and his critique was partly very right but in other parts just over-zealous.

I was hurt, I was confused and – well – pissed off. Instead of grumpingly packing in or shooting back I actually looked at my code and fixed the issues PPK talked about. I also started communicating more closely with him and this started a long, great discussion and sharing of information and contacts.

I grew a lot by my mistake, and there are no hard feelings between PPK and me – I will be one of the experts talking at the conference he organizes later this year.

In short – making a mistake, being called upon it and fixing it made me a much better developer. It humbled me and made me realize that working with others (even if it is only for a quick sanity check) makes me a lot more effective than I could ever be on my own.

This can be applied to products: instead of celebrating the successes, we should be celebrating issues that have been brought to our attention. A bug is a chance to analyze what lead to it to fix it.

This is the real opportunity – we have to learn not to do stupid things. Instead of huffing and puffing and – worst case – putting in a “stop gap solution” or a “quick fix” we should spend time to see where the bug came from, what lead to it, what impact it has and document the way to fixing it. There are millions of “best practice” tutorials and examples but not many “here’s how we fixed a nasty bug that caused this and that” articles.

The reason is guilt and fear of appearing weak and fallible. Well, I personally think that owing up to the fact that you do make mistakes actually makes you strong. The same way that appreciating good work of competitors makes you more believable than just banging on about what you do and act as if others don’t do great things, too.

I am quite sure that if we managed to turn the development culture around to see mistakes as a positive, we’ll make a massive step forward. A person pointing out an obvious flaw is not a whistle-blower and “not on message” but someone you have to thank for providing a chance to really improve our work and learn not to do things wrong the next time around.

Mistakes are OK - they do happen.

Pragmatic Progressive Enhancement

Tuesday, May 6th, 2008

Last week I went to AKQA in London to give a brown-bag presentation on progressive enhancement. I took this chance to vent some of my ideas on the subject and counteract some of the criticisms I heard about the need for enhancing web solutions progressively.

I’ve come up with the following “Seven rules of progressive enhancement”:

  1. Separate as much as possible
  2. Build on things that work
  3. Generate dependent markup
  4. Test for everything before you apply it
  5. Explore the environment
  6. Load on demand
  7. Modularize code

Instead of explaining them here, I’ve used a longer train ride to write up an article on the subject explaining the details of all the “rules” and examples of why and how to use them: Pragmatic Progressive Enhancement.

The article is licensed with creative commons, so you are very much invited to use and remix it to your needs.

I will upload my slides together with a video of the presentation once I got the material and checked if the video quality is good enough for publication.

Oh look, using Ajax in a stupid way is not a good idea?

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

It is quite fascinating to me that the newest article on entitled ‘Stop using Ajax!’ is such a big thing right now. Tweets, shared bookmarks and Google Reader items are pouring in and people seem to consider it an amazingly daring article.

Here’s the truth: James is right. He also was right when he more or less gave the same information as a talk at Highland Fling last year following my presentation on progressive enhancement and JavaScript.

However, there is nothing shocking or daring or new about this. All he says is:

  • Don’t use any technology for the sake of using it
  • Consider the users you want to reach before using a technology that may not be appropriate
  • Make sure your solution is usable and accessible
  • Build your solution on stuff that works, then enhance it.

This is what I consider to be a normal practice when developing any software or web solution.

However, the real question is now why we are at this state – how come that we see this information as daring, shocking or controversial, and how come a lot of comments are still “I don’t care about accessibility because it is not needed for my users”? How come the assumptions and plain accessibility lies are prevailing while the good stuff remains unheard of?

Well, the truth is that we have been preaching far too long to the choir. I’ve been in the web accessibility and standards preaching community for a long time and whenever I asked what about enterprise development and CMS I was told that it is not worth fighting that fight as “We will never reach them”. Well, this is where the money and a lot of jobs are and it is a fact that both accessibility and standards activists in a lot of instances don’t even know the issues that keep the stakeholders in these areas busy. My Digital Web Article ‘10 reasons why clients don’t care about accessibility’ and the follow-up Seven Accessibility Mistakes Part One and Part 2 listed these issues and the wrong ways of how we try to tackle them 3 years ago. My talk at the AbilityNet conference last week Fencing-in the habitat also mentioned this attitude and problems.

Here’s where I am now: I am bored and tired of people fighting the good fight by blaming each other’s mistakes or pointing out problems on systems that are within reach. When people ask for accessibility or Ajax usability advice you’ll get a lot of bashing and “go validate then come back” answers but not much information that can be used immediately or even questions that ask what lead to the state of the product. You’d be surprised what you can find out by asking this simple question.

We have to understand that large systems, frameworks and companies do still run the show, even when we think that bloggers, books on webdesign and mashups push the envelope. They do, but so far they are a minor discomfort for companies that sell Ajax and other out-of-the-box solutions that are inaccessible and to larger parts unusable for humans. When was the last time you used a clever expense or time tracking system in companies that are not a startup or a small web agency? When I was at the AjaxWorld conference in NYC earlier this year I heard a lot about security, ease of deployment and scalability but only a little bit about accessibility (the Dojo talk and the YUI talk, actually). People are a lot more concerned about the cost of software and the speed of release than about the quality or maintainability. It is cheaper to buy a new system every few years than to build one that is properly tested and works for all users. Does your company still have systems or third party solutions that only work on IE/Windows? I am sure there is at least one, ask the HR or finance department.

It doesn’t help to coin another term and call an accessible and usable Ajax solution Hijax, either. As much as I like the idea of it I have to agree with James’ comment – we don’t need another word, we need a reason for people to not just use things out of the box without thinking about them or – even better – offer help to the companies that build the solutions on assumptions in the first place. When I ranted about a system by a large corporation some weeks ago on twitter their marketing manager for EMEA starting following me and I am starting some talks with them.

I have heard numerous times that my ideas about progressive enhancement and accessibility are just a “passing fad” and “that in the real software market you don’t have time for that”. Challenging this attitude is what makes a difference – by proving that by using the technologies we are given in a predictable and secure way does save you time and money. However, there are not many case studies on that…

I cannot change the world when I don’t know what obstacles people have to remove to do the right thing. Deep down every developer wants to do things right, in a clean and maintainable fashion and be proud of what they’ve done. Bad products happen because of rushed projects, bad management and developers getting so frustrated that they are OK with releasing sub-par just to get the money or finally get allocated to a different project.

This is the battle we need to fight – where do these problems come from? Not what technology to avoid. You can use any technology in a good way, you just need to be able to sell it past the hype and the assumption that software is developed as fast as it takes to write a cool press release about it.

Paris Web Videos are online – check out my “Successful teams use web standards” presentation

Friday, March 7th, 2008

The lovely people at Paris Web just released all the videos of the 2007 conference on dailymotion. My talk is the only English one and deals with the topic of how following web standards helps your team to be more successful:

Successful teams use web standards!
Uploaded by parisweb


The other videos are pretty interesting insofar as they cover accessibility and internationalization matters from a technical, social and legislative angle. My favourite was the IBM server that automatically transcribes videos by running voice recognition over the audio stream.