Introducing Whathecolor: A color game for web developers!

I’ve been interested in digital color for a long time, and this year I decided to risk giving a technical talk about color some of the conferences I’m speaking at. “Why is that risky?” you might ask. Well, it might end up being really interesting, or it may end up alienating both designers because it’s too technical and developers because it’s about a “designery” topic.

In preparation for this talk, I decided to make a simple game to see how well I and other web developers understand color, and especially CSS notations of color. Meet Whathecolor!

The idea is simple: You are presented with a color and you try to type in a CSS color that matches it. It could be anything, from hsl() or rgb() to even named colors (although that would be stupid). It would be interesting to see what averages people get by trying hsl() vs rgb() and whether the former is as easier for web developers as we think. Feel free to post your results here or on twitter! Perhaps in the future, something like this could be used by the CSS WG to test the usability of color notations we’re thinking of adding to CSS instead of speculating about it.

Disclaimer: This is a quick hack. Please don’t complain that it doesn’t look great on your phone and stuff like that.

Also, yes, if you want to cheat, it’s super easy, but I have no idea why somebody would cheat on something like this.

Play

Color proximity

A challenging part in developing this was calculating the proximity of two colors to show the user how close they are getting. My first thought was to use the Euclidean distance of the two colors in the RGB cube and divide it by the maximum distance the color could have from any other RGB color. However, this proved out to be inaccurate in many cases, probably due to the lack of perceptual uniformity in RGB. As an example, try #f0f and #ff80ff. Although they are quite similar visually, the reported proximity was around 66% (1 – 128/382).

So I researched  existing algorithms to get the proximity of two colors. Like most things color-related, it looks like Color Difference is not quite as simple as I thought, and is considered a topic of interest in Color Science. However, converting to L*a*b* and using the CIE94 and CIEDE2000 formulas seemed a bit of an overkill for this and I wasn’t terribly impressed with the CIE76 formula after trying the results out online for some sample pairs (e.g. it gives ~60% for the aforementioned pair, which is even lower than what I got with my naïve RGB method!).

So I experimented a bit and ended up using an average of my original idea and a sum of the HSL differences (divided by the max differences), which seems to work relatively ok.  There are still cases where it’s off, but ho hum. After all, the proximity is mainly useful when you get close enough to the color (>90%), as until then you tend to play it by eye. Any improvements on the algorithm used are welcome. Or if enough people think it’s not working very well, I’ll bite the bullet and end up using DeltaE.

Other notes

  • You do not need a proximity of 100% to win, since rounding errors might prevent you from matching the exact color if you’re using HSL. Also, because matching the exact same color isn’t really important, as long as you get close enough that any difference is imperceptible.
  • I wrote a Color “class” for this, which you can find in color.js. Like most of my open source stuff, it’s MIT licensed. Maybe it could be useful in some other color-related project, who knows.
  • My original idea was to have “levels”, where the color would get increasingly more difficult to get. For example, in the first level, you’d only have to guess simple colors whose RGB coordinates were either 0, 128 or 255. So, my Color.random() method accepts an entropy parameter, for that level. However, when I tested the game with truly random colors (any integer from 0 to 255), it turned out it wasn’t really that hard (it took me about a minute to guess each color), so I ditched the idea of levels early on. The code is still there though.
  • An idea about making it harder in the future would be to introduce semi-transparent (RGBA/HSLA) colors. That would be fun :evil_grin:

ScreenshotPS: The times in this screenshot aren’t real, I wanted to take one quickly, so I used the dev tools.

 

Vote for me in the net awards 2014!

I was excited and surprised to find out I’ve been in the 10 finalists for two (2!) categories in the net awards this year:

You can vote for me by clicking the above links and have my eternal gratitude :-)

Furthermore, the CERN line mode browser project, of which I was a part of, has been nominated in “Best Collaborative Project”!

I’ve given “The humble border-radius” more than once, so you can pick one to watch below (in the net awards page they’ve linked to the FOWD London one):

I would recommend the CSSDay one, as it changes every time and that one is newer.

Thanks again to anyone who nominated me and everyone who votes for me. You’re all wonderful. <3

Smooth state animations with animation-play-state

When a CSS animation is applied from the beginning of the page load, things are easy. You just use the animation property with appropriate parameters, and you’re done. However, what if the animation is applied on a certain state, e.g. :hover, :active, :focus or a JS-triggered class change?

A naïve approach would be to try something like this:

However, this means that when you hover out of the element, it abruptly snaps to its original state (no rotation). In many cases, it would be a more desirable to have it freeze in the last shown frame, until we hover over it again. To achieve that, we can apply the animation from the beginning, with animation-play-state: paused; and just change it on :hover to animation-play-state: running;. This is what happens then:

I figured this out when I was recently helping my good friend Julian with his one page website*. When you hover over the figure, it starts scrolling, but when you hover out of it, it doesn’t snap back to its original position, which would’ve looked awful.

*Beware it’s still a bit rough around the edges, e.g. the result has some rendering bugs on Firefox & IE plus some unsupported features messing it up (e.g. baseline-shift in SVG), but those are for another day as I had work to do and this ended up taking longer than the few hours I expected. Beyond the animation, you might want to explore the CSS-only buttons (see what I did there?) or the leather figure frame. Credits to Laura Kalbag for the tweed background & color scheme. I also experimented with SASS on this one and found it much smoother to work with than LESS, so I might stick with it for those cases where I need a preprocessor.

Screenshot

Simple script: Automatic talks list

I guess this will not be useful to many, but thought I’d open source it anyway, in case someone else finds it useful. I mostly wrote it because after 50+ conferences, I got seriously fed up updating the list by editing the HTML manually. Now I will only have to edit a JSON file manually! 😛

Admittedly, it’s not my best code (more like a quick hack), but it should be pretty easy to adapt to your needs, even to adapt it to lists of different things instead of talks. Using it for talks is very straight forward: Include the CSS and JS, add a list with a class of “talks” where you want it, done.

Hope you enjoy it :)

Links: Live demo | Github repo | Script page

CSS is for developers

Quite often people assume that because the language I focus on is CSS, I must be a web designer. Don’t get me wrong, I love visual design with a passion. I have studied it a lot over the years and I’ve worked on several design projects for clients. Heck, I even have a dribbble profile!

However, if I had to pick one role, I would definitely consider myself more of a developer than a designer. I discovered coding on my own when I was 12 and so far it has been the most long lasting love of my life. Although I lost my coding virginity to Visual Basic (something I’m still embarrassed about), over the years I’ve coded in Java, C, C++, C#, PHP, JavaScript before I even got to CSS. I’ve actually studied Computer Science at university, graduated 4th in my class and I’m gonna be doing research at MIT towards a PhD, starting fall 2014. Regarding design, I’m completely self-taught. My personality is more similar to the developers I know than the designers I know. Coding comes naturally, but I have to struggle to get better at design. I’m a better developer than I will ever be a designer.

Still, the assumption often is that I can’t possibly be a developer and interested in CSS, when there are all these amazing programming languages to focus my energy on instead. Therefore I must be a designer …right? There are even people who know about my open source projects, and still think that I can’t code in JavaScript or any other programming language (not sure how you can make most of these tools with pure CSS, but since CSS is Turing complete, I guess there must be a way!).

If you think I’m an exception, you’re mistaken. Everyone else in the W3C CSS Working Group, the group which defines the future of CSS, fits the profile of a developer much more than that of a designer. In fact, I might be the most designer-y person in it! Even outside the WG, the people I know who are really good at CSS, are either developers or hybrids (designers & developers).

This is no coincidence. The skills required to write good CSS code are by and large the same skills required to write good code in general. CSS code also needs to be DRY, maintainable, flexible etc. CSS might have a visual output, but is still code, just like SVG, WebGL/OpenGL or the JavaScript Canvas API. It still requires the same kind of analytical thinking that programming does. Especially these days that most people use preprocessors for their CSS, with variables, math, conditionals and loops, it’s almost starting to look like programming!

I find it counter-productive that CSS in most jobs is assigned to designers. Designers should be doing what they do best and love: Design. Sure, they should be aware of the practical limitations of the medium and should be able to read and lightly edit CSS or hack together a prototype to show how their design behaves in different conditions, but it shouldn’t be their job to write CSS for production. The talents required to be a good designer and a good coder are very different and it’s unreasonable to expect both from everyone. Also, when you know you’re gonna have to implement the design you’re working on, it’s tempting to produce designs that can be easily converted to CSS, instead of pushing the boundaries. We don’t usually expect developers to design, even though it’s an added bonus when they have an eye for design as well. It should be the same for designers.

And if you’re a designer who writes amazing CSS and is about to tell me off in the comments, hold your horses. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be coding CSS. I’m saying that if you’re good at it, it means you’re both a designer AND a developer. Own it! 😀

Cleanest CSS spinner, ever

For some reason, I seem to have a fascination with CSS loaders these days. After recreating the Google loader with clean CSS recently, I set off to recreate the classic spinner with CSS. Yes, I know this has been done zillions of times, but I wanted a clean, maintainable, reusable solution, not just a proof of concept. Something with not tons of CSS and/or HTML elements.

I managed to recreate it with only 2 elements. I’m still not completely satisfied, as I was hoping to come up with a solution with just one element, but it’s still much better than all those solutions out there that use tons of elements and code.

So, how did I do it?

  • I use the ::before and ::after pseudoelements of the parent and child div to create the 4 first bars
  • I use box-shadow with no blur on all four of the above to create the remaining 4 bars
  • I rotate the whole element with a steps(8) timing function to create the animation

As with the Google-style loader, just changing the font-size on this scales the whole element, as everything is sized with ems. Also, there is fallback text, to make it accessible to screen readers. Tested in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, IE10. Should degrade gracefully on IE9 (spinner should look fine, just no animation).

Using a preprocessor for variables and calculations should simplify the code even further.

Enjoy :)

Ideas for further improvement are welcome. Remember that it’s not just the size of the code that matters, but also its simplicity.

Flexible Google-style loader with CSS

So, for a while I had noticed the nice sutble loader Google apps use and I was wondering if it would be easy to make with CSS and CSS animations: Google’s loader

Yesterday, I realised that you can get this effect by increasing border size until about the middle of the element, as long as the total width stays the same (by using box-sizing: border-box):

However, as you can see above, after the midpoint, the border is not curved any more, so does not produce the desired effect. However, what if we split the background colour in half, and animated border-left until 50% of the width and then border-right from 50% of the width? That worked, but only gave us 25% of the effect. I could recreate the whole effect by then animating border-top/bottom instead etc, but it’s easier to apply animation-direction: alternate to alternate between showing and hiding the circle and and simultaneously rotate the loader by 90deg each time, by applying animation-timing-function: steps(4) to a rotate animation that runs over 4x the duration of the border animation.

This is the finished result:

The dimensions are all set in ems so that you can change the size in one place: Just change the font-size and the loader scales perfectly. It’s also accessible to screen reader users, as there is still text there.

And yes, it’s not super useful as-is, there are tons of spinners on the Web that you can use instead. However, I decided to post it (instead of just tweeting it) as I thought the techniques involved in making it might be interesting for some of you :)

Slanted tabs with CSS 3D transforms

Not sure if I’m the first to come up with this idea, but I searched and didn’t find anything. So, for a long time, I was wondering if there’s an easy way to create trapezoid shapes in CSS, especially with borders etc. Eventually, I realized that I could use a pseudo-element for the background and 3D rotate it, so that it appears like a trapezoid. Then @krofdrakula suggested on twitter that I could even add border-radius so that it looks like a tab, so I added that as well:

Eventually I thought, why not actually turn this into a tab demo? So I made a dabblet with that. And then I realized that if you change the transform-origin, other interesting tab shapes appear! Enjoy:

The best part? It degrades pretty gracefully on browsers that don’t support transforms! You get nice rounded tabs that just aren’t slanted (although they have a pretty large top padding, but you can use Modernizr for that. Try it for yourself by commenting the transform out in the dabblet and see the result.

Another issue is that the angled lines look a bit aliased in Firefox, but that’s a bug that will eventually get fixed.

In general, it’s a bit rough around the edges, so treat it more as a proof of concept. But with a little more work, it could totally work in production. Tested in Chrome, Safari, Firefox, IE9 (fallback) and IE10.

What makes speakers happy

I wish I could speak at CSSConf.eu, but unfortunately I had to decline the invitation, as it collided with a prior speaking engagement I had agreed on. I recently got another email from the organizers with an interesting question:

We want to make this event as stress-free for our speakers as possible. Since you spoke at a bunch of events, can you share a tip or two about what will make a speakers’ life easier, and their stay more pleasant? Any typical mistakes we can avoid?

I thought it was lovely that they care about their speakers enough to ask this, this already places them above average. I started writing a reply, but I soon realized this is information that could be useful for other conference organizers as well, so I decided to post it here instead. So, what makes speakers happy?

The baseline

These are things every good conference is doing for their speakers, although they often miss one or two. They keep speakers happy, but they ‘re not out of the ordinary.

  • Cover their flights, accommodation for the entire conference and ground transportation from/to the airport (with a car, not public transport!).
  • Do not expect them to go through the hassle of booking all those themselves and then sending you receipts. Offer it as an option, but book them yourself by default.
  • Do not book flights without confirming the itinerary and personal info with them first. Also, this sounds obvious, but it’s surprising how many conferences have made this mistake with me: Type their name correctly when booking flights!
  • If hotel WiFi is not free, make sure it’s covered and included in their reservation. Same goes for breakfast.
  • Offer a honorarium, at least to those who have to take time off work to speak at your event (e.g. freelancers). Even if your budget is small and can only give a tiny honorarium, it will at least cover their meals, cabs etc while there. If the honorarium is small and mainly intended to cover miscellaneous expenses of the trip, don’t ask them to submit an invoice to claim it.
  • Have a speakers dinner before the event, where they can meet and socialize with the other speakers. This is also good for the conference, as they get the chance to catch up with their speaker friends (there aren’t that many people on the conference circuit, so we often know each other and want to catch up)  so they will talk more to the attendees during the conference. Make sure the speakers dinner does not overlap with the pre-party, if you have one.
  • Do a tech check before their talk to make sure everything is smooth. Have dongles for Mac laptops. Have clickers they could use. Use wireless lapel microphones. Have a reliable private wifi network for speakers to use if they need an internet connection for their talk.
  • Have breaks between talks so they have some margin of going overtime without impacting the schedule. If they are too stressed about going through their talk fast, it won’t be a very good talk.

Going the extra mile

These are all things one or more conferences have done for me, but they are not generally common so they are a positive surprise when they happen, not something expected.

  • Book Business class flights, especially for longer flights where passengers are expected to sleep. It’s so much more comfortable to sleep in a seat that fully reclines! I was incredibly grateful to the one conference that did this.
  • Cover incidentals in the hotel. Yes, it’s a bit risky but come on, we’re not rockstars. We won’t screw you over. In most cases it will be a pretty small extra cost and it looks really good, it tells speakers you trust them and want them to have a good time.
  • Offer a speaker gift bag. It can contain all kinds of things: Stuff that will make their stay more comfortable (stain remover, travel toothbrush etc), souvenirs from the place since we rarely have time to do touristy stuff, alcohol for impromptu get togethers with other speakers, snacks to eat during a late night craving in the hotel room, anything goes and I’ve seen conferences put all kinds of stuff in there. It’s a nice welcome gesture. Bonus points if they’re personalized based on what you’ve researched about the speaker.
  • Send out a survey to the audience after the conference and let the speakers know how they did. Let them know what comments their talk got and how well they did compared to other speakers.

Also, make sure you read PPK’s excellent Conference Organizer’s Handbook.

Leaving W3C

About a year ago, I announced I was joining W3C as a full-time staff member, to work on Developer Relations and education. Working at W3C was a dream come true and I can’t say I was disappointed. Over the past year I’ve worked with some amazingly brilliant people, hopefully increased awareness for web standards in the developer community and helped materialize the vision behind WebPlatform.org. It’s been a fun ride and working for a non-profit was very fulfilling. If somebody told me a year ago that I would decide to leave W3C on my own free will, I would’ve asked them what they were smoking. However, our future selves often surprise us and although it was the most difficult decision of my life, I recently decided to leave. July 31st will be my last day at W3C. I will attempt to describe the reasons below for anyone interested, but in no way does me leaving mean that I don’t deeply appreciate W3C or that I regretted joining. If I could go a year back, I would make the same choice.

Reason #1: I want to focus on other projects

I didn’t have much time to work on my pet projects, as my job was consuming pretty much the entire me. This is absolutely not W3C’s fault, it’s mine and a pretty common side effect of working from home. Pull requests kept piling up on Github, I didn’t have many ideas for new side projects or time for research & to come up with new techniques. I was able to work a bit on Dabblet and a WPD Prism plugin, as they were useful for WebPlatform.org, but for the most part, I wanted to work more on open source projects, do more research, blog more etc. I also recently signed a book deal with O’Reilly for a book on advanced CSS techniques (“CSS Secrets”, ETA Spring 2014) and I wanted to take some time off and write a great inaugural book, not just a decent one (and design it too!). I also kinda missed doing workshops or even client work, who knew!

Having more time will also mean I will be able to focus more on standards work, which is a huge passion of mine. I know it sounds odd to leave W3C to work more on …standards, but standards work was never a part of my job at W3C. If I wanted to devote time to actively participate in the CSS WG beyond the weekly telcon, or to the specification I edit, I would have to do it outside work hours. Obviously, I will still have to do it in my free time, but I recall having more of that when I was self-employed.

Reason #2: I want to grow

I want to be in a job that’s a challenge, that helps me grow and become a better professional. While I appreciate WebPlatform.org, I didn’t feel that doing front-end development & design on it made me particularly better at what I do, at least compared to other things I could have been doing in the past year. It could be a perfect opportunity to grow for someone else, but it wasn’t for me.

I did become a better public speaker over the past year, but I would likely be doing as many talks anyway. I got some valuable conference organizing experience from W3Conf, which I thoroughly enjoyed working on, but that was only a small part of my work.

Reason #3: Different direction

Had I stayed, my job description for the upcoming year would have a slightly different focus. Since W3C Developer Relations was a new activity, neither Doug (my manager) nor I were quite sure how we could make the biggest impact, so we were experimenting to some degree. A few months after I joined, WebPlatform.org launched and we slowly concentrated our efforts on that. If I had stayed for another year, my job would have an even stronger WebPlatform.org focus. Half of it would be front-end design & development and even writing documentation for a day per week. That meant I would have to cut down many parts of my job that I enjoyed and wanted to concentrate more on, such as public speaking and event planning, and though it includes some public-facing activities like gathering feedback from developers, I’d like to do even more of that. This was not a bad decision on W3C’s part — WebPlatform.org needs somebody concentrating on those aspects of it. However, although I strongly believe in the vision behind the project, this was not what I would personally enjoy doing.

Thank you, W3C

Even though I’m leaving W3C, it will always have a very special place in my heart. I met & worked with the most brilliant people I have ever met. Special mention to Amy, who did not just prove to be an intelligent, interesting and kind person, but also a great friend in the past couple of weeks that I got to know her better. I got to visit MIT and work from there for a while, which was an incredible experience. I got to contribute to WebPlatform.org which is a very ambitious and honorable project that I strongly believe in. I got to co-organize W3Conf, which turned out to a successful and fun conference.

Me leaving is a personal decision that has less to do with W3C and more to do with what I want out of life. But I’m going to sorely miss the W3C Team, the culture, the technical discussions. It’s been a fun ride and I’m grateful for the chance and the trust W3C placed in me. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to find myself working for W3C again at some point in the future, in some way or in a different role.

But for now, here’s to the future! I’m thrilled.

Want to work at W3C?

As you can imagine, there is one more opening now. :) Are you a great designer with front-end development skills? Are you passionate about creating the best open web platform documentation on the Web? Apply now! You will be able to work from wherever in the world you want, whatever hours in the day you want, you will have great autonomy and a pretty cool boss. Sweet, huh?