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Minimalist Affordances: Making the right tradeoffs

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Usability and aesthetics usually go hand in hand. In fact, there is even what we call the “Aesthetic Usability Effect”: users perceive beautiful interfaces as easier to use and cut them more slack when it comes to minor usabiity issues.

Unfortunately, sometimes usability and aesthetics can be at odds, also known as “form over function”.

Simplicity, and knowing when to stop

A common incarnation of form-over-function, is when designers start identifying signifiers and affordances as noise to be eliminated, sacrificing a great deal of learnability for an — often marginal — improvement in aesthetics.

Aesthetic and Minimalist Design is one of the Nielsen/Norman core usability heuristics (and all other heuristics taxonomies have something similar). More poetically, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”. However, this is one of those cases where everyone agrees with the theory, but the devil is in the details (though user testing can do wonders for consensus).

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State of HTML 2023 now open!

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tl;dr the brand new State of HTML survey is finally open!

Take State of HTML 2023 Survey

Benefits to you:

  • Survey results are used by browsers to prioritize roadmaps — the reason Google is funding this. Time spent thoughtfully filling them out is an investment that can come back to you tenfold in the form of seeing features you care about implemented, browser incompatibilities being prioritized, and gaps in the platform being addressed.
  • In addition to browsers, several standards groups are also using the results for prioritization and decision-making.
  • Learn about new and upcoming features you may have missed; add features to your reading list and get a list of resources at the end!
  • Get a personalized score and see how you compare to other respondents
  • Learn about the latest trends in the ecosystem and what other developers are focusing on

While the survey will be open for 3 weeks, responses entered within the first 9 days (until October 1st) will have a much higher impact on the Web, as preliminary data will be used to inform Interop 2024 proposals.

State of HTML 2023 Logo

The State of HTML logo, designed by Chris Kirk-Nielsen, who I think surpassed himself with this one!

Background

This is likely the most ambitious Devographics survey to date. For the past couple of months, I’ve been hard at work leading a small product team spread across three continents (2am to 8am became my second work shift 😅). We embarked on this mission with some uncertainty about whether there were enough features for a State of HTML survey, but quickly found ourselves with the opposite problem: there were too many, all with good reasons for inclusion! To help weigh the tradeoffs and decide what makes the cut we consulted both the developer community, as well as stakeholders across browsers, standards groups, community groups, and more.

We even designed new UI controls to facilitate collecting the types of complex data that were needed without making the questions too taxing, and did original UX research to validate them. Once the dust settles, I plan to write separate blog posts about some of these.

FAQ

Can I edit my responses?

Absolutely! Do not worry about filling it out perfectly in one go. If you create an account, you can edit your responses for the whole period the survey is open, and even split filling it out across multiple devices (e.g. start on your phone, then fill out some on your desktop, etc.) Even if you’re filling it out anonymously, you can still edit responses on your device for a while. You could even start anonymously and create an account later, and your responses will be preserved (the only issue is filling it out anonymously, then logging in with an existing account).

So, perhaps the call to action above should be…

Start State of HTML 2023 Survey

Why are there JS questions in an HTML survey?

For the same reason there are JS APIs in the HTML standard: many JS APIs are intrinsically related to HTML. We mainly included JS APIs in the following areas:

  • APIs used to manipulate HTML dynamically (DOM, form validation, etc.)
  • Web Components APIs, used to create custom HTML elements
  • APIs used to create web apps that feel like native apps (e.g. Service Workers, Web App Manifest, etc.)

If you don’t write any JS, we absolutely still want to hear from you! In fact, I would encourage you even more strongly to fill out the survey: we need to hear from folks who don’t write JS, as they are often underrepresented. Please feel free to skip any JS-related questions (all questions are optional anyway) or select that you have never heard these features. There is a question at the end, where you can select that you only write HTML/CSS:

Question about HTML/CSS and JS balance

Is the survey only available in English?

Absolutely not! Localization has been an integral part of these surveys since the beginning. Fun fact: Nobody in the core State of HTML team is a native English speaker.

Screenshot showing dozens of languages

Each survey gets (at least partially) translated to over 30 languages.

However, since translations are a community effort, they are not necessarily complete, especially in the beginning. If you are a native speaker of a language that is not yet complete, please consider helping out!

What does my score mean?

Previous surveys reported score as a percentage: “You have heard or used X out of Y features mentioned in the survey”. This one did too at first:

80% score, 105/131 heard or used

This was my own score when the survey first launched, and I created the darn survey 😅 Our engineer, Sacha who is also the founder of Devographics got 19%!

These were a lot lower for this survey, for two reasons:

  1. It asks about a lot of cutting edge features, more than the other surveys. As I mentioned above, we had a lot of difficult tradeoffs to make, and had to cut a ton of features that were otherwise a great fit. We err’ed on the side of more cutting edge features, as those are the areas the survey can help make the most difference in the ecosystem.
  2. To save on space, and be able to ask about more features, we used a new compact format for some of the more stable features, which only asks about usage, not awareness. Here is an example from the first section of the survey (Forms): Form validation question screenshot However, this means that if you have never used a feature, it does not count towards your score, even if you have been aware of it for years. It therefore felt unfair to many to report that you’ve “heard or used” X% of features, when there was no way to express that you have heard 89 out of 131 of them!

To address this, we changed the score to be a sum of points, a bit like a video game: each used feature is worth 10 points, each known feature is worth 5 points.

Since the new score is harder to interpret by itself and only makes sense in comparison to others, we also show your rank among other participants, to make this easier.

920 pts score, used 79 features out of 131, heard of 26 more

My score after the change. If you have already taken the survey, you can just revisit it (with the same device & browser if filled it in anonymously) and go straight to the finish page to see your new score and ranking!

I found a bug, what should I do?

Please file an issue so we can fix it!

Acknowledgements

This survey would not have been possible without the hard work of many people. Besides myself (Lea Verou), this includes the rest of the team:

  • Engineering team: Sacha Greif, Eric Burel
  • UX research & data science team: Shaine Rosewel Matala, Michael Quiapos, Gio Vernell Quiogue
  • Our logo designer, Chris Kirk-Nielsen

And several volunteers:

  • Léonie Watson for accessibility feedback
  • Our usability testing participants
  • …and all folks who provided early feedback throuhgout the process

Last but not least, Kadir Topal made the survey possible in the first place, by proposing it and securing funding from Google.

Thank you all! 🙏🏼

Press coverage (selected)

You still haven’t started the State of HTML 2023 survey?!


Numbers or Brackets for numeric questions?

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As you may know, this summer I am leading the design of the inaugural State of HTML survey. Naturally, I am also exploring ways to improve both survey UX, as well as all questions.

Shaine Madala, a data scientist working on the survey design team proposed using numerical inputs instead of brackets for the income question. While I was initially against it, I decided to explore this a bit further, which changed my opinion.

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Help Design the Inaugural State of HTML Survey!

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You have likely participated in several Devographics surveys before, such as State of CSS, or State of JS. These surveys have become the primary source of unbiased data for the practices of front-end developers today (there is also the Web Almanac research, but because this studies what is actually used on the web, it takes a lot longer for changes in developer practices to propagate).

You may remember that last summer, Google sponsored me to be Survey Design Lead for State of CSS 2022. It went really well: we got 60% higher response rate than the year before, which gave browsers a lot of actionable data to prioritize their work. The feedback from these surveys is a prime input into the Interop project, where browsers collaborate to implement the most important features for developers interoperably.

So this summer, Google trusted me with a much bigger project, a brand new survey: State of HTML!

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Going Lean

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WordPress has been with me since my very first post in 2009. There is a lot to love about it: It’s open source, it has a thriving ecosystem, a beautiful default theme, and a revolutionary block editor that makes my inner UX geek giddy. Plus, WP made building a website and publishing content accessible to everyone. No wonder it’s the most popular CMS in the world, by a huge margin.

However, for me, the bad had started to outweigh the good:

  • Things I could do in minutes in a static site, in WP required finding a plugin or tweaking PHP code.
  • It was slow and bloated.
  • Getting a draft out of it and into another medium was a pain.
  • Despite having never been hacked, I was terrified about it, given all the horror stories.
  • I was periodically getting “Error establishing a database connection” errors, whose frequency kept increasing.

It was time to move on. It’s not you WP, it’s me.

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Rethinking Categorization

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This is the third spinoff post in the migration saga of this blog from WordPress to 11ty.

Migrating was a good opportunity to rethink the information architecture of my site, especially around categorization.

Categories vs Tags

Just like most WP users, I was using both categories and tags, simply because they came for free. However the difference between them was a bit fuzzy, as evidenced by how inconsistently they are used, both here and around the Web. I was mainly using Categories for the type of article (Articles, Rants, Releases, Tips, Tutorials, News, Thoughts), however there were also categories that were more like content tags (e.g. CSS WG, Original, Speaking, Benchmarks).

This was easily solved by moving the latter to actual tags. However, tags are no panacea, there are several issues with them as well.

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11ty: Index ALL the things!

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This is a second spinoff post in the migration saga of this blog from WordPress to 11ty.

On good URLs

It was important to me to have good, RESTful, usable, hackable URLs. While a lot of that is easy and comes for free, following this principle with Eleventy proved quite hard:

URLs that are “hackable” to allow users to move to higher levels of the information architecture by hacking off the end of the URL

What does this mean in practice? It means it’s not enough if tags/foo/ shows all posts tagged “foo”, tags/ should also show all tags. Similarly, it’s not enough if /blog/2023/04/private-fields-considered-harmful/ links to the corresponding blog post, but also:

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Migrating Disqus from WP to 11ty

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So I recently ported my 14 year old blog from WordPress to Eleventy.

I had been using Disqus for comments for years, so I didn’t want to lose them, even if I ended up using a different solution for the future (or no comments at all).

Looking around for an existing solution did not yield many results. There’s Zach’s eleventy-import-disqus but it’s aimed at importing Disqus comments as static copies, but I wanted to have the option to continue using Disqus.

Looking at the WP generated HTML source, I noticed that Disqus was using the WP post id (a number that is not displayed in the UI) to link its threads to the posts. However, the importer I used did not preserve the post ids as metadata (filed issue #95). What to do?

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JS private class fields considered harmful

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Today I mourn. What am I mourning? Encapsulation. At least in my projects.

As a library author, I’ve decided to avoid private class fields from now on and gradually refactor them out of my existing libraries.

Why did I make such a drastic decision?

It all started a few days ago, when I was building a Vue 3 app that used Color.js Color objects. For context, Vue 3 uses proxies to implement its reactivity system, just like Mavo did back in 2016 (the first one to do so as far as I’m aware). I was getting several errors and upon tracking them down I had a very sad realization: instances of classes that use private fields cannot be proxied.

I will let that sink in for a bit. Private fields, proxies, pick one, you can’t have both. Here is a reduced testcase illustrating the problem.

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Contrast Ratio has a new home — and this is great news!

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It has been over a decade when I launched contrast-ratio.com, an app to calculate the WCAG 2.1 contrast ratio between any two CSS colors. At the time, all similar tools suffered from several flaws when being used for CSS editing:

  • No support for semi-transparent colors (Since WCAG included no guidance for alpha transparency — I had to do original research to calculate the contrast ratio range for that case)

  • No support for color formats other than hex or (at best) RGB with sliders. I wanted something where I could just paste a CSS color just like I had it specified in my code (e.g. hsl(220 10% 90%), possibly tweak it a bit to pass, then paste it back. I didn’t want to use unintuitive hex colors, and I didn’t want to fiddle with sliders.

  • Poor UX, often calculating the actual ratio required further user actions, making iteration tedious

Over the years, contrast-ratio.com grew in popularity: it was recommended in several books, talks, and workshops. It basically became the standard URL developers would visit for this purpose.

However, I’ve been too busy to work on it further beyond just merging pull requests. My time is currently split between the dozens of open source projects I have started and maintain, my TAG work, my CSS WG work, and my teaching & research at MIT.

Therefore, when Ross and Drew from Siege Media approached me with a generous offer to buy the domain, and a commitment to take over maintainship of the open source project, I was cautiously optimistic. But now, after having seen some of their plans for it, I could not be more certain that the future of this tool is much brighter with them.

Please join me in welcoming them to the project and help them get settled in as new stewards!

ETA: Siege Media Press Release


Position Statement for the 2022 W3C TAG Election

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Update: I got re-elected!! Thank you for trusting me once more with this huge responsibility towards the Open Web. I will continue to do my best to justify the confidence the W3C membership has placed in me. 🥹

Context: In 2020, I ran for the TAG election for the first time and had the great honor of being elected by the W3C membership. This year, I’m running for re-election. The W3C Technical Architecture Group (TAG) is the Working Group that ensures that Web Platform technologies are usable and follow consistent design principles, whether they are created inside or outside W3C. It advocates for the needs of everyone who uses the Web and everyone who works on the Web. If you work for a company that is a W3C Member, please consider encouraging your AC rep to vote for me! My candidate statement follows.

I’m Lea, and I’m running for re-election to the TAG to continue applying my usability research, CSS WG, and TAG experience to help W3C stay connected to the developer community, and to better serve their needs by ensuring web platform features are not only powerful, but also learnable and approachable, with a smooth ease-of-use to complexity curve.

I wear many hats. My background spans almost two decades of web design & development experience, one decade of standards work in the CSS WG, nearly a decade of PhD level human-computer interaction research & teaching at MIT, and over a decade of educating web developers through talks, books, articles, and helping them through my dozens of open source projects, some of which are used on millions of websites. For those unfamiliar with my background, I encourage taking a look at my 2020 candidate statement.

In 2020, I had the great honor of being elected to serve on the TAG by the W3C membership. In the two years I have served on the TAG, I participated in over 70 design reviews and helped prioritize API design in our reviewing. I have been publicly praised for the quality of design reviews I led.

It is important that the TAG does not operate in a vacuum:  The primary purpose of our work is to serve developers and end-users by ensuring web platform features are usable, secure and privacy preserving. I have used my experience during design reviews to make sure we remain connected to this mission.

Together with Sangwhan Moon, I took the lead on our Web Platform Design Principles effort, which documents the principles that underlie Web Platform features — previously only existing in WG lore. The Web Platform is going through an explosion of new features; only in the last year the TAG received almost a hundred design review requests. With this volume, it is important that reviews are consistent, transparent, and fast. Evolving our published design principles helps with all three goals.

The Web ecosystem is not just the Web Platform itself, but also the various tools and libraries out there. I started a project to publish a subset of the design principles that apply to web developers, to help them in creating Web Platform compatible APIs. After all, with web components, web developers are now HTML designers, with Houdini APIs, they are now CSS designers, and with JS, they’ve been JS API designers since forever. The project is currently in its infancy, and If elected, it will be one of my tasks to get it published within my next term.

As a Greek woman, I bring both a Mediterranean and European perspective that diversifies the TAG and as a fully bilingual Greek and English speaker, I can fully participate in rapid technical discussions while also having an appreciation of the Internationalization needs of those who use the Web in languages other than English.

To ensure my participation has been beneficial for the TAG, I reached out to the chairs for feedback before deciding to run again. Both were very positive and strongly encouraged me to run again.

As someone not employed at a big tech company, I am not influenced by any particular company line. My only agenda is to lead the Web Platform to its full potential, and if re-elected, I’m willing to commit to spending the requisite hundreds of hours working towards that goal over the next two years. This was just the beginning, there is so much more important work to be done!

I would like to thank Open JS Foundation for graciously funding my TAG-related travel, in the event that I am re-elected, and both OpenJS Foundation and Bocoup for funding it during my first term.


State of CSS 2022 now open!

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Take State of CSS 2022 survey

A while ago I posted a call for feedback to inform the design of the State of CSS 2022 survey. The response has been overwhelming and it was glorious. We got quite a lot of proposals, feedback, votes. But that also meant we had to make some tough decisions about what gets in the survey and what doesn’t, otherwise we’d end up with a survey so long nobody would want to finish it!

In the end we added questions about 15 new CSS features based on proposals in that repo, and decided against adding 9. Overall, there are 30 new CSS features the 2022 survey asks about. To make space for all of that, we also removed a few that were not really shining much light into what developers do anymore, and also a couple others that were not actually about CSS.

However, CSS features are not the only — or even the most important questions being asked.

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On ratings and meters

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I always thought that the semantically appropriate way to represent a rating (e.g. a star rating) is a <meter> element. They essentially convey the same type of information, the star rating is just a different presentation.

An example of a star rating widget, from Amazon

However, trying to style a <meter> element to look like a star rating is …tricky at best. Not to mention that this approach won’t even work in Shadow trees (unless you include the CSS in every single shadow tree).

So, I set out to create a proper web component for star ratings. The first conundrum was, how does this relate to a <meter> element?

  • Option 1: Should it extend <meter> using builtin extends?
  • Option 2: Should it use a web component with a <meter> in Shadow DOM?
  • Option 3: Should it be an entirely separate web component that just uses a meter ARIA Role and related ARIA attributes?

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Help design the State of CSS Survey 2022!

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Since 2019, the annual State of CSS survey has collected feedback from web developers from across the world to try and take the pulse of the CSS ecosystem, and it’s become a valuable resource not only for CSS developers, but also for browser vendors. This summer, one of my side projects is helping out with survey design and outreach for the State of CSS survey, thanks to a generous Google UI fund grant.

The target is for the survey to launch in mid September, and we are currently working on the outline. So far we have created a preliminary outline based on last year’s survey and early research. All our work happens is in the open, in this repo. Here are some of the changes from last year’s survey:

  • Removed the Pre-processors category as it feels like there isn’t too much debate around that area.
  • Got rid of “which browser do you primarily develop in?” question as we already ask which browsers people test in.
  • Merged “Opinions” and “Environments” sections into new “Usage” section.
  • Moved browsers question to “Other Tools”.
  • New features:
    • currentcolor
    • color-mix()
    • Wide gamut colors
    • scroll-behavior
    • scroll-padding
    • font-palette
    • :focus-visible
    • :has() pseudo-class
    • :where() pseudo-class
    • Cascade Layers
    • Houdini Paint API
    • and there are several others we are considering

We are currently looking for feedback from the community, including suggesting CSS features to ask about, libraries and tools, or even new questions altogether.

There are also some design issues to flesh out, you’re welcome to weigh in there too.

If you want to quickly vote on which features are most important for you to make it into the survey, you can do that either via GitHub 👍🏼reactions, or here (which uses GitHub reactions behind the scenes). Do note that reactions are only one metric among many we will use to consider items.

The feedback period will be open until August 20, then we will start working on launching the survey.

Do note that browser makers are looking at this and similar surveys to prioritize what to implement. This is why Google is sponsoring this project. So any effort you put into survey outline feedback, and on responding to the survey when it’s ready, could come back to you tenfold when your favorite CSS features get implemented faster!