Tag: better

Does the Next Generation of Static Site Generators Make Building Sites Better?

Just ran across îles, a new static site generator mostly centered around Vue. The world has no particular shortage of static site generators, but it’s interesting to see what this “next generation” of SSGs seem to focus on or try to solve.

îles looks to take a heaping spoonful of inspiration from Astro. If we consider them together, along with other emerging and quickly-evolving SSGs, there is some similarities:

  • Ship zero JavaScript by default. Interactive bits are opt-in — that’s what the islands metaphor is all about. Astro and îles do it at the per-component level and SvelteKit prefers it at the page level.
  • Additional fanciness around controls for when hydration happens, like “when the browser is idle,” or “when the component is visible.”
  • Use a fast build tool, like Vite which is Go-based esbuild under the hood. Or Rust-based swc in the case of Next 12.
  • Support multiple JavaScript frameworks for componentry. Astro and îles do this out of the box, and another example is how Slinkity brings that to Eleventy.
  • File-system based routing.
  • Assumption that Markdown is used for content.

When you compare these to first-cohort SSGs, like Jekyll, I get a few feelings:

  1. These really aren’t that much different. The feature set is largely the same.
  2. The biggest change is probably that far more of them are JavaScript library based. Turns out JavaScript libraries are what really what people wanted out of HTML preprocessors, perhaps because of the strong focus on components.
  3. They are incrementally better. They are faster, the live reloading is better, the common needs have been ironed out.

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Better Collaboration With Pull Requests

This article is part of our “Advanced Git” series. Be sure to follow us on Twitter or sign up for our newsletter to hear about the next articles!

In this third installment of our “Advanced Git” series, we’ll look at pull requests — a great feature which helps both small and larger teams of developers. Pull requests not only improve the review and the feedback process, but they also help tracking and discussing code changes. Last, but not least, pull requests are the ideal way to contribute to other repositories you don’t have write access to.

Advanced Git series:

  • Part 1: Creating the Perfect Commit in Git
  • Part 2: Branching Strategies in Git
  • Part 3: Better Collaboration With Pull Requests
    You are here!
  • Part 4: Merge Conflicts
    Coming soon!
  • Part 5: Rebase vs. Merge
  • Part 6: Interactive Rebase
  • Part 7: Cherry-Picking Commits in Git
  • Part 8: Using the Reflog to Restore Lost Commits

What are pull requests?

First of all, it’s important to understand that pull requests are not a core Git feature. Instead, they are provided by the Git hosting platform you’re using: GitHub, GitLab, Bitbucket, AzureDevops and others all have such a functionality built into their platforms.

Why should I create a pull request?

Before we get into the details of how to create the perfect pull request, let’s talk about why you would want to use this feature at all.

Imagine you’ve just finished a new feature for your software. Maybe you’ve been working in a feature branch, so your next step would be merging it into the mainline branch (master or main). This is totally fine in some cases, for example, if you’re the only developer on the project or if you’re experienced enough and know for certain your team members will be happy about it.

By the way: If you want to know more about branches and typical branching workflows, have a look at our second article in our “Advanced Git” series: “Branching Strategies in Git.”

Without a pull request, you would jump right to merging your code.

However, what if your changes are a bit more complex and you’d like someone else to look at your work? This is what pull requests were made for. With pull requests you can invite other people to review your work and give you feedback. 

A pull request invites reviewers to provide feedback before merging.

Once a pull request is open, you can discuss your code with other developers. Most Git hosting platforms allow other users to add comments and suggest changes during that process. After your reviewers have approved your work, it might be merged into another branch.

A pull request invites reviewers to provide feedback before merging.

Having a reviewing workflow is not the only reason for pull requests, though. They come in handy if you want to contribute to other repositories you don’t have write access to. Think of all the open source projects out there: if you have an idea for a new feature, or if you want to submit a patch, pull requests are a great way to present your ideas without having to join the project and become a main contributor.

This brings us to a topic that’s tightly connected to pull requests: forks.

Working with forks

A fork is your personal copy of an existing Git repository. Going back to our Open Source example: your first step is to create a fork of the original repository. After that, you can change code in your own, personal copy.

Creating a fork of the original respository is where you make changes.

After you’re done, you open a pull request to ask the owners of the original repository to include your changes. The owner or one of the other main contributors can review your code and then decide to include it (or not).

Two red database icons with gold arrows pointing at opposite directions between the database. The database on the left as a lock icon next to it that is circled in gold.

Important Note: Pull requests are always based on branches and not on individual commits! When you create a pull request, you base it on a certain branch and request that it gets included.

Making a reviewer’s life easier: How to create a great pull request

As mentioned earlier, pull requests are not a core Git feature. Instead, every Git platform has its own design and its own idea about how a pull request should work. They look different on GitLab, GitHub, Bitbucket, etc. Every platform has a slightly different workflow for tracking, discussing, and reviewing changes.

A layered collage of Git-based websites. Bitbucket is on top, followed by GitHub, then GitLab.

Desktop GUIs like the Tower Git client, for example, can make this easier: they provide a consistent user interface, no matter what code hosting service you’re using.

Animated screenshot of a pull request in the Tower application. A pull requests panel is open showing a pull request by the author that, when clicked, reveals information about that pull request on the right. The app has a dark interface.

Having said that, the general workflow is always the same and includes the following steps:

  1. If you don’t have write access to the repository in question, the first step is to create a fork, i.e. your personal version of the repository.
  2. Create a new local branch in your forked repository. (Reminder: pull requests are based on branches, not on commits!)
  3. Make some changes in your local branch and commit them.
  4. Push the changes to your own remote repository.
  5. Create a pull request with your changes and start the discussion with others.

Let’s look at the pull request itself and how to create one which makes another developer’s life easier. First of all, it should be short so it can be reviewed quickly. It’s harder to understand code when looking at 3,000 lines instead of 30 lines. 

Also, make sure to add a good and self-explanatory title and a meaningful description. Try to describe what you changed, why you opened the pull request, and how your changes affect the project. Most platforms allow you to add a screenshot which can help to demonstrate the changes.

Approve, merge, or decline?

Once your changes have been approved, you (or someone with write access) can merge the forked branch into the main branch. But what if the reviewer doesn’t want to merge the pull request in its current state? Well, you can always add new commits, and after pushing that branch, the existing pull request is updated.

Alternatively, the owner or someone else with write access can decline the pull request when they don’t want to merge the changes.

Safety net for developers

As you can see, pull requests are a great way to communicate and collaborate with your fellow developers. By asking others to review your work, you make sure that only high-quality code enters your codebase. 

If you want to dive deeper into advanced Git tools, feel free to check out my (free!) “Advanced Git Kit”: it’s a collection of short videos about topics like branching strategies, Interactive Rebase, Reflog, Submodules and much more.

Advanced Git series:

  • Part 1: Creating the Perfect Commit in Git
  • Part 2: Branching Strategies in Git
  • Part 3: Better Collaboration With Pull Requests
    You are here!
  • Part 4: Merge Conflicts
    Coming soon!
  • Part 5: Rebase vs. Merge
  • Part 6: Interactive Rebase
  • Part 7: Cherry-Picking Commits in Git
  • Part 8: Using the Reflog to Restore Lost Commits

The post Better Collaboration With Pull Requests appeared first on CSS-Tricks. You can support CSS-Tricks by being an MVP Supporter.

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Looking at WCAG 2.5.5 for Better Target Sizes

Have you ever experienced the frustration of trying to tap a button on a mobile device only to have it do nothing because the target size is just not large enough **and it’s not picking up on your press? Maybe you have larger fingers, like I do, or maybe it’s due to limited dexterity. This is because the sadly ever-decreasing target area of elements we, the users, have to interact with.

Let’s talk about target size and how to make it large enough for users to easily interact with an element. This is an especially big deal if a user is accessing content on a small hand-held touch screen device where real estate is much tighter.

Success criterion revisited

I touched (no pun intended) on Success Criterion in a previous article covering the WCAG 2.1 criterion, Label in Name. In short, the WCAG criteria is the baseline from which we determine whether our work is “accessible.”

If you’re wondering whether there’s a criterion for target size, the answers is yes. It’s WCAG 2.5.5. Pulling straight from the guidelines. passing WCAG 2.5.5 with a AAA grade requires “the size of the target for pointer inputs is at least 44 by 44 CSS pixels except when:

  • Equivalent: The target is available through an equivalent link or control on the same page that is at least 44×44 CSS pixels;
  • Inline: The target is in a sentence or block of text;
  • User Agent Control: The size of the target is determined by the user agent and is not modified by the author;
  • Essential: A particular presentation of the target is essential to the information being conveyed.”

What could possibly go wrong?

It’s just a size, right? Easy peasy. Nothing can possibly go awry.

Or can it?

Small target sizes can cause accessibility hurdles for many people. Have you ever been traveling in a vehicle on a bumpy road and you’re trying to interact with an app on your mobile can not press on an element? That is an accessibility hurdle. Those with motor skill or cognitive impairments will have a much harder time because it is much harder for them if the target size is too small and does not meet WCAG requirements.

I don’t mean to pick on Twitter here, but it’s the first notable example I found while hunting for examples of small targets.

There are some good examples of small targets in here, from the tiny contextual menu to the actions in the footer of a tweet, and even the small icons to add topics to a timeline. And notice that even with a properly sized target, like the floating button to compose a tweet, it overlaps with another target, obstructing access to it.

Imagine the hurdles someone with neuromuscular disorders, such as Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, arthritis, tremors, or Alzheimer’s Disease or any other motor impairment would have to overcome to activate a target in any of those cases.

Another favorite example I see quite often? Ads. Have you ever struggled to click the minuscule “X” button to close them?

You’re not alone if you’ve ever struggled to click, let alone even locate, the close button.

Having no motor skill or cognitive disabilities personally, I find myself fumbling around and taking multiple times to hit some target areas. The fact that someone who needs to use something like a pen or stylus on a target size that is not a minimum of 44×44 pixels can be a difficult task. These targets shouldn’t need multiple attempts to activate when the target size doesn’t meet recommended guidelines.

Target size considerations

WCAG 2.5.5 goes into specific detail to help us account for these things by defining the four types of controls we just saw: equivalent, inline, User Agent, and essential.

We’re going to look at different considerations for determining target sizes and hold them up next to the WCAG guidelines to help steer us toward making good, accessible design decisions.

Consider the difference between “click” and “tap”

This success criteria ensures that target sizes are large enough for users to easily activate targets, even if the user is accessing these targets on handheld devices. We typically associate small screens with “taps” instead of “clicks” when it comes to activating targets. And that’s something we need to consider in our target sizing.

Mice and similar input devices use a pointer on the screen, which is considered “fine” precision because it allows a user to access an element on the screen with exact precision. Fine precision makes it easier to access smaller target sizes in theory. The trouble is, that sort of input device can be tough for some users, whether it’s with gripping the device, or some other cognitive or motor skill. So, even with fine precision, having a clear target is still a benefit.

A Tale of Two Targets: Combining padding and color can help increase the size of a tap target while making it visually clear.

Touch, on the other hand, can be problematic as it is an input mechanism with very “coarse” precision. Users can lack a level of fine control when using a mouse or stylus, for example. A finger, which is larger than a mouse pointer, generally obstructs a user’s view of the exact location on the screen that is being activated or touched. Hence, “course” precision.

A smaller pointer offers more precision than a larger thumb when it comes to interacting with an element.

This issue is exacerbated in responsive design, which needs to accommodate for numerous types of fine and coarse inputs. Both input types must be supported for a site that can be accessed by a desktop or laptop with a mouse, as well as a mobile device or tablet with a touch screen.

That makes the actual size we use for a target a pretty important detail. Depending on who is using a control, what that control does, how often it’s used, and where it’s located, we ought to consider using larger, clearer targets to prevent things like unintended actions.

But with all this said, we do actually have a CSS media query that can detect a pointer device so we can target certain styles to either fine or coarse input interactions, and it’s well-supported. Here’s an example pulled right out of the spec:

/* Make radio buttons and check boxes larger if we have an inaccurate primary pointing device */ @media (pointer: coarse) {   input[type="checkbox"], input[type="radio"] {     min-width: 30px;     min-height: 40px;     background: transparent;   } }

But wait. While this is great and all, Patrick H. Lauke offers a word of caution about this interaction media query and it’s potential for making incorrect assumptions.

Consider that different platforms have different requirements

When WCAG specifies exact values, it’s worth paying attention. Notice that we’re advised to make target sizes at least 44×44 pixels, which is mentioned no fewer than 18 times in the WCAG 2.5.5 explainer.

However, you may have also seen similar requirements with different guidance from the likes of Apple’s “Human Interface Guidelines” for iOS, and Google’s “Material Design” in their platform design requirements.

“Try to maintain a minimum tappable area of 44pt x 44pt for all controls.” (Apple, “Human Interface Guidelines”)

“Consider making pointer targets at least 44 x 44 dp.”
(Material Design, “Accessibility”)

Consider the “tappable area” of a target

Notice that Apple’s platform requirements refer to a “tappable area” when describing the ideal target size. That means that we’re talking about space as much as we are about the appearance of a target. For example, Google’s Material Design suggests at least a 48×48 dp (density-independent pixels) target size for interactive elements. But what if your design requirements call for a 24×24 dp icon? It’s totally legit to use padding in our favor to create more interactive space around the icon, comprising the 48×48 dp target size. Or, as it’s documented in Material Design:

Touch targets are the parts of the screen that respond to user input. They extend beyond the visual bounds of an element. For example, an icon may appear to be 24×24 dp, but the padding surrounding it comprises the full 48×48 dp touch target.

Consider responsive layout behavior

That’s right, we’ve gotta consider how things shift and move around in a design that’s meant to respond to different viewport sizes. One example might be buttons that stack on small screens but are inline on larger screen. We want to make sure that transition accounts for the placement of surrounding elements in order to prevent overlapping elements or targets.

Speaking of inline, there’s a particular piece of the WCAG’s exception for inline targets that’s worth highlighting:

Inline: Content displayed can often be reflowed based on the screen width available (responsive design). In reflowed content, the targets can appear anywhere on a line and can change position based on the width of the available screen. Since targets can appear anywhere on the line, the size cannot be larger than the available text and spacing between the sentences or paragraphs, otherwise the targets could overlap. It is for this reason targets which are contained within one or more sentences are excluded from the target size requirements.

(Emphasis mine)

Now, we’re not necessarily talking about buttons that are side-by-side here. We can links within text and that text might break the target’s placement, possibly into two lines.

While it might be difficult to tap one target without inadvertently tapping the other, the WCAG makes an exception for inline targets, like links within paragraphs.

Consider the target’s relationship to its surroundings

We just saw how inline links within a block of text are exempt from the 44×44 rule. There are similar exceptions depending on the target’s relationship to the elements around it.

Let’s take the example that the WCAG explainer provides, again, in it’s description of inline target exceptions:

If the target is the full sentence and the sentence is not in a block of text, then the target needs to be at least 44 by 44 CSS pixels.

That’s a good one. We ought to consider whether the target is its own block or part of a larger block of text. If the target is its own block, then it needs to abide by the rules, whether it’s a button with a short label, or a complete sentence that’s linked up. On the flip side, a complete sentence that’s linked up inside another block of text doesn’t have to meet the target size requirements.

If the target is its own block of text (left), then it needs to adhere to the WCAG criterion. Otherwise, it is exempt (right).

You might think that something like a linked icon at the end of a sentence or paragraph would need to play by the rules, but the WCAG is clear that these targets are exempt:

A footnote or an icon within or at the end of a sentence is considered to be part of a sentence and therefore are excluded from the minimum target size.

And that makes sense. Imagine content with a line height of, say 32 pixels and an icon at the end that’s all padded up to be 44×44 pixels and how easy it would be to inadvertently activate the icon.

Consider whether the target is styled by the User Agent

If the target is completely un-styled — in the sense that you’ve added no CSS to it — and instead takes on the default styles provided by the browser, then there’s no need to stress the 44×44 rule. That makes sense. The User Agent is like system-level UI so changing it superficially with our own styles would be overriding an entire system which could lead to inconsistencies in that UI.

You’re fine just as you are, little button.

So, yeah, if you’re rockin’ a default <button> or the like, and there are no other styles or sizing applied to it, then it’s good to go. But lots of us use resets to normalize UI elements across browsers, so watch for that in your codebase because that’s going to affect the User Agent styles of your target.

Consider if there are other ways to activate the functionality

We’ve all used in-page anchor links, right? Heck, CSS-Tricks often has a table of contents at the top of an article that’s merely a list of anchor links.

Should these be at least 44×44 pixels?

WCAG actually uses anchor links as an example of something that’s off the hook as far as meeting the target size requirements. Why? Because it’s just as possible to manually scroll down to a specific location on a page as it is to click a link to jump there. There are two ways to accomplish the same thing, and one of those ways is built right into the browser.

But we still ought to use care when working with something like a table of contents. I’m not entirely clear here, but given that a table of contents is list of links, each link may very well constitute its own block of text that’s not part of a larger block of a text, like a paragraph. So, in this sort of case, maybe a little extra space between list items is still a good idea. There’s less change of accidentally clipping or tapping two or more targets at once.

Wrapping up

WCAG 2.5.5 criterion provides guidance for applying target sizes that are clear, unobstructed, and easy to activate. As we saw, there are plenty of cases where the size of a target can make all the difference in the world when it comes to completing an action.

The interesting thing about the target size guidelines is what is exempted from them. While we didn’t cover each specific exemption on its own, we did look at a bunch situations that require careful consideration for sizing a target, from the type of input device that’s in use to the relationship of the target to its surrounding elements, and plenty of things between.

The key to accessible target sizing isn’t necessary about using less styling on a target (although we did see that default User Agent styles are exempt), but rather having context and styling accordingly. There are probably dozens more situations we could have covered here and examined how styles come into play — so if you have some, share!

And as far as styling goes, CSS specifications have specific features, like the interation media query for pointer, to make target sizing even better for people. Used well, it could be a great way to detect if a visitor is using a fine or course input device. That way, we can tailor things to make their experience better than if we treated those differences the same.

So, yes, target sizes are an easy thing to brush off and ignore. But hopefully now you’re like me and have a genuine appreciation for targets that are correctly sized now that you have the information to make correctly sized targets of your own.


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Code blocks, but better

Pedro Duarte made a wishlist for styled code blocks in blog posts and documentation, then hand-rolls a perfect solution for that wishlist. For example, a feature to be able to highlight certain lines or words within the code block. The line highlighter is unique in that it only syntax highlights the highlighted lines, leaving the rest gray, which is a neat way to draw focus. And the word highlighter works via a RegEx. Pedro notes this isn’t a tutorial, it’s just a showcase of all the features that were stitched together using an existing combination of custom code and existing libraries. It’s pretty specific to React + Next.js + MDX, but apparently the core of it is based on rehype, which is new to me.

The results are pretty darn nice, modern-looking code blocks if you ask me! At the same time, I think it’s equally notable what’s not there as opposed to what is. I’ve seen (and tried) really featured-packed code blocks in the past, with features like a copy to clipboard button, a view raw code button, and export to whatever services. Pedro’s code blocks don’t even have an option to show the language in use.

Everybody’s wishlist is different. One thing that isn’t on Pedro’s wishlist is server-side rendering, but you can see on the blog post itself that it totally works with that (it’s presumably just Next.js at work). I’m pretty envious of that. Even though we’re ultimately both using Prism.js as the syntax highlighter, I’m only using it client-side. It occurs to me now that I could perhaps pull all this off in a Cloudflare Worker by using the HTMLRewriter — meaning it would essentially look like it’s done server-side and I could rip off the client-side copy of Prism. Maybe even more ideally, though, is that I’d do it as a WordPress plugin. Basically a PHP port of Prism, which seems like a tall order.

My wishlist for code block plugin…

  • Syntax highlighting (both on the rendered site and while authoring)
  • Server-side rendered <span class="token-foo"> stuff for syntax highlighting
  • Works nicely with the native WordPress block editor code blocks (```). For example, pasting in a code block auto-detects and uses the correct block. Easy to convert code to and from this kind of block.
  • Optional line highlighter
  • Optional line numbers
  • Optional word highlighter
  • Optional language display (and the ability to override that label)
  • Copy and paste very cleanly
  • No need to escape code while authoring
  • Freedom to style however on the front end (for modes, themes, custom scrollbars, etc). Styling code blocks has a million things to consider, so smart defaults should probably come with the plugin, but easy to override.
  • Stretch goal: can it somehow help with inline code as well?

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Local: Always Getting Better

I’ve been using Local for ages. Four years ago, I wrote about how I got all my WordPress sites running locally on it. I just wanted to give it another high five because it’s still here and still great. In fact, much great than it was back then.

Disclosure, Flywheel, the makers of Local, sponsor this site, but this post isn’t sponsored. I just wanted to talk about a tool I use. It’s not the only player in town. Even old school MAMP PRO is has gotten a lot better and many devs seem to like it. People that live on the command line tend to love Laravel Valet. There is another WordPress host getting in on the game here: DevKinsta.

The core of Local is still very much the same. It’s an app you run locally (Windows, Mac, or Linux) and it helps you spin up WordPress sites incredibly easily. Just a few choices and clicks and it’s going. This is particularly useful because WordPress has dependencies that make it run (PHP, MySQL, a web server, etc) and while you can absolutely do that by hand or with other tools, Local does it in a containerized way that doesn’t mess with your machine and can help you run locally with settings that are close to or entirely match your production site.

That stuff has always been true. Here are things that are new, compared to my post from four years ago!

  • Sites start up nearly instantaneously. Maybe around a year or a bit more ago Local had a beta build they dubbed Local “Lightning” because it was something of a re-write that made it way faster. Now it’s just how Local works, and it’s fast as heck.
  • You can easily pull and push sites to production (and/or staging) very easily. Back then, you could pull I think but not push. I still wire up my own deployment because I usually want it to be Git-based, but the pulling is awfully handy. Like, you sit down to work on a site, and first thing, you can just yank down a copy of production so you’re working with exactly what is live. That’s how I work anyway. I know that many people work other ways. You could have your local or staging environment be the source of truth and do a lot more pushing than pulling.
  • Instant reload. This is refreshing for my little WordPress sites where I didn’t even bother to spin up a build process or Sass or anything. Usually, those build processes also help with live reloading, so it’s tempting to reach for them just for that, but no longer needed here. When I do need a build process, I’ll often wire up Gulp, but also CodeKit still works great and its server can proxy Local’s server just fine.
  • One-click admin login. This is actually the feature that inspired me to write this post. Such a tiny quality of life thing. There is a button that says Admin. You can click that and, rather than just taking you to the login screen, it auto-logs you in as a particular admin user. SO NICE.
  • There is a plugin system. My back-end friends got me on TablePlus, so I love that there is an extension that allows me to one-click open my WordPress DBs in TablePlus. There is also an image optimizer plugin, which scans the whole site for images it can make smaller. I just used that the other day because might as well.

That’s not comprehensive of course, it’s just a smattering of features that demonstrate how this product started good and keeps getting better.

Bonus: I think it’s classy how they shout out to the open source shoulders they stand on:


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Still Hoping for Better Native Page Transitions

It sure would be nice to be able to animate the transition between pages if we want to on the web, at least without resorting to hacks or full-blown architecture choices just to achieve it. Some kind of API that would run stuff (it could integrate with WAAPI?) before the page is unloaded, and then some buddy API that would do the same on the way in.

We do have an onbeforeunload API, but I’m not sure what kind of baggage that has. That, or otherwise, is all possible now, but what I want are purpose-built APIs that help us do it cleanly (understandable functions) and with both performance (working as quickly as clicking links normally does) and accessibility (like focus handling) in mind.

If you’re building a single-page app anyway, you get the freedom to animate between views because the page never reloads. The danger here is that you might pick a single-page app just for this ability, which is what I mean by having to buy into a site architecture just to achieve this. That feels like an unfortunate trade-off, as single-page apps bring a ton of overhead, like tooling and accessibility concerns, that you wouldn’t have otherwise needed.

Without a single page app, you could use something like Turbo and animate.css like this. Or, Adam’s new transition.style, a clip-path() based homage to Daniel Edan’s masterpiece. Maybe if that approach was paired with instant.page it would be as fast as any other internal link click.

There are other players trying to figure this out, like smoothState.js and Swup. The trick being: intercept the action to move to the next page, run the animation first, then load the next page, and animate the new page in. Technically, it slows things down a bit, but you can do it pretty efficiently and the movement adds enough distraction that the perceived performance might even be better.

Ideally, we wouldn’t have to animate the entire page but we could have total control to make more interesting transitions. Heck, I was doing that a decade ago with a page for a musician where clicking around the site just moved things around so that the audio would keep playing (and it was fun).

This would be a great place for the web platform to step in. I remember Jake pushed for this years ago, but I’m not sure if that went anywhere. Then we got portals which are… ok? Those are like if you load an iframe on the page and then animate it to take over the whole page (and update the URL). Not much animation nuance possible there, but you could certainly swipe some pages around or fade them in and out (hey here’s another one: Highway), like jQuery Mobile did back in ancient times.


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Sticky Headers: 5 Ways to Make Them Better

Page Laubheimer says that if you’re going to do a sticky header…

  1. Keep it small.
  2. Visually contrast it with the rest of the page.
  3. If it’s going to move, keep it minimal. (I’d say, respect prefers-reduced-motion.)
  4. Consider “partially persistent headers.” (Jemima Abu calls it a Smart Navbar.)
  5. Actually, maybe don’t even do it.

I generally like the term “sticky” header, because it implies you should use position: sticky for them, which I think you should. It used to be done with position: fixed, but that was trickier to pull off since the header would move in-and-out of flow of the document. Using sticky positioning helps reserve that space automatically without JavaScript or magic numbers.

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Better Line Breaks for Long URLs

CSS-Tricks has covered how to break text that overflows its container before, but not much as much as you might think. Back in 2012, Chris penned “Handling Long Words and URLs (Forcing Breaks, Hyphenation, Ellipsis, etc)” and it is still one of only a few posts on the topic, including his 2018 follow-up Where Lines Break is Complicated. Here’s all the Related CSS and HTML.

Chris’s tried-and-true technique works well when you want to leverage automated word breaks and hyphenation rules that are baked into the browser:

.dont-break-out {   /* These are technically the same, but use both */   overflow-wrap: break-word;   word-wrap: break-word;    word-break: break-word;    /* Adds a hyphen where the word breaks, if supported (No Blink) */   hyphens: auto; }

But what if you can’t? What if your style guide requires you to break URLs in certain places? These classic sledgehammers are too imprecise for that level of control. We need a different way to either tell the browser exactly where to make a break.

Why we need to care about line breaks in URLs

One reason is design. A URL that overflows its container is just plain gross to look at.

Then there’s copywriting standards. The Chicago Manual of Style, for example, specifies when to break URLs in print. Then again, Chicago gives us a pass for electronic documents… sorta:

It is generally unnecessary to specify breaks for URLs in electronic publications formats with reflowable text, and authors should avoid forcing them to break in their manuscripts.

Chicago 17th ed., 14.18

But what if, like Rachel Andrew (2015) encourages us, you’re designing for print, not just screens? Suddenly, “generally unnecessary” becomes “absolutely imperative.” Whether you’re publishing a book, or you want to create a PDF version of a research paper you wrote in HTML, or you’re designing an online CV, or you have a reference list at the end of your blog post, or you simply care how URLs look in your project—you’d want a way to manage line breaks with a greater degree of control.

OK, so we’ve established why considering line breaks in URLs is a thing, and that there are use cases where they’re actually super important. But that leads us to another key question…

Where are line breaks supposed to go, then?

We want URLs to be readable. We also don’t want them to be ugly, at least no uglier than necessary. Continuing with Chicago’s advice, we should break long URLs based on punctuation, to help signal to the reader that the URL continues on the next line. That would include any of the following places:

  • After a colon or a double slash (//)
  • Before a single slash (/), a tilde (~), a period, a comma, a hyphen, an underline (aka an underscore, _), a question mark, a number sign, or a percent symbol
  • Before or after an equals sign or an ampersand (&)

At the same time, we don’t want to inject new punctuation, like when we might reach for hyphens: auto; rules in CSS to break up long words. Soft or “shy” hyphens are great for breaking words, but bad news for URLs. It’s not as big a deal on screens, since soft hyphens don’t interfere with copy-and-paste, for example. But a user could still mistake a soft hyphen as part of the URL—hyphens are often in URLs, after all. So we definitely don’t want hyphens in print that aren’t actually part of the URL. Reading long URLs is already hard enough without breaking words inside them.

We still can break particularly long words and strings within URLs. Just not with hyphens. For the most part, Chicago leaves word breaks inside URLs to discretion. Our primary goal is to break URLs before and after the appropriate punctuation marks.

How do you control line breaks?

Fortunately, there’s an (under-appreciated) HTML element for this express purpose: the <wbr> element, which represents a line break opportunity. It’s a way to tell the browser, Please break the line here if you need to, not just any-old place.

We can take a gnarly URL, like the one Chris first shared in his 2012 post:

http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=sr_nr_i_o?rh=k%3Ashark+vacuum%2Ci%3Agarden&keywords=shark+vacuum&ie=UTF8&qid=1327784979

And sprinkle in some <wbr> tags, “Chicago style”:

http:<wbr>//<wbr>www<wbr>.<wbr>amazon<wbr>.com<wbr>/<wbr>s/<wbr>ref<wbr>=<wbr>sr<wbr>_<wbr>nr<wbr>_<wbr>i<wbr>_o<wbr>?rh<wbr>=<wbr>k<wbr>%3Ashark<wbr>+vacuum<wbr>%2Ci<wbr>%3Agarden<wbr>&<wbr>keywords<wbr>=<wbr>shark+vacuum<wbr>&ie<wbr>=<wbr>UTF8<wbr>&<wbr>qid<wbr>=<wbr>1327784979

Even if you’re the most masochistic typesetter ever born, you’d probably mark up a URL like that exactly zero times before you’d start wondering if there’s a way to automate those line break opportunities.

Yes, yes there is. Cue JavaScript and some aptly placed regular expressions:

/**  * Insert line break opportunities into a URL  */ function formatUrl(url) {   // Split the URL into an array to distinguish double slashes from single slashes   var doubleSlash = url.split('//')    // Format the strings on either side of double slashes separately   var formatted = doubleSlash.map(str =>     // Insert a word break opportunity after a colon     str.replace(/(?<after>:)/giu, '$ 1<wbr>')       // Before a single slash, tilde, period, comma, hyphen, underline, question mark, number sign, or percent symbol       .replace(/(?<before>[/~.,-_?#%])/giu, '<wbr>$ 1')       // Before and after an equals sign or ampersand       .replace(/(?<beforeAndAfter>[=&])/giu, '<wbr>$ 1<wbr>')     // Reconnect the strings with word break opportunities after double slashes     ).join('//<wbr>')    return formatted }

Try it out

Go ahead and open the following demo in a new window, then try resizing the browser to see how the long URLs break.

This does exactly what we want:

  • The URLs break at appropriate spots.
  • There is no additional punctuation that could be confused as part of the URL.
  • The <wbr> tags are auto-generated to relieve us from inserting them manually in the markup.

This JavaScript solution works even better if you’re leveraging a static site generator. That way, you don’t have to run a script on the client just to format URLs. I’ve got a working example on my personal site built with Eleventy.

If you really want to break long words inside URLs too, then I’d recommend inserting those few <wbr> tags by hand. The Chicago Manual of Style has a whole section on word division (7.36–47, login required).

Browser support

The <wbr> element has been seen in the wild since 2001. It was finally standardized with HTML5, so it works in nearly every browser at this point. Strangely enough, <wbr> worked in Internet Explorer (IE) 6 and 7, but was dropped in IE 8, onward. Support has always existed in Edget, so it’s just a matter of dealing with IE or other legacy browsers. Some popular HTML-to-PDF programs, like Prince, also need a boost to handle <wbr>.

One more possible solution

There’s one more trick to optimize line break opportunities. We can use a pseudo-element to insert a zero width space, which is how the <wbr> element is meant to behave in UTF-8 encoded pages anyhow. That’ll at least push support back to IE 9, and perhaps more importantly, work with Prince.

/**   * IE 8–11 and Prince don’t recognize the `wbr` element,  * but a pseudo-element can achieve the same effect with IE 9+ and Prince.  */ wbr:before {   /* Unicode zero width space */   content: "0B";   white-space: normal; }

Striving for print-quality HTML, CSS, and JavaScript is hardly new, but it is undergoing a bit of a renaissance. Even if you don’t design for print or follow Chicago style, it’s still a worthwhile goal to write your HTML and CSS with URLs and line breaks in mind.

References


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How Film School Helped Me Make Better User Experiences

Recently, I finished a sixty-day sprint where I posted hand-coded zombie themed CSS animation every day. I learned a lot, but it also took me back to film school and reminded me of so many things I learned about storytelling, cinematography, and art.

Turns out that much of what I learned back then is relevant to websites, particularly web animations. Sarah Drasner made the connection between theater and development and I thought I’d extend some of those ideas as they relate to film.

A story makes everything more engaging

Humans love stories. I don’t need to quote you statistics on the billions of dollars spent on shows and books and games each year. If you can inject story into a website — especially when it comes to animation — it’ll be that much more interesting and appealing to your audience.

There are many ways to define what a “story” is, but as far as things go for the web where animations can be quick or subtle, I think a story only requires two things: a character and an inciting incident (which is simply a plot point that brings the protagonist — or main character — into the story).

Take the “Magical Oops” demo I made over at CodePen:

There’s not much going on, but there is a story. We have a character, the scientist, who invokes an inciting incident when he fires the shrink ray at the zombie. Instead of shrinking the zombie, the ray shrinks the zombie’s hat to reveal (and ultimately be worn by) a rabbit. Will you necessarily relate to those characters? Probably not, at least personally. But the fact that something happens to them is enough of an engaging hook to draw you in.

Sure, I lean toward funny and silly storylines, but a story’s tone can be serious or any other number of things.

I’m confident you can find a story that fits your site.

A story makes everything more personable

Humans anthropomorphize anything and everything. You know exactly what that feels like if you’ve ever identified with characters in a Pixar movie, like “Toy Story” or “Inside Out.” The character you add doesn’t have to be a literal living thing or representative of a living thing. Heck, my stories are about the undead.

How does that relate to the web? Let’s say your app congratulates users when completing a task, like Slack does when all unread threads have been cleared out.

The point is to add some personality and intentionality to whatever movement you’re creating. It’s also about bringing the story — which is the user task of reviewing unread messages — to a natural (and, in this case, a happy) conclusion. That sort of feedback is not only informative, but something that makes the user part of the story in a personable way.

If a viewer can understand the subject of the story, they’ll get why something moves or changes. They’ll see it as a character — even if the subject is the user. That’s what makes something personable. (You got it! Here’s a pony. 🐴)

Watch for the human’s smirk in my “Undead Seat Driver” pen:

The smirk introduces an emotional element that further adds to the story by making the main character more relatable.

Direct attention with visual depth

One of the greatest zombie movies of all time, Citizen Kane, reached popularity for a variety of reasons. It’s a wonderful story with great acting, for one, but there’s something else you might not catch when viewing the movie today that was revolutionary at the time: deep focus photography. Deep focus allowed things in the foreground and the background and the middle ground to be in focus all at the same time. Before this, it was only possible to use one focal point at a time. Deep focus made the film almost feel like it was in 3D.

We’re not constrained by camera lenses on the web (well, aside from embedded media I suppose), but one thing that makes the deep focus photography of Citizen Kane work so well is that director Orson Welles was able to point a viewer’s attention at different planes at different times. He sometimes even had multiple things happening in multiple planes, but this was always a choice. 

Working with deep focus on the web has actually been happening for some time, even if it isn’t called that. Think of parallax scrolling and how it adds depth between backgrounds. There’s also the popular modal pattern where an element dominates the foreground while the background is either dimmed or blurred out.

That was the idea behind my “Hey, Hey, Hey!” pen that starts with a character in focus on a faraway plane who gives way to a zombie that appears in the foreground:

The opposite sort of thing occurs here in my “Nobody Here But Us Humans… 2” pen:

Try to think of a website as a 3D space and you’ll open up possibilities you may have never considered before. And while there are 3D transforms that work right now in your browser, that isn’t the only thing I’m talking about. There are tons of ways to “fake” a 3D effect using shading, shadows, relative size, blurs or other types of distortion.

For example, I used a stacking order to mimic a multi-dimensional space in my “Finally, alone with my sandwich…” pen. Notice how the human’s head rotation lends a little more credibility to the effect:

Take animation to the next level with scenes

Some of the work I’m proudest of are those where I went beyond silly characters doing silly things (although I am proud of that as well). There are two animations in particular that come to mind.

The first is what I call “Zombie Noon 2”:

The reason this one stands out to me is how the camera suddenly (and possibly as an unexpected plot twist) turns the viewer into a character in the story. Once the Zombie’s shots are fired, the camera rolls over, essentially revealing that it’s you who has been shot.

The second piece that comes to mind is called “Lunch (at) Noon” :

(I apparently got some middle school glee out of shooting hats off zombies’s heads. *shrugs* Being easily amused is cheap entertainment.)

Again, the camera puts things in a sort of first-person perspective where we’re facing a zombie chef who gets his hat shot off. The twist comes when a Ratatouille-like character is revealed under the hat, triggering a new scene by zooming in on him. Watch his eyes narrow when the focus turns to him.

Using the “camera” is an awesome way to bring an animation to the next level; it forces viewer participation. That doesn’t mean the camera should swoop and fly and zoom at every turn and with every animation, but switching from a 2D to a 3D perspective — when done well and done to deepen the experience — can enhance  a user’s experience with it.


So, as it turns out, my film school education really has paid off! There’s so much of it that directly applies to the web, and hopefully you see the same correlations that I’ve discovered.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t call out something important in this article. While I think borrowing concepts from stories and storytelling is really awesome and can be the difference between good and great experiences, they aren’t the right call in every situation. Like, what’s the point of putting a user through a story-like experience on a terms and conditions page? Legal content is typically already a somewhat tense read, so adding more tension may not be the best bet. But, hey, if you’re able to introduce a story that relieves the tension of that context, then by all means! and, let’s not forget about users who prefer reduced motion.

Bottom line: These ideas aren’t silver bullets for all cases. They’re tools to help you think about how you can take your site and your animations the extra mile and enhance a user’s experience in a pleasant way.


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Want to get better at code? Teach someone CSS.

A friend of mine recently asked me to teach her to code. She was an absolute beginner, having no idea what coding really involves. I decided to start where I started: HTML and CSS. Using CodePen, we started forking Pens and altering them. Soon, a learning path started to unravel.

The aim of this article is not to teach basic CSS to those who already know it but rather to highlight the things that inspired a newcomer and hopefully inspire you to pass on some knowledge to others if the opportunity arises. It felt good to help someone out and, in turn, I learned some really valuable lessons that have changed the way I think about my code. Win win!

So, here we go: five lessons I learned from teaching someone CSS.

Lesson 1: Don’t start from scratch

When I starting coding for the web 12 years ago, I began with layout — positioning with floats, margins, padding and position declarations. It might seem outdated these days, but still, this is where I went right away with my new coding buddy.

It didn’t go that well.

As you might guess, starting with something like, “Here is how to position an empty box in the middle of the screen,” was a mistake. How uninspiring! And even though I was impressed with my own ability to demonstrate how Flexbox can position an element in the center of the screen (more on that later), I was immediately faced with lots of additional, non-positional questions.

“So how do you change the colors?”

“Can it change shape when hovered over?”

“What fonts can you use on the web?”

I thought we were weeks away from all that.

So, my plans of teaching the 12-column grid went out the window and we pulled up Chris’ named color chart alongside a couple of forked Pens and started playing around. First off, we changed the colors of Cassidy Williams Netflix/Netlify logo. Wow! Instant hit.

<a class="container" href="https://netlify.com" target="_blank">    <div class="logo">     <div class="uno"></div>     <div class="dos"></div>     <div class="tres"></div>   </div>   <div class="name">Prettier</div> </a>

Then a few simple tweaks to the CSS:

body {   background: #F9F2DB;   color: #092935;   font-size: 50px; } 
 a {   color: #092935; } 
 .logo .uno, .dos, .tres {   background: #C61561; }  .logo .dos {   box-shadow: 0 0 20px #F9F2DB; }  .logo::before {   background: #F9F2DB; } 
 .name {   letter-spacing: 8px; }

Within minutes, my friend was hooked! There was no boring positioning to worry about, just a clear example of how a few simple lines of code can change something so familiar into something entirely different.

Then it kicked in that you can change the color of anything! We loaded up a couple of well known sites in the browser and changed the colors of some text and backgrounds with DevTools, all in a couple of minutes. Mission accomplished! My friend was hooked. 

Lesson learned: Don’t worry about trying to build something from scratch. Have a play with what’s already out there! 

Lesson 2: Comments

This isn’t where I had planned to go with my planned class, but the question of why some parts of CSS start with /* and end with */ came up, so we went with it. 

This one really had me thinking about my own work. I really do not comment my code enough. Watching a new coder comment everything (and I mean everything) reminded me just how helpful comments are, not only for yourself, but also to a wider team, or even future you. (Sarah Drasner has a great talk on this topic).

And here is the thing: until then, I thought I was commenting pretty diligently. However, watching someone else do it made me realize how many times I look at a piece of code (particularly JavaScript) and wish I had put a line or two in there to remind myself what I was doing. A ten-second task might have saved me five (or perhaps even more) minutes down the road. That adds up and is now something I am working on.

Lesson learned: Comment more. 

Lesson 3: Positioning

We started with some basic HTML, and honestly, I saw my friend’s eyes glazing over almost immediately. It just looks so dull when you can’t see it doing anything right away (unlike editing pre-written CSS). However, we stuck with it, and got results.

Take my word for it, don’t start by positioning empty <div> elements with 1-pixel borders around them. You’ll lose your audience very quickly. Put a picture of a dog in there — or baby Yoda or a pizza — just as long as it’s anything other than an empty element.

We then turned to Flexbox. We actually found CSS Grid a bit too much at the start. We looked briefly at CSS Grid, but when reading lots of articles about it, it’s clear that many assume the reader already has familiarity with CSS, Flexbox in particular. My friend decided to start with Flexbox.

An admission on my part: I am so used to using UI frameworks (especially Bootstrap) that I very rarely position anything in Flexbox by writing the CSS myself. I know how it works and (most of) the declarations, but I still very rarely write it out myself, even in situations where it would be relatively easy. Teaching made me think about my reliance on UI frameworks as a whole. Yes, they are undoubtedly amazing and save us tons of time on projects, but I recalled using Bootstrap on a recent project that was essentially two pages and probably didn’t need it! 

Lesson learned: If the project is something small with a minimal number of elements to position, then consider ditching the framework and code from scratch! The end result will be lightweight, fast, and way more satisfying!

Lesson 4: Typography

I love typography. I’ve been lucky enough to work with great designers over the past few years and that has really helped me dial in on the nuances of type. It’s amazing how changes to things like line-height and letter-spacing can really help lift a design from average to amazing. This was something I was keen to impress upon my eager new student. Well, I needn’t have bothered, as the only thing of interest (initially) was changing the fonts and then, crucially for me, the sheer number of fonts available for us to use. The choices are almost limitless and the services and foundries offering web fonts have exploded in the past few years to a point where anything is possible, at speed with little impact on load times.

But here is the thing about designers (and front-end developers like myself): we can be a bit narrow-minded in our font choices. Designs tend to stick to the same fonts from the same services (Roboto and Open Sans anyone?) because we know they are easy to implement and that they work. Exploring fonts with someone new to the trade forced me to look beyond the old staples and try a few new things. I’m now looking for new pairings that work together and dialing in on how they work on screen and impact the whole look and feel of a design. In short, teaching someone else about type has improved my own journey with type, which was probably stuck in something like 2017. 

Lesson learned: Keep up to date with type.

Lesson 5. :hover makes everything fun

Things were going OK up to this point, but as you can probably imagine, things were still pretty static. Without really planning, we stumbling into adding a hover effect on on an element and it was an instant hook, just like it was changing colors for the first time!

Hovers add interaction and easily impress, which makes them great for a newcomer to play around with. Scaling objects, changing a box from square to round, hiding content — these are the types of thing that can all be done so easily that hovers are an ideal way for a new coder to get instant results. And here’s the thing: “‘playing” around like this opens other doors. “What if I just do this?” is something many us rarely get to ask ourselves in our day-to-day jobs. With defined designs to work from, there is often little chance to play and equally less chance to experiment.

So, here is the final lesson: Make time to play. Just by being asked, “How do you make this thing do that?” has forced me to learn new things, see what’s new in CSS, and see what I can take back into my day-to-day work. Experimenting (or better yet, playing) has made me a better designer, and I’ll be doing more.

Lesson learned: Make time to play.

Conclusion

If my time teaching CSS to a newbie has taught me anything, it’s that I rarely write code from scratch anymore. Code snippets and autocomplete save me hours, but it’s those same conveniences that let me forget about some really basic stuff. Stuff I should know. By teaching someone else, even if just for 15 minutes now and then, my coding has generally improved and my eyes are open to new ideas and techniques that I may not have otherwise considered.

And as for my friend? Well, she was so taken by CSS in our short time together that she is now doing an online course that includes HTML, which doesn’t seem so dull now that she knows what it is capable of doing!


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