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Accepting Our Lack of Control

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It’s easy to forget that our users have ultimate control over how they view the web, even though it has been said before. As people making the web, we merely offer suggestions. These suggestions of ours should make it easier, not harder for people to access our content in the manner that best suits them.

Over the course of the last year I’ve worked on several projects for a wide array of products and sites. The common denominator across all of them was an end goal of a responsive site. Often that’s where the commonality ended, though. In some situations not everyone agreed or accepted that we lack control when it comes to how users experience our sites.

As I work and write CSS, I try to do so in a way that acknowledges that I don’t have ultimate control. For instance, I prefer to use rems with a pixel fallback, ensuring that my line heights are unitless and work with whatever unit the font is in. That has the added bonus of not having a negative effect on the children of the element. In addition, I often prefer to base my breakpoints on the content of a page, rather than a set of device sizes. That can make the code a bit harder to maintain, but it benefits users. When it comes to grids, I’m happy to use percentages and let the browser round for widths and gutters to make things work.

Of course all of those things mean we are giving up some control. When your line height isn’t an exact pixel number, you’re letting the browser decide and do some math. It may not look perfect. When you allow content to drive breakpoints rather than using standard breakpoints, you may have more complicated CSS to maintain. And with grids, as with line heights, when you allow the browser to do some of that work, the rounding may not always end up the way you desire.

I’ve come to a place of peace with this lack of control, and at times I even enjoy it. The reality is, users ultimately have a lot of control: they can change their base font sizes, they can zoom in, they may even be reading our content in a different application, such as an RSS reader. The user gets to decide how they want to view and use our sites and applications.

Not everyone I work with is as excited about losing some of the perfection, though. Many would prefer to be more precise with the CSS so that it looks exact in their browser of choice. But doing that would mean not allowing users to have as much control over the experience, and could mean a poor experience for some.

When confronted with concerns or objections from teammates who would rather have more perfect CSS, I do my best to outline the reasons behind these practices. We need to be user-friendly, future friendly, and accept the “ebb and flow of the web,” so that the things we build can be viewed on whatever device comes along. As Anna Debenham reminds us, many users are grabbing what’s convenient, not necessarily what will give them the perfect experience.

Learning to be ok with the ebb and flow of things allows us to think differently about how we can work with and use the web. As Frank Chimero writes in his wonderful essay “The Web’s Grain”:

So, those media queries we write? It might be time to stop calling them breakpoints, and instead consider them points of reassembly.

As I think about how I advocate for allowing the web to be the web, I’m drawn to Frank’s idea. Instead of making our sketches fit on the web, I’m trying to make our ideas and content work inside the various edges of the web as it appears across a myriad of devices.

Which brings us right back to what John Allsopp said so well fifteen years ago:

The control which designers know in the print medium, and often desire in the web medium, is simply a function of the limitation of the printed page. We should embrace the fact that the web doesn’t have the same constraints, and design for this flexibility. But first, we must “accept the ebb and flow of things.”

This tension of how we build for the web probably isn’t going away any time soon, but as Paul Ford reminded us last week: neither is the web—it will survive and continue on.

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