Hello and welcome to RWD Weekly Newsletter edition #408 and the continuation of the interview series.
Each week I pose the same seven questions to a range of different folks working in our industry and we get to hear their opinions based on their own experiences working on the web.
This week we continue with Sally Lait. Sally has spent her career working with the web – agency-side as a developer up to Head of Technology, running a digital transformation consultancy, and now with Monzo. Her former work has included projects with the RNLI, Electronic Arts, Sport England, Hotelplan, Nokia, SSE, Fulham FC, and Manor Racing F1 team (amongst others).
Sally is also an international speaker, writer for industry publications, and award winner.
Without further ado, Sally.
How do you find working with clients these days? Is responsive something that you have to sell in any more or does everyone get it now?
I think it still depends on who you’re talking to, and the context. I don’t work with clients as such now that I’m employed in engineering leadership at Monzo Bank, however I still find parallels with that type of chat in the conversations I have involving different stakeholders.
Let’s take other members of the business’ leadership, for one. There’s not a fight to “spend more time” on making sites responsive like it once was, but nowadays it’s more about making sure that it doesn’t get missed, and opportunities are fully understood. For me it’s less about the practicalities, more about people understanding how good practice ties into the ethos of what we’re trying to achieve and plays its own role. At Monzo we want to make money work for everyone, and I spoke at one of our events about the impact of technology on social inclusion – I strongly believe that responsive design has a huge role here, alongside other topics like accessibility and performance.
Our web engineers are all fantastic and fully bought into responsive design, however for various reasons we’ve historically had points where other engineers (backend or native app folks) have ended up building things for the web. Levels of knowledge of front-end best practices can vary, so as a discipline we try to support others with clear examples, expectations, and principles. It helps to be explicit so that everyone knows:
- what the expectations are, and crucially why those things are important
- how to go about doing them
- how to learn more or get support. All credit to our engineers here, who are brilliant at helping each other on Slack, or our internal StackOverflow.
This was all part of why I championed a Web Platform team after joining Monzo; to help set up strong foundations for the discipline. We’ve also recently done some work on our company-wide tech strategy for the future, and during this process we decided to be more explicit in our expectations around things like responsive, rather than leaving them implicit.
Globally, you’ll likely find a very different perspective. As an example, over the last few years I’ve spent a fair bit of time in Japan, and the conventions for web there are sometimes very different. As an industry we should be careful not to consider a topic like responsive done and dusted just because it is within our own personal bubbles, so I’m all for continuing to have these conversations in the open!
What is it now that you find the hardest when speaking with clients from a website build point of view, and how do you go about explaining why it is important?
Again I have a slightly different perspective here, in that it’s often not a client conversation but a business one. On top of the things that I mentioned previously (tying it into the overall mission, etc), I find there are a couple of key challenges:
Firstly, within our business there’s the challenge of whether web should feature at all, and how it should tie into the mobile app strategy. For those who aren’t familiar, Monzo’s a digital-only bank where our focus is a native app, but we also have a fair number of web-based tools and teams internally. Making design and build decisions isn’t just a technology conversation, and engineering leadership partners closely with our product counterparts to ensure we’re making the best decisions.
The areas of the business that I’m responsible for is Operations, of which one aspect is our (award-winning!) customer support. Everything that sits behind the customer-facing aspects of our support runs off a web-based tool. One of the challenges that we’ve had over time is to get buy in to think about the technical considerations for paradigm shifts that come with growth. For instance – as we’ve grown as a company, we’ve moved to much more remote work rather than everyone being office-based. Initially our tools were built for specific devices and our office environment, but evolving company strategy has challenged that, and can mean you place even more importance on strong design and build foundations.
Again, we have amazing engineers on the ground who I know will do great work. For me it’s about trying to set them up well at a higher level so that they don’t have to fight so many battles!
So much has changed since Ethan’s eureka moment, what are your go to implementation methods for responsive sites? How do you handle layout, typography, images, video etc?
I’m a big believer in progressive enhancement, so I’d start from a strong conceptual/content structure, ensure it’s built out in semantic HTML and layer up. It’s been brilliant to see the evolution of flexbox and grid for layout, and I’m also excited by the creativity that things like variable fonts and aspects of Houdini bring us. In terms of media, I think this depends a bit more about the publishing workflow – on my personal sites I’m more likely to keep it simple, often relying on third party embeds where needed rather building out anything custom. I use squoosh.app a lot, it’s my go-to for quickly editing images or generating different versions.
What are the top three issues you’re still facing when building a responsive site?
Performance, accessibility, and usability 😉
We started off with lots of m.dot.sites when mobile arrived. Google was a huge part of changing that approach by saying that all content should be found on a single URL. One true source. In recent years Google have incentivised the AMP Framework as a way to provide a new/better experience to mobile users. What are your thoughts?
I’m personally not a fan at all. 😒 My objections are myriad and enough for a post on their own, but in short I primarily have strong feelings about the misleading messaging around performance, as well as the level of Google control and their pushing of AMP content over other content. I’ve just gone to check out the showcase site, and I now also have a problem with the headline of “AMP is a web component framework to easily create user-first websites|stories|ads|emails” – I don’t believe this technology is a good example of “user first” at all.
In general I’m a big fan of browser diversity and open standards, and to me AMP goes against a lot of the core principles of the web that I think are so important.
As a business/product owner, what is the most frustrating thing you find trying to take a product out across today’s diverse device landscape?
The most frustrating thing about today’s device landscape is that it’s not diverse enough! 😏
Sure, testing is a challenge. We’ve all been in that position where we’ve torn our hair out about supporting a particular browser or device, or couldn’t figure out what on earth was causing that damn bug that you can’t pin down. However, a diverse landscape is better for the web (I always think Rachel Nabors’s blog post The Ecological Impact of Browser Diversity articulates why extremely well).
Microsoft’s move to Chromium was another historic moment in web history, but we’ve also seen a round of Mozilla layoffs recently, and Safari has lagged behind for a while. I’d personally welcome the frustration on an individual basis as a tradeoff for having a healthier and more sustainable web ecosystem long term.
Prediction time. What are we going to see towards the end of 2020 and into 2021?
I’ve personally been heartened by an increase in responsible thinking that’s been gaining momentum lately, particularly when tied into the impact that technology has on wider issues like climate change and society. I hope that we’ll continue to see people considering the role that they can play in wider issues like this.
At the moment there are a lot of unknowns with COVID-19. I’m worried about the impact this could have on small communities, for instance through events getting cancelled, or social distancing meaning that fewer people are engaging. However I also wonder whether this will kickstart some long-overdue conversations around online communities and gatherings – I’m now giving one of my planned talks online which will be a first for me!
As it stands many companies are instructing their developers to work from home, which will also likely be a source of joy for those who want more remote opportunities, but frustrating for people working for companies who aren’t set up well, who don’t have home environments that support this, or who get energy from social contact.
Thank you so much for your time, if our readers want to learn more where can they track you down?
The best way is via my site, https://sallylait.com, where I blog infrequently and you can also find my contact details if you want to get in touch at all. For little things you can grab me quickly through Twitter where I’m @sallylait.
That’s all for this week. Next week we’ve got Chris Coyier answering the same questions as Sally.