Why we’ll stop using ID in our stylesheets

Seemed like everybody was talking about CSSLint a couple of weeks ago. I waited for the hype cycle to slow its rotation, then dutifully visited the online linter to pay my respects.

It didn’t repay them.

“Will hurt your feelings” is CSSLint’s tagline. Heh, heh; I’ve written stylesheets for thirteen years now. What faults could CSSLint find with my CSS?

Plenty, it seemed. Chief among the linter’s nagging judgments was my use of the ID selector in so many rules. Now, what’s so wrong with that? How is it that my practice for all these years is suddenly considered wrong?

I found this blog post proposing that the hip, up-to-date stylesheet of today contains no ID selectors. Intrigued, I posted the link on Talentopoly, where it generated a thread of comments from people who seemed indignant with the premise. Why discard a totally valid technique which can make one’s markup and CSS more succinct?

I think one reason we were so uneasy is that we’ve had to work with so much bad markup and styling written by people with poor understanding of the cascade. The result is overdependence on classes for style rules–a classic example would be a navbar with a couple dozen <a class="navLink"> bloating the markup. Expertly written CSS distinguished itself with terse rules attached to ID’d elements. But if you prohibit that, don’t you end up encouraging that stupid “class”-itis?

Perhaps. CSSLint can’t determine if your style rules rely too much on classes. But you can satisfy the linter’s criteria and also target specific elements without resorting to attaching class attributes to every node in your markup. For instance, you could show off your handling of CSS3 selectors instead.

Like JSLint, CSSLint is a tool based on its makers’ opinions of what constitutes good style. It’s not a validator, but an evaluator: it can suggest improvements (as did earlier linters). Using the linter is like getting the opinion of a haberdasher as to how wide your lapels should be: you’re not obligated to act on his advice, but you might look a little strange alongside your more fashionable peers.

But why has the ID selector fallen into disfavor?

Looking at the explanations on the CSSLint About page, I notice a pronounced concern for portable, modular styling. The linter discourages intensely specific selectors such as IDs and “qualified headers” (h* tags within a cascade, or with class attributes). There seems to be less focus on styling an entire, discrete page, and more on styling blocks of content which may be sent or received in an API. This is a reasonable emphasis: think of all the markup you’ve done in the last year. How much of it was for standalone pages? And HTML5 prods us to think of Web content in articles or sections, each with its own h1–our markup and styling are scraps, not whole cloth. It’s efficient to make them fit with others.

Well, so what–it’s just between CSSLint and you, right? No. A less obvious reason for abandoning the ID selector is so that your style rules pass CSSLint when somebody else submits your CSS to it. And this will happen. In a profession with no licensing and very little certification, front-end developers have few means of convincing potential clients that we know what we say we do. If our clients had the skill to inspect our CSS for quality, they’d probably wouldn’t need to hire us to write CSS for them. Tools like CSSLint, despite their basis in subjective opinions of good practice, reassure these clients: they know you’re following certain rules if you pass. They want the work you do for them to be rule-following and interchangeable, not idiosyncratic and difficult to reuse. Yes, a lot of terrible CSS can pass CSSLint–just as it can pass the W3C validator. That’s no reason to avoid using it.

What not driving for 25 years taught me about UX

One drizzly morning in 1988 I arrived at the infamous

San Francisco DMV office

There were two lines for service, one noticeably shorter than the other, and since I was already running late for work, I stepped into that shorter line. At my turn at the counter, I completed the paperwork for a state identification card instead of a driver’s license, which didn’t seem that important to me at the time, since it’d been already two years since I last drove a car, and now I lived in SF, which had

passable public transit
. It wasn’t this grand activist moment for me, this kind of Damascus Road flash of insight–no, it was just my deciding that driving wasn’t very important to me.

And I was right.


driving proved more important.

Try getting around the United States without a motor vehicle.

Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay
Asphalt Nation, by Jane Holtz Kay
Try it for a while. Try it while also attempting to sustain a career, relationships, household, your sanity. You will learn, as I did, very important lessons about how user experience can be structured to assist or thwart your journey.

Here are some of my discoveries:

Places with more than one way to access them have greater vitality.

As Jane Jacobs pointed out, small city blocks encourage


and transit use. Places which permit access only by motor vehicle are dead-feeling and often

, which is why a high


is becoming so attractive to potential buyers.

In Web terms, how many of us enjoy visits to sites which permit access only through needless Flash intros or

mandatory registration
? These pages act like those guard kiosks in suburban gated communities. Or how about the sites with no provision for usage by mobile devices?

No, I am


going to watch your pointless branding animation, nor wait for your bloated JavaScript form validation script to load: I’m going to shop at your competitor’s site.

You can’t “set it and forget it.”

All over the United States, roads and transit systems are crumbling into unusability because of deferred maintenance. The jagged potholes in my neighborhood act as the speed bumps the City of Oakland can’t commit to installing in this dire period for municipal budgets. A couple blocks away, the once-handy AC Transit bus system runs fewer and fewer buses, thanks to

neverending budget cuts
. Being stranded for 45 minutes waiting for the next bus after missing one by just seconds is a pretty common experience for us commuters.

Out there on the Web are so many undermaintained, tatty sites that I really don’t need to


to them. Outdated copyright date on the footer? “Best viewed in Netscape” graphic? Visual design so old it’s on the cusp of being retro-cool? Those are easy to remedy–if you commit time and money to fixing them.

Accessibility is pricey to build in…and exorbitant to bolt on later.

When the

Americans with Disabilities Act

passed in 1990, there was the usual unappealing backlash of nay-sayers claiming that the Act’s provisions were merely nice-to-have and too expensive to require. Despite that, the built environment of the United States changed rapidly to include curb cuts, ramps, and wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. Building owners whimpered about the expense of retrofitting for ADA-compliance; new construction posed the advantage of having these features built in from the start.

The question of Web accessibility arose pretty early in the

medium’s history
, but remains incompletely answered. Too many site owners consider accessibility a “nice-to-have, but…”, or something at which you can toss a few inadequate

“alt tags”

and be done with it, whereas true accessibility requires


how your application or site is used in different situations: can this site be used without a keyboard? Without a monitor? Without color contrast?

Making something accessible also makes it relevant to use cases we can’t anticipate. When I injured my knee in 1992, I sure appreciated those buildings with elevators and ramps. When I started browsing the Web on my Palm Treo in 2005, I admired those sites with text-heavy, low-graphics means of interacting with them.

You’re free to think you don’t need to accommodate a diversity of users, of course, just as you’re free to require a motor vehicle to access your physical location. And you’re free to destroy your own brand with slipshod UX. It’s a free world.

HTML5 Boilerplate Rolls Into Town

Standing room only, and a waiting list besides–what was the attraction bringing so many to the tech college conference room at Fisherman’s Wharf?

Haloed at one end of the room by the glaring video lamp, a man, a laptop, and the new way you should build the front-end of your Web app. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting Paul Irish, in turn presenting the HTML5 Boilerplate.

There’s much you can gain just downloading it, of course. You could opt to pick through the unzipped goodies and apply them piecemeal to your aging markup, refinishing your early 21st-century XHTML with some latter-day varnish. But there’s a lot more in the Boilerplate than too-hasty reading of the docs will reveal.

Irish, one of the mod squad behind the informative and massively entertaining YayQuery podcast, delivered a quick, focused survey of the Boilerplate’s many benefits to those eager to follow advice like Steve Souders’s 14+ rules. Among these is a customized .htaccess file, for those of us with good intentions of, say, gzip’ping assets but only rudimentary Apache admin skills–that’s worth the attention of a full room all by itself. Another is the built-in provision of QUnit: no more chasing this down to install separately. And coming along in the bright future is the Boilerplate for mobile.

Build an ant!?

But best of all is the build script. No wonder Irish calls it his favorite part of the Boilerplate.

Here’s where mere mortal front-end devs can finally scale the Olympus of best practices. Need to combine your CSS files? Your JavaScript? Optimize, minify, them? Remove test suite leavings? Excise all those dangerous calls to console.log? Boilerplate’s build script does this for you. Hurrah; I didn’t need yet another checklist to consult.

I was gratified to hear someone take HTML seriously. For too long writing markup‘s been dismissed as a simple, easily acquired technique that any drooling idiot can/should perform. Now there are Meetups full of software engineers anxious to learn things like table-less layout. Hah! Isn’t the Web fun?

How to demoralize your front-end developers

Stop failing at this apparently necessary chore; I’m here to help.  I can verify that all the following techniques have worked on for me.

How to Demoralize Your Front-end Developers

  1. Constantly change requirements. It’s, what, the day before the scheduled launch?  And the product doesn’t include that absolutely requisite feature you didn’t think to require until now?  Well, shoot, just demand it!  And make drastic changes to the visual and interaction design as well–where’s the glory in completion?
  2. Constantly change the visual design. You took that one-day course in CSS and remember only that it was a way you could change all of a site’s visual elements from one file.  Okay, then, let’s start by making all the blue things red, and all the red things green–but only on Tuesday–wait, change them back again, make the old red things red again–and oh, all the gray things white and the white things gray, and the grayish-white things brown, on alternate weekdays.  And all the wide things “smaller” and the narrow things “a little bigger” and the tall things “a smidge shorter” and… just marvel  how enthusiastic your front-end dev grows.
  3. Give them a lousy setup. Cram your developers into a spot at an unergonomic table in between the gal who has the obnoxious sound themes enabled on her workstation and the guy who spends his entire work day shouting into a speaker phone. Don’t let your devs use their preferred operating systems or software–point out that you’ve generously provided work computers exactly like your own, with that reliable ten-year-old OS and the proprietary groupware that cost you a bundle.
  4. Decide midway that you need pixel-perfection in IE 6 after all. So you visited your hermit, anti-consumerist brother-in-law living in a shanty with a hand-me-down Gateway 2000 accessing the Web over intermittent dial-up, and you looked like a putz because your beta site didn’t render perfectly in Internet Explorer 6.  Well, crack the whip so he can enjoy those rounded corners, PNGs with alpha transparency, and painstakingly mitered grid layouts.
  5. Critique the browser rendering against one in a different medium. Different media, you say?  Hardware?  Pshaw!  Do as I’ve actually witnessed:  hold a paper print-out of the intended design up to the monitor, and compare the rendered page unfavorably to the PDF print-out.  Remark on the differences in proportion and color.  Watch your devs writhe in either agony or amusement at your request to make the two formats identical.
  6. Assign visual design tasks to your developers. Get rid of that pesky professional, and go with a leaner team equipped with mere adequacy in Web design.  Start with vague instructions to your front-end devs (“This area of the page needs to really say ‘breathy,’ but not ‘vaporous'”), and end with your looming over them, jabbing at the display of a competitor’s site on a monitor, and shouting, “See? See?!  Like this–only different!”
  7. Pit your developers against each other. Break up that predictable day with a bout of office politics as bloody as any combat in the Colosseum!  Let one developer bully another, favor the least productive developer over the others, and disclose important project details only to the dev most likely to hoard the information.  When one dev leaves at 6pm to tend to the rest of his life, assign all his duties to the other one still in the office. Whatever you do, don’t let these people end up liking each other.
  8. Constantly interrupt with phone calls, e-mails, IMs, or in-person meetings. You know, if you give your developers the chance to concentrate, to get into the flow of working, there’s no end of disaster which could happen:  they might  finish the tasks you’ve assigned to them, or write bug-free scripts, or finish a work day with a sense of accomplishment.  Then you’d all miss an important feature of the Development Drama:  the climactic battle in which each side slays the other in murderous frenzy.
  9. Ridicule their professional opinions. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers when you describe that pop-up with autoplay Flash, animated GIFs, and blinking text you’re confident will add loads of appeal to the application.  Show them your teenaged son’s MySpace page and pointedly ask why they can’t make something like that if he can.
  10. Don’t use a bug tracking system. Sheesh, you already send all those e-mails.  Why repeat yourself in some persnickety little data entry form with those dropdown things which force you to prioritize the issue?  Just repeat: everything’s critical and of highest priority.  See, easy to remember.

Hmmm, something’s missing.  What have I left out?