Avoiding groupthink: fine-tuning CSS specifications
Every now and then I’m asked to help out the CSS Working Group, especially when typography is involved. It’s always an honour and a pleasure to do so. Invariably it’s also a chance to learn, not just about upcoming CSS, but also new methods of collaboration and group decision making.
Last week I was part of a dozen-strong group of web designers, developers, type designers and browser engineers. Our task was to review in detail two sections of the draft CSS Inline Layout Module Level 3, specifically the Inline Layout Model and Logical Heights and Inter-line Spacing sections. This is as geeky and technical as it sounds, so I won’t go into details about the specification itself. Suffice to say it will solve some long standing difficulties, so it’s really important the new spec is clear and understandable for all concerned. This includes browsers making implementing the new CSS, and web designers and developers taking advantage of the typographic advances, hence the make-up of the group assembled.
The three hour session was hosted by Elika ‘fantasai’ Etimad of Mozilla, aided by Jen Simmons of Apple. And here’s where it gets interesting. In order to thoroughly attend to every pertinent aspect of the spec, fantasai asked us each to read one sentence aloud to the group. At which point we were all asked whether we thought the sentence made sense, and to speak up if we didn’t understand any of it or if it wasn’t clear. We were also invited to offer alternatives if we thought the naming of properties or values could be improved.
Speaking up in a group like that – I knew many personally or by reputation (including former Clearleftie Trys Mudford) – takes some swallowing of pride, particularly if you’re the one saying you don’t understand something, as I did on occasion. However the whole proceedings were handled patiently and generously by fantasai, whose knowledge as a spec writer across huge swathes of CSS is incredible and literally second to none. Without her years of dedication and skill as a technical writer, the web itself could be a quite different place. But I digress.
I’d never come across the person-by-person, sentence-by-sentence approach before. I found it particularly effective as a way of engaging a group of people, ensuring collective understanding, and gathering structured feedback on a shared document. I can see Clearleft employing the same tactic on pivotal documentation such as statements of work.
You might be wondering what happens next with the spec following the workshop? The session was recorded, enabling fantasai and fellow editor Dave Cramer to make changes accordingly. Some of the trickier points raised were also added to the issues repository on GitHub. And this is where you can come in. Everyone is able to contribute their thoughts about CSS specifications, current and future. The whole process is open and if you have something constructive to add, your voice is welcome.
Originally published on the Clearleft blog.