Hello, Auto Layout

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Figma has a new-ish feature called Auto Layout that I’ve been trying to get the hang of lately. What it does is it lets you specify how your designs will adapt once you adjust the contents inside it.

That’s a bit abstract, so here’s a more concrete example: You can automatically set the height of a button to increase or decrease depending on the length of the text within it. This can be useful for making quick changes in the copy without worrying about text overflowing. Without Auto Layout, you would have had to adjust things by hand or install a plugin to get the same results.

As you can see, padding around the button is preserved, and the height of the button increased to accommodate the text.

It very much mimics how production environments like webpages actually work. In fact, they borrow some concepts from the CSS box model to make Auto Layout:

After trying many different approaches, including some rather non-conventional ones, we felt the best way to marry the two worlds was to add a few core concepts from the CSS box model (specifically flexbox) directly into Figma. And by introducing Auto Layout as a property, you have the flexibility and power to apply Auto Layout to any frame, whether it’s in a component or not.

Design more, resize less, with Auto Layout
It’s definitely useful for translations, too. Just copy paste the text and the design changes accordingly.

So if you’ve written CSS before, you might be familiar with some of the things that you can do in Auto Layout:

  • You can make an element take up the whole width or height of its parent.
  • You can specify the padding around a container and between the children nodes.
  • You can make a set of elements stack either horizontally or vertically. (Just like flexbox.)

And it doesn’t just work with text. Modifying, adding, or removing any sort of node in a Frame that has Auto Layout—whether that’s text, an image, or another Frame—will change the dimensions of the design.

Auto Layout demo: The design adapts when you change the button and lorem ipsum text.

The downside of Auto Layout is that it’s quite different from how I’m used to designing. It’s a bit hard to master and it’s definitely frustrating for me to use sometimes. Every so often I get stuck, and I find myself falling back into the warm embrace of constraints.

And because of that, I’m finding that it’s better for me to use Auto Layout in the later stages of the design process. I feel that it ends up slowing me down a lot when I’m using it in the exploration stage.

When I’m converting a design to Auto Layout, I find that it’s best to start from the deepest layers to minimize the issues that I run into. Then I work my way up.

But I hope that this changes in the future. I’d like to use Auto Layout sooner in the process so that I could take advantage of its features. But I guess that will come naturally as I become more familiar with it.

I love that we’re now able to describe behavior in UI designs, and I hope that more design tools follow this direction. I think what I’m looking forward to is how this will make playing around with real data easier. Imagine not having to worry about the design breaking because the text is too long.

Figma Plugin: Fast copy

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There’s seemingly no limit to the number of wonderful plugins that are already out there for Figma. It’s inspiring but also humbling because it meant that I probably have nothing else to add to that infinitely growing list. It seems that every plugin idea that I can think of already exists in some form.

As an alternative, I briefly thought about making something frivolous, like the Dad Jokes plugin for Sketch. It’s just like lorem ipsum but with dad jokes as placeholder text instead. But I did have a plugin idea for slightly improving copy-pasting content.

What it does is that it fetches all the text nodes within a selected element and organizes them into a table. This should take some tedium out of copy-pasting content since it automatically selects and copies the text for you as you click around. All you have to do is to make a selection and run the plugin.

I’m actually surprised by its simplicity: Under the hood, all it does is run document.execCommand('copy') whenever a table cell is selected, and that copies the selected text on to your clipboard. While it’s not exactly a must-have plugin, I did enjoy learning more about how Figma Plugins work. I’m also glad that writing plugins forced me into the world of Typescript from the very beginning. I admit that I haven’t dealt with explicit types in a long time, but I love that it makes web development so much more pleasant thanks to IntelliSense‘s autocomplete and API documentation.

There’s no need to search for API documentation when you already have it in your IDE.

There’s still a few refinements that I need to do and some edge cases that I need to fix before I could call it done, but you can follow the progress on Github.

Update

Fast Copy is available to everyone! There’s still a lot to do, but at least it’s out there in public.

Extending the Workbench

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The other week, I had some time to look into Figma Plugins during “Hack Days” at work. Since I’m familiar with both frontend and design, I thought it would be a good chance for me to take a step back from my day-to-day priorities and work on a hack days project that involves the two disciplines. I had a vague idea of creating a plugin that would help me with some of the grunt work that’s involved when I’m designing mockups.

The reason why I’m particularly excited about Figma is that it’s a design tool that’s built on web technologies. (It’s actually written in C++, but it’s compiled to WebAssembly and runs on modern browsers.) That means that I’m already familiar with the concepts and the tooling around building the plugins themselves. For example, I could use the built-in DevTools to explore and manipulate all the different objects on the page, using it as a sort of visual REPL for changing, say, the color of a rectangle on the page.

The Figma Plugin API is relatively new, and it has a couple of limitations at the moment. But at least it allows people to find things in the documentchange their propertiescreate copies of them, and make them do internet stuff.

It was a bit overwhelming to learn how Figma Plugins work when I first started, so I figured that I start off by playing with basic shapes to keep things simple. It made learning more manageable compared to working on a component that’s filled with many different objects in it.

The objects on Figma have a lot of properties that you can change. For example, you can directly change the opacity of a rectangle.

I found that text objects were reasonably easy to modify, so I figured that I could write a plugin that would translate the text in some of the mockups that I had. Translation plugins already exist in Figma (see both Translate and Translator), but I wanted to see if I could write something similar.

I had high expectations from myself at first: I wanted the plugin to actually work and translate any sort of text that I had. But I couldn’t get my plugin to do network requests to a translation service because I had trouble setting up packages from npm. I kept on getting errors from webpack that I didn’t understand so I gave up and went with mock requests for now. In hindsight, it might have been better if I didn’t rely on npm and made the requests myself using XMLHttpRequest or the Fetch API.

A demo of the translation plugin. It shows the plugin creating a copy of the selected frame with all the text inside of it translated into Spanish.

The translate plugin ended up working reasonably well otherwise. You were able to choose which language you’d like to translate your mockup into, and it doesn’t overwrite your original work.

The second plugin that I worked on populated the Yelp Review designs with new data. I found it tedious to copy-paste actual data online, so I thought I could solve that by letting the plugin do the hard work for me.

A demo of the Yelp plugin. It shows the plugin creating multiple copies of a frame, all filled out with fresh data.

Unfortunately, just like the translation plugin, this plugin doesn’t actually make any network requests, and it only works on a specific component. So I think the next time I write a plugin, I’d like to create something that pulls in real data. I’d also like to figure out a way to generalize plugins that would work on any component that’s thrown at it—similar to how Microsoft’s Content Reel plugin works.

I’d definitely like to continue working on Figma Plugins in the future whenever I find some spare time. I’m impressed that they’re able to pull off a Google-docs-like design tool that’s cross-platform (you can design on a Chromebook if you wanted to), and that also has a well-thought-out plugin system. It’s an incredible tool, especially for remote workers like me, so I look forward to seeing Figma grow in the years to come.

Tiny Animations

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Back in 2015, I had a bit of a fascination with loading animations. If you’re not familiar, these are animations that you see whenever you wait for content to load on a website or an app. They’re meant to show progress or to distract you from all the waiting. Anyway, there was a couple of weeks where I spent most of my free time breaking down and poring over the details of different loading animations from products like Slack, Asana, and iMessage. I wanted to see if I could try and get my own web-based imitation to look as close to the real thing as possible.

Part of the appeal for me comes from the fact that these kinds of animations are compact and approachable: The only thing that you have to worry about is figuring out how to get something to move. The rest of the time is just spent on endless tweaking to get it to look right. I wasn’t doing it for anything, really. At that time, I simply found satisfaction in trying to learn how to create tiny, single-use animations on the web.

Luckily, it eventually ended up being useful to me at work. I got to use the animation skills that I learned and got to apply it to a few projects that I built. One of those projects was a website called Privacy Heroes. It was a brief collaboration between different privacy companies to try out magazine advertising, and I was responsible for designing and building the website portion of it.

It’s been a year since I last thought about this website. But a co-worker reminded me about it the other day, and it brought back memories of why I like working on animations, and why I’m excited about the web in general.

I think the reason I liked working on this particular project was that I could go further and add a bit of motion and energy on the website—something that we could never do in a magazine ad. With a few lines of code, I can draw attention to a superhero’s speed lines, bring shooting stars to life, and add a bit of twinkle to the stars.

Of course, the applications of animations also extend beyond the superficial and frivolous because it can also be a way to communicate effectively. Take a look at how Stripe demonstrates the value of their products using animations.

Call me biased, but I love the web because it’s a medium where ideas can come alive and become available to anyone with an Internet connection. It’s also a medium that’s available everywhere, existing in many different devices ranging from your TV to your laptop to your phone and, most recently, to your wrist. The upsides are also its downsides because this means you have to accommodate for all sorts of environments. Animations could run slowly on low-powered devices, and your designs could look terrible on really large screens or really small screens.

But, for now, it seems that the benefits of working on the web outweigh its downsides. Only time will tell.

A Day of Data

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I figured that since I work for a privacy company, I should try and increase my own awareness of where my personal data goes. I wanted to try and figure out which companies and organizations have, in one way or another, somehow received and processed and stored my personal information.

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list of every single company out there that knows me because that would be an overwhelmingly long list. Not only am I leaving out every third-party ad and analytics software that apps and websites use (I just included Google Analytics and Chartbeat in my findings), I’m also leaving out the impossible task of knowing the data-sharing practices of the companies that already have my data in the first place. (Chase, for example, shares data with their marketing partners to send you advertising.)

I’m not trying to say that sharing your personal data is necessarily bad. Your doctor, for example, needs a ton of data from you like past visits, current medications, family history, insurance plan, pharmacy of choice, payment method, test results, and your contact information. The point of all this is to figure out just how much my life is dependent on sharing my personal data, how necessary it is in my day-to-day life.

So what I have below is a 12-hour diary of my online activities on September 5, 2019.

6am

Xfinity can see everything that goes in and out of the network because they provide my Internet at home. They can see all the connections that my phone was making while I was asleep. They know which apps on my phone connects to the Internet to fetch new information like my messages, podcasts, and the weather in the morning.

6:57am

At around 6:57am, I reply to people on Telegram Messenger. Xfinity knows that I use Telegram—including the time when I used it—because it passes through their network. Telegram, on the other hand, knows my contact list, the people I’m talking to, and when I contacted them.

7:21am

At 7:21, I turn on Headspace to meditate. Again, this is something that goes through Xfinity’s network since the meditations are downloaded from Headspace’s servers as needed. Headspace knows the time when I opened the app, the type of meditation that I played, and if I’m a paid subscriber. It also keeps track of all the meditation courses that I ever played, and the number of days I meditated consecutively.

7:36am

I look at my transactions and my budget every morning on a budgeting app called You Need A Budget. This means that they have a running list of all my personal transactions and financial information: How much I spend on different categories, my spending habits over time, where I spend my money, and even the things that I buy. (I put notes beside some transactions to help me remember what I spent the money on. An example would be: “Amazon.com, pressure cooker.”)

Oh, when I say “where I spend my money,” I also mean that literally. YNAB remembers the location of my phone where I manually entered a transaction to make manual entries easier for me. It was creepy when I first noticed it, but I actually find this super helpful.

Like most web apps, YNAB uses Google Analytics to learn about customer behavior and usage. I’m pretty sure that it’s on the website version of the app (which you can block on your browser), but I don’t know if the mobile app uses it so I may or may not have hit Google Analytics.

YNAB also has access to my accounts on Wells Fargo, Ally Bank, and Vanguard so that I don’t have to manually put in all the transactions that I made by hand.

7:57am

At 7:57am, I leave the house, which means my Internet connection switches from my WiFi to my cellular provider, Ting Mobile (which, in turn, uses T-Mobile towers).

And just like Xfinity, this means that they can now see the connections that the apps on my phone make when I’m on the go.

8:33am

On my way to the train station, I text someone on WhatsApp (hello, Facebook). Just like Telegram, they have information on when I texted, who I’m texting, and my contacts list. Even though they don’t have access to the actual text message I’m sending, they still have all that metadata that they can use to learn about connections with people so that they can show me relevant ads.

8:41am

I take the train at 8:41am using a digital keycard which keeps track of all the train stations and bus stops that I go to. You can purchase these cards and reload them using cash if you’d like to have more privacy, but I linked my transit card to my credit card and e-mail address so that I could get a refund on lost cards and be able to set it to auto-renew at the end of each month.

Note: The image above is a bit misleading. I put SEPTA beside Ting Mobile, but Ting doesn’t actually get any direct information on my commuting habits.

9:04am

I go to a popular convenience store called Wawa before heading into my co-working space, and I buy a breakfast burrito using my credit card. Wawa knows that my method of payment is Apple Pay and that payment network is Mastercard, but I’m a bit unclear if they know about the issuing bank (Goldman Sachs).

Update: Gosha sent me an e-mail about the BIN or Bank Identification Number on your credit card. The first 6 numbers on your card will tell you the issuing bank.

What I am sure of though is that Goldman Sachs knows that I went to Wawa, what time I went to Wawa, the location of that Wawa, and how much I paid for that burrito at Wawa.

I also budget on YNAB on my phone while I’m in line for my burrito, so YNAB now knows the same details that Goldman Sachs does. Ting is also now aware that I use YNAB since I needed the Internet to access my budget.

9:08am

I send a text on Telegram as I walk to my co-working space, so Ting also knows that I use that app, too.

9:54am

I connect to the WiFi in the co-working space, which is provided by a local ISP called Philly Wisper. I then log on to the websites that I need for work like Asana, the company chat room, and the company calendar on Fastmail.

Generating digital data is, of course, unavoidable when I’m doing remote work since collaborating, planning, and updating work with my colleagues mostly happen on the Internet.

10:56am

At 10:56am, I play some music on Spotify. This particular day was mostly songs from Tyler the Creator, Tierra Whack, Solange, and The Internet. Spotify, of course, knows my listening habits which they use to generate individualized playlists that I might like. Spotify also has business partners that can place cookies on your device whenever you’re on Spotify. This is used to “deliver advertisements more relevant to you and your interests.”

I also start visiting other websites to find inspiration for data visualization for this very article. The websites that I visit, just like YNAB, use analytics software like Google Analytics and Chartbeat to learn about their readers.

12:02pm

At around lunchtime, I call CVS Pharmacy and ask them to get my prescriptions from Walgreens Pharmacy. So now, CVS knows all the medications that I take, who my doctor is, and who my insurance provider is.

Also, that call went through Ting Mobile, who now knows that I made a call to a nearby CVS at 12:02pm for 6 minutes.

12:14pm

I check the Dark Sky app on my phone to see if it’s going to rain this afternoon. Since it’s a location-specific app, it knows the city that I’m currently in.

12:28pm

I walk outside and get a flu shot at CVS (the same CVS branch that now has my medications). I got the vaccine for free because my insurance provider covers the full cost of it. So now both CVS and my insurance provider know that I just got a flu shot at this location and at this time.

1:46pm

At 1:46pm, I get charged for a recurring monthly bill from my therapist’s office at Thriveworks. They see how often I come in for therapy, who my therapist is, my insurance details (Independence Blue Cross), and my payment details (Mastercard).

2:48pm

I use an app called Transit to see what time the bus will come. This app keeps track of where I am (crowdsourced and real-time data is important to them), the possible routes that I can take, where I’m going, and a list of buses and trains that I frequent. Fortunately, they don’t really know who you are unless you send them feedback.

I then hop on the bus using my SEPTA keycard, so the transit agency knows the time I hopped on, where I was waiting, and the bus number. If you noticed, I only mention SEPTA having data at the start of the trip and not the end when I hop off the train or bus. This is because they don’t scan your keycard when you exit the bus or train.

3:23pm

I got home, prepared a late lunch, and watched some videos on YouTube. YouTube (which is owned by Google) knows the types of videos that I watch to improve their advertising and to make better video recommendations. After all, the more videos I watch, the longer I stay on the site.

4:03pm

My last entry of the day is getting a notification for a recurring donation (what a mouthful) to a charity called GiveWell. Just like Wawa, they know my credit card number and that I used Mastercard. (Again, I’m unclear if they know about the issuing bank part which is Goldman Sachs.)

Goldman Sachs and Mastercard, on the other hand, know where I donate my money and how much I give away.

The charity also knows my contact details like my address, phone number, and my e-mail address.

Pfew.

Visually laying out all the entities that have their hands on my data is a bit mind-boggling, and I’m sure that I’m missing a couple hidden services that run in the background that I’m unaware of. What scares me the most is how often data breaches seem to happen and how reliant I am on all these digital services.

There are some alternatives out there that I can take, but none of them seem to be worth pursuing. I could start paying in cash so that banks and payment processors will have limited information on my whereabouts, but I find it too much of a hassle to carry cash and change these days. I could buy music instead of streaming on Spotify, but then I lose having access to virtually any song that I want for cheap. I could dump my smartphone for a less-capable phone to limit the apps that follow me wherever I go, but then I lose the convenience of having transit data, meditation courses, the weather, and my budget at the palm of my hands.

It looks bleak, but thankfully our values are always changing. People are waking up and realizing that digital privacy in this software-filled world is important, which means that people are starting to look for services that offer privacy. Goldman Sachs, for example, has been a recurring company in this log that I made, but at least they can’t share or sell the transactions that they have on me. DuckDuckGo doesn’t know what you’re searching and it blocks online trackers (like Google Analytics and Chartbeat) from following you around the web. Non-profits like Mozilla are creating a suite of privacy tools to help you understand and protect your privacy online.

Things seem to be going into the right direction when it comes to our digital wellbeing. I hope you enjoyed this visualization of my digital data diary, and I hope we both see a future with a little more privacy.

Where I spent my time during a really long flight

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It was my fault, really. I don’t like flying, and I don’t sleep well in planes, but I still booked a 28-hour flight from Manila to New York. I honestly thought I was ready for it. I had melatonin pills, a neck pillow, a sleep mask, a blanket, and a pair of socks. Knocking myself out was my number one goal. That, I thought, was how I would survive this flight. While I did manage to fall asleep, I kept on waking up because some part of me would start to get sore from being confined in a chair for so long.

The first part of the round trip flight was actually a pretty good deal. For $800, I was able to go to Germany (stayed for 12 hours) and to Singapore (stayed for 5 days) before finally flying out to the Philippines. I got to visit countries that I’ve never been to before, and I also got to spend time with friends that I haven’t seen in a long time.

The coming back part, unfortunately, meant that I have to go from Manila to Singapore, Singapore to Germany, then Germany to New York. It was an unnecessarily long trip, and because I kept on waking up, I thought I’d do something fun instead. Like maybe log the activities that I did in the flight.

It’s unfortunately not the most accurate data because some activities overlap like eating while watching a movie. I also didn’t have the foresight to jot down the time when I would stop doing something, e.g., I would log the time when I started eating but not when I finished. But even then, I think the logs were still good enough to learn from.

I didn’t know how to represent the data at first. I wanted something more creative and outside of the usual charts that I’ve made before. But the other day, I ran into a Sketch plugin that created spirals. So I thought that maybe I could represent the data as a snail because of how unbearably long the flight was.

So after a couple hours of trial and error with both the 6Spiral and Looper plugins, I came up with a shell where each spiral represented 30 minutes of activity. Behold, my snail collection!

Since I didn’t log (more like forgot to log) absolutely everything, there is a “miscellaneous” category in there that includes a hodgepodge of things like going to the bathroom, daydreaming, listening to a podcast, brushing my teeth, and changing my clothes.

Looking at the visuals, I’m kind of surprised that I logged 9 hours of sleep. It wasn’t the restorative kind of sleep for sure, but it was still a substantial amount of time. I’m guessing a good part of that was spent tossing and turning in the seat.

Another surprising part is how small the music-listening and watching category are. I went through several albums and TV shows on the plane, but I guess that didn’t really amount to much. Or it could be that I was too distracted to log. We’ll never know.

I’m thinking in the future I could look into animating each spiral similar to this, so I’ll look into that when I have the time. Anyway, I wish you never have to take such a long flight in economy class!

The Sketch file can be found here.

Redesigning a form

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One of the projects that I’ve worked on recently is the redesign of a fairly simple form. All it did was gather feedback from people who wanted to report a broken website from within the DuckDuckGo browser extension.

So what you would do was that you’d click on the “Report Broken Website” button on the extension, and then a new tab would open with a form that you would then fill out.

Forms aren’t all that exciting to be honest, but there’s room for creativity in designing them. Just take a look at the thoughtfulness put into Stripe’s payment checkout form or the range of ideas that you can find on Dribbble.

So with this project the main issue that we wanted to solve was friction: Can we increase the number of people reporting broken websites if we made it easier to do so?

Understanding the problem

People already had ideas on possible solutions and user flows before I even started on the project. So my job at the very beginning was to listen and understand the scope of the problem and the goals of the project.

For me that often meant grabbing a bunch of paper from my co-working space’s recycling bin to write down design ideas and to sketch out some possible solutions.

A part of the design process for me is also figuring out the copy and the tone and voice that we want in the UI. We figured that in this case we’d want to show empathy to the person reporting (because it sucks to run into a broken website) and to communicate that we’re not going to be harvesting all their personal information behind the scenes (because we don’t).

After I felt like I had a good handle on what I needed to do, it was time to go on Sketch.

Iterating on the designs

Forms are really just a bunch of input fields. Figuring out what sorts of fields to put in there, however, can take some time to figure out. The first set of designs that I made had multiple elements:

  • A select element for indicating the type of breakage.
  • A textarea element for people describing their problem.
  • A checkbox element for people to opt-in to debugging data.
A screenshot of Sketch showing initial work on the form.

But after a few discussions and a couple of design variations later, we figured that we could reduce the form down to just one element. First, we got rid of the checkbox because the submit button is how people opted-in to sharing their data. (In lieu of that, we added additional information that we weren’t going to get any of their personal information.) Second, we figured that we already had the debugging information so there was no need for people to explain what went wrong.

This greatly simplified the form, and made it faster for people to report a broken website.

A second set of variations that have fewer elements in them.

Another part of the design that I had to look into was how people got into the form itself. What most some people do when a website is broken is that they toggle the extension on and off to see what would happen. We wanted to reach out to these people by asking them if they were toggling because they found a broken website.

Some ideas showing notifications above and below the extension popup.

The initial designs that I made used modals that imitated how smartphones would show notifications. I loved this idea because this sort of notifications could be used to help and guide the user when they encounter different problems throughout the extension. But we agreed that right now it’s a bit of an overkill solution so we went with a simpler inline version that comes up right below the toggle.

A simpler solution that was easier to implement and design.

Coming together

Now that the main parts of the project have been designed, it was time to create a user flow that shows the different scenarios that a user could get into when trying to open up this form. This is great for communicating design to developers and other stakeholders so that everybody is on the same page.

A user flow showing scenarios in the UI like error and success screens.

Then we also asked Matt Anderson to create an illustration for the form and we all ended up liking this broken bike design! At this point, it was time for the developer to implement the designs.

All these changes are now live! So if you ever run into a broken website on the DuckDuckGo extension (I hope not!), you now know how that reporting page came to be.