Marie and Chris talk about the year in CodePen Challenges. If you participate, this might be an interesting look into how we think about them. If you don’t, it might help you understand what they are and how they might just tickle your fancy.
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Announcer: Today, on CodePen Radio.
Chris Coyier: Hey, everybody. CodePen Radio 393. I got Marie with me today. Hey, Marie.
Marie Mosley: Hey, everybody.
Chris: Hey. We're going to... One of the many things Marie does for us here at CodePen is work on the CodePen Challenges. We've talked about it a number of times on this show. But just as a quick refresher, there's a main navigation item for it right on CodePen you'll see in our sidebar. It says "Challenges," and you can click that.
What Challenges means essentially is a prompt, in a way. the challenge is do something with the idea and information that we give you, and we do it pretty much every single week. The only week we wouldn't do it is because we do four weeks. You know 4 times 12 is 48, and there are 52 weeks a year, right?
Chris: There are a couple of off weeks in the middle of random months here and there. But for the most part, there's always an active challenge any time you come to the challenges page. Of course, you can always do old challenges anyway.
You don't even have to submit anything. You're not graded on it. In a way, it's like a writing prompt. You know?
Chris: I subscribe to r/WritingPrompts on Reddit, and it's the same kind of vibe to have somebody give you an interesting idea and then you do the idea. It takes away that white page phenomenon that writers have where you're like, "Just write about something," and you're like, "Uh... What?" I suffer from that, so I really appreciate it when somebody is like, "Okay, do this."
Marie: Yeah. I think it's a lot of fun. It's something that gives you a chance to try out something that you're wanting to do, possibly. You could bring your own technique that you want to try or anything like that to the challenge. But it gives you a little something to hang the practice on, you know, something to sink your teeth into while you're working on stuff.
Just to go back to the reason why we do only four per month is because we want to make sure that everybody has a full week to do each challenge, like each prompt inside of a challenge. And so, we'll start on the first Monday of every month. So, if your first Monday is the second week of the month, that's why we started then. That way each prompt, you get a full week to work on. So, you can start on Monday, work all the way through to Friday, and tag it up any time you like in between then.
Chris: Yeah, there you go. And we've been doing it five years!
Marie: Almost, yeah. This coming March, it'll be five years, so we're very close to it.
Chris: Yeah, that's very cool. We have sponsors for it, too. If you happen to work at a company that wants to reach developers of all different skill levels, feel free to reach out about sponsoring a challenge. It just means the emails that go out about it and stuff. It's a light touch, but sometimes you need to reach people, so go ahead and do that.
Chris: It's been growing and growing and growing, which is always nice to know. Sometimes things that aren't growing suffer the axe, and it's not challenges, dang it.
Marie: No, it ain't going to be challenges. Challenges have been very busy. This year, actually, has been our highest participation challenge year, just like ever, of all of them. And we kind of were working from a little bit of a downturn in the challenges.
A couple of years ago, you and I swapped jobs on this. We actually talked about this on the podcast. I was doing the podcast, and you were doing the challenges. We were both like, "I don't want to do this," so we swapped.
And so, when I took over the challenges, one of the things I wanted to do was increase participation and figure out what we could do to make it more engaging, more fun, and have more people participate. And so, I feel like we've been successful these last two years.
Last year was our busiest year ever until this year, which is now our busiest year ever. It's been two years of positive growth, which is really cool.
Chris: Yeah. It is very cool. Once in a while... I shouldn't say it this way because I always like saying, like I said at the beginning, that the challenge is do something with this prompt, essentially. Challenge yourself to write some code, which is a perfectly fine definition of the word challenge.
Although, I will say it can be evocative of, like, "Solve this weird coding challenge," kind of thing, and it usually isn't that, but sometimes it is.
Chris: If you like that, feel free to check in once in a while. Sometimes, we do that. We did one. Our own alma... Or... [Laughter] Cassidy.
Marie: Yeah, Cassidy Williams.
Chris: Alma mater, that's not quite the right way to say it.
Marie: She's not our alma mater. Although, she can really teach you a lot. She is an alumna of CodePen.
Chris: Alumni, yes.
Chris: Has a newsletter, which you should subscribe to. It's a great newsletter that has... Her focus is kind of like interviewing, like here's a weird challenge. And if you can solve it, it may be the kind of thing that would show up on a coding interview. So, it's like a chance to practice on those. But I have a feeling that the people that do them do them because they think it's fun.
Marie: Yeah. Oh, definitely. Yeah, and what was really interesting about that challenge was that was the first time we used tests in a challenge. We put actual jest tests into the challenge so that when people took the challenge, they had a chance to actually essentially win it, you know, to actually complete the challenge to a test, which was the first time we ever did that.
I was a tiny bit nervous about doing that because I was concerned that it potentially would be too restrictive and that people would not be as interested in it because it was like--
Marie: "Okay, what you're doing is solving a challenge, a very specific challenge with a definite answer." But I was very pleasantly surprised to see that people not only completed the challenge in that they were passing the test, but they also kind of took it in a different direction, too, where they would make something new with the thing that they created in the challenge. That was really fun to see.
Chris: Yeah. You've got a favorite too, as well, don't you?
Marie: I do. Yeah. My favorite was January's challenge at the very beginning of the year, so it was all downhill from there. [Laughter]
Marie: I'm kidding. It was just that that one was one that I was super psyched to put out because I just really love generative art, and that was the theme in January. It was really fun putting together the resources for that and using the prompts.
Some of it was from artists, for example, like Carlos Cruz Diaz who does art installations but was a real inspiration for generative artists that are working today. I was able to bring his art into the prompt, and I thought that was really fun to do. So, I really, really enjoyed January's theme.
Then later in the year, in March and April, you and I kind of collaborated on a pair of themes, which was another first this year. In March, we had the theme "Go Big," which was your idea.
Chris: [Laughter] Mm-hmm.
Marie: Then the following month, April, I used a theme that was "Little Details," and so we referred back to the previous month, too, when we were talking about the new theme, which was a brand new thing. We'd never done that before. We've always kind of had them separated out from each other in a way that they were really standalone.
These were, of course, standalone. You could participate in either one separately. But it was the first time we were literally referring back to another one.
Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, that's awesome. Yeah, a little pairing of things.
It's so fun from our side kind of wielding the power of what the challenge is going to be.
Marie: Yeah. [Laughter]
Chris: Because you get to think of it in your head and then just watch as these things come to life around the challenge is so cool. You know one of the things I've always liked that you've brought up is because you really have a better bead than anybody else on people's trajectories on CodePen.
I have some of my own examples, but because you do so much picking and social stuff, can watch people come from a very beginner situation at CodePen, which is fine because I think CodePen probably, in general, errs a little beginner (only because of the particular tools we offer). There are some extremely good developers on CodePen, mind you. Don't think of it necessarily as a beginner-only tool. But I think if you rated the skill level of CodePen at large, we catch people earlier in their career.
Chris: Then you can watch them get better. Sometimes, you watch them get better through the challenges.
Chris: Which is still one of my favorite things ever, of course.
Marie: That is very exciting because it's a great place to get started on jumping into the front-end. It's something that you can exercise your skills on, like we were saying earlier on. And so, I have absolutely seen people become absolute superstars, like making it into the top 100, getting picked really frequently, making it into the Spark a lot, and it's because they got their start on challenges.
They took the prompts, created cool things, got noticed by me and got picked, or got noticed by the community and started to get a following and stuff like that, so it's a really great way to kind of get your toe into the community (if you're new). Also, even if you're not new, if you just haven't developed a following yet, it is a really great way to get seen.
Since the challenges have started, we often see Pens that were from the challenges make it into the top 100. It's not at all uncommon now.
Chris: Oh, that's very cool.
Chris: I mean it's very, very not uncommon for it to be picked and featured and get a lot of likes and just otherwise social attention. That's cool too.
Chris: But to see them break the top 100, I mean--
Chris: The top 100 is no joke to bust into on CodePen, you know.
Marie: Not at all. It gets harder every year too, so it's really impressive to see someone, especially to grow from beginner stage all the way up to making it onto the big stage. You know? Good stuff.
Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
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Chris: Uh, what else? In September, you ran a fixer-upper challenge, which was pretty cool. Let's give you some garbage.
Marie: Oh, yeah.
Marie: Yeah, so that's the first time we actually intentionally gave them junk.
Marie: We were just like, "This time around--" The theme was kind of like... The aesthetic of the theme was that I was treating it like we were doing renovations, like a renovation show that you'd see on HGTV or whatever.
Marie: Where you're like, "Oh, this place is a real wreck, and you've got to go in and..."
Chris: Yeah. Here's your sledgehammer.
Marie: Exactly. So, we gave them intentionally broken templates that, in one case, we gave it a real fatal flaw. Do you remember? You tucked a little something into the stuff for head on the Pen.
Chris: Oh, yeah!
Marie: One of the templates you made. You know?
Chris: Yeah. I was actually a little nervous about that. What did I do? I think it was one CSS style rule that I put within style tags that was like, "Yeah, good luck finding that." It was extra insidious because it was like a pseudo-element that I added on, so it behaved like an extra element in the grid, which [laughter] I think you would have found it no problem if you were using dev tools. You could see the rule and be like, "Where is that coming from?"
Chris: Then you could kind of work yourself backwards from there.
Marie: Yeah, and we very slyly alluded to it, but we did not say where it was. We were just like, "You're going to have to dig around a little bit here and find what's really wrong." That was kind of the fun part of it because we were kind of treating it like you would be approaching a fixer-upper home, which is like you never know what's lurking in the basement or up in the attic.
Marie: That was another one where it kind of felt like we were taking a little bit of a risk because we were intentionally giving people a template that had something wrong with it. But that was one of the most popular challenges this year.
It went really well. People really took on the challenge. And not only did they fix up the problems, they were able to make the resulting Pens really nice Pens.
Chris: Yeah, right. I feel like all the good ones didn't... It wasn't just like fix the problem because I think they were kind of junky looking too. Once you're in the CSS, I feel like people's natural inclination is to be like, "Let me just clean house in here a little bit."
Marie: Yeah, let me give it a full renovation.
Marie: And that was what was fun. One of them, we called it table flipping because one of the things that you would come upon in this particular template was that it was built in an old, tiny HTML table.
Marie: And so, the--
Chris: That's gotta go. [Laughter]
Marie: That one was a gut renovation. Exactly, so that was really fun to see what people did with that. It was really cool to see it go off like that because some of these were risks, I thought, where we were like, "Uh..."
Marie: "This might be too much," or "This might be too complicated," or "This might be too weird or too specific." All of those things would come to mind when I was looking at these things and thinking, "All right, but I still want to try it, thought." [Laughter]
Chris: Right. Right.
Marie: Because you've got to try new stuff.
Chris: Because we don't make decisions only on that. I am curious about that.
At one point, the thinking was, quote-unquote, "The more broad and kind of like do whatever you want, the higher the engagement was." Does that still hold true? For example, if we said, "December, the challenge is purple."
Chris: That's so simple.
Chris: It doesn't mean that what you build has to be simple. You could do something wild with it, but because there's no barrier to entry there almost at all--
Chris: --that the numbers, from our perspective, would be higher. The numbers meaning how many Pens use the tag, meaning they participated in the challenge.
Chris: How many unique ones is interesting, too, because a lot of them end up with forks of each other.
Marie: Mm-hmm. Oh, definitely. Yeah.
Marie: Yeah, so that's two numbers that we look at separately. We look at how many Pens total have the tag for the challenge, and that would include forks, naturally. And then we also look at original Pens that have the tag. The original Pens number is the one that we kind of zero in on when we're figuring out what do we want to use as a prompt in the future.
We do see that simple prompts do still do pretty well. But it's like you want to go a little above something as basic as "It's purple." [Laughter] You know? Although, we've done color palette challenges before, and those have done pretty well. They have not performed as well as some of the ones where I would kind of think, at first, this one might be a little hard.
Like I said, this year, 2022, had our highest participation of all years, and we put out some of our most complicated challenges ever. Part of that is just because more people have gotten into doing the challenges year by year. It is something that we have some folks who have been doing the challenges from the very first year all the way through. So, obviously, naturally, participation grows a little bit in that way too. But it still has to be interesting. It still has to be something that you want to do with your time because we are asking people to make something.
Marie: That's tricky. It's tricky to make someone decide, like, "Yeah, I am going to spend my time on this. This seems worthwhile."
There is a balance between simplicity and being interesting, and we're working on striking that balance every time we put out another challenge.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I don't know. It's just great to me that it kind of can work either way, and that we don't shy away from it where we're like, "Um... This is too much for our audience," or something.
It's like, "Okay, if we get a few less, well, at least it was for a reason." We thought the challenge was just really cool and that people will learn from it.
Marie: Yeah. and one thing that we see when we get low participation challenges -- and even now, a low participation challenge is something we would have been, a couple of years ago, pretty excited about. But when we do get a low participation challenge, we tend to get very high quality in terms of what people are making because the people who take the time to do the challenge really go for it and sometimes maybe work on it for a little bit longer than someone might with a more popular challenge.
Low participation actually tends to be high quality and, in those cases when it's a high-quality challenge where the work is actually very good, we tend to see a lot of forks. So, the tag ends up being popular in its own way.
Chris: Oh, I see.
Marie: Not necessarily from individual participation but other members of the CodePen community will--
Chris: Like, "I could use that." [Laughter]
Marie: Exactly. Exactly, yeah. Will appreciate the work that people do and then they'll be like, "All right, yeah. I could use this on my site," or "I would like to learn how this works. Let me fork this, and I'm going to dig in."
Chris: Which is a good reason to fork, by the way. If all you're trying to do is remember something, remember, we have all kinds of other ways to do that for yourself.
Marie: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Marie: Like even just hearting it as a way to re-find it again from your profile. Probably even better is to add it to a collection.
Marie: Yes, that is better. It's much easier to keep it organized that way.
Chris: Speaking of collections, you do that. That's one of the outputs of the challenges is that you kind of hand-pick a best of kind of thing at the end of each. So, if people want to browse, like, "Oh, what happened with the generative art collections?" you can go look.
Marie: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: They are team CodePen-owned collections, and you don't have to dig through our profile to find them. They're attached to the week's challenge.
Marie: Yeah. Yeah. Usually, on the Tuesday of the week that the challenge gets started, I open up the challenge's collection to the public so that everybody can see what's being added to the collection. As I go through the tag, what I'm looking for is changes to the starter template. I'm not going to add a Pen that's just the starter template - just has the tag on it.
Also, it's much easier for me to find and take a look at Pens if they have a title when they've been created for the challenge tag. That helps filter out stuff that is just the template copied over into a Pen, which happens sometimes. People get started but don't end up making it.
We do look for things that have a title in all of that to kind of help narrow down what we're going to add into the collection. It's not a very high bar to get into the collection, but it does need to show some effort towards completing the challenge, even if it's been taken in a different direction, which is perfectly fine to do. We'll give the starter template. But as long as you stick with the theme and create something that makes sense with the theme, it does not have to hue very closely to the starter template and, in some cases, we say, "Make it as different as possible from this starter template."
It doesn't take a ton to get in, but it does take a little something. You do need to put forth a little bit of effort to get into the collection.
Chris: Yeah. [Laughter]
Marie: The tag page, on the other hand, is a bit more open. That's the firehose. You'll see everything that people are making. If you're just curious to see what's going on with this challenge, "I don't really need to see the curated look. I just want to see it," that's the firehose.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I like that. Collections are really useful.
I remember when we dropped a couple of collections-related features. [Laughter] Marie was the primary customer of them.
Marie: Yeah. You know I'm trying to keep my RSI down here with the clicks and everything.
Chris: Yeah. [Laughter]
Marie: Yeah. [Laughter] Yeah, I was the big customer for a lot of the challenge changes, and I still have other ones I'm asking for. Collection users out there, if you have a wish list, I have it too, and I'm trying. Trust me. [Laughter]
Chris: Yeah. Nice. Yeah. Even just search, I think would be nice. But let's not... We'll not go there too far.
Marie: Yes. Number one with a bullet. Yes.
Chris: Behind the scenes, an interesting thing is that a challenge is extra worth doing, not that this is 100% of how we make decisions. But a feeling like wouldn't it be nice if there was 100 Pens on CodePen like this because it just makes CodePen generally more interesting of a place. You know? Sometimes people come to CodePen because they're looking for something that they want to use in their own projects.
Chris: In fact, probably the number one use of CodePen.
Chris: Especially blogged out.
Chris: Right? So, the challenges can fuel in that. So, from that kind of business running perspective, that's pretty cool.
Marie: Yeah. Sometimes that is part of what we're doing when we're putting together a challenge is we're looking at what people are looking for on CodePen, and we try to find a way to work alongside that without being overly heavy-handed. You know? There's a balance there too. Like everything, it's kind of a tightrope.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. I think you'd know if all we did was look at our... I don't know. Analyzed our Google Analytics to find search terms and then made all challenges top search terms or something.
Marie: Right. Could you imagine?
Chris: It would just be boring feeling.
Marie: Yuck. Yeah. [Laughter] Yeah. I tell you, it would not be as engaging, and it would be obvious. It would be obvious to do something like that. You can kind of feel that in the prompt in things like that.
Marie: It's, I think, a lot more engaging to do something a little bit more naturally. We definitely use data now. There's no denying that, but there's more to it than just that. We're talking about the things that we think are interesting. We're talking about, you know, "Wouldn't it be fun if we did this?"
Like the last challenge -- not this month's challenge, not December's, but Novembers -- was actually Rachel Smith's idea, "The Design Decades."
Marie: That was such a cool idea, and that was an incredibly fun one to put together because that was all about going back into the history of computer-related design. The print ads that they ran in the 1980s to tell you, "Hey, you can bring home a personal computer." That was the idea for the first week, which was the 1980s.
Then all the way up to the 2010s where it's like Parallax came out and all that. What was fun about that was being able to reference Pens that were made through the 2010s that made sense to the challenge because it's like the trendy stuff that was going on in the 2010s absolutely has been happening on CodePen and still actually carries forward. A lot of the 2010 trends are still happening now, so it was really fun to do that.
Chris: Right. Right. Right.
Marie: But that had zero data-driven concept behind the creation of the prompts or even the creation of the theme. That was just, "Wouldn't that be fun?" And I agree. We all did.
Chris: Yeah. [Laughter]
Marie: And so, we ran it. You know?
Chris: Right. And so, the work isn't just a prompt only. Although, if that's how you engage with it, that's fine. But Marie, when you put these together, the point is that it comes with... We explain what we're thinking about the challenge and what we're asking for. You put together, in most cases, a Pen with some stuff in it that you could just throw away or use if you want to.
Marie: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Chris: Then you get an email. So, from our perspective, especially business-wise, it pairs with the Spark that we do, which is the newsletter that you also put together, because we use the same internal tools to put together the emails.
Chris: We use the same approval process and proofreading process and sending process for all that stuff, which is kind of cool. It's nice to reuse the tools that we build.
Marie: Sure it.
Chris: Then as part of that email that goes out -- and it's published to the Web as well -- it's stuff that you can draw from. We're not just saying, "Do the 2000s."
Chris: It's saying, "Here are some things that were trending during the 2000s," like information about Parallax, pointing to Pens that are good reference Pens to use from that, pointing out design resources and all kinds of stuff. So, you're not just given this term. It's not like we just have a meeting, and we're like, "2000s. Ship it." You know?
Marie: Yeah. [Laughter]
Chris: You have to do a bunch of--
Marie: Yeah, and I don't like to leave people hanging where it's just like, "Oh, I don't. Guess." You know? [Laughter]
Marie: I want to give people a grounding in the context of the challenge theme. And so, I will look up reference points for people that will help them understand what I'm talking about when I describe a style or when I'm talking about a technique. I will try to help folks really zero in with good links. You know?
That's the other thing is I don't just grab what's the first thing that comes up on Google - or whatever. I look for something that's useful, something that will actually inform them for what we're looking for, and also, sometimes, just find something fun.
We had a games challenge and one of the prompts was dominos. I just found some good domino rally videos because--
Chris: That's amazing.
Marie: --who doesn't want to see that? You know?
Chris: Nobody. [Laughter]
Marie: [Laughter] Although, I didn't get my domino rally that I dreamed of. But you know what? You never know. Maybe someone will hear the podcast and know that I really want to see a great domino rally Pen. Please make me one. Thank you.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. We'll bring it back. I don't know that we have done much repeating of prompts.
Marie: We don't. We have never truly repeated a prompt. The only repeated theme that we have done was an almost annual Halloween theme.
Marie: Because people love Halloween and so do I.
Chris: So, you're going to get it, people.
Marie: Yeah, exactly. It was funny because I was worried about Halloween this year. I don't know why. I don't know what got into me, but I'm like, "Oh, no! What if Halloween flops?" And I was really scared.
But no, Halloween - this year's Halloween challenge, it's in the top ten most participated in challenges of all time. It was our most successful Halloween challenge of all time. But I was real worried about that one. [Laughter]
Chris: Yeah. That's great.
Marie: But that's just because I love Halloween.
Chris: I don't think there's any slowing down of this because it's so integrated into the site itself.
Chris: It becomes part of social media output. Although, listen to Marie's and my show about that weirdness lately. That's tricky.
Marie: [Laughter] Well, you know there are other places to put things.
Chris: Are there? [Laughter] Of course, there is.
Marie: [Laughter] We'll find out, I guess.
Chris: Yeah. And the email structure and how easy it is because you're not opted into challenges just by signing up for CodePen. This is an entirely opt-in thing, of course.
Chris: You go to the challenges page and all you have to do is flip a toggle and say, "I'm interested in receiving the challenges week-to-week," and you'll get those emails. You don't have to do that. You can participate in the challenges whether or not you get the email, but that helps us kind of understand the desire for this, and you get the emails and all that.
Marie: Yeah, and we have the link right on the homepage, and then also, every week when we have a challenge collection, I share that in the Spark too, so that's another reminder that a challenge is going on and you could jump in any time.
That's the other thing about a challenge. It's four prompts per month, and they're all inside of a theme. But you can just jump in whenever you like. You can do one at any time through the month, and it's just cool. Give it a try if you want to. Challenge yourself.
That's the point of the challenge. You're challenging yourself to make something cool. And you can use a prompt from any old year you like. [Laughter] There's a bunch of good ones in there.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I mean I really encourage it. I do it from time to time. I can't say I do it every single week. But neither does anybody else.
Marie: Yeah. Exactly.
Chris: You can kind of pop in.
Marie: There are a couple of people that are close. Practically every week, yeah.
Chris: But what's nice is that it can just scrape the cobwebs away a little bit. This time of year, I'm always thinking -- I always traditionally kind of redesign CSS-Tricks over the winter break, if I could. It always came from a little bit of a coding icebreaker.
Chris: It was like, "Let me just code something really small," or I'd poke around looking at small design pieces. Then I'd work on it a little bit, and it had a way of growing.
I'd be like, "Yeah, but what if that was the header? What if that was the footer? Now I have a footer. Well, now I've got to do all the rest of it."
Marie: Yeah. Exactly.
Marie: That's what I hope that the challenges do, that they prompt more exploration, that they prompt some growth in skills or just in fun. Everybody needs some more fun, and that's what we try to do with these challenges is make them fun.
Chris: Yeah, certainly, because you're not getting a grade and whatnot.
Marie: No, not at all.
Chris: [Laughter] Yeah.
Marie: It's open to interpretation of how you even want to take the challenge. If the only thing that is the challenge to you is reading all those links I put in there, cool. You know? [Laughter] That's great. You learned something new. You read about something you didn't know about before. Awesome.
Chris: Yeah. Right on. All right. Well, everybody, if you're interested, and you're probably interested in challenges if you made it this far into this amazing podcast. Yeah.
Marie: Yeah. If you made it this far, thank you for listening and thank you for participating in the challenges.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, and look forward to a full year of challenges in 2023. [Laughter]
Marie: 2023, I can't believe it.
Chris: Heck yeah.
Marie: I'm excited.
Chris: All right. See ya later.
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