Async, Ajax, and animation

I hadn’t been to one of Brighton’s Async JavaScript meetups for quite a while, but I made it along last week. Now that it’s taking place at 68 Middle Street, it’s a lot easier to get to …seeing as the Clearleft office is right upstairs.

James Da Costa gave a terrific presentation on something called Pjax. In related news, it turns out that the way I’ve been doing Ajax all along is apparently called Pjax.

Back when I wrote Bulletproof Ajax, I talked about using Hijax. The basic idea is:

  1. First, build an old-fashioned website that uses hyperlinks and forms to pass information to the server. The server returns whole new pages with each request.
  2. Now, use JavaScript to intercept those links and form submissions and pass the information via XMLHttpRequest instead. You can then select which parts of the page need to be updated instead of updating the whole page.

So basically your JavaScript is acting like a dumb waiter shuttling requests for page fragments back and forth between the browser and the server. But all the clever stuff is happening on the server, not the browser. To the end user, there’s no difference between that and a site that’s putting all the complexity in the browser.

In fact, the only time you’d really notice a difference is when something goes wrong: in the Hijax model, everything just falls back to full-page requests but keeps on working. That’s the big difference between this approach and the current vogue for “single page apps” that do everything in the browser—when something goes wrong there, the user gets bupkis.

Pjax introduces an extra piece of the puzzle—which didn’t exist when I wrote Bulletproof Ajax—and that’s pushState, part of HTML5’s History API, to keep the browser’s URL updated. Hence, pushState + Ajax = Pjax.

As you can imagine, I was nodding in vigourous agreement with everything James was demoing. It was refreshing to find that not everyone is going down the Ember/Angular route of relying entirely on JavaScript for core functionality. I was beginning to think that nobody cared about progressive enhancement any more, or that maybe I was missing something fundamental, but it turns out I’m not crazy after all: James’s demo showed how to write front-end code responsibly.

What was fascinating though, was hearing why people were choosing to develop using Pjax. It isn’t necessarily that they care about progressive enhancement, robustness, and universal access. Rather, it’s often driven by the desire to stay within the server-side development environment that they’re comfortable with. See, for example, DHH’s explanation of why 37 Signals is using this approach:

So you get all the advantages of speed and snappiness without the degraded development experience of doing everything on the client.

It sounds like they’re doing the right thing for the wrong reasons (a wrong reason being “JavaScript is icky!”).

A lot of James’s talk was focused on the user experience of the interfaces built with Hijax/Pjax/whatever. He had some terrific examples of how animation can make an enormous difference. That inspired me to do a little bit of tweaking to the Ajaxified/Hijaxified/Pjaxified portions of The Session.

Whenever you use Hijax to intercept a link, it’s now up to you to provide some sort of immediate feedback to the user that something is happening—normally the browser would take care of this (remember Netscape’s spinning lighthouse?)—but when you hijack that click, you’re basically saying “I’ll take care of this.” So you could, for example, display a spinning icon.

One little trick I’ve used is to insert an empty progress element.

Normally the progress element takes max and value attributes to show how far along something has progressed:

<progress max="100" value="75">75%</progress>

75%

But if you leave those out, then it’s an indeterminate progess bar:

<progress>loading...</progress>

loading…

The rendering of the progress bar will vary from browser to browser, and that’s just fine. Older browsers that don’t understand the progress will display whatever’s between the opening and closing tags.

Voila! You’ve got a nice lightweight animation to show that an Ajax request is underway.

Have you published a response to this? :