Code refactoring for America

Here at Clearleft, we’ve been doing some extra work with Code for America following on from our initial deliverables. This makes me happy for a number of reasons:

  1. They’re a great client—really easy-going and fun to work with.
  2. We’ve got Anna back in the office and it’s always nice to have her around.
  3. We get to revisit the styleguide we provided, and test our assumptions.

That last one is important. When we provide a pattern library to a client, we hope that they’ve got everything they need. If we’ve done our job right, then they’ll be able to combine patterns in ways we haven’t foreseen to create entirely new page types.

For the most part, that’s been the case with Code for America. They have a solid set of patterns that are serving them well. But what’s been fascinating is to hear about what it’s like for the people using those patterns…

There’s been a welcome trend in recent years towards extremely robust, maintainable CSS. SMACSS, BEM, OOCSS and other methodologies might differ in their details, but their fundamental approach is pretty similar. The idea is that you apply a very specific class to every element you want to style:

<div class="thingy">
    <ul class="thingy-bit">
        <li class="thingy-bit-item"></li>
        <li class="thingy-bit-item"></li>
    </ul>
    <img class="thingy-wotsit" src="" alt="" />
</div>

That allows you to keep your CSS selectors very short, but very specific:

.thingy {}
.thingy-bit {}
.thingy-bit-item {}
.thingy-wotsit {}

There’s little or no nesting, and you only ever use class selectors. That keeps your CSS nice and clear, and you avoid specificity hell. The catch is that your HTML is necessarily more verbose: you need to explicitly add a class to whatever you want to style.

For most projects—particularly product work (think Twitter, Facebook, etc.)—that’s a completely acceptable trade-off. It’s usually the same developers editing the CSS and the HTML so there’s no problem moving complexity out of CSS and into the markup templates. Even if other people will be entering the actual content into the system, they’ll probably be doing that mediated through a Content Management System, rather than editing HTML directly.

So nine times out of ten, making the HTML more verbose is absolutely the right choice in order to make the CSS more manageable and maintainable. That’s the way we initially built the pattern library for Code for America.

Well, it turns out that the people using the markup patterns aren’t necessarily the same people who would be dealing with the CSS. Also, there isn’t necessarily a CMS involved. Instead, people (volunteers, employees, anyone really) create new pages by copying and pasting the patterns we’ve provided and then editing them.

By optimising on the CSS side of things, we’ve offloaded a lot of complexity onto their shoulders. While it’s fair enough to expect them to understand basic HTML, it’s hardly fair to expect them to learn a whole new vocabulary of thingy and thingy-wotsit class names just to get things to look they way they expect.

Here’s a markup pattern that makes more sense for the people actually dealing with the HTML:

<div class="thingy">
    <ul>
        <li></li>
        <li></li>
    </ul>
    <img src="" alt="" />
</div>

Much clearer. But now the CSS looks like this:

.thingy {}
.thingy ul {}
.thingy li {}
.thingy img {}

Actually it’s probably going to look more complicated than that: more nesting, more element selectors, more “defensive” rules trying to anticipate the kind of markup that might be used in a particular pattern.

It feels really strange for Anna and myself to work with these kind of patterns. All of our experience screams “Don’t do that! Why would you that?” …but in this case, it’s the right thing to do for the people building the actual website.

So please don’t interpret this as me saying “Hey, everyone, this is how you should write your CSS.” I’m not saying this is better or worse than adding lots of classes to your HTML. If anything, this illustrates that there is no one right way to do this.

It’s worth remembering why we’re aiming for maintainability in what we write. It’s not for any technical reason. It’s for people. If those people find it better to deal with simplified CSS with more complex HTML, than the complexity should be in the HTML. But if the priority for those people is to have simple HTML, then more complex CSS may be an acceptable price to pay.

In other words, it depends.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Scott Kellum

@adactio It’s amazing how much you can do when leveraging the cascade, but that needs to be balanced with modularity.

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# Shared by Scott Kellum on Monday, October 27th, 2014 at 3:10pm