Tags: client

3

sparkline

Split

When I talk about evaluating technology for front-end development, I like to draw a distinction between two categories of technology.

On the one hand, you’ve got the raw materials of the web: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. This is what users will ultimately interact with.

On the other hand, you’ve got all the tools and technologies that help you produce the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript: pre-processors, post-processors, transpilers, bundlers, and other build tools.

Personally, I’m much more interested and excited by the materials than I am by the tools. But I think it’s right and proper that other developers are excited by the tools. A good balance of both is probably the healthiest mix.

I’m never sure what to call these two categories. Maybe the materials are the “external” technologies, because they’re what users will interact with. Whereas all the other technologies—that mosty live on a developer’s machine—are the “internal” technologies.

Another nice phrase is something I heard during Chris’s talk at An Event Apart in Seattle, when he quoted Brad, who talked about the front of the front end and the back of the front end.

I’m definitely more of a front-of-the-front-end kind of developer. I have opinions on the quality of the materials that get served up to users; the output should be accessible and performant. But I don’t particularly care about the tools that produced those materials on the back of the front end. Use whatever works for you (or whatever works for your team).

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time. Like I said, from a user’s point of view, it’s irrelevant what text editor or version control system you use.

Now, you could make the argument that anything that is good for developer convenience is automatically good for user experience because faster, more efficient development should result in better output. While that’s true in theory, I highly recommend Alex’s post, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch.

Where it gets interesting is when a technology that’s designed for developer convenience is made out of the very materials being delivered to users. For example, a CSS framework like Bootstrap is made of CSS. That’s different to a tool like Sass which outputs CSS. Whether or not a developer chooses to use Sass is irrelevant to the user—the final output will be CSS either way. But if a developer chooses to use a CSS framework, that decision has a direct impact on the user experience. The user must download the framework in order for the developer to get the benefit.

So whereas Sass sits at the back of the front end—where I don’t care what you use—Bootstrap sits at the front of the front end. For tools like that, I don’t think saying “use whatever works for you” is good enough. It’s got to be weighed against the cost to the user.

Historically, it’s been a similar story with JavaScript libraries. They’re written in JavaScript, and so they’re going to be executed in the browser. If a developer wanted to use jQuery to make their life easier, the user paid the price in downloading the jQuery library.

But I’ve noticed a welcome change with some of the bigger JavaScript frameworks. Whereas the initial messaging around frameworks like React touted the benefits of state management and the virtual DOM, I feel like that’s not as prevalent now. You’re much more likely to hear people—quite rightly—talk about the benefits of modularity and componentisation. If you combine that with the rise of Node—which means that JavaScript is no longer confined to the browser—then these frameworks can move from the front of the front end to the back of the front end.

We’ve certainly seen that at Clearleft. We’ve worked on multiple React projects, but in every case, the output was server-rendered. Developers get the benefit of working with a tool that helps them. Users don’t pay the price.

For me, this question of whether a framework will be used on the client side or the server side is crucial.

Let me tell you about a Clearleft project that sticks in my mind. We were working with a big international client on a product that was going to be rolled out to students and teachers in developing countries. This was right up my alley! We did plenty of research into network conditions and typical device usage. That then informed a tight performance budget. Every design decision—from web fonts to images—was informed by that performance budget. We were producing lean, mean markup, CSS, and JavaScript. But we weren’t the ones implementing the final site. That was being done by the client’s offshore software team, and they insisted on using React. “That’s okay”, I thought. “React can be used server-side so we can still output just what’s needed, right?” Alas, no. These developers did everything client side. When the final site launched, the log-in screen alone required megabytes of JavaScript just to render a form. It was, in my opinion, entirely unfit for purpose. It still pains me when I think about it.

That was a few years ago. I think that these days it has become a lot easier to make the decision to use a framework on the back of the front end. Like I said, that’s certainly been the case on recent Clearleft projects that involved React or Vue.

It surprises me, then, when I see the question of server rendering or client rendering treated almost like an implementation detail. It might be an implementation detail from a developer’s perspective, but it’s a key decision for the user experience. The performance cost of putting your entire tech stack into the browser can be enormous.

Alex Sanders from the development team at The Guardian published a post recently called Revisiting the rendering tier . In it, he describes how they’re moving to React. Now, if this were a move to client-rendered React, that would make a big impact on the user experience. The thing is, I couldn’t tell from the article whether React was going to be used in the browser or on the server. The article talks about “rendering”—which is something that browsers do—and “the DOM”—which is something that only exists in browsers.

So I asked. It turns out that this plan is very much about generating HTML and CSS on the server before sending it to the browser. Excellent!

With that question answered, I’m cool with whatever they choose to use. In this case, they’re choosing to use CSS-in-JS (although, to be pedantic, there’s no C anymore so technically it’s SS-in-JS). As long as the “JS” part is JavaScript on a server, then it makes no difference to the end user, and therefore no difference to me. Not my circus, not my monkeys. For users, the end result is the same whether styling is applied via a selector in an external stylesheet or, for example, via an inline style declaration (and in some situations, a server-rendered CSS-in-JS solution might be better for performance). And so, as a user-centred developer, this is something that I don’t need to care about.

Except…

I have misgivings. But just to be clear, these misgivings have nothing to do with users. My misgivings are entirely to do with another group of people: the people who make websites.

There’s a second-order effect. By making React—or even JavaScript in general—a requirement for styling something on a web page, the barrier to entry is raised.

At least, I think that the barrier to entry is raised. I completely acknowledge that this is a subjective judgement. In fact, the reason why a team might decide to make JavaScript a requirement for participation might well be because they believe it makes it easier for people to participate. Let me explain…

It wasn’t that long ago that devs coming from a Computer Science background were deriding CSS for its simplicity, complaining that “it’s broken” and turning their noses up at it. That rhetoric, thankfully, is waning. Nowadays they’re far more likely to acknowledge that CSS might be simple, but it isn’t easy. Concepts like the cascade and specificity are real head-scratchers, and any prior knowledge from imperative programming languages won’t help you in this declarative world—all your hard-won experience and know-how isn’t fungible. Instead, it seems as though all this cascading and specificity is butchering the modularity of your nicely isolated components.

It’s no surprise that programmers with this kind of background would treat CSS as damage and find ways to route around it. The many flavours of CSS-in-JS are testament to this. From a programmer’s point of view, this solution has made things easier. Best of all, as long as it’s being done on the server, there’s no penalty for end users. But now the price is paid in the diversity of your team. In order to participate, a Computer Science programming mindset is now pretty much a requirement. For someone coming from a more declarative background—with really good HTML and CSS skills—everything suddenly seems needlessly complex. And as Tantek observed:

Complexity reinforces privilege.

The result is a form of gatekeeping. I don’t think it’s intentional. I don’t think it’s malicious. It’s being done with the best of intentions, in pursuit of efficiency and productivity. But these code decisions are reflected in hiring practices that exclude people with different but equally valuable skills and perspectives.

Rachel describes HTML, CSS and our vanishing industry entry points:

If we make it so that you have to understand programming to even start, then we take something open and enabling, and place it back in the hands of those who are already privileged.

I think there’s a comparison here with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is obviously terrible for women, but it’s also really shitty for men in the way it stigmatises any male behaviour that doesn’t fit its worldview. Likewise, if the only people your team is interested in hiring are traditional programmers, then those programmers are going to resent having to spend their time dealing with semantic markup, accessibility, styling, and other disciplines that they never trained in. Heydon correctly identifies this as reluctant gatekeeping:

By assuming the role of the Full Stack Developer (which is, in practice, a computer scientist who also writes HTML and CSS), one takes responsibility for all the code, in spite of its radical variance in syntax and purpose, and becomes the gatekeeper of at least some kinds of code one simply doesn’t care about writing well.

This hurts everyone. It’s bad for your team. It’s even worse for the wider development community.

Last year, I was asked “Is there a fear or professional challenge that keeps you up at night?” I responded:

My greatest fear for the web is that it becomes the domain of an elite priesthood of developers. I firmly believe that, as Tim Berners-Lee put it, “this is for everyone.” And I don’t just mean it’s for everyone to use—I believe it’s for everyone to make as well. That’s why I get very worried by anything that raises the barrier to entry to web design and web development.

I’ve described a number of dichotomies here:

  • Materials vs. tools,
  • Front of the front end vs. back of the front end,
  • User experience vs. developer experience,
  • Client-side rendering vs. server-side rendering,
  • Declarative languages vs. imperative languages.

But the split that worries the most is this:

  • The people who make the web vs. the people who are excluded from making the web.

Where to start?

A lot of the talks at this year’s Chrome Dev Summit were about progressive web apps. This makes me happy. But I think the focus is perhaps a bit too much on the “app” part on not enough on “progressive”.

What I mean is that there’s an inevitable tendency to focus on technologies—Service Workers, HTTPS, manifest files—and not so much on the approach. That’s understandable. The technologies are concrete, demonstrable things, whereas approaches, mindsets, and processes are far more nebulous in comparison.

Still, I think that the most important facet of building a robust, resilient website is how you approach building it rather than what you build it with.

Many of the progressive app demos use server-side and client-side rendering, which is great …but that aspect tends to get glossed over:

Browsers without service worker support should always be served a fall-back experience. In our demo, we fall back to basic static server-side rendering, but this is only one of many options.

I think it’s vital to not think in terms of older browsers “falling back” but to think in terms of newer browsers getting a turbo-boost. That may sound like a nit-picky semantic subtlety, but it’s actually a radical difference in mindset.

Many of the arguments I’ve heard against progressive enhancement—like Tom’s presentation at Responsive Field Day—talk about the burdensome overhead of having to bolt on functionality for older or less-capable browsers (even Jake has done this). But the whole point of progressive enhancement is that you start with the simplest possible functionality for the greatest number of users. If anything gets bolted on, it’s the more advanced functionality for the newer or more capable browsers.

So if your conception of progressive enhancement is that it’s an added extra, I think you really need to turn that thinking around. And that’s hard. It’s hard because you need to rewire some well-engrained pathways.

There is some precedence for this though. It was really, really hard to convince people to stop using tables for layout and starting using CSS instead. That was a tall order—completely change the way you approach building on the web. But eventually we got there.

When Ethan came out with Responsive Web Design, it was an equally difficult pill to swallow, not because of the technologies involved—media queries, percentages, etc.—but because of the change in thinking that was required. But eventually we got there.

These kinds of fundamental changes are inevitably painful …at first. After years of building websites using tables for layout, creating your first CSS-based layout was demoralisingly difficult. But the second time was a bit easier. And the third time, easier still. Until eventually it just became normal.

Likewise with responsive design. After years of building fixed-width websites, trying to build in a fluid, flexible way was frustratingly hard. But the second time wasn’t quite as hard. And the third time …well, eventually it just became normal.

So if you’re used to thinking of the all-singing, all-dancing version of your site as the starting point, it’s going to be really, really hard to instead start by building the most basic, accessible version first and then work up to the all-singing, all-dancing version …at first. But eventually it will just become normal.

For now, though, it’s going to take work.

The recent redesign of Google+ is true case study in building a performant, responsive, progressive site:

With server-side rendering we make sure that the user can begin reading as soon as the HTML is loaded, and no JavaScript needs to run in order to update the contents of the page. Once the page is loaded and the user clicks on a link, we do not want to perform a full round-trip to render everything again. This is where client-side rendering becomes important — we just need to fetch the data and the templates, and render the new page on the client. This involves lots of tradeoffs; so we used a framework that makes server-side and client-side rendering easy without the downside of having to implement everything twice — on the server and on the client.

This took work. Had they chosen to rely on client-side rendering alone, they could have built something quicker. But I think it was worth laying that solid foundation. And the next time they need to build something this way, it’s going to be less work. Eventually it just becomes normal.

But it all starts with thinking of the server-side rendering as the default. Server-side rendering is not a fallback; client-side rendering is an enhancement.

That’s exactly the kind of mindset that enables Jack Franklin to build robust, resilient websites:

Now we’ll build the React application entirely on the server, before adding the client-side JavaScript right at the end.

I had a chance to chat briefly with Jack at the Edge conference in London and I congratulated him on the launch of a Go Cardless site that used exactly this technique. He told me that the decision to flip the switch and make it act as a single page app came right at the end of the project. Server-side rendering was the default; client-side rendering was added later.

The key to building modern, resilient, progressive sites doesn’t lie in browser technologies or frameworks; it lies in how we think about the task at hand; how we approach building from the ground up rather than the top down. Changing the way we fundamentally think about building for the web is inevitably going to be challenging …at first. But it will also be immensely rewarding.

Communication for America

Mandy has written a great article about making remote teams work. It’s an oft-neglected aspect of working on a product when you’ve got people distributed geographically.

But remote communication isn’t just something that’s important for startups and product companies—it’s equally important for agencies when it comes to client communication.

At Clearleft, we occasionally work with clients right here in Brighton, but that’s the exception. More often than not, the clients are based in London, or somewhere else in the UK. In the case of Code for America, they’re based in San Francisco—that’s eight or nine timezones away (depending on the time of year).

As it turned out, it wasn’t a problem at all. In fact, it worked out nicely. At the end of every day, we had a quick conference call, with two or three people at our end, and two or three people at their end. For us, it was the end of the day: 5:30pm. For them, the day was just starting: 9:30am.

We’d go through what we had been doing during that day, ask any questions that had cropped up over the course of the day, and let them know if there was anything we needed from them. If there was anything we needed from them, they had the whole day to put it together while we went home. The next morning (from our perspective), it would be waiting in our in/drop-boxes.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of Code for America, they were coming into the office every morning and starting the day with a look over our work, as though we had beavering away throughout the night.

Now, it would be easy for me to extrapolate from this that this way of working is great and everyone should do it. But actually, the whole timezone difference was a red herring. The real reason why the communication worked so well throughout the project was because of the people involved.

Right from the start, it was clear that because of time and budget constraints that we’d have to move fast. We wouldn’t have the luxury of debating everything in detail and getting every decision signed off. Instead we had a sort of “rough consensus and running code” approach that worked really well. It worked because everyone understood that was what was happening—if just one person was expecting a more formalised structure, I’m sure it wouldn’t have gone quite so smoothly.

So we provided materials in whatever level of fidelity made sense for the idea under discussion. Sometimes that was a quick sketch. Sometimes it was a fairly high-fidelity mockup. Sometimes it was a module of markup and CSS. Whatever it took.

Most of all, there was a great feeling of trust on both sides of the equation. It was clear right from the start that the people at Code for America were super-smart and weren’t going to make any outlandish or unreasonable requests of Clearleft. Instead they gave us just the right amount of guidance and constraints, while trusting us to make good decisions.

At one point, Jon was almost complaining about not getting pushback on his designs. A nice complaint to have.

Because of the daily transatlantic “stand up” via teleconference, there was a great feeling of inevitability to the project as it came together from idea to execution. Inevitability doesn’t sound like a very sexy attribute of a web project, but it’s far preferable to the kind of project that involves milestones of “big reveals”—the Mad Men approach to project management.

Oh, and we made sure that we kept those transatlantic calls nice and short. They never lasted longer than 10 or 15 minutes. We wanted to avoid the many pitfalls of conference calls.