Tags: library

5

sparkline

Design systems

Talking about scaling design can get very confusing very quickly. There are a bunch of terms that get thrown around: design systems, pattern libraries, style guides, and components.

The generally-accepted definition of a design system is that it’s the outer circle—it encompasses pattern libraries, style guides, and any other artefacts. But there’s something more. Just because you have a collection of design patterns doesn’t mean you have a design system. A system is a framework. It’s a rulebook. It’s what tells you how those patterns work together.

This is something that Cennydd mentioned recently:

Here’s my thing with the modularisation trend in design: where’s the gestalt?

In my mind, the design system is the gestalt. But Cennydd is absolutely right to express concern—I think a lot of people are collecting patterns and calling the resulting collection a design system. No. That’s a pattern library. You still need to have a framework for how to use those patterns.

I understand the urge to fixate on patterns. They’re small enough to be manageable, and they’re tangible—here’s a carousel; here’s a date-picker. But a design system is big and intangible.

Games are great examples of design systems. They’re frameworks. A game is a collection of rules and constraints. You can document those rules and constraints, but you can’t point to something and say, “That is football” or “That is chess” or “That is poker.”

Even though they consist entirely of rules and constraints, football, chess, and poker still produce an almost infinite possibility space. That’s quite overwhelming. So it’s easier for us to grasp instances of football, chess, and poker. We can point to a particular occurrence and say, “That is a game of football”, or “That is a chess match.”

But if you tried to figure out the rules of football, chess, or poker just from watching one particular instance of the game, you’d have your work cut for you. It’s not impossible, but it is challenging.

Likewise, it’s not very useful to create a library of patterns without providing any framework for using those patterns.

I would go so far as to say that the actual code for the patterns is the least important part of a design system (or, certainly, it’s the part that should be most malleable and open to change). It’s more important that the patterns have been identified, named, described, and crucially, accompanied by some kind of guidance on usage.

I could easily imagine using a tool like Fractal to create a library of text snippets with no actual code. Those pieces of text—which provide information on where and when to use a pattern—could be more valuable than providing a snippet of code without any context.

One of the very first large-scale pattern libraries I can remember seeing on the web was Yahoo’s Design Pattern Library. Each pattern outlined

  1. the problem being solved;
  2. when to use this pattern;
  3. when not to use this pattern.

Only then, almost incidentally, did they link off to the code for that pattern. But it was entirely possible to use the system of patterns without ever using that code. The code was just one instance of the pattern. The important part was the framework that helped you understand when and where it was appropriate to use that pattern.

I think we lose sight of the real value of a design system when we focus too much on the components. The components are the trees. The design system is the forest. As Paul asked:

What methodologies might we uncover if we were to focus more on the relationships between components, rather than the components themselves?

eLife goes live

The World Wide Web was forged in the crucible of science. Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research, a remarkable place where the pursuit of knowledge—rather than the pursuit of profit—is the driving force.

I often wonder whether the web as we know it—an open, decentralised system—could’ve been born anywhere else. These days it’s easy to focus on the success stories of the web in the worlds of commerce and social networking, but I still find there’s something that really “clicks” with the web and the science (Zooniverse being a classic example).

At Clearleft we’ve been lucky enough to work on science-driven projects like the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome Trust. It’s incredibly rewarding to work on projects where the bottom line is measured in knowledge-sharing rather than moolah. So when we were approached by eLife to help them with an upcoming redesign, we jumped at the chance.

We usually help organisations through our expertise in user-centred design, but in this case the design and UX were already in hand. The challenge was in the implementation. The team at eLife knew that they wanted a modular pattern library to keep their front-end components documented and easily reusable. Given Clearleft’s extensive experience with building pattern libraries, this was a match made in heaven (or whatever the scientific non-theistic equivalent of heaven is).

A group of us travelled up from Brighton to Cambridge to kick things off with a workshop. Before diving into code, it was important to set out the aims for the redesign, and figure out how a pattern library could best support those aims.

Right away, I was struck by the great working relationship between design and front-end development within eLife—there was a great collaborative spirit to the endeavour.

Some goals for the redesign soon emerged:

  • Promote the HTML reading experience as a 1st choice for readers.
  • Align the online experience with the eLife visual identity.

That led to some design principles:

  • Focus on content not site furniture.
  • Remove visual clutter and provide no more than the user needs at any stage of the experience.
  • Aid discovery of value added content beyond the manuscript.

Those design principles then informed the front-end development process. Together we came up with a priority of concerns:

  1. Access
  2. Maintainability
  3. Performance
  4. Taking advantage of browser capabilities
  5. Visual appeal

It’s interesting that maintainability was such a high priority that it superseded even performance, but we also proposed a hypothesis at the same time:

Maintainability doesn’t negatively impact performance.

The combination of the design principles and priorities led us to formulate approaches that could be used throughout the project:

  • Progressive enhancement.
  • Small-screen first responsive images.
  • Only add libraries as needed.

Then we dived into the tech stack: build tools, version control approaches, and naming methodologies. BEM was the winner there.

None of those decisions were set in stone, but they really helped to build a solid foundation for the work ahead. Graham camped out in Cambridge for a while, embedding himself in the team there as they began the process of identifying, naming, and building the components.

The work continued after Clearleft’s involvement wrapped up, and I’m happy to say that it all paid off. The new eLife site has just gone live. It’s looking—and performing—beautifully.

What a great combination: the best of the web and the best of science!

eLife is a non-profit organisation inspired by research funders and led by scientists. Our mission is to help scientists accelerate discovery by operating a platform for research communication that encourages and recognises the most responsible behaviours in science.

Fractal ways

24 Ways is back! That’s how we web nerds know that the Christmas season is here. It kicked off this year with a most excellent bit of hardware hacking from Seb: Internet of Stranger Things.

The site is looking lovely as always. There’s also a component library to to accompany it: Bits, the front-end component library for 24 ways. Nice work, courtesy of Paul. (I particularly like the comment component example).

The component library is built with Fractal, the magnificent tool that Mark has open-sourced. We’ve been using at Clearleft for a while now, but we haven’t had a chance to make any of the component libraries public so it’s really great to be able to point to the 24 Ways example. The code is all on Github too.

There’s a really good buzz around Fractal right now. Lots of people in the design systems Slack channel are talking about it. There’s also a dedicated Fractal Slack channel for people getting into the nitty-gritty of using the tool.

If you’re currently wrestling with the challenges of putting a front-end component library together, be sure to give Fractal a whirl.

Design sprinting

James and I went to Ipswich last week for work. But this wasn’t part of an ongoing project—this was a short intense one-week feasibility study.

Leon from Suffolk Libraries got in touch with us about a project they’re planning to carry out soon: replacing their self-service machines with something more up-to-date. But rather than dive into commissioning the project straight away, he wisely decided to start with a one-week sprint to figure out exactly what the project would need to go ahead.

So that’s what James and I did. It was somewhat similar to the design sprint popularised by GV. We ensconced ourselves in the Ipswich library and packed a whole lot of work into five days. There was lots of collaboration, lots of sketching, lots of iterative design, and some rough’n’ready code. It was challenging, but a lot of fun. Also: we stayed in a pretty sweet AirBnB.

Our home for the week. This is a nice AirBnB.

You can read all about it in our case study. You can also read all about from Leon’s point of view on his blog:

I can’t recommend this kind of research sprint enough. We got a report, detailed technical validation of an idea, mock ups and a plan for how to proceed, while getting staff and stakeholders involved in the project – all in the space of 5 days.

I think this approach makes a lot of sense. By the end of the week, James and I felt pretty confident about estimating times and costs for the full project. Normally trying to estimate that kind of thing can be a real guessing game. But with the small of investment of one week’s worth of effort, you get a whole lot more certainty and confidence.

Have a look for yourself.

Sharing pattern libraries

I’ve been huffduffing talks from this year’s South by Southwest, revisiting some of the ones I saw and catching up with some of the ones I missed.

There are some really design and development resources in there that I didn’t get to see in person:

One talk I did get to see was Andy’s CSS for Grown Ups: Maturing Best Practices.

CSS for Grown Ups: Maturing Best Practices on Huffduffer

It was excellent.

You can have a look through the slides.

He talks about different approaches to creating maintainable CSS for large-scale projects. He touches on naming conventions for classes, something that Nicolas Gallagher wrote about recently. And while he makes reference to SASS and Compass, Andy makes the compelling point that’s what more interesting than powerful tools is the arrival of powerful approaches like SMACSS and OOCSS.

Over and over again, Andy makes the point that we must think in terms of creating design systems, not simply styling individual pages—something that Paul has also spoken about. One of the most powerful tools for making that change in thinking is in the creation of style guides for the web and Paul has even created blog dedicated to the BBC’s style guide.

Andy referenced the BBC GEL style guide in his talk but pointed out that because it’s published as a PDF rather than markup, it isn’t as powerful as it could be—there’s inevitably a loss of signal when the patterns are translated into HTML and CSS. Someone from the BBC was in the audience, and in the Q and A portion, acknowledged that that was a really good point.

After the talk I got chatting with Lincoln Mongillo who worked on the recent responsive redesign of Starbucks.com. He mentioned that they created a markup and CSS style guide for the project. “You know what would be really cool?” I said. “If you published it!”

Here it is. It’s a comprehensive library of markup patterns; exactly the kind of resource that Anna wrote about in 24 Ways.

In my experience, creating a pattern library for any project is immensely valuable, whether you’re working in a team of two or a team of two hundred. I’ve found they work well as the next step after Style Tiles: a way of translating the visual vocabulary of a site into markup and CSS without getting bogged down in the specifics of page structure or layout (very handy for a Content First approach). The modularity of a pattern library enforces a healthy .

I’m really pleased to see more and more pattern libraries being made public. That’s one of the reasons why I shared my pattern primer and Dan shared his Pears theme for Wordpress:

Breaking interfaces down into patterns has been immensely helpful in learning and re-evaluating the best possible code to implement them.

But Pears isn’t about how I code these patterns—it’s a tool for creating your own.

I love that. These style guides and pattern libraries aren’t being published in an attempt to provide ready-made solutions—every project should have its own distinct pattern library. Instead, these pattern libraries are being published in a spirit of openness and sharing …a way of saying “Hey, this is what worked for us in these particular circumstances.”

For that, I am very grateful.