Tags: react

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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.

AMPstinction

I’ve come to believe that the goal of any good framework should be to make itself unnecessary.

Brian said it explicitly of his PhoneGap project:

The ultimate purpose of PhoneGap is to cease to exist.

That makes total sense, especially if your code is a polyfill—those solutions are temporary by design. Autoprefixer is another good example of a piece of code that becomes less and less necessary over time.

But I think it’s equally true of any successful framework or library. If the framework becomes popular enough, it will inevitably end up influencing the standards process, thereby becoming dispensible.

jQuery is the classic example of this. There’s very little reason to use jQuery these days because you can accomplish so much with browser-native JavaScript. But the reason why you can accomplish so much without jQuery is because of jQuery. I don’t think we would have querySelector without jQuery. The library proved the need for the feature. The same is true for a whole load of DOM scripting features.

The same process is almost certain to occur with React—it’s a good bet there will be a standardised equivalent to the virtual DOM at some point.

When Google first unveiled AMP, its intentions weren’t clear to me. I hoped that it existed purely to make itself redundant:

As well as publishers creating AMP versions of their pages in order to appease Google, perhaps they will start to ask “Why can’t our regular pages be this fast?” By showing that there is life beyond big bloated invasive web pages, perhaps the AMP project will work as a demo of what the whole web could be.

Alas, as time has passed, that hope shows no signs of being fulfilled. If anything, I’ve noticed publishers using the existence of their AMP pages as a justification for just letting their “regular” pages put on weight.

Worse yet, the messaging from Google around AMP has shifted. Instead of pitching it as a format for creating parallel versions of your web pages, they’re now also extolling the virtues of having your AMP pages be the only version you publish:

In fact, AMP’s evolution has made it a viable solution to build entire websites.

On an episode of the Dev Mode podcast a while back, AMP was a hotly-debated topic. But even those defending AMP were doing so on the understanding that it was more a proof-of-concept than a long-term solution (and also that AMP is just for news stories—something else that Google are keen to change).

But now it’s clear that the Google AMP Project is being marketed more like a framework for the future: a collection of web components that prioritise performance …which is kind of odd, because that’s also what Google’s Polymer project is. The difference being that pages made with Polymer don’t get preferential treatment in Google’s search results. I can’t help but wonder how the Polymer team feels about AMP’s gradual pivot onto their territory.

If the AMP project existed in order to create a web where AMP was no longer needed, I think I could get behind it. But the more it’s positioned as the only viable solution to solving performance, the more uncomfortable I am with it.

Which, by the way, brings me to one of the most pernicious ideas around Google AMP—positioning anyone opposed to it as not caring about web performance. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s precisely because performance on the web is so important that it deserves a long-term solution, co-created by all of us: not some commandents delivered to us from on-high by one organisation, enforced by preferential treatment by that organisation’s monopoly in search.

It’s the classic logical fallacy:

  1. Performance! Something must be done!
  2. AMP is something.
  3. Now something has been done.

By marketing itself as the only viable solution to the web performance problem, I think the AMP project is doing itself a great disservice. If it positioned itself as an example to be emulated, I would welcome it.

I wish that AMP were being marketed more like a temporary polyfill. And as with any polyfill, I look forward to the day when AMP is no longer necesssary.

I want AMP to become extinct. I genuinely think that the Google AMP team should share that wish.

Frustration

I had some problems with my bouzouki recently. Now, I know my bouzouki pretty well. I can navigate the strings and frets to make music. But this was a problem with the pickup under the saddle of the bouzouki’s bridge. So it wasn’t so much a musical problem as it was an electronics problem. I know nothing about electronics.

I found it incredibly frustrating. Not only did I have no idea how to fix the problem, but I also had no idea of the scope of the problem. Would it take five minutes or five days? Who knows? Not me.

My solution to a problem like this is to pay someone else to fix it. Even then I have to go through the process of having the problem explained to me by someone who understands and cares about electronics much more than me. I nod my head and try my best to look like I’m taking it all in, even though the truth is I have no particular desire to get to grips with the inner workings of pickups—I just want to make some music.

That feeling of frustration I get from having wiring issues with a musical instrument is the same feeling I get whenever something goes awry with my web server. I know just enough about servers to be dangerous. When something goes wrong, I feel very out of my depth, and again, I have no idea how long it will take the fix the problem: minutes, hours, days, or weeks.

I had a very bad day yesterday. I wanted to make a small change to the Clearleft website—one extra line of CSS. But the build process for the website is quite convoluted (and clever), automatically pulling in components from the site’s pattern library. Something somewhere in the pipeline went wrong—I still haven’t figured out what—and for a while there, the Clearleft website was down, thanks to me. (Luckily for me, Danielle saved the day …again. I’d be lost without her.)

I was feeling pretty down after that stressful day. I felt like an idiot for not knowing or understanding the wiring beneath the site.

But, on the other hand, considering I was only trying to edit a little bit of CSS, maybe the problem didn’t lie entirely with me.

There’s a principle underlying the architecture of the World Wide Web called The Rule of Least Power. It somewhat counterintuitively states that you should:

choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Perhaps, given the relative simplicity of the task I was trying to accomplish, the plumbing was over-engineered. That complexity wouldn’t matter if I could circumvent it, but without the build process, there’s no way to change the markup, CSS, or JavaScript for the site.

Still, most of the time, the build process isn’t a hindrance, it’s a help: concatenation, minification, linting and all that good stuff. Most of my frustration when something in the wiring goes wrong is because of how it makes me feel …just like with the pickup in my bouzouki, or the server powering my website. It’s not just that I find this stuff hard, but that I also feel like it’s stuff I’m supposed to know, rather than stuff I want to know.

On that note…

Last week, Paul wrote about getting to grips with JavaScript. On the very same day, Brad wrote about his struggle to learn React.

I think it’s really, really, really great when people share their frustrations and struggles like this. It’s very reassuring for anyone else out there who’s feeling similarly frustrated who’s worried that the problem lies with them. Also, this kind of confessional feedback is absolute gold dust for anyone looking to write explanations or documentation for JavaScript or React while battling the curse of knowledge. As Paul says:

The challenge now is to remember the pain and anguish I endured, and bare that in mind when helping others find their own path through the knotted weeds of JavaScript.

Whatever works for you

I was one of the panelists on the most recent episode of the Shop Talk Show along with Nicole, Colin Megill, and Jed Schmidt. The topic was inline styles. Well, not quite. That’s not a great term to describe the concept. The idea is that you apply styling directly to DOM nodes using JavaScript, instead of using CSS selectors to match up styles to DOM nodes.

It’s an interesting idea that I could certainly imagine being useful in certain situations such as dynamically updating an interface in real time (it feels a bit more “close to the metal” to reflect the state updates directly rather than doing it via class swapping). But there are many, many other situations where the cascade is very useful indeed.

I expressed concern that styling via JavaScript raises the barrier to styling from a declarative language like CSS to a programming language (although, as they pointed out, it’s more like moving from CSS to JSON). I asked whether it might not be possible to add just one more layer of abstraction so that people could continue to write in CSS—which they’re familiar with—and then do JavaScript magic to match those selectors, extract those styles, and apply them directly to the DOM nodes. Since recording the podcast, I came across Glen Maddern’s proposal to do exactly that. It makes sense to me try to solve the perceived problems with CSS—issues of scope and specificity—without asking everyone to change the way they write.

In short, my response was “hey, like, whatever, it’s cool, each to their own.” There are many, many different kinds of websites and many, many different ways to make them. I like that.

So I was kind of surprised by the bullishness of those who seem to honestly believe that this is the way to build on the web, and that CSS will become a relic. At one point I even asked directly, “Do you really believe that CSS is over? That all styles will be managed through JavaScript from here on?” and received an emphatic “Yes!” in response.

I find that a little disheartening. Chris has written about the confidence of youth:

Discussions are always worth having. Weighing options is always interesting. Demonstrating what has worked (and what hasn’t) for you is always useful. There are ways to communicate that don’t resort to dogmatism.

There are big differences between saying:

  • You can do this,
  • You should do this, and
  • You must do this.

My take on the inline styles discussion was that it fits firmly in the “you can do this” slot. It could be a very handy tool to have in your toolbox for certain situations. But ideally your toolbox should have many other tools. When all you have is a hammer, yadda, yadda, yadda, nail.

I don’t think you do your cause any favours by jumping straight to the “you must do this” stage. I think that people are more amenable to hearing “hey, here’s something that worked for me; maybe it will work for you” rather than “everything you know is wrong and this is the future.” I certainly don’t think that it’s helpful to compare CSS to Neanderthals co-existing with JavaScript Homo Sapiens.

Like I said on the podcast, it’s a big web out there. The idea that there is “one true way” that would work on all possible projects seems unlikely—and undesirable.

“A ha!”, you may be thinking, “But you yourself talk about progressive enhancement as if it’s the one try way to build on the web—hoisted by your own petard.” Actually, I don’t. There are certainly situations where progressive enhancement isn’t workable—although I believe those cases are rarer than you might think. But my over-riding attitude towards any questions of web design and development is:

It depends.