Tags: workflow

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2019

The Technical Side of Design Systems by Brad Frost

Day two of An Event Apart San Francisco is finishing with a talk from Brad on design systems (so hot right now!):

You can have a killer style guide website, a great-looking Sketch library, and robust documentation, but if your design system isn’t actually powering real software products, all that effort is for naught. At the heart of a successful design system is a collection of sturdy, robust front-end components that powers other applications’ user interfaces. In this talk, Brad will cover all that’s involved in establishing a technical architecture for your design system. He’ll discuss front-end workshop environments, CSS architecture, implementing design tokens, popular libraries like React and Vue.js, deploying design systems, managing updates, and more. You’ll come away knowing how to establish a rock-solid technical foundation for your design system.

I will attempt to liveblog the Frostmeister…

“Design system” is an unfortunate name …like “athlete’s foot.” You say it to someone and they think they know what you mean, but nothing could be further from the truth.

As Mina said:

A design system is a set of rules enforced by culture, process and tooling that govern how your organization creates products.

A design system the story of how an organisation gets things done.

When Brad talks to companies, he asks “Have you got a design system?” They invariably say they do …and then point to a Sketch library. When the focus goes on the design side of the process, the production side can suffer. There’s a gap between the comp and the live site. The heart and soul of a design system is a code library of reusable UI components.

Brad’s going to talk through the life cycle of a project.

Sell

He begins with selling in a design system. That can start with an interface inventory. This surfaces visual differences. But even if you have, say, buttons that look the same, the underlying code might not be consistent. Each one of those buttons represents time and effort. A design system gives you a number of technical benefits:

  • Reduce technical debt—less frontend spaghetti code.
  • Faster production—less time coding common UI components and more time building real features.
  • Higher-quality production—bake in and enforce best practices.
  • Reduce QA efforts—centralise some QA tasks.
  • Potentially adopt new technologies faster—a design system can help make additional frameworks more managable.
  • Useful reference—an essential resource hub for development best practices.
  • Future-friendly foundation—modify, extend, and improve over time.

Once you’ve explained the benefits, it’s time to kick off.

Kick off

Brad asks “What’s yer tech stack?” There are often a lot of tech stacks. And you know what? Users don’t care. What they see is one brand. That’s the promise of a design system: a unified interface.

How do you make a design system deal with all the different tech stacks? You don’t (at least, not yet). Start with a high priority project. Use that as a pilot project for the design system. Dan talks about these projects as being like television pilots that could blossom into a full season.

Plan

Where to build the design system? The tech stack under the surface is often an order of magnitude greater than the UI code—think of node modules, for example. That’s why Brad advocates locking off that area and focusing on what he calls a frontend workshop environment. Think of the components as interactive comps. There are many tools for this frontend workshop environment: Pattern Lab, Storybook, Fractal, Basalt.

How are you going to code this? Brad gets frontend teams in a room together and they fight. Have you noticed that developers have opinions about things? Brad asks questions. What are your design principles? Do you use a CSS methodology? What tools do you use? Spaces or tabs? Then Brad gets them to create one component using the answers to those questions.

Guidelines are great but you need to enforce them. There are lots of tools to automate coding style.

Then there’s CSS architecture. Apparently we write our styles in React now. Do you really want to tie your CSS to one environment like that?

You know what’s really nice? A good ol’ sturdy cacheable CSS file. It can come in like a fairy applying all the right styles regardless of tech stack.

Design and build

Brad likes to break things down using his atomic design vocabulary. He echoes what Mina said earlier:

Embrace the snowflakes.

The idea of a design system is not to build 100% of your UI entirely from components in the code library. The majority, sure. But it’s unrealistic to expect everything to come from the design system.

When Brad puts pages together, he pulls in components from the code library but he also pulls in one-off snowflake components where needed.

The design system informs our product design. Our product design informs the design system.

—Jina

Brad has seen graveyards of design systems. But if you make a virtuous circle between the live code and the design system, the design system has a much better chance of not just surviving, but thriving.

So you go through those pilot projects, each one feeding more and more into the design system. Lather, rinse, repeat. The first one will be time consuming, but each subsequent project gets quicker and quicker as you start to get the return on investment. Velocity increases over time.

It’s like tools for a home improvement project. The first thing you do is look at your current toolkit. If you don’t have the tool you need, you invest in buying that new tool. Now that tool is part of your toolkit. Next time you need that tool, you don’t have to go out and buy one. Your toolkit grows over time.

The design system code must be intuitive for developers using it. This gets into the whole world of API design. It’s really important to get this right—naming things consistently and having predictable behaviour.

Mina talked about loose vs. strict design systems. Open vs. locked down. Make your components composable so they can adapt to future requirements.

You can bake best practices into your design system. You can make accessibility a requirement in the code.

Launch

What does it mean to “launch” a design system?

A design system isn’t a project with an end, it’s the origin story of a living and evolving product that’ll serve other products.

—Nathan Curtis

There’s a spectrum of integration—how integrated the design system is with the final output. The levels go from:

  1. Least integrated: static.
  2. Front-end reference code.
  3. Most integrated: consumable compents.

Chris Coyier in The Great Divide talked about how wide the spectrum of front-end development is. Brad, for example, is very much at the front of the front end. Consumable UI components can create a bridge between the back of the front end and the front of the front end.

Consumable UI components need to be bundled, packaged, and published.

Maintain

Now we’ve entered a new mental space. We’ve gone from “Let’s build a website” to “Let’s maintain a product which other products use as a dependency.” You need to start thinking about things like semantic versioning. A version number is a promise.

A 1.0.0 designation comes with commitment. Freewheeling days of unstable early foundations are behind you.

—Nathan Curtis

What do you do when a new tech stack comes along? How does your design system serve the new hotness. It gets worse: you get products that aren’t even web based—iOS, Android, etc.

That’s where design tokens come in. You can define your design language in a platform-agnostic way.

Summary

This is hard.

  • Your design system must live in the technologies your products use.
  • Look at your product roadmaps for design system pilot project opportunities.
  • Establish code conventions and use tooling and process to enforce them.
  • Build your design system and pilot project UI screens in a frontend workshop environment.
  • Bake best practices into reusable components & make them as rigid or flexible as you need them to be.
  • Use semantic versioning to manage ongoing design system product work.
  • Use design tokens to feed common design properties into different platforms.

You won’t do it all at once. That’s okay. Baby steps.

Thursday, November 7th, 2019

Tuesday, September 10th, 2019

Simplicity (II)

When you ever had to fix just a few lines of CSS and it took two hours to get an ancient version of Gulp up and running, you know what I’m talking about.

I feel seen.

When everything works, it feels like magic. When something breaks, it’s hell.

I concur with Bastian’s advice:

I have a simple rule of thumb when it comes to programming:

less code === less potential issues

And this observation rings very true:

This dependency hell is also the reason why old projects are almost like sealed capsules. You can hardly let a project lie around for more than a year, because afterwards it’s probably broken.

Thursday, August 1st, 2019

The web without the web - DEV Community 👩‍💻👨‍💻

I love React. I love how server side rendering React apps is trivial because it all compiles down to vanilla HTML rather than web components, effectively turning it into a kickass template engine that can come alive. I love the way you can very effectively still do progressive enhancement by using completely semantic markup and then letting hydration do more to it.

I also hate React. I hate React because these behaviours are not defaults. React is not gonna warn you if you make a form using divs and unlabelled textboxes and send the whole thing to a server. I hate React because CSS-in-JS approaches by default encourage you to write completely self contained one off components rather than trying to build a website UI up as a whole. I hate the way server side rendering and progressive enhancement are not defaults, but rather things you have to go out of your way to do.

An absolutely brilliant post by Laura on how the priorites baked into JavaScript tools like React are really out of whack. They’ll make sure your behind-the-scenes code is super clean, but not give a rat’s ass for the quality of the output that users have to interact with.

And if you want to adjust the front-end code, you’ve got to set up all this tooling just to change a div to a button. That’s quite a barrier to entry.

In elevating frontend to the land of Serious Code we have not just made things incredibly over-engineered but we have also set fire to all the ladders that we used to get up here in the first place.

AMEN!

I love React because it lets me do my best work faster and more easily. I hate React because the culture around it more than the library itself actively prevents other people from doing their best work.

Ooops, I guess we’re full-stack developers now.

Chris broke both his arms just to avoid speaking at the JAMstack conference in London. Seems a bit extreme to me.

Anyway, to make up for not being there, he made a website of his talk. It’s good stuff, tackling the split.

It’s cool to see the tech around our job evolve to the point that we can reach our arms around the whole thing. It’s worthy of some concern when we feel like complication of web technology feels like it’s raising the barrier to entry

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Don’t build that app! – Luke Jackson - YouTube

This is a fascinating look at how you can get the benefits of React and npm without using React and npm.

Here’s an accompanying article on the same topic.

Wednesday, July 24th, 2019

Jon Aizlewood · Agile and design — How to avoid Frankensteining your product

Jon’s ranting about Agile here, but it could equally apply to design systems:

Agile and design is like looking at a picture through a keyhole. By slicing big things into smaller things, designers must work incrementally. Its this incrementalism that can lead to what I call the ‘Frankensteining’ of a digital product or service.

Thursday, May 30th, 2019

Characteristics of a Strong Performance Culture | TimKadlec.com

Tim looks at the common traits of companies that have built a good culture of web performance:

  1. Top-down support
  2. Data-driven
  3. Clear targets
  4. Automation
  5. Knowledge sharing
  6. Culture of experimentation
  7. User focused, not tool focused

Few companies carry all of these characteristics, so it’s important not to get discouraged if you feel you’re missing a few of them. It’s a process and not a quick one. When I’ve asked folks at companies with all or most of these characteristics how long it took them to get to that point, the answer is typically in years, rarely months. Making meaningful changes to culture is much slower and far more difficult than making technical changes, but absolutely critical if you want those technical changes to have the impact you’re hoping for.

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019

The Great Divide | CSS-Tricks

An excellent thorough analysis by Chris of the growing divide between front-end developers and …er, other front-end developers?

The divide is between people who self-identify as a (or have the job title of) front-end developer, yet have divergent skill sets.

On one side, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are heavily revolved around JavaScript.

On the other, an army of developers whose interests, responsibilities, and skill sets are focused on other areas of the front end, like HTML, CSS, design, interaction, patterns, accessibility, etc.

Monday, January 7th, 2019

Angular, Autoprefixer, IE11, and CSS Grid Walk into a Bar… - daverupert.com

Dave on the opaqueness of toolchains:

As toolchains grow and become more complex, unless you are expertly familiar with them, it’s very unclear what transformations are happening in our code. Tracking the differences between the input and output and the processes that code underwent can be overwhelming. When there’s a problem, it’s increasingly difficult to hop into the assembly line and diagnose the issue.

There’s a connection here to one of the biggest issues with what’s currently being labelled “AI”:

In the same way AI needs some design to show its work in how it came to its final answer, I feel that our automated build tools could use some help as well.

I really like this suggestion for making the invisble visible:

I sometimes wonder if Webpack or Gulp or [Insert Your Build Tool Here] could benefit from a Scratch-like interface for buildchains.

Monday, December 3rd, 2018

Reluctant Gatekeeping: The Problem With Full Stack | HeydonWorks

The value you want form a CSS expert is their CSS, not their JavaScript, so it’s absurd to make JavaScript a requirement.

Absolutely spot on! And it cuts both ways:

Put CSS in JS and anyone who wishes to write CSS now has to know JavaScript. Not just JavaScript, but —most likely—the specific ‘flavor’ of JavaScript called React. That’s gatekeeping, first of all, but the worst part is the JavaScript aficionado didn’t want CSS on their plate in the first place.

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

Front-end development is not a problem to be solved | CSS-Tricks

The sentiment is that front-end development is a problem to be solved: “if we just have the right tools and frameworks, then we might never have to write another line of HTML or CSS ever again!” And oh boy what a dream that would be, right?

Well, no, actually. I certainly don’t think that front-end development is a problem at all.

What Robin said.

I reckon HTML and CSS deserve better than to be processed, compiled, and spat out into the browser, whether that’s through some build process, app export, or gigantic framework library of stuff that we half understand. HTML and CSS are two languages that deserve our care and attention to detail. Writing them is a skill.

Sunday, November 4th, 2018

When your design system fails — HeyDesigner

You could create components that strike the perfect balance between reuse and context sensitivity. But defining the components of your design system is just the first step. It has to make its way into the product. If it doesn’t, a design system is like a language with no extant literature or seminal texts.

Marissa Christy outlines the reasons why your design system might struggle:

  1. The redesign isn’t prioritized
  2. The tech stack is changing
  3. Maintenance takes discipline

But she also offers advice for counteracting these forces:

  1. Get buy-in from the whole team
  2. Prioritize a lightweight re-skin on older parts of the product
  3. Treat a design system like any other product project: start small
  4. Don’t wait for others. Lead by example.
  5. Finally, don’t compare yourself to others on the internet

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Designing With Code

How mucking about in HTML and CSS can lead to some happy accidents.

‘Sfunny, people often mention the constraints and limitations of “designing in the browser”, but don’t recognise that every tool—including Sketch and Photoshop—comes with constraints and limitations. It’s just that those are constraints and limitations that we’ve internalised; we no longer even realise they’re there.

Monday, August 20th, 2018

How can designers get better at learning from their mistakes?

Jon has seven answers:

  1. Build a culture to learn from mistakes
  2. Embrace healthy critique
  3. Fail little and often
  4. Listen to users
  5. Design. Learn. Repeat
  6. Create a shared understanding
  7. Always be accountable

It’s gratifying to see how much of this was informed by the culture of critique at Clearleft.

Friday, August 10th, 2018

“Designer + Developer Workflow,” an article by Dan Mall

Dan compares the relationship between a designer and developer in the web world to the relationship between an art director and a copywriter in the ad world. He and Brad made a video to demonstrate how they collaborate.

Friday, July 20th, 2018

What walls are for – disambiguity

Digital things look ‘finished’ too soon. When something is a work in progress on a wall, it looks unfinished, so you keep working on it. moving things around, reshaping things, connecting things, erasing things, and making them again. Walls make it easier to iterate. Iteration, in my opinion, is massively correlated with quality.

Tuesday, July 17th, 2018

Should I try to use the IE version of Grid Layout? Revisited for 2018

Rachel follows up on my recent post about CSS grid in old IE with her thoughts.

As Jeremy notes, the usefulness of a tool like Autoprefixer is diminishing, which is a good thing. It is becoming far easier to code in a way that supports all browsers, where support means usable in an appropriate way for the technology the user has in front of them. Embrace that, and be glad for the fact that we can reduce complexity based on the increasing interoperability of CSS in our browsers.

Friday, July 13th, 2018

CSS grid in Internet Explorer 11

When I was in Boston, speaking on a lunchtime panel with Rachel at An Event Apart, we took some questions from the audience about CSS grid. Inevitably, a question about browser support came up—specifically about support in Internet Explorer 11.

(Technically, you can use CSS grid in IE11—in fact it was the first browser to ship a version of grid—but the prefixed syntax is different to the standard and certain features are missing.)

Rachel gave a great balanced response, saying that you need to look at your site’s stats to determine whether it’s worth the investment of your time trying to make a grid work in IE11.

My response was blunter. I said I just don’t consider IE11 as a browser that supports grid.

Now, that might sound harsh, but what I meant was: you’re already dividing your visitors into browsers that support grid, and browsers that don’t …and you’re giving something to those browsers that don’t support grid. So I’m suggesting that IE11 falls into that category and should receive the layout you’re giving to browsers that don’t support grid …because really, IE11 doesn’t support grid: that’s the whole reason why the syntax is namespaced by -ms.

You could jump through hoops to try to get your grid layout working in IE11, as detailed in a three-part series on CSS Tricks, but at that point, the amount of effort you’re putting in negates the time-saving benefits of using CSS grid in the first place.

Frankly, the whole point of prefixed CSS is that is not used after a reasonable amount of time (originally, the idea was that it would not be used in production, but that didn’t last long). As we’ve moved away from prefixes to flags in browsers, I’m seeing the amount of prefixed properties dropping, and that’s very, very good. I’ve stopped using autoprefixer on new projects, and I’ve been able to remove it from some existing ones—please consider doing the same.

And when it comes to IE11, I’ll continue to categorise it as a browser that doesn’t support CSS grid. That doesn’t mean I’m abandoning users of IE11—far from it. It means I’m giving them the layout that’s appropriate for the browser they’re using.

Remember, websites do not need to look exactly the same in every browser.

Tuesday, July 10th, 2018

Accessibility for Teams

I really, really like the way that this straightforward accessibility guide is subdivided by discipline. As Maya wrote in the blog post announcing its launch:

Each person on a team, whether you’re a manager, designer, or developer, has a role to play. Your responsibilities are different depending on your role. So that’s how we structured the guide, with a separate section for each of five roles:

  • Product management
  • Content design
  • UX design
  • Visual design
  • Front-end development